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New York-based Broadway, Off-Broadway, US, and international theater producer and journalist Cindy Sibilsky gives theater a health check and offers her prognosis…
In March, the pandemic shattered the live entertainment world like the aftermath of a bull in a porcelain shop. Ever since, along with many others, I have been seeking answers to the questions of when and how our industry will return.
To that end, in the virtual world I’ve attended global conferences, symposiums, and meetings in the hope of shedding light on those concerns. But while I left with meaningful connections, fascinating investigations, and a deep sense of a community with collective struggles and desires, clear and solid answers were never forthcoming.
Those questions seem almost as elusive as the meaning of life – with about as many retorts from the so-called experts across the industry. While no one has a crystal ball, there have been some invaluable insights on how theater could come back, and perhaps more importantly, how it should come back.
Top Theater Professionals Reflect on What Was, Is, and Could Be
Broadway Producer Ken Davenport’s annual Theater Makers Summit had a landmark year. Over three days, 103 top theater professionals from Broadway, the US, and around the world assembled virtually and participated in 28 live-streamed panels and dialogues for around 1000 attendees.
The topics of interest ranged from collaboration to touring, and from making money through live-streaming to writing a pandemic-proof play.
Participants certainly had a lot to say – and some keywords and terms used in the chats and panels were “pivoting,” “building back,” and “safety.” Several panels were devoted to concerns about diversity, equality, and inclusion.
Before Broadway, It Begins Young and Locally
Broadway and NYC residents tend to have a hard time seeing beyond the bright lights of Times Square. But around 65% of the nearly 14 million Broadway theatre-goers are tourists, 19% of them are foreign, the rest from around the US. A remarkable number until you consider this staggering figure — 50 million is the audience for school shows, most of which repeat the same stagnant material.
Julie Cohen Theobald, Executive Director of the Educational Theatre Association, offered a challenge, “We need new material. Meaty, substantial (but school-age friendly), large casts, BIPOC centric/diverse, with plenty of roles for girls.”
Quiana Clark-Roland, Executive Director of American Association of Community Theatre, who represents over 1,300 individuals and organizations across America, added, “If you are a playwright creating work that is COVID-compliant, please submit your work!”
But it’s hard to demand diverse representation when youths and communities outside of major cities (and many in them) still don’t have access to the arts. “Diversity is still low,” noted Producer Randy Buck, recalling an open video casting submission for the musical Tootsie that proved lacking in terms of who submitted. “The need is to get kids exposed young and early to the theater.”
With access to revolutionary shows like Hamilton now streaming on Disney+, the demand for productions that reflect the faces, stories, and tastes of the melting pot of Americans and visitors alike will only increase. Representation on stages and audiences will diversify if quality work that showcases the myriad human experience is produced and presented.
Diverse Voices Offer New Insights and Fresh Perspectives
So what do diverse theater-makers themselves have to say?
Shakina Nayfack, an actor, writer, producer, director, and activist who works in theatre and television, says, “I think mainstream theatre has been lacking the bravery it takes to challenge the status quo. The shows we talk about forever, the ones that remain iconic and canonical; those are shows that pushed the boundaries of what the art form can be. I think we need to be relentless when it comes to reflecting society in a way that challenges our audiences (and ourselves) to be better humans.”
At Theater Makers Summit, Ben Brantley, the recently retired New York Times lead theater critic for 27 years, commended ground-breaking shows like RENT, Hamilton, and Fun Home for being unique offerings that opened doors and changed how musical theater is viewed.
But Shakina noted other obstacles, “Theatre has to revolutionize if it aims to be relevant in a post-COVID area. Aside from the calls for diversity on stage and at all levels of production, which I fully support, I also hope Broadway can find a way to be more accessible to low-income folks and young people.”
Kristine Bendul is an Adjunct Professor for the Theatre Arts Daily Dance program at Marymount Manhattan College. She began as a classical ballerina who successfully crossed over to Broadway, TV/film, concert and ballroom dance, and is also a writer/director/choreographer.
