The artistic directors of Southern California's regional theater powerhouses came together Monday night on the Pasadena Playhouse stage for what was billed as a panel discussion “on the state of diversity in Southern California theater.”

On hand were Michael Ritchie of L.A.'s Center Theatre Group, Barry Edelstein of San Diego's Old Globe, Christopher Ashley of La Jolla Playhouse, Marc Masterson of Costa Mesa's South Coast Rep, Tim Dang of downtown's East West Players and host Sheldon Epps of Pasadena Playhouse.

Rounding out the otherwise all-middle-aged-male panel, and lending its composition the suggestion that the upper echelons of the big regionals aren't entirely un-gender-diversified, was incoming Pasadena Playhouse associate artistic director Seema Sueko and the 99-seat Boston Court's co-artistic director Jessica Kubzansky.

The evening, which was co-sponsored by Pasadena Playhouse, East West Players and the Stage Directors and Choreographer's Foundation, was held as a follow-up to a similar, albeit non-public diversity panel that was initiated last year in the wake of La Jolla Playhouse's widely censured production of Duncan Sheik's The Nightingale, a musical set in ancient China but which was cast with mostly non-Asians.

East West Players' Tim Dang and Pasadena Playhouse's Seema Sueko; Credit: Bill Raden

East West Players' Tim Dang and Pasadena Playhouse's Seema Sueko; Credit: Bill Raden

For the first 50 minutes of this year's forum, moderator Michael John Garcés of Cornerstone Theater lobbed a steady stream of softballs at the panelists, grilling them on such questions as, what is a director? And, what do we mean by “diversity”?

The answers to the latter turned out to be frustratingly vague and indirect, with lots of talk about audience outreach and “engaging in authentic conversations” and showing a “curiosity and openness.”

Most panelists, however, eventually seemed to agree with Dang that diversity in the theater meant “being inclusive of who your audience is.” (He also pointed out that 91 percent of the LAUSD student body — L.A.'s theater audience of the future — were students of color.)

Dang might have added that diversity could also be defined as having what's on ones stage reflect the makeup and experience of ones community. But that kind of straightforwardness turned out to be rare in an evening marked by a general sense of self-congratulatory complacency and the impenetrable and bewildering grantsmanship bureaucratese of the institutional nonprofit arts world.

Things became a little more heated when Garcés asked about the possibility of diversifying the theaters' notoriously short-listed pool of directors.

Dang earned an early round of applause by expressing exasperation at constantly being approached by directors pitching Asian-cast shows. “I don't understand why they would only come to East West Players [the city's premiere Asian American stage] to direct it with an Asian cast,” he complained, “[instead of] take it to another place, like Center Theatre Group and direct it with an Asian cast.”

He also questioned why big theaters can't hire Asians to direct Asian plays or African-Americans to direct African-American plays. “There needs to be a lot more discussion about that,” he insisted.

Edelstein responded by talking about the lack of qualified directors for the Old Globe's classical repertoire and the need to create training programs. “It's just always frustrating how hard it is to recruit directors who've got experience,” he said, “let alone diverse directors who've had experience. … And we've been having a series of really wonderful conversations with the universities in town about doing that.”

For his part, Richie blamed the lack of a diverse directing pool on the institutional culture of the regional system, which he said places its emphasis on the “importance of the playwright” and the new play rather than who's directing it. In his own case, he admitted, it amounted to a catch-22 — a reticence to “to invest a million dollars of our production money” in any director “unless I've seen their work or worked with them.”

La Jolla Playhouse's Christopher Ashley and SCR's Marc Masterson; Credit: Bill Raden

La Jolla Playhouse's Christopher Ashley and SCR's Marc Masterson; Credit: Bill Raden

The evening's real fireworks had to wait until questions were finally thrown open to the approximately 150 audience members, who were preponderantly black, Asian and Latino.

That's when Josefina Lopez, the outspoken playwright and artistic director of Boyle Heights' Casa 0101 — a theater created, she said, “in response to the lack of diversity at the Taper” — questioned what she termed the “discrimination” from the regional theaters felt by the city's playwrights of all colors.

“We just assume,” she said, “that because we are West Coast playwrights, we're not going to get produced by the Taper and big theaters in L.A., because they always produce playwrights [from] New York.”

Rising to the Taper's defense, Ritchie flatly denied that CTG practiced discrimination, citing both his family's liberal-left political credentials and claiming that CTG actually has “a very robust program for local playwrights” in its New Play Production Program led by Diane Rodriguez.

But the evening's most emblematic moment — and biggest laugh — came when paraplegic actor Regan Linton, who led a contingent of about ten physically disabled performers and writers, began to address the panel from her wheelchair only to be brusquely interrupted by Epps.

“Where are you? Can you stand up?” Epps said, squinting into the audience.

“No, I can't stand up actually. Sorry. But thank you for asking,” Linton gamely replied.

To be fair, the stage apron was high and the lights were in Epps' eyes (and Epps apologized to the questioner after the panel). Yet the gales of laughter suggested that the gaffe inadvertently touched on a more profound blindness among the panel members to the real elephant on the Pasadena Playhouse stage — the bloated and calcified regional theater movement itself, which claims the majority of available public theater funding but is slavishly chained to the timidity and narrow tastes of its overwhelmingly white and aging subscription base.

The most clear-eyed and candid of the group proved to be Edelstein.

“These institutions all sprang up roughly in the 60s or so,” the Old Globe director reminded the audience. “The Ford Foundation threw all this money into the regional theater in the United States, and the basic financial model that runs these theaters in 2014 is the same as it was in 1962. That's what needs to change. Because it's the inertia of the business model that makes people like us go, 'I don't know if I can do it. I don't know if I can do it.' And … fear and inertia are the enemies of progress.”

Correction: An original version of this post identified Garcés as the panel member addressing the questioner in a wheelchair. That panelist was actually Epps.

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