Coping with crisisAs Americans grappled with the ever-increasing height of the COVID-19 pandemic, the nearly back-to-back murders of Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, and George Floyd – and, even moreso, the violent undercurrent of systemic racism that facilitated their deaths – sent society into a fever pitch with calls for change. After years of criticism in the film industry, with trends like #OscarsSoWhite, this time the theatre is not exempt.

With roots as deeply embedded in racism (blackface got its start in the theatre) as in the roots of our nation itself, it’s about time. As often as theatre turns the mirror on society, based on the limited demographic information available, that mirror fails to reflect the true diversity of the society it serves. While Broadway doesn’t collect demographic information on its artists and contributors, it does for its audiences. This information isn’t readily available to the public, though, as The Broadway League shares a handful of statistics publicly and provides the full report for a $25 purchase. Based on the statistics available, in the 2018-19 Broadway season, roughly 25% of audience members were “non-Caucasian,” and the average annual household income of attendees was $261,000. Theatregoers reported spending an average of $145.60 on a ticket. The median household income in the United States in 2018 sat around $63,000. This information conveys that while the socio-economic status of the average Broadway attendee far and away surpasses that of the average-earning US citizen in 2018, the racial breakdown of the Broadway audience generally reflects the demographics of the US (approximately 73% White [including White Hispanics – 60% White Non-Hispanic] and 27% Non-White according to the US Census Bureau). However, it should be noted that Broadway’s audience demographics are significantly less representative of New York City’s own demographics (33% White, 26% Hispanic, 26% Black, and 13% Asian, according to the 2010 Census).

If Broadway audiences reflect the general diversity of the country at large, it should follow that the content produced for the stage should as well. But as the current events echo what Black, Indigenous, and People of Color (BIPOC) have been calling out for years, the industry falls woefully short. In an initiative privately conducted by the Asian American Performers Action Coalition, researchers found that of plays produced on Broadway in the 2016-17 season (their most recent report), 95% of productions were written by Caucasian playwrights, 95% of productions were directed by Caucasian directors, and 71% of all roles in Broadway productions went to Caucasian actors.

In the light of the newly-ignited Black Lives Matter movement, the racial disparity in theatre is getting more attention. A petition to increase minority representation in theatre went around on Facebook with signatures from big names in the industry, including Lynn Nottage and Lin Manuel Miranda. While the petition failed to outline specific action points for change, the AAPAC suggests a start with diversifying casting. One problem with the current statistics on casting diversity lies in the types of roles filled by minority actors. More often than not, when a BIPOC actor portrays a character, it is because the script specifies the casting as such. This happens so often, in fact, that Actor’s Equity has defined casting outside of these parameters as “non-traditional casting”: “the casting of ethnic minority actors, female actors, senior actors, and actors with disabilities in roles where race, ethnicity, gender, or the presence or absence of a disability is not germane to the character’s or play’s development.” In their 2016-17 report, the AAPAC found that of all of the available roles on Broadway, a mere 15% were cast non-traditionally.

Without similar demographic statistics being available, it’s hard to say if local theatre in Raleigh is doing much better, but some companies are taking concrete actions to amplify marginalized voices in the theatre industry. North Carolina Theatre began their All In initiative several seasons ago, which President and CEO Elizabeth Doran describes as “the goal of mirroring our region’s cultural demography throughout NC Theatre’s stakeholder base by 2030.” Producing Artistic Director Eric Woodall reports that since beginning the All In initiative, NCT has seen the ratio of onstage performers who are Black, Indigenous, and/or People of Color increase to 50%. Despite the hardships of the pandemic, Doran anticipates more relevant work than ever once the curtain rises again. “This work has motivated us to leverage our professional productions and programs to inspire, educate, evoke emotions, and provoke conversations to create a more equitable and inclusive community with access to the theatre arts for all [emphasis added]. and to shine a light on and partner with communities often under-represented in the arts. We understand that when you enter a space as an audience member, you want to be surrounded by elements that make you feel relevant, welcomed, and that you’re part of something, so the work we’re doing now will help reflect a more diverse audience when we make our return to the theatre in 2021.”

In diversifying onstage performers, playwrights produced, and production teams, Burning Coal Theatre is launching a three-pronged virtual initiative beginning in August. First, THE 19TH AMENDMENT PROJECT will feature 14 short plays, all written by women of various cultural backgrounds, including Indian American, Latinx, African American, and more. Second, Burning Coal has recently announced a collaboration with the Agape Theatre Project, a company dedicated to producing works predominantly written by African American playwrights. Burning Coal will host Agape for two, two-week residencies in its 2021-22 season. Third, Burning Coal will host a series of free-to-the-public online workshops on aspects of theatre in which significantly fewer BIPOC artists work, including lighting, stage management, and directing movement in non-musical productions.

As the theatre community continues to acknowledge the presence of racism and prejudice in the industry, initiatives like that of NCT and BCTC are at least a start towards actionable change. For that work to be fully realized, the theatre must also stay alive. The COVID-19 pandemic has hit performing arts at the local level especially hard, with many companies wondering how they will manage to continue without audiences in the seats. (Sign and share this open letter appealing to congress for economic relief).

Given the disparity in visibility and support between Caucasian-run and minority-run companies, that impact threatens the diversity of the industry even more. If you would like to support these theatres directly, RDU On Stage has compiled a list of Black-run theatre companies in the Triangle that can be found here. CVNC will also be publishing an in-depth article spotlighting the contributions of companies like these further to illuminate the on-going work that BIPOC artists have done and continue to do to counteract racism in the theatre industry. In the meantime, you may hear from another RDU On Stage feature including a panel of artists who identify as BIPOC in a recorded moderated discussion, “Racism on Broadway’s Great White Way.”

Petitions and open letters help with visibility, but concrete action brings about real change. Companies must produce and hire artists that represent the true diversity of our society if theatre is to contribute authentic and meaningful work at all.