Blog Post

A Trend in the The-ah-tuh

A Trend in the The-ah-tuh

Image credit: 
The Octoroon, Act IV, by Dion Boucicault1859 (print held by Special Collections, Templeman Library, University of Kent)

As mentioned in class, this particular topic was difficult to discuss because there are so many ideas in our culture about what theater is and what it can do, and there are inherent issues regarding the inherent socioeconomic problem of who has access to its community. There is a kind of theater being performed today in New York City in the off-broadway circuit (mind you, the prices of these are still astronomically higher than the price of a movie ticket) that is proposed to be an experience for our youth. I have heard writers and sat in on meeting where this is stated, that these plays are intended for “young people,” “young people of color,” “queer people of color,” “black people,” “women,” the list goes on and on. This performance is liberalism works to both satisfy two sides—artistic directors who want to appear daring and “diverse” in their programming love to hear it, and the economically capable older, whiter audiences can feel that they’ve experienced some inherent truth about the people that the system they live and work inside of marginalizes.

The Broadway League, an association of theater owners and producers, releases a report on the demographics of Broadway audiences each year. This year saw improvements toward the audience writers purport they are “writing for,” however the numbers are still very skewed.

Some of the report:

  • The average age of the Broadway theatregoer was 40.6 years old, the lowest since 2000.
  • One quarter of all tickets were purchased by non-Caucasian theatregoers. 
  • Of theatregoers age 25 or older, 81% had completed college and 41% had earned a graduate degree.
  • The average annual household income of the Broadway theatregoer was $222,120.

And while “diversity” is also rising statistically on New York stages, as published in a study by the Asian American Performers Action Coalition in the 2015-16 season, still only 35% of roles on all NYC stages were performed by people of color. When you look at the breakdown of individual theaters, you can see that some of the most famous and well attended theaters, such as Roundabout Theatre Company and MCC Theater, only had 5% of roles cast with actors of color.

I included an illustration of The Octoroon as a reminder on what the tradition of theater in the United States is built on. minstrel shows where the bread and butter of American theater and popular culture at a time when (1) theater was available to the masses, even the lower class masses, and (2) realism was in style and developed the stock types (mammy, buck, Tom, etc.) of the shows as actual black personalities and lived experiences in the minds of its audiences. Certainly, we've come a long way, but it is work mentioning that when theatermakers revisit these types today, they are not always doing so in commentary.

All this is to say in regard to my presentation, that there is a real gap in between what our theater’s most daring writers say they are doing for representation in the media and what is actually happening. When writers represent subjects such as slavery in their medium, what is the effect it has based on the audience that sees it, and further, based on the hoops through which a theater will go to deradicalize it in order to keep their subscriber base pleased? This is a phenomenon we see with ever massive hits such as Hamilton, the work is made and performed by people of color, taking a white American narrative and claiming it, yet tickets are nearly impossible to obtain, unless you are willing and able to pay thousands of dollars to secure one. The question of who gets to participate in theater is crucially relevant to how writers and other theater-makers develop their work and ultimately, their perspectives on such work.

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11 comments

Thank you for this excellent blog and class presentation. This is an incredibly informative post and very compelling.  I'm actually surprised the median age is 40 and a quarter of the audience is people of color.  Even when I got to plays by young playwrights of color, my eye tells me the audience is even older and whiter....  

It would be great to do a panel on this topic sometime.  Every artist has to deal with this.  Alvin Ailey cause a revolution in the dance world when he created his ballet company--and the majority of his audience was still white.  Even hip hop audiences are mostly white: https://genius.com/discussions/281920-The-majority-of-hip-hop-listeners-...

So one crucial question for the artist of color: to whom do you address your work?  If "self expression" is not the number one answer (and it is for many artists of all races), then is there a putative demographic (race, gender, age, class)?  Do you write differently if you know more white than Black audiences will see your work?  That is true for other ethnicities as well. 

By the way, this is not a new question but one that artists have asked for a very long time.  It is recast in different ways in different times but, always, the artist who is creating to be seen has to consider the question:  who is my audience? And what is my relationship to tha audience?   There is no one answer but asking the question is crucial. 

 

Thanks for asking it in our class!

