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Towards a More Inclusive Theatre

At last month’s Theatre Communications Group National Conference, theatre professionals from all backgrounds wrestled with important questions about diversity and inclusion. Indeed, the way we see (or don’t see) ourselves, as represented in entertainment and mass media, can have a profound effect on our sense of identity and self-esteem. Unfortunately, the historical and continued invisibility of certain groups within arts and entertainment is still an issue. But just as art and media can systematically relegate entire cultures to invisibility through omission, so can they be powerful tools to break such cycles — often starting with youth.

One prime example is the recent work of Bay Area Children’s Theatre (BACT), a company I have had the privilege of working with for the past decade. BACT is currently collaborating with Theatre Bay Area (through a partnership with WolfBrown) to measure a number of impacts, including their effectiveness in inspiring imaginative play among children who attend their productions. Each year, BACT commissions and produces new works for young audiences, including this year’s musical adaptation of Grace Lin’s Newbery Honor book, Where the Mountain Meets the Moon. Penned and composed by Bay Area playwright Min Kahng, the production (like Kahng’s The Song of the Nightingale, produced earlier in the year by Altarena Playhouse) showcased a cast of Asian American performers in complex, inspiring, and heroic roles. Especially for those of us who grew up rarely (or never) seeing an Asian American on stage or on screen in a leading role, this was a true achievement.

Photo by Joshua Posamentier

Today, many excellent theatres of all sizes and genres are challenging themselves to better represent their communities in their work. As more and more companies make diversity and inclusion a priority, though, I hope they’ll give careful thought as to how to frame and market certain works. Who is the intended audience for plays that feature performers of color, and how do theatres communicate this to audiences? Is it necessary for certain productions to be marketed as “ethnic” plays? When is it important to mention a character’s ethnicity in a show synopsis, and when is it not?

The answers to these questions are not simple and will vary from institution to institution. And, most certainly, the answers we come up with will change over time as well. But the questions themselves are ones I hope all of us are asking.

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