Bendul echoed some of Shakina’s concerns: “Broadway has a responsibility to come back with more diversity and inclusivity – not just onstage within the casting, but with the creative teams and audience members as well. Ticketing price points keep the Broadway experience at arm’s length for so many people and communities that would benefit greatly from experiencing live theatre. The arts are invaluable in any healthy society.”
She added: “Mainstream theatre has become so reliant on Hollywood’s influence. Integrity has become elusive. I would like to be optimistic that it finds its way back into the mainstream once again.”
Mirirai Sithole facilitates human experiences through authentic connection, sovereign collaboration via the medium of the performing arts. She feels mainstream theater is missing holistic wellness practices in the rehearsal room and production meetings. “I also think a recognition of other artistic ‘streams’ that are not ‘main’ or aren’t typical collaborators (i.e. working with the fashion or sports industry for cross-market promotion) would be a welcome change.” Other improvements would be a more inclusive and diverse group of people sitting in the producer, director, and writer seats, Mirirai noted.
Such wellness practices, care, and consideration for artists on all levels could make a profound difference, if integrated. “I think in order for Theater to come back better those that uphold the institutions have to acknowledge all artists and their contributions on a fiscal and emotional well-being level,” Mirirai reflected, “I believe that the commercial model of Broadway and even non-profit Off-Broadway is unsustainable for the health and well-being of the artists that facilitate these experiences due to wages and the increase in necessary weeks needed to gain health insurance.”
Adham Hafez, from Cairo, Egypt, teaches Movement Theory at New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts. He is a practicing choreographer and theorist, engaged with colonial history, climate change, and gender representation in performance.
As a teacher to the next generation of international performers and creators, he reflects, “There is a generation of digital natives, people who were born in a world that is mediated by the internet and socially connected online. That generation will use Zoom, Instagram, or other tools to develop more than what we have today. We are witnessing a change of what performance could be at times of radical historical ruptures. This generation has the tools to mend the seams. It needs our faith, support, and collaborative energy.
“What is missing in commercial theatre or Broadway is a sense of diversity that truly reflects the immigrant and diaspora communities here,” Adham continued, “It is a whole other subjectivity, biography, and cultural context to be an immigrant but not a citizen. And there are millions of those people here. We need to speak to them and dance and sing with them.”
Ellpetha Tsivicos and Camilo Quiroz-Vazquez (One Whale’s Tale) are multidisciplinary artists who successfully created live, COVID-safe theatre in New York City. They feel mainstream theater is lacking “diversity both racial and economical.”
“The gatekeepers of mainstream theater (producers and creators) are not only predominantly white, but they are also often wealthy,” they explained, “Most Americans are not wealthy, and when there is no economic diversity among creators, it leads to the creation of work that lacks a deep cultural connection and promotes the idea that theater is irrelevant in America.”
As for their vision of a better Broadway? “When Broadway and theatre at large returns, it would be amazing to see a new generation of voices and creators truly be allowed to lead without being tokenized. Theatre can be essential, but it must prove itself so, or it will be forever thought of as superfluous.”
The Pulse of Theater: Not Dead Yet, But in Need of Rehabilitation
The assumption that diversity only applies to those on stage or behind the scenes is limited and outdated. Being the change you want to see involves everyone. The work should be able to touch the elite and masses equally.
A pretty accurate metaphor for the theater industry, particularly Broadway, post-mid-March 2020 is that it had a bad accident and got stuck in a coma. Is it terminal? Thankfully, no. But it will take a lot of rehabilitation, relearning, and recovery.
Survivors of the worst kind of trauma have spoken about a new lease of life following a major tragedy or loss. Perhaps something similar can happen for theater on Broadway and across America if we are ready, willing, and able to support meaningful and lasting changes that are long overdue.
Cindy Sibilsky is a Broadway, Off-Broadway, and international theatre producer, writer, and journalist focusing on meaningful global cultural exchange. Website: www.injoyentertainment.com, Instagram: @injoyentertainment