Arts

Broadway

Broadway producer Brian Moreland on racism, fighting for change, and how theaters will reopen

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The Daily Beast

Date:
August 22, 2020

Brian Moreland, one of Broadway’s few Black producers, was just elected to the Broadway League’s board. He talks to Tim Teeman about racism, criticism of the League, and change.

More than once in our conversation, the Broadway producer Brian Moreland qualifies an optimistic thought with, “I know that sounds very Pollyanna of me.”

Moreland, one of the few Black producers working on Broadway, is hopeful for not just the healthy, post-pandemic return of Broadway, but also for a renewed kind of commercial theater which looks, sounds, and feels more diverse. “I feel there’s change in the air,” he told The Daily Beast.

The lead producer of upcoming productions of Charles Randolph-Wright’s play Blue (which had been set to open at the Apollo Theater in May) and Keenan Scott II’s Thoughts of a Colored Man, Moreland was recently elected to the board of governors of the Broadway League, the national trade association for the Broadway industry created in 1930.

Moreland was elected alongside Kendra Whitlock Ingram, president of Milwaukee’s Marcus Performing Arts Center. Both serve on the League’s Equity, Diversity and Inclusion Committee.

“As Broadway looks to deepen audience engagement and plan for the future, the Board of Governors is pleased to welcome Kendra and Brian,” Charlotte St. Martin, President of the Broadway League, said of the appointments. “They share a profound commitment to the theatre, a passion for the performing arts, and wide ranging experience in the industry.”

Moreland’s Broadway producing credits include The Lifespan of a Fact, Sea Wall/A Life, and The Sound Inside. Post-pandemic, Blue—which has an all-Black team of producers, including John Legend—will be directed by Phylicia Rashad and star Leslie Uggams and Lynn Whitfield. Moreland notes that in Blue, a story of a Black upper-middle class family, white people are not discussed. “It’s a show about a family that happens to be Black, it is not about the color of their skin.”

Thoughts of a Colored Man—which will star Forrest McClendon, Tony-nominated for The Scottsboro Boys—is about seven black men “sharing the universal truths of just being human,” said Moreland. “The show is universal. It doesn’t one need one color to exist. Theater at its best is about coming together to share experiences and stories, and giving us a glimpse into worlds we don’t know.”

No one is sure when these shows will open, or when Broadway, which closed in March, will return—the spring of 2021 is still invoked by many. Many do not expect to see full houses until a COVID-19 vaccine is in wide use. When live theater does return, no one is sure what kinds of shows will be staged, how many people will be able to see it, what health and safety guidelines will be in place for audiences and performers, and what financial model will be in place to sustain theater as it tries to find its feet—and make a profit—again.

A central part of that rebirth is how Broadway and theater more generally will reflect the urgent calls for change by Black actors, performers, and creators through events like #BWayForBLM and organizations like Broadway Advocacy Coalition and Black Theatre United, which have been part of the social and cultural reckoning following the killing of George Floyd.

Moreland said one image, posted to Instagram this week by the coalition We See You, White American Theater, showing the overwhelmingly white leadership of the Broadway League (with him and other members of color at the bottom), was “divisive” and “untrue.”

The group’s message read: “We wrote a Letter. We released Testimonials. We issued Demands. And you’ve remained SILENT. So now, we introduce YOU to the world. These are the first of many receipts.” The first comment under the post read: “And the 3 black ppl they do have are at the bottom? Damn that’s cold.”

The League was hiring people of color (including him), Moreland said, conducting a variety of anti-racism initiatives, “and really responding to the racial uprising in America and within the industry,” including meeting with groups like Broadway Advocacy Coalition and Black Theatre United.

“They are going above and beyond to try and make a difference and be inclusive,” Moreland claimed of the League. “I wish We See You had reached out to me. There are more BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, and People of Color) employees within the League. When you narrow it down to the board, should there be more BIPOC members? Yes. Are there opportunities for more BIPOC members to be on the board? Yes. Would I like more? Yes. But my presence on that board is a result of the Broadway League wanting Broadway to be better.”

The League, Moreland said, did not control “what shows go on to Broadway stages, or how shows’ creative teams look, or how casts are formed. They are responding as best they can to what is within their power.”

