(Photo by Roger Mastronianni. Yes, we did have a donut truck for breakfast on Saturday. Yes, it was yummy.)
On the final day of the conference, I woke up thinking about the powerful stories from StoryCorps. The simplicity of a single image, two voices, and a strong narrative had me completely transfixed. I thought about the nine people who had been killed in Charleston, the three young people who had been killed in Chapel Hill and of Tamir Rice. I wondered about their stories and what’s been lost. I wondered about the narrative being created in response to their deaths, and the potential for those stories to bring peace and healing to their communities and our nation. I thought about how the story of omission still permeates the American Theatre and how damaging that is for all of us. Then, I thought about what Lisa Kron said regarding representation: “What we really want is for people of different experiences to tell the story of the world.” My greatest hope for the American Theatre is that we remove the singular lens of whiteness and create spaces on our stages for different people to tell the stories of the world. It’s painful to think of all that’s been lost owing to exclusion.
(Photo by Roger Mastronianni. Pictured: Lisa Mount.)
At the Intersections: Gender
All Women Conversation
My first session of the day was the All Women Conversation. Facilitated by Mica Cole (Associate Producer, Oregon Shakespeare Festival), Carmen Morgan (Director, artEquity), Dafina McMillan (Director of Communications and Conferences, TCG), Lisa Mount (Director, Artistic Logistics), and Deena Selenow (SPARK Leader, Freelance Director), this session brought together attendees who identified as women theatre artists.
The session started with a location exercise that focused on three questions:
- Who is in a leadership positions or holds agency within their organizations?
- Who had a woman as a mentor at the start of their careers?
- Who could say that race impacted their career, either positively or negatively?
From there, we generated a list of issues to discuss in smaller groups:
- How do we address ageism and pay disparity based on sex?
- Right now, the American Theatre is run by women in midlevel management, but controlled by men. How do we get more women in leadership positions?
- What systems can be put in place to address and eradicate sexism, sexual harassment, and body objectification in the workplace?
- What systems can be put in play to ensure proper healthcare and a more conducive environment for mothers in the American Theatre?
- How do we sustain the energy and support around a women’s festival into true gender parity and representation?
- How do we disrupt the tendency to privilege the male voice and also the impact of patriarchy on women and by women?
- How do we have an honest conversation about the impact of race and racism on women?
(Photo by Roger Mastronianni. Pictured: participants in the “All Women Conversation” session.)
There were a number of suggestions that came from those discussions. Here are a few:
- We need to embrace self-promotion of work and not be afraid to ask for credit.
- We must speak out and take up more space than is expected from us.
- We need to lift up other women instead of competing with each other.
- Create a list or manifesto that everyone has to abide by in the organization.
- Address pay equity and salary. You have to ask for more money. Galvanize support from allies to raise awareness around issues of racism, sexism, pay disparity. This way, there will be more than one voice in the room.
- In our language, we need to remove the hesitance and apologies.
- Be better at managing expectations and remove self-imposed ceilings or barriers that prevent success.
- Create formal mentor pairing program.
There were two other conversations happening around gender at the same time. I was able to get notes and reflections from both.
(Photo by Roger Mastronianni. Pictured: Al Heartley.)
Men Working Toward Gender Equality
Facilitated by Al Heartley (Assistant to the Artistic and Managing Directors, Cleveland Play House), Gus Schulenburg (Associate Director of Communications, TCG), Godfrey L. Simmons, Jr. (Artistic Director, Civic Ensemble), and Gwydion Suilebhan (Project Director, New Play Exchange, National New Play Network), this session addressed ways that men can work to toward gender equality in the American Theatre. Al shared notes from the session with me:
- We acknowledged that this was the first time a meeting like this has happened.
- Our intention in coming together is to dismantling patriarchy.
- We want to figure out best practices and strategies to make way and room for this work.
- Big question: How do we unpack our own privilege?
- We need to address moments and experiences where we have seen sexism in action.
- There are challenges to calling out sexist actions, speech, jokes in person. But there is a greater need to take a stand and take action,
- We need to chart moments of sexism, but also support the individual so that it becomes a teachable moment.
- We need to identify resources to help encourage gender equality.
(Photo by Roger Mastronianni. Pictured: participants in the “Men Working Toward Gender Equality” session.)
Making Space: Transgender/gender non-conforming/gender queer
Facilitated by Ty Defoe (TCG’s EDI Fellow, artEquity, Writer and Art Creator) and Abe Rybeck (Artistic Director, The Theater Offensive), this session provided space for Transgender, gender non-conforming, and gender queer theatre artists to come together, build coalition, create paths to mentorship, and strategize about a more inclusive work environments. Ty shared notes from the session:
- Meeting increased 97% with attendance. Allies were included.
- Started meeting out with introductions about why people came, their role, and their Preferred Gender Pronouns. This needs to be protocol at any meeting. It allows folks to self-identify for the day and gently doesn’t out people who are stealth.
- Theatre spaces need to have gender-neutral bathrooms. (i.e. About Face Theatre has educators on the bathroom situation and have signs that read “this bathroom no longer conforms to a gender binary. Thank you.”)
