Why is American theater so white?

Several weeks ago, the national stage actors’ union, Actors’ Equity released a study on diversity among actors and stage managers. In a nutshell, the study found that U.S. stages don’t represent the country’s diversity. Looking at both gender and race, women and minority actors are underrepresented and often end with lower paying shows than white male actors.

If you go to the theater (and certainly if you work in the theater) these findings, however disturbing, come as no shock. The demographics of our country are not represented on our stages in Los Angeles, New York or nationally.

Everyone knows this. Everyone is talking about it. However, the conversations are limited and compartmentalized.  Everyone is addressing their own corner as if this issue weren’t a systemic issue. Like several weeks ago at the TCG conference, the theater’s attempt to address diversity, or said more appropriately, equity, diversity and inclusion, there were breakout discussions about diversity but their was also business as usual – as if a contained conversation was enough.

Take a look at Actors’ Equity’s own headline for their press release announcing this study.

“Actors’ Equity Releases First-Ever Diversity Study Showing Disparities in Hiring in the Theatre Industry”

Even accepting that this is a press release, a form not known for restraint, “First-Ever” is a bit of a stretch. Would Equity have us believe that there has been no other study on diversity in the American theatre?

The study is significant but limited. Actors’ Equity represents actors and stage managers across the nation, but the study only looked at Broadway, off-Broadway and national tours from Broadway. This is not a national study encompassing “the Theatre Industry.” It only counts theater across the Hudson river if it came from Broadway. What about the rest of the country?

This tension between scope and claim is echoed by Executive Director Mary McColl, “With this study, we can take an empirical look at hiring biases in our industry.”

If we define the American theater, even casually, as only being about New York, or even worse only about Broadway, should it come as any surprise that the theater doesn’t represent the diversity of America?

The limitations of Equity’s language are not only geographic. McColl goes on to comment on the relationship between playwrights and diversity, only she omits diversity, she says “I think it’s because the canon is written with more characters for men, and all of us have to sit down and have hard conversations about how to address the problem.”

If the canon is a challenge for women, it’s even worse when it comes to people of color (just look at the diversity of playwrights and directors at the Taper over 50 years). It’s hard not to see a connection between the diversity of playwrights and diversity of the actors who bring their plays to life. To quote a New York Times article on the Equity study,

“African-American performers, for example, got 11 percent of the principal roles in Broadway and touring plays, and 9 percent in musicals. Off Broadway, African-American performers did better: about 14 percent of the principal roles and 22 percent of chorus jobs.”

If the American theater, or Los Angeles theater, is going to tackle the challenge of representation, the approach needs to be expansive and rigorous. This is a conversation that needs to extend beyond actors, beyond playwrights or administrators or artistic directors. This is a challenge that needs to be understood across all of its dimensions and intersections. This isn’t just about the difficult reality that white playwrights will tend to write white characters and cast white actors.

Ultimately, it’s a question of relevance.

While our stages might not be diverse, our cities are. If theater is going to tell the stories of our cities’ in all their wonderful complexity that diversity is going to have to find a place on stage and in the audience.  

That’s a conversation that can’t be limited. That’s also a conversation that the American theater avoids at its own peril.