Why Should We Support Grassroots Theater

by Lenka Belkova

in Diversity & Inclusion

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Art can serve as a poignant example of crossing cultural boundaries, as an offering space for personal transformation. It is a moment of deeper recognition of the other, an insight into different cultural expressions and mutual emotional connections. Let’s say that art has the power to build bridges across communities and facilitate dialogue across cultures. In fact, art has become a tool for cross-cultural communication. For that matter, art as a medium to bring together a diverse community was realized in Cleveland’s strategy to transform a blighted neighborhood into a thriving community.  Engaging with a disadvantaged population and local artists, the now known Gordon Square Arts District was incubated in the successful collaboration between Cleveland Public Theater, the City, and other local nonprofits, showing how community participation can make a difference.

Considering the above, it would seem to be evident that all theater companies would mirror the vision of cultural responsiveness within their own organizational structures. But often, the ideals of art’s meaning appear to be under represented within the organizational ranks. While art’s mission promises to act as an intermediary between diverse cultures toward integration, the organizational structure should be the breeding ground of such cultural values. It is to stress the art sector’s commitment to inclusive policies not only in its philosophical ideal, but also in everyday action. Theater, as part of the public sphere, needs to nurture the inseparable link between audience and organizational diversity. To attract new audiences, theaters need to speak their language.

The reasons why we need to nurture this ongoing dialogue about theaters’ diversity are many. Next to changing demographics and growing social awareness of theater practitioners, more sober reality looms around: shortage and unpredictability of arts funding and changing cultural production.

As Mark J. Stern and Susan C. Seifert write in Culture and Urban Revitalization: A Harvest Document the changing culture and economy are restructuring how we think of the arts. The impact of technology on the public sphere changes the relationship between audience and performer, amateur and professional, pushing the transformation of the arts field in new directions. Art can be practiced virtually anywhere and by anyone. The pendulum of duality between low and high art has burst into thematically specific theater companies that serve niche audiences. With the changing demographics, larger arts organizations have to pay greater attention to appeal to a more diverse spectrum of theatergoers. The inclusion of minorities into the production of art has become an imperative task for all cultural organizations. Moreover, restricted funding resources have impacted medium sized theater companies that keep fighting with chronic financial instability and still, regional theaters are not able to escape their association with white upper-middle class representation of dominant social values.

How can we ensure greater arts participation?

Sole top-down policies cannot be the only means of defining art organizations’ strategic plans for new audience engagement. For that matter, top-down policies often stir controversies when bare statistics are the only means of measurement, as in the case of Portland’s arts initiative, which seeks that arts groups be asked to increase the ethnic makeup of their staff, boards, and contractors. In order to meet greater diversity within cultural organizations, Portland’s Mayor Sam Adams and city Commissioner Amanda Fritz proposed to utilize a quota system within the arts in 2012. It is worthwhile to consider whether Portland’s strategy to implement a diversity quota for art and cultural organizations in order to be eligible for public funding is a good step. Criticism and questions that have been voiced regarding the initiative address the lack of resources smaller arts organizations have to perform assessments and to track numbers, as well as the claim that the initiative overlooks the greater systemic flaws of our society; that the imposed quota only displaces onto the arts organizations the real problem seeded in early education opportunities and socio-economic inequality that limits the access to art in the first place. And finally that quality of art production should not be compromised by the obligation to meet diversity quotas first.

On the other hand, a possible argument in favor of quota measures was presented at one of the San Francisco Bay Area’s theater diversity symposiums organized by Theater Bay Area in 2012, where theater practitioners and art advocates gathered to discuss successful practices in achieving organizational and audience diversity. Representatives from large and small sized theaters gathered with founders of community and independent theaters to share their experiences. During a lively discussion, a theater school teacher working in an underserved community expressed disappointment when describing her unsuccessful attempts to collaborate with local theaters and connect some of her exceptional actors with them. If quotas were in place, would companies be more active in responding to her call?

Be that as it may, strictly speaking of diversity in quantitative measures might come out as culturally insensitive. Documenting engagement with metrics leaves out the different cultural experiences that inform our identities. Hard numbers lack the witness to the intrinsic value of cultural exchange between agents: a two way street cognition. A successful integration of a new member into an existing community depends on how we facilitate a mutual dialogue. Number checking does not challenge institutional status quo, nor transform social consciousness by picking a few diverse members to satisfy a quota measure.

