A New Stage for Shakespeare in Delaware Park, for Whom?

Note: this essay was written following Buffalo’s Shakespeare in Delaware Park’s 2015 season.

Shakespeare in Delaware Park celebrated their 40th anniversary season with what has been heralded as one of the best shows in their history: an all-male production of Twelfth Night. The closing night of its run, a run unmarred by a rainouts – a feat that had only happened once in the last 39 years – it was as good as promised. With smart acting, a talented cast, a cohesively imagined world and plenty of gags, it was fun, engaging, and so on—many of the things one should hope for in the theater. It even featured a number of actors new to the company, despite being known for working with regulars. While much critical and theoretical conversation could be had about having an all-male cast (and gender swapped roles in this season’s Romeo and Juliet), I’d like to address more practical issues: diversity and gender parity. rather than the theoretical and critical questions.

But first! Let’s give a shout-out to our new neighbor Tim Carroll, the incoming artistic director at the Shaw Festival. His all-male original practices production of Twelfth Night, starring Mark Rylance, was a hit in London and on Broadway and in no small part inspired Steve Vaughn’s production. This is not to detract from a splendid evening, just to offer an acknowledgement. Full credit to Shakespeare in the Park for their accomplishment.

Now, about gender parity. There are very few jobs in the theater today. This is an old story. Federal and state funding for the arts has dried up. Studio Arena, the only local theater in Buffalo that worked under agreement with Actors’ Equity Association, the union of professional actors and stage managers, closed years ago (their space is operated and rented by Shea’s next door. Shea’s, for its part, regularly presents “Broadway” tours that, for the most part, operate under union contracts). Out of the 37 actors employed this season by Shakespeare in Delaware Park, they hired four actors under Equity contracts. One of these, company founder and artistic director Saul Elkin, is also professor emeritus at the University at Buffalo. Equity representation not only guarantees safe working conditions and fair pay for actors, but working under contract also means access to healthcare from the union for full-time professional actors. It’s difficult to understate the importance of these jobs to creating a thriving professional theater community. For an organization that was envisioned, in part, to provide an opportunity for young actors to work with older established professionals, the casting of so few Equity actors makes this mission look somewhat dubious.

The lack of full time professional opportunities has a number of hidden costs not limited to healthcare and union dues, but one of them is that the many talented young artists leave town. Indeed, even 15 year company veteran Tim Newell is leaving for Chicago, a larger theater market with many more professional opportunities. We can preach about Buffalo’s low cost of living and it’s many theaters, but when so few opportunities exist to save for your retirement and enjoy leisure time while working as an actor, the theater becomes little more than part of a system of low wage service jobs which have proliferated since 2008.

Who, then, is provided meaningful, full-time employment in the theater becomes an important question not only of representation, but of equality. This problem is simply enumerated with statistics. The entire cast of Twelfth Night was male. The artistic leadership of Shakespeare in Delaware Park is entirely male. And yet, there are significantly more young women than young men seeking out careers and college educations in the theater. As one of the largest theaters in Buffalo, and one of the few producing during the summer, who they hire matters not only to the production itself, but to the professional development of young actors who go through their ranks and to the artistic life of Buffalo as a whole. Upholding the patriarchal standards of 1602 only in the name of a “fun challenge” is to not only ignore the social issues of our present day, but also to profess a willful ignorance to the conditions that theater artists live and work in.

Yet more glaring in a city that is only 50% white, Shakespeare in Delaware Park’s 2015 season hired a cast that was, at least to all appearances, 100% white. While casting a play written for all-male actors (as women were barred by both law and practice from the stage in Shakespeare’s day) with an all male cast may have an artistic logic, this segregation is artistically inexplicable and indefensible. The artistic leadership and board of directors is also, to my knowledge, entirely white. The audience is, in my admittedly limited experience, also overwhelmingly white. There are any number of reasons for this, many of them related to an economically enforced racial divide that includes such things as location in an increasingly wealthy part of town, but the company’s mission is specifically to serve the “widest possible” and “diverse” audiences. There is no shortage of actors of color in Buffalo, as Ujima’s 36 year history demonstrates. Shakespeare in Delaware Park has hired an actor of color here or there in the past, but if they truly wish to serve the audiences of Buffalo as both a free event and one of our flagship theaters, the company must do more than answer the question of diversity with lip service and token representation. Indeed, the questions being asked today, both here and nationally, are less about diversity and more about overdue correctives to racism and inequality.

Advertisement for Shakespeare in Delaware Park's capital campaign from their 2015 program
Advertisement for Shakespeare in Delaware Park’s capital campaign from their 2015 program

This matters now more than ever. Buffalo is experiencing incredible growth, and that growth must be designed to intentionally include all of the city’s peoples. Shakespeare in Delaware Park, for their part, is trying to grow too—the company is currently engaged in a capital campaign to raise 1.3 million dollars for a new stage. This is a worthwhile goal. But the ethics of raising capital funds to improve a stage while not working towards either meaningful diversity or meaningful employment is questionable at best. Buffalo deserves high quality professional theater, and free Shakespeare in our gorgeous Olmstead parks is exactly the kind of cultural asset that will help this city continue to experience renewal. Such assets help retain talented people and their jobs in this area—directly in the case of theater professionals, but also indirectly by raising the quality of life for everyone. Steve Vaughn and company proved their worth with Twelfth Night. Let us hold them, and ourselves, to such high standards.

Perhaps one day we’ll even be able to wrestle with what it means for a group of white men to recite a 400 year old joke about Puritans on land that the Puritans would shortly begin to conquer. But, if we’re fortunate as a city and if we perform due diligence as responsible artists, the answers to such questions will manifest not just in the work that we make, but in the ways we make it.

Matthew Clinton Sekellick

Update: The 2016 Shakespeare in Delaware Park season, on their new stage, featured one actor of color.