We spend so much time these days (and rightfully so) trying to understand who our audience members are. Who is in the audience watching theatre? There are meetings, entire committees even, dedicated to getting to know the community, the audience that a particular theatre company serves. Along with examining who a theatre company's season serves, we also begin to get an idea of the communities that not served by the work that is produced, who are often ignored and pushed to the fringe. A fair portion of the theatre that I have seen during my lifetime reflects similar stories about similar people dealing with similar problems. No doubt they are meaningful productions for the audience members who connect with the content of the play, but what about the members of that community that are waiting to be engaged, to encounter people onstage that they recognize, that grapple with the same struggles they do? According to the Broadway Theatre League's website, the average household yearly income of a Broadway theatregoer was reported to be $186,500. Although this statistic specifically applies to Broadway theatres, I think it's pretty safe to say that it represents a nation-wide issue with who can attend the theatre. It is a complex issue, one stoked by all kinds of factors: political, cultural, and economic. Almost every theatre I have worked with is asking itself the question "How can we diversify our audience? How do we attract more young people? How can we provide lower cost tickets?" All good questions, no easy solution.
So. The theatre has yet to find a way to diversify its audience sitting in the seats. That we know, However, I think that there's also a problem backstage, which leads to my question....
Who's making the theatre that the audience watches? I believe that just as we need to be mindful of inviting the entire community as our audience, we need to take a closer look at who is being invited to take part in making the theatre they come to see. I am worried by the fact that the pool of actors, designers, writers, and teaching artists in this field seems to be one that feels uncomfortably small. I know many hardworking peers who are incredibly talented and passionate about the work they do, that are finding it hard to afford to work in the theatre. Anyone who has tried to land a job in the theatre is well acquainted with the amount of internships, many unpaid. While these opportunities will no doubt be an invaluable learning experience, they won't pay your rent. Being someone who has had to turn down half a dozen teaching artist gigs since graduating with my Master's degree two years ago, I am familiar with the frustration many of you might feel. We have the knowledge and experience for a variety of jobs in our field, but simply because we have rent to pay, we carry school loan debt, or have families and children whom we would like to care for as best we can, we don't get to play the game? It seems a shame and a massive systemic problem that so many artists are not given the opportunity to make a living in the arts simply because we cannot afford to work unpaid or take a position that is only ten hours a week. I know a few people as well who have gained an impressive amount of footing in the theatre, and while they have undeniably worked hard for the successes they have, they have also had the luxury of being able to afford to take an unpaid internship or a part-time job. Don't mistake me, I'm not asking for a free pass, I'm only asking for equal opportunity to get to work hard and prove myself.
I don't know the solution, but I do feel that funding, both public and private, needs to be part of the solution. I don't know the first step to take, but I do know that I am starting to focus more of my energy in this field on fighting for equity for everyone. I don't want to call the theatre elitist, but I do know that we need to establish a new model for the arts, one that practices what it preaches: that we are all human, our stories are all worthy of being told, and we all have a place at the table of the human experience.
Anyone else struggling with being able to afford to work in the theatre? Maybe more importantly, any ideas about a new model for the arts in this country?
Check out a few links below, all interesting takes on who is making and attending the theatre in the U.S: