Stories to Action: Co-creating Inclusive Pathways to Professional Theatre (Literature Review)

Literature Review

            This literature review will address equity, diversity and inclusion in theatre arts. These are topics with global and local considerations. The project that this literature review pairs with, Stories to Action: Co-creating Inclusive Pathways to Professional Theatre, has adopted the UNESCO definition of cultural diversity, from their Convention on the Protection of the Diversity of Cultural Contents and Artistic Expressions:

Cultural diversity refers to the manifold ways in which the cultures of groups and societies find expression. These expressions are passed on within and among groups and societies… through diverse modes of artistic creation, production, dissemination, distribution and enjoyment (UNESCO, 2015, p. 7).

By assigning culture to groups as well as societies, the UNESCO definition suggests that culture is intersectional, and not confined to racial identities only. For instance, the Deaf, deafened, and hard of hearing community has a unique culture, as does any gender minority group, or any other group of people who share a unique set of experiences. Using this definition as a frame, I will summarize local and international discourse on the current state of cultural diversity in theatre, paying special attention to training programs and other means of access by which theatre artists gain membership to a theatre practice and community.

Equity, Diversity and Inclusion in the Context of Theatre Arts

            On a global scale, nations face an ongoing loss of cultural and regional artistic expression in a globalized environment where Western (primarily American) entertainment dominates consumption (Saha, 2017; Feigenbaum, 2010). Additionally, developed nations hold tremendous power to set the standard for what ‘quality’ entertainment looks like, impacting the perceived value of cultural and regional expressions that don’t fit a Western definition of “excellence”. These conditions pose a real danger to regional and cultural differences in a world that becomes more and more homogenous with globalization (Feigenbaum, 2010; Ife, 2016). The same phenomena can impact artists at a local level, by shaping the Western theatrical canon, and by affording artists from the dominant culture easier access to opportunities on and off stage.  

            Academics and artists have been signaling the lack of diversity in Western theatre for over 20 years. Kuester and Keller (2002) edited together a compilation of articles that chronicled the appearance of different ethnicities and Indigenous writing in Canadian literature. In it, Kurtosi (2002) explored “why plays by ethnic or native playwrights and intercultural performances [had] been – at least for a brief period – omitted from canon-forming anthologies” (p. 53). In essence, stories told by writers with diverse perspectives were lost to history, leaving a single (often Eurocentric) cultural lens to dominate canon-forming anthologies. Artists pushed to the margins have shown, anecdotally and empirically, the negative impact canonized stereotypes have on their lives and careers (AAPAC, 2018; Ferrera, 2019). Over time, canon-forming anthologies can shape our bias, how we see others and how we see ourselves. These biases can cause us to unconsciously perpetuate stereotypes. America Ferrera, an American performer with Honduran ethnicity, grappled with accepting roles that further perpetuate stereotypes when she said, “It is possible to be the person who genuinely wants to see change while also being the person who’s actions keep things the way they are” (Ferrara, 2019, 11:57). Ferrerra shared her realization that, “I couldn’t change what a system believed about me while I believed what the system believed about me” (2019, 11:31). Ferrera’s experience implies that each acting job she takes contributes to a larger social story about race. Primarily marginalized artists, who risk being viewed as a ‘representative’ for their group, face this burden. When marginalized artists are employed to tell stories written and directed through a white, able-bodied, middle-class lens, the work is shaped by, and is shaping, social stories that can perpetuate harmful stereotypes and power dynamics (Saha, 2017; Gray, 2016).  

            We can deepen our understanding of inequality in theatre by looking at the makeup and staffing of arts organizations, decision-makers, and the casting of their shows. Wooden (2016) addressed the lack of Black decision-makers in arts administration positions when she wrote:

            The pipeline that prohibits African-Americans from accessing, engaging, and developing in the arts administration field is evident . . . arts organizations have historically done very well recruiting and attracting talented, heterosexual, upper middle class, white females… There is a shortage of networks and structured opportunities systematically working to address this disparity (p. 1). 

This is also the case in Canada, where culturally diverse, female and non-binary professionals hold just 3.7% of artistic theatre leadership roles (Yoon, 2016; Ouchi, 2020). Edmonton’s Citadel theatre, one of the largest not-for-profit theatres in North America (Citadel Theatre, n.d.), recently released an inclusivity and diversity report outlining their historical statistics and commitments for the future. The report acknowledged, “the theatre industry as a whole, and The Citadel Theatre in particular, has not always been a place where all have been welcome, where all have felt supported and safe, where all have had the opportunity to create and participate in the work” (Citadel Theatre, 2020a, p. 3). The statistics shared by Citadel Theatre in this report set a benchmark against which the organization has committed to monitor progress year over year until they “ensure that the stories we tell, as well as the composition of our artists, board, staff, and audience are reflective of the dynamic, multicultural city we represent” (Citadel Theatre, 2020a, p. 38).

            The Citadel Theatre correctly targeted their action plan at all levels of participation in theatre, from stage technicians and artists to administrators and educators. There is overwhelming disparity documented throughout the composition of all these groups across the US, Canada, and the United Kingdom (AAPAC, 2018; Chromatic Theatre, 2020; Citadel Theatre, 2020a, Saha, 2017). 


