After Nearly Six Decades It Is Time To Stop Striving And Start Doing

American Theatre recently published a “Confidential Plan” written by Zelda Fichandler, founding artistic director of Arena Stage in 1968. Initially a memo written to the Arena Stage board about integrating both the acting company and audience. A revision of the memo was published more publicly. The notes on the article say that Fichhandler was initially unsuccessful and had to rework her plan. The fact she labeled it confidential is likely a reflection of that fact she knew her proposal would not be well-received if made public.

As you read her thoughts, it is somewhat depressing to think that observations she made about audiences in 1968 are still true today. After noting that the population of D.C. was 63% Black and yet there are no Black actors in the Arena Stage company she states (my emphasis):

The Negro’s struggle for power—economic power, business power, political, intellectual, psychological, human power—foundationally affects his relationships with other Negroes, with whites, and with himself. This struggle reverberates through contemporary American life. Each of us feels its vibrations every day. And yet we come into our theatre at night as if into an unreal world: A white audience sits around a stage upon which a white company tells “sad tales of the death of kings.” Surely we are in the wrong place!

Then later, in discussing the composition of audiences and her vision for increasing representation both on stage and in the seats:

Homogeneous audiences, who connect with a play in a predictably uniform way, with one pervading attitude, are anathema to the pulse of a living art. It isn’t coincidental that, in all its years of history, Arena seemed most alive while we were playing The Great White Hope and Blood Knot this year, both with interracial casts, both drawing an audience more diverse than usual with regard to race, income level, age, education, occupation, human experience, preoccupations and interests, patterns of entertainment, and expectations about theatre and life in general.

She makes other thought provoking statements and observations in the sections excerpted in American Theatre. However, some of the more general ones like those above remain as ideals arts organizations strive to achieve 56 years later.  She says the theater was never so alive as when the programming and performers were most inclusive, yet that is still a goal everyone says they want to chase.

Many non-profit arts organizations have made statements committing to a better job diversifying representation in programming, performers and audiences.  Hopefully those commitments are sustained and endure. There were many commercial enterprises that made similar promises in response to social pressure in 2020 after the deaths of people like George Floyd and Ahmaud Arbery but have eliminated much of  the staffing and funding that supported those initiatives.

About Joe Patti

I have been writing Butts in the Seats (BitS) on topics of arts and cultural administration since 2004 (yikes!). Given the ever evolving concerns facing the sector, I have yet to exhaust the available subject matter. In addition to BitS, I am a founding contributor to the ArtsHacker ( website where I focus on topics related to boards, law, governance, policy and practice.

I am also an evangelist for the effort to Build Public Will For Arts and Culture being helmed by Arts Midwest and the Metropolitan Group. (

My most recent role was as Executive Director of the Grand Opera House in Macon, GA.

Among the things I am most proud are having produced an opera in the Hawaiian language and a dance drama about Hawaii's snow goddess Poli'ahu while working as a Theater Manager in Hawaii. Though there are many more highlights than there is space here to list.


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