Should the League be doing more, or using its power more expansively? “It is using its power judiciously,” insisted Moreland. “It is reviewing every one of its programs focused on diversity and inclusion, and providing anti-racism training.”

Could they do more to insist that producers and theaters change their working practices? “That’s not the basis of the organization,” said Moreland. “They are doing a lot. When you call out organizations that are not using their power in a moral, just way, it is also incumbent on the same groups or individuals to acknowledge when work is being done to move the needle in the right direction—and it is at the Broadway League.”

On We See You, its Dear White American Theater letter, and comprehensive list of demands for change when it comes to BIPOC theater workers, Moreland said he supported “any organization which at its core is about togetherness. I never want to shame a person into my way of thinking. I think we have to have unity to move forward, and unity begins with open communication, a willingness to forgive and a willingness to change.

“I substantively agree with what We See You is asking for,” said Moreland. “My challenge is I’d love to have a conversation with someone at We See You, and that’s difficult when it is being disparaging about something that is trying to help people. The League is being criticized, without having the good work that is happening being acknowledged.

“I don’t believe in a one-sided conversation. I wish someone from We See You had called me when it was announced I was elected to the board, and asked me how I felt about that, and what work we were doing. That never happened, and that part breaks my heart.”

Is the Broadway League diverse enough? “No, it doesn’t feel it is,” said Moreland. “But they know that, and they are actively trying to change that. They are heading in the right direction.”

The Broadway League “does not control what shows go into theaters,” said Moreland, but “does control the pipelines and how we get the rest of the world into theaters. Being able to sit on the board puts you right in the middle of audience development and marketing and branding for our industry, and that makes me excited.”

Moreland does not feel his and Ingram’s appointments at the League were tokenistic in any way.

“No, a hard no,” he said at the suggestion. “I personally believe in community. I believe we all need to show up for one another and we only get there together. That’s what I think about the theatrical community. I don’t take offense being asked to serve and elected to serve in this particular moment. Ultimately, here is an olive branch and acknowledgment that there might be a barrier of entry and how do we lift those barriers.

“If I were to say no this position, how does that advance things? If we are trying to create a fuller, more equitable table, a table where everyone gets a seat and voice, that only happens if people say ‘yes,’ and without anger and bitterness. And I am not angry and bitter. I’m truly excited, honored, and humbled. It takes all of us working together, rolling in the same direction, wanting the same things.”

The League is “an open place,” said Moreland; the challenge was to make its diversity-related programs more accessible to everyone, and—as with artistic production itself—collaborate with advocacy groups to help bring about change.

For Moreland, that change encompasses the work on stage, the people making it, and a more general “change in perspective” when it comes to existing and established productions, and working with new collaborators. Producers, said Moreland, should be open to seeing work that isn’t “necessarily their taste.”

Audiences will support the work believes Moreland; “the responsibility falls on producers to imagine different productions and spend time and allocate dollars in marketing budgets to reach into those diverse communities, and not only for when you have a show of color. You have to cultivate those audiences so they come see Long Day’s Journey Into Night, After Midnight, and The Color Purple. Those audiences will also come see Slave Play and Company.

“Part of the challenge is we think only Black people want to see Black people on stage, and only white people want to see white people. I think people want to see people.”

Moreland vehemently disagrees with the notion that “Black and brown communities do not attend Broadway because of the ticket price. If you look at concerts for Beyoncé, Jay-Z, Gloria Estefan, Mariah Carey, and Lady Gaga—Black and brown people turn out in droves for them and pay top dollar.

“This is not about cost in my opinion, and I do not think it is fair to suggest it is. For me, you can’t spend money to market to this community when you put on The Color Purple, and not do the same for, say, Hello, Dolly! The challenge is for producers like me, to change our minds about what show is for what audience.” Moreland told Deadline earlier this year about his desire to see the Apollo Theater declared an official Broadway venue.

Moreland said he liked diversity in its most embracing sense, appreciating people “in all shapes, sizes, colors, backgrounds, and sexualities. I like being in rooms where people are different, it is from that difference that stimulating things happen.”

