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#TheSummit: Next Steps

02.26.14 | 9 Comments


CATEGORIES #stealthisidea, #TheSummit, advocacy, alternatives, change the ratio, community, conversation starter, diversity, engagement, ideas, parity, partnerships, rabble rousing, social media, social profit, the future, theatrical ecosystem

We’ve Named the Problem. Now what?

Unless you’ve been living under a rock the last week (in which case, I hope it’s been warm!), if you’re in the theatermaking world, you are likely aware of the fallout from an event Twitter dubbed #thesummit.

For the uninitiated, Brett Steven Abelman posted a nicely balanced summary of the action here, and Elissa Goetschius (she who asked the notorious final question, with many a powerful statistic to back herself up) wrote up her thoughts here. Brett followed up with some more personal observations here.

To say that The Summit opened up a conversation is to say that the ocean is “a bit damp.”
There have been incendiary write-ups, more than a few misquotations (and the usual amount of Twitter and Facebook reductivism), as well as some truly thought-provoking conversations and think pieces written about what this all means for our profession.

To give credit where it is due, I’m truly grateful to Peter Marks and the panelists that we are, indeed, having this conversation. Thanks to The Summit, we’re now talking about the elephant in the room: the lack of equity regarding gender and racial representation in season selection within the regional theater world has now been laid very bare, very publicly.

Our regional theater seasons are too homogeneous. They look too much alike, and they don’t look enough like our communities.

Now that we’ve named the problem, the takeaways are coming fast and furious.

1. People are angry with the status quo. (Rightfully so).

2. Many theaters are trying to do better, but aren’t sure how to begin, or they feel trapped in the cycle of how they’ve always done things. (Easy to dismiss–if you’ve never had to answer to a board of directors before.)

3. There’s a lot being written on how people think theater in America should be, but little practical advice on actionable things theaters can do to get there.

In response to the plethora of “10 Things One Dude Thinks All Theaters Must Do To Blah Blah Blah” lists making the rounds, I want to take a different approach. I want to fight against the usual ennui that comes from feeling overwhelmed by the challenge of changing the status quo.

Let’s take a moment to talk about what’s working. There are theaters out there already fighting this fight–and winning. Let’s look at how they’re doing it.

What tactics have worked at YOUR theater to diversify the voices presented? Or, what tactics have you seen work at a theater you love?

I can start you off with an example from my work. I’m fortunate to direct for a company called New York Madness, which presents themed evenings of 7-minute-or-less plays, written in just one week, performed in rapid-fire succession, fully staged but on-book, so the focus is on the playwright’s unique voice and their take on the week’s theme. Each event’s theme is chosen by a mentor playwright (“Featured Guest”), who also writes a piece alongside 7 or 8 other writers from the New York indie theater community. Artistic Director Cecilia Copeland made a commitment from the start to ensure that NYMadness presents a 50/50 split of men and women writers in their season, and that there’s always a mix of writers from many different backgrounds. Building out from the Featured Guest, Cecilia selects a complimentary and varied slate of writers for each event, ensuring that no one voice is dominant over the evening. Thanks to Cecilia’s careful curation, each Madness becomes a kaleidoscope of reflections of a moment in time, all tied to the Featured Guest’s theme. It’s a hell of a night of theater, and a great example of how the commitment of an Artistic Director can ensure that more voices get heard.

Lest we think all the heavy lifting is being done by the new play community–it’s also possible to strive for parity and inclusion in classically-focused theaters. Oregon Shakespeare Festival codified their efforts in a brilliant manifesto regarding audience diversification, and even better, a list of the actions they have taken to realize their vision.

One significant first step that all theaters can take to diversify the voices on their stages–a step that works for both new works and classical works–is to hire more women directors and more directors of color (of any gender expression), and ask them to pitch you the stories they want to tell. [Kudos to anyone already doing this]. Let directors bring you scripts you never would have thought of; in the case of new plays especially, many directors (myself included) can bring you as-yet unsung voices who just might blow the lid off your season, if you’re brave enough to take the risk.

So, let’s talk. Tell us what you’re doing that is working. Tell us the practical, the nitty-gritty:

If you’re looking for fresh writers, where and for whom are you looking?

If you’re cultivating fresh audiences, how are you getting them in the room?

If you’ve committed to 50/50 representation, what steps have you taken so far to make it happen?

If you know a company whose season is vibrant and diverse: how did they get there?

Let’s copy the ideas that work with wild abandon, and brainstorm how any hurdles can be cleared. If anything, The Summit told us that there’s a great groundswell of energy across our nation to create a new regional theater that looks and sounds more like the world in which we live.

