To The Mountaintop: Kristoffer Diaz

by Kristoffer Diaz

in Diversity & Inclusion,National Conference

Post image for To The Mountaintop: Kristoffer Diaz

(Photo by Michal Daniel. Pictured: Kristoffer Diaz delivering his “To The Mountaintop” remarks at the 2014 TCG National Conference: Crossing Borders in San Diego.)

A couple of years ago, I was at the Conference in Los Angeles.
Jack Reuler from Mixed Blood in Minneapolis — you all know Jack, I’m sure — came over, pulled me away from my then-fiancee.
He said:

“Listen, I want you to know about this because you’re a member of our community, a playwright we’ve worked with and want to work with again.
I want to let you know that we are going to make all our tickets free. Starting next year.
It’s going to allow us to program exactly what we want to program, it’s going to allow us to reach different audience members, and it’s going to allow us to really not be reliant on ticket sales to define our success.
It’s going to allow us to be the theater that we want to be, a theater that engages with our community.
And we’re really excited about it.
It’s a two-year program, we’ve planned it as a two-year program, but I wanted to let you know that this is what we’re going to do. For good. And either it’s going to work, and we’re never going to charge for tickets again, or it’s going to fail, and our theater will close.”

We talk about risk a lot in the theater.
The things we’re discussing usually aren’t all that risky.
THIS was risky.
And it’s worked. Mixed Blood is alive.
And their season next year is remarkable, particularly on the diversity/inclusion front.
Radical Hospitality is a success.
It’s a success because Jack Reuler is, to use my favorite term for him, gangster as fuck.
But also, and maybe this is the same thing, he’s able to identify his priorities and the priorities of his theater, and then pursue them relentlessly.
And if there’s success in this business, I’d argue that’s what success is.
It’s the success that I’m pursuing.
It’s the success I teach young playwrights to pursue.
Know what matters to you.
Identify and articulate it.
Work like hell to bring more of it into the world.

I’ve written this speech twenty times.
Including this version at 11:30 this morning.
I kept sliding into the temptation to vent about the negatives, particularly as relates to this diversity conversation.
For those of you who haven’t been having this conversation for fifteen years, or twenty years, or fifty years — it often devolves into the negatives.
There are a lot of negatives.
I’m not going to tell those stories today.
I’ve got good stories. Corner me later, buy me a beer, I’ll tell you some then.

Instead, in the spirit of Mixed Blood’s Radical Hospitality, and in the spirit of one of the questions I’ve been charged with answering: what would a truly equitable theatre field look like? — I’m going to focus on the good. I’m going to articulate a few of my priorities, and show some love to folks who are working like hell to bring more of the things that matter to them — and me — into the world.

I should start by articulating that inclusion and diversity are priorities to me.
I don’t want to take it as given that every organization, every individual, even in this room, under this crossing borders banner, I don’t want to take it as given that everyone here prioritizes diversity.
I’m a playwright, but I also have a degree in management from Brooklyn College, so I’m down. I’m down with the business folks in the room too.
And I know it’s your job to prioritize ticket sales. Donor cultivation. I know you’ve got to prioritize your physical plant, or your education program, or your acting ensemble.
And I support that.
If I asked for a show of hands — who values parity? Who values inclusion? — everybody’s hands would go up.
But I know that when it comes time to plan the future of your institution, some of you — many of you? most of you? — don’t exactly have a prominent space for those values in your decision-making matrix.
And that’s okay.
No, really — I think it’s okay.

I should, however, also mention that I value truth in advertising.
I take mission statements very seriously.
Probably the marketing training.
And I think that if you claim in your mission statement to value diversity, and then your work’s not diverse, or if you claim in your mission statement to represent the demographics of your city, and then your work doesn’t match up to the numbers, well, then we’ve got a problem.
I’d consider that a flaw. An oversight. Let’s call it an oversight. We’re being positive.
And I’d ask that you look at a project like American Revolutions at Oregon Shakespeare Festival.
They’re telling the story of sea changes in the history of this nation.
And they realize you can’t tell that story without a fundamental commitment to inclusion.
Disclosure: I’m fortunate to be one of the writers include in their storytelling.
Diversity isn’t their end goal. It’s something that’s necessary to adequately tell their story.
I’d ask you all to look closely at the stories you’re claiming to tell, and see if you’re employing the right voices to tell those stories.

If you’re not, you’re in luck.
It’s never been easier to track some of those voices down.
I imagine that by now you all know about The Kilroys.
If you don’t know, The Kilroys are a group of LA-based playwrights (and Joy Meads) who have compiled a list of 300 underproduced plays by women. All of the plays have been deemed exceptional by at least one theater person of national renown, many of whom are probably in this room.
If you need more women to help tell your story, I guarantee you’ll find many of them there.

