In late May, just a few days after the killing of George Floyd, a group of Seattle theater leaders met on Zoom to talk about what they should do.
This was not remarkable. As the summer protest movement gathered steam, leaders of companies and nonprofits across the U.S. — Nike, TikTok, Doctors Without Borders, L’Oréal — were meeting, scrambling to put out solidarity statements and rethink marketing campaigns.
But the Seattle theater leaders were starting something different, something much more ambitious, though they didn’t fully realize it yet. They were beginning a process to overhaul the entire ecology of their field, at every level — casting, staffing, fundraising, boards, tech crews, audiences, everything — and inject anti-racism into its DNA.
Slowly, others around the country are starting to hear about the Seattle effort, now officially calling itself Seattle Theatre Leaders (STL), and watch its progress. If STL succeeds, if this broad coalition of theater makers effectively transforms one part of the arts world in one city, it might just set a standard that can be exported — not simply to other arts disciplines, but to other sectors in America that are struggling with the deep, pervasive and seemingly intractable problem of institutional racism.
“It’s really exciting what’s coming out of and through Seattle — I don’t think there’s another city doing this,” said Nicole Brewer, a faculty member at Yale School of Drama who is in very high demand these days as an anti-racist consultant across the English-speaking world, including a recent job at Shakespeare’s Globe theater in London. (In previous years, Brewer gave about one training a month. Since June, she’s given 56 — sometimes to as many as 400 people — including a few with STL this fall.)
“This could be transferred to other industries,” she said. “It’s really exciting what’s coming out of and through Seattle as a model not just for others around the country, but around the world.”
Since May, two main tactics have guided STL’s efforts.
First: Build a broad coalition. Over 80 leaders (mostly artistic directors) representing almost 50 organizations are involved, from the city’s behemoths to its tadpoles, in a list of theaters that aren’t usually mentioned in the same breath: ACT Theatre, The 5th Avenue Theatre, eSe Teatro, Café Nordo, Seattle Repertory Theatre, The Hansberry Project, Intiman Theatre, On the Boards, Village Theatre, Brown Soul Productions, Taproot Theatre, Jet City Improv, dozens more.
Remarkably, STL members say, this coalition has flattened and democratized the usual arts-nonprofit pecking order. When it comes to anti-racism work, the largest theaters have no more clout than the smallest — a bigger budget doesn’t equal a bigger megaphone.
Second: Virtuous-sounding solidarity statements are OK, but they’re not nearly enough. STL is after concrete action and is currently drawing up a list of action items and commitments written by and for local theater makers.
The list is still being written and STL as a group declined to share a current draft. But individual members talked about the kinds of proposals being discussed: a binding code of community conduct; the creation and funding of a neutral body to adjudicate any grievances; larger organizations leveraging their connections with foundations to help smaller organizations find grant money; fast-track leadership pipelines for artists of color; establishing regional standards for anti-racist training.
Some of the proposals are more specific, addressing problems individual members brought to the larger group.
For example: Theater artist Kathy Hsieh (co-director of SIS Productions, as well as the head of cultural partnerships and grants for Seattle’s Office of Arts & Culture) brought up the phenomenon of white directors asking actors of color to do free dramaturgical and research work. It’s not uncommon, she said, for actors like her to land roles across the Asian spectrum — Japanese, Chinese, Korean — and be expected to serve as unpaid experts on all things Asian.
“Sometimes we’re asked to present to the rest of the cast what it was like to be Japanese during internment in the 1940s or what it was like in China during the 1400s,” Hsieh said. “But if we’re doing something about Ireland or Britain in the 1800s, theaters will bring in and pay dialect coaches and dramaturgs. They know full well that just because your great-grandmother was born in Ireland you don’t have a good idea of what it was like there in 1912.”
Because of racist double standards, she said, directors often fail to understand the same holds true for Asian American actors — which is symptomatic of racism in the ecology as a whole.
“Larger organizations tend of have boards and donor bases who are primarily white,” said Jay O’Leary-Woods, co-director of Sound Theatre Company, who has been a prime mover and agenda-setter for STL. “This is one of the reasons primarily white institutions perpetuate systemic racism, most of which is unconscious. White folks are still in the process of thinking that if somebody is getting lynched that is racism, and otherwise everything is good. Well, I’m glad you don’t have the impulse to join the KKK — would you like a tray of cookies or a tray of pie?”
“Swimming in filthy water”
“We’re taking a full-body scan of the theater community, from funders and donors down to volunteer staff,” said director Valerie Curtis-Newton, head of directing and playwriting at the University of Washington’s School of Drama. “We’re getting information about how white supremacy has impacted BIPOC [Black, Indigenous and people of color] artists inside all these institutions and we’re brainstorming potential solutions — then flipping them over a bunch of times to see if they increase or decrease harm, and if there are any unintended consequences.”
The mere fact of Curtis-Newton’s involvement is like a signal flare of endorsement to the rest of Seattle’s cultural community. She’s an avowed skeptic of empty gestures and hot air — and she made that clear during a memorable 2014 panel discussion on racism in Seattle theater that was hastily convened after a string of controversies, including a mostly white production of “The Mikado” by the Seattle Gilbert and Sullivan Society. (That “Mikado” drew sharp national critique for featuring actors in yellowface. The Seattle Gilbert and Sullivan Society is now part of the STL cohort.)
“I’m not coming up here again,” Curtis-Newton announced to the hundreds of predominantly white theater workers that night. “I’m just not.”
But the seriousness of STL, and its potential for real change, felt different.
“The current work is being done and pointed towards deliverables, some agreements, and a process for accountability,” she said. “That day [in 2014], I said I didn’t want to talk about race anymore and when white people were ready to do something about it, they should let me know. I feel like this is that moment — but it’s frustrating that people had to die and go into the streets to get this going.”
The first STL Zoom meeting, on May 20, was convened from Scotland, where O’Leary-Woods was finishing a Master of Fine Arts degree in directing at Edinburgh Napier University. The big topic: COVID, and how theaters might survive the pandemic. They were the first businesses to close and, according to the reopening plans of governors across the country — including Washington — will be among the last to come back. O’Leary-Woods said she was pleasantly surprised to see around 40 people joined that call.
Five days later, George Floyd was killed by Minneapolis police officers, which changed everything. O’Leary-Woods said she’d always wanted the group to talk about equity during this enforced pandemic pause — “we’re all grounded, grounded by this pandemic, and nobody is allowed out until they have a plan for making amends and doing better” — but the growing protest movement shifted systemic racism to the foreground.
The process began in earnest, Curtis-Newton and others said, with a lot of listening to BIPOC leaders talking about the repeated experiences they’d had with systemic racism in the theater world.
That required vulnerability. “I’ve had my own experiences, and had to really teach myself to be open,” said Ariel Bradler, executive director of Theatre Puget Sound (TPS), an umbrella support organization in the region. “There’s always that fear about keeping your job, maintaining the livelihood you’re hoping for in this chosen profession when this is already not an easy path. But for whatever reason, folks have come together for a lot of willingness to listen and willingness to be vulnerable.”
BIPOC leaders talked about who gets funding; who’s courted for boards of directors; which audiences are valued; how large, predominantly white institutions use BIPOC faces for marketing and diversity-box-checking purposes while denying them a meaningful voice inside their theaters.
“Imagine you’ve been in a show, asked to play an enslaved African,” Curtis-Newton said. “And in the season brochures, there’s a picture of you in your slave costume — and nobody told you. You didn’t know until you went to the mailbox. And that’s not even taking into account what it cost you to play that role in the first place.”
She gave other examples: “I cannot tell you how many donor dinners I’ve sat and been insulted at. Told what a ‘lovely guest’ I am in their place, or thinking I was just the hired help. It felt very much like ‘shut up and sing.’”
At every step of the way, Curtis-Newton said, from fundraising to rehearsals to audience interactions, artists of color are exposed to a gantlet of problematic behavior: “Maybe you come out after the show and the audience wants to tell you how much they loved it and proceed to say something rooted in stereotypes, about how great it is to hear Black people sing. In pretty much all of those situations, people thought they were being good liberals because they didn’t know they were swimming in filthy water.”
White members of STL said that first step of the process — of seeing the water was polluted — was a series of discomforting revelations about what had been happening under their leadership. But, they added, the group valued the currency of action above the currency of shame and guilt.
So they got to work. Since May, the full STL group has been meeting every other week, with additional meetings for the smaller “accountability groups,” in which five or so white theater leaders from organizations of varying sizes are matched to discuss problems and troubleshoot solutions. (The BIPOC members of STL have a separate subgroup.)
STL members say the intimacy and economic diversity in the accountability groups make them an unusually democratic environment where the typical hierarchies break down. No matter how large or small their budgets, the theaters are all doing anti-racism work as peers.
