Tony Awards: Asian American Performers Action Coalition Talk Diversity in N.Y. Theater a Year After Broadway’s Pandemic Return
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As the 2022 Tony Awards honor the first full season of theater since Broadway’s return following the 18-month COVID-19 shutdown, a slew of timely topics will likely make their way into Sunday night’s monologues, acceptance speeches and segments.
Among them will be the pandemic, but so will inclusion and diversity. As the New York theater community reimagined itself with a series of protocols aimed at more safely producing live performances amid waves of COVID-19, it also pledged to take lessons from other major events of 2020. Both the Black Lives Matter protests and the swell of anti-Asian hate and attacks had many in the city’s theater community, Broadway and beyond, reconsidering how its own historical exclusion has played a role in the disparate, discriminatory experiences of its artists both onstage and off.
The best representative of diversity and inclusion efforts among this year’s Special Tony Honors for Excellence in Theatre may be the Asian American Performers Action Coalition, a group of AAPI theater creatives who have spent more than a decade working to increase visibility and opportunities for Asian and Asian Americans on New York’s stages. That effort has also extended to other historically marginalized groups, particularly BIPOC theater artists, through the AAPAC’s annual visibility report.
“This is an incredible group who have so much heart and compassion and dedication and commitment to being the best storytellers we can be,” actor-director-playwright and steering committee member Christine Toy Johnson told The Hollywood Reporter. “We are fighting for this because we know we belong and we feel so strongly about making the theater better by having us all be included.”
Fellow steering committee member and actor-producer Pun Bandhu says the collection of top actors, writers, directors and producers have in a decade created a vast network of talent that can tap into their collective knowledge to make sure “we help to hold that door open so that more artists can come through more easily.”
Speaking to The Hollywood Reporter ahead of the Tonys, where a single season of Broadway’s inclusion efforts will be on display, the duo open up about receiving the honor at this point in their organization’s history, how pandemic-timed inclusion efforts compare to past shifts on Broadway, and what New York theater still has to consider in order to achieve true equity.
Diversity and inclusion on Broadway have been a big part of the pandemic return season conversation and will be a likely topic at the Tonys. Your organization is also around 10 years old — a milestone. Why does the Tony Special Honor feel meaningful to you at this particular moment?
Christine Toy Johnson I feel like we’re very heartened that the industry has responded in the ways that it has as we’ve had these expanded conversations about racial inequities. They’re not new. We’ve been having them for a long time, but they’ve been expanded. I personally feel like it’s the beginning of the middle of the work, but it’s been so meaningful to us to feel that this work is being recognized and acknowledged. The last two years have been so difficult for everybody, adding to that the rise of anti-Asian violence and the impact that has had on storytellers. The idea of this direct thread between underrepresentation, the perpetuation of harmful stereotypes and the dehumanization of AAPI people leading directly to the anti-Asian violence has had such a profound impact on our community. To tie it into the joy of not only being recognized and acknowledged for the work that we’ve been doing for the past 11 years but also uplifting our community is really meaningful.
Being around for 10 years and producing, among other things, the visibility report means you’ve been present for some of the most substantial conversations around diversity and inclusion in New York’s theater community. How do you think the pandemic impacted that?
Pun Bandhu It’s hard to answer your question without going all the way back to our history. Why it means so much that we were recognized is because it’s a recognition that we have helped transform the industry. When we started the statistics, we did not realize what a powerful tool they would be. And we had to do it because there weren’t publicly available statistics at the time for us to even be able to talk about our invisibility. We couldn’t point to it. The power of the visibility report is that it provides context. You can track trends over time, you can see an overview of the industry. You can see where the gaps are. Most importantly, you can see how systemic these issues are. AAPAC started as a result of a Facebook post where I said, “I’m so glad that I have my first audition at this nonprofit mainstream theater, but I’m surprised that it’s my first audition there and 10 years after graduating from Yale School of Drama.” That opened up the floodgates to people saying, “I’ve never auditioned there either. I’ve never auditioned at these other powerhouse not-for-profits of mainstream theater.” It became this flashpoint — it doesn’t matter how well trained you are or where you went or how hard you worked. There are these obstacles that are in place and everybody experiences it — not just Asians but all BIPOC groups.
Is there any inclusion trend you feel is particularly relevant to how we are talking about diversity on Broadway this season and/or that might be reflected within this year’s Tony nominations?
Bandhu We call it, in the report, the scarcity model. We were able to see 11 years ago that the numbers for marginalized groups would go up and down. But in some years, African Americans would be higher and in other years, like the year of In the Heights, Latinos would surge. But then in that year, African Americans went down. There was this cap on how much diversity the industry could withstand. It never went above 20 percent for marginalized and underrepresented groups from year to year over the course of 10 years. Thinking that there’s only so much ground that can be given to marginalized groups … leads to this oppression Olympics, a system by which the power structure benefits from having all the marginalized groups competing against each other. What our statistics help to prove is that it’s a larger problem that has to do with centering white narratives and artists at the expense of all else. How else can you explain that 100 percent of all the artistic directors at the mainstream not-for-profits in New York City have historically been white, if not by a system of selective exclusion?
