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Diverse culture needs diverse theater

The El Gallo taco truck parked smack in front of the entrance to the Oregon Shakespeare Festival's Thomas Theatre Friday morning was the first sign that something out of the ordinary was going on. Inside, a panel of theater experts agreed that in a changing America, increasing diversity is already a given. The question for the community is how it reacts, they said.

"Diversity is a fact," OSF Artistic Director Bill Rauch said. "Inclusion is what we do about this."

The public discussion, called “Creating Inclusivity in the American Theatre,” filled about half the Thomas. It was held in connection with the festival's CultureFest, which is observed every other year to salute the nation's multi-ethnic heritage and the diverse work on the OSF’s stages. CultureFest will continue through Sunday with readings, discussions, Green Show performances and open-captioned performances of three plays in Spanish.

Speakers often drew contrasts between aging, virtually all-white Ashland — The Ku Klux Klan marched here just a few years before the festival's founding, Rauch told the audience — and more diverse cities around the country where other major theaters operate.

Noted playwright Henry David Hwang, who is best known for the Tony-winning "M. Butterfly," said that famed theater impressario Joe Papp often talked of "a theater that looked like New York," a reference to that city's ethnic diversity. Papp in 1980 produced Hwang's first play, the Obie Award-winning "FOB," which depicted the contrasts and conflicts between established Asian-Americans and newly arrived immigrants.

Activist Carmen Morgan called for engagement on the part of theater professionals.

"It is the role of the artist to remind the revolutionary that the revolution is possible," she said.

Sarah Bellamy, of the African-American Penumbra Theatre in St. Paul, Minn., said her company reached out to young African-Americans in the wake of the shooting of an unarmed young man by police in Ferguson, Mo., and the unrest and controversy that followed. OSF Associate Producer Claudia Alick said she went to Ferguson and visited an African-American theater company in St. Louis in which kids talked about what they wanted to be when they grew up, then threw up their hands and said, "Hands up, don't shoot."

Penumbra was founded by Lou Bellamy, Sarah's father, in 1976, and is recognized for artistic excellence. Among the playwrights it helped launch was two-time Pulitzer Prize-winner August Wilson, many of whose plays have been produced at OSF. Each year Penumbra performs for more than 40,000 people and hosts educational activities for more than 5,000 students.

But despite its reputation, Bellamy said, Penumbra struggles to keep its doors open. Surveys have found that culturally specific theaters such as Penumbra typically get from 6 to 14 percent of their operating budgets from individual donors, while mainstream (white) theaters get as much as 60 percent of their budget in this way.

Hwang, who grew up in Los Angeles, said he once responded to an ad for a chance to study playwriting with Sam Shepard, and Shepard taught him to write from his subconscious.

"Only two of us applied," he said to a laugh. "So we both got in."

Hwang said he benefited from the controversy around casting for "Miss Saigon" when New York City's Public Theatre cast an Anglo actor as an Asian character in 1978, so a decade or so later, after "M. Butterfly," he felt he had to be "a steward of the principle" for young Asian-American actors coming along. He said that about 80 percent of roles on the New York stage still go to Caucasian actors.

"What can arts leaders do?" moderator Lydia Garcia asked Rauch.

"It starts with the work," Rauch said.

He said the festival — whose "middle name is Shakespeare" — had tried to honor its dead white-guy namesake while also expanding the classical repertory to include Japanese, Nigerian, Sanskrit and other plays. This year, he noted, four of the seven non-Shakespeare plays on OSF's three stages were written by women.

Garcia asked Morgan why the inclusivity movement was happening now. Morgan said the 2010 census helped galvanized people of color with the increasing diversity it showed. In the U.S., Anglos are expected to be a minority by 2042. She said many people would like to see theater work that matches the demographics of the nation as a whole.

"The OSF is a reference point nationally," she said. "What is your audience going to look like in 30 years."

Morgan said a theater patron from San Francisco told her he had the most diverse theater experience of his life when he saw his first August Wilson play — in Ashland.

(Correction: The playwright's name has been corrected in this story.)

"Expect that," she told the audience. "Become critical consumers of art ... when there's protest, it's not about nothing."

Rauch said inclusivity includes a money component. When some ticket prices push $100, they become an obstacle to diversity. Rauch said for that reason the festival has created flex passes, student tickets and $25 and $30 seats for every show all year. Also, holders of Oregon Trail Cards, from the program formerly known as Food Stamps, can get rush or unsold tickets an hour before a show for $5.

The weekend’s play readings include Josh Wilder’s "Leftovers" and Quiara Alegría Hudes’s "Elliot: A Soldier’s Fugue" — the first part of a trilogy that includes this season’s "Water by the Spoonful" and next season’s "The Happiest Song Plays Last." Ticket discounts are available for what the OSF called "underrepresented multicultural groups and individuals."

Bill Varble writes about arts and entertainment for the Mail Tribune. He can be reached at varble.bill@gmail.com.