To The Mountaintop: Peter C. Brosius

by Peter C Brosius

in Diversity & Inclusion,National Conference

Post image for To The Mountaintop: Peter C. Brosius

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

We are all storytellers.

And that’s an exciting statement to make, because stories have power.

Whose story we’re telling matters.

The point of view through which we tell the story matters and those who are left out of the story or whose story is never heard—they matter.

Some things I’ve learned in my time as Artistic Director of Children’s Theatre Company, and, honestly, as a father to my theater-obsessed son and political activist daughter: When we make theatre for young people, certain things are required of us. We must engage fully with the present. We must see reality as it actually is, without self deception or illusion. Because young people do see truth, and if you lie to them, they’ll call you out. Trust me, I know from experience.

Everyday, I see examples that young people are fearless, and they are less racist and less homophobic than their previous generations. They don’t see borders the same way. They see differences as mutable; transient, as opportunities for connection. Their world is connected, fluid and the world is theirs for the taking. Those of us making theatre for young people see everyday the changing racial and ethnic composition of the classrooms and the inarguable future demographics of our cities and states.

Disturbingly, prison builders say they can estimate the upcoming prison population by the test scores of 4th graders; however, when I look at these kids in their t-shirts and hijabs, interacting in multitudinous languages, and in the ease which with they increasingly navigate gender, race, ethnicity, disability, and religious differences, I; we, see the potential for a different future. It is a world where a white majority is increasingly a rarity in the school, the city or even the state. It is the world we live in but all too often, one we don’t see projected back to us.

In fact, it is a world where according to U.S. census data:

  • 85% of the national population growth over the last decade came from ethnic minority groups,
  • 50% of all births in the U.S. are now from racial and ethnic minorities,
  • 46% of the millennial generation already self-identify as multi-cultural,
  • 9 of the top 10 metro areas are at least 40% non-white, and
  • 2 of the 3 most populous states are already being called a ‘minority’ majority, which is a way of saying the majority has shifted out of the hands of western Europeans.

To put it simply, “Anglo” is now a niche market.

So – we live in an America where the balance of power has already shifted, but, like Rome before the fall, cannot conceive of its own end point. Make no mistake – this is the demographic reality.

Theaters need to be leaders in bringing us together, in making sure that all of us are at the table. This collision, abrasion, merging, marrying, uniting, co-learning, this cognitive diversity is exactly what has always made this country vital. It is where our progress has come from; and it is our greatest competitive advantage. But can we honestly say that this is true of our own institutions?

I heard someone talk about how our theatres should strive to be like the rainforest, where wildly different plants grow and work side by side, intertwined, creating a fertile, surprising, thick and fecund world, a world of biodiversity that is stronger, yes  a little chaotic, even messy, but infinitely more beautiful and productive.

Speaking of rainforests, I live in Minnesota. We lead the nation in support for the arts, and we are now the only state with arts funding voted into the state constitution. YES!

But, while that should suggest progressiveness in abundance, we are at the bottom of the nation in terms of the achievement and opportunity gap between whites and peoples of color. While there have been significant improvements, we have a long way to go.

Minnesota’s Black students trail their Anglo peers by 30 percentage points in reading and 37 percentage points in math. There are similar gaps between Latino and White and Native and White students.

The high school graduation rates for Hispanic and Native communities are among the lowest in the country. Rates for Black Minnesotans are the second lowest in the U.S.

Since 2006, the achievement gap has increased by 10 percentage points between Anglo students and Hispanic and Black students.

In terms of being ready for Kindergarten, 58 percent of White students are considered ready, but only 40 percent of Black and 32 percent of Hispanic children.

The playing field is not equal.  Robert F. Kennedy said:

“Each time a man stands up for an ideal or acts to improve the lot of others, or strikes out against injustice he sends forth a tiny ripple of hope and, crossing each other from a million different centers of energy and daring, those ripples build a current which can sweep down the mightiest walls of oppression and resistance.”

Standing up. Being an active ally for change. Creating change through a series of ripples.

Theatre can be part of the solution.

We are public institutions, we receive public funds. We have public responsibilities. One of the critical ways we all can move forward on issues of social equity and inclusion is to make damn sure that young people are in our theatres.

