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Howard Sherman: The plays we see say a lot about us, it’s our duty to widen our horizons

A scene from Soft Power. Photo: Craig Schwartz A scene from Soft Power. Photo: Craig Schwartz
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Unlike going to a museum, where what we see has been curated for us, attending the performing arts is a self-curated experience. We choose, show by show, performance by performance, what we will see.

Unlike paintings and sculptures grouped together under one roof, each work of performing arts requires a decision and, in most cases, an expense. The shape of our personal gallery only becomes clear when examined over time.

At the end of 2017, I sat down to try to reconstruct my year in theatregoing. To the best of my recollection, and with the help of a stack of programmes and ticket stubs, I saw 107 shows. That is certainly more than the casual theatregoer, but much less than professional critics.

Even though this works out to be slightly less than one show every three days, I thought the count might have been 20 or 30 shows higher. At certain times of the year, it feels as if I’m going to the theatre every night.

That said, I was chastened and disappointed when I reviewed this list. Not because it wasn’t longer – that was merely a surprise. But in looking back, I found the programme I had curated for myself was narrower in terms of a range of experiences than what I had aspired to. Only one quarter of the shows were written by women, only 15% were by artists of colour.

Having made these calculations almost six months ago, I had quietly put them away in shame, save for retaining their lesson about the relative homogeneity of my theatregoing. As I have decided what to see since then I haven’t set myself any quotas, but I am conscious of wanting my 2018 “stats” to be better than those in 2017.

This comes to mind in the midst of my current run of theatregoing, because my most recent choices – based on time, interest and availability – would suggest I’m opening myself up to the wider variety of voices for which I often advocate. On a business trip to California, I squeezed in one show: David Henry Hwang and Jeanine Tesori’s genre-busting musical Soft Power, in its premiere at the Center Theatre Group’s Ahmanson Theatre in Los Angeles.

Since returning from the trip, I’ve seen Lauren Yee’s The Great Leap at the Atlantic Theatre Company and Idris Goodwin and Kevin Coval’s This is Modern Art from the company Blessed Unrest.

Andrew Gonzalez, Landon G. Woodson (back), Shakur Tolliver, and Nancy McArthur in This Is Modern Art. Photo: Maria Baranova
Andrew Gonzalez, Landon G Woodson (back), Shakur Tolliver, and Nancy McArthur in This Is Modern Art. Photo: Maria Baranova

This evening I get to – at last – see Antoinette Nwandu’s Pass Over at Lincoln Center Theater’s LCT3, the first show I’ve seen in that space, which has been open for several years. On Monday I revisit Mike Lew’s high school version of Richard III, Teenage Dick, at the Public Theater, having previously seen a brief lab run a couple of years ago.

As I mention these works by artists of colour, it’s not as if I’ve declared a moratorium on works by white writers, because mixed in among those mentioned above have been a revival of The Will Rogers Follies at Goodspeed Musicals in Connecticut and Kate Scelsa’s satire Everyone’s Fine with Virginia Woolf from the company Elevator Repair Service.

This weekend I will see the transfer of Girls and Boys from the Royal Court and the Public Theater’s Othello in Central Park. But overall, the first 18 days of June would suggest I am curating a more diverse slate for myself.

As someone who has worked in theatre my whole life, I have been extremely privileged to see more productions than my income could have ever supported – whether that was through reciprocity among theatre companies, my eight-year tenure at the American Theatre Wing and affiliation with the Tony Awards, or my current role as part-time arts commentator.

I don’t intend to skip shows to improve statistics, nor will I compel myself to attend shows that I have no interest in

But, when it comes to advocating for and advancing equity and diversity in the arts, those with privilege must use it thoughtfully, carefully and knowingly. That absolutely applies to what we see, support, and talk or write about.

I didn’t like what my theatregoing said about me when I examined what I saw in 2017. Without making the act of going to the theatre a chore or a statement, I hope 2018 better reflects my beliefs and my values, even while each time I book a show or buy a ticket, I am doing so as a discrete act. I don’t intend to skip shows to improve statistics, nor will I compel myself to attend shows that I have no interest in just to achieve the same goal.

But when I add up my slate at the end of 2018, I hope to find I’ve done better than last year. We can only have a more diverse, more inclusive theatre if all people attend, and speak, about diverse and inclusive work that they experience. We must each make our choices, show by show, production by production, and ultimately hope we are, on average, able to be proud of our decisions and what they tell others about us.

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