Guthrie Theater’s debt to women and diversity

Guthrie Artistic Director Joe Dowling is struggling to protect his theater’s reputation after a week of outrage in the arts community over the Guthrie’s new season, which some have declared “a tragedy.”

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Stephen Yoakam as Creon in the Guthrie Theater’s production of “The Burial at Thebes” directed by Marcela Lorca. It was one of two plays directed by women in the Guthrie’s 2011-2012 season

Photo by Michael Brosilow

When the Guthrie Theater announced its 50th Anniversary season last week, the absence of women and minorities among the playwrights and directors ignited a fierce debate in the Twin Cities arts community.

Many who felt they have long been excluded from the Guthrie’s main stage – and some who haven’t – used the Guthrie’s announcement to highlight what they called the flagship theater’s failure to embrace diverse audiences. Actress Heidi Berg was among them:

To suggest that there just aren’t talented women and people of color out there this season is appalling. It isn’t as though the Guthrie’s not hiring from a national and international pool of talent. While we are accustomed to being told there aren’t enough local people qualified to fill positions in the Guthrie season, now we are to believe there aren’t enough talented women and people of color in the WORLD.

The theater’s defenders rushed to say the Guthrie was only doing what it must do to fill seats and stay on budget.

Note: The Guthrie declined to make available members of the theater’s board, on the grounds that the board has no say in the theater’s season.

Given the region’s increasingly diverse population – one the Guthrie will be pressed to cater to in coming years — the controversy might have led to a timely and thoughtful examination of the theater’s selection process.

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Christiana Clark played Oya, a talented sprinter, in Pillsbury House Theater’s production of “In the Red and Brown Water.” The play was performed at the Guthrie Theater, but not produced by it.

Image courtesy Pillsbury House Theater

Guthrie Artistic Director Joe Dowling fumbled the opportunity, at first appearing to encourage a discussion on diversity and then – despite his protests to the contrary – taking the defensive. By the end of the week, he was openly hostile to the premise that the Guthrie does not present diverse works. When asked in a recent televised interview about charges that the season suffered from a lack of women, Dowling said:

“This is a self-serving argument that doesn’t hold water.”

Underlying the artistic turmoil surrounding the Guthrie is a fundamental question: Does the theater have any obligation to present the stories of women and people of color? And if so, to what extent?

If not, at what peril is a theater that doesn’t do so, given the demographic changes transforming the nation and the Twin Cities?

In the next three decades, the seven county Twin Cities metro area will see its minority population grow to more than 40 percent of the region, nearly double the current percentage, according a recent report by the Metropolitan Council.

Michelle Hensley, Artistic Director of Ten Thousand Things theater company, and a board member of the national Theater Communications Group, put it this way:

Demographics are changing dramatically, and if the Guthrie doesn’t start making enormous efforts to reach out and engage audiences beyond aging, wealthy white people, it will be struggling to sell seats. It is absolutely in the self-interest of the Guthrie to work hard to make its audiences more inclusive.

And the way you get a more inclusive audience is for them to be able to see themselves, their stories and their perspectives on stage. Theater offers the possibility of stepping into another’s shoes and seeing the world through his or her eyes. For too long we’ve had to look the world through the eyes of white men.

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Guthrie Artistic Director Joe Dowling

Image courtesy of the Guthrie

Joe Dowling, in his own words

Joe Dowling’s wide ranging responses to criticism’s of the 50th season might appear to be the comments of a man who’s still figuring out what the issue is, and where he stands. But today’s debate cannot come as a surprise to the man who was interviewed back in 2003 for a City Pages cover story titled “A Woman’s Work is Never Done.” The entire focus of the story was the lack of women playwrights on the Guthrie stage. Here’s an excerpt:

[Dowling] readily admits that his record in the female-representation department is less than sparkling. “A lot of people sort of look at us and throw stones,” he says. “And they’re right to. I don’t object to criticism, I don’t object to the kind of inquiry [City Pages] is making, which is absolutely valid and right. Hands up,” he says, raising his arms like a bank robber. “Caught. We don’t do enough women. Yes. But I think the evidence is that we are shifting in the right direction.”