Look, in the ideal world, and I do love my job – but my theatre, my job and the field of theatre for young audiences wouldn’t exist or be necessary because everyone of you out there would be so engaged with this audience, so committed to making sure that your theatres were being fed by , challenged by and engaged with the dynamic presence of young people from every race and every culture that your marketing office wouldn’t have to worry one whit about subscription or about selling tickets because that audience was born in your theatre and grew up in your theatre and is never gonna leave your theatre because it is their home. You would create difficult, powerful, work that young people would flock to…not pablum or fast food, but feasts that last in the memory forever, like some show did for so many of us at a young age.

By engaging deeply with young people in our community we engage with the most diverse, the most open, and most critical audience we can – believe me, not one of them will ever tell you your work is … ‘interesting’… when they mean bad…

Peter Drucker noted “Culture eats strategy for breakfast.” How are we changing the culture of our theatres so that we create a culture of curiosity, learning, of welcome, of respect?  Culture in an institution is about shared patterns that help us make meaning of our environment. Without a change in culture, the status quo will prevail.

Another favorite quote is from Harry S. Green at the University of Chicago: “Every system is exquisitely designed to produce the results it gets.” Ouch!

So at the beginning of this last season at CTC, we went back to the drawing board, and together, created and began implementation of a new system: our ACT One program. ACT One  is our cohesive platform for access, diversity and inclusion in our audiences, our programs, our staff and our board. Three interdependent words of action guide our commitment to a future when our theatre is a home for all people all families reflective and welcoming of our entire community.

A C T: Access, Connect, Transform.

CTC believes that the theatre can be a powerful force to illuminate connections, create common bonds and to transform lives by building bridges to empathy, understanding, inclusion and opportunity. We need to continually ask: Who is missing, who is not attending, who is not represented on our staff and boards, who is not on our crew, on our stage, who is not designing, directing, acting, writing grants, who does not know we exist, who does not feel welcome.

Historically, many have been excluded from participating in the theatre due to implications of racism, discrimination, bias and classism.  Through ACT One, we have come at our work by embracing this truth. That whatever our intentions, there are barriers. The cost of tickets, accessibility for those with varying ability, a lack of welcome and a lack of work reflective of all communities have created further barriers, both real and perceived.  As a national leader in the field of theatre for young audiences and their communities, CTC recognized the urgent need to address these past injustices and inequities on an institutional level. Act One is our plan to accomplish this internal and external transformation. Access, Connect, Transform.

Access – the goal of CTC’s access programs is to identify and mitigate both real and perceived barriers to participation for all underserved or marginalized populations.

Our focus in on the following groups:

  • Economic challenge
  • Peoples of color
  • Varying ability
  • Sexual orientation and gender identity

Connect –  CTC will measure success when we expand, deepen and sustain community partnerships. We will understand and recognize that partnerships will require two directional relationship and not simply transactional opportunity around tickets.

Transform – CTC will foster a culture of curiosity that confronts conscious and sub-conscious discrimination and exclusion and celebrates diversity in our work, our audience and ourselves.

Success will be measured when every area of our institution represents those who have been excluded and when we know our work’s relevance to our community and we acknowledge this will take time and ongoing energy and investment.  CTC is committed to being an agent of change both internally and externally, to transform both  CTC and our community

Access and inclusion is creative problem solving on a daily basis just like making theatre. Meeting these goals takes Company-wide participation, dedication, time, hard work, commitment and money.

Ron McKinley, a leader and national fighter for diversity and inclusion was with me at one of our many meetings talking about diversity and inclusion. In the middle of the conversation, he leaned in and said quietly to us “If it isn’t in the budget, it’s just talk.”

If it isn’t in the budget it’s just talk.

If you wait for this work to be funded or make it rely on funding, it won’t happen or worse, it’ll happen for however long the grant lasts and fade away. Invest and your allies will join you.

The early results for us at CTC have been hugely exciting. By continually reaffirming our commitment through action and budgeting and constant discussion, the staff sees that this program is all of our responsibility, and it has brought us together.

Action makes it real. We saw huge buy-in while creating sensory-friendly performances for young people and families on the spectrum and having our entire staff trained by the autism society of Minnesota. We saw it while creating our Latino theatre initiative and developing deep, on-going partnerships with Latino orgs and communities, repurposing our hearing impaired system to allow simultaneous translation, creating web presence and programs and a ticket hotline in Spanish.

