Two years ago, a group of Black, Indigenous and people of color theatermakers from around the country released a 29-page document demanding radical change toward a more anti-racist theater industry. We See You, White American Theater shone a bright spotlight on inequitable practices within programming, hiring, labor unions, media and more, ranging from regional nonprofit houses all the way up to the largest Broadway ventures.
“Our love of theater has often meant surviving an industrywide culture of fear poisoned by racism and its intersecting oppressions,” reads a statement on the WSYWAT website.
With the unyielding pace of theater business as usual ground to a halt because of the pandemic, it seemed the perfect time for theater leaders to focus attention on deep-seated issues.
“It was a huge wake-up call for a lot of theater companies, and a very necessary one,” said Kathy Hsieh, co-executive producer for Seattle’s SIS Productions. “That document really lays down all the things that need to change, and very, very powerfully so.”
When the demands came out, Seattle’s theaters found themselves in a unique spot. Many conversations around anti-racism and equity were already happening thanks to the founding of Seattle Theatre Leaders, a group started by local director, educator and performer Jay Woods to unite artistic leadership across the region, a month prior to the demands releasing.
But as Seattle theatermakers ramp back up to their pre-2020 levels of production, they have seen steps in the right direction thanks to efforts like STL and WSYWAT, but they also know the work can’t stop here.
Hsieh praised those initial WSYWAT demands for how it collected voices from all across the field who had been harmed by inequitable systems and structures. Seattle’s Sara Porkalob was an original signatory on WSYWAT alongside Pulitzer Prize winners like Lynn Nottage, Lin-Manuel Miranda and Suzan-Lori Parks, and Hollywood stars like Viola Davis. Porkalob said the document provided a concrete reference for the artistic community, solidifying conversations around equity, diversity and inclusion work that can feel amorphous.
“There isn’t a PWI [predominantly white institution] who hasn’t read this list of demands,” said Woods, reflecting on her initial reaction to the demands releasing, “meaning, there should not be a single PWI who isn’t actively getting it together. And for those who are making the bold choice to flat out ignore the entirety of that document, we, the global majority, see you and we won’t work with you.”
The demands, which cover several pages, venture to cover most aspects of theater, with larger topics broken into numerous bulleted areas for improvement. One page requires the addition of land acknowledgments into a theater’s regular practice. Another page demands the development, commissioning, programming and production of a majority Black, Indigenous and people of color artists moving forward. A third calls for the immediate removal of board members “who have exhibited racist behavior.” Unions are instructed to provide ongoing anti-racism training and ensure their members are at least 50% Black, Indigenous and people of color while theater training programs should ensure culturally appropriate casting in student productions.
Across the country, theaters responded, updating the equity, diversity and inclusion sections of their websites. “We have begun a point-by-point analysis of the We See You, White American Theater demands and have been developing a detailed action plan for institutional transformation,” reads a section on A Contemporary Theatre’s website.
“Pretty much every theater in Seattle has taken an anti-racist stance, has created some type of official documentation,” Porkalob said, “whether that be a changed mission or a code of ethics or a board statement. And that’s pretty extraordinary.”
Hsieh said the document has been invaluable to continuing conversations in the community that started around the #MeToo movement. Efforts around creating new standards that centered the well-being of the human beings creating the work, rather than just what money the end product was making, were able to take new root.
Still, Porkalob recalled initially being frustrated that it took these demands and a whole pandemic for some of these theaters to really dig into the injustices in the industry. Now, even though there’s still work to be done, she said it’s heartwarming to see, at least in this first season of returning to indoor, in-person theater, that companies seem to be putting their programming where their mouth is.
“You can look at almost every single theater company season locally and you’ll see that many of them are much more diverse in terms of who their playwrights are, their directors, their performers,” Hsieh added.
But there’s still a bit of trepidation as artists of color wait to see how long the change will last.
“For a lot of us people of color,” Hsieh said, “we have lived in our country long enough to know that this could just be something that just happens and then goes away.”
No change at the top?
Until recently, San Francisco-based cultural consultant Humaira Ghilzai has had to convince theaters and producers of the idea that cultural authenticity in language, movement and event marketing is an important element of storytelling. While she credited Seattle Rep for reaching out to her early to work on their recent production of “Selling Kabul,” she noted that another production she worked on elsewhere (which she declined to name) that was also set in Afghanistan still had producers prepared to move forward without a single Afghan involved in the production.
“Those are two opposite ends of the spectrum,” said Ghilzai, who is also part of an anti-racist cohort of theater professionals called Making Good Trouble. “There needs to be a lot of movement and change in the decision-making level. It’s the people on the top who really control access to funding, access to opportunities, access to rooms where decisions are being made.”
