Credit:  Phil Hearing / Unsplash

Coya Paz is an associate professor of Theatre Studies in The Theatre School at DePaul University. She is the artistic director of Free Street Theater and a Public Voices Fellow through The OpEd Project.

With the Oscars coming up next week, much of the conversation leading up to them has focused on the lack of diversity in the nominations. No female directors were nominated, and every other category is overwhelmingly, if not exclusively, white. While this comes as no surprise—awards ceremonies are hardly known for racial or gender parity—it does always come as a disappointment.

Though lived experience tells us that the people handing out awards only invest in our stories if they happen to center white male saviors, it’s hard not to hope that surely this year, this year that features such vibrant storytelling, such extraordinary risk, will be the year that our art-making washes away the bias of privilege and presents us with a beautiful open slate that embraces multiple perspectives and recognizes a wide variety of styles.

After all, isn’t this the promise of the arts—that we can create new worlds, new relationships, new ways of understanding each other? Isn’t this why we’re in it? A deep need to reach out, to communicate, to tell the stories we believe matter?

But for all of our creativity as artists, the cultural sector as a whole is caught in an ever-repeating pattern. Accolades, be they awards, newspaper reviews, or Best Of lists, go to the usual suspects. Funding and audiences follow, creating a closed circuit that serves the same people over and over again and leaves the rest of us to wonder when—or if—our stories will ever really matter in our country’s national narrative. 

I’m a theater maker who works in Chicago, not a filmmaker, but I believe the Oscars serve as a touchstone for our national conversations about storytelling and the arts.

I’ve spent more than 20 years advocating for performance that centers the lives and experiences of people whose stories aren’t often found in mainstream venues, at least not in honest or complex ways. And I know that awards and reviews drive what is seen, and, perhaps more important, where it is seen. They also shape what will be remembered—quite literally, years from now, they will be our cultural archive of what happened in a given year.

In Chicago, as elsewhere, our arts critics are not yet covering the full breadth of cultural production, largely excluding work by people of color, or work that challenges a white, middle-class narrative.

Major newspapers like the Chicago Tribune focus their arts coverage on the wealthiest and whitest parts of the city, and rarely cover performance happening on the south and west sides of Chicago. Instead, they choose to uphold the familiar, in spaces and neighborhoods that are comfortable for them to attend.

This is an omission with serious economic impact. Chicago has more than 250 professional theater companies and is home to the third largest arts economy in the country. We are also one of the most segregated cities in the country, and when support for the arts concentrates along a narrow geographic corridor, it impacts the economic and cultural health of the vast majority of neighborhoods in Chicago.

The performing arts are big business. Investment in theater, in dance, in music is investment in the financial health of a community. When audiences see a live performance, they spend more than the cost of a ticket. They go out to dinner. They hire babysitters. They stop and check out a cute little shop. They catch a cab (or a Lyft). In Illinois alone, the result is $2.25 billion in revenue—a calculation that excludes the cost of admission. And of course, this is just the economic argument.

I think most of us want to see our lives reflected in the arts—to know we aren’t alone, to know that people are paying attention.

It’s easy to believe that the tip of the iceberg is the iceberg—after all, this is what’s easy to see. Most people handing out accolades, be they awards committees or local arts critics, rarely make an effort to dive deep, to see what’s happening broadly, or to ask whether they are conflating artistic excellence with their own sense of whose stories matter (largely, their own).

In the meantime, artists and culture-makers working to tell stories about people who haven’t historically been valued by the mainstream, in venues and styles accessible to the people they are talking about, will continue to do the hard work of not just making art, but of advocating for more complex understandings of artistic value, a double duty that someday will change the face of national belonging. Storytelling drives economies but it also drives our sense of who and what matters, who and what is normal, who and what is American.

In the meantime, we will read the Oscar nominations and local arts reviews with a sigh, knowing that they aren’t made for us. Not yet.   v