(The following interview series builds on Seema Sueko’s report on the Diversity: Through the Director’s Eye panel, “Jump into the Gaps.” Diversity & Inclusion online curator Jacqueline E. Lawton shared a series of questions with attendees of the panel to expand and continue the conversation. For further context, read Holly L. Derr’s essay on this subject for HowlRound, “Dispatches from LALA Land: Diversity and Its Discontents in Southern Californian Theater.”)
JACQUELINE LAWTON: First, tell me about the work you do as a theatre artist or administrator.
HOLLY L. DERR: I am a director and professor of theater, a writer, and a feminist. As a director, I use a combination of the Viewpoints & Composition and the tools and philosophies of Epic Theater to represent multiple points of view within one theatrical event, disrupt the false binary of gender roles, and explode the social constructs of identity. As a professor, I teach acting, directing, theory, dramatic literature, and theater history. As a writer, I bring theater into conversation with film and popular culture. As a feminist, I advocate for justice for women, men of color, and LGTBQs.
JL: In a conversation about Diversity, identity and representation is important. How do you identify? How has this identity influenced the work that you do?
HLD: I identify as an intersectional feminist which means that I am invested in the ways sex, gender, sexuality, race, ethnicity, religion, class, nationality, heritage and more combine to create identity. As a director I have been practicing gender flipping for 20 years (making some of the roles written for men into women characters or having women play them in drag); I look for plays to direct that deal with social issues; and I cast color-consciously (not color-blindly). As a teacher I aim to teach students to think critically about everything they see and read, and to create productions that imaginatively explore new possibilities of ways of being in the world. As a writer, I cover productions of plays written by women, directed by women, or about social issues. I also analyze the ways in which theater, film, television, and popular culture can re-enforce discriminatory norms.
JL: Why was it important for you to attend the Diversity: Through the Director’s Eye panel discussion?
HLD: As a writer for HowlRound, I have been interviewing Los Angeles artistic directors about working in our specific geographic and cultural environment. One of the defining characteristics of Los Angeles is overall diversity combined with persistent segregation by neighborhood. While many smaller theaters survive by being neighborhood specific, I wanted to hear about how the biggest theaters in the area try to reach a Los Angeles audience that defies those boundaries.
JL: Can you share one or two moments of discovery that happened for you during the panel discussion?
HLD: I realized that even though for me they are inseparable, most artistic directors do not consider sex/gender/sexuality a part of the same overall issue as racial and ethnic diversity. I also realized that even people who are quite conscious of the importance of diversifying still have a hard time seeing the barriers to access for those less privileged than themselves. Finally, I realized that without concrete action plans and a willingness to be accountable to them, big-budget theaters will not diversify – they will simply discuss diversifying ad nauseam.
JL: What is your biggest take away from the panel discussion?
HLD: Diversification is not going to happen from the top down. The biggest theaters will be the last ones to change. It is up to small theaters, run by women and men of color, with business models that do not rely on high ticket prices, to create work that reflects the world we live in. Therefore I was disappointed by the makeup of the panel. If we are looking for practical solutions and actionable steps we can take to create diversity, we have to invite people to speak on these panels who have actually achieved diversity in their theaters. This is why Seema Sueko’s comments were the most valuable – during her career, she has successfully programmed diverse seasons and attracted diverse audiences to her theater. The artistic directors of the larger theaters can talk about how hard it is to diversify, but they have very little to offer to a discussion on succeeding at it. Unlike the moderator, Michael John Garcés, I don’t think that simply having those guys on the panel “problematizes” the fact that most artistic directors of big theaters are white males. On the contrary, it reinforces the idea that they are the most important artistic directors, regardless of whether they are succeeding at the topic at hand or not, and that we all care about what they say more than we do about what members of historically oppressed groups say, even when they are better at what we’re talking about.
JL: What areas still need to be addressed in your community? What conversations still need to be hand?
HLD: I think women and men of color in Los Angeles need to get over the idea that success is being produced at CTG, SCR, La Jolla Playhouse, and The Old Globe. We need to redefine success as working at the places where people are invested in us as artists – not as a reflection of their “liberalism” or “inclusiveness” but as talented people with something to say. If necessary we need to stop going to these theaters and try to convince allies to stop going, too. We need to convince reviewers that what’s happening in other spaces is at least as interesting and more reflective of the city and times in which we live.
JL: What practical action steps would you recommend to local, regional and national theatre companies to address issues of Diversity and Inclusion?
1. Set benchmarks and hold yourself to them. 50% of your plays should be by women: After all, we are 63% of the theater-going audience. Hire women to direct plays by women and people of color to direct plays by people of color. Cast color-consciously in everything. Do not just rely on “curiosity” and “discussion” to create change: Make a decision to do it and then do it.
2. Take chances on writers and directors you haven’t worked with before. If these writers are not already in your circles, you will not just happen across great plays by women and men of color, you have to seek them out. Go to the theaters where they are being produced in huge numbers – because trust me, they exist. Ask agents to specifically submit the hottest new plays by women and people of color. Ask the artistic directors of smaller theaters where they are finding their talent.
3. Get to know directors that are young and more connected to female writers and writers of color. Go see their work. Invite them in for informational interviews.
4. Don’t relegate plays by women and men of color to a never-ending development process. Put them on the main stage.
5. Change your business model so that you don’t have to charge so much for tickets.
6. Be willing to challenge your own assumptions. Admit that devoting most of your resources to white men is not acceptable and that whether you have ever consciously discriminated or not, something is causing you to make those decisions. Acknowledge that the problem is not a lack of quality work by women and men of color, it’s a lack of time/willingness to find/see/accept the quality work that is being done.
Holly L. Derr is a writer, director, and professor of theater specializing in the Viewpoints & Composition, the performance of gender, and applied theater history. Holly has served on the faculties of Marlboro and Smith College and has taught and directed at the ART Institute for Advanced Theater Training, the Brown University/Trinity Repertory Company Consortium, CalArts, and the University of California at Riverside. Her her next production will be Romeo and Juliet at the Stonington Opera House in Stonington, ME. She is also a feminist media critic who writes for HowlRound, Ms. Magazine, and The Atlantic. Follow her @hld6oddblend.
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