A More Equitable World Because of Theatre

Teresa Eyring

Over the past five years, Theatre Communications Group (TCG) has taken an active and vocal position on the need for a more equitable, diverse, and inclusive theatre field. We have been approaching this challenge on multiple fronts, and our thinking has evolved dramatically over time as we learn more about equity, ourselves, our history, and the deeply embedded structures of racism and other forms of oppression in our theatre field and larger society.

On the most basic level, we are motivated by the awareness that members of our theatre community — our friends, colleagues, collaborators, and creators — experience injury every day from being marginalized. When they speak out against this injustice, they are often then reinjured by the dismissal of their concerns. Furthermore, we are motivated by the potential leadership role theatre can play in understanding these dynamics and moving toward a more inclusive ecology where all members of our community feel valued. We live in a society where racism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia, and other forms of systemic oppression are always present, though not always acknowledged. But do we want them to be the accepted conditions of our theatre field?

This article seeks to illuminate and share the ideas, discussions, and decisions that brought TCG to embrace a commitment to equity, diversity, and inclusion for ourselves and our field.

A New Commitment to EDI

In November 2011, TCG held a board meeting in which a discussion for a strategic plan was on the agenda. The board attempted to hone the organization’s core values from four (artistry, diversity, activism, and global citizenship) to the recommended number of three. At the risk of massive oversimplification, the discussion went something like this: “Maybe we don’t need to explicitly state artistry as a value because it’s stating the obvious.” That received a flurry of nays. “Perhaps TCG, an organization that has long committed itself to the core value of diversity, has achieved its goal and doesn’t need to state it as a value.” After all, we had a diverse board, staff, grantee, and author pool that made it seem as if we were living the value deeply, and so perhaps it didn’t need a separate, explicit statement.

Pause. Moment of silence.

One of our board members, a person of color, took the floor. She urged us to look at the US theatre field. It is not diverse at all. With some notable exceptions, there is little opportunity for artists of color, and the leadership of America’s large regional theatres is white and, for the most part, male. Audiences of the resident theatres are predominately white. Theatre artists of color experience racism every day, whether through the absence of their work on stages, the inability to properly fund theatres of color, or other assaults on their full and equitable participation in the field. In a sense, this wasn’t just an issue of diversity but one of full inclusion. Of fairness. Of caring for one another. Of being antiracist.

From this board meeting, a series of follow-up conversations took place, generating a good deal of heat. We wanted to better understand where we truly were as a field. Where were we compared to 1996, when August Wilson gave his “The Ground on Which I Stand” speech at a TCG conference? Where were we compared to the 2002 Theatres of Color convening at White Oak? Teleconferences brought in some of our board alumni who had a perspective on the history of discussions that had taken place. Through this process, we were able to see clearly that the theatre field was replicating many of the structural weaknesses in our larger society, and it wasn’t getting better.

Not everyone agreed on every point. Some board members who helmed large resident theatres spoke of their commitment to having artists of color as full-time staff members and decision makers within their institutions. They wanted some acknowledgment of that. Several board members, concerned about the absence of leaders of color helming the largest institutions, advocated vociferously for a rule for theatre similar to the National Football League’s “Rooney Rule” requiring teams to interview candidates of color for head coaching and senior management jobs.

The intensity of those board-level discussions — and the learning that took place within them — led to a deep board buy-in. There was also sensitivity toward not assuming that board members of color were always the ones who had to raise the topic of race, or that women always had to advocate for gender parity.

We recommitted to diversity, as an internal value for TCG and a call to action for the field. It went from a value that could have been dropped to the value on top. While the value to this day continues to be stated as diversity, the board officially approved a renaming of the work itself as the Equity, Diversity & Inclusion (EDI) Initiative.

Operationalizing a Value

While it is important to have explicitly stated values, how do those values show up in the day-to-day work and decision making? Some say a core value is something for which you will “go to the mat,” and that a value is so fundamental that it can be located in the DNA of every individual or organizational decision. Were we ready to go to the mat for EDI? How deep did our values really go?

Soon after the new strategic direction was approved, key members of the staff got together and conducted a design charette to get at the things we wanted to prioritize in our EDI efforts. We were aware of concerns among practitioners of color that the discussion about inclusion had been taking place over decades and had never quite progressed from talk into action. Documenting those seminal moments, where crucial conversations had taken place, seemed important. That way, we could perhaps avoid retreading territory we had already covered. We also knew that there were some action-oriented, forward-looking initiatives needed in order to move the needle beyond just talk.

What followed was the development of a two-part series of explorations for TCG: “Establishing a Base Line” and “Action-Oriented Programming.” The first part included the creation of a literature review (now known as the Well) that would pull together critical thinking on the topic of equity, diversity, and inclusion in theatre over time; the Legacy Leaders of Color Video Project, which would tell the heroic stories of leaders of color who had founded theatres in the 1960s and 1970s; and a demographic survey (now known as REPRESENT) that would help us understand the composition of our field with respect to a range of identities, including race. The second part included a race and equity training for theatres (now known as the Equity, Diversity & Inclusion Institute); the addition of a year-round, robust professional development program (SPARK Leadership Program); and capacity development for theatres of color.

At this stage, we had extreme board buy-in for the need to focus on EDI, we had the executive director’s commitment, and we had staff leadership that was fierce and uncompromising. One of those staff members is Emilya Cachapero, a two-decade veteran of TCG whose leadership had brought about Young Leaders of Color in 2008 and the Intergenerational Leaders of Color cohort meetings at our national conference, as well as grant programs that award funding to a diverse range of practitioners and theatres. Dafina McMillan, a new staff member, expressed her sense of the urgency about this work and her willingness to go above and beyond her existing job responsibilities to make sure our plan didn’t rot away in the cloud. Her collaborative leadership style inspired additional participation from the staff, board, and colleagues in the field. McMillan also advocated for enlisting Carmen Morgan, a community organizer and social justice leader who had been working successfully on EDI efforts at Oregon Shakespeare Festival. Morgan introduced the idea of partnering on an EDI Institute, which we launched as a preconference in Dallas in 2013. The institute evolved into a cohort of twenty-one theatres committed to a three-year program of equity training and action planning. Since then, Morgan has not only been a partner to TCG in our EDI work, but she has transformed the field’s thinking and practice over the past three years, working directly with many theatres and founding a new organization called artEquity.

As our EDI programming took shape, one major question remained: how would we fund it?

Budgeting for Values

Operationalizing typically requires some form of budget, and the million-dollar question we faced after defining the parameters of an EDI work plan was, well, how will we pay for all this? We didn’t have any aspect of our new EDI programming in the budget, and we knew this would be an obstacle — even with an eager staff ready to take on the EDI work.

One of our other strategic plan initiatives, the audience and community engagement program Audience (R)Evolution, was fully funded already, guaranteeing that it would move forward. At first, we thought we would start the work “pending funding.” But we also couldn’t see a clear path to securing those funds. Staff members with budget responsibility were under tremendous pressure to reduce and eliminate a structural deficit. The idea of adding expense for a series of new programs seemed neither possible nor prudent.

“The revolution will not be funded.” I still remember those words ringing out at a passionate EDI-related town hall session at our 2013 national conference. We decided that if we didn’t include some expense for the EDI work in our first round of that year’s annual budgeting, regardless of funding commitments, it would never happen. We needed to give our EDI work equitable access to existing operating resources as we made our way through the budget process. While we weren’t able to include the full initiative in that budget, at the end of the process, we had maintained some crucial expense lines for EDI.

After taking that leap of faith, our commitment began to be supported by key foundation partners, including the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation, which funded our Establishing a Baseline programming. This support allowed us to complete our Legacy Leaders of Color Video Project and welcomed Ty Defoe as our first Equity, Diversity & Inclusion Fellow. Defoe provided critical leadership on several aspects of our EDI programming and left an indelible mark on our organizational culture.