 

 

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In this class we discussed a new playwright, Jeremy O. Harris and his works, Slave Play and Daddy. While I had not seen these or known of him, the discussion made me wish I had known about it when it was on stage, and then made me angry that I may not have been able to afford it. 

I have been to the Theatre only a few times in my life, either as someone's date, or when I find deals on affordable tickets, like those offered through alumni benefits. I had not thought about the lack of color in the room until my last venture. I saw "To Kill a Mockingbird" and indeed, I was surrounded by white people, sitting directly next to a white woman and her husband. She was too keen to ask my opinion on the whole thing during intermission and it made me uncomfortable. When I left her, to change the scenery, I did run into a person of color, a fellow alum, who had scored an inexpensive ticket in the same way that I did. 

Looking back, I can see the issues discussed in class. This form of art has long been seen as inaccessible to viewers, actors and writers of color. Much has changed, but far too much has remained the same. While newer stories are being told, and more performers are getting work, the access for the intended viewer remains difficult. 

 

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The topic of theatre and public access is one that does not get the full attention that it deserves at all.  Though theatrical plays and shows are less accessible than movies or television shows, they offer engaging stories, brilliant dialogue and talented character portrayals similar to their less expensive (for the viewer) alternatives.  In terms of reaching intended audiences, lack of access makes it more difficult for playwrights to communicate their art at large with communities made up of folks that are not as financially secure, and history of this dynamic isolating this form of art from the above-mentioned folks leads to the perpetual struggle theatre faces in reaching many potential theatre goers.

Whenever Ithink of this issue (which is increasing, as I previously hadn't), the Hamilton play comes to mind.  Lin Manuel is a fan of hip hop music who used this medium to explore major American history.  Popular black creative Jerrod Carmichael (comedian) made the statement in conversation that the play is popular due to white audience appreciation, which I feel is accurate.  The play makes interesting use of music and alteration of racial roles in the story to communicate a vision for America which appreciates all nationalities.  Musically, the production is not as engaging to a person who actually listens to hip hop on a regular basis.  Thematically, the history of America's founders is one that is often removed from black audiences, as black history is often removed from the American story.  The fact that the play became a runaway hit speaks to the power that white audiences have with theatre, and will likely continue to have so long as they fill the seats and maintain status of granting playwrights "street cred."  I wasn't all too interested in seeing Hamilton after hearing Manuel's freestyle with Obama (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4V1DuouwbZA).  Hip hop has risen to the point of recognition never dreamt of when it started in the Bronx.  Though creative, Miranda's exhibition felt like a... production.  Hip hop is a feeling, a form of expression, a community.  When used as a prop for audiences that are removed from that history, I can't really appreciate it.

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Growing up in New York, going to a Broadway show was a special thing for me to look forward to. Honestly it’s a privilege that my family was able to afford taking me to several Broadway shows. I must admit, I haven’t seen very many plays, moreso theatrical Broadway song – and – dance productions. I remember the days as a college student where I would save up some money to purchase discounted Student Rush tickets, and see a show with friends or take in a matinee by myself if I didn’t have class.

 

Now as an adult, going to shows and plays has become increasingly harder. We all have bills to pay and expenses to consider, so seeing a show hasn’t been a priority as of late. The last show that I did happen to see was Choir Boy, written by Jeremy O. Harris’s Yale playwright instructor, Tarell Alvin McCraney. To be completely honest, the only way I knew about this play were through the show’s commercials, which would play during the local morning news on NBC.

 

I don’t know how Harris’s plays were specifically marketed to theatergoers, or anyone interested in plays. I follow Harris’s friend/model and actress, Hari Nef, on Instagram, and it didn’t occur to me that the recent production she starred in was Daddy! This started to make me think – if I wasn’t a casual theater attendee, or if I wasn’t following Nef on social media, how would I have know about this production? It’s interesting to think of how playwrights, directors, and producers of plays want a more “diverse” audience, yet it doesn’t seem as if the effort is being put into reaching the communities they want as their audience. How can one chime for a change in the seating, when a ticket price is exorbitant? How can the theater be inclusive of folks who would like to participate in these cultural events, and make seating affordable for people?

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I am currently taking a class this semester called “History of American Theatre” as a person who has never been to a play before. The most experience I have with theatre is through studying minstrelsy. When I read the question you conclude with: “When writers represent subjects such as slavery in their medium, what is the effect it has based on the audience that sees it, and further, based on the hoops through which a theater will go to deradicalize it in order to keep their subscriber base pleased?” I am reminded of how important this question is even when we talk about minstrel shows. While minstrel shows were about race (pro-slavery/anti-slavery), they also served a social function for its white audience. There is a profound ambiguity that needs to be acknowledged. Those dynamics have perhaps not gone away despite the fact that now the demographic of audiences is primarily older, wealthier, whites whereas minstrelsy was directly important to white people (mostly men of the working class).

It was mentioned in class that Harris views himself as following in the footsteps of playwrights like Amiri Baraka and Adrienne Kennedy. And my reaction was, “…how?” The readings in the articles about him really made him seem pretentious and un-relatable (which is honestly not far of me to say, but it was how I felt).

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This discussion reminded me of my visit to the theater in Australia last summer. I went with two of my friends and we we’re the only young adults or adults in general, the audience was predominantly elderly people. When we payed for our tickets, we realized it was cheaper to use the “young person” discount than the student discount. For some reason, the elder population is the one that most visits the theater in Australia while the other populations don’t go at all. The promotions for the other plays did not had one single person of color in their cast.

I’ve always enjoyed the theater but as your argument states, this institution seems to be reserved for the wealthy. To me, this transforms into the few options that the actors of color have for other roles besides mammies and slaves. Is this the diversity that the writes state they incorporate into their plays? If so, it’s very limited. In Renae words, “this performance is liberalism works to both satisfy two sides” and it seems that it has been like this for a while, how can the institution of the American theater disrupt this perpetuation?

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I really appreciated Renae's thought provoking class presentation. I would not consider myself too well versed in the world of theatre and the questions raised in class were fascinating. I particularly found myself struggling to be clear on how I felt about some of the ways slavey has been turned into performance for what seems to be a bit of "shock value"  with the added layer of sex to top it off. There definitely seems to be something exploitative around this yet- is anything being turned into a product which is based on the subjugation of others exploitative? How do these stories get told or explored otherwise? 


I was also reminded of how whenever I've attended a theatre performance in the past, or even a performance with classical music or opera, I have felt I am visiting a world not of my own. Not only based on the racial and class make up of the audiences around me as pointed out in this conversation- but this additional layer of disconnect related to the content and historical origins of the work. I've often gotten the sense that the story lines and settings are foreign to me and yet have been assumed to be capturing universal themes or deaing with some aspect of the "human condition."


 If I am looking for theatre work which speaks to me, I feel the need to be very intentional and specific about the who, what, where and how of the performance.  For example, I have had the fortune of having friends who are part of the Artists Co-Creating Real Equity (ACRE) NYC Collective who are actively engaged in making art but using it as a vehicle of activism.  It has been so much enriching for me to attend performances when I know the performers on a more personal level, or at least have a sense of their process having been intentional about creating anti-racist spaces. Most recently I attended a production directed by a friend and colleague with a background in drama therapy. Her play engaged in complex dynamics of white supremacy and racism through the metaphor of turbulence during a flight or journey- also using the language of baggage to engage the audience in self-examination throughout the piece.   Theatre has opportunities that go beyond the passive viewing one engages in while watching a movie or show on screen. I am sure my professional and educational background has to do with my perspective- but I believe theatre can be such as a powerful space,process and experience for both audience and performers to be in connection and push us in ways that go deeper than the voyeristic transaction of a story. 

 

 

 

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The readings combined with Renee’s presentation and post both disrupt my automated understandings, or maybe my naive lack thereof, of theater as synonymous with Broadway, classism, and pretentious schooling. Notwithstanding my lack of knowledge, I was surprised by the figures Renee offered from the annual Report; I was particularly struck by the fact that the average annual household income of the Broadway theatregoer is $222,120. This stat was considerably thought provoking for me when Renee’s discussion of The Ocataroon reminded me that the American theater originated outside of capitalism. As Professor Davidson reminds us that sometimes asking the question is equally as or more valuable than the proposed answer(s), I ask whether this was/is the future theatremakers wanted/want.

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This post is so informative and important Renae! I love that you built off of your presentation to write a blog post that broadened our understanding and gave us further insight into the workings of contemporary theater. I am particularly struck (althought not surprised) by the statistics on the average theatergoer. It makes me wonder what possible solutions there are to making theater more accessible and affordable, and audiences more diverse. I don't imagine that theater culture can change overnight, but perhaps taking a broad societal approach to desegregating the theater is key. One aspect that needs to be considered is how theaters are distrubuted geographically. Taking NYC as an example, I know that there are small independent theaters in each borough; however, most of the major theaters are located in mid-Manhattan and due to segregation and gentrification, it's no secret that people of color disproportionately live on the peripheries of this city center. And so I would argue that geographical changes to desegregate access to the theater would matter - relocating and opening up more theaters in different neighborhoods, and particularly in non-white neighborhoods could be a start. Teaching more diverse plays in schools, and definitely those beyond Shakespeare (although Shakespeare can also be taught in ways that tie to contemporary realities), and attributing more time in all public schools to theater and the arts in general also seems essential to me. 

Desegragating the theater then comes down to funding and investment, which would also make theater-going more econimically accessible. The median income of a theatergoer being over $200,000 per year suggests to me that theater needs a full-out revolution. I have loved the theater since I was a kid, which I attribute both to my participation early on in elementary school plays and to my joy in watching movies growing up, but I cannot afford to attend professional productions often and have rarely if ever gotten tickets that were not discounted in some way. Still I am lucky to have grown up with a relationship to the theater at all, and I realize that this relationship with theater is a result of my white privilege as a white woman who grew up in a predominantly white suburban public school system.

Here is simply one personal anecdote, but I think it is telling. I took my students at Hunter College (many of whom are working class, immigrants, and/or people of color who were educated in the NYC public school system) to a contemporary play at The Public Theater a few years ago and discovered that for nearly all of them it was the first play they had ever attended. I did get discounted tickets from the theater, and I received funding from the college president's office for this event, which was great, but the process was not easy. I will not go into every detail, but for starters, faculty can only apply for this funding once per year, even though there are two semesters plus summer sessions each year. Additionally, I had to apply for the funding by writing a proposal to the office, and then once approved, I had to pay for the tickets myself (51 total) until we attended the performance and then I successfully submitted a reflective essay on the merits of taking my students to the play. Therefore, as an adjunct faculty member who has little job security and a tiny salary, I had to put thousands of dollars of upfront ticket costs on my credit card and then put in extra unpaid labor in order to get my students to the theater. And the school still didn't even fund the full price of the tickets - students each had to pay $10. It shouldn't be this hard. I will admit I haven't done this since because of the financial stress, as overall it ended up costing me money in credit card interest payments. I do not regret doing it at all! But I have definitely been discouraged for future events. All public universities and public schools should have funds available readily and easily on a regular basis for students to attend art and theater events. I am glad to see the numbers that show that non-Caucasian theatergoers are increasing, but as you point out Ranae, the numbers are still heavily skewed to white and to upperclass populations, and the obstacles preventing other populations from attending and participating in the theater are all too real.

I am not very aware of where theater funding stands today, so I don't know how much of this is already happening, but it seems that theater needs to be subsidized more thoroughly by public funds committed to projects of desgregation in the arts and in schools (and we need to fight to make these funds a governmental priority); of course funding sources contribute not only to the direction of future theatrical productions but also to who audiences become. 

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I really enjoyed this class because the theater is a place I love to visit but I have not really understood the history behind the theater and this class provided that layout for me. What I apprectaited most was Renae's ability to loop in the class on power priviledge and oppression as it relates to WHO gets to attend the theater productions, the role of the director and also the accessibilty. This immediately brought me back  to my experiences and how hard it was to attend a hamilton show because it was extremely pricey to get tickets. Being that the creator Lin is a personof color and surprisingly created the production to critique the founding fathers, the type of people who have access to actually see the play doesnt really reflect his intial vision.

Now I do know it is in his best interest as an artist to have a hit Broadway play but how can Lin create a place where he is serving both communities? The tradition theater goes and members from oppressed communities? 

 

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