Heather A. Beasley through HowlRound poses some ‘radical’ but really relevant questions about how we approach measuring the diversity and demographics of our theatre practice.
Heather A. Beasley works with the Boulder Ensemble Theatre Company as an associate producer, dramaturg, literary manager, and director.
Let’s be realistic: theatres can’t force self-identification on our audience members. Most people want to come to the theatre, see a show, then leave with their friends. They aren’t interested in meeting our nonprofit funders’ reporting requirements. Still, arts administrators have to come up with estimates, because we have to complete those final reports. And unfortunately, any estimation method we select has problems.
One of two things is true. Perhaps theatres need more ethical approaches for accurately measuring audience composition along various demographic lines. Such approaches would require audience consent up front, address known problems with survey bias, and include sufficient funding and training for the staff needed to conduct audience research ethically and transparently.
Or, a more radical proposal: we should stop attempting to measure audience composition altogether, since it cannot be done accurately when there’s no mandate for audiences to self-report, without significant resource investment and invasion of privacy.
Theatres can and should focus our diversity and equity efforts on hiring practices onstage and backstage, where self-reporting can be made a condition of employment. We can feature stories by diverse playwrights, cast inclusively, and select design teams with an eye to equity, because these are areas over which artists and arts administrators have direct responsibility and control over decision-making.
When it comes to audiences, however, the best way to be inclusive may actually be to stop trying to gather so much information about who’s coming through our doors. Instead of tracking, or rather imprecisely guessing at, our audience’s identity data, we should respect the privacy rights and personal identities of our audience members. It’s their right to choose when and how to self-identify, not our funders’ right to know. And we must challenge our funders to stop demanding patron data that requires invasive, unethical, and inaccurate data collection.
This is an excerpt from Howlround but for more go straight to the source