Database Shows Time to Diversify Theater Leadership is Now

Ballet Afsaneh performance at the San Francisco Ethnic Dance Festival. The company’s founding artistic director Sharlyn Sawyer appears as part of Golden Thread Productions’ annual International Women’s Day Celebration  (Raymond Van Tassel)

The U.S. theater world is seeing widespread changes in leadership, and Bay Area theater professionals tracking the development say it's an opportune time for theater companies to diversify.

A database started informally in 2015 by director Rebecca Novick currently shows 21 artistic director positions open, all at theaters around the country with budgets over $1 million. Only two of the outgoing directors at those theaters were women, and another two were persons of color. None of them were women of color.

"It's disgusting," Novick said. "I know at least 15 women of color that could apply for those positions."

A graph charting incoming and outgoing artistic directors at theaters across the U.S., from the 'American Theater Leadership Change' Google spreadsheet.
A graph charting incoming and outgoing artistic directors at theaters across the U.S., from the 'American Theater Leadership Change' Google spreadsheet.

Novick says that now is the perfect time for these institutions to make changes for the better as the theater world undergoes "a giant generational shift." Dozens of important theater positions have opened up since 2015, and many of those departing had held them for 20-30 years.

"These are jobs that don't turn over frequently, and there's never been a moment where so many turned over at once," Novick said.

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Novick said she started the database in September, when she noticed more and more artistic and executive director positions open up. Thinking it would be smart to track developments on these positions, she started a Google spreadsheet and made it available to the public. Later, when the data became unwieldy, she brought in help from Evren Odcikin and Lia Kozatch to trim it down.

At first, the data showed incremental progress. In general, more women and people of color were hired for director-level positions; the American Theater Company in Chicago even hired a non-gender-conforming director.

Evren Odcikin
Evren Odcikin. (Kevin Berne)

But the narrative changed when they broke down theater organizations by budget. All of the shift in diversity had occurred among the smaller theaters, and not those with budgets over $1 million.

"I'm sorry to say that I'm not surprised," Novick said. "The theater has not been an easy place to be a woman or a person of color. In that kind of hostile environment, it's harder to rise."

There's no clear answer as to why such lack of diversity persists at the upper levels of theater management. Novick feels the reason lies with the board members in charge of those institutions. Odcikin suggested that increasing diversity might not be a priority for them.

"We have a tendency to talk about diversity like it's charity, which is false," Odcikin said. "It's actually about quality and relevance. The most important work being made right now is being made by women, people of color and non-gender conforming artists."

Staying relevant to their communities is how theaters stick around, Novick added.

"It's a do-or-die moment for American theater," Novick said. "I don't think I'm exaggerating when I say that either these institutions are going to make leadership choices that help them stay relevant, or they'll be playing to shrinking houses."

View the American Theater Leadership Change spreadsheet here.

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