When Dylan Hicks wrote his piece for the City Pages back in 2003, a survey of the past ten seasons found that only 10 percent of the plays (7 out of 70) on Guthrie’s stages were by women.

Today, a similar look back at the number of female playwrights in the Guthrie Theater’s last ten seasons, as listed on the theater’s own website, finds it staged 111 shows, 18 of which were written by women (that’s counting two plays based on the novels of Charlotte Bronte and Jane Austen).

That means that in the past decade, 16.2 percent of the plays were written by women.

At this rate, women will make up 50 percent of the playwrights by the year 2036.

However, critics of the Guthrie will tell you that staging a play on the Wurtele thrust stage – which seats 1100 people – is not equal to staging a production in the Dowling studio, which seats less than 200. And many of the works by women or playwrights of color are being relegated to the smaller space.

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Greta Oglesby earned rave reviews on stage at the Guthrie for her role in “Caroline, Or Change” written by Tony Kushner.

Photo by Michal Daniel

The Difference a Big Building Makes

When Joe Dowling celebrated the opening of the new Guthrie Theater on the Mississippi riverfront, he had this to say:

I believe that the American resident theater movement, which was founded here in the Twin Cities with the birth of the Guthrie, now stretches from sea to shining sea in theaters all around the country. But it lacks a center,” said Dowling, “it lacks somewhere that can call itself a national center of theater art and theater education. And that is what we aim to become.

Dowling has got his wish. The Guthrie Theater is indeed a national center of theater art and theater education. And as such, the Guthrie is seen as a leader in its field. So what message is it sending to theaters across the country when it programs seasons that are dominated by white men, both as playwrights and in the director’s chair?

Last week Dowling alluded to the pressures of selling tickets when he told the Star Tribune “It is a very stern task to direct on a stage of our size, and I am responsible to the board for the shows we produce” (Point of clarification: the board does not approve the Guthrie’s season, however it does approve the theater’s budget).

So is it impossible for large theaters to stage work by women, or playwrights of color, and still balance the budget?

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James Craven, T. Mychael Rambo and Abdul Salaam El Razzac in Penumbra Theatre’s production of “Gem of the Ocean” on the Guthrie Theater’s proscenium stage

Photo: Michal Daniel

No, it’s not impossible, according to Zan Sawyer-Dailey, associate director of the Actors’ Theatre of Louisville, which programs three different stages and also runs the national Humana Festival of new plays.

She said her theater makes a concerted effort to program seasons that feature a diverse array of plays.

The community here is richly diverse – African American, Asian American, Hispanics, immigrants coming from Africa and Southeast Asia – and while they are not all a part of our audience, we are still aware that they are a part of our community and we want to make sure that they feel welcomed and embraced if they are able to come to the theater. And to that end we want to make sure that there are stories on stage about their experiences.

Sawyer-Dailey said it’s not just good theater, it’s good business:

Not because we’re making a lot of money off these populations… we see it as good business because we’re good citizens and that’s what we want to be – good citizens to our community. It’s just a responsibility, regardless of whether or not it’s going to develop a new audience.

Sawyer-Dailey admits there are challenges involved in finding and scheduling diverse work, but she says finding female directors is not one of them:

It’s not difficult to find a female director. There are lots and lots of wonderful female directors out there, I think you just have to decide that you want to have them in your season, and find the one you want who best matches whatever projects you’re interested in.

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Joe Dowling built the Guthrie Theater complex on the Mississippi River to be a center for regional theater in the nation. So what message is it sending to theaters across the country when it programs seasons that are dominated by white men?

MPR Photo/Chris Roberts

Public Funding and a Mission that includes Diversity

In the last three years the Guthrie Theater has received more than $2.2 million from the Minnesota State Arts Board alone. But the Arts Board does not make reflecting a community’s diversity a condition of funding.

