Open letter complains that Philadelphia Theatre Company is backsliding on diversity

People in Philadelphia’s theater community push back against Philadelphia Theater Company’s diversity claim.

The Philadelphia Theatre Company

In this file photo, Lindsay Smiling and Stephanie Weeks rehearse ""How to Catch Creation" with the Philadelphia Theatre Company at Suzanne Roberts Theater. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

Update: Thursday, April 18, 2019, 3:00 p.m.

On Monday, April 15, the Philadelphia Theatre Company’s artistic director, Paige Price, met with Elaina Di Monaco and Haygen-Brice Walker, authors of the open letter criticizing the company’s planned 2019-2020 season, in which all three scheduled plays were written by white playwrights. Seventeen other people involved in regional theater signed the letter.

In a joint statement Thursday, the group said the meetings were “productive and cordial,” discussing PTC’s selection process and ways it might include more opportunities underrepresented theater professionals, both on and off stage. They also said they are planning additional meetings with a wider range of artists and art administrators to discuss diversity.

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A small dust-up has emerged in the Philadelphia theater community, as nineteen people have signed an open letter on Facebook criticizing the Philadelphia Theater Company on South Broad Street for not showing enough diversity on its stage.

Last year, the Philadelphia Theater Company committed to at least one play a year from the Kilroy List, an annual list of under-produced plays by women and trans playwrights.  It’s meant to highlight high-quality scripts that might fly below the radar, and encourage theater companies around the country to diversify the voices on their stages.

Elaina Di Monaco and Haygen-Brice Walker, who together create work as On The Rocks Theatre, wrote an open letter on Facebook signed by 17 other theater professionals that at first praises the Philadelphia Theater Company for committing to presenting underproduced plays by women.

Then they take aim at the fact that next season all of PTCs plays (three in total) were written by white people.

“Western Theatre is arguably the whitest art-form we have,” reads the letter. “As theatre artists working in 2019 it is our duty to impact this.”

For its upcoming season 2019-2020, the Philadelphia Theater Company selected, “A Small Fire” by Adam Bock, “Everything is Wonderful” by Chelsea Marcantel, and “The Wolves” by Sarah DeLappe as its season closer. “The Wolves” appeared on the Kilroy List in 2015. In the four years since then, it has become one of the most-produced plays in America. It has never been produced in Philadelphia.

“The Wolves is a really good play,” Di Monaco said. “It actually is. It’s an excellent play.” Her beef is not with the quality of the play but that PTC is setting it among two other plays by white playwrights.

“To wear this badge of honor of, ‘We’re going to produce a Kilroy play a year,’ and then not align your play selection with the mission that the list stands for,” said Di Monaco. “It feels like you’re looking for some kind of accolade of diversity and inclusion, but not really doing the true work of what that means.”

After making its case for diversity, the Facebook letter asks for details about the Philadelphia Theater Company’s selection process.

Paige Price, PTC’s producing artistic director, said prospective plays are reviewed by company staff, then vetted by a public review process wherein select scenes are read for an audience, whose feedback is solicited.

Price also said the company’s focus has been more on amplifying voices of women on stage, less so about racial parity.

“Our focus largely wants to be about women and women-centered stories, that’s what we looked for in prior lists,” she said. “Also, there are people of color in the three plays that we’re doing. Every play we are doing has opportunities for people of color, they are just not written by people of color.”

Price and the authors of the letters, Di Monaco and Walker, are scheduling a face-to-face meeting to discuss diversity in theater. They are trying to bring in as many of the 19 signers of the letter to the meeting as possible.

“I’m actually dreaming of a larger meeting that involves more people in the community as well,” said Price. “We’ve been trying to find a time to talk.”

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