Johnson I also want to add that I think that there’s been this ongoing myth about [AAPI talent] not existing, which is why we’re not represented. That keeps getting perpetuated, the idea that there aren’t Asian American actors or Asian American writers — or pick a category that has been put in our faces over and over again — when we’re actually in the room.
The pandemic season saw a shift in terms of Black representation, with a historic number of Black playwrights among other notable inclusion wins beyond the Black community. Was there a moment before this past season that might have laid the groundwork for this beyond the pandemic?
Bandhu When Hamilton appeared on the scene, that was when Broadway producers were like, wow, people will actually pay top dollar to go see what they would say are minorities. Then, finally, we were able to see percentages rising above 20 percent. But then you do a deeper dive and you see, yes, there are more people of color being cast, but they’re all in featured roles, chorus roles — serving as a backdrop. Even when they are principal actors, the writers were white, the directors were white, and they were being put in or shoehorned into white narratives. That’s something that our report points out very clearly before the pandemic and it’s only now that we’re centering Black playwrights.
When you had a show that was about the experience of a marginalized group, it was always a musical, always directed by a white director. So the question of whose stories get told and who gets to shape those stories becomes really paramount within this nuanced understanding of what increased diversity must mean. It’s a record year in terms of Black playwrights and Black artists on stage. It’s something that needs to and must be celebrated — and to see a willingness to build upon that. But I think I could count on one hand the number of Asian actors I saw as a Tony nominator on Broadway this year and I think it’s reflected by the dearth of Asian nominees. There’s two Asian nominees this year, both lighting designers, which is fantastic. If they win, it’ll be historic, the first time that an Asian American lighting designer has won the Tony. But they are also roles that are behind the scenes. There’s still an issue of visibility.
While there have been quite a few historic moments this season in terms of inclusion, many of those shows are gone or are closing by early fall, meaning that visibility hasn’t been sustained.
Bandhu The question is, how do we make Broadway shows more accessible to the audience. It’s such a shame that For Colored Girls is closing. It’s so powerful and so healing. It’s the balm that I didn’t know I needed. But Broadway hasn’t cultivated a diverse audience. It hasn’t been in the business of doing that, and it needs to be. Yes, there are initiatives to bring high school students in and public school students, but for the most part — and this goes with the nonprofits as well — if you see the Lincoln Center and you see white people always going inside and you’re walking by as a person of color who has never had the experience of going to see theater, you would think, “Oh, that fancy building is not for me.” So how do you get people who are not in the habit to actually experience it? Broadway prices are astronomical and that is another barrier to entry as well. So we really need to shift that. I’m a Broadway producer and I understand the commercial need to sell tickets and that if we don’t sell it at that price, StubHub is going to. But within those economics, how do we also make known that there are plenty of discounts that are available? How do we make sure that people who are outside of that experience are able to recognize that this is something that will speak to me?
Johnson I’m also thinking about how at the very beginning of the season, there were so many Black playwrights represented at a time when we were still trying to get audiences back into the theater and feeling comfortable. So it’s great that there were so many Black playwrights in the season, but they also had to battle the industry coming back and the audience’s coming back — it was such a heartbreaking disservice. There was that show that Margaret Cho did All American Girl, and then 20-something years until Fresh Off the Boat. I think a lot of people used the excuse that the show wasn’t successful. I’m hoping that it’s not the same kind of thing that happens on Broadway. For Colored Girls got great reviews, but had to close because the business for all the reasons we mentioned wasn’t there plus the challenge of getting audiences back into the theater. This pandemic is still going on. That’s a big challenge.
In terms of AAPI representation, there wasn’t a lot on Broadway this season for major roles. I’m thinking most recently of Zachary Noah Piser in Dear Evan Hansen, Andrea Macasaet in SIX. Off-Broadway seemed to reflect more. Why do you think that is?
Johnson I think part of it is that a lot of off-Broadway theaters are nonprofit organizations with mission statements that include the imperative to reflect the world as it is. So they do it and perhaps that also is followed by the fact that their reputation is that they might be willing to open up opportunities and tell stories that might not be “commercially viable,” whatever that means based on whoever gets to decide what that means. There are initiatives that I think might be more apt to expand their audience base intentionally to be radically inclusive in a way than perhaps Broadway producers who might have a different kind of bottom-line approach to how they’re cultivating their audiences. That’s my immediate response.
Bandhu I wouldn’t let the nonprofits off the hook so easily. Eleven years ago when we started, it was our lack of visibility within the nonprofit space that really led the charge.
