Josh Costello (left), Artistic Director of Aurora Theatre Company: “A lot of organizations have avoided dealing with this, but it’s time to start.” Photo: Scot Goodman
Josh Costello (left), Artistic Director of Aurora Theatre Company: “A lot of organizations have avoided dealing with this, but it’s time to start.” Photo: Scot Goodman

“When a theater hears that audience members and staff have been made to feel unwelcome, we listen to those people and are now starting a conversation about it. A lot of organizations have avoided dealing with this, but it’s time to start.”

So said Josh Costello, artistic director of Aurora Theatre Company, speaking in advance of a town hall meeting which was convened to discuss how theaters and theatergoers can create a more welcoming and inclusive theater-going culture in the Bay Area.

The March 2 evening gathering was orchestrated by the Aurora and was held in partnership with Shotgun Players, Theatre Bay Area, Z Space and Calling Up Justice.

Costello said the issue is not specific to the East Bay, or even the Bay Area as a whole. It happens all over, all the time, he said.

“We are pleased that so many theaters partnered with us on this. They have become more aware of the world we are living in, and what we can do to make it better,” he said.

About 70 people attended the lively discussion led by three panelists: Claudia Alick (performer, producer, and inclusion expert), Leigh Rondon-Davis (performer, visual artist, and dramaturg, company member at Ubuntu Theater Project and Shotgun Players), and Sean San José (member of Campo Santo, a new performances company for people of color). The conversation touched on ways in which both theater organizations and patrons have been victims of micro-aggressions — rooted in racism, gender discrimination, and age discrimination —  in theater lobbies and in their seats. A microaggression is defined as “a subtle behavior — verbal or non-verbal, conscious or unconscious — directed at a member of a marginalized group that has a derogatory, harmful effect.”

Examples given by the panelists and audience members included clearly racist behavior, such as asking only African American patrons, but not whites, for identification when picking up tickets. A young black person reported being dressed down by an older white patron for laughing too loudly during a performance.

Examples of inappropriate and intrusive micro-aggressive questions included a white person in a theater lobby asking a local black woman wearing a dashiki where she was from, and a white person asking a black patron with a disability, “What is wrong with your leg?”

Although these questions might be rude and inappropriate and not intentionally racist, the receivers felt they were racist.

During the question period, many attendees reported their unhappy experiences with their fellow audience members: women who were using gender-neutral restrooms shooing men away when they wanted to use them; older audience members being reprimanded when their theater-provided hearing aids whistled; and complaints about patrons who texted or talked loudly during a performance.

Other participants at the town hall, who worked in theaters as ushers and house managers, among others, shared their frustration with their limited ability to resolve disagreements among audience members.

If there was a consensus about how to make everyone feel more welcome in the theater, it was to give the house managers greater visibility, have ushers of all races and have each theater clearly set its tone of behavior and enforce those standards. Less clear is what a theater can and should do about person-to-person offensive behavior. The suggestion of “see something, say something” met with approval but only to the extent that it was non-confrontational.

If our society is going to improve, such open and frank discussions can only help audiences be more sensitive to each other, and facilitate greater acceptance and enjoyment at the theater.

Emily S. Mendel reviews Berkeley’s vibrant theater scene for Berkeleyside. As a native New Yorker (although an East Bay resident for most of her life), Emily grew up loving and studying theater, from...