By Derrick Vanmeter |
“Theatre is a verb before it is a noun, an act before it is a place.”
– Martha Graham
In the wake of renewed calls for racial equity and justice following the deaths of Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery and George Floyd in 2020, theatres across the U.S. began to formulate and post statements of solidarity on web pages and social media platforms. Many of the solidarity statements contained variations of “We hear you, we see you.” Around the same time, over 300 Black, Indigenous and people of color (BIPOC) theatre makers published an open letter to the white theatre community.
“We see you,” they said. “We have always seen you. We have watched you pretend to not see us.”
The letter, posted by a coalition of theatre artists known as We See You, White American Theater, reflected longstanding criticisms of the theatre industry by BIPOC artists, who are demanding real, measurable change. In July, the writers of the open letter published a 29-page list of demands for all aspects of the theatre community. As theatres across the country respond, it’s clear that just stating solidarity doesn’t begin to address the issues. Rather, theatres must lay out the steps they will take in response to those demands.
Anti-racist artist and educator Nicole Brewer says solidarity must be offered not as a noun, but as a verb, connoting action.
“If [someone says] ‘I’m in solidarity with you,’ that in itself becomes a shield for me being able to name the harm I have actively been engaged in with that community… within the structures, policies and practices of that organization,” Brewer said.
Similarly, Michael Bobbitt, artistic director of New Repertory Theatre (New Rep) in the Boston, MA, area, notes the importance of developing a plan and tracking results.
“[Doing so] keeps us from being stuck in the solidarity belief system,” Bobbitt said. “There are so many people that are ‘in solidarity’ but there’s not action.”
Just as theatre makers take the text of the play and transform the words on the page into action on the stage, the theatre industry must transform mere statements of solidarity into measurable action.
Southern Theatre asked artistic leaders from the Southeast and beyond to share how they are approaching this work. Five theatres – Actor’s Express (Atlanta), Radical Buffoons (New Orleans), Theatre Horizon (Norristown, PA), Brown Box Theatre Project (Boston, MA/Berlin, MD) and New Rep (Watertown, MA) – have created and posted action plans, while Alabama Shakespeare Festival was in the middle of developing its action plan as this story was being researched. In Lexington, KY, representatives of five area theatres have taken a different route – joining together to create a collective, Theatre for Equity, Accountability, Community and Healing (TEACH), which is working to listen and create a list of action items that local theatres can adopt.
What issues are being addressed in plans?
Most of those interviewed described their theatres’ engagement with BIPOC artists and audiences as minimal prior to 2020, noting a lack of full representation in programming, casting, employment and additional areas. Those shortcomings include some of the same issues raised by the We See You, White American Theater movement, which called out theatres for a lack of cultural competency, for working and hiring practices that alienated BIPOC artists and staff members, for homogenous board composition and for a lack of representation in theatre productions.
For example, in Atlanta, more than 50% of the population is BIPOC, but only 12% of plays produced by Atlanta area theatres in the 2019 season were written by BIPOC playwrights, according to the Coalition for Racial Equity in Atlanta Theatre (CREAT), an organization formed by a group of Atlanta artists to “fundamentally reshape the Atlanta theatre community so that it prioritizes opportunities for the historically underserved and underrepresented.” Similarly, Rick Dildine, artistic director of Alabama Shakespeare Festival (ASF), found only 5% of plays presented in the past 50 years by ASF were by BIPOC writers.
Hiring practices are another area where action is needed. Bobbitt noted that, in the two years before he arrived at New Rep, the theatre had hired only 16 BIPOC artists. Since his arrival a little over a year ago, that number has increased to 57.
In addition to issues with representation, scores of BIPOC artists have experienced racism in the industry in other ways, such as casting processes with discriminatory practices, lighting designers who identify non-white skin tones as a “problem,” costume designers who are not prepared to talk about Black hair and makeup, and practices that place BIPOC artists in unsafe conditions.
Theatres across the country need to examine what inclusivity looks like within their organizations, notes Jessica Greene, associate artistic director of Distilled Theatre Company in Lexington, KY, one of the theatres involved in TEACH.
“The conventional idea of diversity in theatre typically revolves around programming one ‘Black show,’ typically near February, and then hoping that artists of color will show up to audition,” Greene said. “Inclusivity is not filling a slot in your season, and it is not the ‘heroes and holidays’ approach to theatre education when a Hispanic playwright is highlighted during Hispanic Heritage month, but not beyond October 15.”
How do we start?
A good first step is to identify, recognize and take responsibility for the harm that has been done through racist practices.
