Don Shirley

Don Shirley

Don Shirley writes about theater for LA Observed. He is the former longtime theater writer for the Los Angeles Times, LA Stage Times and other publications.

Diversity Dilemmas at LA STAGE Day

Share on facebook
Share on pinterest
Share on twitter
Share on linkedin
Share on email
LA Stage Day - Terence McFarland. Photo by Katie Gould
LA Stage Day – Terence McFarland. Photo by Katie Gould

Does LA have one “theater community” or many? Often the latter notion seems more plausible. When we define communities within an area as far-flung as Greater LA, geography or ethnicity or race can create boundaries. So can the many varieties of theater and the sizes and budgets of theater companies.

Often, theater practitioners are likely to meet some of their colleagues who work outside their particular spheres of interest only by attending awards events. Of course, on these occasions, most of the time isn’t spent talking to each other but rather in wondering whether you or your own particular theater tribe will win. And most of those who attend theater awards ceremonies don’t win those awards, so potential disappointment is always waiting in the wings.

LA STAGE Alliance has recently been sponsoring one-night panel discussions on various subjects, in various locations, under the LA STAGE Talks banner. But this year it also decided to revive a former tradition of holding an annual one-day gathering for extended talk about LA theater, with no awards distractions. The result, LA STAGE Day, was on display Saturday at Cal State Los Angeles.

Let’s get this out of the way at first — a lot of the major players within LA theater did not attend LA STAGE Day. I spotted no more than a handful of artistic directors of high-profile companies, mostly on the 99-seat level. I certainly can’t say that every subset of LA theater was represented.

LA Stage Day - Anna B. Scott, Ph.D. Photo by Katie Gould
LA Stage Day – Anna B. Scott, Ph.D. Photo by Katie Gould

Panel discussions, which might have attracted some of those absent artistic directors as participants, weren’t the chosen format at LA STAGE Day. Instead, the day began and ended with short Ted Talks-like presentations by individuals, usually abetted by visual aids. In between these were concurrent small-group presentations and discussions on a wide range of subjects.

Total attendance was between 350 and 400 — which seemed somewhat more manageable and intimate than a larger conference. Enough people attended to fill the house at the final session of the day, but more people might have required extra seating outside the room. Enough points of view were represented to instigate some lively conversations.

That final session was not only the best-attended but also the most provocative session I attended. Essentially, most of the speakers — except one — were making the case that certain groups aren’t visible enough on the stages of our remarkably diverse city.

LA Stage Day - Evelina Fernandez. Photo by Katie Gould
LA Stage Day – Evelina Fernandez. Photo by Katie Gould

First up was Evelina Fernandez representing Latino Theater Company and the complex it manages, Los Angeles Theatre Center. Of course, she was primarily there to argue that in a city that is likely to eventually become majority-Latino, the number of Latino faces and stories on most of our stages is still strikingly small.

However, in a conversation with me before she spoke, Fernandez said that members and supporters of Latino Theater Company also hold discussions about its own diversity. It recently presented a Canadian play, Habitat, which didn’t do well at the box office, at least in part because a lot of the company’s usual Latino supporters didn’t show up.

The subject of diversity in our theaters is wide open to the possibility of paradox. If every theater company in LA followed Fernandez’s advice and started programming more Latino material and using more Latino talent, would the loyal Latino audience start diversifying too, going to other theaters so much that there would eventually be less of a reason for the ethnically-specific Latino Theater Company to exist?

Among those who followed Fernandez, also representing particular constituencies, were DJ Kurs of Deaf West Theatre and Tim Carpenter of the EngAGE nonprofit, which develops arts programs at senior housing communities.

Then there were two speakers from the world of opera, defying the stereotype that opera is stuffy and ossified. Opera director and sometime arts administrator Thor Steingraber argued for reaching younger and less conventional audiences — “we have to be willing to meet our users where they’re at” and “expand our idea of who our supporters are” through unorthodox technology, among other avenues.

Yuval Sharon of the experimental opera company The Industry said “LA has the most open-minded audiences in the country” and advocated for every company to get “a brand-new point of view.”

LA Stage Day - Erin Quill. Photo by Katie Gould
LA Stage Day – Erin Quill. Photo by Katie Gould

The parade of appeals to open the doors for more participation by underrepresented groups culminated with lacerating remarks from Erin Quill about the “theatrical ethnic cleansing” she discerns in recent controversies over the casting of some Asian roles with non-Asians, at La Jolla Playhouse and the Royal Shakespeare Company. She mixed mordant humor — “Maybe I’m being too polite…damn those genes!” — with statistics on underrepresentation of Asian Americans in American theater with ringing rallying cries such as “yellowface is off the table!” and “there’s no reason to skin us and wear us culturally like a coat.” In her closing moments, she became visibly choked up in her fervor. It was LA STAGE Day’s most striking display of raw emotion.

Then there was Mark Seldis, Ghost Road Company’s producing director, who — alone among the speakers — spoke not about reaching wider audiences by opening up theater to new players or new methods. Instead, he spoke about the “pure artistic impulse” that his seven-member ensemble tries to honor, about the importance of the “process” more than the product. The company decided not to worry about establishing a home base at a theater, because it considers itself “more like an indie rock band than a theater company…the rock band doesn’t think about how to attract people who don’t like rock music or how to change the industry.” They and the members of Ghost Road “just do the art.”

LA Stage Day - Mark Seldis. Photo by Katie Gould
LA Stage Day – Mark Seldis. Photo by Katie Gould

In the context of this program of speakers, Seldis sounded like an outlier — someone whose company probably wouldn’t do well in the competition for grants that are based on sociological as well as artistic factors and the ability to reach wider audiences. On the other hand, you’ve probably heard that creating “devised theater” is actually quite fashionable these days, and Ghost Road certainly falls into most definitions of that phrase. Yet Ghost Road — and many of these “devised” companies — are fairly homogeneous, at least by the standards of race, ethnicity, age and disability that are also sometimes factored into grants decisions.

Will grants givers have to choose between these two impulses? Will audiences? Or are audiences primarily interested in who’s going to get them to laugh, cry and/or think —  more or less in that order?

LA Stage Day - Outdoor bazaar. Photo by Katie Gould
LA Stage Day – Outdoor bazaar. Photo by Katie Gould

Every resident of LA should be able to find at least one theater company (and preferably more than one) that engages him or her on a very personal level. For many people, that is more easily achieved if at least some of the people on stage look or sound more like themselves than many of the actors currently occupying the stage.  On the other hand, a much smaller group of people is at least occasionally interested in examining characters or milieus that do not remind them of home, that introduce them to others.

I wonder if LA is diverse enough that it can be the home for both extremely diverse companies and for companies such as Ghost Road that appear to have little interest in the usual definitions of diversity. A city as big and as eclectic and with as much talent as LA should be able to accommodate all theatrical tastes. But not every company should have to serve every taste.