By Brad Erickson
Earlier this month, the Academy Awards were presented in Hollywood under a cloud of controversy, even anguish. As anyone who hasn’t spent the last year in outer space must know, for the second year in a row, nominees for the Academy’s most high-profile awards were all Caucasian. That announcement set off an immediate and explosive outcry that continues to reverberate.
While the Oscars put Hollywood’s lack of inclusion at the top of the news cycle for weeks, the truth is the film industry has been sorely lacking in diversity for—well—forever. Given the attention that the topic of inclusion has been given within the American theatre sector, some in our community might have been tempted to enjoy a twinge of schadenfreude over the controversy. At least we’re not as bad as they are!
Maybe we are and maybe we aren’t (though I think it’s arguable theatre is at least a few steps further down the path of inclusion than our big-screen cousins), but the renewed attention to diversity can give everyone in the performing arts an opportunity to reflect, again, on the question: “inclusion—what is it good for?”
Many of the arguments put forward come from a social justice perspective, often framed something like this: Z Group (an underrepresented demographic) make up X percent of the total population of the United States, but only Y percent (an appallingly low number) of the total number of theatre-makers (artists, administrators or leaders, depending on the study). Clearly this is unjust, and something must be done—now—to bring the numbers of Z Group theatre-makers to full parity. As Viola Davis, the first black woman to win an Emmy, put it at that award event last year, “You cannot win an Emmy for roles that are simply not there.”
The argument is strong and difficult to refute. And rarely does anyone try, at least directly. What might be heard, in terms of pushback, is the need for time, for evolutionary change, for more Z Group theatre-makers in the “pipeline.” But almost no one says that the argument is false, that Z Group theatre-makers shouldn’t be fully represented in the American theatre. We just need a chance to get there, some say.
There is another argument for inclusion, one that is at least as powerful as inequity in employment, and that is what it means for the audience to see a fully inclusive world on our stages. If the point is raised, it is generally from the perspective of how important it is to recognize ourselves, our own experiences, our own communities on stage. It’s a potent assertion, to be sure. “Social bonding,” as researcher Alan Brown explains in his research on intrinsic impact, is hugely important for us as humans. Personally, I remember what it meant for me to come to San Francisco in the mid-1980’s and see, for the first time, gay and lesbian people portrayed on stage, at Theatre Rhinoceros—the only LGBT venue in town, and one of the only in the nation, at the time. It was transforming.
An argument we could hear more of is how important it is for all of us, from every demographic and psychographic group, to see on stage the lives of people who are not like ourselves. In an interview last year for Theatre Communications Group, Impact Theatre’s artistic director, Melissa Hillman, was asked by playwright Jacqueline Lawton, “What is the most significant challenge—or opportunity—facing the world, and what difference can theatre make?” Hillman replied, “Empathy. Empathy. Empathy. Lack of empathy underlies literally every social ill: racism and bigotry, misogyny, economic oppression, homophobia, transphobia, fatphobia, Islamophobia, you name it. War, income disparity, rape—every kind of violence, every kind of injustice.” She added that, as theatre-makers, “We run this. Empathy is at the core of what we do as storytellers...and stories create empathy.” Bill English, artistic director of SF Playhouse (producer of this year’s Will Glickman Award-winning play), tells audiences during his curtain speech at the top of every performance that the theatre is an “empathy gym,” affording us all a chance to meet and feel the lives of characters who are very unlike ourselves.
Alan Brown would call this “social bridging,” bringing people from one context closer to people in another. Try Googling “theatre empathy” and see the number of studies (not issued by theatre professionals) that link increased empathy directly to theatre experiences. Some of these studies point to “mirror neurons,” nerve cells that make it possible for us to understand what another person is feeling and intending. When caught up in riveting narrative experience, our mirror neurons are shooting rapid-fire messages to our brains, which respond as if we ourselves were actually involved in the story. Our mirror neurons make the phrase, “I know how you feel,” literally true, and our art form is one that makes that experience possible.
When asking, “inclusion—what is it good for?” empathy might be the most powerful response of all.
Brad Erickson is executive director of Theatre Bay Area.