2015 Equity, Diversity & Inclusion (EDI) Institute Report Out

by Jacqueline E. Lawton

in Diversity & Inclusion,National Conference

Post image for 2015 Equity, Diversity & Inclusion (EDI) Institute Report Out

(Photo by Roger Mastronianni.)

Arrival in Cleveland: Go Cavs! #BlackLivesMatter

I arrived in Cleveland on Tuesday. The city was at a fever pitch as the Cavaliers geared up for Game 5 of the NBA National Championship. Unfortunately, King James and team weren’t able to break the curse, but it was thrilling to get swept away in the city’s quest for triumph. And for a moment, I stopped thinking of the recent events that thrust Cleveland into the national spotlight: the recent acquittal of Michael Brelo, the police officer who was charged with voluntary manslaughter and felonious assault in the 2012 shooting deaths of two unarmed people; the homicide of Tanisha Anderson, who died in police custody while lying face first on the ground in handcuffs; and the current grand jury trial in the homicide of Tamir Rice, the 12 year old black child, who was shot outside of Cudell Recreation Center, which is located a little over a mile from Playhouse Square where we would be based for the Conference. That is, until I ran into a small group of protesters, who stood in the shadows of the stadium and passed out fliers and posters about upcoming events, hoping to gather support and bring awareness to the needs of their community. The contrast of their small but mighty group to the hordes of revelers was striking, but it only takes a few people working together to create a powerful and lasting wave of change. I went to sleep that night eager to connect with colleagues and ready for the work ahead.

Institute Faciliation team

(Photo by Roger Mastronianni. Pictured: Ty Defoe, Dafina McMillan, Michael Roberston, Carmen Morgan, and August Schulenburg.)

Equity, Diversity & Inclusion Institute Convening

On Wednesday, members of the Equity, Diversity & Inclusion Institute convened for the start of our third and final year.  As a reminder, the Institute comes out of the urgent conversations at the 2012 National Conference in Boston and the 2012 Fall Forum on Governance: Leading the Charge. This three-year peer-learning cohort endeavors to empower attendees with the tools to build diversity and inclusion action plans at their theatres. Entering our third year, this was also the third annual Pre-Conference meeting of the Institute. Just as they did in previous years, facilitators Carmen Morgan, Dafina McMillan, Gus Schulenburg, and EDI Fellow Ty Defoe led us through rigorous day of knowledge-building activities. They were joined by The Lark’s Michael Robertson, a participant in the Institute who stepped into the role as part of a facilitator training curriculum he’s going through as part of TCG’s Leadership U.

We began by calling attention to issues and experiences that impact our daily lives. We reflected on major events that happened in the world, our nation and our many communities. In my group, we discussed the Chapel Hill Shooting, the murder of Tamir Rice, the three women who survived rape, abuse, and torture while held in captivity for more than a decade, how to create greater accessibility in our theatres, the impact of bigotry and racism in theatre criticism, and the difficult, but necessary work of cultural consultants. While brief, it was a deeply moving and at times painful conversation.

Institute Claudia

(Photo by Roger Mastronianni. Pictured: Claudia Alick.)

Disability Deep-Dive: Language and Concepts 

Next, we had an in-depth conversation around issues of disability in the American Theatre, which was led by Claudia Alick (Artistic Associate, Oregon Shakespeare Festival), Christine Bruno (Disability Advocate, Inclusion in the Arts), and Beth Prevor (Executive Director, Hands On). From language and concepts to casting and accessibility issues, they helped us to be better informed in our theatre practices.  Here are some of the resources they shared with us:

“Language matters. This is not unique to people with disabilities. In civil rights movements around race, gender, nationality and sexuality, language has been a cornerstone of achieving respect and inclusion.

Because language is fluid and changes over time and disability culture is not homogeneous, the document is not meant to be a definitive guide. As society continues to evolve in its thinking about disability, so does the terminology used to describe those who inhabit it.”

Compiled by Inclusion in the Arts, they shared this useful guide:

The Language of Disability: Do’s and Don’t’s

  1. Use wheelchair user or uses a wheelchair instead of wheelchair-bound or confined to a wheelchair.
  2. Use “has” and the name of condition (e.g., crippled by/victim of cerebral palsy, has paraplegia, etc.) rather than of suffers from or afflicted with the  condition. These terms make assumptions about how the disabled person feels about his/her disability.
  3. Always use as an adjective– disabled person, blind filmmaker, deaf man or woman rather than a noun—the disabled/the blind/the deaf as the
  4. Use intellectual disability; cognitive disability; or developmental disability (when using these terms, however, it is important to understand the distinction among them) instead of retarded (e.g., mentally retarded) or retard .
  5. As for the terms “handicap” or “handicapped”, unless you’re not writing about sports, don’t use it! Use disability, disabled person, person with a disability. For example, use accessible parking or accessible restroom instead of handicapped parking or handicap restroom.
  6. Do not use the term “midget,” rather use the term “Little person.” However, dwarf is acceptable only if the subject actually has dwarfism. Keep in mind: Anyone with dwarfism is a little person, but every little person is not a dwarf.
  7. Don’t use deaf-mute or deaf and dumb, instead use hearing-impaired or deaf hard of hearing.
  8. Avoid use outdated or saccharine terms and euphemisms. Again, use disabled as an adjective (e.g., disabled sportscaster) or person-first language (e.g., person with a disability) but don’t use physically challenged or differently abled.
  9. Avoid using patronizing and condescending descriptives. Describe the person’s accomplishments without value judgment or interpretation, but don’t use overcoming, inspiring, brave, or courageous.
  10. Finally, don’t use Special/Special needs when referring to disabled people.

