Bringing diversity to theater

Bringing diversity to theater

As the nation wrestles with issues of racial justice, arts organizations are turning their own focus to diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI): How can they create more opportunities for actors of color, for example? And how can they reach out to more diverse audiences?

As arts organizations and donors seek to address these issues, Silicon Valley Community Foundation is there to help. In addition to making grants directly to arts organizations through Community Action Grants, SVCF helps donors align their philanthropy with equity and social justice in Silicon Valley.

“We’re trying to be part of the structural change to create a more equitable society, and we’re bringing donors along with us on that change,” said Tracy Wingrove, philanthropy advisor at SVCF.

Theater PerformanceSVCF is committed to supporting and uplifting BIPOC-led and allied organizations to create meaningful change in philanthropy. It is also working to promote the arts in Silicon Valley — a region that, according to a study by Silicon Valley Creates, had over 1,000 active arts and culture nonprofits in 2019.

“The number of arts organizations is amazing, but those organizations tend to be small and not well supported,” Wingrove said. “We’d like to change that.”

The Silicon Valley arts and culture scene includes Sunnyvale Community Players (SCP), which has received grants from SVCF via individual donors.

SCP’s commitment to diversity and inclusion is playing out on stage and behind the scenes. The group’s latest production, West Side Story, has a diverse cast that illustrates the results of the organization’s DEI efforts. Unlike many musicals from the 1950s and 1960s – a time when almost all actors were white – West Side Story has some characters who are Puerto Rican and others who are described as just “American.”

“What does ‘American’ look like? It could be anybody – we ended up being open to many different ethnicities,” said Thomas Times, the West Side Story director at SCP. “Most productions of West Side Story are done with people playing ethnic backgrounds they cannot relate to.”

For the Puerto Rican roles, he cast Black or Latinx actors because they “understand what it’s like to be in a marginalized culture.”

Times said there is a difference between stories where race is central to the plot and those where people have traditionally assumed the characters were white, even though that was not an integral part of the storyline.

“Oftentimes in those classic roles, their race had nothing to do with the story,” Times said. That is not the case in West Side Story.

While the specifics may have changed, the racial tensions portrayed in the show are likely to be familiar to today’s audiences.

“When they wrote the show in 1957, the feeling was it would be outdated in 10 or 15 years because these racial inequalities, the gaps, would have closed,” said Kevin Surace, artistic director at Sunnyvale Community Players.“ This should have been a historical look at New York City in the late 1950s, but it turns out that we have not solved these issues.”

Theater PerformanceHaving a diverse cast – composed of actors who did not all know each other before the show – put on a show that explores racial tensions could raise uncomfortable issues. Times worked to engage the cast in conversation.

“I wanted every actor to really have a connection to the core story,” Times said. “It was one of the things we started talking about at the first rehearsal: How do you connect to the story? We got into some really beautiful and deep conversations from the beginning.”

Karen Law, a cast member who is also a SVCF donor and an ardent supporter of the arts, said the conversations helped the cast get to know each other on a deeper level.

“The diversity is incredible, but more incredibly, this production has fostered an environment where we can talk about diversity,” Law said. “This is not polite conversation that you typically make with people you have just met.”

SVCF donor funding has helped support Sunnyvale Community Players in expanding its diversity and inclusion efforts.

“We want to make art, and when you’re making art, you want to welcome everybody,” Surace said.

SVCF also offers donors opportunities to engage with others to meet their goals. For donors who want to explore arts funding with their peers, SVCF has created the Donor Circle for the Arts, a donor group that has donated more than $752,000 to emerging arts organizations in the region since 2008. 

Opportunity and Resource Spotlight