Inertia and the Theater’s Struggle with Diversity

Systemic inertia
 “…Actual poster from the mid-50’s issued by Senator Joseph McCarthy” -- not
“…Actual poster from the mid-50’s issued by Senator Joseph McCarthy” — not

A while ago, a copy of this poster started appearing on the Facebook pages of some of my friends – maybe you saw it as well. It was falsely attributed to Joseph McCarthy, then the font was changed and it was attributed to Queen Victoria. But in reality, its source wasn’t nearly so dramatic: the quotation appeared in an 1845 letter from the Belgian King Leopold II to Britain’s Queen Victoria and referred to her husband, Albert. The full quote reads, “The dealings with artists, for instance, require great prudence; they are acquainted with all classes of society, and for that very reason dangerous; they are hardly ever satisfied, and when you have too much to do with them, you are sure to have des ennuis…” But it was so much more fun to think it was said by Joseph McCarthy, because it brought into stark relief the purpose of the poster, which was self-congratulation.

Unfortunately, like the attribution itself, it is a lie.

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The reality is that artists – or, at least, theater artists – aren’t really acquainted with “all classes of society,” at least when it comes to their audiences. According to the Broadway League, the average Broadway attendee is a 42-year-old white woman with a family income of over $189,000, which places her within the top 5% of U.S. taxpayers.

And it isn’t just Broadway – the nonprofit regional theaters have a similar problem. After pointing out that the top 2% of arts organizations rake up 55% of foundation contributions, Holly Sidford’s report Fusing Arts, Culture, and Social Change notes­,

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At present, the vast majority of [nonprofit arts] funding supports cultural organizations whose work is based in the elite segment of the Western European cultural tradition — commonly called the canon — and whose audiences are predominantly white and upper class….This pronounced imbalance restricts the expressive life of millions of people, thus constraining our creativity as a nation. But it is problematic for many other reasons, as well. It is a problem because it means that — in the arts — philanthropy is using its tax-exempt status primarily to benefit wealthier, more privileged institutions and populations. It is a problem because our artistic and cultural landscape includes an increasingly diverse range of practices, many of which are based in the history and experience of lower-income and non-white people, and philanthropy is not keeping pace with these developments.

If artists were really acquainted with these folks, you’d think it would show in our seasons. But for the most part, it doesn’t.

Year after year for decades, theater leaders have rung their hands over this inconvenient truth. HowlRound publishes articles and has symposia about diversity, foundations give large grants for “convenings,” Round House Theater Artistic Director Ryan Rilette sent the theater world into paroxysms of rage over a statement that there just weren’t as many plays by women “in the pipeline,” spawning Laura Axelrod’s Marbury Project here at The Clyde Fitch Report; I spent years on the Theatre Ideas website complaining about the lack of plays about rural subjects and the lack of articles about theater outside of the major metropolitan areas; Tom Loughlin wrote about the lack of working class representations on our stages on his defunct blog A Poor Player.

Many theaters can inadvertently project exclusivity.
Many theaters can inadvertently,
but clearly, project exclusivity.

Most recently, in an essay on her blog Jumper entitled “The Arts in a Civic World Turned Upside Down,” Diane Ragsdale quoted English playwright Mark Ravenhill trenchantly observing about theatre,

We are a place that offers luxury, go-on-spoil-yourself evenings where in new buildings paid for by a national lottery (a voluntary regressive tax) you can mingle with our wealthy donors and sponsors from the corporate sector and treat yourself to that extra glass of champagne but we are also a place that cares deeply about social justice and exclusion as the wonderful work of our outreach and education teams show. So we’re the best friends of the super-rich and the most disadvantaged at the same time? That’s a confusing message and the public has been smelling a rat. If the arts are for something, who are they for? And what are they doing for them?

Ragdale then asks us to dig down deep and answer the question, “Do we want to be country clubs?”

A good question.

I sincerely don’t believe that artists are hypocrites – my experience is that most truly want to diversify their seasons and strike a blow for equality. They speak with conviction about their support for a variety of viewpoints, and express their angst about the demographics of inertia. But then, well, nothing ever actually happens. Good intentions without action don’t move the needle much.

