Reflections on the 2012 Intergenerational Leaders of Color Meeting

by Benny Sato Ambush

in Diversity & Inclusion,National Conference

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The following are my personal take-away’s from the June 21, 2012 Intergenerational Leaders of Color Meeting at the 2012 TCG National Conference: Model the Movement in Boston, which I facilitated. I did my best to accurately represent the comments and sentiments of the participants. These are not verbatim minutes of the meeting. Also note that my opening paragraph contains personal assessments and may not be entirely historically factual.

Our country has a number of “Legacy” theatre organizations run by leaders of color, some of them founders, who have been producing for thirty or more years and are viewed in the field as “mother ship” elder organizations of color. The artistic impulses that gave birth to these organizations were often inspired by the need to assert cultural/ethnic/racial identity and people hood, to create and correct images, to project pride, to gain political power, to seek autonomy, and to contribute their unique world-views to the American theatrical landscape. This took place largely, though not exclusively, during the third quarter of the 20th century, fueled by the empowering political/social cauldron of civil and human rights movements. During this period, the regional theatre movement was born as an alternative to the NYC-centered commercial theatre, the organizational models we now have were being formulated, the National Endowment for the Arts and the National Endowment for the Humanities were established, the 501(c)(3) tax exemption was applied to arts organizations and current trustee governance models were devised.

Many of these pioneering leaders are still with us. Among the Legacy organizations are (this is an incomplete list): New Federal Theatre, El Teatro Campesino, East West Players, Rites and Reason Theatre Company, Repertorio Español, Pan Asian Repertory, Negro Ensemble Company, Asian American Theatre Company (San Francisco), Penumbra Theatre Company, Crossroads Theatre, Karamu House, Free Southern Theatre. Some names (again, an incomplete list): Douglas Turner Ward, Luis Valdez, René Buch, Tisa Chang, Woodie King, Jr., John O’Neal, William Yellowrobe, Jr., Ricardo Khan, Lee Richardson, Lane Nishikawa, George Houston Bass, Lou Bellamy.

Legacy theatres share a number of challenges: how to financially stabilize their operations over the next several decades and avoid inconsistent feast-famine fluctuations; how to insure continued longevity; how to plan for, manage and survive succession leadership transitions; how to evolve their missions to keep pace with changing times without losing their essential artistic rudder; how to keep rising and uplifting aesthetically; how to keep the art affordable; how to grow audiences and donors; how to lessen the toll of human sacrifice in order to keep these organizations going.

Many of the leaders of color who have founded these Legacy theatres and/or who have been running them for decades are held in high esteem and are respected as elders by younger generational leaders of color. Discussions between the generations are fruitful as witnessed at the June 2012 TCG National Conference in Boston. There is wide support for more of these intergenerational gatherings. Conversations have continued since the TCG Conference on a regional and national level, especially in the national Latino theatre community.

Younger leaders of color who have started their own companies were launched by artistic impulses and responses to needs different from those of preceding generations. How young leaders of color view themselves, self-identify and formulate their organizational missions also differ at times from Legacy organizations. This difference perhaps reflects changing times. The outlook of the younger generation is more global and international. Race is just one of many identifying elements. New and different organizational and economic models are being explored. Missions are diversifying beyond single ethnic, racial and cultural specificity, fueled in part by a sense among the current young generation that they are not a monolith in their racial/cultural/ethnic-ness. Their connection to their communities is not always the same as it was for Legacy organizations. Their community may assume a different profile from their predecessors.

There are theatres that produce the work of artists of color and are committed to diversity but are not led by leaders of color. This is a not a new phenomenon. For every current example of, say, a Company One (Boston, MA), one can find a Legacy theatre like Mixed Blood (St. Paul. MN) that has pursued a similar mission. For them too, challenges of sustainability, economic viability, and access to affordable space are pervasive.

Many young leaders of color wish to do their work without mortgaging a semblance of a decent comfortable life with, at minimum, a modest livable wage with benefits. Younger generational leaders have seen the sacrifices their elders have endured – and are still enduring – to establish and run their Legacy theatres. How much one is willing to give up and do without in order to do one’s work is a painful, individual crossroads decision. Among the pressing issues articulated by the young generation are: financial sustainability, seeking collaborative opportunities with others, long-term planning, access to space (for offices, meetings, rehearsals, performances, storage), resource sharing, co-productions, avoiding a culture of fear, inviting critiques, staying open to new kinds of work, strategic planning, increasing networking, financial management, and how to stay generative.