Similarly, amazing things are happening at the Latina/o Theatre Commons, including the upcoming LATC Encuentro, the first national Latina/o theater festival in many, many years. Also, the incomparable Caridad Svich (one of the women on that Kilroys list, by the way) has worked with Dominic D’Andrea and many theaters across the country to create 30/30 — a national series of readings of new plays by writers of Latino descent. Cast breakdowns and descriptions of those plays are available online, and the scripts are super easy to request via email. has all the info you need.

There are many more organizations that can help you on this kind of a search, help you do the dirty work of locating writers, actors, dramaturgs, designers of all different colors and genders and cultural backgrounds. if you have a pipeline problem, well, there’s no longer an excuse to have a pipeline problem. And if establishing diversity is the work you’re currently prioritizing, or want to prioritize, that’s a beautiful thing.

Inclusion isn’t a finish line. It’s a process.
It’s like a marriage. Or raising a kid.
You decide that it matters to you, and you want it to work, and then you bust your ass to make to make it work.
(Hi Joanne and Leo, if you’re watching. I miss you.)
And like a marriage, or raising a kid, there are hard parts and easy parts.
Deciding to make all your tickets free — that’s probably a hard part.
I’ll leave you with some of the easy parts.
Some of the easiest ways to promote and support diversity.

1. Decide you want your season to be awesome.
This is my buddies at Company One do.
Sarah, stop me if I’m wrong.
They decide to produce cool plays for youngish audiences.
Not kids — theater young. My age.
And when you look for those plays, you find Jackie Sibblies Drury and Rajiv Joseph and Aditi Kapil and Tarrell McCraney and Qui Nguyen.
Diversity sometimes follows aesthetic.
So that’s 1 way to promote and support diversity.

2. Be awesome.
Be a home.
Care about your artists.
Care about their stories.
Care about their families.
(Hi again, Joanne and Leo.)
Look at New Dramatists. Look at The Lark.
Not organizations that are predicated on diversity. But organizations that are wildly diverse.
(And I will say that the Lark makes a concerted effort to bring in a multitude of voices, especially through the work of Andrea Thome, among others.)
These are places where writers of color, women writers, LGBTQ writers — we can all feel at home.
Because these are places that want to be homes.
Yes, that matters for all writers.
It matters doubly for writers who come from some kind of “minority,” writers who don’t get to feel at home everywhere they go.
If you welcome us into your home, we’ll be your family forever.
And I know I’m long on time, but I need to take this chance to shout out Todd London — thank you for inviting us all to your home for so many years. Please don’t leave, even though I guess you’ve already left.

And last. 3. If you want to promote and support diversity, promote and support your artists.
Ask us what we need.
Not just as artists. As people.
Playwrights need a lot of things.
We’ve made a terrible career choice.
We have no job security.
We don’t make a living wage.
We have no real path to health insurance.
I know this doesn’t sound a problem particular to diversity.
And it’s not.
It’s just something I really want to mention in front of you all.
Because it’s a problem particular to humans.
We need these things to survive and thrive and continue doing the work we do.

And when I think about success, I think about a day that we all get to do the work we do, and get to reap the benefits of having done that work.
That, if there is a mountaintop, is my vision of the mountaintop.
We’ll never all be there at the same time.
But as long as we can all find a way to jump on that path together, well, we’re all in the midst of the process.
And all of us together in that process, that’s my idea of success.

Kris DiazKristoffer Diaz is a playwright and educator living and working in Brooklyn. Full-length titles include The Elaborate Entrance of Chad Deity, Welcome to Arroyo’s, The Upstairs Concierge, and The Unfortunates. Awards: 2011 New York Times Outstanding Playwright Award; finalist for the 2010 Pulitzer Prize for Drama; winner, 2011 Lucille Lortel Award for Outstanding Play; winner, 2011 OBIE Award, Best New American Play; and the inaugural Gail Merrifield Papp Fellowship from The Public Theater (2011). His work has been produced, commissioned, and developed at The Public Theater, Dallas Theater Center, Geffen Playhouse, Center Theatre Group, The Goodman, Second Stage, Victory Gardens, Oregon Shakespeare Festival, Actors Theatre of Louisville, American Theater Company, The Atlantic, InterAct, Mixed Blood, The Orchard Project, Hip-Hop Theater Festival, The Lark, Summer Play Festival, Donmar Warehouse, and South Coast Repertory, among many others.

He has written short work for the 24 Hour Musicals and the 24 Hour Plays on Broadway. Kristoffer was one of the creators of Brink!, the apprentice anthology show at the 2009 Humana Festival of New American Plays. He is a playwright-in-residence at Teatro Vista; a resident playwright at New Dramatists; a co-founder of the Unit Collective (Minneapolis); the creator of the #freescenes project; and a recipient of the Jerome Fellowship, the Future Aesthetics Artist Regrant and the Van Lier Fellowship (New Dramatists). Kristoffer holds a BA from New York University’s Gallatin School of Individualized Study, an MFA from NYU’s Department of Dramatic Writing, and an MFA from Brooklyn College’s Performing Arts Management program.