Let’s turn this comments section into a How-To Manual for Reshaping American Theater. Comment here and on Twitter with the #2amt and #TheSummit tags.

Hit me, 2amt: What’s working? What are you trying?

Tamara Winters

Tamara Winters is a director, dramaturg, performer, collaborative artist, feminist, and experienced fundraiser and advocate for nonprofit arts organizations large and small. Her passion is new play development and she treasures the collaborative relationships she has built with playwrights and designers. Currently based in New York, her work has most recently been seen at the 2013 New York International Fringe Festival, as well as IATI Theater, Cherry Lane, Dixon Place, and New York Madness. She holds an MFA with a focus in directing from Sarah Lawrence College Theatre and a BFA in Performance from the Ohio University School of Theater. Her portfolio is available at www.tamarawinters.com. Follow her on Twitter at @tamaraneo.

Latest posts by Tamara Winters (see all)

  • Valerie Weak

    Made a commitment to myself roughly 2 years ago that anytime I was asked for 2 monologues at an audition, I’d do at least 1 by a female playwright. I’m not a company, so my auditions are the only ‘seasons’ I program.

    There’s a fantastic series of interviews curated by the amazing Amy Clare Tasker over at the Works by Women SF blog. These TACTICS interviews ask many theater artists about actionable steps they are taking to increase gender parity and can be found here: http://worksbywomensf.wordpress.com/?s=tactics&submit=Search

    • Tammy

      Brilliant! Thank you for the link.
      As to your personal audition work: also brilliant. A powerful first step is just getting voices OUT there. Thank you for making that commitment.

  • babelwright

    Thanks for the great points! I have some ideas for initiatives that might help move things forward like this, too long for a comment, so here’s a post:
    http://babelwright.wordpress.com/2014/02/27/thesummit-seven_initiatives/
    I’d appreciate your feedback!

    • Tammy

      BOOM. THIS is the conversation we need to have. I want all of these tools at our disposal, STAT! Kudos to you for thinking of board inclusion, too–the Board doesn’t have to be a bogeyman.
      Younger companies have the luxury of building the board they want, instead of inheriting one that might not share their vision, but Boards are made of people. You need to figure out how to communicate the story you need to tell to your board, as people!
      As for those databases: Yes, please? If you have the kind of skills to build such things, GO TO! If not, if you can lead the way to find someone who has those skills, GO TO! As a fundraiser, I am sure there’s grant money out there for such an initiative–or, better yet, it could be crowdsourced from the community using a platform like IndieGoGo. There’s enough people out here clamoring for change–perhaps those people will be energized to throw their pocket change toward creating the resource we need to make change happen. GREAT post, Brett; please, everyone, read it STAT!

  • http://swimponypa.wordpress.com/ Swim Pony Performing Arts

    Yes and yes. I think we also can look at the way we are phrasing and creating this dialogue to ensure we are not purely framing the choice as punitive but making gender parity a victory both for female artists and the theaters that aren’t currently there yet. http://swimponypa.wordpress.com/2014/02/28/talking-about-talking/

    • http://www.davidjloehr.com/ David J. Loehr

      Right on. This isn’t about rage and anger, this isn’t about demanding, this should be about working together and going forward, coming into the 21st century, celebrating everyone who should be represented on your stages, especially if they’re represented in your audience.

      • Tammy

        I think this is really key, Swim Pony. Right or wrong, the onus is on us to channel any rage into positive action; current theater leadership has little impetus to respond if we’re coming at them, guns blazing. You make excellent points all around, especially re: starting from the assumption that no one is out there intending to screw over women artists or artists of color. We *all* can do better; it’s not (it can’t be) us-versus-“them”.

  • Isabelle

    I have some thoughts on how (part of) this problem is deeply rooted wrong thinking about what theater marketing is and needs to be. I blogged about it here (and would welcome more discussion on this often-ignored variable): http://artsmarketingresultsblog.com/2014/02/24/thesummit-these-are-marketing-problems/

    • Tammy

      Hallelujah, Isabelle. As a grantwriter, I also love this line of thinking. I can’t get you a grant to support a show just by listing “What/When/Written&ActedByWhom” [as you so eloquently put it]: I have to define for funders WHY this piece is relevant and worth their time. I should treat audience members with the same respect. It’s not enough to just promote that a piece exists; we MUST take it upon ourselves to make the case for why the experience is something that our audience will value. We have to stop blaming the material when we can’t sell it–we’re in theater! We should be able to make a case for anything worthwhile, just as an actor must find a way to make a case for their character’s motivations.


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