“FOR OUR FIRST 17 seasons we really focused on the mid-20th-century masters... people who are in the theater textbooks,” says Profile Theatre Interim Artistic Director Lauren Bloom Hanover. “Because of the nature of our society, those people generally were white and male.... The people who are going to be be the 21st-century masters are a much more diverse pool of people, and that’s really exciting and we want to be be part of establishing the canon of this new century... and making sure that canon is inclusive.”
That’s the thinking behind the local theater company’s commitment to deliberately producing diverse plays. “We have featured primarily white men,” says Hanover. “Let’s commit for three years to just absolutely do something different. For three years, we will only feature female playwrights and playwrights of color.”
It’s a common-sense response to a deep-seated, well-documented lack of diversity and gender equity in theater. According to the Dramatists Guild of America, a national organization of theater professionals which surveys theater companies across the country to get a breakdown of who’s being produced, only 22 percent of productions from three theater seasons between 2011 and 2014 came from female playwrights. The numbers were even worse for playwrights of color, whose plays accounted for a paltry 12 percent of productions. Regionally, Portland’s numbers were even lower: Only 18 percent of productions from theaters surveyed were written by women, and only 10.4 percent came from writers of color.
“Institutional bias is not just a feeling; the majority of production opportunities for new plays in this country are given to white men,” wrote playwrights Lisa Kron and Madeleine George in an addendum to the Dramatists Guild’s count. “And unless we believe that white men are inherently better playwrights than everyone else, we have to accept that the numbers are the result of an implicit, systemic bias on the part of producing organizations.”
One likely corrective is also the most depressingly obvious: There actually isn’t a shortage of plays by people who aren’t white men; producers and artistic directors just need to produce them. This isn’t revolutionary; in fact, it seems like a bare minimum theater companies should strive for, unless they’re interested in seeming tone-deaf in a theater world that looks less and less like some creaky old “who will inherit the house” play you were forced to read in high school and more and more like Hamilton.
Profile, it seems, has taken this to heart. By producing an entire season of plays by only one writer each year—Hanover calls it “the monogamy theater”—the company’s in a unique position to inject nontraditional voices into Portland’s theater world in a meaningful, expansive way. Last season focused on playwright Tanya Barfield, and in an announcement July 14, Profile staff announced that Quiara Alegría Hudes is next. Hudes is a pretty big deal: She won a 2012 Pulitzer for her play Water by the Spoonful, and cowrote the book to In the Heights with Hamilton’s Lin-Manuel Miranda. But while other theater companies might just slot a single production of hers amid less inspiring offerings, Profile will produce four of her plays. “Our mission demands that it’s all or nothing, which makes it easier to demonstrably commit to something like this,” says Hanover.
She isn’t alone. Locally, Hanover praises Portland Playhouse’s emphasis on racial diversity, and CoHo Productions’ work towards making sure women are represented “at every level of production.”
She also expresses hope that someday, diversity initiatives like these won’t be necessary. “I am excited for the day when... it’s not remarkable, it just is, it’s status quo. It’s what we do,” she says.