A common critique heard again at the symposium held at the Aurora Theatre in Berkeley, CA, pointed at larger regional theaters and their often too-white organizational culture. Not that these cultural institutions would not aspire to inclusive policies, but their historical identity aligns them by default with European high art elitism. To assure social cohesion during a time of political unrest in the 1960s, the US government used arts strategy to endorse common values and norms to unite society. Top-down arts agendas legitimized the European cultural bias of high art viewing certain forms of art as more suitable for raising cultural consciousness. Government policy thus implicitly strengthened the exclusion of non-mainstream communities from art participation. As a result, regional theaters became exemplary cases of imposition of Eurocentric aesthetics and values. The earned reputation of an elite institution shaped the identity of the organization that is now hard to shake off.

The antithesis to art’s top-down approach seems to be grassroots projects. By their anti-institutional design they have a greater potential to draw new audiences and advance audience engagement. Using this approach the definition of the artist changes with it too. The artist is now interpreted in relation to social and cultural conditions, while art reflects them. Art is not above social structures, but is an expression of these very structures, thus art finds an inseparable link to communal identity. Grassroots companies are important, for they provide empowerment through the sense of place, representing the community’s social and cultural values. Projects like the San Francisco DIVAfest, which showcases new works by women, San Francisco Fringe Festival, which brings independent grassroots theater companies on stage, Bindlestiff Studio, which presents Filipino-American works, or San Francisco Theater Pub, which welcomes new audience in non-traditional spaces such as a local cafés or bars, are all examples of grassroots projects that have the power to supply the missing link in the instrumental top-down approach.

Such organically grown small theaters and projects prioritize local playwrights, support emerging artists, and focus on new audience engagement. Unburdened by historical cultural bias, they contribute to the repositioning of the arts from elitist to inclusive arts policy. Greater participation of minorities in the arts redefines what art is and for whom it is made. Grassroots Theater enforces community identity, re-establishes social networks, helps the revitalization of urban areas, and cuts across divides of class, ethnicity, generation, gender, and culture. All that is done with almost no budget at all.

Moreover, historical memory matters when building inclusive environments, and policy initiatives should account for that too. Historical memory as a “structure of feeling,” that Raymond Williams described as shared meanings and values within a particular community, comes from a place marked with emotional attachment. In this respect, the grassroots informal art spaces share with the community the “commitment to place”, which is “grounded in the local and specific”. “The makers of Grassroots Theater are part of the culture from which the work is drawn” say Haedicke & Nellhaus in Performing Democracy: International Perspectives on Urban Community-based Performance. In other words, this concept of subjective feeling forms artistic representations that have risen from the community, as opposed to being imposed on the community from above, as the regional theaters are perceived to have done. Art is a process that rises from a community and art’s meaning becomes ascribed by the community.

The work that is embedded in the local, culturally-specific environment, while respecting that heritage, encourages self-representation along with collaborative practices among community members. Such relationships must be built from the bottom up. And maybe, building an effective, inclusive community should be “focused less on institutions’ contributions and more on the interdependencies among different players” as Mark J. Stern and Susan C. Seifert mention. This could also mean where traditionally leading institutions lack the flexibility needed for the task, other groups should take the responsibility to step in. Grassroots organizations are more flexible to respond to community needs and accommodate the changing demographics with collaborative programs.

If inclusiveness implies diversity, incentives or leading programs that culturally accommodate diverse groups of people, including race, low socio-economic status, ability, age, or cultural specificity, need to be continually supported to nurture a sense of belonging. Being represented within a dynamic community not as an anomaly but as an organic part of the local ecosystem, encourages a greater responsibility and awareness of one’s impact on the other. While top-down policies are often concerned with instrumental goals measured by quantitative data, grassroots movements tend to stress the intrinsic side of policy’s impact. Government practices need to encourage equality on all fronts of our society, but government policies need to be understood only as frameworks whose content is created within the social reality around us. Grassroots activities push for change and that change is coming from collaborative, community-oriented activities.


Lenka Belkova completed her MA in Humanities at San Francisco State University and continued her education at the University of Warwick, UK, studying International Cultural Policy and Management. Lenka received her BA in Sociology with minor in Theater from San Francisco State University. She has always been interested in the role of the art in society. As a Czech expat living in the US, she ultimately understands theater as a political endeavor that can challenge or reinforce one’s beliefs about the world. Therefore, she likes to explore theater’s potential to lead social change, as in her country of origin during 1989.