Many argue that the recipient of so much public support has an obligation to reflect the diversity of the community in which it lives. Twin Cities theater director Ben Layne wrote in an open letter to Joe Dowling that the season announcement reflects a lack of recognition of the current climate:

There is a real political war going on over Women’s rights, right now, on the campaign trail and in the halls of federal and state houses of government. There is still racism alive and well and at the forefront of national news, due in part to the Trayvon Martin killing in Florida. The Guthrie is in a unique position to speak to these issues and more. As the old adage goes, “with great power comes great responsibility.” That you doubled down on these choices in your comments to the Star Tribune last week and to TPT this weekend is troubling.

In fact the Guthrie Theater’s own mission mentions diversity:

The Guthrie Theater, founded in 1963, is an American center for theater performance, production, education and professional training. By presenting both classical literature and new work from diverse cultures, the Guthrie illuminates the common humanity connecting Minnesota to the peoples of the world.

The Guthrie does occasionally present work of diverse cultures, but not to the extent that critics would like. And often time “presenting” means giving one of its stages over to Penumbra Theatre or Mu Performing Arts, local theater companies that specialize telling the stories of specific cultures.

The Guthrie has also received funding from the National Endowment for the Arts. On two occasions it was awarded $20,000 for specific productions – Burial at Thebes, directed by Guthrie’s only resident female director, Marcela Lorca, and M. Butterfly, written by Asian-American David Henry Hwang. So even the Guthrie Theater recognizes that when applying for grants, diversity is key.

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A scene from the Guthrie Theater production of “The Master Butchers Singing Club” written by Marsha Norman, based on the novel by Louise Erdrich, and directed by Francesca Zambello.

Photo by Michal Daniel

A Self-Fulfilling Prophecy and a National Problem

Many critics point to the Guthrie as the cause of its own problems. Bonnie Schock, one-time Artistic Director of the former Twin Cities theater company Three Legged Race, said there are fewer “high profile” female and minority directors and playwrights because institutions of power and privilege such as the Guthrie are consistently failing to challenge the cultural assumptions that support that power and privilege.

It is the responsibility of our cultural institutions – particularly those that find themselves in the position of controlling a substantial piece of the region’s resources – to use their position to lead. And leadership is hard. Leadership means investing in the future; it means intentionally creating opportunity for those who have historically been denied opportunity.

When asked about the pool of diverse and female playwrights available to major theaters, Jeremy Cohen, Director of the Playwrights’ Center in Minneapolis rattles off an impressive list of names.

We’re now seeing the spotlight shine on such incredible talents as Quiara Alegria Hudes, Lynn Nottage, Sarah Ruhl, Marcus Gardley, Lydia Diamond, Amy Herzog, Qui Nguyen, Young Jean Lee, Tanya Saracho, Christina Anderson, Kate Fodor, Tanya Barfield, Annie Baker, Kia Corthron, Carson Kreitzer and Theresa Rebeck — with productions in NYC and around the country.

And for the theatres around the country like Centerstage, Mixed Blood, Berkeley Rep, Ten Thousand Things, Victory Gardens, Children’s Theatre Company, Cornerstone, and the countless others who are producing a truer and more accurate reflection not only of our country…but of the world…they will be the leaders we look to, that we take our children to for inspiration and reflection, and that offer us a visceral experience unlike any other.

According to Cohen currently more than 50 percent of the Playwrights’ Center’s core writers and fellows are women and/or playwrights/theater artists of color.

Making theater more inclusive is a national challenge according to Teresa Eyring, the Executive Director of Theatre Communications Group, the national organization for American theater.

Diversity is one of our core values; we believe that the theater field should be diverse and inclusive. What I say now and really believe is that the theater field should be striving to model the world we want to see, not reflecting the parts of the world around us that are lagging behind.

Eyring says a number of major theaters across the country need to be more inclusive, and she believes they are aware of the problem. She says the particular difficulties those institutions face are determined, in part, by the character of the institution itself and the community it resides in.