“[To say] ‘we have harmed,’ that’s really great, but if I’m just saying that without the capacity to hear that pain, suffering or rage coming from that person, then I’ve created another shield in a statement, which is not a conversation,” Brewer said. “What are you doing to have to sit with the sometimes extreme discomfort around that pain, rage, suffering from the build-up of that person’s experience with your organization?”
In Atlanta, CREAT partnered with Inclusion, Equity, Diversity in the Arts-Atlanta (IDEA-ATL) in late June to address that issue. The two organizations cohosted a massive three-night event, “Town Hall for Racial Reckoning.” Artistic directors, board members, other leaders and artists from theatres across the Atlanta area were invited to sit in silence on Zoom, actively listening with video on, to the stories of BIPOC artists and their experiences in an industry that had not prioritized anti-racist practices. Over two nights, BIPOC artists shared over 10 hours of testimony. Theatres were not allowed to contact, respond to, or retaliate against these individuals (some of whom shared anonymously). On the third night, BIPOC artists came together without any white participants or observers for a night of healing facilitated by a psychological professional.
Alabama Shakespeare Festival
What should an action plan include?
Many theatres have created and posted statements about their commitment to diversity, but an action plan goes much further, detailing measurable steps the theatre commits to taking.
These measurable outcomes may include specific increases in the number of BIPOC-written plays produced, commitments to equal representation on boards and other governing bodies, and commitments to physical and psychological safety for BIPOC artists.
The theatres interviewed for this article that have completed action plans included a range of goals in their documents.
Actor’s Express in Atlanta focused on “programming, artists, staff, board, intern company and audience,” said Freddie Ashley, artistic director of Actor’s Express.
“We always thought we were a leader in inclusion and then I looked at our numbers and thought, ‘We could be doing a whole lot better,’” Ashley said.
The four-page Actor’s Express action plan defines a wide range of categories for diversity, including but not limited to race, color, sex and gender, and citizenship. The goals range from ensuring that at least 50% of mainstage productions are written by BIPOC writers and women, to requiring that casting teams will not be exclusively white, to structuring the intern program in a way that enables interns to hold full-time jobs outside of Actor’s Express. The plan also aims to have at least 50% BIPOC representation on the board.
In developing its action plan, Brown Box employed categories from the We See You, White American Theater demands and added some additional categories to address its specific circumstances. One of the goals is to hire as many BIPOC artists for their 2021 season as possible. The season planned for 2020 will be moved to 2021, and all existing contracts from 2020 will be upheld, but BIPOC artists will be sought to fulfill any additional contracts. A play featuring exclusively BIPOC playwrights and predominantly BIPOC collaborators also will be added to the 2021 season. Another goal is to provide a 5% salary increase to BIPOC administrators to recognize and compensate the additional labor that comes with being BIPOC in a predominantly white institution (PWI).
Radical Buffoons took a creative approach in developing its action plan, framing it in terms of “Radical Safety, Radical Solidarity and Radical Creativity,” with specific commitments for each “Radical” idea. For example, Radical Buffoons commits to radical safety by requiring anti-racism training for all artists and staff, radical solidarity by “[divesting] from vertical models steeped in white supremacy,” and radical creativity by developing three new plays in the coming year.
Theatre Horizon in Norristown, PA, developed a 12-page document that includes general statements and commitments, followed by a table of measurable short- and long-term goals.
“Inclusion and empathy weren’t enough, and we had to work to be actively and explicitly anti-racist,” said Nell Bang-Jensen, artistic director of Theatre Horizon. “I find that, unless you put it on paper and make it measurable, it doesn’t happen in real life.”
One of Theatre Horizon’s commitments is that board members will pledge to donate a percentage of their annual gift to the theatre to a restricted Anti-Racist Action Fund, which will provide money for a variety of activities, including anti-racist training and donations to Black-led organizations chosen by staff. Theatre Horizon also commits to instituting term limits for executive leadership. By September 2023, the term limit for an artistic director will be 12 years.
New Rep published a 10-page IDEAA (Inclusion, Diversity, Equity, Access and Accountability) plan, which identifies short- and long-term goals, including the hiring of BIPOC-led vendors, a concerted effort to increase BIPOC audiences by 20%, the abolishment of 10 out of 12 tech rehearsals, and moving from a six-day to a five-day rehearsal week.
How can theatres identify their specific goals?
