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Equity in the Arts

I stood, sipping on a can of coke, by the food table – my designated spot, my haven - whenever I go to one of my mom’s work parties. Laughter and conversations swirled around me as I swallowed a gulp of soda, the burn it left in my throat distracting me from catching any of the latest work gossip. Before I could shove a piece of chicken I had plucked off from a serving plate into my mouth, I was joined by a woman with an eager smile.

“So, you’re Arlene’s son?” she asked, putting a hand on her chin, the expensive gold watch on her wrist glinting and catching the light from the sun.

“Yes,” I nodded.

“What do you do?”

“I work in theater as-”

“Oh,” she answered with a quick nod before turning around and walking towards my mom. I sent a glare towards her retreating back, the piece of chicken still hanging halfway to my now open mouth. My mom is a nurse. She’s worked at Johns Hopkins in Baltimore for a few years. Her work parties include almost exclusively other nurses, doctors, surgeons, hospital staff, and sometimes their loved ones. Coming from a family with a long line of people in the medical field, I’ve grown accustomed to being in such an environment,  but being in a room of mostly strangers, I was reminded yet again that I lived in a completely different world from them. I tried to eavesdrop on my mom’s conversation with her co-workers. They were talking about my brother and his application process to med school and his recent job as a research assistant at Columbia. I was struck with how my mom talked about my brother’s work with such ease and how open she was about sharing it. Meanwhile, the most she’s ever said about me and my work could be boiled down to a sentence I’ve heard her say time and time again: “Christopher is doing theater in New York.” I “do theater.” I couldn’t help but wonder what that meant to other people. Most of the time, people just assume that means you’re a performer, but that’s not all I do. Whenever someone hears that I “do theater,” I always have this impulse to explain myself, like I’m doing now by writing this- to explain that my work is meaningful even if I were just a performer. It seems like whenever I talk to someone who isn’t in the field, they give me this look like I’m wasting my time, but I don’t know that I’m wasting my time- like they know something I don’t, but they don’t want to be the one to break the news to me- like they pity me for doing something inconsequential.

I sat fuming for a while, keeping to myself and eating my feelings at the food table. I felt someone sidle up next to me and before I could brace myself to have another pointless conversation, I look up to see one of my mom’s longtime friends.

“Hi, Chris. How’s New York?” she asked me.

“It’s good.”

“Have you seen any shows you loved lately?”

We’ve shared these conversations before. Before becoming a nurse, she was involved in the theater scene in the Philippines where she went to university. She’s told me stories about her time working as a stage crew for shows and even acting as a producer at times, knowing deep down, she’s always wanted to be a performer. I remember one holiday party where she took the mic and captured the room’s attention while she sung karaoke. She spent the rest of the night perched in front of the machine, picking song after song, leaving a melodic background noise while the party continued around her. No one complained. Out of all of my mom’s friends and co-workers, she always takes the time to talk to me whenever I’m at these parties.

“Isn’t Miss Saigon back on Broadway?” she asked excitedly. My heart drops- the conversations surrounding Miss Saigon rolling in my head one after another. I was overcome with anxiety wondering where this could possibly go.

“I saw it a few years ago and it was amazing.” My heart races even more as I start to think about what I could possibly say. Do I ask her if she saw the original production with Jonathan Pryce and what she thought of yellow face? Do I ask her what she thinks about a narrative that presents yet another white savior? Or do I ask her opinion on the portrayal of Asian women in the show? Or do I just nod along and not say anything and keep a peaceful conversation to avoid embarrassing my mom?

“It’s amazing to watch someone who looks like me up there on that stage, you know?” My heart stills. In my head I go back to where I was a year ago, getting choked up in the audience at Allegiance, overwhelmed by the mere fact that I was looking at a stage full of Asian and Asian American actors. In a Broadway theater.

“Yes, it is,” I nodded slowly.

I thought about this exchange later at home and felt conflicted. For the first time, my mom’s friend felt represented on stage, and those feelings are completely valid. I’ve been where she was, happy to just see myself, but there are also more conversations- more important ones- to be had beyond that. Why couldn’t I get myself to bring those up with my mom’s friend? It felt like there was a barrier between me and her and my mom’s other co-workers. I thought about how I could easily share these conversations with my friends, most of whom I made in school while studying theater, and that’s when I realized that perhaps I was actively alienating people from these conversations. Perhaps, when I’m having these conversations, there are people who feel the same exact way I did at my mom’s work party- like a complete outsider.

While discussing this issue at a recent staff meeting at The Lark, someone brought up the way in which the theater community refers to casual theatergoers- those who see a show from time to time as a break from other mediums. There’s still very much an “us vs. them” mentality when this demographic is brought up, primarily because they are always an unpredictable factor when it comes to counting revenue, which unfortunately, directly informs how we value their presence within our community. It’s almost like we count them out before they even purchase their tickets, because we don’t expect them to return or to remain a constant presence in our spaces. This is where the danger lies. By devaluing their presence, they in turn, devalue our work. Our art doesn’t matter to them, because they feel that they are excluded from it, even though they’re not. Theater, like any other medium, is an extension of the political and social climate and the conversations surrounding it, but some don’t realize this because we’re not including them in our conversations. When we don’t include other communities in our conversations, the impact of our work is reduced to whether it was “good” or “bad.” That’s it. Either they liked it or they didn’t. Perhaps it becomes a quick topic at dinner or a conversation at work, but after a few days and even in some cases, only a few hours, they forget about what they saw and the best we can hope for is for them to recommend the show to a friend.

In that same meeting, I found myself evaluating the conversations we, as a theater community, are having. In the context of our work, we tackle issues on racism, gender equality, representation, climate change, health care, immigration, and a slew of others, but not only is there a lack of initiative to invite people who are directly affected by these issues into our audiences, there is also a lack of engagement in conversations with the audiences who do come. Beyond that, these conversations have also created a shift in the power dynamic within our own community. When these conversations happen, the people who participate in them wear it almost like a badge. There’s this feeling of boastfulness that makes them feel they should be honored just for simply having these conversations. Their comfort in having talked oftentimes prevents them from actually listening to those facing the issues being discussed, or finding ways to solve the problems at hand. It is exactly this elitist sense of “enlightenment” that turns people away. What happens is, there are spheres of conversations going on that re-instate the systemic power dynamic within the community. So this, along with our tendency to alienate other people, creates a barrier between us and the impact of our art. We get so caught up in just talking and talking and talking that we forget to evaluate the reach of our accomplishments and whether or not we are actually inciting change. We are upholding the idea that we are preaching to our own choir, which another staff member pointed out could help galvanize us, but that becomes moot when we are only having these conversations with ourselves.

So how do we have a conversation with people outside of our own community so that they’re not left grasping at what’s on the surface of our art? So that we can have a conversation about
Miss Saigon where we praise it for the representation and the work it gives to Asian American performers, but also dissect the narrative it presents? So that we can tell people we work in theater and they don’t assume we’re starving artists who are only concerned about putting a show on? Because, yes, some of us are starving, and some of us are concerned about putting a show on, but we are also having really important conversations- conversations that do not and should not exclude those outside the theater community.

A version of this article appeared in the December 2017 edition of "A Bird's Eye View," The Lark's Monthly Newsletter. Sign up for our mailing list to get Lark news and more stories like this one straight to your inbox!