In the following years, we launched our SPARK Leadership Program with support from the Joyce Foundation and American Express; convened and surveyed theatres of color to better understand their needs and strengths; and, thanks to support from The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, are preparing now to launch two new cohorts of the institute. While the revolution may now have some funding, a significant gap still exists between our vision for this work and our capacity to move it forward with the integrity and urgency it deserves. The further into this work we went, the deeper we understood the sheer scope and complexity of what we had undertaken.

Going Deeper

As we brought the conversation to the surface in the theatre field, and more practitioners began to commit to the work and develop a facility with talking about it, we learned and progressed far beyond where we were in that 2011 board meeting.

Something essential we learned from Carmen Morgan is that productive conversations and change require an understanding of one’s own identity, social location, and privilege. Additionally, these efforts won’t succeed if thought of simply as “diversity programs” or ways to build cultural competency among white people. The structures of racism and inequity run so deep in our society that the change we seek must be driven by a fierce desire for social justice.

We also learned about intersectionality. At TCG, we began by focusing almost exclusively on racism and racial inequity, but we also saw the many ways people are marginalized. There is a tremendous lack of gender parity in our field. People with disabilities don’t have full and equitable access to so many of our theatre spaces, leadership positions, and artistic opportunities. This awareness informed our development of the REPRESENT survey, which goes beyond the usual demographic survey checkboxes to allow people to identify in eight areas: race, class, disability, gender, sexual orientation, age, religion, and nation of citizenship/immigration status.

Additionally, some of the commonly held beliefs and language being used in well-intentioned conversations are actually harmful to communities of color. For example, the discussion surrounding absence of diversity in the leadership of US theatres is often accompanied by references to a “pipeline problem,” rather than acknowledging the barriers created by systemic racism. For people who have academic degrees and years of experience, the constant focus on pipeline is offensive and hurtful.

And there is often injustice in the assumed infallibility of artistic decision makers and/or commerce. When a predominately white organization stages a play with yellow face, and Asian American community members must protest and fight to stop it, it is both hurtful and physically exhausting to that community. When a community expresses over and over again that a play or musical harms them whenever it is produced — and that play is mounted anyway — it is a direct assault. And yet, it seems no matter how vocal the protests, instances of cultural appropriation continue. This is not about freedom of speech or censorship. It is about members of a dominant culture ignoring or overriding those who object to offensive representations of their bodies onstage.

Where We Go from Here

While TCG’s six-part EDI initiative is progressing well, there is much work to do. At our national conference in Washington, D.C., in June, we will launch our second Equity, Diversity & Inclusion Institute cohort of twenty-plus theatres. There, we will also revive a version of our Young Leaders of Color leadership development program, this time titled Rising Leaders of Color, and we continue to work toward a second round of our SPARK Leadership Program. Soon after the conference, we will roll out our Legacy Leaders of Color Video Project, featuring the stories of Luis Valdez, Lou Bellamy, Jackie Taylor, Miriam Colón, Tisa Chang, Woodie King Jr., Frank Chin, Douglas Turner Ward, and Muriel Miguel. To address our own internal process, we have conducted an internal EDI assessment and have a work group of staff who meet every other week. They have reviewed the assessment and are making recommendations about how our workplace can become more diverse, equitable, and inclusive.

In addition to the EDI Institute and internal work group, we have learned that facilitator training is invaluable in helping people find and fulfill a mission toward erasing inequities in our field.

Looking ahead, we are committed to advancing a more equitable, diverse, and inclusive theatre field to help transform the inequities and injustices of our broader culture and now have an inclusive, holistic methodology that we are ready to fully implement and scale to achieve the true systemic change we desire and the field requires.

Most importantly, we have learned the importance of understanding ourselves individually — and constantly educating ourselves so that we can all become fierce advocates and allies in the effort to build a more equitable world for theatre and a more equitable world because of theatre.