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Howard Sherman: A cultural shift is happening in US theatre but there’s more to do

Clockwise from top left: Maria Manuela Goyanes at Woolly Mammoth Theatre, Robert Barry Fleming Actors Theatre of Louisville, Nataki Garrett of Oregon Shakespeare Festival, Stephanie Ybarra of Centerstage Baltimore. Photo: Daniel Winters New artistic directors in the US. Clockwise from top left: Maria Manuela Goyanes at Woolly Mammoth Theatre, Robert Barry Fleming Actors Theatre of Louisville, Nataki Garrett of Oregon Shakespeare Festival, Stephanie Ybarra of Centerstage Baltimore. Photo: Daniel Winters
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“Doors open for women and people of color at top ranks of American theater.”

For many, this New York Times headline from two weeks ago was a sign of significant progress towards a more diverse creative leadership in the field.

There’s no question that such recognition marked a milestone, as did the hiring wave that spawned it. But it’s essential that the article, and the appointments so far, are seen only as that – a marker along the way, not a goal fully achieved.

To give credit where it is due, the boards of numerous theatres have taken steps to remedy the largely homogeneous body of artistic leaders. This is happening discretely, theatre by theatre. No doubt, within the largely closed search processes, established leaders lend their support to those who have worked with, and for, them, testifying to their readiness to take the reins of major organisations.

After all, there is no single body that metes out appointments, so the wave of advocacy by artists, funders, and perhaps even audiences has reached the upper echelons. It has long been said that the most important decisions US boards face is who to hire to run the companies. It’s a fair summation.

But with these new leaders will come new ideas and new initiatives, and with that will come yet more change. The greatest danger for this still-evolving next generation of leadership is that boards think they are done with the heavy lifting by making the hires, when in fact the work is just beginning. New creative visions and new voices on stage must be supported by boards and major donors if these companies are to evolve.

Nowhere is this more evident than in the seats of theatres in New York. While the city’s major Off-Broadway companies are producing seasons by rosters of diverse artists, one need only look at the preponderance of the audience to see that the same diversity has yet to reach audiences. Superb work on challenging and important topics by women and artists of colour is being staged, but the audience remains visibly white (though gender balance is a less of an issue).

First cohort appointed in initiative to diversify theatre boards

That disconnect is going to require more than just hiring someone at the top who represents a gender, race or ethnicity other than that of white men. It means attracting and evolving audiences to better represent the make-up of the communities in which these companies exist, so all stories are truly shared, not simply presented by one people group for another.

I worked in regional theatres in the late 1980s and early 1990s, when multiple large-scale, well-funded initiatives were launched in order to diversify audiences, while there was incremental change, it was hampered by the majority of the repertoire of the time, which over-relied on the work of one artist – August Wilson – in a bid for diversity.

With leaders and artists of colour now breaking through in vastly increasing numbers, it won’t be enough to just wait for audiences to find that work. Current audience diversification and accessibility efforts must be redoubled at the same time.

There are bound to be naysayers of this generational and cultural shift in US theatre leadership. But knowing some of these new leaders already, and looking forward to meeting others, it’s clear they aren’t trying to drive anyone out with new artists and new initiatives. They simply want to bring even more people in, especially those who haven’t previously felt seen or welcomed. Everyone who supports theatre’s vitality needs to stand with them. There’s still plenty to be done.

This week in US theatre

First seen five years ago at Washington DC’s The Kennedy Center under the title Little Dancer, the newest musical from Lynn Ahrens and Stephen Flaherty retakes the stage this week at Seattle’s Fifth Avenue Theatre. Now known as Marie, Dancing Still, it once again features New York City Ballet principal dancer Tiler Peck as an impoverished dancer who crosses paths with Edgar Degas. It opens tonight (April 5, 2019), directed and choreographed by Susan Stroman.

Daniel Fish’s textually faithful but significantly re-conceived version of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Oklahoma! opens Sunday night on Broadway, completing a journey that took it from Bard College in upstate New York in 2015 to St. Ann’s Warehouse in Brooklyn last fall to Circle in the Square Theatre. Rebecca Naomi Jones and Damon Daunno reprise their lead roles from St. Ann’s as Laurey and Curly.

Ike Holter’s ambitious septology of plays, collectively entitled The Rightlynd Saga, reaches its conclusion with the opening of Exit Strategy on Monday night at Chicago’s Goodman Theatre. Set in a fictitious Chicago neighbourhood, Exit Strategy sees Holter gathering his characters for what the local matriarch plans as a truly memorable evening in a bid to revivify the area. Lili-Anne Brown directs.

Howard Sherman is a New York based arts administrator and advocate. Read his latest column every Friday at thestage.co.uk/author/howard_sherman/

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