Jump into the Gaps

by Seema Sueko

in Diversity & Inclusion

On Monday, December 16, 2013, the Stage Directors and Choreographers Foundation (SDCF) hosted a panel discussion “Diversity: Through a Director’s Eye” at The Pasadena Playhouse. Moderated by Michael John Garcés (Artistic Director, Cornerstone Theater), the panel featured Artistic Directors Christopher Ashley (La Jolla Playhouse), Tim Dang (East West Players), Barry Edelstein (The Old Globe), Sheldon Epps (The Pasadena Playhouse), Jessica Kubzansky (The Theatre@Boston Court), Marc Masterson (South Coast Repertory), Michael Ritchie (Center Theatre Group) and me (Seema Sueko, outgoing Artistic Director at Mo`olelo Performing Arts Company and incoming Associate Artistic Director at The Pasadena Playhouse).

You may watch a video of the panel discussion here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ow4n2Uru6DI&feature=youtube_gdata

I’ve been asked to write a post describing my experience as a panelist. As is often the case, though, deeper and more candid conversations took place out in the courtyard after the panel, at coffee shops, as people drove home, and in emails flying across our screens in the days that followed the panel. And so this post is a sharing of the diverse perspectives and experiences of the panel and its aftermath.

When the houselights came up, my immediate feeling about our conversation was “unsatisfied.” I asked some of the attendees how they felt. The responses ranged from “inspired” and “great” to “offended” and “frustrated.” Actor/Director Leslie Ishii, who serves on the Conservatory Faculty at East West Players, wrote a poem following the panel. This is an excerpt:

Grateful so many attended
With belief
Its derivation meaning
Fervent wishing
For change
But now
I am deeply disturbed
The structure of our discussion
Once set up
Had us all playing our parts
In our places
ALL of us pinned
Under a normative

Making it difficult
To change
The narrative
Glass Ceilings
Speaking orders
That mirrors
The now antiquated parts of
Our 1960’s 70”s structures

I leave grateful I attended
Not with belief
Its derivation meaning
Fervent wishing
Renewing my faith
Its derivation meaning
Fierce commitment
To be present
To challenge with openness
This process

I checked in with my fellow panelists the morning after about any takeaways or what was forward in their minds. In the order in which they sent their remarks to me, here’s what they shared:

Michael Ritchie: What I took away was less about a specific idea or statement, but more about the tenor and tone of the conversation. I am not sure that any of us are quite clear about where the finish line is. But it was abundantly clear that we are all in the race. One knows that it is not a sprint, one prays that it is not a marathon. It is my own belief that our best hope is that it is a relay. 

Marc Masterson: Creating a diverse organization is both a value and a vision. For example, SCR’s vision is “creating the finest theatre in America” which doesn’t imply that we ARE the finest or that maybe we will ever even BE the finest, but that we are constantly engaged in the effort to create that vision. Similarly, we may not ever completely achieve the completely diverse organization, but if we are serious about our aspirational vision we will constantly be examining our practice and making efforts to create a more diverse culture. The conversations last night were both healthy and helpful and I appreciate the opportunity to be a part of it.

Barry Edelstein: For me, new in this neck of the woods, the takeaway was the palpable energy around the notion that southern California can lead the country in this work.  The innovation, imagination, and passion on the panel and especially in the auditorium can coalesce into a formidable force for progress and change.  I’m optimistic and looking forward to the next discussion.

Sheldon Epps: Our conversation at the panel last night was…..
Occasionally Frustrating
Proof that we must take Talk into Action (and hopefully inspired all who were there to do so).

Jessica Kubzansky: In addition to finding myself full of admiration for the intelligence and eloquence of my fellow artistic directors, a lot of my takeaways have happened post panel, in the courtyard just after and in further impassioned, energized conversations I’m still having days later; some contentious, some full of mutual discovery, all rich and informative one way or another. I know there are those who scorn talk as inactive, and as a substitute for action. But I came away passionately believing that these conversations are powerful agents for both awareness and change, and the impetus for real action.

Our moderator shared his thoughts of the panel:

Michael John Garcés: I felt ambiguous after the panel.  I think it was a good step.  I thought it was a good conversation, and felt that the artistic leaders brought their authentic selves to the dialogue – they did not hide behind their institutions, and were open and clearly personally invested in wrestling with the issues.  I am proud that SDC is taking this on.  And, at the same time, it is a really small step.  Did much of what might need to be said, to be addressed, to be solved get touched on?  Of course not.  Forums such as this are necessary as public discourse, but not where real change happens.  I think there is so much work to be done, and it will take a long time to do it.  I think addressing the real issues of diversity, of access and of positional power, requires will and intentionality.  I think it is interesting, and problematic, that some of the conversation after the panel revolved around the composition of the panel itself, rather than the reason why the panel was composed the way it was.  Do we want a more diverse panel to talk about diversity?  Or do we want to talk about why the pool of artistic directors of major theaters is so homogenous?  I think the second question is more germane, and it is more important to problematize the situation and have people see it and deal with it than have a picture people feel better about that is not actually representative of the truth of the field.  But beyond that lie even bigger questions.  Do we want more diversity in the very small amount of available jobs?  Or do we want to talk about radically democratizing the field, making the organizations and structures of the theater world more horizontal so that a larger and more heterogeneous percentage of the population has access to job opportunities (and more access as audience members for that matter)?  Again, I think I’m ultimately more interested in the second question.  But I think that – and I do not exclude myself from this condition – most of us want to achieve within the current paradigm, want to succeed.   It certainly seemed that, in the panel, the first question was on people’s minds.  Given that, to my mind if we diversify the pool of artistic directors and other executives of our regional theaters, while I think it will be of huge benefit to the field and to society when our leadership looks more like our population, and that in and of itself this is a goal that we must fight to achieve, even then there will still be the same issues of privilege, appropriation and access that there are now.    