But it is an ongoing challenge getting the entire theatre to make this both an institutional and individual priority. We all don’t move at the same time or with the same force or investment. In our last strategic plan, we changed our model to ask how we were including diversity in every goal of each department, rather than making it a separated goal. To plan for the future, to create extraordinary work, to create increased revenue and new audiences is to be more diverse and thus, more inclusive.

This is not new work for us. We have made mistakes – many mistakes – over the years, even while we tried to be better at this. We will continue to make them, likely often – but we have been blessed by artists, staff and a board and a community that engages in serious dialogue about these issues, that asks tough questions, and challenges us to do better and move faster on achieving results.

The extraordinary Dutch theatre director Elizabeth Koltof tells a story of going to a Syrian refugee camp and there was a man who had lost his wife and all his children in a shelling and another man who had lost his farm. When she asked them why they would agree to talk to her they said “it is because you listen.”

That is our job as theatre artists to listen. To listen to the stories that have not been told and bring those stories to life, not just on stage but in daily decisions we make. To let those stories be ripples that build to waves that cover the world.

When we make theatre we do nothing less than model how the world should be and how it should function. That a group of strangers different in age, class, race and gender come together in common pursuit of something of beauty, something larger than any individual and through shared work and a shared vision create something extraordinary that inspires others and – at least for a moment – creates a community that laughs, cries and breathes together. It is really how the world should work.

Remember the words of my friend Ron. If it isn’t in the budget, it’s just talk.

Thank you Ron and thank all of you.

Peter C. Brosius joined the Children’s Theatre Company (CTC) on July 1, 1997. Under his artistic leadership, CTC has received the 2003 Regional Tony Award and advanced a production to Broadway. His accomplishments at CTC also include the development of Threshold, CTC’s new play development program and in 2005 he completed a $30 million campaign to expand CTC’S facilities. Partnering with Jack Zipes, Peter launched Neighborhood Bridges, a nationally acclaimed critical literacy program that is now in 12 states and throughout the Twin Cities. Peter has directed numerous world premieres including Buccaneers, Lizzie Bright and the Buckminster Boy, The Biggest Little House in the Forest, Iron Ring, Bert & Ernie, Goodnight!, Iqbal, Average Family, The Lost Boys of Sudan, Anon(ymous), Reeling, The Monkey King, The Snow Queen and Mississippi Panorama, all commissioned and workshopped in CTC’s new play development lab. He has also directed numerous regional premieres such as Dragonwings, A Village Fable and Boundless Grace.

Previously, he was the Artistic Director of The Honolulu Theatre for Youth. During his tenure at HTY was invited to the Kennedy Center’s New Voices/New Visions Festival and the Sundance Playwrights Laboratory and was the first professional U.S. theater company to perform in the Marshall Islands, with support from the Rockefeller Foundation. He directed world premiere productions by James Still and Velina Hasu Houston, as well as the American professional premieres of Dockteatern Tittut of Stockholm. He also produced American premieres of celebrated theater artists C.P. Taylor and Volker Ludwig, among others.

Previously, Brosius was the Artistic Director of the Improvisational Theatre Project of the Mark Taper Forum where he commissioned and directed numerous world premieres by authors such as Lisa Loomer, Erin Cressida Wilson, Peter Mattei, as well as the U.S. premieres of One Thousand Cranes by Colin Thomas, Stamping Shouting and Singing Home by Lisa Evans, and Robinson and Crusoe by Teatro Dell Angollo. At the Taper, he also directed numerous productions for the Taper’s New Work Festival and for its main stage.

Additionally, he has directed at theaters across the country including South Coast Repertory, Arizona Theatre Company, South Street Theatre on Theatre Row, and Off Broadway for Pan Asian Repertory. He has also spent many years as a director-in-residence at the Sundance Playwrights Laboratory.

Brosius is the recipient of numerous awards including TCG’s Alan Schneider Directors’ Award and honors from the L.A. Drama Critics Circle Award and Dramalogue. He holds a B.A. from Hampshire College and an M.F.A. from New York University. Peter is married to playwright Rosanna Staffa and is the father of Daria and Gabriel.