The Keys Are in the Room

by David S. Stewart
in Feature

Terrence Spivey, artistic director of Karamu House in Cleveland (the oldest black theatre in America) gives portfolio advice to Jessica Drayton, a lighting designer studying at Wright State University as part of the Gateway program at the 2015 USITT conference. A quick look at what’s being done to increase diversity and inclusivity in production

In its January 2012 issue, Stage Directions published the article “Diversity in the Booth: What it’s like being a minority in technical theatre,” which I wrote with Tayneshia Jefferson. I didn’t know at the time that it would be one of the last projects that we would work on together. Tayneshia passed away in July of 2013—leaving a gaping hole not only in my soul, but also the industry. Her work in furthering the efforts in diversity was apparent in her daily work and was felt throughout the theatre world. She was the chair of the People of Color Network for the United States Institute for Theatre Technology (USITT) and was set to be the only person of color on the USITT Board of Directors. We often joked about being some of the only people of color in stage or production management in the industry and we dreamed of changing that reality—but in terms of action, she was light years ahead of me. 

I didn’t willingly jump on the diversity train. Hell, 20 years ago I couldn’t have cared less about it. Yes, I knew I was a unicorn in the profession. Yes, I knew that backstage crews and production leadership looked nothing like me. And yet, I didn’t care. I had a job, a damn good job, in an industry where working for a major theatre company was a rare commodity. I had made it. That wasn’t good enough for Tayneshia. As was her way, I was “voluntold” that I would participate in the People of Color Network (PoCN) meetings at USITT. I did—but as more of a backup than a true participant. 

And then she left me. Left us. And my world shifted dramatically. Who was going to do the work? Who was going to lead the charge? Instead of being able to merely shadow the work, I was thrust into it—and there was a lot of work to be done. Seismic events were happening to increase diversity in the theatre world. While some had started before her death, her legacy catalyzed others into motion. Whatever the cause, theatre has woken to the cause of diversity in our ranks. This is not an exhaustive survey of what is being done to increase equity, diversity and inclusivity in the arts, but an introduction to programs that have a positive impact on the makeup of the arts, work that deserves to be studied and replicated. 

Diversity in the Academy

Three years ago I took a job at the University of Texas, Austin College of Fine Arts (CoFA) as the academic production manager for Texas Performing Arts. Basically my job is to make sure shows come in on budget, on time, within the scope designed, and ensure no one kills each other. Shortly after my arrival, I was assigned to the FADC (Fine Arts Diversity Committee) who had marching orders from Doug Dempster, dean of the CoFA to “design and implement strategies that advance diversity along such vectors as race and ethnicity, disability/ability, gender, gender identity and expression, national origin, sexual orientation, socioeconomic status, and religion.” Under the leadership of John Yancey, Professor of Art and Art History and Dr. Sherri Sanders, Associate Vice President for Strategic Initiatives, the committee crafted a highly detailed (48 pages!) plan for equity, diversity and inclusivity. Academia is known for its slow-moving culture and often abstruse bureaucracy, so we took pains to distill our efforts for diversity into three major categories: Recruitment and retention of a diverse faculty, staff and student body; Cultivating “a mutual respect of differences and cross-cultural understanding across the College of Fine Arts’ core curriculum, academic programs, and its performance, productions, exhibitions, and other arts events and activities”; and Creating and fostering an inclusive and equitable culture with the college. 

With each goal, we have objectives and measurables that must be achieved. These are some examples of our “year one” objectives and their success metrics that we hope to achieve by summer of 2016.

In our recruitment and retention goal, FADC has a subset objective of collaborating with the Division of Diversity and Community Engagement’s strategic initiatives to utilize and develop inclusive recruitment and hiring best practices for all faculty and staff hires. This will help recruit a diverse student body, since visibility of like people is a key in student recruitment. For goal number two, academic curriculum and creative programming, one of our objectives is to have each division of the college bring in at least two guest artists whose work aligns with select diversity and inclusivity models. Our culture and climate objective was mandated by the dean, and technically should be the easiest: at least one gender-neutral restroom in each of the five CoFA buildings that come equipped with a changing station by June of 2016. 

It is our hope that this plan will bring greater diversity awareness in the core curriculum as well as the events that take place on our stages. With greater awareness should come a greater inclusive thought process that will adhere to the young minds we are shaping. 

Leslie Ishii, (FAIR participant in 2012/13, to the left of the table) and Peter J. Kuo (FAIR 2014, to the right of the table) speak about “working from the outside, in” and how we utilize our individual and collective strengths in the industry at the 2015 FAIR Networking Conference at Oregon Shakespeare Festival.The Professional World

Nature abhors a void, and since I function better with strong women in my life, the universe deemed I needed another. Tayneshia passed from my life and in bounded Sharifa Johka, the FAIR Experience manager from the Oregon Shakespeare Festival (www.osfash land.org/FAIR). Sharifa and I met a few years ago at USITT and instantly bonded. She is very much a take-charge kind of woman and a powerhouse at OSF. 

FAIR stands for “Fellowships, Assistantships, Internships and Residencies” and its mission is to “achieve equity within the Oregon Shakespeare Festival while creating, participating and supporting efforts that sustain equity throughout the field of American theatre.” Over the past 10 years, FAIR has grown into an amazing professional development program that provides folks with opportunities to learn best practices in all theatre disciplines. Opportunities in administration, performance, design and production areas are available to 60–70 participants each season. 

