The Asian American Performers Action Coalition has released its annual report examining representation on New York City stages. This year’s data reflects the 2017–2018 season on Broadway and across 18 major non-profit companies.
New to the report, produced in partnership with the American Theatre Wing, is a deeper look at the ramifications of the findings, underlining who exactly is telling BIPOC narratives as well as the economic impact on BIPOC artists that is often a result of underrepresentation. AAPAC has also introduced a letter grading system for non-profit theatre companies across the city, and has chosen to focus exclusively on racial inequity, having previously also covered gender equality and artists with disabilities.
The data indicates that while there have been some improvements among certain aspects of the New York theatre scene, this is by no means a blanket statement and there is still much progress to be made. Looking specifically at performances in the 2017–2018 season, 38.5 percent of roles were filled by BIPOC artists—a five point gain from the previous year, but still underrepresentative of the 67.8 percent of New Yorkers who are non-white.
Of the total performers, 23.2 percent were Black, 6.9 percent Asian-American, 6.1 percent Latinx, 2 percent MENA, and .2 percent Indigenous. Asian-Americans were the only group to drop from the prior season (having accounted for 7.3 percent of available roles in the 2016–2017 season).
As AAPAC explored their particular roles more thoroughly, they found that 20 percent of them were cast without regard to race (considered “inclusive casting,” referenced in past reports as “non-traditional”). Across non-profit companies, the Public Theater and Vineyard Theatre earned the highest marks for inclusive casting. While this figure is the highest it’s been in 12 years of these annual reports, it indicates that whiteness is still considered the norm in non-racially specific roles. Asian-Americans, in particular, were least likely to play non-Asian characters. The other 18.5 percent of BIPOC performers were in roles specific to their racial identity.
Still, despite the stage being comprised of 38.5 percent BIPOC artists and nearly 20 percent of the roles they fill centering on the BIPOC experience, 20.8 percent of NYC theatre productions were written by BIPOC writers, and 14.4 percent were helmed by BIPOC directors. Having a BIPOC creator did not necessarily indicate an increase in representation across other fields, either. Looking specifically at Broadway, four shows had Asian-American writers (M. Butterfly, Junk, Frozen, and Straight White Men). All four shows, however, had a majority white cast, and all eight Broadway shows written by at least one BIPOC writer had a white director.
“It raises the question,” reads the report: “Is there pressure on BIPOC writers to center white lives in order to be produced—especially on Broadway?”
Looking at the economic impact of these findings, AAPAC noted that many diverse productions are presented on non-profit companies’ smaller stages, which could lead to a lower contractual salary minimum than if in larger houses. While inconclusive as exact salaries are not published and many performers could negotiate higher salaries, the studies indicate that there is, on average, a $1.7 disparity between compensation for white artists and BIPOC artists.
Of the 18 non-profit companies in the study, five had a majority of roles filled by BIPOC individuals. The most diverse was Ars Nova, whose co-production of KPOP with Woodshed Collective and Ma-Yi Theater Company accounted for 20 percent of all Asian-American performer employment across the study. Ars Nova was followed by Signature Theatre, MCC, New York Theatre Workshop, and The Public Theater. Utilizing the new letter grading system that examines representation among actors, writers, directors, and leadership, the five companies received a grade of A- or higher. Conversely, three received an F rating: WP Theater, Roundabout Theatre Company, and Irish Repertory Theatre.
AAPAC, which earlier this year received a special citation at the Obie Awards for its advocacy, "has been committed to highlighting the racism that exists in New York theatre for almost a decade. Our stats have been a chronicle of how centered white lives have been—and continue to be—in our industry,” write co-chairs Pun Bandhu and Julienne Hanzelka Kim. “Theatre will come back, and when it does, it can’t return to ‘normal.’ We have a unique moment to come together as an industry during this pause and to demand better.”
To learn more and to read the full report, visit AAPACNYC.org.