Theater programs are working to reduce major representation gaps in the industry

The Greater Greensboro Theater Consortium recently hosted the first annual Amplify Black Voices Festival, which brought together eight North Carolina colleges and universities to promote black representation in theater. Photo courtesy of Hardy Event Photo

Despite gradual improvements In recent years, the theater industry still severely lacks racial and ethnic representation, both at the professional and collegiate levels. According to the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES), nearly 63 percent of dramatic arts degrees awarded in the United States are earned by white students. In New York City, the epicenter of the national theater industry, nearly 60 percent of actors cast in professional productions are white, reports the Asian American Performers Action Coalition (AAPAC). Behind the curtain, this demographic makes up nearly 80 percent of the writers, directors and designers in the city’s theaters.

“Broadway has sought to diversify its stages, using a more inclusive cast in choral roles, but still centered and elevated white stories and white lead characters,” explains AAPAC’s 2018-2019 Viewability Report. “There is an increasing tension within the industry between just being there and really being ‘seen’. Being seen means telling our stories.”

In an effort to improve Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (DEI) in this industry, some colleges and universities have begun developing courses, scholarships and other efforts to ensure a wider range of people both on stage and is represented outside.

In North Carolina, the Greater Greensboro Theater Consortium hosted the inaugural Amplify Black Voices Festival in April 2022 to encourage more diversity in local theater. The consortium consists of eight higher education institutions, including Bennett College, Elon University and the University of North Carolina Greensboro (UNCG). The festival featured four student-produced plays focusing on black stories and experiences, three of which were written by local playwrights.

The festival kicked off with a production of Mend A City: The Movement, a performance artwork that explores the African-American experience through spoken word, music and dance. Photo courtesy of Hardy Event Photo

“It’s about coming together to think about how we are making the stories of the Black Experience central, listening to our students’ desire to be heard, and genuinely engaging with Black Lives Matter,” said Natalie Sowell, director of the UNCG School of Theater in a press release.

Other colleges are working with industry experts to address this issue. In 2021, Columbia University School of the Arts’ Theater Management and Producing program has partnered with Broadway producers Stephen Byrd and Alia Jones-Harvey to establish the Front Row Productions Fellowship to encourage diverse professionals to get behind the to work scenes. The scholarship provides access to university courses and resources, guidance from a network of mentors, opportunities to develop business and entrepreneurial skills, and support in the production of a new play or musical for those who are underrepresented in the field.

Improving representation among producers is critical to advancing the overall DEI effort within the industry, Byrd and Jones-Harvey said in a joint statement.

“The principal producers who helm each Broadway show determine how diverse and inclusive it will be,” they explained. “As two in the appallingly small club of only five black lead producers in Broadway history, our mission was to create opportunities for people of color on and off the stage. … We believe establishing this pipeline is critical to the inclusive Broadway we envision.”

At some universities, teachers deal with this topic in class. At Harvard University, a new course entitled Broadway Bodies, or Representation on the Great White Way examines cultural identity and representation in the theater industry. Students must analyze more than a dozen notable productions, including “Hamilton” and “West Side Story,” and discuss the roles that race, ethnicity, gender, and disability play in casting.

“We want and deserve that people like us be represented truthfully and fairly,” said Derek Miller, a humanities professor who teaches the course The Harvard newspaper. “[W]We want and deserve people like us to be successful in art and other fields. And we need to see people who are not like us in the same way so that we can better understand each other and live together in a multi-ethnic and multi-cultural society.”

While some college and university initiatives are moving in the right direction to make the performing arts more representative, there is still a long way to go. Support and encouragement from national organizations such as the Association for Theater in Higher Education (ATHE) is key to promoting equity at the institutional level. ATHE’s annual conference in July, entitled “Rehearsing the Possible: Practicing Reparative Creativity”, will primarily focus on what universities can do to promote social justice, create more representation and reduce structural racism. A planned event includes the Casting for Liberation forum, which invites members to discuss issues related to appropriation and representation in casting.

ATHE also plans to release its first Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Strategic Plan in the near future, which will outline new goals for implementing anti-racist and equality-based practices.

“As an organization, we plan to move forward by reinventing racial justice within our organization, institutions, and activities; to model a way forward with our actions, not just with our words,” says a press release from ATHE about its DEI goals. “Theater and performance have the power to change the world; we have a responsibility to use that power.”

Erik Cliburn is Senior Staff Writer for INSIGHT into diversity.

This article appeared in our June 2022 issue.

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