GUEST BLOG by Donna Walker-Kuhne: Diversity on Broadway: An Insider’s Perspective
Why is diversity important on Broadway? I believe that many in the field want to see equity, diversity, and inclusion. But they aren’t sure how to implement it, or don’t know the steps to take. I asked my colleague, Jim Joseph, the Theatre Manager at the Samuel J. Friedman Theatre, for his thoughts on trends in diversity and inclusion as well as tactics for growth.
Jim said: “I recently spoke at the 2018 TEDxBroadway, and I proposed a version of the National Football League’s “Rooney Rule,” named after the late Dan Rooney, the former owner of the Pittsburgh Steelers. The “Rooney Rule” mandates that NFL teams interview at least one qualified candidate of color for every available head coaching job. This broadens and increases the pool of candidates and exposes the owners to a wider circle of qualified people.
We have to acknowledge that folks know who they know; they hire who they know. But hopefully, this idea could systematically help break those barriers down. There isn’t a governing body for Broadway like the NFL. The Broadway League is a trade organization for the Broadway theater industry. However, that should not prevent the Broadway gatekeepers from adopting the spirit of the “Rooney Rule” during their hiring processes.
Clearly, Jim has presented a case for mentorship, developing and executing equitable hiring practices, and providing opportunities for diverse candidates to excel.
How do we build diverse audiences?
Let’s take notes from the film Black Panther. What has deeply impressed me about this film, is how communities around the country have been mobilizing experiences to engage with this film.
Inspired by trailers more than a year before the film was released and online information that helped give potential viewers a window through which to view “art-in-the-making,” the community created its own programs based on its desire to support and engage.
In addition, Black celebrities, athletic teams and Ellen DeGeneres joined the #BlackPantherChallenge and purchased screenings in major cities to ensure that Black community youth did not have the barrier of the ticket price (as $25 in major cities) as an obstacle to seeing the film.
We start with the product – who is the play for and who will it inspire? Director Ryan Coolger started with a vision. In an interview, he said he was “Making the film to inspire the next generation the way he was inspired when he read his first Black Panther comic book, especially because he still lived in a world where there weren’t many heroes who looked like him.”
This film’s blockbuster status was the result of a community-building process; a journey that began with the first inklings of the film’s existence. This foresight led to the curating of audience experiences that were further enhanced by attending the screening. In other words, the audience felt kinship, ownership, and connection before the film opened. This process required vision, desire, time and an investment in building the film’s eventual audience. In the realm of theater, what is the vision we can hold for the communities we seek to engage?
The product needs to tell/show the “perspective audiences’” story in a positive, bold, and dynamic way. That may require the enlistment of new writers who can share stories that encompass the past, present, and future. Like the Black Panther screenplay, stories that project and promote respect, dignity and love resonate the deepest and garner the widest audiences. That also may require enlisting the input of emerging artists (taking a chance on the future Ryan Cooglers and Joe Robert Coles) and taking a risk on a new vision of theater.
And then you engage the community. As early as possible, you share the creative process behind the work: the reason for the project’s genesis, and the people involved, including those working behind the scenes. I have read at least 50 articles about the cast and the creative team behind Black Panther. There have been countless videos, links on social media (including a Facebook Fan Page that currently has more than three-quarters of a million followers), as well as numerous articles in a wide variety of print and online publications.
Broadway has the capacity to do the same. It’s not about having a Marvel-like marketing budget and promoting ticket sales. It’s more important to look at the psychographics of building communities and engaging them from the perspective of creating value by wanting to connect, respect, honor, touch and transform their lives.
Donna Walker-Kuhne is the founder of Walker International Communications Group (WICG), a boutique marketing, press and audience development consulting agency. Her team specializes in multicultural marketing, group sales, multicultural press and promotional events. They have over 45 years of experience executing successful marketing and audience development campaigns for Broadway productions and cultural arts organizations with sales over $22MM. Donna is acknowledged as the nation’s foremost expert in Audience Development by the Arts &Business Council and has devoted her professional career to increasing access to the arts. Her company has developed a brand reputation among performing arts patrons of exposing them to high-quality productions and unique experiences in a way that exceeds audience members and clients’ expectations alike.
Her current client roster includes major cultural and performing arts organizations such as: Alvin Ailey Dance Company, Apollo Theater, as well as the Broadway productions of The Lion King, Aladdin and Once on This Island. She is currently Senior Advisor, Community Engagement at the New Jersey Performing Arts Center charged with developing and deepening relationships with targeted communities through partnerships and special events.
Broadway productions include: A Raisin in the Sun starring Denzel Washington; A Trip To Bountiful starring Cicely Tyson; HUGHIE starring Forest Whitaker; Porgy and Bess featuring Audra McDonald and Norm Lewis; A Streetcar Named Desire featuring Blair Underwood; Alicia Keys’Stick Fly; Hairspray; Ragtime; Ann starring Holland Taylor; Thurgood starring Laurence Fishburne, Driving Miss Daisy featuring James Earl Jones and Vanessa Redgrave, August Wilson’s Radio Golf; Caroline, or Change; Time Stands Still featuring Laura Linney, Bring in ‘da Noise, Bring in ‘da Funk, etc.
Off Broadway, WICG has worked with Playwrights Horizons, Public Theater, Signature Theatre, Cherry Lane Theatre, New York Musical Theatre Festival, Second Stage Theatre, New York Fringe Festival, National Black Theatre, Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Company as well as arts organizations such as Dance Theater of Harlem, Lower Manhattan Cultural Council, the President’s Committee on Arts and Humanities and WNYC Radio. She provides consulting services to numerous arts organizations throughout the country and worldwide including Australia, Berlin, Moscow, Sochi, Edinburgh, and Bloemfontein, South Africa.
Donna Walker-Kuhne is the recipient of over 40 awards acknowledging her distinguished service in the field of audience development and serves on several Boards of Directors. She is an adjunct professor of over 20 years at New York University and also teaches at Bank Street College. Her first book, Invitation to the Party: Building Bridges to Arts, Culture and Community, was published in 2005. Ms. Walker-Kuhne is a volunteer with the SGI-USA, a worldwide peace organization serving as Vice Director for New York.