Folks who live in the Twin Cities or follow our theater goings-on are most likely aware of the recent Guthrie Theater diversity kerfuffle. For those of you who don’t, here’s the recap: when the Guthrie Theatre, perceived by some to be Minnesota’s most powerful and influential professional theater, announced its 2012-2013 lineup, it escaped no one’s notice that the plays are almost entirely written by white men, directed by white men, and starring a lot of white men. Criticism raged on both sides, with detractors arguing that the Guthrie is out of touch with the Twin Cities population and theater tastes and Guthrie artistic director Joe Dowling claiming that plays by women and people of color don’t put butts in seats. I could spend hours on the chicken-and-egg debate here, but my purpose isn’t to reopen those wounds.
I mostly bring up the Guthrie debate to provide contrast with a call for script submissions I read yesterday. It was for a small theater in a small South Dakota town. Two lines from the call particularly caught my attention:
The community is not racially diverse so non white characters are a challenge to cast.
This audience is intelligent but not necessarily sophisticated. A majority of the audience will not have attended professional level productions and will struggle with edgy material.
First off, theater in a small Midwestern town, kudos on your honesty. In theater, “Know Thy Audience” is every bit as useful a maxim as “Know Thyself”–if not moreso.
Second, I am really, truly impressed that this theater is taking a chance on new scripts in the first place. Having grown up in an area not that different from this one, I know that most of our theaters were risk-averse. Even the one that had a reputation as being “edgy” seldom did anything riskier than Tomfoolery, the Tom Lehrer revue. New plays can be a huge, gut-clenching risk for a theater in this position, and I salute them for trying it, rather than reaching for the seventeenth revival of Picnic or Our Town.
Third…well, dang. “Non white [sic] characters are a challenge to cast.” “A majority of the audience…will struggle with edgy material.” I think the people of this theater may not be giving their townsfolk the credit they deserve, but for the moment I’ll take their word for it. At moments like this, I appreciate the Twin Cities more than ever. As rancorous as the Guthrie diversity debate grew on both sides, I take comfort and pride in the fact that we had the conversation at all. How amazing to be part of a community whose demographic and artistic diversity is so great that we demand that our entire artistic community celebrate and reflect it. What a privilege to live and art in a place that begs us to share our unique voices, rather than begging us to keep those voices to ourselves.