For younger generations, burdensome school loans factor heavily in their career decisions. They are  technologically savvy, an advantage over some older digital immigrants. Some younger leaders of color are seeking mentors and have had difficulty finding them.

Independent, individual artists who are unaffiliated with an organization often feel on the outside looking in: left out, overlooked, lonely, marooned. They seek opportunities as well as artistic homes to do their work. They wish to lessen their isolation. They seek ways in. They yearn for belonging, for on-going community, for listening ears, for shoulders to lean on, for witness.

Our national theatre ecology is enlarging, morphing, shifting, bending toward the future while Legacy institutions seek to sustain themselves for future generations. There is much information that older generational leaders have that can be useful for younger generations of leaders to consider as the latter does their work their way, appropriate for their era. There is room for (room should be made for) all the above stated players. “Creative abrasion” is inevitable, but can be a healthy dynamic if respect is a ruling principle. There is much we can learn from each other. There is much we can do to help one another.

(Learn more about the 2013 Intergenerational Leaders of Color Meeting at the 2013 TCG Nqtional Conference: Learn Do Teach).

Benny Sato Ambush is a professional SDC stage director, former Artistic Director of professional theaters, educator, consultant and published commentator. Prior artistic leadership experience include: Producing Director – Oakland (CA) Ensemble Theatre, Associate Artistic Director – San Francisco’s American Conservatory Theater, Acting Artistic Director – Providence, RI’s Rites and Reason Theatre Company, Co-Artistic Director – San Francisco Bay Area Playwrights Festival, Director-In-Residence – Manalapan, Florida’s
Florida Stage and Producing Artistic Director – Richmond, VA’s LORT C TheatreVirginia (one of only 14 people-of-color to have ever been Artistic Director of a LORT Theatre). He directed at all these theaters. He was Associate Artistic Director of Anna Deavere Smith’s Institute on the Arts & Civic Dialogue at Harvard University – summer 2000.

Other regional directing credits: Old Globe Theatre; Oregon Shakespeare Festival, Portland; South Coast Rep; Alabama Shakespeare Festival; Merrimack Repertory Theatre, Arizona Theatre Company; Magic Theatre; Geva Theatre; Playwrights Horizon; Ford’s Theatre; American Repertory Theater Institute; Philadelphia Festival Theatre for New Plays; Lincoln Center Theater Institute; Heart of America Shakespeare Festival; Indiana’s New Harmony Project; Actors Guild of Lexington, KY; Alaska Theatre of Youth; International Theatre Festival of Chicago; Sacramento Theatre Company; National Black Theatre Festival; Wellfleet Harbor Actors Theatre; Lyric Stage Company of Boston; Gloucester Stage Company; all five of the San Francisco Bay Area McDonalds Gospel Fests; New York University’s Graduate Acting Program; North Carolina School of the Arts; Cornell University; Florida Atlantic University; Minneapolis Playwright Center’s PlayLab, North Carolina Black Repertory Company, Boston Theatre Marathon and NPR Radio. He has narrated the San Francisco Ethnic Dance Festival twice, and has toured the former Soviet Union and Kenya via the United States Information Agency.

He was Director of the Institute for Teledramatic Arts and Technology – California State University, Monterey Bay’s unique, storytelling-based, multidisciplinary program that integrated production-oriented study in theater production, filmmaking, video/television production, radio production, and new media production.

He has taught at the North Carolina School of the Arts; American Conservatory Theater Conservatory; California State University, Monterey Bay; Colorado College; Kenyatta University – Nairobi, Kenya; Contra Costa College; Brown University; University of California, San Diego; University of North Carolina – Chapel Hill, Florida Atlantic University and Emerson College.

He has served on numerous regional and national boards – including Theatre Communications Group (TCG), has been a panelist and site evaluator for the National Endowment for the Arts as well as numerous state arts councils and is active nationally in the advocacy of cultural equity, non-traditional casting and pluralism in the American theater.Mr. Ambush directed the 2005 production of America’s oldest and longest
running outdoor drama The Lost Colony in the Outer Banks of North
Carolina – its 68th annual edition.