#D&I Institute Field Report: Lark Play Development Center

by Anna Kull and Michael Robertson

in Diversity & Inclusion

Post image for #D&I Institute Field Report: Lark Play Development Center

(Photo by Maverick Sean Photography. Pictured: Anna Kull and Michael Robertson at the 2013 Fall Forum on Governance: Investing in Vitality. 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? 

LARK PLAY DEVELOPMENT CENTER (Anna Kull and Michael Robertson):  Lark’s work on this initiative is guided by our working belief statement: “We believe that it is only possible to completely fulfill our mission of providing open access to any and all playwrights, embracing new and diverse perspectives and creating pathways for these voices to reach communities around the globe if Lark staff and board engage in a process of learning about what we know, think we know, and don’t know about people from different backgrounds, cultures, and beliefs.   We seek to challenge our own assumptions, engage in new thinking, and build an organization that reflects the openness that is at our core.”

Inclusion and access is an important part of what has come to be known by Lark program participants as “The Lark Process:” the true empowerment of an artist to lead her or his own creative process, to experiment, and to seek feedback (or not) from peers, mentors and public audiences, free from the pressures of the marketplace. This way of thinking and working brings people from different backgrounds together to support the singular vision of each artist. We want to demonstrate that the very process by which plays are created at the Lark is a crucible for idea exchange and cross-cultural understanding. By doing this, we hope to make a lasting difference in society by playing a leadership role in advancing unheard or marginalized voices to wider recognition.

JL: What have you learned so far in your process?

LPDC: To provide some background on our process, with the support of consultant and longtime Larkee Donna Walker-Kuhne, Lark staff began to put intention behind what has been naturally occurring at the Lark for nearly two decades.  The formal process for creating our Access and Inclusion Plan began at the 2012 Fall Forum where Donna accompanied Trustee, Bruce Cohen, Director of Community Relationships, Anna Kull, and Managing Director, Michael Robertson.  The conversation continued at two sessions during our January 2013 staff retreat followed by conversations with Lark’s Board of Trustees and Artistic Cabinet.  Donna then met with individual departments in the organization, did a review of our communication tools and materials and began crafting the first draft of our plan.  This draft was reviewed during our July 2013 staff retreat to mixed reviews.  Since that time we have been working together to create the next version of the plan, applied for and received funding for some of the resources we needed and have started taking action on the still in progress plan.

Through this process we have learned that the Lark staff and community want to be engaged in this work and want to be able to see themselves and their programs and departments within a clear action plan.  We learned that everyone comes to the table with different frames of reference, backgrounds and levels of experience.  This sort of work is very personal and therefore takes a lot of time.   We have learned that numbers and representation are important but that that numbers and metrics come with their own set of complications.  We learned that language and vocabulary can halt dialogue but also have the ability to propel and expand the conversation.  And those are just a few examples of what has been an eye-opening start.

JL: What are some of the challenges you have faced when doing this work? 

LPDC: Defining and committing to a starting place is a challenge.  When we set our first series of benchmarks we decided to focus on race and gender so that we could set realistic and achievable goals.  And yet we feel strongly that economic diversity is the root of so much inequity in society; however, this can be very challenging to measure.  Additionally, we want to look at ability, cultural background as it relates to our international work (race is not enough of a lens here because you can’t automatically lump our Mexican artists into the categories of Latino and Hispanic, for example). Finally, we want to look at age, sexual orientation, and the list continues on and on.

Capacity is a challenge.   Currently it is hard to see where we have room for more artists and community members as our free public presentations often sell out early, job opportunities are limited, we have so many more playwrights and submissions than spaces in our programming and we struggle to manage a group of readers who can read all the submissions that come in.   It’s not about volume; we are serving a lot of people.  We just want to increase the diversity within each group we serve.

Making theater economically viable is another challenge.  We would like it to be economically feasible for any artist to participate in our programs, any person to decide to be a playwright, any emerging arts administrator to do an apprenticeship, any candidate to say yes to a job at the Lark.  While we are doing this in some programs, we want to do it in ALL programs. This is a huge goal for us…putting money in the pockets of artists!