It was “extraordinary limiting” to think “only Hispanic people are interested in Hispanic narratives and Black people only want to see Black people on stage. I don’t turn off the TV just because a Black person isn’t on a commercial. I like movies with all people in them, including Black people.”

Moreland said he understood the challenge to his fellow producers, because it “goes against what they have experienced and what has become engrained after many years of doing what they do. But there are multiple ways of doing things and multiple surprises in mutual collaboration.” He said he has challenged these engrained ways of doing things before, only to have his objections registered, and then not acted upon.

Women of color working on Broadway spoke to The Daily Beast last year about their experiences of racism and fighting for change. The group Women of Color on Broadway said that between 2008 and 2015, people of color represented less than 25 percent of the theater industry.

The union Actors’ Equity’s first study of diversity, published in 2017, showed that women and members of color have fewer work opportunities, and often draw lower salaries when they do find work. The study examined the casts of new productions that opened between 2013 and 2015, covering Broadway and production tours as well as off-Broadway contracts.

The number of women of color who were classified as principals in plays, musicals, as members of the chorus, and as stage managers was dramatically lower than any other demographic.

Caucasians made up a majority of all onstage contracts—principal in a play (65 percent of contracts), principal in a musical (66 percent of contracts), and chorus (57 percent of contracts). Caucasians were generally hired with higher contractual salaries. African-American members reported salaries 10 percent lower than the average in principal in a play roles, for example.

Seventy-seven percent of stage manager contracts on the Broadway and production tours went to Caucasians. Over three years, there were only six contracts given to African-American members.

The most recent Asian American Performers Action Coalition’s annual study of Ethnic Representation on New York City stages for the 2016–17 season revealed, as Playbill reported, that 95 percent of all plays and musicals were both written and directed by Caucasian artists.

Playbill reported: “African-American playwrights were represented at 4.1 percent and MENA playwrights at 1.4 percent. According to the survey, the Broadway season featured no plays or musicals by Latinx, Asian-American, or American Indian/Native/First Nation playwrights, nor playwrights with disabilities.”

Of all playwrights, 75.4 percent were male and 24.6 percent female. According to Playbill, “Eighty-nine percent of playwrights produced on Broadway were male and 11 percent female. Female directors fared only slightly better than female playwrights, representing 31.1 percent. Only 0.8 percent of directors included in the survey were non-binary.”

When this reporter asked Moreland, in his experience, how racist Broadway was and what the nature of that racism looked like and felt, he said the question “stung.” It took him a long time to break into Broadway, he said, but he was “conflicted” over whether that was down to racism, or about the general difficulties of trying to break into the business.

“I think I have experienced racism subconsciously with people’s thoughts,” said Moreland. “I struggle to believe anyone wants to hate another person. It breaks my heart, it makes me want to cry, but I do believe there is bias sometimes, and believe that bias is part of engrained, learned behavior, which is why people don’t stop to question the behavior while doing it. How we choose to market those shows, or not market it—and assuming a community can’t afford to support it—is 100 per cent racism.”

Moreland doesn’t know if racism informed why Blue did not get a Broadway theater, “but I do know a few shows with a deeper history than mine didn’t get a theater either.” He paused. “It’s a hard thing. I struggle with it myself.” It comes down, he said, to producers picking work that is “familiar to them,” and again revealed the need for those Broadway and commercial producers to make more of an effort to search out diverse works.

There was an added nervousness on the parts of producers that Black and people of color works would not make money, Moreland said.

“I think theater is so far behind in relation to other entertainment forms,” said Moreland. “Take film. Crazy Rich Asians, which broke box office records. Black Panther. And people go, ‘Oh my god, how did that happen?’ Well, people of color went to see them. The crossover success of Waiting to Exhale showed how something could cross the color barrier and break records. People of color are good for business.”

Moreland paused and laughed. “Sorry, I was trying not to say that. But time and time again we see there is a real value in diverse stories with diverse actors and diverse people working on it that appeal to a wider audience. Theater is the last holdout of this. I think it’s because, rather like taking your favorite train, your choice becomes a habit.”

There was “undue pressure or unjust pressure placed upon shows of color,” said Moreland; the actors themselves have to be household names, which means sometimes the works don’t get their proper due. Sometimes the stars don’t want to do a particular work, and that particular work is dismissed.

