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

Strategies for Responding to Inequality in Theatre

            There is extensive literature providing action plans that address inequality in theatre. The following analysis will highlight recommendations from a variety of helpfuldocuments written and endorsed by equity-seeking groups such as Black and Indigenous people, those with varied abilities, and others who experience historic and systemic oppression. Organizations can easily access source documents for detailed community recommendations from the Yellowhead Institute (Nixon, 2020), a coalition of American artists under the name We See You (2020), and Edmonton’s YEG Performing Arts Accessibility Ad Hoc Group (Acton et al, 2019).

            In a report on equity in Canadian theatre, MacArthur (2015) wrote some best practices for moving forward which resonate with my views. MacArthur (2015) started with education, stating we must, “increase the percentage of plays by women and other marginalized groups… at elementary schools, high schools, and post-secondary institutions” (2015, p. 71). Similarly, Burton and Newman (2016) wrote about inclusion in theatre that, “the interventions must start with education and move out from there to permeate all aspects of the industry and the institutions that support it” (p. 7).


            A common strategy employed by organizations to combat systemic inequality is the formation of a Committee on Equity, Diversity and Inclusion, commonly called ‘EDI’ (Hawley & Wells, 2019; Ualberta, 2019; UBC, n.d.). These committees can be strategy focused, implementation focused, or a hybrid of the two (UBC, n.d.; Leon & Williams, 2016). Academics seem to agree that one of the most important considerations iswhowill be on the committee. The University of British Columbia (UBC) explains that, “Membership can be determined by representation, lived experience, expertise or skills” (UBC, n.d., para. 41). According to UBC (n.d.), the group should also have a varied collection of positional power perspectives such as students, leadership, community members, etc. There is, however, opposition to the use of EDI committees and similar. Nixon (2020) stated, “No more Indigenous advisory committees. Integrate diverse Indigenous peoples and knowledges throughout corporate structures, on both the creative and business side of organizations, and not just in moments of increased fiscal attachment to monetized identity politics” (p.1). This advice could be applied to all forms of diversity such as disability, sexual and gender identity, etc., and could be used as an argument to instead endorse quotas or ‘hiring goals’ as part of an affirmative action plan, like the 35//50 Initiative discussed in the next section.

Diversity Quotas or ‘Hiring Goals’

            Diversity quotas seem to be passionately discussed but poorly researched (Ferreira, 2015). They are generally conceived to provide strict guidance on the composition of teams (Labelle, Francoeur, & Lakhal, 2015). Rooting quotas in different organizational cultures and value systems may produce wildly varied results from one organization to another, and can sometimes lead to unintended consequences(Ferreira, 2015). In 2003, Norway introduced a mandatory quota for 40% female directors on all boards. Since this is the largest case study available, many academics and economists have studied the results of that effort with mixed reviews. Norwegian firms were given two years to meet the quota, though it took five before all firms reached compliance in 2008 (Ferreira, 2015). There are studies that show firms in Norway became less profitable (perhaps due to expenses attached to new hiring and recruitment practices), but there is no common agreement on why that happened or what other variables played a role (Ahern and Dittmar, 2012; Matsa and Miller, 2013; Ferreira, 2015). In response to the Norway study, Ferreira (2015) wrote, “Most proponents of board quotas believe that, if we smash the glass ceiling at the board level, we will also reduce discrimination at lower levels” (2015, p. 110). Although Ferriera goes on to dispute this idea, studies have demonstrated that diverse teams make better decisions and benefit from productive conflict born out of opposing perspectives, especially when value differences are moderated and managed well (Jehn, Northcraft & Neale, 1999). Though their merit is debated, adopting a quota sends a strong message about the overarching values of an organization or community, and can renew leadership tables with fresh and diverse ideas. Hiring quotas provide an action plan with quantifiable measurements of what success looks like. Such clearly defined goals may be a remedy for organizations that “can ‘value diversity’ yet remain apathetic to change” (Wooden, 2016, p. 61). To adhere to labour and employment laws, there appears to be an important legal distinction between ‘quotas’ and ‘hiring goals’ that organizations should clearly define (Ong, 2020). In the USA, for example, there was a 1976 case that prohibited “discriminatory preference for any [racial] group, minority or majority” (Ong, 2020, para. 4). That ruling set a precedent that made diversity commitments a violation of American employment law to this day, but legal experts say setting ‘hiring goals’ instead of quota commitments is a safe and recommended practice (Ong, 2020). I found no concrete examples of similar legal rulings in Canada, but our public and private sectors are held to the Employment Equity Act (Government of Canada, 1995). The act defines instances where employers cangive preference based on identity: primarily when a role is in service to a marginalized community. However, the act goes on to warn, “unless that preference or employment would constitute a discriminatory practice under the Canadian Human Rights Act” (Government of Canada, 1995, article 7). Therefore, employers should ensure they are familiar with the local human rights act and other mandates governing their profession, balancing any competing priorities to support rather than hinder progress. The Government of Canada (1995) actually encouraged employers to make reasonable accommodations, stating, “employment equity means more than treating persons in the same way but also requires special measures and the accommodation of differences” (article 2). With that legal distinction addressed, I will continue to use the terms ‘hiring goals’ and ‘quotas’ interchangeably to compare proposed strategies with the literature. However, employers may wish to define any identity-based hiring objectives as ‘hiring goals’ and leave the language of quota commitments out of their human resource management systems (Ong, 2020). 

An Edmonton chapter of the 35//50 Initiative was launched in August 2020, with a letter asking that Edmonton’s “civic landscape [be] reflected more equitably in [its] professional landscape” (Edmonton 35//50 Initiative, 2020a, p. 1). The initiative asked organizations to meet a hiring goal of 35% Black, Indigenous, and People of Colour, and 50% women and gender-minority artists and employees in all positions at all levels by the 2024-25 theatre season. It also implored funders to make this a requirement for companies to receive financial backing. The response saw at least 25 Edmonton theatre companies sign onto the commitment within the first three months, while the 35//50 initiative is still in talks with Edmonton’s educational institutions (Edmonton 35//50 Initiative, 2020b). Ferreira (2015) repeated a common argument against the effectiveness of quotas by writing, “By design, board quotas force firms to hire female directors from the current pool of [women]. Such a policy does not immediately change the composition of the pool of director candidates” (p. 110). Arts organizations echo a similar sentiment that the qualified candidate pool is not always diverse (Wooden, 2016).For instance, Citadel Theatre (2020b) revealed on a public community forum that they had to look outside Edmonton, bringing in Black performers from other parts of Canada, for their production of The Colour Purple(p. 19). Wooden (2016) asked the question, “If arts organizations find it difficult to recruit qualified candidates now, how much greater will the challenge be five, ten, or fifteen years from now?” (p. 36). Indeed, now is a better time than later to set goals and act on them. In Edmonton, organizations like the 3.7% Initiative are working with succession pools of qualified individuals from underrepresented backgrounds, preparing people for leadership opportunities even if they have not had equitable access to training programs (Yoon, 2016; Ouchi, 2020; Concrete Theatre, 2020). Local training programs and universities have an opportunity to contribute to diverse succession pools by making their programs more accessible and hospitable today, to artists who experience marginalization (Gray, 2016; Brewer, 2017; Schroeder-Arce, 2017; Band, Lindsay, Neelands, & Freakley, 2011). Setting diversity goals for hiring and student recruitment may be one way to contribute better diversity to the future of the sector. 

The primary benefit offered by an initiative like 35//50 may be the framework it offers organizations to monitor their progress and quantify the values they purport to operate with. Wooden (2016) found that, “relatively few arts organizations can produce quantitative historical evidence to confirm that diversity is a core value” (p. 2). Wooden (2016) also warned that organizations unable to tie their ‘diversity message’ to tangible, measurable action will “fail to reach their diversity goals” (p. 2).  