- How do we assist folks who are stealth and not out at the work place and who are teaching artists?
- For our Allies – Micro Affirmations (options for allies to immediately correct themselves if they misgender someone).
- Get politically involved for policy change in your region and local city/town.
- We want to create a resource sheet to educate folks on hot topics for transgender and gender non-conforming culture.
- More and more transgender youth/gender non-conforming youth are creating their own ways to identify. How can the old world of theatre create space for fluidity and change?
- We took moments to recognize transgender youth and trans women of color who passed away due to violence or suicide.
- For everyone, when in doubt, ask. Create space for trans/gender non-conforming experiences. Find people who can help in the GLBTQ community. There is a spectrum of folks.
(Photo by Roger Mastronianni. Pictured: participants in the “Next Gen at a Moment of Change” session.)
Next Gen at a Moment of Change
After I left the All Women Conversation, I was eager to continue strategizing for equity and inclusiveness. I headed over to Next Gen at a Moment of Change facilitated by Ashley Walden Davis (Programs Director, Alternate ROOTS), Candace L Feldman (Associate Producer, 651 ARTS), Jonathan McCrory (Director Of Theatre Arts, National Black Theatre), and Harold Steward (Producing Artistic Director, South Dallas Cultural Center). This session brought intergenerational leaders together to address the cultural and generational shift occurring within arts organizations across the nation. Together we would create a practical-use Succesion Plan Tool Kit, Work Life Balance Check List, and Organizational Cultural Equity Evaluation, all of which will be shared with participants and the field. It is imperative that the field examines institutional sustainability and how we are adapting as cultural leaders in community during the current social and economic climate.
We started the conversation by sharing why we wanted to be a part of this conversation. The reasons were as diverse as the people in the room:
- To build a better and strongly program in education outreach.
- To be a part of a network of moving towards change.
- To celebrate the vision and learn how to support the next generation.
- To find bring together intergenerational leadership.
- To build coalition and learn how not to burn out from advocating for social justice.
- To build capacity for empowerment and support for young leaders, to build a team of intergenerational leaders on staff.
- To create a better work/life balance and establish organizational policies and practices.
What follows is a summary of the topics and actions steps that were discussed:
- Succession Plan Tool Kit:
- Part of the policy and procedure handbook will include:
- HR Training
- Contact Lists
- Annual Structure Timeline
- Leadership style assessment
- Operations Manual
- Work Life Balance Check List:
- The focus will be on Self Care:
- Nutrition and exercise
- Maintaining clearly defined office/work hours; so that we are not always on call
- Taking lunch breaks
- Establishing options for a Flex Time Model
- Ensuring a clear understanding of work expectations
- Organizational Cultural Equity Evaluation
- Current Climate
- Excuses to locate and identify talent from diverse backgrounds
- Access & Technology- Where are people engaging?
- Examining values
- Evaluation Questions
- How actively does your leadership model change?
- How are systems structured to raise questions?
- Does your organization have a statement about diversity & inclusion in a way that is not in small print? Is it a core value?
This session was amazing! I left this meeting feeling invigorated. By the way, a full report on the topics and action items that we discussed will be shared with the Next Generation National Arts Network.
(Photo by Roger Mastronianni. Pictured: participants in the “Changing the Landscape of Theatre Audiences, Artists & Beyond: The Youth Voice” session.)
At the Intersections: How We Move Forward
The “At the Intersections” sessions culminated with a town hall meeting. TCG envisioned this as a way to come together and empower each of us to share what we’ve experienced over the past three days. The session was facilitated by Ty Defoe (TCG’s Equity, Diversity & Inclusion Fellow, artEquity Facilitator, Writer, and Art Creator), Carmen Morgan (Director, Leadership Development in Intergroup Relations), and Dafina McMillan (Director of Communications and Conferences, TCG).
(Photo by Roger Mastronianni. Pictured: participants in “How We Show Up.)
We began by coming together with a set of Meeting Agreements to ensure an open space for transparent dialogue:
- Assume good intentions.
- Listening for understanding, not debate.
- What’s learned here; leaves here. What’s said here; stays here.
- Allow everyone to speak for themselves, not on behalf of a group.
- No one knows everything, together we know a lot.
Next, a representative from each of the At the Intersection groups shared their takeaways and with the time we had left, we made a list of strategies for moving forward:
- Intention is not good enough. Action is required. We need to work together now.
- Definitions aren’t static. We need to allow for ideals to grow, change, and evolved to meet the needs of our communities.
- We have to remember that in order to move forward we cannot is not an “us” versus “them” paradigm, but one in which we’re all involved together. This is our collective issue.
- We need to keep working to find a clearer path forward together.
(Photo by Roger Mastronianni. Pictured: Jacqueline E. Lawton and participants in “How We Show Up.)
