Skip to content

Why theater professionals are looking to football to increase diversity

Theater and football may have something in common.

The initiative of "one more conversation" was launched at the 2018 Theatre Women Awards last week. (Photo: Ashley Garrett)

Theater and football may have something in common.

The League of Professional Theatre Women, an advocacy group for women in theater, is taking a note from the National Football League and asking producers or those in charge of hiring to have “one more conversation” and make a concerted effort to interview a woman for open positions before making a hiring decision. The initiative is broadly meant to apply to women behind the scenes and on creative teams in the theater industry, but some say it may be harder to make it a common practice on Broadway.

Professional football has had a similar initiative in place since 2003. Called the “Rooney Rule,” this measure requires league teams to interview people of color for head coaching positions and has been expanded to include general manager jobs and front-office positions. Like the proposed rule in theater, the rule does not require the teams to hire those coaches, just a conversation.

Thus far, the rule appears to be making an impact on hiring, as the NFL had added at least 14 head coaches of color since the rule was initiated, according to a 2016 article from FiveThirtyEight. Other industries have adopted this rule after the success within the NFL.

In turn, the idea of “one more conversation” came up in 2017 as the League of Professional Theatre Women formulated their strategic plan for the next two years, with the Rooney Rule at the back of their minds. This initiative had the benefit of being a “doable, simple action,” while giving those in charge of hiring the benefit of expanding their network, said Lisa Rothe, co-president of the League of Professional Theatre Women.

“Even if they’re not right for this particular job, you’ve now expanded this portfolio,” Rothe said.

The initiative is aimed at increasing representation for women behind the scenes, including as directors, playwrights and stagehands. In the 2014-2015 season, 40% of plays at 22 off Broadway and off off Broadway theaters featured plays directed by women and 29% were written by women, according to a study conducted by the League of Professional Theatre Women.

The numbers dip lower in other areas, with women making up 22% of set designers, 17% of sound designers and 13% of lighting designers in those theaters, according to the study. The group has not studied Broadway theaters.

Jim Joseph, house manager at the Samuel J. Friedman Theatre, has also been speaking about using the idea of the “Rooney Rule” to increase the number of people of color working in theater.

“This industry it’s all about who you know and networking and opening up doors, and any opportunity to break down those barriers to increase connections is a positive thing,” Joseph said.

The League of Professional Women’s Initiative is aimed at all sectors of theater, including regional theater, off Broadway and Broadway.

However, as it stands, Joseph sees the overall idea of the Rooney Rule working better for nonprofit theaters and regional theaters, where producers or decision makers are beholden to a larger theater organization, rather than on Broadway where producers act as their own small businesses.

“Ultimately you can’t force it,” Joseph said.

Rachel Chavkin, who most recently directed “The Great Comet” on Broadway, sees similar roadblocks on Broadway, where she says the initiative would be “much more squirrelly to enforce.”

But, she still believes it can have an impact, particularly if prominent directors and writers, in addition to producers, speak up about the cause.

“You’re talking about changing a very, very entrenched system, so I think it’s about being loud on many fronts,” Chavkin said.