An Open Letter to Theatre Companies: How To Hold Yourselves Accountable and Put Solidarity Into Practice
After the protesting has subsided and the calls to action have died down, will you go back to business as usual?
I have been seeing a lot of outcry from the artistic community for theatre companies to address current events and publicly stand with the Black Lives Matter movement. As a Filipino-American actor, I know that inclusivity in the theatre has a long way to go; and I, for one, would love to see more companies taking a stand. But it really got me thinking about what that would look like in practice, beyond a social media post and an email-blast statement. To quote almost every acting teacher I’ve ever had, “What is your objective? What actions will you take to achieve your objective?”
So if you are considering posting in solidarity, or if you already have, please know that to do so is to make a commitment. If you’re unsure of what next steps you can take to move forward, I’ve outlined some questions for you to reflect upon that may help act as a guide. Here are some to consider:
- In what ways are you as a theatre company actively supporting and seeking to include diverse voices?
- Are there BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, and People of Color) working in all facets of your company, from the board of directors to the leadership team, to tech crew, to stage?
- Are the BIPOC at your company in positions of power? Do they have a say in decision making?
- Do you include works by playwrights of color in every performance season?
- Do you gravitate toward socio-political plays, or do you shy away from them for the comfort of your audiences and/or benefactors?
- When casting classical works, are you using a colorblind casting model, or a color-conscious one? Are you aware of the difference?
- In contemporary works, if the playwright has not specified the ethnicity of a character, are you automatically inclined to fill the role with a white actor?
- Do you hesitate to cast two actors of the same race (other than white), for fear that the audience will mix them up?
- Are your audiences predominantly white? White and wealthy? If so, are you actively seeking to broaden your demographic? How?
- How does your company engage with its surrounding community? Can you think of ways to engage with communities of color, specifically?
- Do you offer a course in sensitivity training/bias awareness training to your staff?
- Would you consider hiring a diversity consultant?
- Are you willing and able to have conversations about race, should they arise in rehearsal? Do you have a member of staff equipped to mediate a conversation, if need be?
- Do you ask your company members for feedback at the end of your performance season?
- Are you cultivating a safe space for employees of color to truthfully share their insights and opinions?
- If you have cast a fair amount of BIPOC in your season, and/or have included a play written by a playwright of color, do you pat yourself on the back and think “Ahh, my work here is done.” ?
The work is never done. The work has only just begun.
I know these questions may sting a little. But for too long, the theatre has been run by people who don’t even necessarily know that they should be asking themselves these questions in the first place. It is not enough to hire diversely for diversity’s sake. That is tokenism, and tokenism is never the right answer. There needs to be a desire to hear and learn from other people’s stories; to really be open to them. Isn’t hearing people’s stories why we love theatre, anyway?
If you are a theatre maker and any of these questions make you uncomfortable or defensive, it is time for you to dig deeper. I know that some of these shifts will be challenging to address. I know that you may run a theatre company in a small, predominantly White area, where there is a lack of diversity in general. Progress happens step by step, and I know that your company probably won’t miraculously transform into a diversity hub overnight. But take a look at these questions, and ask yourself what you CAN address.
Of course, this here is just the tip of the iceberg. These questions focus on diversity and inclusion in terms of race, but obviously diversity goes far beyond that. I hope that theatre companies will also hold themselves accountable in regards to their relationships with the LGBTQ+ community, people with disabilities, and so on; and I certainly could go on with more guiding questions in that regard. (What’s that? You want me to? Well if it’s what the people want… I will! Here are a few extra questions to consider: Do you know your employees’ personal pronouns? Does your company have gender neutral bathrooms? Do you offer open-captioned performances for the Deaf/hard of hearing community? Are the seats in your theatre accessible to/comfortable for a variety of body types? Okay, I’ll be done for now.) The point is, theatre is for everyone — for all skin colors, gender identities, abilities/disabilities, sexual orientations, body types, ages, socio-economic classes — everyone. And it is high time for that sentiment to be reflected in a tangible way.
So yes! Pledge your public support for the fight for justice! Just please make sure you are doing everything in your power to make good on that promise.
By Zoë Laiz, with edits and contributions from the incomparable Ashton Muñiz