The literature on diversity quotas/hiring goals, when paired with the local context, suggest that a joint effort between educational institutions and theatre companies equally committedto 35//50 will have the best chance of success. This joint initiative offers Edmonton an opportunity to diversify its theatre educators, teaching strategies, graduating classes, qualified candidate pools, and fair access to opportunities in the community. If quotas or ‘recruiting goals’ are also considered for student cohorts, it will be critical that universities and training programs examine any underlying, implicit bias in their curriculum and classrooms (Saha, 2017; Loest, 2019; We See You, 2020). Diversity quotas will not fully solve inequality in theatre. Programs must also be designed to appeal to Indigenous, Black, deaf, disabled, LGBTQI2S+, female and gender-minority artists, and prepared to give those students a safe learning environment and material that provides challenging, relevant roles during their years of study (Wooden, 2016; Saha, 2017). Making programs safe and engaging for everyone is critical if schools wish to foster meaningful, sustainable diversity in theatre, but there is debate about how to effectively do that. Loney (1998) argued against measures that prioritize historically oppressed groups, citing examples where preferential selection caused greater divides and aggravated group conflict, “sometimes with disastrous consequences” (p. 13). 

It is worth noting that most of the critical literature against quotas and preferential hiring was written by people from the dominant culture who have benefitted from the current system, and may be shaping their viewpoints through an unconsciously biased lens. The 35//50 Initiative, in contrast, is endorsed by a community of culturally diverse artists and aligns with similar Indigenous-led literature that implores organizations to “avoid the single Indigenous hire into segregated positions”, in favour of “block hiring” that diversifies the whole team (Nixon, 2020, p. 1). 

Outreach & Recruiting

            As previously discussed, many organizations cite a lack of available candidates or applicants as cause for low diversity in their programs and projects (Wooden, 2016). Barnes (2016) did research about outreach strategies that diversified instrumental music ensembles at historically Black universities. The strategies Black students chose as most effective/relevant to them were “(1) Visiting predominantly African American/Black or Latino schools, (2) On-campus activities, and (3) Performance in African American/Black or Latino schools, communities, churches, etc.” (p. 94).These findings disproved a common belief that scholarships were the best way to recruit Black students; a belief rooted in stereotypes about ‘financial constraints’ being “the greatest barrier hindering [marginalized students] from gaining access to higher education” (Barnes, 2016, p. 94).  Organizations have spent years testing non-traditional outreach strategies such as those outlined above (Barnes, 2016; Berry, 1990; Moultrie, 1987). I believe the deeper question for programs to ask is whythey have to work so hard to attract students from marginalized and oppressed groups, and if the bedrock of their curriculum, systems, and ideologies are alienating those students.  It has become abundantly clear in 2020 (if not before) that this deeper work is needed if the industry is to create authentic and sustainable diversity; recruiting diverse artists into a system that was not built for them has not worked (Saha, 2017). Napoleão spoke from her perspective as an Alberta-based Brazilian actress, when she advocated for foundational change, “breaking the bedrock of white supremacist theatrical models… It is time for us to break up with our old ideals of theatre” (2020, para. 7). 

Holistic Responses   

            Wooden (2016) discussed the environment students should be brought into, where they “can safely question policies and offer reactions to current issues, experiences, events, or policies without fear of retaliation— a not-so-unusual experience often internalized by marginalized individuals” (p. 32). BIPOC theatre artists have echoed this request for anonymous, safe and accessible complaint processes, as well as access to culturally relevant mentors and faculty trained in inclusive methodologies that promote harm prevention and harm-reduction (We See You, 2020; Brewer, 2017; Killins, forthcoming). Wooden (2016) summarized this need to interrogate the very roots of our industry practice when she wrote: 

Diversification of the arts organization should not come by way of social engineering or more diverse candidate recruitment, but rather stems from a desire from individuals or groups to engage. If you build it, they still may not come. Arts organizations and arts administrators working to close the diversity gap should recognize the entrenched structural inequity that can exist within traditional business models… [where] attributes are fiscally driven. What if arts organizations shifted from institutionalized ownership practices to shared access and inclusivity of power? (p. 56).

