A New Plan Asks Theaters to Be 51 Percent Minority, Women or Under 35. Is That a Good Thing?

Beijing Spring at Tim Dang's theater, East West Players in Little Tokyo
Beijing Spring at Tim Dang's theater, East West Players in Little Tokyo
Courtesy of East West Players

Tim Dang, the producing artistic director of East West Players in Little Tokyo, recently proposed a new diversity initiative called the 51% Preparedness Plan for the American Theatre. The plan suggests that over the next five years, all theaters try to reach a benchmark of at least 51 percent of the organization’s artists and production personnel being comprised of either people of color, women or people under 35 years of age.

While Dang sees Southern California, which is already more diverse than much of the nation, as an ideal test market for this proposal, he intends for its scope to be nationwide. He also suggests that benefactors of theater (government, corporations, foundations, etc.) consider a theater’s efforts in meeting this benchmark when making funding decisions.

Two of our theater critics took sides on the issue: one for the plan, one against. What side are you on? Tell us in the comments.

Pro: The entrenched establishment has held the power in theater for too long

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The gut reaction to this proposal from more entrenched elements in the theater world might entail carping about “quotas” and lack of “freedom,” the same way entrenched elements in American society quail about affirmative action in higher education and other realms. But if you find yourself heading in that direction, take a deep breath and look at the facts for a moment.

It wasn’t until the 1950s and 60s that artists of color were even allowed to be part of the mainstream American theater in any significant numbers. And as in other fields, generational “wealth” builds, favoring those who have been entrenched in power and limiting the access of those who have not. In this case the wealth was both literal (producers with money to produce theater) and institutional (the knowledge base, connections, and culture of theater being cultivated mainly amongst the majority demographic).

So Dang’s challenging theaters to reconsider their often-outdated model is refreshing and necessary. Note also that the proposal is not a requirement, so the “quotas” argument holds little water, not to mention that, in an inclusive move, Dang also incorporates women and those under 35, presumably encompassing a number of white actors, directors, producers, designers, and tech crew.

Theaters that have endorsed Dang’s proposal include traditionally diverse companies like Native Voices at the Autry and National Black Theatre, but they also include A Noise Within, Pasadena Playhouse, and Ensemble Studio Theatre – New York. In fact, Bill Rauch, artistic director of Oregon Shakespeare Festival, has said of it, “I am so grateful for Tim Dang’s and East West Players’ leadership with this bold call for specific measurements of progress.”

So while some may claim Dang’s “top-down” approach is misguided, without a public call to action, progress won’t simply materialize at a rate that is acceptable to those who have been marginalized in the mainstream theater for so long. As the demographics of our country shift, so must the attitudes of those who have traditionally held the levers of power in the American theater. Let’s just hope they embrace this proposal as a way to improve instead of resisting it in order to maintain a hegemony they have enjoyed for too long. —Mayank Keshaviah

Con: Let's focus on rewarding quality

Some theaters pay lip service to the idea of diversity, other theaters undertake substantive programs to diversify, but until Tim Dang’s “51% Preparedness Plan,” nobody had gone so far as to give diversity a number and offer it as an affirmative action plan for the nation’s nonprofit theater.

Born of the understandable exasperation of underemployed theater artists of color in a city where blacks, Asians and Latinos together comprise a sizable majority, Dang’s 51 percent proposal is actually more of a strongly worded suggestion. But that doesn’t mean it doesn’t pack considerable moral punch, especially when one is speaking about tax subsidies or when "diversity" is written into the language of mission statements and grants.

Its truly radical aspect is in its implicit recasting of the purpose of foundation and state arts funding as redressing social inequities rather than the fostering of artistic "excellence." Since its founding in 1965, the guiding principle of the National Endowment for the Arts has been to provide access to the arts for all Americans by fostering and preserving excellence. Its mechanisms are grants awards and a rigorous peer-review panel process. Excellence begets excellence begets access, its logic says. And it’s right.

Rather than blunt, divisive, top-down hiring quotas, a more perfect world would redress racial and gender employment imbalances from the bottom up, with paid, multiyear early-career internships at companies of high artistic caliber. In that way, disadvantaged artists could benefit most from the mentoring and network building that happens at such places. Doing so may require an even more radical change in mindset. In California, whose citizens have been eliminating arts education from their public schools, all theater suffers the not-so-benign neglect of a state fast asleep in the national arts funding cellar (ranked 44th at last count).

Promoting diversity is important, and for all the reasons that Dang cites. But the best way to achieve it is to win the hearts-and-minds battle for young audiences of all colors by redoubling our commitment to art of the highest caliber. Not only are diversity and inclusiveness already contained in that ideal, art that strives for anything less is a disservice to us all. —Bill Raden


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