Plan seeks diversity at SoCal theater companies — but some question it

East West Players' Tim Dang writes initiative calling for greater diversity at SoCal theater companies

A group of Los Angeles theater leaders will announce this week an aggressive plan to diversify Southern California theater companies, the productions they present and the audiences they draw.

Tim Dang, producing artistic director of East West Players, has written an initiative that calls for at least 51% of those employed by Southern California theater companies by 2019 to be people of color, women or those younger than 35.

Some prominent local companies have already voiced support, but some observers question the plan's legality, saying that implementation would institute quotas and violate state and federal employment laws.

Backers of the plan want to compel theaters to confront the rapidly changing demographic makeup of the country. The U.S. Census Bureau has estimated that minorities will constitute half of all Americans by 2042.

California already was declared a predominantly minority population in the 2000 census. Yet 75% of theatergoers in the L.A. region are Caucasian, and 80% are of the baby boomer generation or older, according to a study by the nonprofit L.A. Stage Alliance in 2011, the most recent year for which statistics are available.

Dang and his supporters said that if theater companies were more diverse — by age, sex and skin color — the change would have a ripple effect on what plays or musicals were staged, and what audiences they brought.

"The more voices you have at the table, the more robust the conversation is," said Dang, who is the driving force behind the plan with other leaders at East West, located in downtown L.A. "We have to start somewhere."

Theaters "should not feel comfortable saying they're 'diverse' if they're not moving forward," said Daniel Mayeda, a board member of East West and the company's legal counsel.

He said some theaters that have read the plan voiced concern about its legality, specifically whether the 51% figure constitutes a quota. East West contended that the number isn't a quota, only a "suggested" benchmark. Failure to meet it carries no legal consequences or monetary penalties.

However, the initiative also encourages arts funders to consider giving money only to those theaters that have met the 51% mark.

Some legal experts who have reviewed the plan said it would violate federal law, including Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, which prohibits discrimination on the basis of race, ethnicity and sex, as well as the 1967 Age Discrimination in Employment Act.

"This plan is obviously designed to encourage employers to consider these factors in employment, so that's discrimination and that's what the law forbids," said Roger Clegg, president and general counsel for the Center for Equal Opportunity, a Washington think tank that has focused heavily on affirmative action.

"It's fine to encourage people of all ethnicities, races and gender to apply, and to look at them and to be more diverse in your storytelling and casting," he added. "But when it comes to hiring, firing and promoting, with an eye on skin color or gender or how old someone is, that's not something that falls within the law."

The plan's enumeration of a specific percentage figure makes it, by definition, a quota, said Manny Klausner, an attorney who represents the Individual Rights Foundation and the Reason Foundation, both based in L.A. "If you want to encourage diverse theater, do it with quality and don't do it with numbers."

More problematic, Klausner said, is whether theaters that are affiliated with public universities could institute such a policy. California Proposition 209 prohibits state institutions from discriminating on the basis of ethnicity, race or gender.

Many Southern California theaters are affiliated with state schools, though some fall within a gray area. The La Jolla Playhouse is on the campus of UC San Diego. Although it remains an independent legal and financial entity, the playhouse said on its website that it shares staff and facilities with the university.

The playhouse received national attention in 2012 for its staging of a new Duncan Sheik musical, "The Nightingale," in which Chinese characters were cast with predominantly non-Asian actors.

Christopher Ashley, the playhouse's artistic director, said in an emailed statement that the company supports "the spirit of the proposal" and agrees with the "urgent need for action on the issues it addresses."

At the Valley Performing Arts Center, which presents theater and other live shows at Cal State Northridge, staff members are technically employees of the California State University system.

Some L.A. theater leaders are uncertain whether more diverse companies will necessarily translate to a bigger, broader audience.

"I don't think just because your staff is diverse will ensure a diverse and larger audience," said Terence McFarland, who heads the L.A. Stage Alliance. "That said, I think that this being L.A., we want the stories of L.A. to be told on our stages, and the more reflective we are of the stories of the day, the stronger the community."

Among theater companies that have voiced support for the diversity plan are the Pasadena Playhouse and A Noise Within, also in Pasadena.

"Diversity has been part of my entire 17-year tenure here for both on and off stage," said Sheldon Epps, artistic director of the Pasadena Playhouse, by email.

Leaders at Center Theatre Group, L.A.'s biggest theater company, have reviewed the plan but have made no formal announcements.

"The proposal is on the table, but there has been no decision yet," said Michael Ritchie, the company's artistic director. He said CTG has created its own internal diversity task force that involves staff members at various levels.

"We're trying to find the best way to be diverse," he said.

Wren Brown, who heads L.A.'s Ebony Repertory Theatre, said the company's primary consideration when hiring is merit.

"I would never want to function in exclusion," said Brown, whose company's mission is rooted in "the unique African American journey to freedom."

"If you encounter a meritorious person who is female, younger, etc., that consideration should first be based on merit, then inclusion. Everybody wins in that scenario."

East-West said its next step is to start conversations among theater companies and to build local support for the plan. The company said it also hopes to broaden the plan nationally, but it didn't provide a timetable.

david.ng@latimes.com

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