Count Me In: Racial Disparity in Theatre Personnel Hurts The Future

Volunteer labor has been a substitute for capital since the start of the regional theater movement. Without this subsidy many theaters would be fundamentally different – and some would close. If we don’t develop new ways to value, welcome, and stay engaged with tomorrow’s volunteers, the not-for-profit theater sector’s most valuable subsidy will dry up. StateraArts is thrilled to publish a 4-part series this week by Meg Friedman based on her research COUNT ME IN: Leveraging Generational Differences to Sustain Volunteer Engagement.

Art by Sarah Greenman

Art by Sarah Greenman

Count Me In, Part 2: Racial Disparity in Theatre Personnel Hurts The Future

By Meg Friedman

Regional American Theaters are viable because of volunteer hours. Counting who volunteers, and the value of their time – and understanding how volunteers identify – is an imperative to continuing relevance.

American communities are changing. Among other expert sources, the Pew Research Center tells us that within just a few decades, the notion of a white majority in the US will be more myth (or memory) than fact. There is no value judgment here about what shifting racial demographics mean, but it is critical that theaters anticipate this in their programming, staffing, and organizational strategy. Neglecting to do so almost certainly consigns theaters to dwindling financial and personnel resources, as their cultural relevance is reduced to a smaller and smaller slice of the population.

Data on audiences, staff, and freelance artists show that, as an industry, American not-for-profit theaters are overwhelmingly white. Yet there is no comprehensive approach to documenting and understanding the demographics of the people who make theater. Audience studies, analyses of staff and freelance workers, and Board studies all get done. Some of them are shared with the public, but where is a comprehensive data collection model? If it exists, it’s behind a pay wall. Simply: we do not have the tools to state with confidence that the people connected, in any fashion, to theaters in the US resemble the general population more or less than they did five, ten, or twenty years ago, or that we as a sector can understand what changes may be needed to stay relevant as demographic changes continue to shape our communities. As stakeholders throughout the arts question representation more thoughtfully and forcefully, we must find a better way to count who is engaged with the field. 

Okay, so what does that look like?

One of the first gaps to address is the big, generous elephant in the room: the volunteers. From ushers to occasional painters, potluck dinner chefs to folks who pour Dixie cups of wine at fundraisers, this unpaid labor force is vital to doing business and virtually invisible in the accounting. It is also highly likely that it is even more white than the Boards, staff, freelancers, and audiences of theaters.

According to national data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the volunteer rate has been dropping for all racial and ethnic groups except people identifying as Hispanic since 2011. For all non-white groups, the volunteer rate has remained consistently under 22% – suggesting, that a) volunteer data from organizations of color don’t get counted, or b) that available volunteer opportunities are not as appealing to people of color as they are to white people.

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What should we do about this? Start counting – people, hours, demographics, and the equivalent in dollars that volunteers give through their contributions of time.

While for some theaters it might be risky to reverse-engineer volunteer hours into their cash flow or tax return, it’s also terribly risky to leave this labor force out of the math altogether. Danny Feldman, Producing Artistic Director at the Pasadena Playhouse, shared concerns when we spoke in 2017 that the perceived value (and retention) of volunteers was a strategic challenge for the field; in the time since, the Friends of the Pasadena Playhouse has revamped its website, and now proudly states the dollar value of the hours contributed for the most recent year – a whopping $921,734.02 in 2018, representing over 32,000 hours. (The Friends used the Independent Sector rate for State of California to reach this assessment – more about that here.) 

The existing data on volunteer demographics is vanishingly slim. (For a thoughtful examination of volunteer trends and issues in LA County, see this report. I’d love to see this approach reproduced on a grander scale.) A service organization like TCG, which already gathers extensive theater data, could lead the conversation toward personnel makeup and a broader definition of resources than just financial data. With respect for the TCG Board, staff, and volunteers, this effort may simply not be desirable or feasible. But the opportunity is open for a researcher or organization to start counting. Before falling volunteer availability and interest cause serious pain in the field, we should understand who’s subsidizing the work with their time – so we can plan accordingly.

This blog has been adapted from Count Me In: Leveraging Generational Differences To Sustain Volunteer Engagement. For the full report, click HERE. Here are the links to Part 1 , Part 3, and Part 4.


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Meg Friedman is a Consultant with AMS Planning & Research, where her work includes strategic planning, facility feasibility, and a range of other research and decision-making services. Meg’s work touches arts and entertainment industry trends ranging from consumer preferences to venue design and the arts workforce. She has created dynamic financial models for small planning studies to multi-million-dollar facilities.

Past projects include the inaugural strategic plan for Assets for Artists, a program of MASS MoCA, and a strategic plan for the New England Foundation for the Arts. Meg has researched trends and best practices in arts venue development for the City of Boise, Idaho, the Kentucky Center for the Arts, and the City of Vaughan, Ontario. She has provided research for a chapter in Routledge’s Performing Arts Center Management and was a contributor to the 11th edition of Stage Management by Lawrence Stern and Jill Gold. Current projects include the planning of a new performing arts center in Sarasota, Florida, and research to define an arts sector investment strategy for The McConnell Foundation in Redding, California.

Meg holds a Master of Arts in Arts Administration from Goucher College and a BA in Theater Design and Production from UCLA. Prior to joining AMS, Meg was an AEA stage manager and worked on Broadway and Off-Broadway, as well as at leading regional theaters. She also served as a moderator for SMNetwork.org, the original free web forum for stage managers.

Meg tweets from @AMSarts and @megf_miles.