            Performer disparity is demonstrated most clearly by the Asian American Performers Action Coalition (AAPAC) and their study of Broadway and its inclusion of Black, Indigenous, and People of Colour (BIPOC). As the context-setter for Western theatre in general, Broadway statistics are one specific illustration of the entire art form’s condition. The most recent annual report from the AAPAC (2018) stated “61.5% of all roles on New York City stages went to White actors during the 2017–2018 season” making them the most visible on stage” (p. 12). The report names white actors as the “only race to over-represent by almost double their respective population size” (p. 13). Even when roles were not racially specific, and anyone could have been cast, “only 20% of all available roles were cast with BIPOC actors” (AAPAC, 2018, p. 14). More locally, Chromatic Theatre found that Calgary stages were similarly absent of cultural diversity, with white actors making up 72% of stage performers in the 2019-2020 professional season (Rodgers & Padayas, 2020). 


            When looking at whose stories are being told, writers on Broadway are 80% White, and “White writers were produced almost four times more often than their BIPOC counterparts” (AAPAC, 2018, p. 19). The AAPAC (2018) report demonstrated trends that suggest producing more work by BIPOC writers may create more opportunities for BIPOC performers. For instance, a single play written by a Black artist was responsible for 65.2% of all Black actors hired on Broadway that season (AAPAC, 2018). It could be assumed that theatre created by any other cultural group, such as a deaf artist or a gender non-binary artist could have a similar direct impact on the opportunities presenting on stage. In Edmonton, data is limited to what was collected and reported by organizations and independent initiatives. Jeffery (2019) found there were 28 female playwrights and 41 male playwrights produced in Edmonton’s 2018-19 professional season. All were cis-gendered. At the Citadel that season, almost 80% of playwrights were white, however they did feature more writing by women than by men (Citadel Theatre, 2020a). These statistics suggest that Edmonton’s theatre community might be diversifying content on its stages with greater success than other centres, at least when it comes to gender parity. The limited data that is available suggests extreme underrepresentation of culturally diverse voices, gender diversity, and disability. 


            Decision-makers are predominantly chosen from the dominant culture. In Broadway’s most recent complete season, 85.5% of directors were white, and even “64.7% of BIPOC productions were shaped by a White director” (AAPAC, 2018, p. 24). The AAPAC found that 100% of artistic directors were white, prompting them to ask the question, “Are Gatekeepers Biased?” (2018, p. 25). On further exploration of leadership dynamics, they found that many of these artistic directors had been in their positions for 20 years or more, “further entrenching patterns of behavior that go unchallenged” (AAPAC, 2018, p. 25). Locally, Acton et al. (2019) found that “There is clearly a desire for Deaf-led performing arts in Edmonton, particularly Deaf-led theatre” (2019, p. 34).This illustrates local calls for diversity in the way projects are designed and led to reflect and represent new approaches that resonate with community. 


            It appears theatres have placed most of their diversity effort into diversifying their audiences. For example, theatres across the UK and North America have been staging relaxed performances for at least five years, to invite neurodiverse individuals comfortably into the theatre experience (Kempe, 2015). Relaxed performances are common in Edmonton, with methods like lowered intensity on sound and lighting effects and relaxing expectations placed on the audience. One aim of relaxed performances is to remove the burden of strict social policing for those who can’t or don’t wish to participate in traditional theatre decorum (Kempe, 2015). Edmonton’s YEG Performing Arts accessibility Ad Hoc Group, a consortium of 36 performing arts organizations, commissioned a study in 2019 to examine the accessibility of theatre from a disability lens (Acton, Leifso, Birkholz, Medina Polo, & Yuzwenko-Martin, 2019). Acton et al. (2019) found barriers to access that were financial, physical, and related to preshow information availability. The study also found that the experience of theatre in Edmonton lacked equity for those who need ASL interpretation, captioning, or other accommodations to participate (Acton et al., 2019). In summary, the report stated, “It is clear that there are many barriers to engagement with the performing arts in Edmonton. It is also clear that there is a desire among the performing arts organizations to remove those barriers” (Acton, et al., 2019, p. 55). Despite these efforts to make theatre more accessible for audiences, access for artists has not received the same effort. As demonstrated by the #InTheDressingRoom hashtag on Twitter, many artists from equity-seeking groups report hostile or unsafe work environments. Companies and educational institutions have often been unwilling or unable to recognize internal bias and/or provide accommodations (Schroeder-Arce, 2017; Hayward, 2009; Band, Lindsay, Neelands & Freakley, 2011). The lack of representation resulting on stage could signal why audiences have also been hard to diversify. In the accessibility study by Acton et al., “participants often spoke about the importance of seeing their own lives and experiences reflected in the performances and events they attended” (2019, p. 23). If theatres don’t succeed at diversifying their content, they may not be able to diversify their audience. 