Closing Plenary: Artistic Leadership – How We Change the Game
Diane Rodriguez (Associate Artistic Director, Center Theatre Group) welcomed us to the closing plenary. She spoke to the cathartic experience of the StoryCorps and how she related to those stories owing to their authentically. She spoke to the recent tragedies and shared her belief in the hope of the human spirit and that we will come together as a people and say that we are a country fueled by hate. She closed with a charge to urge our members of congress to hold the line on NEA funding.
(Photo by Roger Mastroianni. Pictured: Rhodessa Jones.)
Will Power (Playwright in Residence, Dallas Theater Center) presented the Theatre Practitioner Award to the brilliant, talented, and incomparable Rhodessa Jones (Co-Artistic Director, Cultural Odyssey). In his introduction, he said of her:
“When our children and our leaders and our elders are being murdered in the streets and in our churches, the immense body of work that this person has created and is creating is more vital than ever.”
She stepped onto the stage with such exuberance and cheer, and she spoke with such passion, wisdom, and eloquence. Her words shook my soul and lifted my spirit:
- “Theatre saved my life,” she said, and then asked, “Who is art for? Where do we all enter?”
- Life is a dream inside of a dream and Bob Dylan said, “I’ll let you be in my dream, if I can be in your dream.” so we gather here as theatre artists to celebrate that.
- If we can’t share love, let’s share information.
- Politics don’t work. Religion is a bit too eclectic. But art, art could be that parachute that catches us all.
( Photo by Roger Mastroianni. Pictured: Jim O’Quinn, Mina Morita, Michael Kahn, Gregory Boyd, Niegel Smith, and Laura Kepley.)
Now, in the weeks leading up to the conference, I had the honor of curating an online salon about Artistic Leadership: How We Change the Game. We received over 30 responses from theatre artists across the nations, who speak to a vision for the American Theatre that is dedicated to storytelling, the community, and sustainable models for growth. Click here to read these and other Conference-related blog posts.
We did this in preparation for the closing panel, which feature five visionary artistic leaders. Moderated by Jim O’Quinn (Founding Editor in Chief, American Theatre, TCG), Gregory Boyd (Artistic Director, Alley Theatre), Laura Kepley (Artistic Director, Cleveland Play House), Michael Kahn (Artistic Director, The Shakespeare Theatre Company), Mina Morita (Artistic Director, Crowded Fire Theater), and Niegel Smith (Artistic Director, The Flea Theater) took to the stage to share their vision for the future for the American Theatre.
- There is a need for immediate artistic responses to the events of the world around us.
- The League of Regional Theatres was established so that artists could live in the communities for whom they performed.
- Our job is to make sure there is room for multiple perspectives and to develop young voices as artists.
- Our institutions aren’t putting artists at the center of the work. It’s important to have a space to grow as an artist.
- You have to define your world view. This will inform your work and for whom you make it.
- We have to cultivate artistic homes. We have to cultivate a space for risk, a space for failure, a space to better reflect the culture and humanity that surrounds us.
- We have to nurture culturally diverse, provocative voices and develop a canon for the future.
- We have to stop being afraid of risky or edgy work. Nothing worthwhile is embarked on without fear.
- We have to create opportunities to serve as a mentor for others coming up.
The session ended in a rousing tribute and farewell to Jim O’Quinn, who is stepping down from his post in August after 31 years. With banjo in hand, Lisa Mount entered and performed her rendition of “When Jim O’Quinn Goes Marching Out” as we all sang along. Click here to read more about Jim’s magnificent career and tireless contributions to the field.
Then, Teresa returned to close out the conference:
“We’ve come to the end of our three-plus days together. We’ve danced with pink elephants and dined with donut trucks, we’ve laughed with Baratunde and cried with Dave, we’ve taken selfies with chandeliers and played pretend beer-pong on parking decks, and we’ve had so much fun that the Cleveland Host Committee is founding a real estate company to house all the Conference attendees who plan to move to Cleveland now.
Before we go back to our desks and our overflowing inboxes, I want to acknowledge something we heard over and over again: stories matter. The stories we tell matter, and how we tell them matters and who gets to tell them matters, not in some abstract, theoretical way, but in how we live together, and the truths we dare tell. And maybe they matter even more in theatre, because the way we tell stories is through human beings, human bodies alive together in the same place and time, and just as we know that the consequences of our culture’s stories of hate and exclusion have been inflicted upon human bodies, so we must believe that the healing we need, the liberation we long for, the justice for which we fight, must be brought about by stories of love and inclusion, told by human bodies alive together in the same place and time.
Our time together now ends, but the work continues. Let’s please keep in touch and hold each other accountable for the promises we’ve made here, and lift each other up when we call out for help.”
With that, Teresa invited us all to come together again next year for the 26th National Conference in Washington, DC. Click here to watch the entire session.
I’m so excited for the national conference to come to the Nation’s Capital, my former home of 8 years. What’s more, we’ll be convening during a presidential election year; a time when every vote counts and every voice matters. I want to challenge our theatres to think this way about the artists and audience members in their communities … that everyone counts, that every story is worth telling, and that everyone cultural relevancy and dependence is tied directly to our ability to honorably and authentically reflect our humanity.
Jacqueline 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