“What happened to just exploring a play?” Moreland asked rhetorically. “Plays that do not feature people of color do not have the same responsibility placed upon them, and that’s unjust.”

The producers Barry and Fran Weissler, Moreland said, have a talent to make unknowns superstars. “We don’t have the same pipeline for people of color.” There also needed to be more Black Broadway producers, Moreland said, name-checking Rashad V. Chambers, Ron Simons, Willette Murphy Klausner, and Alia Jones-Harvey.

“People often say producers of color struggle to raise money,” said Moreland. “That’s one aspect of it. However, the biggest barrier to having more producers of color is that most people do not grow up to say, ‘You know what? I want to be a producer.’ It’s not like being a doctor or fireman. It’s the same thing as being a general manager—it’s not the first theater job someone comes to. A lot of theater producers come to it as a second, third, or even fourth career.”

 

“I don’t live my life through a lens where I’m looking every day for the ways the world is working against me”

Moreland, who lives in New York City, declined to give his age, laughing, “I have grey hairs in my goatee, and I am not happy about it.” Growing up in Southern California, “long before the Housewives,” Moreland knew he wanted to be in the theater from third grade. “It was simple, hands down. If you wanted to talk to me about something not-theater, I was not interested.”

His love of the stage took root when his third grade teacher called his mother to ask if he would like to be in the school’s Christmas play. His mother made him a Santa Claus costume. “I knew it was the thing I wanted to do. There wasn’t a lights or church bells moment. When it was over I just wanted to do it again and again and again.”

Moreland’s mother played the clarinet, his father the saxophone, though neither one pursued a career in music. His father worked for the state of California, his mother was a CPA, and both were—alongside his teachers—“extraordinarily supportive” of his theatrical desires. His later education continued on east and west coasts, before he began his career in New York.

Moreland didn’t perform on Broadway but made a good living as an actor and dancer. He laughed that his acting agent told him “I was her worst client ever. She said I was the only actor who didn’t want to talk about himself. I said I hoped the work would speak for itself. She said I should sell myself.”

He “fell into” producing, with work coming his way that “I loved and wanted to champion.”

The turning point was being given Thoughts of a Colored Man to read as an actor. “I had never read a story where seven Black men talked about their shared experiences, all tied to the color of their skins. I don’t live my life thinking about being Black. I probably think about my sexuality more than I do the color of my skin. I had never read a story like that. So many experiences happen in Thoughts of a Colored Man that I have experienced in one way, shape, or form. I was stunned someone was able to capture it.”

Moreland asked playwright Keenan Scott II if he could produce it. Scott asked him if he’d produced anything before. Moreland said he had not, and that he was “very green about it. Keenan said that was OK, he was green too, and maybe we could do it together—and so we started on this journey.”

Was he in any way a performer manqué? Moreland laughed. He said he missed dance class, but never walks on a stage, or watches one as an audience member, and thinks about being on it. But, he said, “who knows if that changes years from now.”

Moreland was proud of producing Lifespan of a Fact, which starred Daniel Radcliffe, “especially given where this country is at with facts and why facts matter.”

Six years ago, Moreland wanted to produce a play (which he declined to name), “with two major Black stars in it, and the playwright’s estate wouldn’t give the rights to Black people to do the show, and I was gutted.” As reported by the Washington Post, this echoed the director Gregory Mosher exiting a production of All My Sons in 2018 after Arthur Miller’s estate declined to let him cast two black actors in a pair of sibling roles normally played by white actors.

Will theater’s current reckoning ensure such a thing won’t happen again, this reporter asked Moreland.

“I’d like to believe so. I would like to believe that we are all taking a good, hard, long look at the ways we are not being equitable to people, and then actively making changes. I would like to think that is the case, but I don’t know. I don’t live my life through a lens where I’m looking every day for the ways the world is working against me. I really believe people will be kind if you treat them with kindness. For me, in the last six years, that has worked out well for me. See,” he laughed. “I’m a Pollyanna. I really believe that.”

Right now Moreland feels, like so many people, “a little weary. I am weary of all that is happening in the world, weary of what will happen in November, weary that Americans are not going to stand up in the way they should stand up and move us forward. It’s a clear message if we remain with the same administration, and an equally clear message if people are really ready for lasting change.”

