AAPAC’s New Theatre Diversity Study Underscores Prominence of White Leadership on NYC Stages

The Asian American Performers Action Coalition has released its annual Visibility Report, which tracks racial representation on and off New York City’s theatrical stages. The latest findings focused on the 2018–2019 season—the last complete season prior to the coronavirus shutdown.

The report underscored the continued need for visibility not just on stage, but in creative roles and positions of power. “We have been fighting for a seat at the table, but now realize this is minority-thinking,” write Pun Bandhu and Julienne Hanzelka Kim. “We must be part of building a new table.”

According to AAPAC’s study, white actors were the most represented on stage, appearing in 58.6 percent of all roles on New York City stages (Broadway and non-profit Off-Broadway) accounted for, meaning they were over-represented by 25 percent to their population size in the city. Comparing year over year, Black performers were the only group to have increased visibility from the previous season, jumping from 23.2 to 29 percent. By contrast, Asian-American representation dipped from 6.9 to 6.3 percent, Latinx representation from 6.1 to 4.8 percent, MENA actors from two percent to 1.3, and Indigenous actors down to zero, from only .2 percent the season prior.

Generally, representation was more balanced on non-profit stages, where 45.5 percent of roles went to actors who were not white. However, Broadway surpassed the Off-Broadway sector when it came to hiring BIPOC performers in non-racially-specific roles (though they were twice as likely to be cast in chorus positions as opposed to principal roles).

When it comes to who’s shaping these stories off stage, however, white designers and artistic leaders were decidedly prominent over their BIPOC peers. AAPAC says that 93.8 percent of directors on Broadway were white in the 2018–2019 season; Off-Broadway, white people accounted for 78.7 percent of director positions (BIPOC directors increased by 5.9 percent in this space from the previous year). Numbers were similar for designers: 92.6 percent white on Broadway, 73.3 percent at non-profits.

Of the 34 productions in the season with at least one BIPOC writer, 20 were helmed by white directors. White directors were five for five on Broadway productions with a BIPOC writer.

While non-profits focused more on racially-specific stories and BIPOC were more represented than on Broadway, leadership positions catered largely to white individuals. Of the 18 largest Off-Broadway companies, virtually all had white artistic directors, and 88 percent of board members were white. On Broadway, 93.6 percent of producers were white, as were 100 percent of general managers.

After being put through AAPAC’s grading system, The Public Theater was determined the most diverse Off-Broadway theatre, with 133 out of 272 positions being held by BIPOC artists and leaders. Among the factors that led to this were a board comprised of 26.7 percent BIPOC members, and over 61.2 percent of roles going to BIPOC actors. Among the productions in this tally was the all-Black staging of Much Ado About Nothing at Shakespeare in the Park. The study does note, however, that only 3.4 percent of roles went to Asian-American actors.

READ: How American Stages Should Look in the Future, According to a Cohort of Emerging BIPOC Producers

New to the report this year was an examination of how public and private funding is distributed, leading to the conclusion that theatre companies spotlighting and serving BIPOC communities were underfunded in comparison to larger, white-led organizations. The disparity was especially prominent in private donations and federal- and state-level funding (and more equitable on the city level).
Though their effects have not yet been documented in these studies, myriad initiatives have launched to increase leadership opportunities for BIPOC theatre workers in the wake of the Black Lives Matter-led movement against systemic racism and a wave of anti-Asian violence during the coronavirus pandemic. Such programs and organizations include Theatre Producers of Color’s inaugural Producing 101 course, The Industry Standard Group, the Shubert Organization’s Artistic Circle, and Broadway for Racial Justice’s nine-week Casting Directive.

AAPAC received a special citation at the Obie Awards in 2020 for its advocacy. “We want nothing more than to emerge from this pandemic with gratitude and joy, to embrace our beloved art form, and to welcome audiences again,” Bandhu and Kim write on behalf of the group. “Let’s all work to create the conditions whereby that can happen for all of us. This report outlines where the work needs to begin.”

Learn more about the volunteer-driven organization and the full report at AAPACNYC.org.