by Isaac Butler
Today, the theatrically-minded zones of the internet are all abuzz about Jonathan Mandell’s HowlRound piece, “Is Diversity a Codeword for Exclusion?” The piece is in three parts, but fails to ever really cohere.
In the first, Mandell talks about ageist rhetoric surrounding audience members and compares this to the drive for inclusion and employment fairness amongst theatre practitioners. While I agree with Mandell with some of his points here, these are two very different subjects, and conflating them hides more than it illuminates. Rhetoric and hiring practices are interrelated, but aren’t the same. There’s also a marked difference in power within the system wielded by older audience members and (to choose at random) black female playwrights.
This is because older audience members are not an underserved population in the American Theater, particularly in New York. . Mandell’s essay treats them like they are, but this is simply false. The sometimes ugly rhetoric that people use about older audience members is in part fueled by resentment over their dominance and power. It is also, let us be frank, because there is a high correlation between audience member age (on either end of the spectrum) and likelihood of inappropriate behavior.
That said, studies show that our society is suffused with hostility towards the elderly. This is a serious problem. The elderly face all sorts of challenges, discrimination and prejudice that are underreported. It just does not happen to be a problem that theater is insufficiently sedulous to their needs.
But conflating audience and artists allows Mandell to write, “There’s plenty of evidence that when people talk about diversity in the theater, they are not embracing older people as part of their beautiful rainbow,” without it being quite clear which group he’s talking about. If he’s talking about artists, this quote is somewhat incorrect. Many discussions of gender diversity in particular focus on the problems that actresses face as they get older, yet it is true that issues associated with artists ageing should be discussed more. If he’s talking about audiences, the reason why older people don’t factor into discussions about diversity is that they’re at least the plurality of the audience to begin with.
A similar lack of clarity takes over the middle part of the piece, which is a series of questions (nearly thirty in all) which may or may not be rhetorical. Despite interviewing David Henry Hwang within the essay's third part, there seems to be no serious attempt to get any of the questions answered, which lends an odor of insincerity to the entire project.
I am all for questioning our deepest held pieties. That’s an important part of being a thinking adult, after all. By refusing to take responsibility for its own point of view, however, part two of Mandell’s pieces amounts to an argument in bad faith, one that puts all the onus for taking a position on people like myself who have taken part in diversity efforts.
If Mandell wants to make an argument about diversity, let him make it, and take responsibility for his point of view. Let him think through his 30 questions and tell us what he thinks the answers to them should be and why, and then we can talk about it. If any of these questions are actually sincere and not really arguments, he can reach out to an expert, get some answers, and then articulate some form of response. Otherwise, this entire conversation takes place on a kind of terra infirma, a ground that is continually shifting, where no one has to cop to anything.
I refuse to fall into that trap, particularly since I think we’ve well moved beyond the point where “making the case” for diversity is really necessary. At least on the record, nearly every artistic director will claim that diversity is a goal. The major debates on this subject now focus on how best to create a theater system that reflects our values and our communities, not whether or not we should even bother. You can’t show up late to a pot-luck and then ask the other guests to make you food.