The pause of the pandemic has seen shake-ups in those decision-makers across the country. Some theaters have seen long-tenured leaders decide to step down (like managing director and 32-year staff member Susie Medak at Berkeley Repertory Theatre), while others like American Shakespeare Center and Williamstown Theatre Festival have had artistic leaders step down amid controversy as their communities pushed for more equitable treatment and conditions. Chicago has seen four of its six Tony-winning regional theaters either announce or complete leadership changes in the last two years.
Locally, Hsieh said, theater leaders have discussed that they don’t want folks here to lose their jobs or step down, that changing the industry doesn’t necessarily mean change in top-seated personnel. Hsieh said she’s been inspired by local theaters led by white leaders establishing more equitable structures, like artistic advisories and core companies — groups of diverse artists who are paid and are given a role in the decision-making process in order to move away from theater’s historical structure of a top-down, singular artistic vision.
When Woods created STL, she said, she hoped that theater leaders in the area would see each other as teammates during the uncertainty of both COVID-19 and the work of addressing the toxicity within the field. At its most involved, Woods said STL was meeting for two hours every two weeks, with smaller accountability groups of six to eight meeting outside of those full-group meetings. Part of their work, Hsieh added, was expanding conversations beyond focusing on theaters that needed to change and instead looking at what more culturally specific theaters have been doing right.
“Many of these companies had been doing things the right way all along,” Hsieh said. “One of the ironies is that, as we were developing what we should be doing instead — what are the solutions to what was brought up in that [WSYWAT] document — many of our smaller BIPOC companies had always been doing that,” she said, referring to Black, Indigenous and people of color.
As an example, Hsieh pointed to SIS Productions, which had moved toward a collective leadership model two decades ago. Often, especially when it comes to funding, the continued good work of smaller, culturally specific companies gets lost behind the corrective work of larger historically white institutions, many of whom look to these smaller companies for suggestions on plays, playwrights, artists and diversity work.
“A lot of the great work that we’re starting to see many of the predominantly white institutions evolve towards, they are leaning on the expertise of many of the BIPOC theater companies,” Hsieh said. “But still the predominantly white institutions are getting the accolades for evolving so much.”
Continuing the conversation
Since the WSYWAT demands were released, there has been a lingering question about whether theaters are truly committed to change, or simply afraid to be called out, so they put well-worded statements on their websites.
“A lot of theaters, to my mind, just ran around trying to get through the checklist and there wasn’t really institutional change,” said director Valerie Curtis-Newton. “Where we are right now is actually in a place where we can assess whether or not everyone is actually operating in accordance with their new missions.”
One example she gave was the WSYWAT demands for more equitable working hours, including moving toward a standard five-day workweek (instead of six) and eliminating “10 out of 12” rehearsals — a phrase that refers to technical rehearsals that saw actors called for 12 hours, working 10 with a two-hour meal break, and designers in the theater for upward of 14 or more hours. Even though many local theaters have been quick to make the switch, Curtis-Newton said it’s an incomplete change.
There are unintended consequences and trade-offs, she said. The swift move to more equitable working hours is great, but many theaters aren’t yet in a financial position, due to the pandemic, to add an extra week of rehearsals that would make up for the time lost. Which, it turns out, winds up being in conflict with the demand that follows the “10 out of 12” demand: “Allocate more time to create work.”
So who is holding these theaters accountable to these new efforts and missions, to the change they say they’re working toward? On one level, the audience holds a lot of power, able to vote with their dollar on theaters that are forwarding diverse, equitable and inclusive work on stage. On another, hopefully, is media coverage.
But STL is also hoping to take responsibility into their collective hands through their small groups. Hsieh said they’ve discussed how accountability doesn’t have to mean punishing those who do wrong. Instead, STL can act as an ongoing support system where leaders can workshop ideas without being held back by the fear of a misstep.
“That’s what keeps the inequity in place,” Hsieh said of that fear. “If you don’t do anything, then you’re already wrong, because we know how harmful the status quo has been.”
Early on, Porkalob had a concern that the WSYWAT demands were going to allow people to avoid the uncomfortable feeling of making mistakes and pushing themselves. Many people, she said, understand when harm is done and recognize the opportunity to make change. But then they pause to fear what will happen if they do or say the wrong thing. As Seattle steps back into a full slate of in-person, indoor productions, working collectively and thoroughly vetting ideas among their peers can increase the chance of continuing anti-racism efforts succeeding.
“We See You, White American Theater was the first marker laid down,” said Curtis-Newton. “It was not the end of the race. People think that the conversation ended with the production of that document, which is not so. We have a lot of fierce conversations to be had going forward, and I just hope that we have the intestinal fortitude to continue the conversation.”