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Exit, Stage White

For American regional theaters, diversifying their audiences will mean the difference between life and death. But it's not simple or easy.
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The Music Center of Los Angeles County — home of the city’s premiere performing-arts organizations — is literally on a hill. Visitors park underground and then ascend an escalator to a wide plaza dominated by an imposing fountain. This rise-as-you-arrive motif was no accident: The civic leaders and architects who designed the three-theater complex in the early 1960s deeply believed that the arts elevate our minds and spirits. Why not build that sense of uplift right into the architecture?

A half-century later, the message being conveyed is one of exclusion. As a new generation of Los Angeles arts leaders has come to recognize, segments of the multicultural metropolis view the Music Center as a place that’s set apart from the city — one where they’re not particularly welcome.

“Go ahead, say it: elitist!” exclaims Michael Ritchie, artistic director of the Center Theatre Group, which runs the 2,000-seat Ahmanson Theatre and the 736-seat Mark Taper Forum inside the Music Center (as well as a smaller space 11 miles away). “I think everybody at the Music Center is aware of that perception, and is actively working to break that down.”

Even as renovations designed to make the complex less fortress-like get underway, the CTG — the city’s most established and prestigious non-profit theater company — has taken a decisive step toward increased inclusiveness. Its five-play 50th-anniversary season, which gets underway in January, consists entirely of works by playwrights of color.

Multiculturalism is nothing new to the Taper, which was founded by the politically minded Gordon Davidson. Luis Valdez’s Zoot Suit, which premiered in 1978, was the first major play by a Mexican American produced on Broadway; it will be revived as the first show of the anniversary season. But devoting an entire season to work by minority artists is really quite radical: A November 2015 survey found that, in the previous three seasons, about 73 percent of productions mounted in American regional theaters were written by white men.

On one level, the programming reflects the fact that some of the most interesting and innovative theater in the United States today is being done by artists of color. On another, it’s a clear attempt to reach beyond the company’s core audience of educated, relatively affluent white people — a goal shared by regional theaters around the nation.

“On a national level, the conversation around building a more equitable, diverse, and inclusive theater field has been very robust in the past five to seven years,” says Teresa Eyring, executive director of the Theatre Communications Group, a support organization for non-profit American stage companies. But she notes that some individual theaters are increasingly “mirroring their community,” including Arena Stage in Washington, D.C., Baltimore’s Center Stage, and Chicago’s Goodman Theater, which boasts on its website that 15 percent of patrons and 19 percent of single-ticket buyers are people of color. Similarly, the Taper reports its audiences are 81 percent white on average, placing it ahead of its northern neighbors: A 2013 study by Theatre Bay Area found San Francisco-area audiences are nearly 90 percent white.

The Taper season represents the sort of sustained commitment to diversity that Eyring considers essential. But, as Ritchie is quick to admit, programming is just one piece of the puzzle. And that brings us to Boyle Heights, the largely low-income Latino neighborhood that Leslie Johnson describes as “one metro stop” from the theater, “but a world away.”

Johnson, who has the imposing title of CTG’s director of social strategy, innovation, and impact, is tasked with attracting non-traditional audiences. “We’ve talked about the idea of ‘radical hospitality,’” she says. “You meet people in their neighborhoods, in places where they’re already hanging out. Start with stories they know, things they’re familiar with.” That approach was evident one evening this past August when the Latino Theater Company visited a Boyle Heights library to present excerpts from an ambitious play that follows a Mexican-American family from 1940 to the present day, dramatizing subtly shifting attitudes toward cultural assimilation.

A modest but enraptured crowd listened as a pair of sisters argued about boys, concurred about the handsomeness of President John Kennedy (and he’s Catholic!), and sang pop songs from the period. After, the actors introduced themselves, with one proclaiming proudly that he’d grown up “right here in Boyle Heights!” Representatives from the CTG, which sponsored the event, passed out flyers, but there was no hard sell regarding subscriptions. A show of hands revealed that almost all of the 15 or 20 people at the CTG-sponsored event had seen live theater before, but none had made the four-mile trip to the Music Center.

Why not? “I think, spiritually, people haven’t been invited,” Johnson says. “Of course, price is a barrier.” (The Taper has $25 tickets on sale for every performance, but they tend to be sold to savvy theater fans rather than first-timers.) “We’ve also learned that transportation and childcare are issues.”

As is the fact that theatergoing habits tend to be formed when one is young. Actress and director Phylicia Rashad — a pioneering black woman on television (on The Cosby Show), the first black woman to win the best actress Tony Award for a play, and star of one of the CTG’s upcoming shows — bemoans the decline of arts education in the U.S. Taking a brief break from rehearsal for an August Wilson play, she speaks in quiet, firm tones. Rashad noted that, although her high school was not exceptionally privileged, it had robust music and theater programs. “I received a solid foundation in the arts even attending segregated public schools in Houston,” she says wistfully.

Rashad thinks of the theater as a community, and two new CTG initiatives are designed to encourage that sense of connectedness. Some performances will have pre-show talks featuring experts on the topics the play addresses. Others will feature post-performance conversations — not with the actors (although those will continue periodically), but rather facilitated dialogues in which audience members discuss their reactions to the play among themselves. Quiara Alegría Hudes’ Water by the Spoonful, a Pulitzer Prize-winning drama about recovering addicts, is expected to prompt some very personal stories.

It’s impossible to know whether such experiments will encourage more minorities (poor, wealthy, or in-between) to give the Taper a try, but Ritchie and his staff know they can’t continue to rely on a shrinking demographic. “Nor do you want to,” he says. “There is a moral imperative. The Music Center belongs to the County of Los Angeles. It should be used by the County of Los Angeles, not a subset of it.”