Finally, we have found it challenging to identify specific strategies for engaging the board in the process. A number of board members understand the challenges and needs but we are working on how to engage them organically.

JL: What surprised you about where your organization is in the process?

LPDC: We have been surprised by the power of putting intentionality and conversation behind access and inclusion.  Lark was founded to be an organization that provided access and opportunities for marginalized and diverse perspectives to be heard. Therefore we have been amazed by how the simple act of claiming this as an organizational priority has fueled action.  For example, we have wanted to create an internship program that provided a greater stipend to increase the economic feasibility of the program and therefore diversify the applicants that could consider taking on what was previously an unpaid internship here.  This fall we launched our Apprentice Program which hires four apprentices for nine months and offers $500 monthly stipends which is surprisingly high when compared with many peers.  We created a five-year plan to continually increase that stipend.

Other examples: (a) We launched a Brown Bag Lunch Series (suggested by Donna Walker-Kuhne) during lunch hours once a month to provide an open forum for conversation around topics of access and inclusion.  The participation, receptivity and feedback on that lunch have been fantastic.  (b) We started the fiscal year with new surveys for our artists to try for greater accuracy when looking at our demographics.   (c) We created a postcard that is chock-full of pictures of Lark playwrights that can be given to community partners and taken with us to recruitment and internship fairs (Donna encouraged us to “visualize” diversity by showing the myriad faces of our artists).  (d) We launched a new mailing list that allows our community members to opt in to their e-mail preferences and allows a better platform for community engagement and conversation.

To summarize, what has been most surprising has been how by simply beginning the conversation and putting it in the ether, action is happening, and we don’t even have the finished plan yet!

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?

LPDC: Lark’s mission is to be a leader in the field in advancing unheard and diverse voices.  So this work is vital to who we are, have been, and want to be.  Because this is long-term work, we need a living plan that can be shared and discussed with current and new stakeholders. The plan, plus the engrained philosophy and routine actions that come from it, will, we hope, transcend staff changes and leadership transitions and hold the organization accountable for years to come.  Our work, and this plan specifically, is the pathway to increasing the quality and diversity of scripts, playwrights, staff, donors, artists and other community members we attract.

Capture-14-150x150Anna Kull is an arts administrator and theater maker from North Carolina.  She joined the Lark in 2005 as the Marketing Intern and worked as Executive Assistant.  In her eight years at the Lark, Anna has worked closely with Lark’s many constituencies as liaison to the Board of Trustees, organizer and member of Lark’s Artistic Cabinet, member of the Literary Wing and director of Lark’s Apprenticeship Program. Also an actor, she spent the 2008-09 season as an Acting Apprentice at Actors Theatre of Louisville and has appeared at many New York City theaters predominately in new work.  Anna holds a BA in psychology and theater from Vassar College.  She has worked as an assistant to the Vassar Drama Department, a Teaching Assistant with the Summer Institute for the Gifted and studied wilderness education and performance studies at the University of Melbourne, Australia.  She is part of the 2013 NYFA Emerging Leaders Boot Camp.

MR-headshot-150x150Michael Robertson joined the Lark in July 2006 as Managing Director where he oversees finance, fundraising, board development. Previously, Robertson served as Director of Development at Collaborative Arts Project 21 (CAP21) where he established a comprehensive fundraising program, Membership Director at the National Alliance for Musical Theatre where he oversaw communications nationwide service organization and planned seven national conferences, Managing Director of Assembly Productions, and Director of Annual Fund for Trinity School. He serves on the Louisiana School for Math, Science, and the Arts Foundation Board and has served on panels for the National Endowment for the Arts, NYC Department of Cultural Affairs, Alliance of Resident Theatres/New York, The MAP Fund, and Theatre Communications Group. As a Henry Luce Foundation Scholar, he spent a year in East Asia primarily in Bali, Indonesia. B.A. in Music, Trinity College. Master of Arts Management, Carnegie Mellon University.

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