Dunkirk NY – According to The Broadway League 2010-11 Demographic Report, the Great White Way is whiter than ever. And then some. To save you the trouble of clicking the link, here are the bullet points from the Broadway League website:
From the Executive Summary
- In the 2010-2011 season, approximately 62% of all Broadway tickets were purchased by tourists.
- Sixty-five percent of the audiences were female.
- The average age of the Broadway theatregoer was 44 years, older than in the past few seasons.
- Eighty-three percent of all tickets were purchased by Caucasian theatregoers.
- Broadway theatregoers were a very well-educated group. Of theatregoers over 25 years old, 78% had completed college and 39% had earned a graduate degree.
- The average Broadway theatregoer reported attending 5 shows in the previous 12 months.
- Playgoers tended to be more frequent theatregoers than musical attendees. The typical straight play attendee saw eight shows in the past year; the musical attendee, five.
- Fourty-four percent of respondents said they bought their tickets online.
- Bullet about the female audience deleted. (sic)
- In general, advertisements were not reported to have been influential in making the purchasing decision.
- The average Broadway theatregoer reported attending 5 shows in the previous 12 months. The group of devoted fans who attended 15 or more performances comprised only 6% of the audience, but accounted for 33% of all tickets (4.1 million admissions).
Given all the demographics we know about theatre in the US and westernized countries today, I think it’s safe to make the following conclusion: Theatre is primarily for white people, as both audience members and practitioners.
When I first saw these statistics, I got those old familiar feelings of guilt and anguish, that it’s a “bad thing” that theatre isn’t shared or enjoyed by large numbers of non-whites. I would like it to be – I would like everyone to like and enjoy theatre. I would like more white people to enjoy theatre (those numbers, although large, represent only a small fraction of the population as a whole, maybe 2% according to the NEA research on arts participation). I would like to see audiences grow, witness theatre houses full with a diverse crowd of theatre-goers. Clearly, it ain’t happening.
But then the question came to me – is it so bad to admit that theatre is for white people? White western culture has, for better or worse, risen to a dominant position in this multicultural, heterogeneous society that has evolved in this country, and because of that fact alone it is subject to criticism and the push of upward mobility from cultural forces below (at times rightfully so). But perhaps it’s just worth the few seconds it takes to stop and consider the idea that white people, like any other culture or race, deserve to have a culture and forms of art that they enjoy and that is reflective of their values and history. Theatre, as it has evolved from the Greeks, seems to be one of those cultural art forms that people of white European descent have enjoyed for a long time (and the majority of them enjoyed it until the advent of mass media). And that, in and of itself, is OK. Isn’t it?
This is not to say that other races or ethnic groups do not have theatre or do not enjoy it. But the particular form of the scripted written work as interpreted by actors in a linear story-telling fashion seems to be one that has interested western Caucasians for a long time, and apparently continues to do so for a certain demographic slice of white people as a whole.
Now am I not arguing that non-whites do not enjoy theatre and participate in it. Of course they do. But statistically speaking, on the whole, non-whites simply do not appear interested in the art form as defined above. No other race or ethnic group charts in double digit percentages either as audience members or practitioners of “legit” theatre. The question that really needs to be asked to probe these numbers more carefully is whether or not these low numbers are the result of institutional discrimination, or simply general disinterest in the art form. I suspect many people will want to believe the former, but the numbers seem to indicate that perhaps the latter is closer to reality. One aspect of this question that needs serious consideration is the economic inequality question, but even that may reveal that whites are more willing to sacrifice economic hardship to see and do theatre.
Perhaps an example will serve to illustrate the point. During the Negro League era of baseball, a sport created by Caucasians, the institution of Major League Baseball clearly discriminated against African-American players. But it was also pretty clear that African-Americans were interested in baseball – enough to form and maintain their own league as a viable business on a national level, and populate it with first-class talent.
By comparison, African-American theatre companies today are few and far between, and the non-white plays that make it to professional theatres in New York and regionally are mostly viewed by the same white patrons who like the art form. I found three different listings of African-American theatres, and none listed more that 100 theatres nationwide. Of the 20 theatres listed on the Theatre Alliance of Buffalo website, 2 (10%) are primarily African-American (Buffalo is 38.6% African-American); one exists in name only, and the other produces rarely. Nor have I seen any indication that African-Americans are dominating the audiences at The Motherfucker with the Hat, nor are Asian-Americans the majority audiences at Chinglish. All this is not by way of criticism, mind you – if the interest isn’t there, then there is nothing really to criticize. To each their own.
The thing about having a passion for something like theatre is that you really, really want to share that passion. It is difficult to accept that statistically many people out there simply don’t share your passion for or interest in theatre. They have other things they enjoy doing more. When we talk about audience development, isn’t that what we are trying to do? Get people who are fundamentally uninterested in our passion to share it with us? Statistically that doesn’t seem to be working so well, particularly among the young. Perhaps the time has come to say that theatre is what it is – an art form for older, well-off, educated white people. Nobody else is truly interested in it at the moment, because the numbers do not indicate any support for the art form beyond this small slice of the American demographic profile.
Discussions like these make people feel uneasy. Heck, I feel uneasy writing about it. I’m not even sure I am doing the right thing writing about it. But statistics, while not necessarily speaking anything one would label “the truth,” do carry a certain reality about them. For theatre, the current reality is that the art form is an art form for and about white people. This reality does not mean that crossover artists don’t exist; August Wilson is one of the most revered playwrights in modern theatre. And, just as many white people enjoy an art form like rap/hip-hop, which has its roots in African-American culture (as does jazz), many non-whites enjoy the art form of theatre. But I don’t think we should spend a lot of time wailing and gnashing our teeth anymore and feeling guilty over the constant barrage of data that indicates that theatre is a culturally Caucasian art form. We should just admit the obvious, say it’s OK, and move on – unless we can absolutely ascertain that these numbers are a result of institution discrimination. What is important is that theatre remain an open “big tent” art form, open and welcoming to all comers of whatever creed or race or nationality. -twl