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N.Y. theater diversity dips slightly but remains near historic high, report finds

While the 2016-17 season saw a 2 percent drop in minority actor representation, the trend is still positive for the casting of more minorities.
Image: Be More Chill cast
"Be More Chill," which made its Off-Broadway debut in August 2018 before moving to Broadway.Maria Baranova

Minority actors scored 1 in 3 roles on New York City stages in the 2016-17 season — a slight drop from the previous season — as Asian-American performers recorded a significant gain in representation, according to a report published this month.

Yet the findings from the Asian American Performers Action Coalition, a volunteer advocacy group, tell a different story for minority playwrights and directors.

Just over 13 percent of all plays produced in New York in the 2016-17 season (which traditionally begins in September) were written by minorities, while just under 13 percent of all productions were helmed by minority directors.

“We can’t begin to hold stakeholders responsible without statistics like these,” the group writes in its report. “The numbers speak for themselves.”

The survey, now in its 11th season, tallied a total of 1,420 actors for the 2016-17 season, with 748 employed by the commercial sector and 819 by nonprofit theater companies. The data on directors and playwrights were new to the report this year.

On the whole, the 2016-17 season saw a slight drop in minority actor representation, 2 percentage points, to 33 percent, from 35 percent the season before. But the report notes that this was the third consecutive year of beating a five-season average of 29.4 percent, which suggests that an upward trend in casting minority actors is continuing.

Still, African-Americans went from filling 23 percent of stage roles during the 2015-16 season to around 19 percent, the steepest decline, according to the report. Latinx actor representation also dipped from 7 percent — a record high — to 5 percent.

Asians, however, notched an increase, jumping from 4 percent to 7 percent, the findings showed. In the 2015-16 season, Asians were the only minority group to see a drop in representation on New York City stages.

The report also noted that Middle Eastern/North African actors accounted for 1.7 percent of all stage roles in 2016-17; American Indian/Native/First Nation 0.1 percent; and performers with disabilities 0.5 percent.

Males made up 57 percent of actors, females 42.8 percent, and nonbinary people 0.2 percent.

Jon Hoche, Samantha Quan, Paco Tolson, and Raymond Lee in "Vietgone" at the Manhattan Theatre Club.
Jon Hoche, Samantha Quan, Paco Tolson, and Raymond Lee in "Vietgone" at the Manhattan Theatre Club.Carol Rosegg

Meanwhile, whites took 67 percent of all available stage acting roles and continued to be the only race overrepresented compared to its population in New York City, the report concluded.

For the 2016-17 season, the Asian American Performers Action Coalition expanded its tally to include playwrights, composers, lyricists and directors.

Of all the plays produced, it found that 86.8 percent were written by white playwrights, while 87.1 percent had white directors. On Broadway, the numbers were even starker, with whites writing and directing 95 percent of all plays and musicals, according to the group.

Males made up a majority of all playwrights and directors included in the survey.

The Asian American Performers Action Coalition in its report said such data can help begin to answer questions of whether producing more playwrights of color can lead to hiring more actors of color.

“While our focus will always be on performers, we realize that tracking statistics on all creatives employed may have a direct impact on the employment of actors of color, while also providing a more accurate picture of the inclusivity within our industry,” the group said.

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