Click here for a more comprehensive guide to disability-related terminology and preferred language from Inclusion for the Arts.

Beth, Claudia, Christine, and other disability advocates also put together this Vocabulary Guide which unpacks key concepts such as the social vs media model of disability, neurodiversity, and changing preferences in regards to “person first” language.

Throughout the presentation, there was a great deal of discussion around how complex the issues of the disability communities were. However, going over the language helped us all to understand that we have to meet and address each other as individuals and never ever make assumptions.

Institute Disability Next Steps

(Photo by Roger Mastronianni.)

Disability Deep-Dive: Action Steps

Next, we worked to brainstorm action steps to dismantle institutional barriers to people with disabilities. Here’s what came from these focused and productive conversations.

  • ARTISTIC (performers, content creators, directors, etc.):
    • Create a list or database of disabled artists, so that we know who these artists are.
    • Make your commitment to diverse casting clear to directors and casting directors.
    • When designing a production, be sure to consider accessibility throughout the process.
    • Train up and coming theatre artist to think with an EDI lens.
  • AUDIENCE (audience, donors, etc.):
    • Identify areas where you’re failing and see what more you can do.
    • In terms of accessibility, be sure to focus beyond the brick and mortar.
    • Think about how shaping the audience experience as they enter the theatre.
    • Train front of house staff and creating opportunities for learning.
  • STAFF (leadership, administrative staff, production, board, etc.):
    • Implement steps within production departments to build capacity for artists and technician with disability.
    • Shift the conversation away from audience focus only and open up the conversation to administrative and production staff.
    • If someone is bringing expertise about diversity and inclusion above and beyond their job description and you’re relying on this individual to inform your policy and methods, pay them more money.
    • Look toward disability service and advocacy organizations to nurture and cultivate board members.
  • CONTENT (artistic programming, community engagement)
    • When programming within diverse communities, be aware of the challenges and be ready to engage in open and transparent conversation.
    • Remember that it takes a lot of resources to work with disabled communities. Find your partners.
    • Work to develop programming before the production in order to engage and sustain the community.
    • Be clear, honest, and transparent about your commitment to the disabled community.
  • ETTIQUETTE (behavior, language, attitudes, perspective)
    • People are fearful of saying the wrong thing, which is why it’s important to create space for open discussion.
    • Create policy or a handbook for your organizations that offers guidelines and examples of what and what not to say.
    • Having a policy in place will also help keep the conversation around disability relevant even when you aren’t working with a disabled artist or have a disabled staff member working at your theatre.
    • With your audience members, ask them about their experience beyond how they liked the play. Ask them about the accessibility of your facilities.

Ultimately, this is a conversation about doing our jobs well. If we shift our perspective from making accommodations to capacity building it will enable us to better serve our audiences, artists, and staff/boards members. I was so full and deeply appreciative for the time we took to delve into this conversation and for the myriad of resources made available to us.

Institute Tim Jennings

(Photo by Roger Mastronianni. Pictured: Tim Jennings, Ty Defoe.)

Regional Projects Presentations

After lunch, we gathered in our Regional Teams and gave updates on convenings and the regional project. As a reminder, these are the EDI Institute Member Theatres by region:

  • Western Region: California Shakespeare Theater, La Jolla Playhouse, Magic Theatre, Oregon Shakespeare Festival, Portland Center Stage
  • Southern Region: Alliance Theatre, Cara Mía Theatre, Dallas Children’s Theater, Dallas Theater Center, Jubilee Theatre
  • Midwestern Region: Children’s Theater Company, Cleveland Playhouse, Penumbra Theatre Company, Steppenwolf Theatre Company
  • Eastern Region: Central Square Theater, Crossroads Theatre Company, Ensemble Studio Theatre, Lark Play Development Center, The Public Theater, Tectonic Theater Project, The Theatre Offensive, Theatre Communications Group (Because of size, the Eastern region is divided into two regional groups.)

Each team responded to the question: Has your region decided to do a regional project?

