Thursday, June 23, 2016

John Malveaux: Malesha Taylor: Is Your Theatre Only “Diverse and Inclusive” Twice a Year?

Malesha Jessie Taylor and Jessye Norman

John Malveaux of 

See soprano Malesha Jessie Taylor pictured with legendary Grammy opera singer Jessye Norman and article sharing Malesha's thoughts about expanding the audience for opera . I have been privileged to know Malesha since she was a senior vocal student at USC. Malesha has been a street performer and she has sung with Los Angeles, San Francisco, and San Diego Opera on the west coast.  Ms Norman was kind to share some time with me following a concert at Detroit Opera House some years ago.


Malesha Jessie Taylor

February 20, 2016

I am not known for throwing around “the race card.” But every now and then, it’s thrown on me, especially in the arts. And, when I took a position in building new audiences, but only for the black plays, things really hit home. After this experience, I would like to help devise the best practices in new audience development, and suggest beginning with genuine community engagement. But it took working this job I describe below, to get me here.
I was given a ten-week, remote position with a regional theatre company that was funded through a major foundation that seeks to provide models for new and diverse audience development. My job was to get people of color in the seats and mingle with the community and promote plays. To start, I was in a mindset of “audience development,” but soon discovered my best approach would be to be in a mindset of genuine community engagement. I gave people the impression that my position was permanent. I met people at the door who were coming to the theatre for the first time. I hosted events at the nearby bar and represented the theatre at civic events to demonstrate genuine reciprocity. But I was also conflicted. Was my job ultimately about sales and meeting diversity numbers? Once this temporary position ended, I was worried about how the arts sector would really handle this shift from audiences of historical white-privilege, to audiences for everyone. I would like to help solve this problem by sharing my personal takeaways from this job.
  1. Why do so many theatre companies and foundations launch these temporary “diversity initiatives” and then expect to activate long-term systematic change? Relationships take time to build, and my relationship with the community was cut off within a matter of weeks. The 100 business cards I passed out in that temporary position, were already null and void. What kind of message does that send to potential subscribers, the theatre’s diversity council, and the community? If the arts sector is really serious about developing relationships with communities of color specifically, then it has to be a sustained and genuine relationship—not just at moments when tickets can be sold to target specific communities.
  2. Diversity can’t just be about numbers. After working in that position, I began to further realize that the urgent call for diversity seems to primarily be about data and revenue. In an article in the LA Daily Times, an arts leader states: “it is an economic imperative for the performing arts to diversify…What is onstage, in the audience, backstage and in the board rooms should look like America…It’s extremely important for the arts to be relevant…If we don’t look like America, we can’t expect to have ticket buyers and patrons in the future.” The keywords here for me are, “economic imperative,” “ticket buyers,” and “patrons.” And I understand money keeps theatres open. But I think there is something huge missing here. I would suggest we return to making art about the human condition, about human experiences, and simply strive to move human beings. We are already a diverse society with millions of diverse stories. It just looks like we aren’t comfortable hearing from everyone for some reason. And now that demographics are shifting, many are worried about keeping their jobs. I suggest we evaluate motives more closely.
  3. I believe that revenue (an audience) is a result of genuine community engagement. According to Wikipedia: “Community engagement refers to the process by which community benefit organizations (which most theatres are) and individuals build ongoing, permanent relationships for the purpose of applying a collective vision for the benefit of a community.” Can the theatre see itself as a benefit to the community and not the other way around? If the community is to be reflected in the theatre, and the community is in fact diverse, why not simply engage in an organic relationship with the community and let the diversity in the audience be a result of that engagement?    
Comments received by John Malveaux:

1) from Dr. Zanaida Robles
"This is outstanding. I re-posted on Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn  Much love and thanks to Malesha Jessie Taylor and John Malveaux‪#‎truth‬ "

2) from James Bryant
"A very insightful article, John.  Thanks for sharing it".

3) from James V. Burks
Thank you for the article. I attended a benefit performance in Augusta, Georgia last October for the Jessye Norman School that featured several of my colleagues. I love the article by Malesha as it has a great bearing on the work I am instituting for the Vision Theater today. 

Thanks again for all of your thought provoking articles. 

No comments: