No Tug of War Between Diversity and Success

Recently, as this article from the Los Angeles Times explains in-depth, leaders in the world of Los Angeles theater got together and talked about a whole range of things. The conversation eventually turned in the direction of diversity.

Of course, this is a very worthwhile topic, particularly as the audiences in most theaters of significant size tends not to be a representative cross-section of the cities in which they are situated.

On the other hand, these conversations seem to drift in a direction that puzzles me a little bit, because I don’t see the assumptions underlying that direction being valid. People seem to propose and then other people seem to accept a tug of war between having minorities and marginalized groups of different kinds being represented and commercial success. I just don’t think such a tug of war exists, unless marketers and organization leaders get stuck in a negative self-fulfilling prophecy about it.

There is no guaranteed way to make “safe” material designed for a white, affluent, elderly audience financially successful. If at some point in our cultural history there was, that time has passed.

The only way to be assured of financial success … Actually, there is no way to be assured of financial success. It turns out that marketing a very expensive, totally optional purchase on a large scale is quite difficult.

A show like "Avenue Q" appeals to all kinds of audiences.

“Avenue Q” was a surprise hit because it was good, and that’s what attracts diverse audiences.

Let’s try this: It’s just plain difficult to find great material, but wherever you find it, it will drive sales and probably lead to success. Whether you’re talking about The Book of Mormon, Avenue Q or any of a number of other foul-mouthed productions that have been highly successful in houses where people swore the staid, old audience would not accept them, shows that are good transcend a lot of different kinds of lines.

That should be the primary criteria. And if it is, if the pursuit of things that really knock it out of the park for audiences is what drives programming choices, it’s my belief that diversity will flow from that. On the other hand, if you feel you’re stuck between doing “the right thing” by having more diverse source material and being successful with “safe” material, that’s a pretty near certain formula for failure.

In the past this may not have been true. It’s true now.

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