There are numerous resources white theatre makers can consult to begin grasping potential needs in their communities. Theatres interviewed for this article unanimously identified BIPOC members of their own communities as the most important resource in determining goals. However, BIPOC staff members at some theatres have indicated they would prefer not to participate in the initial stages of making action plans.
Some theatres have hired BIPOC consultants to assist. Others have found the We See You, White American Theater list of demands, which is the result of hours of BIPOC labor, to be an important document. New Rep consulted “A Framework for Action in Response to Moments of Outrage & Crisis,” created by OF/BY/FOR/ALL, and “SMART Goals,” developed by Peter F. Drucker.
Theatres often want to hire an “expert” to develop their action plans, but Brewer notes that this shields the organization from accountability.
“People want to bring me in because they feel like I’m the expert,” Brewer said. “I’m a person who has a set of lived experiences. I have an analysis, and I have some offerings, but what I don’t have is any kind of expertise or magic wand to fix what’s happening within your own community. You’ve got to do that work, and that means you’re going to have to be accountable for yourself doing the work.”
All of the artistic leaders interviewed for this article spoke about the importance of community and collective creation in the development of their action plans. By sharing leadership and working as a community, theatres can develop action plans that address Brewer’s three guiding principles for anti-racist action: harm reduction, harm prevention and relationship repair. She says theatres should ask themselves the question: “How [are we] asking the community what they need, which could be very different from what [we] feel they need in order for us to live amends as an organization?”
Brewer also notes the importance of allowing BIPOC artists to refuse involvement in this work. When theatres expect them to participate, it “doesn’t allow the space for people [who do not] want to be in relationship with folks that have been harming them up until this point.”
Theatre Horizon experienced this reluctance from some BIPOC artists, Bang-Jensen said, prompting the theatre to ask: “How do we ensure that many voices are being represented and at the same time not be asking BIPOC board, staff, artists [and] audience members to be doing labor that they didn’t want to do or that was unfair to be asking of them?”
Bang-Jensen said that open individual conversations and a recognition that BIPOC persons may not want to be involved were helpful in navigating this challenge.
Brown Box Theatre Project
Alabama Shakespeare Festival
How do you develop an action plan?
While action plans may be unified in intent and specific points of action, the process of development is different for every theatre. There is no one-size-fits-all-approach. Each theatre has to do the work of listening, understanding and responding to the needs of their particular community.
“We’re all not going to get there in the same way,” said Todd Schmidt, executive director of Alabama Shakespeare Festival. “Everybody’s process is going to be different. I think it’s recognizing that we are part of a journey and that it’s going to take time, patience and understanding to get there.”
Realizing that each theatre’s path is different is important, Brewer said: “There isn’t a perfect time to engage in this work, there isn’t a perfect way into this work, there isn’t a right way into this work. There is only the work.”
While some theatres have moved quickly to develop action plans, others emphasize the importance of slowing down and working deliberately.
“This sense of urgency, which is a steeped white supremacist behavior, is so connected to our industry,” said Jon Greene, artistic director of Radical Buffoons in New Orleans. “[One of] the things the pandemic did [was the] destabilizing of normalcy. Urgency went out the window. Because we were forced to let go of our urgency, we were able to examine all the things we wanted to do with our collective that get pushed to the side because of being in production.”
Bang-Jensen of Theatre Horizon also noted that “because we are so in the psychology of production, people can quickly feel like they’re working to put out fires all the time and not doing long-range, deeper thinking that I think is required for real change to happen in this industry.”
This doesn’t imply that theatres can hold off on beginning this work. The important thing is not being finished with the work, but doing the work.
One unifying aspect of the theatres that developed or are developing action plans was the willingness to get it wrong, course-correct, and continue moving forward. The communications from We See You, White American Theater explicitly state that the demands are a living document. Following suit, Bang-Jensen says, “We acknowledge in the [action plan] that it’s a living, breathing document that’s going to change.”
Jessica Greene, representing the TEACH collective in Central Kentucky, noted that getting past participants’ worries about perception is important in developing an action plan.
“I think our TEACH team had to overcome the fear of being wrong or saying something wrong,” Greene said. “The difficult conversations began timidly at first. I, as a woman of color, was trying to avoid the ‘angry Black woman’ stigma when expressing inequities I had experienced in the theatre, while my non-Black colleagues were trying to avoid saying anything that may come off as ignorant. As we bonded and learned to trust one another, those walls began to come down and we were able to see that our hearts matched the mission and vision we wrote together, and our conversations became more productive, more meaningful and more uplifting.”
The creation of these “brave spaces” fosters the type of dialogue necessary to break down racist policies and replace them with anti-racist practices.