“It’s brilliant that way, and sometimes hilarious, too,” said John Langs, artistic director at ACT Theatre. “Everybody thinks everybody else has more money than they actually do! But when we sit down and Bill Berry from the 5th Ave is trying to solve a problem in the millions and Maggie Rogers from Washington Ensemble Theatre is there, you get some lovely collegial moments of ‘oh yeah, eye roll.’”
Keeping the momentum
The fact that STL has kept its momentum — and that the bosses keep showing up instead of sending their assistants — is one of its superpowers.
“You know how little patience people have for another meeting,” Langs said. “But when I mention STL to my national colleagues, they all say: ‘That’s amazing. We don’t have anything like that.’ Nobody is meeting as frequently or for the duration we’ve been meeting now. I think Seattle is way ahead.”
STL, it should be noted, has not formed in a vacuum — its progress has been influenced by the summer demonstrations, as well as developments in the theater world.
As the street protests intensified, for example, hundreds of BIPOC theater makers around the country (Lynn Nottage, Lin-Manuel Miranda, Billy Porter, Sandra Oh, Sara Porkalob and many others) signed the open letter “We See You, White American Theater” and issued a detailed set of demands, including land acknowledgments, commitments to hiring from a diverse pool of BIPOC candidates, and publishing all board members’ corporate and nonprofit affiliations.
But STL isn’t a set of demands made by artists — it’s a group of theaters, in one community, coming together to make demands on themselves.
The group met steadily after May but, O’Leary-Woods said, didn’t fully appreciate the scope of its ambitions until October. She and others went through the piles of meeting notes and cobbled together a list of proposals to consider: the regionwide code of conduct, big theaters helping little theaters, changes in the way seasons are built and teams are assembled. That’s when they knew they were on to something big.
Brewer, the anti-racism consultant and Yale School of Drama faculty member, met STL in October as well, leading trainings with the group — and left impressed. “The work Seattle is doing is extraordinary and groundbreaking,” she said. “It’s a beautiful case study of collaborative resource-sharing: Bigger theaters, little theaters, all putting their coins together, doing this work together.”
The smaller theaters have fewer financial resources to share, but they’re bringing solutions to the conversation: Washington Ensemble Theatre, for example, has a more transparent, group process for choosing the plays in its season than the larger theaters, which traditionally place the privilege and the burden of season selection on one artistic director. That’s one practice, Langs said, he wants to bring to ACT, along with other commitments, like never having another all-white design team on any production.
Littler, nimbler companies in STL might also be willing to test-drive some of the more radical-sounding experiments.
“In the group, we can say things like: ‘OK, maybe this organization is so small, they have less to lose, so they can just decide everyone in their organization is going to be a person of color now,’” said Erin Bednarz, a theater artist who has worked with over 40 arts organizations over the past 10 years and is now producing director at Washington Ensemble Theatre. “Maybe they’re able to just do it, break down some walls, then return with some feedback that’s actually going to help a bigger organization like The 5th Avenue Theatre when they’d thought: ‘Oh, we weren’t willing to take a risk like that.’”
Rachel Cook, artistic director of On the Boards, is part of STL as well as Creating New Futures, a national project to develop a code of ethics and practices for dance and experimental performance. This world beyond solidarity statements, she explained, is largely uncharted territory — and the artists are there first, without much in the way of resources or precedents, because that’s what artists do.
“I’ve said it a thousand times and I’ll say it again: Artists are more than content-producing machines,” Cook said. “They are creative, thinking individuals, which is all the more reason to interweave them into the fabric of everything, from city government to the corporate sector. If we paid more attention to artists, our society would be a better place.”
In early 2021, STL plans to keep meeting, refine its set of action items and expand the conversation to a broader constituency. “In coming months, we’ll be ready to hold town halls with artists, because that’s who we’re trying to center,” O’Leary-Woods said. STL members will also be talking with boards of directors, and other decision-makers in the theater ecology.
All along, the sword of COVID, the impetus for STL’s first meeting in May, has been hanging over everybody’s heads. Some of these theaters might not live long enough to see the future they’re currently mapping; those that do will have an opportunity to reintroduce themselves to the world with some new priorities.
“My sense from being in the room is that people want to do the right thing,” Curtis-Newton said. “And if they’re encountering an audience that is not interested in the right thing, I think they’ll genuinely walk away from that audience in honor of the right thing.”
But that doesn’t mean they’re not scared.
“I think they’re all terrified,” she said. “I think right now many of them are having a brave moment.”