The Playgoer: To Slot or Not To Slot

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Wednesday, April 22, 2009

To Slot or Not To Slot

Denver Post's John Moore takes on the messy question of "slots" that regional theatres set aside in schedules for plays by or addressing particular constituencies.

In other words:

They're called "slot plays": The Latino play, the black play, the woman play. And every season, the Denver Center Theatre Company opens up a slot — or more — to all of them. Nobody likes the term because it implies a quota system. Some might presume that a play has been staged just to appease one target audience rather than for its value to the community as a whole. That can burden a play with lowered expectations before the curtain even rises. But last year, no one was calling Octavio Solis' "Lydia" "the Latino play." Most were simply calling it the best play of the season.

"Slot plays" are a double-edged sword. They offer clear evidence of a company's ongoing commitment to underrepresented communities. They expose the mainstream audience to lesser-known writers and theatrical styles. But slot plays can be seen as condescending to the very people they aim to attract. It happens every February when companies slot annual Black History Month plays, then forget that African- Americans exist for the rest of the year.

Of course, the alternative to slot plays is no slot plays. And that has not worked out well in the past

Moore does a good job exploring both sides of the debate. Another argument against the "slot" mentality was voiced by August Wilson who complained that tickets for the "black play" might only be affordable to black audiences in a subscription package--in other words, even more expensive. Therefore combing the "slot" mentality with the commitment to subscription economics and programming may be fatally self-contradicting in many ways.

So: are slots a necessary form of "affirmative action" for plays and playwrights? Or an ineffectual gesture from what is still an overwhelmingly white male nonprofit industry?

Also, is it important to expose largely white subscription audiences to at least one play a year about people who don't look like them? Or are such plays not well served by being subjected to the judgment of possibly inhospitable audiences?

Read on. And have at it.

Personally, I think the answer is the miraculous sprouting of more theatre companies, each with their own specific agenda and constituency, without the burden of somehow representing or appeal to everyone.


Dr. Cashmere said...

I wish there was at least some discussion of this practice in the New York press since it seems to be a pretty widespread way of doing things in the off-Broadway world.

But here's what I don't understand: Is the "slot play" phenomenon about pleasing funders? Is it driven by old fashioned guilt? By the political leanings of decision-makers? Something else?

Esther said...

I don't mind it as long as the plays are good. I'd rather see a diverse lineup - different genres, plays written by people with different life experiences. What bothers me more is "the Shakespeare slot." Sure, they're often nice to look at, with interesting sets and special effects. But it's been a long time since high school and it's kind of hard to figure out who's who and what's going on. I just don't get as much out of them.

Ethan Stanislawski said...

I think it's crucial to slot in plays by minorities into a theater's season, but only doing a slot is not enough, and is absolutely condescending. The theater needs to actively engage audiences in their communities, make tickets affordable and provide other incentives for minority/lower class community members to see the play and develop an interest in theater. It certainly helps to have members of color on your staff—not necessary isolationist minority theater like Wilson proposed, but some way where the creative and business process of the play's promotion don't seem minorities with a Jane Goodall-like attitude.