Inclusion and Diversity in American Theatre

Photo at night of a pavement with a sign in bright yellow which reads DEAF CHILD

Clara Giraud, Project Manager for Unlimited, headed to the Theatre Communications Group annual conference in Washington DC, with a delegation of theatre programmers, artistic directors, producers and relationship managers from Arts Council England.

As the United States’ culture is so intricately linked to British culture, I had made a lot of assumptions as to how they approached the themes of inclusion and diversity, and of the climate in the performing arts sector.

The conference took place in an American-sized commercial hotel complex, huge corridors, huge rooms, and a really warm welcome. It kicked off with a briefing session, attended by 500 people (about half of the attendees), which not only presented the programme and activities to come, but also addressed head-on questions of inclusion: ASL interpreters, spaces for nursing moms and for people to pray, spaces for Ramadan observers, quiet spaces; meetings for affinity groups for a wide range of racial, gender and sexual orientation, some of which welcome allies and others that do not on this occasion. Gender neutral toilets. Food preferences. Codes of conduct to promote respect and inclusion. The audience nodded, cheered, clapped, clicked their fingers in approval, and I was caught in a heart-warming wave of welcome. This opening address was far more inclusive and welcoming than any other national or international conference I have ever attended.

And so it unfolded. The words ‘inclusion’ and ‘diversity’ ever present in all the conversations, which blew me away. After some time, however, I realised those words, when applied to the actions theatres here were taking, were linked to ‘race and gender’, but never to ‘disability, class, religion, culture’. American Theatre is tackling issues of race and gender head-on, attempting to salve a deep wound that the UK theatre is also slowly (too slowly) acknowledging. However, embracing inclusion with regards to disability was on the margins and according to the conversations I have had, destined to remain so in the wider performing arts sector for the near future at least. Whilst I had the privilege to see DJ Kurs, Artistic Director of Deafwest receive the Peter Zeisler Award for artistic ingenuity and integrity for their stunning production of Spring Awakening which was on Broadway until earlier this year, this felt to me an exception in the wider sector. There were a few sessions about relaxed performances, supporting disabled people in the workplace, and an insight into deaf theatre – but these were in very low attendance. These sessions took a practical and training approach, which is necessary, but it felt that the wider debate of why and how can the sector, as a sector, support disabled artists and be welcoming to disabled audiences, was lacking. There was no ‘creative case’ as we might say in the UK.

It was great to hear of Dog and Pony company, based in Washington DC, who make ensemble-devised theatre combining spoken English and ASL. And of the Imagination Stage in Maryland, a dedicated venue for young people which takes and all-inclusive approach to everything it does. I also had the privilege to visit The Kennedy Centre, meeting with the inspiring Betty Siegel and getting an insight into how they make their programme which spreads across 6 different theatres accessible to all.

During the trip, I got an insight into potential that exists in cross-Atlantic exchange: the hunger for conversation, for best practice to be shared, for ideas to be challenged and expanded together. I’m pleased that Unlimited’s International Commissions callout will offer an opportunity to put art at the forefront of the wider discussion about inclusion and diversity. Full details for the commissions callout will be announced late July, please join our newsletter to be notified, and cook up cross-Atlantic and international ideas to apply with them later this year.

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