What is the cause of the inertia?

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Our tendency in America is to blame individuals, believing that if they truly wanted to change things, things would change. We swear by Margaret Mead’s oft-quoted “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.” And consequently, when things don’t change, we point a finger at the individual and accuse them of perfidy.

Guthrie Theatre
Guthrie Theatre

But I think the disconnect between words and actions, when attributed to people of good will, should lead us to look elsewhere. I hate to say it, but, well, the problem is systemic. (Actually, I don’t hate to say it, but a lot of people hate to hear it because it’s much more fun to hammer individuals.) Unless we address the deep structure of our nonprofit system, the future will look an awful lot like the present. It isn’t enough to simply point an accusing finger at Guthrie Theatre’s Joe Dowling without recognizing that the monster building they built is driving the art more than a single artistic director.

Our way of financing theater – our business model, if you will – almost assures the current results. Historically, the regional theater came into being as a result of an enormous influx of cash from the Ford Foundation and the Rockefeller Foundation, as well as donations from civic-minded arts patrons. Nothing has changed over the past half century. According to TCG’s Theatre Facts (2012), regional theaters across America rely on unearned income for 48% of their budgetary needs, a large portion of which comes from individual donors. These donors, of course tend to come from a class of people wealthy enough to make sizable donations, and in order to keep that money coming theaters need to serve the interests of that class. And people – all people — like to see plays that are about them, that reflect their values.

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Looked at from another angle, with only 52% of annual income earned, and contributions to the arts by foundations falling, and a flat NEA budget, theaters operate on a razor’s edge. Compared to 2008, theater attendance was down 1.8% while theaters were offering 5.9% more performances. Let’s make that more concrete: if in 2008 there was a theater audience of 100,000 distributed evenly between 1000 performances, there would be 100 people at each. In 2012,  there would be 1018 performances playing to 94,100 people or 92 people at each performance. In other words, attendance is really down 8% in four years. This is a precipitous drop.

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Systemic inertia
Systemic inertia

So artistic directors, who may want desperately to diversify their audiences, are afraid to do so because they know in the short run they will lose some members of their audience who no longer see themselves reflected on stage. In addition, there is no guarantee that they will be replaced by a sufficient number of new people to make up for the loss. As a result, their theater will fall more deeply into the red. This is what Clayton Christensen called the “innovator’s dilemma,”  the idea that successful companies put too much emphasis on customers’ current needs, and fail to adopt new technology or business models that will meet customers’ unstated or future needs.

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And so we end up with an artistic death spiral, with artistic directors desperately trying to right the ship by scheduling the ubiquitous token plays – the February African-American plays, the occasional play by a safe woman, the play on the second stage aimed at the youth audience, the staged reading of a new play, all supported through grant money because the traditional  audience stays away in droves and the new audience is suspicious of their motives. And when rightly taken to task at diversity conferences for the weakness of these attempts, the arts leaders throw up their hands (after wringing them a few moments, of course) and insist that they’re doing the best they can.

And they’re right – they are. They have painted themselves into a corner, where they huddle together with other regional theater artistic directors clutching their paint brushes while calling out for a scaffold to be built (i.e., more government funding).

But the dream of that scaffold will never be realized. It is time to finally admit that the NEA’s budget will never again increase in any substantive way, and that, in the face of our rapidly fraying social safety net, foundations will continue to shift their giving away from the arts and toward pressing social and medical problems. Likewise, theater attendance will continue to fall, ticket prices will continue to rise, audiences will become increasingly homogeneous and as a result theaters will continue to offer lukewarm, Country Kitchen-like theatrical fare. Physicist Sardi Carnot would have recognized this process: entropy, the measure of the unavailability of a system’s energy to do work.

I’m afraid that’s where we’re at: entropy and the innovator’s dilemma. And so, when it comes to diversity, it is hard to escape Buckminster Fuller’s declaration: “You never change things by fighting the existing reality. To change something, build a new model that makes the existing model obsolete.” The current diversity model is an Edsel; it’s time for a Tesla.