Does diversity sell theater tickets?

In the wake of the recent controversy over the Guthrie Theater’s upcoming season, the arts unit here at MPR was left with a few nagging questions.

The debate revolved around the need to sell tickets (approximately 2,000 a night), and determining which shows would manage to do that. Artistic Director Joe Dowling stated that he only looks at the quality of the play and the talent of the director when planning his season; he does not look at the gender or color of the people doing the writing or the directing.

That left us wondering – how important is diversity to the audience? Would knowing that a play was written by a woman or a person of color sway their attendance? How about the director?

Using MPR’s Public Insight Network, we sent out a query asking these questions and a few others.

Answers tended to fall into one of two categories: “I appreciate and seek out diversity in my theater experience” or “I buy tickets based on reviews, and don’t really think about who wrote the play or is directing.”

While the results are too small to be statistically conclusive, we found the answers enlightening. Here’s a sampling:

Would knowing that the author or director of a play was a woman influence your decision to go? Please tell us why or why not:

Dollis Scheele of Green Isle:

Yes. I am a woman and would like to see a wide diversity of choices in actors, directors, stage designers, costumes etc. If you do not attend plays with minority leadership they will soon be unemployed.

Kaohly Her of St. Paul:

I think that women and minorities bring a different perspective to theater. I seek opportunities to support plays directed by people who are generally under represented groups. BTW, I like to seek out plays that reflect different cultural perspective but also my own cultural perspective. Likewise, I prefer to see plays are familiar to me but I also love plays that are also new.

I have two young girls so the plays I attend are no longer just for my enjoyment. Seeing the classics are important (Cats, Les Miserable, etc…) but seeing smaller shows that are educational, that speak to our cultural heritage, deal with social justice issues, are thought provoking and educational are really important to me.

Aditi Kapil of Minneapolis:

Trick question: it depends on which woman. most of my favorite local directors are women, so in that sense yes. Just a female director on the basis of gender alone, no. But I do expect from female directors a greater interpretive boldness, an inventiveness that comes from having a new perspective, particularly when dealing with classics, so maybe… I’m more likely to go to a familiar classic play when directed through the lens of Lisa Peterson or Michelle Hensley.

Q: Would knowing that the author or director of a play was a person of color influence your decision to go?

Eric Pone of Brooklyn Center:

I don’t want to relive bad times in my life. As an African American, I get tired of the same civil rights, social justice, why don’t Black men value Black women plays. I want to be entertained I don’t want an agenda thrown at me. How about an action oriented African tale, or any other cultural tale. I love Macbeth but c’mon there are other countries!

As for the Guthrie, I have always wanted to go to their new space, but the shows they pick frankly, been there done that. The Guthrie is for the wealthy corporate executives and their wives who have a lot of money and want shows that appeal to them. I don’t feel that the Guthrie is geared toward the middle class. I certainly don’t feel that welcomed as a Black male. Maybe that is just their niche.

Heid Erdrich of Minneapolis:

When I go to a play, I am seeking what is lacking in readily available dramatic art forms, such as film. I am seeking voice and presence and I am more interested in the voice and presence of women and people of color than I am in the established voice and vision of regularly represented artists.

I go to the theater to be transported. To examine artistic choices. To be moved by passionate voices that both touch on my own worldview and interrogate it. To have a special evening out. To understand other artists and other people better. To feel human pity and wonder. To enter a conversation about art.

Minnesotans hold strong opinions about theater–we are so lucky we can! There’s enormous talent here, too, but the divide between what the people love and what gets supported for the larger stages is enormous, a gulf that many of us see and increasingly find harder to cross for production value alone.

Thomas Noerper of St. Paul:

Yes. I might be suspicious that the play is produced not for the quality of the writing, but to “give voice” to diverse peoples. I’m glad that is done, but I spend my time and money for the highest quality experience I can have. That is primary to me.

What else should we know about this topic?

Markeeta Keyes of Brooklyn Center:

There is a defined demographic of individuals that attend Guthrie plays. The customers or the plays don’t tend to reflect my culture. Risk taking is key, yet unchartered here in terms or race/women’s issues. The plays at the Guthrie are great, it’s a great idea to draw more people of color and diverse backgrounds, by a diversification of play type and actors/actresses. I LOVE the Guthrie and most plays I’ve seen there.

Elizabeth Leaf of Red Wing:

I have lived my life in Minnesota and have gone to theater productions and been a part of productions since the age of 5. As a person of color one of the great things about theater is that it is not restrictive to age, race, gender or sexual orientation. I grew up in a community that was restricted in its ideas of diversity. Theater is always a way to break stereotypes. I’m now 41 and can see how much support is needed for actors/writers/directors that produce plays that are not what we expect to see.

Why do you go to the theater? Would knowing the playwright or director was a woman or a person of color sway your decision? How so? Share your responses in the comments section.