In 2003, the National Football League instituted a policy that requires League teams to interview minority candidates for open head coaching and general manager positions. There’s no requirement to hire, just a requirement to interview qualified candidates. According to Jim Joseph, a consultant in arts administration, member of The Broadway League’s Diversity Council, and theatre manager at the Samuel J. Friedman Theatre, commercial theatre may benefit from implementing similar principles in creating a more balanced and diverse landscape of the work produced on Broadway. (See, theatre and sports do mix.)
Joseph presented his query about commercial theatre’s struggle for diversity—in the stories we tell and in the storytellers hired at every level of the process—in his Talk at this year’s TEDxBroadway.
He noted that between David Henry Hwang, Quiara Alegría Hudes, Lynn Nottage, Suzan Lori-Parks, Charles Fuller, and Nilo Cruz there are six Pulitzer Prizes and three Tony Awards; yet, their collective works have received eight original Broadway productions. Contrastingly, David Mamet, Richard Greenberg, and Martin McDonough have one Pulitzer Prize and one Tony Award between them; their collective works have received 26 original Broadway productions.
“With the majority of the gatekeepers on Broadway white, there is a natural disposition to select ‘white stories,’” Joseph said during his TED Talk. “It’s not a blanket statement, but we know theatre owners give priority to producers they feel have a track record of producing successful shows—that’s their prerogative. Producers tend to work with the same creators, who they have had success with in the past. That makes it really hard for new creators to get into the room where it happens.”
That’s when Joseph looked at the Rooney Rule.
“It was at a TCG [Theatre Communications Group] conference that I attended in November 2012 when talk of the Rooney Rule for theatre started,” Joseph tells Playbill. “There’s isn’t a ruling body that can enforce it like in the NFL, but we are aware of the positives in diversity from the top down.”
If theatre owners or producers (or both) held themselves to a standard that required them to consider the work of a minority writer, or consider a minority candidate in their pool of directors, could Broadway’s leaders—and, in turn, its stories—become more diverse?
Currently, there is no data to rule either way, but it’s certainly a prospect worth considering. Joseph recognizes the dangers of imposing quotas and “token interviews,” but he also believes that for every misstep, there is the prospect of a success story.
“This business is all about apprenticeship and mentorship on every level,” says Joseph. “It’s all about who the decision makers are.” The office interns, dramaturgical fellows, and associates of today become the advertising CEOs, playwrights, and directors of tomorrow. Joseph argues the importance of considering candidates of varying backgrounds—no matter what the final decision. “I’ve always felt a responsibility when it comes to early career arts administrative professionals, to give them the opportunity and to mentor.”
For those who worry about profitability, Joseph points to a 2015 study published by McKinsey & Co that showed “companies in the top quarter for ethnic diversity are 35 percent more likely to outperform those companies in the bottom quarter.” Now, Broadway is not a corporation, but it is a collection of individual business “owners.” The research suggests fear of empty seats in theatres is a false one—and one Hollywood is gradually disproving with movies like Black Panther and television series like Big Little Lies.
It’s a “vicious circle of inclusion,” says Joseph. “Producers feel that people of color don’t see shows and don’t come to Broadway, where people of color feel there are no shows that appeal to them. Assumptions are made on both ends. Just like diversifying creatives on Broadway, diversifying the audience is long term.”
Still, there must be a first step in order to cross the finish line.
The Rooney Rule may not be practical for Broadway, but: “Is it possible for the producers, theatre owners, and various gatekeepers to take a step back and look at how they do business and try to invoke the spirit of such a rule?” Joseph asked in his Talk. “Probably, possibly, and hopefully.”
Ruthie Fierberg is the Senior Features Editor of Playbill covering all things theatre and co-hosting the Opening Night Red Carpet livestreams on Playbill's Facebook. Follow her on Twitter @RuthiesATrain, on Instagram @ruthiefierceberg, or via her website.