“FAIR is not just a professional development program, I think it’s like a person development program,” says Mei Ann Teo, the 2015 Phil Killian Directing Fellow. 

Sharifa and the program set out to create a diverse field of people that can bring their perspectives to OSF and, thus, create a greater collaborative experience in the theatre. At the recent TCG conference Sharifa and I participated in a panel entitled “Hiring for Change, Racial & Ethnic Diversity in Production Departments.” As part of the panel Sharifa and I tried to break through the harmful myth that the lack of numbers of people of color backstage is driven by the fact that those communities aren’t there, or don’t want to contribute backstage. 

“When we talk about the availability of individuals who could be contributors to our organization, it’s not mythical for me,” Sharifa said at the panel. “It’s not sort of theoretical. Because I’ve looked into the eyes of people, I’ve seen their work, I’ve been to their theatres, I’ve seen how they implement and create work.” She didn’t exempt OSF from their failings in this area—but did share how FAIR was changing the culture, including an example of how one hire can lead to even more change. 

According to Sharifa, one of the obstacles to recruiting—and even casting—a more diverse population was the lack of a hairdresser in Ashland who was trained to do hair for African-American women. Being in a remote location, this meant hours of travel for a simple chore. Sharifa led a discussion about re-defining the one of the positions in the hair and wig department. Out of the 10 people in that department, they decided that the qualifications for one of them should include cosmetology training, specifically with experience with black women’s hair. They decided if the person had those skills, they could teach them how to run a show. This process took a total of three weeks, yet has made them a more attractive institution for black women to work at. “We had a 75-year-old institution that eliminated a group of people because of a three week process,” Sharifa shared. Changing one thing can have an exponential effect on increasing diversity across an organization. 

Sharifa Johka speaks at the 2015 TCG National Conference in Cleveland. The Intersection 

Which brings me to the intersection of professional and educational organizations, USITT (where it all began for me) and the Gateway Program. 

When Tayneshia passed, many people were moved to make donations in her memory. Tayneshia’s mother and David Grindle, executive director of USITT and a good friend of Tayneshia’s, decided the best way to honor her legacy was to use the donations to create a program designed to promote diversity backstage. Grindle turned to Kasey Allee-Foreman, production manager at Oklahoma University as well as a USITT Board Member and diversity advocate, and myself and asked us to build something sustainable. We crafted a program that I believe Tayneshia would be most proud of: The Gateway Program. 

Launched at the 2014 conference, the Gateway Program (www.usitt.org/gateway) is a mentorship opportunity that not only brings students and young professionals from underrepresented populations to the USITT Annual Conference, but also gives them a head start by pairing them with a mentor who is active in the organization. The USITT Diversity Committee strives to connect the 12 mentees with professionals from their same field of interest and with a similar background in terms of race/ethnicity, gender, orientation and ability (to name a few). What’s interesting is that we don’t start with a group of mentors and then look to pair them with people. We choose our mentees first, and then search the industry to find mentors who match up well with them. With the pairing set, the mentor works with the mentee for the duration of the conference on how best to navigate the conference, professional connections, and advice for the industry. 

We gave our participants exit interviews after the annual conference this year, and while we can’t identify the quotes for privacy reasons, one of our participants told us: “I had a wonderful, soul affirming time at this conference. The Gateway Program was a huge part of that because I was surrounded by other people who looked a bit like me and who could answer my questions. I’ve never been in a room of mostly people of color and balanced female/male while talking about theatre, and that was a beautiful thing to experience. Thank you.” 

Another aspect of change at USITT is the People of Color Network. The affinity group had always had a central few people that attended sporadically over the years. In fact, I remember my first PoCN meeting that had a whopping seven of us sitting around the table discussing issues of the day. At the 2014 USITT conference PoCN meeting, we had a smallish gathering of people and I wasn’t sure where the meeting was going to take us this year. We were at 80% capacity 15 minutes before we were to begin. Five minutes later, we are at capacity. Five minutes after that, we had to find another room because the crowd was too large. When all was said and done, we had 85 people in attendance. 

I was not prepared to lead such a large group in meaningful discussion and instead decided to have everyone introduce themselves. A time consuming endeavor, but one that yielded probably the most telling moment of the conference. As people introduced themselves, one by one they began to say the same thing. “Hi, my name is [fill in the blank] and I work at [theatre x] and I am the only person of color there.” As this mantra continued, each person who repeated it got more and more emotional as they realized that they were in a room of “I’m the only ones.” It was a cathartic moment.

As we let them all know about the Gateway program for future years, many actually started hanging around the Gateway team, sharing knowledge. It was if we had picked up an additional set of mentees! It was a relevatory experience for everyone. 

More initiatives than this are happening. With aid from groups like the Production Manager’s Forum (PMF) and Theatre Communications Group (TCG) we now have a national movement to expand our diversity efforts beyond audience development, beyond the canon, and beyond casting. We are making efforts to diversify and create inclusive environments backstage in our theatres—because I’m here to tell you, the talent, skill and desire is there. As Sharifa expressed it at the TCG panel: “You know when you lose your keys, and you know they are in the living room?” she said. “You’ll tear up that living room looking for those keys. Now, if you know the keys are someplace in the house, you may do a surface search and not put much effort into it before you go ‘Oh well,’ and stop looking. We are here to tell you the keys are in the living room, and it is up to you to make an effort to find them.”

The keys are in the room. Let’s get to looking, and building a more welcoming and diverse backstage.