A Seat at The Table

by Nelson Eusebio III

in National Conference

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For the 25th National Conference in Cleveland, TCG is highlighting the current recipients of the Fox Foundation Resident Actor Fellowship and the SPARK Leadership Programs. These programs are unique to the field, and provide critical support and mentorship for the future leaders of our art form. In honor of our longstanding commitment to professional development across the field, we feel the time is right to expand the Spotlight On brand beyond the Conference. With this in mind, we are excited to be hosting the Spotlight On Series throughout May and June—all content leading up to the Conference.

I wasn’t always a leader. I was a really good follower. I was an actor who followed direction; I was a Marine who followed orders. I was mostly happy. Then in college, I took a class called  “self-starting”. I thought it was going to be about how to start my (then) acting career. Wrong. It was about how to start yourself as an artist. Our teacher worked with us to understand and overcome our limiting beliefs. It was the beginning of everything—it was a moment of someone helping you recognize all the limits you put on yourself and makes you realize that you are responsible for making the art you want to see in the world, (basically the Martha Graham quote, right?). It was a total perspective shift. At that point I realized that if I was responsible for my own artistic destiny—not the school, not my teachers, only me—then I had a LOT of work to do. I was the one I’d been waiting for.

And that started with not taking “no” for an answer, which led me to so many more interesting places than the first “yes” would ever have. There’s a great Peter Brook letter where a young director writes to him and asks how to get his career started. Brook basically says, “You run around telling people you’re a director and then make some work. And then make some more.” That’s how I became a leader. I wanted to direct plays and had to convince someone that I could lead.

My time as a Marine NCO also taught me a significantly different but equally valid method of leadership. The number one goal in Marine Corps Leadership is mission accomplishment – getting the job done. The number two goal is troop welfare – taking care of your people. I think the two should be reversed in the theatre: take care of your people so that they can get the job done. Leadership is about service. How can we serve our people to enable them to get the job done? How can we serve the field so that it can remain a vital, relevant art form in the 21st century?

I want to serve by helping with representation. I’d like to help address the inequity in the representation of people of color and women in the stories being told on stage. I want us as a field to increase the diversity of our audiences and our institutions. These are big challenges and we all stand on the shoulders of all the amazing trailblazers that came before us. I am heartened by the progress I see on this front. But to me, it starts with two things: programming and access.

Programming: Whose stories are being told? I truly fell in love with theatre after reading David Henry Hwang’s F.O.B. It was the first time that I’d ever read anything in a play that was about me or even came close to capturing my experience. Representation is a very powerful thing. If you want to change the audience, you have to change that which is being represented.

Access: It’s not about who can afford a ticket. I grew up in South Jersey, and theatre there was about as white as you could get. Then we moved to San Diego, and there I experienced that theatre was for EVERYBODY, Latino, African-American, Asian— you name it. This idea changed my whole life and I think we have to give that gift to everybody. Our institutions should have a mandate to bring people of their community—all people, not just the ones who can afford a ticket— into their theatres.  And if they can’t make it to us, we should go to them. Theatres are part of the fabric of the community, and they should be responsible to it in ways that go beyond just selling tickets. I’m a big believer in what Joe Papp built at the Public Theatre. The idea that theatre is a civic institution like the library resonates very strongly for me. And if theatre is a civic institution, then what is its civic duty?

I believe that theatre’s civic duty is to represent the lives and stories of the communities that they exist in. To enrich the lives of its audiences by giving them new insight into the plight of humanity through their work both onstage and off.

Institutional Diversity: I think there’s momentum gathering to help address this inequity. But there is so much more work to be done. Diversity is not cosmetic; it’s a real change that can only happen when executive leaders are committed to change. That’s what it’s going to take: not just a commitment to diversity but also a commitment to change how we lead and operate as institutions.  We need to question our biases, find our blind spots and create a culture that honors the wide diversity of humanity that exists in our world. Hell, become champions for it. Our art is predicated on the universality of the human experience – let’s bring that into our institutions and not only transform our audiences but ourselves.

Committing to diversity is like committing to a diet in order to lose weight. But as any dieter knows, if you want to keep the weight off, you have to commit to a lifestyle change so you can be a better, healthier you. In this case, we have to commit to an institutional lifestyle change so that we can be a better, healthier field.  A healthier field means not only stronger institutions, but a sustainable career for artists in the field. Otherwise you wind up with stories like mine five years ago. I had moved New York, started a theatre company, freelancing like a madman for diverse theatre companies, and…

I was going to quit.  Let me put on my truth hat for a minute:

I was 3 years out of Yale and I was tired of doing Asian American theatre. This was the community that inspired me to start my career and its support was one of the reasons I even have one. So this was a very painful decision. But I was frustrated with being unable to make ends meet doing this kind of work, and I felt very marginalized. The ghettoization of ethnic-specific theatre is a real thing. And I was in it. So I decided,  “This will be my last year doing Asian American theatre.” (Yes, this is as dumb and as pretentious as it sounds.)  But I asked myself, if I only had one year left in this community that had given me so much, what would I do? So I started helping my friend with his theatre company. And then he asked me to be Artistic Director. I said, “Yes, but only for a year, then I’m leaving!”

But I didn’t leave. I stayed for 2 years.

During those two years I saw what my legacy could be. It wasn’t going to be about whatever great art I made, it was going to be about artists growing into leaders because they were given the opportunity to do so. I was able to give back the same gift I got from my “self-starting” class years ago. I realized that your legacy is not just about what you can bring to the table, it’s about what you can inspire others to bring simply by inviting them to sit. To quote Whitman (and get all Dead Poets Society up in here): “the powerful play goes on, and you may contribute a verse.”

Eusebio_Nelson_color_2012Nelson T. Eusebio III is a freelance stage director, producer and award-winning filmmaker. He has directed and developed work at theaters such as the Public Theater/NYSF, Oregon Shakespeare Festival, Playmaker’s Repertory, The Old Globe, and CenterStage. Nelson is a participant in the SPARK Leadership Program, funded by American Express, The Joyce Foundation and The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation and administered by Theatre Communications Group. Awards/Affiliations: Lincoln Center Theater Directors Lab, NEA/TCG Career Development Program, OSF Killian Fellow, SDC Member, ABC/Disney Diversity Showcase Director. Former Artistic Director: Leviathan Lab, Creative Destruction. Education: B.A.:UC Irvine; MFA: Yale.

  • Patrick Walsh

    Killin’ it, Nelson!