Theatre was born the moment one being tried to express a story to another. It’s as simple as that.  Given that every culture anywhere in this world has some form of theatre, it can easily be claimed that theatre is a universal art form. In some cases it looks like dance, in others it looks like religious ceremony. In some it is the ritualized process of sitting around a fire telling a specific story dictated by the phase of the moon or in response to an event that is occurring in the society in question.  The telling of culturally relevant stories takes many forms, but in the end theatre or story telling is as innate to the human experience as breathing itself. It answers the need for passing cultural wisdom from one generation to another.

As societies become more complex, so too does theatre, and as has happened in modern western culture, gives rise to many different expressions. In modern multicultural centers such as Los Angeles, the variety of story telling is multiplied by cultural representation and sub-culture special interests, resulting in what we now have, a plethora of competing opportunity some of which is not even remotely labeled theatre.

That is great news for those that participate and practice in these events, it’s ample opportunity to express cultural and social vies. and is certainly enriching to the greater cultural participation of the population in general.  It’s also great news in that it provides us opportunity to experience and relate to cultural experiences and perspectives that are probably dissimilar to our own. Theatre in some form provides us with an almost universal language that exposes the essence of who and what we are.

Here’s the rub. We have to go see it. Yep – we have to take advantage of the opportunity.  While theatre goers are theoretically erudite and open minded, it becomes apparent rather quickly that they can also be very closed minded and unaccepting of change.

In the “digital world” of late it’s been asserted that theatre is a creation of the arch-typical white westerner. This of course flies in the face of reality, but it does speak to the underling problem, which is that we often make our choices based upon our familiarities. While we want to open ourselves up for new experiences, we also want to be able to identify with the occasions and people on the stage.

To put it more succinctly, why is it that most of the audience at any production put on by the Latino Theatre Company is mostly Hispanic? Why is it that the majority of attendees at a production at the Robey Theatre Company are mostly African Americans? Why is it that the preponderance of the subscriber base for East West Players are Asian? Why is it that there is a sea of white people that go to see “Into The Woods” at Wallis Annenberg?

It is because of cultural perception. The great gift that theatre offers, an opportunity to experience how other’s live, is in large part ignored because it’s not about us. As a European born white America raised man, that to me is a branch of institutional racism. Yes, we the bastion of liberal progressive thinking are in fact cultural conservatives. Hell, maybe even reactionaries.

We call for cultural diversity, yet we want established norms. We want blind casting, as long as we don’t offend. And we want gender equality/sexual preference equality/disabilities equality, and yet become offended if our preconceptions are affronted.

The theatres that are mentioned here are just representatives of their communities. And every culture within our greater community has many examples of their theatre. But theatre is almost by definition as universal art. It’s story telling, it’s dramatization of cultural perspective. And that should be embraced by us all.

How damaging would it be to our souls if rather that going to see the 7,895th performance of Hamlet this year, we chose to go to “The Magnificent Dunbar Hotel”?  Rather than debating the merits of the four different productions of “Into The Woods”, I chose to go see Takarazuka!!! Or, god forbid, I went to the Billingual Foundations for the Arts rather than seeing Wicked for the 5th time.

We all have options. We have a cultural diversity experience available to us that is unparalleled, and all of the trappings and wisdoms of those cultures are within our grasp, if we’re willing to experience them.

Let’s do something about this. let’s make a conscious decision to seek out new theatre that reflects cultural and lifestyle diversity. Let’s begin to grasp that there are many African American theatres, that there is more than one Asian reflective theatre, that Latino theatre abounds in places we don’t even suspect of being theatres. We can find the theatrical expression of many different societies and grow to understand where they came from, and perhaps just as important, how their experiences in this land look through eyes not our own.

About Peter Finlayson

Peter Finlayson is the Founder, Publisher and Editor-in-chief of FootLights magazine and While working on a prelaw program at the University of Michigan, he happily got involved with the theatre program. Much to his mother’s chagrin, law school never happened, but in a career spanning more than 4 decades, Peter has performed, directed or designed more than 150 productions. In his spare time, he is working on a new play. You can follow him on Twitter @Thtrdog .

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