For Moreland, the pandemic has been a “horrific modern-day atrocity” overseen by Trump, and only partially alleviated—as a New Yorker—“by the inspiring leadership of Governor Cuomo.”

 

“Audiences will want to see shows that both talk to now and that entertain, and warm the heart”

Broadway will be back in the spring, Moreland thinks. A lot of his colleagues and peers have complained about a lack of leadership by the League, but Moreland says the League simply doesn’t know, yet, what best practices work and what the future holds. He doesn’t agree that two traditional Broadway constituencies, severely affected by COVID—older people and tourists—are key to its return.

“There was a time before around 1994, before the real commercialization of Broadway, that Tri-State residents and tourists wanted to see Broadway. I would venture to say the art really mattered more, and then it shifted—it got very much product-driven. Coming out of this I hope we will revert back to art, because tourism be a little low. It’s going to be imperative we appeal to our community at large. That will sustain us in the theater when we return. I really think people will come.”

The question of theater capacity is thornier, Moreland said. He doesn’t see theaters operating at 50 per cent occupancy as financially viable, “and still being able to pay people. I read that producers don’t want to give up their money. That isn’t true. I want to give you all the money. I can’t give you the money if we can’t sell a ticket.”

Concessions have to be made by all the unions representing theater workers, Moreland said. “We don’t know what life will look like, but history and data shows us that when theaters reopen it will be a slow climb, and with that slow climb we have to sell enough tickets to pay people—and that means we all have to take a pay cut, at least temporarily. When people ask about a ‘new economic model’ I don’t know what that looks like. I don’t see the unions lowering pay minimums. If someone knows that this new ‘model’ is, I’m happy to try it.”

But even if everyone involved in the theater agrees to a pay cut, how to ensure that everyone involved in their lives—landlords, everyone they pay for services and goods—lowers the money they expect from the workers. If it was work, any financial scaling back could not stop at the theater.

“That’s right,” said Moreland. “We’re seeing people flee the city, and those in longstanding Broadway jobs don’t know what change in financials make it more profitable or manageable. If shows cost $1 million a week to run, you have got to be able to cover payroll. $60 a ticket for a 700-seat house is not going to cover it.”

Up until now there has been a disparity, Moreland said, between the funding that Black and brown artistic institutions receive compared to those traditionally thought of as white. “I would like to see that gap closed, so more Black and brown theaters across America are bought into the LORT (League of Resident Theatres) realm, so producers can work with them.”

Mulling the kind of work theaters will program, Moreland said he hoped that shows without Black and people of color performers and staff are not immediately shut down. “That’s the wrong approach. Let them run their course and then make the shift.”

Moreland is ready to work on the delayed productions of Blue and Thoughts of a Colored Man, and is eager to work with the “old guard” of Broadway’s producers, including Stacey Mindich, David Stone, Barbara Broccoli, Scott Rudin, and Jeffrey Richards. He would love to work on a “good, old-fashioned granddaddy musical, with costumes and spectacle. I would love to build brand new talent.”

He would also love to see the kind of work heralded by the success of Pulitzer winner Michael R. Jackson’s A Strange Loop on Broadway. “You’re talking to someone who believes everything is commercial, where there is room for Spongebob and Long Day’s Journey into Night and everything in between,” Moreland said.

When audiences return, “they will want to see shows that both talk to now and that entertain, and warm the heart,” said Moreland. “We are so aware of a lack of inclusion. I think a lot of people are asking the question, ‘Who’s in that show? We’ll see the show that has diversity.’ Thoughts of a Colored Man is the perfect show for right now, in the middle of a racial uprising looking at how Black men in America are treated.”

While the future of Broadway—and theater more generally—is unknown, Moreland is excited for the possibility of change that it promises.

“When theater comes back we will have been gone for maybe more than a year in which time there will have been a pandemic, a few hurricanes, the killing of George Floyd, the election and whatever happens there,” Moreland said. “We have had so much change, and no place to process it. We will come back together. Theater is a place we come to feel and process, to be enlightened, entertained, or challenged, and have a release.”