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A Different Case For Diversity

Tuesday, January 12, 2010 Leave a Comment

I wanted to follow up on an idea introduced in my post on Anna Deveare Smith's Let Me Down Easy because I need to lay some groundwork for my contributions later in the week to Isaac's project on TDF's Outrageous Fortune.

Most approaches to encouraging greater diversity in theatre stem from moral or practical imperatives:
-A community should have its full cultural diversity represented by its cultural institutions
-If theatre does not diversify its audience base, it will continue to shrink in vitality
-The field should fairly represent artists regardless of race, class, gender, etc.

These are strong, compelling arguments, but they could apply to any art form; in fact, they could apply to any civic communal activity (and I think they do).

But what if there were an aesthetic case for diversity, unique to how theatre works? That would serve as a rebuttal to what 99 Seats calls the "quality dodge", and provide a theatre-specific motivation to diversity.

This case rests in the ideas put forward on my post on Quantum Darwinism. In brief, the audience's perception serves as a crucible of each moment, evolving the actor towards the fittest choice. If this is true, then the audience becomes extremely important in increasing the vitality of every play and theatre as a whole.

So what kind of audience is best able to provide the most piercing kind of perception? What kind of audience can best evolve a play in the moment of its playing?

In my post on Let Me Down Easy, I argue that it is an audience of diverse perceptions. Perception is influenced by the blunt objects of race, gender, age, sexuality, geography and class; but also by the subtler influences of self-selecting cultural identities. An audience of science fiction fans will react differently than an audience of Wagner's Ringnuts. An audience of die-hard Red Sox fans brings in a different set of expectations than an audience of born again Christians. And as all of these experiences, passions, and identities overlap in a single individual, giving rise to their unique perception; so does a group of these individuals create an audience of diverse perceptions; and I believe an audience with the greatest diversity of perception leads to the most powerful theatrical experience.

It's easy to see how: an older audience member will laugh at the Woodstock era joke that the younger might miss. The devout audience member responds to the character of faith without the judgement of the atheist. And so in an audience of diverse perceptions, it's as if each member has grown more ears. They are able of catching things as a group they would miss as individuals. And what they do catch collectively is amplified by a diversity of contrasting responses.

In this scenario, the actor isn't preaching to the choir or hollering over the town hall but somewhere in between; and will naturally elevate their performance because of the diversity of perception bearing down on it.

What kind of play is best suited to create and engage this kind of audience? A play with a similar diversity of perception. To diversify our audience we must diversify our plays. One of Shakespeare's eeriest abilities is to disappear behind characters of wildly different perceptions, none of which can be said to be wholly right. Writing for an audience that was as diverse in perception as Elizabethan London, Shakespeare smashes together the worlds of nobles, rude mechanicals, fairies, and lovers into a single play.

So a truly diverse theatre wouldn't say, everyone is welcome; a truly diverse theatre would say, everyone is necessary.