(Photo from Cleveland Play House’s KeyBank CPH College workshop of Bell, Book and Candle. As part of TCG’s Diversity & Inclusion Institute, our online curator Jacqueline E. Lawton is interviewing our cohort of participating theatres about their discoveries, challenges and success stories along the way.)
JACQUELINE LAWTON: Why is it important for your organization to take part in the Diversity and Inclusion Institute?
Al Heartley, Cleveland Play House: As Cleveland Play House approaches its centennial, we want to be a leader when it comes to being a diverse and inclusive theatre. Going through our own strategic planning process, the leadership of the theatre thought it was important to hear what other colleagues across the country are doing in terms of this work as well as how we might gain insight to improve our own efforts on this important issue. I was honored to be selected to attend the first institute this past summer to be able to learn more from people in the field as well as share CPH’s own achievements as well as express the goals that we aspire to. We have found the tools and resources provided as valuable as we look forward toward our future endeavors with our diversity and inclusion goals at Cleveland Play House.
JL: What have you learned so far in your process?
AH: We have learned that there are many positive attributes to becoming a diverse and inclusive theater and that the field does not have to constantly talk about what we “lack” in terms of opportunities and resources for our diversity and inclusion efforts. We believe the field of theatre is in a position where we can change and tailor our product to our local community. We also work in a field where we have active collaboration to help move the theater forward and encourage open dialogue from all participants. We also recognize that we are an asset to our community and work with local stakeholders around this effort. One of the important tenets that the leadership of CPH took to heart when I returned from the institute is that diversity and inclusion will disrupt the culture of our organization. This is an important tenet because it is recognition that this work is not easy and there is not a “one shot” fix all to the issues. Instead, it is a continuous process of accountability, progression of ideas, and meaningful change throughout our organization.
JL: What are some of the challenges you have faced when doing this work?
AH: Cleveland Play House has undergone a tremendous amount of change in the past 5 years and even in the past year. The theater is excited to usher in a new era of leadership with our new artistic director, who has actively said that she wants to foster a diverse and inclusive organization that reflects our local community. We have set ideals and a few goals that we are seeking and I think the challenge is starting the engine to act on these ideas. Our next step is to start to put this work at the center of the organization, create a coalition within our organization, and activate advocates and allies to begin the planning stages of our diversity and inclusion work. It is the question that I posed at the institute in Dallas: How do you pull the needle from the haystack?
JL: What surprised you about where your organization is in the process?
AH: I was honestly surprised by the commitment of our leadership team and our board toward being a diverse and inclusive organization. It was exciting to hear from our leadership that they are 100% on board with diversity and inclusion and are finding various ways to engage in the work. Our board has reacted in a positive way toward the need to be a diverse and inclusive organization for the Cleveland community.
JL: What’s at stake for your community, both your internal (staff, board, artists) and external (audience) stake-holders, if you aren’t able to implement an action plan for Diversity and Inclusion?
AH: We think it is the future of our field and CPH as an important and relevant cultural institution in Cleveland. The theater wants to be able to engage everyone and with the changing demographics of the nation, we need to build an action plan that will make diversity and inclusion ingrained within the fabric of the organization and not just the thoughts of several people within the organization. CPH wants ALL to be welcome to theater and have vigorous conversations around the plays that we produce. The only way to engage in an enthralling dialogue is to have a robust and diverse community to engage in a dialogue with.
Al Heartley is an anti-racism practitioner and arts leader. He currently is the education associate at Cleveland Play House in Cleveland, OH. He was a 2012 Young Leader of Color with TCG in Boston and in 2013 moderated a panel at the National Conference in Dallas on mentorship and fellowship programs. He previously received training in the Multicultural Fellowship Program at Steppenwolf Theatre Company in Chicago where he was the theater management apprentice. He is an avid reader and writer on critical race studies in theater and culture with an acute interest in African American and Latina/o theater.
Jacqueline E. Lawton received her MFA in Playwriting from the University of Texas at Austin, where she was a James A. Michener fellow. Her plays include Anna K; Blood-bound and Tongue-tied; Deep Belly Beautiful; The Devil’s Sweet Water; The Hampton Years; Ira Aldridge: Love Brothers Serenade, Mad Breed and Our Man Beverly Snow. She has received commissions from Active Cultures Theater, Discovery Theater, National Portrait Gallery, National Museum of American History, Round House Theatre and Theater J. A 2012 TCG Young Leaders of Color, she has been nominated for the Wendy Wasserstein Prize and a PONY Fellowship from the Lark New Play Development Center. She resides in Washington DC and is a member of Arena Stage’s Playwrights’ Arena. jacquelinelawton.com