I’ve been in the room/part of many conversations while Artistic Directors and committees decide their seasons. I’ve done it in LA, and I’ve done it here in little ‘ol Prescott, AZ – and the one thing that does not change is the collective fear of making mistakes with that all-too-precious line up:
If the play is New – “How will we market a new play?!”
If the play is about women – “How will we convince men to buy tickets to this play about women?!”
If the play is dark/depressing/has a sad end – “How will we convince people to spend time watching a play that might leave them depressed?”
If the play is about non-caucasians – “Will our subscribers be able to relate to these non-caucasian human beings?”
And these questions are not asked out of bias or criticism of the material at hand – they are asked out of panic. The room might agree that the work being discussed is “important/entertaining as hell/genius as genius can be” but it is as though they have lost all faith in their audience’s ability to see in the play the same merit. It is as though they have completely forgotten how to do their job as leaders to teach and inspire the audience to explore new worlds/perspectives. They have spiraled downwards (sometimes in a matter of minutes) into helpless, panicked toddlers clinging to tried and true toys for comfort- Simon, Margulies, Albee, and other refreshingly “safe” white dude playwrights.
Everytime I am a part of this terrifying phenomenon, I feel like screaming “Why don’t you just grow a pair and push through this bullshit?!” Because it is the Artistic Practitioner’s JOB to lead their audiences to new lands – to challenge them to explore new perspectives. It is NOT our job to feed them the same tried and true applesauce that they’ve bought before just because it fills seats – a theatre company isn’t/nor should it aspire to be WalMart.
Which is why I get angry when I read articles like this one about the Guthrie – a theatre of national repute- where the artistic director responded to concerns over their all-white/all-male helmed season with this little gem:
“But one thing I want to be very clear about, tokenism is the worst thing you can do,” he said. “I employ people because of their talent, male or female. It is a very stern task to direct on a stage of our size, and I am responsible to the board for the shows we produce.” (Minneapolis Star Tribune)
Dowling is insinuating of course that women/people of color are not talented enough to make the Guthrie “cut”. But I’ve (and I’m sure you have as well) read a tremendous number of amazing plays by women/people of color. I’ve seen amazingly talented female directors/directors of color…. because the truth is talent knows no gender or racial devide. Dowling’s argument is an incredibly lazy and irresponsible one to make.
Unfortunately, he’s not the only one using such logic to validate what is essentially an administrative culture of fear – “If I take a ‘risk’ with my season, it may cost me ticket sales” and everyone who’s ever worked for a theatre company knows that a theatre’s box office is usually the one steering the ship.
Which leaves the sad saps on board blind to their own power and ability to steer that ship into even richer waters through innovation and leadership.
So what’s to be done about it? Support the theatre companies that are forging ahead. See “new” theatre. Attend works by women/artists of colors. Bring along your friends, talk about what you see/like/are excited by – in other words – accept and embrace your role as Audience Activist and start making a difference the only way theatre companies will feel – by impacting their bottom line.
Because the dirty little secret about that “Box Office” captain is that he’s US.