Diversify the stage to bring in bigger audiences

Queens is touted as the most culturally and ethnically diverse county in America, even in the entire world, yet you wouldn’t know it from what is typically offered on its stages. Local theater producers often say that the plays they select are what their audiences want to see. Audience attendance, however, is dwindling and even attracting enough actors to fill the roles can be a challenge.

Traditionally most plays have been written by white males with characters to be portrayed by white actors. But if you check the latest census data or just look around you, it’s clear that our population is a horse of a different color.

In 1986, the Non-Traditional Casting Project was founded to examine problems of racial discrimination in theater, film and television. Actors’ Equity encourages producers and directors to consider women, minorities and the handicapped for roles that don’t specifically require them, but also don’t specifically exclude them.

I encourage our local theaters to give this some thought, not just because it endorses my liberal sentiments of compassion and fairness but because it will bring in new audiences and sell more tickets. Even if you continue to concentrate on the standard fare of light comedies, mysteries and decades-old plays, varied casting choices will shake things up. Better yet, choose some contemporary plays that explore life as it is today, with a wide range of characters that reflect our current demographics.

Movies, television and the commercial theater have long departed from a whites-only casting policy. Such bizarre casting as Mickey Rooney playing a Japanese tenant in “Breakfast at Tiffany’s” is now ancient history.

In theater especially, which exists more in our imagination than in literal reality, almost anything is possible. The ancient Greeks and the Elizabethans accepted men and boys as female characters, while today’s productions of classics offer a mixture of race, ethnicity and gender. And coming this spring on Broadway will be a multi-racial revival of “A Streetcar Named Desire”.

The late black playwright August Wilson argued against non-traditional casting, advocating instead for more roles to be written for people of color and other minorities. But his opinion is in the minority. Sure, the integrity of the work must be upheld — for instance, we don’t want to see an all-white “Porgy and Bess” (see the latest version, it’s great) — but most of the time diverse casting is a plus.

Perhaps more out of necessity than design, Theatre By The Bay has done some gender-bending in its March production of “Oliver!” Isabel Robin once again defies anatomy by playing Oliver Twist — she was young Patrick in “Mame” — and another young fem, Jennifer Sanchez, will be The Artful Dodger. Director Larry Bloom always likes to put a lot of people on stage — this production of “Oliver!” has a cast of 50, including 25 children.

Another suggestion to our local theaters to promote themselves is to run a play festival or two each year, such as our neighbors in Manhattan do. This month the Second Annual Midwinter-Madness Short Play Festival takes place at the Roy Arias Studios on West 43rd Street, and a couple of others are run in the summer.

So instead of complaining about the lack of an audience, let’s do something different to fill the seats. If you have any other ideas, short of securing a $25 million donation as the Signature Theatre recently got in its new digs, let me hear from you.

Contact Ron Hellman at RBH24@Columbia.edu.

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