About 350 people gathered at Seattle Repertory Theatre on Monday night to take part in the Artistic Freedom & Artistic Responsibility Forum sponsored by Seattle Rep, Seattle’s Office of Arts & Culture and other agencies.
The event was organized after a controversy erupted last month over a Seattle Gilbert & Sullivan Society production of the popular 19th-century operetta “The Mikado.”
Seattle Times editorial writer Sharon Pian Chan, in a July 25 column, objected to the production of “The Mikado,” a long-popular show that uses a fanciful, imaginary Japan to satirize British society and politics. Chan wrote that the traditional local staging of the W.S. Gilbert-Arthur Sullivan musical “opens old wounds and resurrects pejorative stereotypes,” particularly with non-Asians portraying the characters.
A fervent debate over whether the work should still be presented, and how, erupted on seattletimes.com, Twitter and other social media, and drew national coverage from such news organizations as NBC and CNN. Protesters from Seattle’s Asian-American community picketed some performances.
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However, Monday’s forum did not dwell on “The Mikado.” It raised more overarching issues — how theaters might better depict diverse cultures in ways that are, according to a news release for the event, “meaningful, relevant and equitable for our audiences.”
Kathy Hsieh, a theater artist and Office of Arts and Culture staffer who helped plan and facilitate the forum, said the event’s theme was broadened because “it’s not just one show or one incident that’s at issue … The underlying politics of why the controversy even happened are what needed to be addressed.”
Organizers solicited input in advance and received hundreds of questions and statements on such topics as cultural sensitivity, community outreach and minority representation in largely white arts institutions.
A diverse panel of theater artists, academics and producers, including Seattle Rep artistic director Braden Abraham and manager Jeffrey Herrmann, spoke and called on many other commenters to share their views. The tenor of the tightly planned discussion was fervent, but polite.
By a show of hands, a wide majority of attendees were against outright censorship of works they deemed offensive, but few were vocally supportive of the local “Mikado.” Much time was devoted to discussing so-called “best practices” for arts groups wanting to avoid stereotyping and alienating sectors of a minority community they are representing onstage. The goal, Hsieh said, would be “more three-dimensional, realistic depictions.”
John Fedorov, an associate professor of art at Western Washington University who is part Native American, advised theaters to stay open to rather than “ignore protests” over their work, and not to be “defensive or self-righteous” when criticized.
Agastya Kohli, a member of the local Pratidhwani troupe, gave one of several examples of positive collaboration. He praised ACT Theatre’s inclusion of people of Indian and East Asian heritage as advisers and “community ambassadors” when ACT produced “The Ramayana,” based on a sacred Hindu text, in 2012.
Seattle Gilbert & Sullivan Society producer Mike Storie said he’d heard no protests during his group’s previous stagings of “The Mikado” and felt “blindsided” by the controversy. He said other G&S societies are discussing the Seattle reaction, and he is rethinking how the show might be presented here when his group likely stages it again in six years.
Theater director Valerie Curtis-Newton encouraged theaters to avoid tokenism in their hiring practices, diversify their staffs and boards, and reconsider their minority casting. She also drew applause when voicing her frustration over having “the same conversations” about such issues in other Seattle forums over the years, and wanted artists and producers to address them in practice.
“ If we’re all here again in six years when Mike (produces ‘The Mikado’) again,” she said, “ it’s on us.”
The Office of Arts and Culture’s has compiled resources related to the forum at www.seattle.gov/arts/aboutus. A video of the event is available at http://howlround.com/livestreaming. Type “Seattle” in the search box.
Misha Berson: firstname.lastname@example.org