The Bethesda-based theater is challenging the pervasive inequity in the American theater industry with new community engagement and fundraising programs.
The Round House Theatre, one of the major professional theaters in the D.C. area, is introducing new approaches to reach a broader audience and tap new sources for funding.
The effort for a “Theatre for Everybody” is a strategic choice as well as a moral one.
“My huge goal is to find ways to dismantle historically systematic structures that have kept people from accessing the theater,” said Israel Jiménez, the new director of EDIA (Equity, Diversity, Inclusion and Accessibility) and community engagement who joined the theater last month.
Over 50 organizations sign up for “On The House” program
One of such ways is the “On the House” program. It started in 2019 and provides free group tickets to qualified nonprofit and community serving organizations in the region. The organizations can request tickets for shows they like, and the theater will allot the tickets depending on the availability.
Over 50 organizations have already partnered with the theater, such as a group working with people with intellectual disabilities and a group bringing non-white students to art. Jiménez said he plans to expand the list by reaching out to “any organization that has constituents that may not have had access to the theater otherwise” because of socio-economic or logistic barriers.
Another approach to reach broader audience is “Community Nights,” where the theater invites specific cultural communities that relate to the theme of the show.
The theater hosted a Caribbean Community Night on Sept. 30, as it ran a show called ‘Nine Night.’ The theme of the show was a Jamaican tradition to celebrate the deceased, and the theater offered free tickets and a discount code to the Jamaican Nationals Association of the Washington D.C. Metropolitan Area (JNA).
“We disseminated the information widely,” said Elaine Knight, president of JNA. Knight said a lot of Jamaicans turned up on the Caribbean Community Night, including the ambassador to the U.S. The show was sold out that night, Knight added.
Knight said the partnership with the theater matched the purpose of JNA, which is to unite persons of Jamaican heritage and maintain and promote Jamaican culture. “We will continue to connect our members to the theater,” Knight said.
“It was a very positive experience,” said Abi Jinadu, president of Nigerians in the Diaspora (NIDO) Washington, D.C. Chapter, about the Nigerian Community Night in June. The theater invited members of NIDO to the “Nollywood Dreams” show, which was about the Nigerian film industry.
“It was really surprising how the storyline showcased the African values and embodied cultural expectations,” Jinandu said. “Our members loved that there was nostalgia for how things used to be.”
Community Nights have positive impact on audiences, artists
The event also had a positive impact on the cast.
Jacqueline Youm, one of the six actors in the production, said, “We wanted to be as honest and truthful in our depiction of these people as possible, because we wanted to honor the Nigerian community, and make sure that they really saw real people they could relate to.”
Another actor, Renea Brown, said it gave the cast a “huge boost” to see the Nigerian audience laughing at inside jokes that did not make much sense to people from other cultures.
“That night it felt like we were all family. Like we were all sitting at a table for a Christmas dinner or a Thanksgiving dinner. It felt like we were all connected,” Brown said.
“There is a value both to the audience and to the artists to having the experience of the show without a predominantly white audience,” said Ed Zakreski, managing director of the Round House Theatre.
Zakreski said that the Round House Theater has been actively fighting against the tendency of inequality and racism in the American theater industry.
Industry called out after BLM
The industry-wide issue was called into attention when a group of non-white theater professionals issued a statement, titled “We See You, White American Theater (WSYWAT),” in July 2020, in the wake of the Black Lives Matter movement. The statement condemned the pervasiveness of anti-Blackness and racism in American theatre industry.
“The metaphor I use is, we were already on the road to equity and inclusion. We were driving the car. We just realized we needed to push the accelerator faster,” Zakreski said.
Since 2013, the theater has committed that at least 50% of the shows it produced would be by women playwrights. “Depending on the year, women represent about 30 percent of plays produced on American stages, which just shouldn’t be,” Zakreski said.
The theater also made a commitment that at least 50% of the shows would be by non-white or Black, Indigenous, and People of Color (BIPOC) playwrights, while the industry average is around 23-25%, according to Zakreski.
The commitment evolved from playwrights to all artists who work for the theater. Currently, at least 50% of the production staff including actors, directors, choreographers, and lighting designer are women, and at least 50% are BIPOC over the course of a season.
“That’s our attempt to counteract the disparities in regular American theater,” Zakreski said.
The approach has now expanded into the audience side, in forms of On the House and Community Nights programs.
“I can’t force the audience to buy my tickets. All I can do is open the door as wide as possible and say, ‘you’re welcome here, you’re safe here, you have a home here,’” Zakreski said.
The theater is currently creating an organization-wide racial equity plan, which will lay out what each department should do in the next three to five years, Jiménez said. The theater is also launching a new anti-racism training for all staff this month.
Zakreski said that the theater’s approach to equity, diversity and inclusion is not purely a moral decision. “If Montgomery County is quickly on its way to becoming less than 50% white, a business plan that focuses on a diminishing population is not smart. It also makes sense from a business perspective.”
Generational change put theaters at risk
More broadly, a generational change of theatergoers is underway. Baby Boomers, the largest and wealthiest cohort, are aging out of going to theaters and are replaced by the much-smaller Generation X, Zakreski said. “Theaters are at risk because they will not have the attendance and the financial support they’ve had.”
The Round House Theater announced a new fundraising initiative called “Theatre for Everyone” in May.
“All of these things we are doing to create more equity and inclusivity at Round House, none of it brings in money. So, we’re launching an initiative to get those who can to support all of this great work that we’re doing,” Zakreski said.
It is a deviation from the conventional fundraising that ask for support to put shows on stage, Zakreski said. The new initiative is “not about primarily the art on stage. It will benefit the art on stage, but it’s really about building the audiences, the artists, and the administrators of the future.”
Zakreski said the new initiative fits well with the expectations of younger donors.
“With the Baby Boomer generation, it was very much about what you do to support these great institutions whereas younger generations want to know, ‘what exactly is my money going to? What is the cause?’”
The first round of Theatre for Everyone campaign raised $75,000, which was matched by an anonymous donor. The second round, which started this month and runs until Dec. 31, aims at raising $25,000, which will be matched by the theater and the Morris and Gwendolyn Cafritz Foundation.
“I believe strongly that the theaters that are going to survive and thrive are the ones that are considered integrally connected to their community,” Zakreski said.