Envisioning Change: An Introduction

by Mark Duncan

in Diversity & Inclusion

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(On Day 3 of the 2014 National Conference, TCG hosted a powerful, charged, and inspiring session, “All Hands on Deck: A Progress Report on Field-wide Equity,” which brought together six national theatre service organizations and unions to share actions steps, learnings and discoveries from the past year. Michael John Garcés, Artistic Director of Cornerstone Theater Company, reported out on Stage Directors and Choreographers’ Diversity Initiative and Mark Duncan, SDC’s Executive Assistant to the Executive Director, was kind enough to share a bit about their process here.–Jacqueline E. Lawton)

“What would you like to see change?”

This was the first question posed to the members of SDC’s newly formed Diversity Task Force at its inaugural meeting held on April 2, 2014. This group of 13 directors and choreographers has been assembled to look at the issues related to diversity and how they specifically impact SDC and its Membership, and then to determine how to create meaningful change within the Union’s sphere of influence and within the industry at large.

The Task Force is composed of a disparate group of artists, with different backgrounds, experiences, and ideas, working all across the country. From current Executive Board Members to established mid-career artists, and even non-Members, the group represents a wide range of thought. As a means of introduction, below is a summary of how each member of the Task Force responded to the question above:

Wendy C. Goldberg: “I am particularly interested in artistic leadership positions. As a female Artistic Director [of the National Playwrights Conference at the Eugene O’Neill Theater Center], I am interested in how we can create meaningful change at the top. I also think it would be incredibly helpful for SDC to have a strong stance, a point of view when it comes to diversity. This would be an effective tool to unite and organize the Membership behind a common goal.”

Lisa Portes: “I head an MFA Directing program [at the Theatre School at DePaul University]. Since I took on a leadership role, the program has taken on a more diverse composition, averaging approximately half of each class being of ethnicity. I am a woman of color and I am interested in supporting young directors of color. I want to find ways to build bridges between leadership and directors of color, bridges of trust and curiosity.”

Karen Azenberg: “Speaking as a new Artistic Director [at Pioneer Theatre in Salt Lake City], one of the biggest challenges I face in terms of hiring is how to meet new directors and choreographers and learn about their work. How can we make it easier for artistic directors to meet artists who are different from [who] they are, given the time and budget restraints many of us face?”

Talvin Wilks: “I’d like for all of us to understand the ecosystem in which we’re working and to acknowledge all the collective efforts to address issues, seeing these as threads of the same tapestry. In the past, these conversations felt divisive and combative, but because diversity has become part of the consciousness of the mainstream, it’s possible for us to be more collaborative and have a greater chance for success.”

Joseph Haj: “I am also on LORT’s Diversity Task Force and on TCG’s Board of Directors, so I am very aware of the numerous efforts related to diversity in the field. I want to encourage us to think of ways to not work just in our own silo. To create meaningful change, we have to be able to work together and keep lines of communication open between these various efforts. I think connectivity will be key.”

Christopher Ashley: “I would like to see the leadership of theatres across the nation to become more diversified. In thinking about this type of leadership, we also need to consider the leadership of our Union as well and work to have more artists of color represented on our Executive Board. As others have mentioned, I’d like to see coordination between this Task Force and other initiatives across the field.”

Mark Lamos: “I would like to see more diversity in regional theatre staff members—management, tech, development, etc. Diverse staffing not only enhances the perspectives of the theatre’s quotidian efforts, but it also enriches the workplace environment in ways that cannot easily be described. But I know from experience this to be so.”

Donald Byrd: “I want to combat the idea that diversity is merely a special interest group. There’s a perception that ‘diverse’ artists can only work on projects that relate specifically to their race/ethnicity, gender, etc. Minority artists do bring additional perspectives to their work, but the core of any artist is human. We are just as capable of working on projects that aren’t about our specific experience as anybody else. I’d like us to work to keep these artists from getting pigeonholed and for those doing the hiring to not think that hiring minority artists for non-minority projects will undermine the artistic integrity of the piece.”

Seema Sueko: “When theatres are looking to hire artists and administrators, particularly in senior leadership positions, I like them to know that I (and others) have lists of possible female candidates and candidates of color that I’m always willing to send and with whom I can share their job opportunity. I’d like to see more peers serve as connectors in this way. I read an article in the Harvard Business Review that discusses ‘bias for,’ which describes the underlying biases that people have to hire people that look like themselves. This can play a role with audiences and institutional boards as well. I would like to see us break through this dynamic through intentional training of ourselves and our industry.”

