Since the polls closed on election day, the fate of the Republican Party remains front-page news. “Demographics will doom Republican Party,” the Chicago Sun-Times blared the day after the election. “The American Electorate Has Changed, and There's No Turning Back,” the National Journal warned. President Obama won reelection with his “coalition of the ascendant” a newly minted term that acknowledges the changing demographics of our nation. This coalition is made up of groups who voted heavily in favor of Obama, and whose population will continue to increase over the next generation: Millennials, Latinos, African-Americans, Asian-Americans, and college educated whites, particularly women.
As the Republicans somewhat haplessly try to figure out their future, I am struck by the similarity of their problems to our field’s current headaches: an inability to grow an audience past an aging population that shares our traditional values and a lack of meaningful engagement with or opportunity for artists who are Latino, Asian-American, African-American, women, or young. Do we, like the GOP, have an image problem? Are we not only woefully slow to adapt to the changing face of America but also perceived as intrinsically hostile to these shifts?
To speak broadly of the American theater is to generalize—for every example there is likely a counterexample. What I am comparing to the GOP are our largest institutions—typically LORT theaters—whose cultural prominence, access to funding, and historic prestige widely influence the common assumptions and practices of our field. They are also institutions that have a complicated relationship to audience development and diversity. As the fascinating 2010 report by Janine Sobeck on diversity in the new play sector entitled “Defining Diversity” states, “Overall, the large LORT theaters were seen [by conference participants] as ‘white institutions who talk and talk and talk and talk and talk about [diversity]’ but, even though they receive a lot of attention and money for the discussions, they don't actually change.” The parallels between theaters and political parties are surprisingly strong. Just like politics, theater has media-driven kingmakers, whether they are Charles Isherwood or Karl Rove. While theaters lack the explicit publication of values and goals that political platforms provide, they do have mission statements. There are limited positions of leadership—whether they are artistic or administrative—and many people vying for them. While the American theater is a moving target, we can think critically about ourselves and our field by looking at trends, patterns, and influences.
Many have pointed to the dominance of white men at the helm of the GOP as a major reason why the party fails to identify with diverse constituencies. Much has been made of the American theater’s similar problem of almost exclusively putting white men in power. Even a recent New York Times article profiling the rise of female directors in New York ironically underscores just how powerful the old boys’ club remains. Is what we have merely a leadership problem? Do we—like the Republicans—simply need a few more nonwhite leaders who share our values and can perpetuate our current systems? Does anyone know if Marco Rubio enjoys new play development?
It’s easy to cast blame on the leaders while excusing our own responsibility to call for action. As a millennial and a college-educated white woman, I fit squarely in Obama’s coalition of the ascendant. I volunteered for the Obama campaign in three swing states across two elections. I knocked on doors and made phone calls for many reasons—some highly personal and some because I believe that everyone deserve the rights, opportunities, and privileges that I have. Like many others, I was deeply invested in the outcome of this election and how it would shape our country. So why am I not equally as invested in the shaping of my chosen profession? Why am I not as insistent about the value of the field in which I work as I am about the country in which I live?
What if we spoke up with the same sense of urgency and candor that we embody during an election cycle? What if we said to have a nationally prominent ensemble without Asian or Latino members is completely unacceptable? Or that the amount you pay your interns, your fellows, and your junior staff means you implicitly endorse Mitt Romney’s worldview, that we should all borrow money from our parents in order to follow our dreams? Or simply this: the rate at which you create opportunities for emerging artists and administrators is far too slow. Too many of us are marginalized by a system that is supposed to represent our voices, and so we are leaving and taking our audiences with us. Theaters are having a tough time attracting and retaining millennial audiences, and to fix the problem might require more than free beer.
I don’t mean to offend anyone. Particularly if you were planning on coming to see my show. Or giving me a job. Especially one with health benefits. It’s the fear of consequence, this fear of limiting potential opportunities before they fully emerge that keeps so many of us from saying these things loudly. But then how different can we be from a moderate Republican in the House of Representatives? Don’t we all look at the news every day and think—one of these people has to see beyond the limited opportunity of their own dwindling political influence and start speaking up or else the entire system is doomed?
Perhaps the problem is not with us nor with our leaders. After all, very few artists set out to tell stories to only certain kinds of people. The problem could lie with our audience.or more accurately, with our education system that no longer teaches students to become patrons of the arts and lovers of live performance. Thus, we are left with an audience that is older and historically white and often upper class. They are our reliable ticket buyers, donors, board members, and we cannot make theater that simply ignores them. This is true. But it’s also true that if we rest in this understanding of our audience—of our constituents—then our industry will have no more longevity than a political party based on an older, white population. We evolve, or we become extinct, as Rand Paul recently said.
It’s so easy and so satisfying to assign blame to the current state of politics and of theater. But is that actually a catalyst for change? In the midst of writing this article, I listened to an interview with the researcher Brené Brown (whose TED Talk went viral three years ago) who spoke about the power of vulnerability. In this podcast, she mentions that one can’t shame others into behaving differently. I froze when I heard this. Aren’t I shaming the House Republicans and the rest of the GOP into changing their behavior? Aren’t I shaming what I perceive to be the old guard of theater? With this very article aren’t I saying: be ashamed of the failure you have brought upon your theater and our field at large? You are to blame for the decline of our audiences and you must change or suffer the consequences?
We go into theater because we want to spend our lives imagining what is possible and trying valiantly to bring it to fruition. In that regard, we aren’t so different from politicians. Here is an uncomfortable truth for me: deep down, I know that for a democracy to truly flourish, we need more than one political party. Eventually, the Republican party will shift (or in its place something new will emerge) that accepts the reality of the America in which we now live. And even with this acceptance, they will stand for things with which I disagree with all of my being. Yet, a functioning party is needed for a functioning democracy. I must contend with the knowledge that I am responsible for those with which I disagree. We all are if we want to live in a democracy worthy of our potential. I believe in the American theater’s capacity to change. I believe in the Republicans’ ability to render themselves obsolete. But with so many similarities aren’t the reverse fates equally as likely? What is our responsibility to see that both survive and change for the better?
If we can’t yet manage meaningful conversation in our civic life between differing opinions and conflicting interests, perhaps we can manage it in our own field. Or at least it is incumbent upon us to try. It is not an easy time to be making theater, but when has it ever been easy to make real what we can imagine? And yet, we must speak the truths that we know out loud. So let’s begin: We—the coalition of the ascendant—are here. We are ready. We are waiting, but not for much longer. Open your doors, open them wide, and we will join you. We are not your father’s America and we have stories to tell.