In creating action plans, theatres have to overcome challenges. Touring company Brown Box Theatre Project, though based in Boston, MA, and Berlin, MD, performs in over 40 venues across five states. That large performance area made one of the action items from the We See You, White American Theater demands – a statement acknowledging the Indigenous and enslaved people who lived and labored on the lands where theatres were built – a daunting task, said Kyler Taustin, artistic director. But it was an important step, he added, and they did the work necessary to complete the statement.
Even though it is a smaller theatre – with an annual operating budget of less than $200,000 and only one full-time employee – Brown Box was determined to set specific goals looking toward the future.
“We made sure we did not let a lack of resources be a reason to not respond to a certain demand,” Taustin said. “We forced ourselves to say, ‘That is beyond our current means. That doesn’t take us off the hook. What are we going to do in the meantime to address the demand? What are the stepping stones we take along the way?’”
One of the out-of-reach goals was to offer and require anti-racism training for all staff and artists. Taustin identified a specific stepping stone toward this goal: A percentage of donations collected after each performance (most of Brown Box’s shows are offered at no charge) will be moved into restricted accounts to pay for programs such as equity, diversity and inclusion (EDI) training for all employees and artists.
Another challenge many theatres identified was a hesitance from board members to make changes that impact revenues, subscriptions and benefits for donors. Both New Rep and Theatre Horizon created policies specifying that all donors, regardless of the amount of their financial support, would receive the same benefits.
Some theatres faced resistance from board members over concerns that increased BIPOC representation would alienate current subscribers and patrons. Bobbitt of New Rep addressed these fears, asserting that anti-racism action steps actually expand the pool of audience members.
“Know that diversity is good for business,” he said. “When you become an anti-racist structure, you’re going to open up your doors to so many people that would not have come otherwise.”
Sharing the action plan
Once a theatre has begun to engage in this work – listening to those who are impacted by racist policies and practices – and has created an action plan, it is important to share it with others. Many theatres have chosen to present their plans in a single document, organizing commitments under relevant categories.
Actor’s Express presents its plan in a Google document link at the bottom of the “About” section on its website. Interested readers can download the plan or view it in their browser. The presentation is clear, systematic and organized. Before distributing it to the public, Actor’s Express asked an attorney who specializes in EDI to review the plan.
“We wanted to make sure that there was nothing in the plan that was unintentionally discriminatory that would actually cause further injury,” Ashley said.
Both New Rep and Theatre Horizon have posted their plans as downloadable PDF documents on their websites. New Rep’s IDEAA plan can be found under the “Explore” tab or by clicking here. Theatre Horizon’s can be found under the “About” tab or by clicking here. The housing of these plans near other information such as the mission, vision and history of the organization points to the core importance of these action plans for each organization.
Brown Box chose to place its commitments on its website with a link from the home page to a specific page that presents the plan in an expandable format. Commitments are categorized under headers such as Artistic and Curatorial Choices, Working Conditions and Hiring Practices, and EDI + Touring, which contain large umbrella commitments. A click expands each category to provide more detailed explanations.
Radical Buffoons presents its action plan in a series of three images, each dedicated to its commitments to Radical Safety, Radical Solidarity and Radical Creativity. These images were posted to the Radical Buffoons’ website and its Facebook page.
Continuing the work
Finally, when the plan has been published and action steps have been implemented, what is the next step? Theatres must follow through on these commitments and be accountable to their plans. New Rep created a tracking sheet to visually represent its goals. Bobbitt was also very specific in establishing timelines for each goal so there would be deadlines for accomplishing particular tasks. Actor’s Express intends to evaluate its progress quarterly, while other theatres have established their own intervals to assess the results of their work. Once goals have been achieved, the next step must be to continue the work.
“When we hit certain benchmarks,” Ashley of Actor’s Express says, “what are the new benchmarks?”
Looking at the Atlanta area, where some theatres seemed to have made measurable progress as they announced their season plans for the coming year, Diany Rodriguez of CREAT echoed Ashley’s point.
“We have to approach this with a ‘Yes, and…’ attitude,” Rodriguez said. “Yes, that is great, and what is next?”
The work of anti-racism is not a destination, but a journey. The important thing is not just to start the work, but to make it part of your theatre’s work going forward.
ADVICE FROM THEATRES THAT HAVE CREATED ANTI-RACISM ACTION PLANS
This article originally appeared in Southern Theatre, The Magazine of the Southeastern Theatre Conference, Volume LXII Number 1, Winter 2021