Tom Loughlin, who is chair of the Department of Theatre and Dance at SUNY Fredonia and has considerable performing experience in professional theater, takes on the diversity issue in his world and comes to some conclusions that could fairly be called politically incorrect:
According to The Broadway League 2010-11 Demographic Report, the Great White Way is whiter than ever. And then some.
…Given all the demographics we know about theatre in the US and westernized countries today, I think it’s safe to make the following conclusion: Theatre is primarily for white people, as both audience members and practitioners.
When I first saw these statistics, I got those old familiar feelings of guilt and anguish, that it’s a “bad thing” that theatre isn’t shared or enjoyed by large numbers of non-whites. I would like it to be – I would like everyone to like and enjoy theatre. I would like more white people to enjoy theatre (those numbers, although large, represent only a small fraction of the population as a whole, maybe 2% according to the NEA research on arts participation). I would like to see audiences grow, witness theatre houses full with a diverse crowd of theatre-goers. Clearly, it ain’t happening.
But then the question came to me – is it so bad to admit that theatre is for white people? White western culture has, for better or worse, risen to a dominant position in this multicultural, heterogeneous society that has evolved in this country, and because of that fact alone it is subject to criticism and the push of upward mobility from cultural forces below (at times rightfully so). But perhaps it’s just worth the few seconds it takes to stop and consider the idea that white people, like any other culture or race, deserve to have a culture and forms of art that they enjoy and that is reflective of their values and history. Theatre, as it has evolved from the Greeks, seems to be one of those cultural art forms that people of white European descent have enjoyed for a long time (and the majority of them enjoyed it until the advent of mass media). And that, in and of itself, is OK. Isn’t it?
This is not to say that other races or ethnic groups do not have theatre or do not enjoy it. But the particular form of the scripted written work as interpreted by actors in a linear story-telling fashion seems to be one that has interested western Caucasians for a long time, and apparently continues to do so for a certain demographic slice of white people as a whole.
What’s interesting is that the statistics on which he bases this conclusion show that 83% of Broadway ticket buyers are white. I don’t know the statistics for our business, but I know that’s a lot more diverse audience that the ones I’ve been playing for the last few decades.
I don’t think what we do is “for white people.” But it’s beyond dispute that our audience, both nationally and for most orchestras, is overwhelmingly white. I wonder what a more detailed breakdown would like like in terms of ethnicity, but it wouldn’t surprise me in the least if that showed that large chunks of our audience were descended from immigrants from places where our core repertoire (including opera) was deeply embedded in the popular culture.
It’s not a good thing that our audiences are so monochromatic, especially as our society becomes more and more truly diverse. But I’ve heard no proposed solutions that do more than tinker around the edges of the problem.