(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: What have you learned so far in your process?
ROBYN FLATT, LISA SCHREINER GOSS and SANDRA SESSION-ROBERTSON, Dallas Children’s Theater: It may seem obvious, but what we are learning through this experience is that it is vital to cultivate on-going relationships with true sincerity. The play itself is important, but more than that is the before and after experience of the patrons, and how they feel when they come to the theater. If people feel welcomed with genuine authenticity, this will inspire recurring patronage. The product will drive itself once people feel welcomed and that they belong. For example, one question we are asking ourselves at the moment is how can our staff become more fluent in Spanish? The arts community is ripe to embrace this idea as we have a culture of adaptiveness and openness to embracing others. Also, it is being reinforced to us that for our efforts to have a lasting benefit, the process has to move in a more slow and deliberate manner; similar to how most relationships work. We all want success as soon as we can get it, but we can’t rush it and compromise what we gain as people getting to know each other through the journey.
JL: What are some of the challenges you have faced when doing this work?
DCT: Demonstrating sincerity on a regular basis is a challenge we face in this work. Over the years, DCT has produced many culturally specific or issue based shows, and in every case, we have reached out to specific community groups to open doors and forge new ties. But once that particular show is over, what then? We know that each show should not be a “one stop shop” for specific groups. Yet how do we keep these relationships going when with each new play comes a fresh goal to reach yet another segment of the community? We really want to learn some best practices for sustaining relationships with all of these unique and different audiences beyond the initial outreach.
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?
DCT: The minority majority is already here, especially in Texas. We must engage the diverse patrons of today and tomorrow if the arts in general and our theater in particular is to be viewed as important in their lives. If last year the majority of births were people of color, and children’s theaters begin serving patrons as young as 3 or 4, then we are going to see this change first…and fast! If this shift in demographics does not become part of our makeup then we will become irrelevant.
We already see a vast number of minority children during our weekday school shows, and we are constantly asking ourselves how to engage the parents and families of these students on weekends during our public shows. If we cannot achieve this, then our weekend audiences will decrease to unsustainable levels over time.
All of us in the arts have some understanding of marginalization. As we talk about diversity & inclusion we need to remember that there are many groups at stake who all share common challenges, such as struggling for funding. Whether your theater reaches culturally specific areas, the GLBT community, children, people with disabilities, and more, we all must learn to collaborate better to meet community needs using our unique strengths and assets. Mainstream groups have to change to be more pro-active in engaging all of these groups. Even though we all have various specific audiences we reach, the bottom line is the collective audience, and we need each other in order to flourish. How can we lift up the entire community together?
Robyn Flatt co-founded DCT in 1984 with start-up funds of $500. Under her artistic leadership, the theater’s creative and operational stature has grown over the past 28 years to reflect its current annual budget of more than $3 million. Her theatrical career has brought her acclaim as a professional director, actor and lighting designer. During her tenure as a member of the Dallas Theater Center Resident Company, she served as Assistant Artistic Director, and Director of Theater-in-the-Parks. She holds an MA Degree from Baylor University and studied under Paul Baker, Juana Laban and Hanya Holm. Ms. Flatt’s many acting credits include roles she created for award-winning world premieres: Dewey Dell in Journey to Jefferson and Martha Ann Sickenger in Preston Jones’ The Oldest Living Graduate. Her directing credits at DCT include several world premiere adaptations by Linda Daugherty of Steven Kellogg’s story books; Adventures of Huckleberry Finn; The Miracle Worker; Island of the Blue Dolphins;and critically acclaimed productions such as And Then They Came For Me and To Kill A Mockingbird. She has served on such national boards as AATE and ASSITEJ/USA and is a recipient of The 500, Inc.’s prestigious Ken Bryant Visionary Award, Dallas Historical Society’s 1999 Excellence in Community Service for Creative Arts, the 2002 Leon Rabin Standing Ovation Award, and the Excellence in Nonprofit Management Award. Ms. Flatt is a member of the College of Fellows of American Theatre and is currently Treasurer of the Children’s Theatre Foundation of America. She was nominated by The Dallas Morning News arts staff for the 2010 Texan of the Year Award, and received the Northwood University 2011 Distinguished Women’s Award.
For over 9 years, Lisa Schreiner Goss has been a dedicated staff member at Dallas Children’s Theater (DCT) in the areas of public relations, education and performance. In 2004 she worked closely with Executive Artistic Director Robyn Flatt, coordinating administrative tasks for DCT’s Executive office and for the board of Trustees, while teaching in the Academy and implementing the DCT Youth Council with Education Director Nancy Schaeffer. In 2006 she began serving as PR Director, creating and implementing all public relations programs for the theater’s professional season, Academy and events. She works closely with all DCT senior staff on strategies for communications, audience engagement and media relations. From time to time she continues her love of acting by performing at DCT and elsewhere. She has an MA in Educational Theatre from New York University, a BA in Theatre from Hamilton College and acting certificates from American Conservatory Theater, Saratoga International Theatre Institute, and the British American Drama Academy.
Sandra Session-Robertson, Senior Director of Communications and Philanthropy, worked for 20 years prior to this assignment in public broadcasting in various roles including Senior Vice President of Leadership Giving and Special Projects for KERA in North Texas, President and CEO of KSMQ Public Television based in Austin, Minnesota and Associate Vice President and General Manager of WCEU-TV Channel 15, a PBS affiliate in Daytona Beach Florida. Sandra graduated from The University of Texas in Austin with a Bachelors degree in Journalism and she also has a Masters of Education from the University of Florida Gainesville. She is responsible for the management of ticket sales, concessions, store and marketing and public relations functions as well as contributed income activities.
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