Johnson That’s very true.
Bandhu Over the years nonprofits have not materially always done better than commercial Broadway when it comes to diversity. It wasn’t until 2016 that diversity became part of the national conversation in a way that it hadn’t before. There were things like Hamilton, but also things were coming to a head where artists of color were standing up for themselves. But on Broadway, the risks are higher and so it’s much rarer for someone who has not had a proven track record in directing or in writing to get produced at that level commercially. One of the great things that the nonprofits started to do was analyze how can we get more artists of color; who have we been excluding. They were realizing that their inner circle was very small. And on the margins of that, off-off-Broadway at the Soho Rep, there was a Yale School of Drama trained director who won an Obie Award for a show 10 years ago but had never been able to translate that into mainstream theater. Suddenly, 10 years later, she was given a chance to direct a show at the Signature Theatre — more mainstream off-Broadway. We have a whole list of artists who one year we recognized had never been in our database before. We started doing research on them and were like, they’re the Associate Artistic Director of the Apollo Theater. They’ve been working regionally for years. So it’s not a pipeline issue. It’s just that the not-for-profits suddenly got smart as to looking harder and broader for talent and not just hiring the same people again and again.
This season has seen many new and older organizations coalescing to hold the industry to account and find ways to make inclusion more significant on their own and by partnering with legacy organizations. How have you been working with other organizations, particularly around the inclusion data?
Johnson We have become allies with a lot of these organizations. There is a website called countingtogether.org. It brings in stats about lighting designers and set designers, about women and not just on Broadway. Some of it is industry-wide. There are disability statistics because our artists with disabilities are often left out of these conversations or our trans and binary colleagues are left out of these conversations. I’m a Treasurer of the Dramatists Guild, so I’ve been working with them on some of the stats about playwrights that The Lilies actually began through The Guild. It’s been great to become allies with different organizations that are interested in seeing how stats really can help move the needle.
Bandhu It really has helped to create a movement. We focus on New York City, but we’re also helping a group in Chicago establish the same counting. As Christine said we have people counting orchestra musicians — who gets to be in there. We have high schoolers and college students who are analyzing what types of shows are being produced across the college network.
Johnson And I think the important message here is that there is no parity across the industry. That’s what our coming together actually points out. So hopefully people see this and say let’s really try to do something about that, in earnest and with intentionality.
While Asian representation still has a lot of room to grow on Broadway, there’s a conversation around the institutions that have long supported BIPOC work off of it. How did New York’s Asian theatres’ play a role during the pandemic season and how were they impacted by it?
Bandhu There are at least four Asian American theatre companies in New York, which is more than most cities in the U.S., but the problem is that resources are not flowing to them. In our last study, we did an impact report — the very first — on racial equity and arts funding in New York City. We pointed out that the predominantly white and mainstream theatres were getting the lion’s share of the funding and the smaller theaters had to do more with less. They didn’t have armies of development people writing grants. There’s this mentality in the funding community that the bigger you are, the more you need to give to it. The more you need to feed the beast. Instead, we argued for a reframing of that, especially post-pandemic when most of the essential workers were BIPOC people. These Asian American theatre companies and other theaters focused on artists of color were the ones who were taking care of their community during the pandemic. They were the ones who were telling the stories that matter to those communities. They’re the ones who are on the ground. They’re the ones who have the immediacy of being able to support those artists that are telling those stories. They’re a hub of their community and they’re doing so much more than just producing theatre
Johnson I also want to add that what’s ironic is that a lot of the larger institutions that are getting the larger amounts of funding are getting that funding to do diversity, equity and inclusion work.
What do you think is a big takeaway from the inclusion that we’ve seen on Broadway and beyond this year and what do you hope to see more of both for theater and your organization?
Bandhu The last five Pulitzer Prize winners have gone to writers of color. They’re the ones that are telling the interesting stories that haven’t been told before, the stories that are changing the landscape of American theatre. I think this is a renaissance for writers of color, actually. I know so many amazing Asian American writers, Christine included, who are reimagining the landscape and asking new questions. And I think that is what audiences are hungry for. I think the success of Strange Loop is very promising in terms of that potential pipeline of nonprofits producing something that could transfer to Broadway, especially the type of show that has ever been on Broadway before.
Johnson I think that we all hope that the visibility from this honor will only increase exponentially and help people see us even more as a way to know our stories matter. That our stories, not only about us but that are populated with us, deserve to have a place on Broadway. And hopefully we won’t have to exist. Unfortunately, I think we will still have to exist but I think that’s the goal. We love each other and we will always gather together for a cocktail and a good meal, but I think the goal is not to have to exist anymore, to not have to point out how we’re not being seen.
source : https://www.hollywoodreporter.com/lifestyle/arts/asian-american-performers-action-coalition-diversity-tonys-2022-1235163909/