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Westport Country Playhouse

Theater has long been a place that welcomes and represents colorful members of society. Shows like “Hair” and “RENT” brought countercultures front and center and foundations like Broadway Cares addressed issues like the AIDs crisis in a time when the LGBTQ+ community was left largely to suffer alone and in fear.

Indeed, theater has long been known as a home not for the few, but the many.

And yet, the theater industry continues to face criticism for its deficiencies in diversity and inclusion. Though hits like “Hamilton” and “On Your Feet” raised the bar three years ago, an independent study conducted by the Asian American Performers Action Coalition saw a decrease in minority representation in mainstream New York theater in the 2016-17 season. The study found that 86.8% of all shows that season were written by white playwrights and minority actors filled only 33% of all roles on stage, a decrease from the record-breaking high of 35% the year before. It also found that 75.4% of playwrights across the industry were male and 95% of all productions on Broadway were written and directed by white playwrights.

For an industry thought to be a beacon of inclusivity, those numbers tell a troublesome tale. However, some members of the local theater community are looking to change that.

Last month Westport Country Playhouse, through a grant from Newman’s Own Foundation, brought on a new managing director fellow who specializes in diversity and inclusion in theater.

The fellow, Jacob Santos, will be working with managing director Michael Barker in an administrative and directorial capacity.

Santos, a 24-year-old graduate of Southern Connecticut State University with a B.S. in business administration and a B.A. in theater, founded the Crescent Players of Color to support and promote diversity, inclusion and equity within his school’s theater department. He was the 2019 recipient of the Arts Impact Award at the national Kennedy Center American College Theater Festival and previously worked as the managing intern and casting associate at The Elm Shakespeare Co. in New Haven.

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Jacob Santos

“I think theater is one of the very last and few places we have where people come together and create stories and a culture that moves society forward,” said Santos. “So having people and kids of color be able to see theater and see that they can talk about their lives — or see people on the stage that reflect their lives — I think that creates a certain awareness … and a knowledge that you can be a part of this industry.”

Santo’s projects at the theater will include assisting Barker in the finance department, putting together the 2020 budget, writing grants, connecting with potential partners for the Playhouse, working with the marketing and development team, and other institutional functions. According to Barker, however, Santos has the ambition to be involved in many other facets of the theater.

“Jacob was a student my wife noticed at SCU as someone you really wanted to be watching — like this guy is going places,” said Barker. “He’s already shown that he’s able to interface with all sorts of strategies and tasks. I think any successful arts leader is going to have a little bit of everything, so I’m going to get him into rehearsal rooms and asking for contributions and getting some experience.”

Preparing and encouraging more people of color to become involved in theater is one way to begin to address the issue of diversity said Santos, and honing his skills in theater management is a way to contribute to that goal.

“Theater has a stigma that it isn’t accessible or you can’t get a job or there isn’t a space for you or it’s this kind of like a high bar to reach. But it actually isn’t as much like that,” said Santos. “I came from a very small town in Mottville, Connecticut, that used to be a farm town. I was one of the few people of color there. But I’m now here working in theater.”

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Michael Barker

Evenutally, he hopes to reach a leadership position in theater. “I think becoming a theater manager of color in an already established organization and then igniting change from within would be the goal,”

Instead of starting his own theatre and focusing on diversity, said Santos, implementing training about diversity, equity and inclusion from inside established institutions would have more impact. He said his goal would be to change the way the big players in the industry look at things. Instead of “colorblind” casting, there should be “diversity casting” which involves a casting process that actively seeks diverse actors instead of falling into the mindset of “we’ll just cast however.” This conscious effort to overcome implicit and sometimes unconscious bias will improve equity in the industry, said Santos, and help break down years of  barriers and gatekeeping from the inside out.

“The biggest challenge … in the theater world now [is] about the pipeline,” said Santos. “Who are going to be the successors to the theater leadership of today? In the next 10, 20, 30 years, the old guard is going to be stepping down and now we’re thinking about who’s going to be coming in.”

According to the national census, the U.S. population is moving toward greater diversity. As people of color become the majority, leadership — including theater managers, artistic directors, managing directors and board members — needs to reflect the shift, Santos said, and the way to do that is to make sure kids of color and other underrepresented groups know there is a place for them in theater. He cited programs like the Kennedy Center American College Theater Festival, which operates regional programs to elevate young people of color and help them access roles in arts leadership, and he said such programs need continued funding and attention from future leadership.

Jill Abusch, artistic director of the Play Group Theatre in White Plains, said diversity is something the local community and the theater industry at large is working on.

“Theater is meant to be for everyone, and we’re not successful if it isn’t for everyone,” said Abusch. “We have to be able to tell all stories, that’s what the theater is, and we can only tell all stories if we have everyone represented on our stage and if we have everyone represented in the audience. And we’re not there yet.”

Abusch said underrepresentation extends to many groups, including people of color, people who are differently abled and people of different gender identities. As an organization that focuses specifically on teaching and engaging youth in the arts, the Play Group director believes, as does Santos, that building a more diverse world of theater starts with youth.

“If [young people] aren’t seeing people who look like them on the stage, then they don’t think they have a place on the stage and therefore they don’t think they have a place in the world,” said Abusch. “Ultimately the power of the theater is that it represents the social construct of the world. It represents the human condition.”

Abusch said deficiencies in theater representation start with youth programs, and so, to remedy the imbalance, her organization targets its work toward elementary, middle and high school students in partnership with local agencies like El Centro Hispano, which serves immigrant families.

“We have to make sure that racially, socioeconomically, genderwise, we are matching what the community looks like on our stage, and that takes partnership and intention. We can’t just open our doors and say ‘everyone come.’ We’re very excited others in the community are looking to do the same,” Abusch said.

At the Westport Country Playhouse, Santos said he intends to support programs like the ticket access program which offers $10 admissions and dinner to eligible families, thereby engaging more people regardless of their socioeconomic status. He will also look to spearhead grant writing or workshops that draw on his training to make Westport Country Playhouse a leader in diversity and inclusion.

“He’s a theater person through and through,” Barker said of Santos. “He’s the guy who wants to run the show, but he’s also [got] artistry in his bones. That, combined with his real intelligence, thoughtfulness and vision for the field, is just incredibly compelling.”

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