Of the people, for the people

by Cori Thomas

in Audience & Community Engagement

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(This post is part of the Audience (R)Evolution online salon curated by Caridad Svich for the TCG Audience (R)Evolution Convening in Kansas City, MO in 2015.)

I had the privilege of attending a “diversity in the theater” conference a few years ago. The participants were Artistic Directors and Board members. The reason was that they are the actual people making the decisions. This was an eye opener to me. The most surprising thing was that the Artistic Directors frequently defer to the Board members. The Board members are usually financial supporters of the theater. They are bankers and doctors and people who enjoy the arts but don’t necessarily practice it. Regarding the issue of diversity, it became clear that a lot of learning needed to take place in order to understand what a racial divide even is. I realized that Artistic Directors frequently choose programming to please the Board, and not necessarily because of their demanding it. Because the Board is frequently not diverse, they may choose a subject matter and plays they feel will be safe and “understandable” and so therefore enjoyed. If you want money from someone it makes sense to try to please them. It seems the audience is the last important factor when programming. It was interesting to hear a theater speak of a “black” play that had had the largest attendance ever, but defend their subsequent seasons when either a “black”play was not done or just one safe play, and by safe I mean something tried and true; by saying they might not be able to count on the ticket sales. I learned a very important lesson years ago. I had a written a play that housed a lot of ”foreign” characters: a multi ethnic lesbian couple and a character with a serious disability. There was a reading of this play in front of the subscribers to this theater, a primarily senior citizen Irish audience. I sat in the back of the space realizing no one on the stage resembled those watching it except for us creatives. I expected to be possibly stoned or have a mass walk-out. Nothing could have prepared me for the standing ovation this reading received, or the talk back where elderly Irish men spoke lovingly of my Dominican Lesbian and African American characters and addressed each character in the play using their first names, discussing their wishes and issues as if they personally knew them. At that moment, I learned two important lessons: 1. That I should just write for people. Because regardless of age, race, or nationality; a play can be universally appreciated. 2. That audiences are smarter and more open than we think. I realized that I was thinking like many Artistic Directors and Board Members and deciding what would be interesting to an audience based on our own biases. Theaters need to take more risks on new work. They have to risk alienating an audience because they may not succeed.  Playing it safe and repeating the same programming is not likely to bring more audience in. The same old same old people will be the only ones coming. I do realize donations and funding and board members and Artistic Director are important to the process. I appreciated the conference trying to educate and show the mirror in which we can see ourselves reflected. I, an African American female playwright found myself innocently guilty of deciding what the audience would like or not based on the subject matter and race of my own play. So, it’s an interesting subject and one that has many differentiating angles from which to come in. We do need to see more new plays and more risk taking based on the work and not the distinguishing labels we give the target audience or the playwright. This will open the door to more diversity in playwrights, and probably a larger audience. Imagine that?

IMG_9779.jpgheadshotaCori Thomas  is a playwright and actress who lives in New York City. Her plays include: When January Feels Like Summer (City Theatre Co, PA, EST,P73,Women’s Project NYC); Pa’s Hat (Pillsbury House Theatre, MN); My Secret Language of Wishes (Various theaters and University productions including Mixed Blood, MN); The Princess, The Breast, and, The Lizard; The Unusual Love Life of Bedbugs and Other Creatures; Waking Up; His Daddy; our lives, our fortunes, and our sacred honor. Thomas’ plays have been developed and produced at Sundance Theatre Lab, Goodman Theatre, City Theatre Company (Pittsburgh), Page 73, Rockefeller Brothers Fund, Playwrights Horizons, Lark Play Development Center, The Ensemble Studio Theatre, Going To The River, Pillsbury House Theatre, Mixed Blood Theatre, Penumbra Theatre, Passage Theatre, The Playwrights Realm, New Federal Theatre, New Georges, The Black Rep (St. Louis), The New Black Fest, and Queens Theatre in the Park.  She has been commissioned by South Coast Rep Theatre, Sloan Foundation/EST, NYSCA/EST, Pillsbury House Theatre. She has received a grant from the Jerome Foundation and has been a Sundance Institute Fellow and a MacDowell Fellow. Publications:  (Smith and Krauss Best short plays 2010) His Daddy. (Smith and Krauss Selected monologues and scenes 2011) When January Feels Like Summer.  Awards and Honors: Edgerton Foundation New Play Award,  2008 Sundance Theatre Lab Fellow, and  2011 American Theatre Critics Association Osborn Award for Best New Play (When January Feels Like Summer) ; 2005 Theodore Ward Prize (My Secret Language of Wishes), 2003 2nd Place Theodore Ward Prize (“our lives, our fortunes, and our sacred honor….”). She is  a co-founder of The Pa’s Hat Foundation, Inc. an organization focused on helping Liberia heal after the long standing civil war through focus on arts education and culture appreciation.

Photo Credit: Christine Jean Chambers


Audience (R)Evolution is a four-stage program to study, promote and support successful audience engagement and community development models across the country. The Audience (R)Evolution grant program was designed by TCG and is funded by Doris Duke.