'Twelve Angry Men'

"Twelve Angry Men," pictured, is part of the conversation. (Jim Cox Photography )

In 21st century America, there is one subject even more difficult to discuss honestly in public than race: money.

It took a while but near the end of Monday evening's diversity forum featuring the artistic leaders of Southern California's most prominent nonprofit theaters, the issue everyone was skirting was finally being loudly addressed.

Barry Edelstein, still settling into his job as artistic director of San Diego's Old Globe, articulated the biggest obstacle to change in the American theater: "the inertia of the business model" that stems from "the fear" of jeopardizing the budgetary status quo. 

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A single flop can result not only in a loss of the earned income that nonprofit theaters are relying on to an ever-greater extent, but also in a backlash with philanthropic giving that can have dire institutional consequences. It's no wonder that in lean economic times artistic decision-making bends in a more conservative direction.

Translation: more shows featuring white folks singing light FM and more old comedies featuring white folks telling jokes that weren't that funny the first time around.

The panel — hosted by the Pasadena Playhouse in conjunction with the Stage Directors and Choreographers Foundation and East West Players, and moderated by Michael John Garcés (Cornerstone Theater Company) — was convened to discuss diversity "through a director's eye."

In addition to Edelstein, the group included Christopher Ashley (La Jolla Playhouse), Tim Dang (East West Players), Sheldon Epps (Pasadena Playhouse), Jessica Kubzansky (The Theatre @ Boston Court), Marc Masterson (South Coast Repertory), Michael Ritchie (Center Theatre Group) and Seema Sueko (incoming associate artistic director of Pasadena Playhouse and former executive artistic director of Mo`olelo Performing Arts Company).

The discussion proceeded with a discursive informality that left no one pinned to the mat for long. Dang and Sueko posed the sharpest concerns. 

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Dang wanted to know why a play by an African American author is often directed by an African American director at a mainstream theater while it's rare to see a play by an Asian American playwright directed by an Asian American director at the same venue. Sueko chided her colleagues not to assume a condescending authority, however unintentional, when doing outreach. It took a member of the audience to raise the subject of disabilities.

What the proceedings needed was a troublemaker to flush out the unspoken tensions. A spirit of civility censored the most difficult truths.

Ritchie, head of California's largest nonprofit theater and looking at times as though he were steeling himself for a blow, raised the issue of his controversial decision early in his tenure to disband the CTG playwriting labs that served marginalized artists. While recognizing the harmful public relations he caused himself, he touted his record on diversity, saying that though he hadn't yet done the math he would bet that CTG would rank near the top of nonprofits theaters in terms of multicultural programming.

No one challenged Ritchie on this score, though Dang shared that he has sometimes been surprised by the exciting new work that has been brought to him by artists who have felt that the Mark Taper Forum was closed off to them.

Edelstein wasn't alone in observing that the demographics of the traditional subscriber base — old, affluent and white — don't reflect the demographics of the broader society that these nonprofit theaters were established through public and foundation money to serve. 

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But this economic conundrum — that the population generously propping up this art form may be inadvertently inhibiting its inclusiveness — won't be solved easily.

"Baby steps" and "elbow grease" were phrases that were resorted to by leaders who would like to be agents of progressive change yet don't want to be responsible for bringing about the downfall of these "old theaters," as a panelist called the larger institutions represented here.

The face of America is changing and, as Dang observed, Southern California is "ground zero" for this demographic shift. The theater must cultivate new audiences or risk extinction. But as too many of these institutions have fallen into the habit of appealing to familiar customers, they must learn new methods of audience development. Everyone recognizes the urgency of the challenge, but the process is a bit like turning around a giant cruise ship. The threat of capsizing is ever present.

Idealism is of course easier without the accounting. Early in the discussion Ashley talked about how being an artistic director is like being the host of a party that includes not just artists and audiences but board members and staff and that diversity across these realms is key to throwing a lively bash. Masterson spoke about the role of "curiosity" as a natural instigator to exploring the human condition from all walks of life.