May Issue - Stage Directions Magazine

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May Issue - Stage Directions Magazine

Feature

By John Crawford

Theatre For Everyone

courtesy of American Stage

From the American Stage in the Park’s production of Regina Taylor’s Crowns

Building a diverse audience is smart strategy,

but it requires sustained commitment.

In the mid-1990s, when South Bend Civic Theatre decided

to tackle Joe Turner’s Come and Gone, it had almost no

support from the local black community. For the most

part, African-Americans didn’t come to the community

theatre’s shows, and staff only knew of three or four black

actors in the area — a problem, given that the August Wilson

play required eight actors. “We had to pound the streets to

cast the show,” recalls Jim Coppens, executive director of

the South Bend, Ind. theatre.

Starting with that production, South Bend Civic Theatre has

made a commitment to diversity. Every year, it has put on at

least one show that centers on black issues, and word has spread

about their efforts. Today, out of its pool of about 450 actors,

some 50 are black, a percentage consistent with the population

at large. A similar percentage of African-Americans attend the

theatre’s productions, though that rate might shoot up to as

high as 50 percent for a show dealing with black issues. Diversity

hasn’t just enlarged its pool of actors; it’s also brought in a wider,

larger audience.

Such diversity is obviously something to strive for. “You can’t

be a true community theatre unless all members of the community

are represented,” says Coppens. But committing oneself to

diversity involves more than just putting on an African-American

play once in a while. It involves more than just giving out discount

tickets to a local Hispanic church.

As South Bend Civic Theatre demonstrates, creating a diverse

audience requires a long, sustained effort, one that ultimately

makes everyone feel welcome at the theatre, no matter their

race, age or class. “It’s a matter of sticking to it,” notes Coppens.

“There is no magic bullet.” Unfortunately, not all theatres are

able to spend the resources needed to make such a commitment,

even though they’re faced with the daunting reality that

their traditional white audiences are aging.

Make the effort, though, and the people will come. They’re

waiting for work that speaks to them. Just look to recent productions

on Broadway as an example. Both The Color Purple and the

Tony Award-winning revival (starring Sean “Puffy” Combs) of A

Raisin in the Sun attracted sizable black audiences.

“The audience is always there,” says Donna Walker-Kuhne,

founder and president of Walker International Communications

Group, a Brooklyn-based company that provides marketing and

audience development services for cultural arts organizations.

With a potential audience out there, theatres just need to find

what will inspire people to buy a ticket. That being the case, any

attempts at diversifying an audience starts with the plays a theatre

chooses to do. Often, theatres make the mistake of thinking

“The country is diversifying,

we’ve got to be dealing with it.” —Seth Rozin

26 May 2007 • www.stage-directions.com

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