            To illustrate the power and importance of inclusive representation on stage, famous Nobel Peace Laureate Malala Yousafzai once credited seeing America Ferrera’s role as a writer in an American television show as one of the things that inspired her to take an interest in journalism (Ferrera, 2019). Malala went on to become a global advocate for the education of girls, the youngest Nobel Peace Prize laureate, and another powerful figure of representation for women and girls (Yousafzai, 2020). Ferrera summarized the impact of BIPOC presence in media and storytelling when she said, “we cannot deny it — presence creates possibility” (2019, 8:37). 

Intersectional Perspectives 

            The voices of equity-seeking groups must be placed at the center of this conversation, with a priority on “harm-reduction, harm prevention, and relationship repair” (Brewer, 2017, para. 2). Excluding those with lived experience, even accidentally, can and will cause missed opportunities and missteps. As Dutta (2014) pointed out, “ideology perpetuates interpretive frames that retain power in the hands of the power elite, reproducing through the silences of the margins” (p. 69).  To simplify, if the issue is only examined through a white, middle-class, non-disabled lens then solutions will be interpreted through limiting ideologies and are likely to overlook critical perspectives and further alienate those the work intended to include. 

            Kristi Hansen, an Edmonton theatre artist, hosted a public panel discussion at the 2020 Chinook Series that featured artists who’ve experienced being cast or labeled as an ‘inspiration’ to non-disabled people (Hansen, 2020). The panel presented a nuanced conversation, which included personal anecdotes. A theme emerged as artists discussed how hard it can be to ask for accommodations, and how necessary it is to do so instead of hiding inconveniences caused by the inaccessibility of a rehearsal hall or venue. The framing of this conversation fits into a larger paradigm shift to the social model of disability, where the cause of disability is placed on a society that is not built to accommodate everyone, instead of being placed on the structure or function of individual bodies (Burchardt, 2010). This conversation exposed people in attendance to the social model of disability with first-hand, relatable examples; an illustration of the paradigm shifts made possible when the cultural majority listens to those negatively impacted by its systems. As stated by Dreher (2010), “crucially, the attention to listening shifts the focus and responsibility for change from marginalized voices and onto the conventions, institutions and privileges which shape who and what can be heard” (p. 1). 

            Artists with lived experience are now leading the conversation of equity in theatre worldwide. For example, the Asian American Performers Action Coalition (AAPAC) took up the mantle of holding Broadway to account in 2011. Since then, they have tracked performer and crew demographics in New York productions for every season from 2006 forward; information the Broadway league will not collect (Onuoha, 2016). It is apparent that the advocacy of the AAPAC has provided powerful verification of what visible minorities experience in theatre, and have been trying to tell institutions for decades. Similarly, Chromatic Theatre in Alberta is leading community-driven research that collects and reports diversity statistics from theatre productions in Calgary (Rodgers & Padayas, 2020). Community-driven initiatives like these; led by artists with lived experience, have an opportunity to balance power differentials that have long gone unchallenged. 

Inequalities in Theatre Arts Education

            This section will examine how people gain access to professional theatre, in relation to the literature. ‘Pathways’ into the art form are studied in terms of available programs, artist experience within programs, and how accessible graduation and further participation is. There are countless pathways into professional theatre (Lindsay, 2019). These pathways include (but are not limited to) youth drama programs, comedy clubs, community theatre, professional training programs, universities and private workshops. The lack of diversity in the profession suggests that pathways into theatre may favour whiteness. 

            It is believed that educational institutions are struggling to keep up with diversity initiatives and create space for disabled, neurodivergent, and/or culturally diverse students (Nelson, 2012; MacArthur, 2015; Hanson & Elser, 2015; Hayward, 2019). This likely plays a role in theatre programs being generally less diverse than the communities they serve (Fox, 2020; Edmonton 35//50 Initiative, 2020a; Citadel Theatre, 2020a). This disparity has been accredited to a layered mosaic of root causes. Aronson (2004) identified financial inequalities as a larger barrier to higher education for people from historically oppressed groups. Schroeder-Arce (2017) addressed poor representation when she wrote that, “University theatre programs throughout the US rarely acknowledge and often in fact reify white privilege. Such programs continually represent stories of white experiences as main-stream, canonical, classic” (p. 106). Attitudes that favour certain people over others, sorting students in or out of programming in the name of “excellence” often favour whiteness (Castagno, 2014, Saha, 2017). Additionally, Hanson and Elser (2015) found that post-secondary drama departments produced plays written by women even less frequently than professional theatres across Canada did, highlighting that gender inequality still plays a role in the marginal representation being offered to students. 

            Donelan (2002) wrote about the transformative power of theatre as a catalyst for empathy and inclusion in high-school drama programs. However, much of the academic writing on the current state of drama programs in Western cultures has demonstrated that diversity is diminished throughout the actor training process (Nelson, 2012; MacArthur, 2015; Hanson & Elser, 2015). Even teaching teams lack certain types of diversity. Citadel Theatre (2020a) reported gender parity with 50% of their teaching staff being women and non-binary individuals over the past 10 years. However, Citadel theatre (2020a) also reported just 8-14% BIPOC representation in the teaching staff (p. 30). It is no surprise, then, that so many artists fail to see a place for themselves in the theatre. 

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