Moving Beyond ‘Diversity’

            A deeper understanding of the causes and constructs that sustain oppressive structures in theatre may help organizations choose effective strategies. Though this review of the literature has laid out a web of influences that keep theatre inaccessible, theatre’s relationship to industrialization adds another level of societal complexity. Arguments that name a lack of representation as the primary cause of inequality can present increased diversity as an adequate solution. This simplified argument misses the broader systems perspective or ecosystem that theatre and inequality operate within (Saha, 2017, p. 304). Our Western economy is driven by the relationship between production and consumption. Therefore, inequalities manifest in the theatrical labour force as a lack of representation, but the root cause of this can be traced further up the pipeline to ideals of profitability and market viability (Saha, 2017). Peacock (1999) signalled the impact of neo-liberalism on theatre when he warned that an art form once presented as a public service was being continually pushed by the market-economy to “conceive of itself as a commercial enterprise” (p. 50). Saha (2017) debated, “cultural distribution, as the interface between production and consumption, is the site where racial inequalities are not just made apparent, but reproduced” (p. 305). This argument is the result of decades-long strategies (such as diversity policies) that have failed to produce much more than “a form of segregated visibility that reinforces racial inequalities” (Saha, 2017, p. 304). A broader analysis of cause and effect asks theatre makers and investors to imagine new approaches that tackle power and knowledge dynamics related to race (Gray, 2016; Saha, 2017). Saha (2017) stressed that organizations should address representation in the creative labour force while alsorecognizing “racism and racial inequality… as intrinsic to industrial cultural production of advanced capitalist societies” (p. 305). Further, Brook, O’Brien and Taylor (2020) shared the concern that diversity projects can be misused (intentionally or otherwise) to further benefit groups with social power. If organizations understand this, they have a better chance to move beyond hollow diversity projects that “serve an ideological function… while keeping racial hierarchies intact” (Saha, 2017, p. 315). Employing leadership that understands historical and intersectional power dynamics can mitigate unintended consequences, and make diversity projects more authentic (Saha, 2017). Therefore, collaboration and leadership from diverse artists and administrators iscritical to the realization of equity in the arts, but diversifying the labour force alone will not transform the exclusionary condition of Western theatre (Saha, 2017; Gray, 2016; Brook, O’Brien & Taylor, 2020). The literature suggests further paradigm shifts are needed for society to achieve social inclusion, including fair and equitable access to the arts. Gray (2016) wrote that inequality can’t be entirely solved “by the exchange of bodies and experiences responsible for making content,” but, “rather… by exposing the assumptions, micropractices, social relations, and power dynamics that define our collective cultural common sense about the nature of social difference and the practices of inequality(p. 246). 

            Institutions have an opportunity to re-evaluate the environment they create for students, paying attention to power dynamics and assumptions that may impact (and be impacted by) social difference. Loest (2019) identified that the primary condition for change is for schools to understand how implicit bias presents in the classroom. For example, conservatory programs may cite their program’s high standard for excellence as a barrier to adopting more inclusive practices such as accommodations for deaf or disabled students, caregivers, and others who struggle in the current model (Band, Lindsay, Neelands & Freakley, 2011). Castagno addressed the danger of  “excellence” as a sorting tool when she wrote, “although excellence and success are cast as neutral pursuits that benefit all students equally, they actually function to normatively sort students. This normative and sorting mechanism, hidden under the guise of equality, is a powerful tool of whiteness in schools” (p. 136). The literature highlights opportunities for institutions to ask reflective questions about their measure of excellence, by examining whether their notion of excellence is transparent to students, if it is being judged through a particular lens or bias, and if it serves the students and the community they are being prepared to work in. 

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