Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Changing the Riverbed: On Fear and Persuasion

Isaac was certainly right when he wrote yesterday about the reality of fear when it comes to the issue of diversity. And he was also right when he indicated its cause: resource scarcity. If we conceive of change of this or any other nature as a zero-sum game, and we also know how much we are struggling even under the current system, we are fearful. Those of us who were at the convening at the Arena heard several stories about, for example, how the Board wasn't committed to increased diversity because it might have a negative impact on an already-strained budget, might alienate the existing audience with no guarantee that they would be replaced by another audience, and so forth.

Fear is a powerful force that carves the path of least resistance that all of us prefer to travel. Inevitably, someone will make a comment somewhere that it is easy for me to make these suggestions from my privileged position as a tenured profession, and they are right. I DO think the lottery system could and probably should be applied to the hiring of faculty, however if it had been instituted when I was on the job market, I would have objected because I would have feared a loss of control. It was what was at the base of Allan Bakke's Supreme Court case about affirmative action at the University of California-Davis Medical School in 1978. Bakke felt that he had better credentials to be admitted at UC-Davis than those being admitted according to Affirmative Action decisions, and that this was unjust. The Supreme Court ruled that UC-Davis had the right to consider race as a factor in the same way they considered geography or extracurrciular activities. But for many a white male, that idea has the effect of raising the bar that was already very high.

Most people want things to change for the better. We think that a more diverse set of stories ought to be told by a more diverse set of artists in a more diverse set of places. There are no Bull Connor's in the theatre. Our hearts are in the right place. But we are afraid.

That is why the riverbed has to change. We can't wait for individuals who have the courage to take action to somehow achieve critical mass and single-handedly and painlessly change the direction of the flow of the river. I remember a poignant expression of frustration at the Arena convening to the effect that, when her play was in rehearsal and she had so many other things she needed to be focused on, she shouldn't have to be focused on whether there are African-American people other than herself in the rehearsal room or the organization. She was tired of carrying the weight of change on her own already over-burdened shoulders.

My idea of the play lottery was a low-cost, easily-implemented idea that would remove the onus from individuals and create a system that allowed diversity to occur without the need for enormous courage. The response has been a howl of derision based on a sense that it removed individual "choice" from the process. But I ask: what have you done with this personal choice? The theatre continues to be an upper middle-class white educated elderly art form. Without accountability, personal choice too easily follows the path of least resistance, the path of greatest safety.

That is why the focus has to be on the system. The education system, the hiring system, the economic system. Desegregation in schools didn't happen until there was a law (Brown vs the Board of Education, 1954) that made segregation illegal, and even then it only happened when many courageous people such as the members of the Little Rock Nine, made people live up to that law. Another example: I personally have deep objections to the No Child Left Behind Act, but I understand why it happened: previous reports about the weakness of our schools had been ignored by those in education -- NCLB was created to have teeth: monetary teeth. Now there are threats it will be extended to higher education, and true to form, higher education is ignoring the threat of the hammer.

That's why I was favored, in principle, Isaac's offhand suggestion of lawsuits against arts organizations who lack diversity: it creates a financial punishment that is bigger than the feared risk of diversifying the season. It bares teeth. But I think there is a better and less litigious way, and it also involves money. After all, most of the fear about diversity is economic -- what if we build it and They don't come? So I think a major grantmaker -- perhaps the NEA initially, to symbolically blaze the trail for other major grantmakers like, say Doris Duke -- should set a policy that they will only fund grant applications from arts organizations if they achieve a certain level of diversity in hiring, in casting, in play selection. I'd go further: they will only fund theatres who include in their mainstage season a play written in the past five years by a playwright who falls into some definition of diversity (race, gender, sexual orientation, geography, class, educational background -- the definition would be created according to the values of the funding organization), and it has to be a play that hasn't yet been produced by a Broadway or major Off-Broadway company or won any major awards (e.g., the Pulitzer).

The hammer must come from without, because we don't seem to be able to effectively wield it against ourselves. We need to be "encouraged" to follow our professed values. Seth Godin wrote in Tribes, "When you fall in love with a system you lose the ability to grow." That's where we're at right now. We have ignored our faith in order to follow our religion, i.e., our institutional system.

Tom Loughlin was right yesterday when he posted the clip from Northern Lights and noted "the demographics of the audience. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if theatre like this existed across the United States in communities from coast to coast?" Indeed, it would. And it would be wonderful if the plays they were watching had a connection to their culture, their place, their sense of being. But as long as we are fearful about stepping outside the system, as long as there is no negative ramifications for staying comfortably inside the box, we don't seem to be capable of doing the right thing.


99 said...

Hear, hear. Your final line reminds me of that great Reinhold Niehbur quote: "Man's capacity for justice makes democracy possible, but man's inclination to injustice makes democracy necessary." The same basic thing can be said about diversity. I've been kind of rocked back on my heels at the level of resistance, from all corners on this issue. If fully integrating the arts is this hard, what hope is there for the rest of our society?

A Good Husband said...

Forcing Arts orgs to integrate is...well, I don't like coercion. If you force a theatre company to do plays written in the last five years, written by a minority, that hasn't won an award, and hasn't been produced on Broadway - you're basically telling a theatre company that one of their productions must lose money each season. While many shows will lose money, and administrators know that they'll lose money, you're killing the artistic choices of that theatre.

I think that if we raise the chorus enough and theatre companies start listening, then social change will be affected. Devon Smith, a grad student at Yale, has been publishing some amazing data on how the LORT theatres around the country are using social media to engage with audiences. Changes conversations at that level could have the effect of social change.


Adam said...

Most of these are non-profit theatres, losing money on an individual production is part of the deal.

Plus you're assuming that those award winning plays written by white guys 20 years ago automatically "make" money.

They don't.

Thomas Garvey said...

But why not call for an NEA grant to cover the losses on risky, "diversity" plays, Good Husband? I'm not crazy about having the NEA only fund the kind of shows the diversity cabal would approve of - like you, I tend to be suspicious of virtuous coercion. But there's nothing offensive in principle with incentive grants. The question I suppose with "diversity grants" would be policing corruption and mediocrity - the "Sarah Ruhl Problem." But then lots of mediocre plays get produced anyway! Of course at least in Boston, arts foundation funding already flows inevitably to proponents of diversity. You have to be Harvard or the BSO to get money based solely on artistic merit. All the poorer white guys and gals have to link their programs to diversity one way or another. So what the hell, why not have one more incentive grant specifically for playwrights? Maybe that will unlock the gate to utopia, oh yeah.