I started performing in New Jersey community theater in 2003, when I played “Joe Vegas” in The Pennington Player’s production of FAME: The Musical. (Which, by the way, I do not recommend doing… some movies just don’t need to transfer to the stage…) I performed that show at the Open Air Theatre at Washington Crossing Park, here in New Jersey.
Since 2004, I have been very fortunate to perform in exactly 51 productions around the east coast, a majority of which have taken place in the New Jersey, Pennsylvania, NYC, and Delaware area. Over the past three years, I have been blessed with opportunities to jump into the professional theatrical world, but a lot of my resume-padding came from NJ community theaters. (And yes, to answer your question, there is a such thing as too much NJ community theater lol)
With all of this experience I have had in the crazy world of NJ theater, I have realized a major issue that is burdening these theaters I call home. Every audition I attend, every show I rehearse and perform in, every show I go to watch … I realize that I am surrounded by the white, middle class. I know some people may view this as a joke, but it is a legit issue that our theater world faces everyday. Don’t get me wrong, I like the white, middle class (they make me laugh, especially when a rap song they recognize comes on the radio), but it makes me ask: where are all the minorities? Why are they not attending these plays and musicals? Why are they not coming out to audition for shows? Why are they not IN the shows they audition for?
I sat in the lobby for a show I went to go see recently and what I saw really wasn’t far from the perceived stereotype of theatrical audiences in the NJ area: it was ALL white and wealthy (or they looked wealthy at least). And when the curtain was raised, I realized that the perceived stereotype was continued – the entire cast and crew was white as well. It was at that point that I realized that in this SOLD OUT audience that went to go see a show with a cast of almost 25 people – and this is no joke – there was a 98% chance that I was the only minority in the building.
I am not saying I was the only black person – I am saying that I was the only MINORITY.
This type of white and wealthy audience isn’t just exclusive to the NJ theater scene though, it should be noted that this is something that is going on all over the country in theater meccas – NYC, Philly, Chicago, LA, ect.
The real question is “Why?”
What is it about modern theater that simply isn’t reaching out and exciting a broader demographic of theater-goers and performers? Where are all of the young, non-white, and disabled audience members and performers? I am talking about the African-Americans, Hispanics, deaf, physically disabled, and Asian communities that are out there.
As someone who has spent time on the administrative side of running a theater company, I know for a fact that this is something that theater companies and venues have thought about. It is interesting to talk to my white counterparts to hear why they feel it’s difficult to get more minorities into the theater scene.
You want my honest opinion? (Yes Ky – that’s why we’re reading this friggin’ thing…) Personally, I think the theater world has become lazy and has been blinded by its white-ness. Every single day, the theater world relishes in the “fact” that it is a hand-holding cuddle-fest that is full of free spirits – unfortunately, the reality can be quite different at times. Some theater producers, directors, and artistic leaders feel as though the only way to reach out to the minority demographics is by putting on a minority-led play or musical. In other words, the assumption in the theater world is that black people only want to see black plays, gay people only want to see gay plays, deaf people only want to see deaf plays, and so and so forth.
…unless I am going crazy, I feel as though that assumption couldn’t be any more wrong and misguided.
Some people I have talked to have been quite honest with me when they said that there is a “safeness” to focusing on the white and wealthy demographic. The white and wealthy demographic is what sells tickets, come out to audition for the shows, have the experience needed to run or participate in the theater company, ect. They feel that it is a strong bet to play off the white-aspect of the theater life.
Yeah… it’s scary.
So how do we change this mindset? I don’t know. All I DO know is that most theater leaders will mention how they have been trying to reach out to minorities for many years now, but have failed. As a result, they have given up on trying and have just continued to pander to the white, middle-class … because that’s “what sells tickets”. It’s unfortunate, unnerving, and very scary.
Until this mindset changes, I will always walk into a rehearsal, performance, or theatrical venue feeling like an outsider of sorts, no matter how accepting the community may be.
There is something about this that feels very wrong … so … how can change this?
Yesterday was my last day of work at George Street Playhouse before heading on a nice 6-day Thanksgiving vacation! As we were unloading our touring van, my co-workers were like, “Hey Ky, Jim really needs to talk to you.”
I immediately got frightened. Jim is my boss and he has had talks with me before. So my immediate reaction was, “Shit – what did I do now?”
My tour mates led me to the green room of GSP where I was immediately SURPRISED with cupcakes and applause – they threw me a little party because it was my half-birthday! Check out this 30-second video of my reaction below…
Okay, so I am sure you are thinking, “Why would they be celebrating Ky’s half-birthday?”
Well, our touring contract ends in early May 2014 and my birthday is at the end of May. So they threw me a surprise ½ bday party to celebrate my birthday since I wouldn’t be around on my actual birthday.
In other words – my coworkers ROCK. #gsp #beststaff
Also, special shout-out to all of my #lifeofky followers out there! My two blog posts about my Les Mis experiences have quickly become THE highest viewed blog posts on my entire blog – as a result, my list of followers has jumped from 3,200 to about 3,850! We’ll probably be hitting the 4,000 mark follower mark soon! Thanks to everyone who keeps sharing my blog! I really appreciate it!