Jump into the gaps.
Reading everyone else’s takeaways helped me understand why I felt so unsatisfied by our conversation on the panel. Here are the ideas that are forward in my mind today:

On the panel and in the audience, we all entered the conversation from a variety of starting points on the social justice spectrum. For some, the struggle for equal opportunity has been lifelong, and for others they are just learning about the concept of white privilege. These gaps are quite significant and are some of the obstacles to having a robust and deep conversation. I think we need to acknowledge them, name the respective lenses from which we each are coming from, and jump into these gaps to have a deeper conversation.

I regret that I did not jump into the gap when the topic of the financial model of large nonprofit American theaters came up. I recall some of the panelists shared that the stress of the financial model creates fear about diversifying the audience. If we were to jump into the gap of this topic, maybe we could unpack some of the assumptions. Does the “financial model versus diversity” thinking assume that a theater will lose earned income by diversifying audiences? If so, are there other sources of revenue to replace what may or may not be lost? Does that then mean that earned income is no longer king in these large institutions and/or that solving this problem is outside of the areas of expertise of the current staff, and so the “financial model versus diversity” is more about fear that those who can’t adjust to a changing model will lose their jobs? I don’t know if it is, but that’s one gap I’d like to jump into in future conversations. It might be uncomfortable, but that leads me to another thought forward in my mind today:

We had a very nice conversation at Monday’s panel which sidestepped all gaps and felt very comfortable. We work in drama, we know that at the heart of drama is conflict and that conflict advances a story. I think we need to allow ourselves to be uncomfortable and give space for the conflicting perspectives to be aired to advance the story and the work of diversifying the field.

I’m less and less interested in conversation and more interested in action: transforming the landscape of American theater by diversifying whose stories are told, by whom, for whom, prioritizing the communities that have been traditionally uninvited to participate. That’s the task I set for myself ahead.

I currently am a TCG Leadership U[niversity] grant recipient and have been in mentorship with Molly Smith, artistic director of Arena Stage. One of the things I learned from her is:

First you hear it, then you know it, then you do it, then you become it.

When it comes to diversifying our field, some are just in the “hear it” and “know it” phase. Others are doing it and a few have become it.

I’m interested in hearing from you now. Where or how do you enter into a conversation about diversity in our field? What actions are you taking? Of course, embedded in my questions is the assumption that diversity is good. If you disagree, let’s jump into that gap, too.

San Diego, CA, USA. Friday, December 07, 2012._ Portraits of Co-Founder and Artistic Director of Mo`olelo Theatre, Seema Sueko.  PHOTOS BY CRISSY PASCUAL/©2012 INFINITE MEDIA WORKS

SEEMA SUEKO joins The Pasadena Playhouse staff as Associate Artistic Director in January. For the past nine years, she served as the Executive Artistic Director of Mo`olelo Performing Arts Company, a community-focused, socially-conscious, Equity theater company she co-founded in San Diego. In addition to directing at Mo`olelo, Seema developed Mo`olelo’s greening initiative, consensus organizing methodologies, and led the company to its selection as the Inaugural Resident Theatre Company at La Jolla Playhouse and awards from the American Theatre Wing, National Endowment for the Arts, Actors’ Equity Association, NAACP San Diego Branch, among others. Other directing and acting credits include The Old Globe, Yale Rep, 5th Avenue Theatre, Indiana Rep, San Diego Rep, Native Voices, among others. She was the recipient of the inaugural TCG/Andrew W. Mellon Foundation “Leadership U[niversity]” grant, which took her to Arena Stage in 2013 as a Visiting Artistic Associate in mentorship with Molly Smith. She holds an MA in International Relations from the University of Chicago. Photo Credit: Crissy Pascual

  • Jeffrey Bryan Kehaulani Aguiar

    Seema, I haven’t had a chance to watch the panel video yet, but really appreciate your candor and encouragement in jumping into the gaps. As my work in theatre has deepened in the last decade, my own aesthetic has shifted. Gone are the days of pursuing commercial appeal in my life as a performer–theatre as an art means too much for me now. It doesn’t erase the influence of emerging as an ethnic and racial Pacific Islander in the American South; the impact of that marginalization (real or perceived) did damage on my technique as a performer. There’s a catch-22 in needing to be cast to work out the kinks but not getting cast because of the kinks. The thought has crossed my mind that I’m too exotic looking to not be stupendous as a performer to bowl over the movies in the minds of artistic directors and production directors. The same can be said on the administrative side–what is the balance of seeking diversity in both production and audience development? How does that play with mission-driven theatre work? The immediate assumption would be that it’s supported; the nonprofit/social sector is theoretically space designed for that very purpose. The reality is as we see more corporate practice (in the form of professionalization as much as best practice) move into the sector, there will be a structural entrenchment of privilege for whosoever writes the checks and/or fills the seats–these are the very ideals that enforce codes of conduct and dress that transformative theatre has a tendency to challenge. So as we move to proliferate arts, are we essentializing an agenda that precludes–for some of us–its original intention? Isn’t that the foundation of art as elitism? It is this paradox that I truly grapple with in all arenas of social justice, that precept that we are allowed to live the lives we lead; if everyone can live the life they want, social injustice will still exist. Is that tenable? Can we overcome this tension to move into a new space where we are encouraged to make the art we want to share and not the art we think audiences want to see?

    Again, thanks for the post and I look forward to watching the panel video in the near future. –J

  • Pingback: Battlestar Earth | August Schulenburg

  • Pingback: The Fairy Princess Gives an Interview….just reblogging in case you missed it. | fairyprincessdiaries