  • Western Region:
    • They’re moving towards collaborating on a regional project focusing on a social issue.
    • Each theatre will focus on the needs of their community.
  • Southern Region:
    • Their regional project was to identify and support diverse production staff.
    • They partnered with technical schools and universities that needed stronger instruction and/or access to learning opportunities.
    • When working with high schools, they established a way for students to receive permission only once to leave for work with the theatre.
    • The individual theatres are creating residencies and apprenticeship for designers and technicians of color to mentor and opportunities to design under staff designers.
    • One organization implemented the Rooney Rule for hiring practices within their administrative and production staff.
  • Midwestern Region:
    • They are working to develop a sustainable fundraising model to support the EDI Institute within their region and replicate it throughout the country.
  • Eastern Region 1:
    • They are trying to figure out how to balance fatigue and motivation, and how coming together as a community bring revitalization and rejuvenation.
    • They want to establish National Day of Equity.
    • They want to create games that address privilege and injustice. It would include glossary of terms and role playing activities, which provides access to content in a way that allows for meaning conversation to happen.
  • Eastern Region 2:
    • This group felt there could be value in the creation of regional training programs around EDI work.

Institute Sarah and Marshall

(Photo by Roger Mastronianni. Pictured: Sarah Bellamy, Marshall Jones.)

American Theatre and the Sustainability of Theatres of Color

We have openly discussed how this Institute curriculum has prioritized bringing skills and resources to predominantly white theatres to support their equity, diversity, and inclusion initiatives. We have also reached out to Theatres of Color across the nation to discuss their specific needs and issues. Given that so much of Institute time and resources has gone into providing resources to support predominantly white theatres, we spent an extensive amount of time having open and honest conversation about to support the sustainability of Theatres of Color.

These were the Guiding Questions:

  • What does sustaining Theatres of Colors currently look like? What should it look like?
  • How are we defining cultural appropriation?
  • How do we disrupt cultural appropriation?
  • How do we interrupt yellow face and red face, and other forms of cultural appropriation?
  • What can Institute theatres commit to doing now?
  • What can Institute theatres commit to doing longer term?
  • What can we as Institute theatres commit to doing now?
  • What can we commit to doing longer term?

Community Discussion:

  • Majority of theatres in the U.S., mostly white institutions, have been draining the social capital of theatre artists of color. We do not exist to diversify the American theatre. We are here to speak to specific cultural experiences.
  • The model for nonprofit theatre does not serve the model that Theatres of Color operate under. They are not working with the same level or capacity of philanthropy.
  • We have to understand the roots and early beginnings of Theatres of Color. They started because artists of color were not given opportunities to work and perform. We must all acknowledge the depth and impact institutional racism and sexism.
  • Acknowledging that grant-makers are culpable in the continuation of institutional racism when the money continues to be funneled to white institutions who are doing it wrong.
  • White allies can support of Theatres of Color. When you’re in a meeting with funders, be sure to talk about the organizations that you love.
  • Also, you can come to artists and communities of color when you’re not doing work by playwrights of color. We are a part of your ecosystems and community.
  • Theatres of Color have been and will continue to do the work without special funding. When you’re applying for grants around shifting institutional culture, really do it. Struggle with it. Don’t push back at the first sign of difficulty.  Also, create more equitable partnership. Don’t subcontract out the funding to theatres of color at a proportion of the funds that were awarded.
  • Establish a bill of rights around partnership especially when you have varying power dynamics. Be honest and transparent about the intentions of the work.
  • Also, artists of color need to come together in support of each other.

This conversation was urgent, challenging, and necessary. So much pain was revealed and it was beautifully met with respect, compassion, and active listening. It was clear that this conversation was not just about Theatres of Color, but about the health of the American Theatre.

Institute Nelson Speaks

(Photo by Roger Mastronianni. Pictured: Nelson Eusebio, Jacob G. Padrón.)

EDI Institute: Moving Forward – A Vision for the American Theatre

The day closed with the Institute members planning and dreaming about the next three years. We brainstormed relevant issues to address and how to support each other. We also discussed how to usher in the next cohorts and various ways that we could share our learnings. We strategized about how to hold each other accountable, lift each other up, and demonstrate a way forward for the field. The work we did today was a clear reminder for how important representation is in American theatre and that we have to start working now to prepare for the demographic shift that’s around the corner.


Jacqueline Lawton_headshotJacqueline E. Lawton received her MFA in Playwriting from the University of Texas at Austin, where she was a James A. Michener fellow. Her plays include Anna K; Blood-bound and Tongue-tied; Deep Belly Beautiful; The Devil’s Sweet Water; The Hampton Years; Ira Aldridge: Love Brothers Serenade, Mad Breed and Our Man Beverly Snow. She has received commissions from Active Cultures Theater, Discovery Theater, National Portrait Gallery, National Museum of American History, Round House Theatre and Theater J. A 2012 TCG Young Leaders of Color, she has been nominated for the Wendy Wasserstein Prize and a PONY Fellowship from the Lark New Play Development Center. She resides in Washington DC and is a member of Arena Stage’s Playwrights’ Arena. jacquelinelawton.com