St. Louis theater companies woo diverse audiences ... but it's a complicated courtship
Stages St. Louis hopes its current production of “Sister Act” will do what the Whoopi Goldberg character in the movie did for her Catholic convent choir: Shake it up — at least where its audiences are concerned.
The theater company’s patrons are not very diverse. Executive Producer Jack Lane, describes the Stages St. Louis audience this way: “suburban, white.”
Attracting more theater-goers of color, while addressing important social-justice concerns on the front burner in St. Louis right now, is important to St. Louis’ larger theater companies, which include the Repertory Theatre of St. Louis, The Muny and Stages. Adding more minority patrons could help with the perennial issue of aging subscribers and donors. But it’s also a way to stay relevant at a time when St. Louis is more riveted than ever on race.
Lane said his efforts are broad-based, and focus on making the entire schedule appealing to a more diverse audience.
“It’s about the whole season,” he said.
Targeted advertising says ‘You see me’
Diversifying and increasing audiences will become even more important after Stages moves into a larger venue in 2019. Lane understands it takes time and thoughtful planning to court new communities.
So does Chelsea Whitaker, a 23-year-old African-American theater-goer, acting professional and African-American studies scholar who’s seen other theater companies go about it the wrong way.
"Across the country, people are saying, 'We’re doing a black show,'" she said.
“That can be insulting,” Lane agreed.
To broaden their audiences, Whitaker said, theater companies need to focus on creating connections.
“It takes consistency. It takes getting to know the community you want to work with,” she said. “I think that is a huge thing that comes with trust, just like any other relationship.”
Whitaker said one of the ways to build that bond is to cast more people of color in every show. She pointed to Shakespeare Festival of St. Louis as a leader in that area.
In previous productions, and in this past season’s “A Midsummer Night's Dream,” Whitaker thought the Festival did a great job of showing that African-American actors can star in shows other than the typical “Othello.” Most of “Midsummer’s” female leads were women of color.
“And they didn’t try to put any particular spin on it,” Whitaker said.
Mrs. Potts in “Beauty and the Beast” is another example of a character that could be played by any actor. The Muny cast nationally known African-American star Marva Hicks in that role in 2015.
Diverse casting is important, said Mike Isaacson, artistic director for The Muny. But theater companies also must let let minority and ethnic communities know they’re trying to draw diverse audiences.
“We make sure we advertise to the African-American community. We advertise all summer in the [“St. Louis] American,” Isaacson said. “We make sure there are billboards where everybody in the community can see them — not just where our sales are. In time, that builds a relationship because it says, ‘You see me.'”
Others say diverse in casting, along with shows that present people of color living the human experience — working, loving, raising a family — can go a long way toward eroding prejudice.
“I think any media, performing arts, any of those outlets, have a really powerful role in kind of either perpetuating stereotypes or breaking them down,” said to Vanessa Garcia assistant director of the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce of St. Louis.
But sometimes, a minority character in a play can actually reinforce rigid thinking about different cultures.
Take “Thoroughly Modern Millie,” in which the leader of a white slavery ring who pretends to be Chinese is classically stereotypical, down to replacing every “L” with an “R.”
Or “The Drowsy Chaperone” and its ladies’ man Adolpho, the comedic version of a Hispanic lothario.
“Because everyone was made fun of in ‘Drowsy Chaperone,’ it was free rein, and everyone accepted that,” Lane said.
‘It should be us’; ‘It Shoulda Been You’
But Whitaker and minority business developer Ed Bryant say it’s still not unusual to see only a smattering of African-Americans like themselves at The Muny and other theaters. Bryant may see the audience may expand, though, when he goes to The Rep’s upcoming production about Ferguson that depicts the city through the eyes of a lifelong resident.
Bryant, 52, applauds The Rep for staging “Until the Flood,” written by and starring nationally known theater professional Dael Orlandersmith.
“For St. Louisans, if anybody should be doing this, it should be us, from what we’ve gone through these past two years,” Bryant said.
The Rep's artistic director, Steve Woolf, called creating and producing “Until the Flood” an imperative.
“Because the events of Ferguson are so significant and lasting,” Woolf said.
The Rep is known for presenting thought-provoking work that is sure to spark lively post-show conversation — in the theater, on the way home and at the water cooler.
But such discussions likely aren’t happening within a diverse crowed. For the Rep, Woolf said, attracting an audience that is 20 percent people of color is rare, given the theater’s location in predominantly white Webster Groves, Woolf said.
That’s less diverse than the entire county — 69 percent white and 24 percent black — and nowhere near the city’s approximately 50-50 racial split.
Still, Woolf said he doesn’t see that as an issue.
“So what?,” Woolf said. “We’re not going to solve St. Louis; I mean I don’t know who is. We’re just participating; we’re offering up ideas from the stage for people to talk about.”
But Bryant, the African-American theater goer, said St. Louis would make more progress if a more-diverse crowd saw such thought-provoking shows.
“We need to all have these serious conversations, and I think the arts can drive that,” Bryant said.
Bryant would also like to see The Rep and other large companies bring more works by black playwrights like August Wilson and Langston Hughes to mainstream audiences. For 40 years, the Black Rep has produced plays like "Fences" and "Piano Lesson," both by Wilson. Bryant's concerned that other companies may consider those kinds of productions to be off the table.
“It feels like that they believe that’s off-limits for them, that they can’t do one of those plays because there’s already a theater company that specializes in that,” Bryant said.
The St. Louis Repertory Theatre, meanwhile, offers two platforms for its ideas: A Mainstage as well as a Studio Theater. The latter presents what the company considers more-challenging works.
Stages has no such division. It can be risky to stage newer shows that push the envelope while keeping older, more mainstream audiences happy.
“You don’t want to alienate a lot of people,” Lane said.
Stages kicked off this current season with a show called “It Shoulda Been You.” Not only does it include a mixed-race heterosexual couple; it also turns out the male in the pair is really in love with another man, a surprise development deep into the show.
Lane wasn’t sure how his longtime supporters would react but he felt it was important to present the play, no matter what.
“You’ve got to be bold enough to take a stance and make a difference in what you’re presenting,” Lane said. “I think it is the responsibility of someone who is in the arts to try to hold a mirror to what is going on the world and to bring that to their audiences.”
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Follow Nancy Fowler on Twitter: @NancyFowlerSTL