Chay Yew: “I’ve had a great deal of success with my board [at Victory Gardens Theatre] with matters related to diversity when I’ve explained it through the lens of how it aligns with the mission of the theatre. We need to see diversity on our boards, our staffs, and on our stages. Diversity isn’t just an issue; it’s a reality and a true reflection of our country. We need to encourage others to do the same if we are move forward as a field that leads national dialogue. I would also like to see more mentorship and grooming opportunities between artistic leaders and emerging artists of color, whether formal or informal. I look forward to the wonderful and needed journey that this Task Force will take together.”

Co-Chairs Michael John Garcés and Seret Scott began the conversation with the above question in an effort to assess the hopes of each member of the group, which clearly are many and varied, as well as to keep the group focused on the larger objectives. Scott noted, “Part of the challenge is how to begin this conversation when so many of us have been engaged time and again, and while there has been some success, it often has felt futile. What’s different is SDC’s engagement; with the support of the Union it is possible to imagine real change.”

Diversity is a topic that has gained prominence in the field a number of times, most notably in the mid-to-late 1980s with the Non-Traditional Casting Project, which brought to light issues of racial discrimination in the employment of actors. As the nation and our culture have continued to evolve, with race, ethnicity, gender, and diversity becoming more and more a part of the collective consciousness, these conversations have continued to progress in various forms—from more culturally inclusive casting to the composition of audiences to diversity in season selection to, more recently, the leadership of institutions and employment patterns of directors and choreographers.

After hearing from a number of Members who expressed concerns related to matters of diversity, the SDC Executive Board decided to form the Task Force in order to fully examine these issues with a range of voices at the table. As Executive Director Laura Penn says, “SDC as a labor organization and as a ‘society’ must represent the critical issues of our Membership and diversity is one such issue.” In addition to addressing a director’s and/or choreographer’s role in diversity with respect to casting, the stories being told, and aesthetics, the Diversity Task Force has been charged with specifically addressing the question of how SDC can use its stature to create broader, deeper access to jobs, leadership positions, and other positions of influence for all of its Members, with particular attention paid to underrepresented communities such as artists of color and women.

As the meeting progressed, the Task Force began to discuss the ideas brought up in each of the above responses, the challenges associated with them, and what opportunities there might be for change to begin. One of the main tenets of the conversation became an idea brought up by Talvin Wilks of “activating success”—highlighting success stories and encouraging others to use these instances as a model for future successes. By doing so, Wilks believes it will keep the Task Force from becoming discouraged or weary. This thought was echoed by Seema Sueko, who says she would like to see more press about success stories rather than only having the more negative articles and blog posts gaining traction.

Another idea presented was how some of these goals may intersect with the SDC Foundation. For example, the issue Karen Azenberg mentioned regarding artistic directors not having the means to travel to get to know more working artists could potentially be relieved by creating travel grants. Mentorship opportunities for mid-career and emerging artists of color could also be supported through Foundation programming.

In the spirit of challenging the Task Force to think boldly, Lisa Portes brought up the idea of setting a challenge to theatres and producers at some point in the future. “In my work, I’ve always found that when you get a group of people working toward a goal that seems too big, that’s when you have the greatest successes,” says Portes. The Task Force began discussing the idea of setting quotas and the positives and negatives of doing so. “It’s a tangible means of measurement and I think that’s really the only way for us to get everyone thinking about the underrepresented artists,” says Sueko.

In response, Donald Byrd discussed his process as a choreographer and how he is able to achieve results from his dancers. “I don’t give my dancers counts because if you give dancers counts, they are just trying to hit those marks, and since the ultimate goal is not to merely hit your mark but to dance together, it demands a higher level of thinking. The same should be true of any diversity work as well. We want to change the ways of thinking so that we’re all working together instead of just trying to fulfill a quota.”

As the conversation progressed, overarching goals began to emerge as priorities for the work moving forward. While these may grow and change, the Task Force agreed that the goals below represent a solid foundation from which some actionable steps can be created in order to realize change. These initial goals are:

  1. To create a public position statement on diversity for SDC
  2. To support increased hiring in leadership and freelance positions
  3. To connect with industry partners
  4. To provide opportunities for current artistic directors to get to know the work of artists with whom they are unfamiliar
  5. To support mid-career artists
  6. To celebrate success stories with written praise and encouragement

“It was provocative and productive,” co-Chair Michael John Garcés says after the meeting. “There are many differences of opinion and divergent ideas about what should be prioritized, but I know our Membership is comprised of people who are uniquely skilled at creating constructive conversations out of difference. It’s what we do. That is what will make SDC an integral part of the diversity efforts happening in the field, and I’m really honored and inspired that this accomplished group of directors and choreographers is undertaking this difficult work.”


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