Day Two of the conference was powerful, spirited and eye-opening. I was so energized from the day before and so I was open and ready to receive everything presented on Friday. I had no idea how necessary and impactful these sessions and discussion would be. I had no idea how much I would be shifted by…
Race and Representation: The power of Theatre to Create a More Inclusive World led by Sarah Bellamy, Associate Artistic Director for Education at Penumbra Theatre. Before we go on, it should be known that Sarah is a true gift to the American Theatre. Her brilliant learning session was actually an excerpt of a larger workshop that she conducts around the history, evolution and impact of stereotypes.
To begin, Sarah addresses the role and responsibility that theatre plays in either eliminating or perpetuating stereotypes:
- As image makers, we have an important role to play in moving audiences beyond superficial and stereotypical representations of peoples and cultures and toward three dimensional representations that encourage deeper learning with honor and respect.
- Stereotypes inform controlling narratives that reinforce the power structures that order our society. We have to consider how and where we learn to read things like race, culture and gender. We have to be aware of who is providing the information.
- We rely on the same devices in our work as theatre artists; images and story.
To frame the conversation, Sarah posited that stereotyping is a process that relies on chains of meanings: fears and fantasies that manifest in myths. Stereotypes matter because they influence perception, which influences belief and finally access to opportunities. This is key. This is what we’re working to combat when we talk about diversity and inclusion.
Next, we talked about the detrimental impact of stereotypes used as tools for comedy. This is when humor and racism is used to decide who is an “us” and who is a “them.”
Sarah reminded us that:
- Some cultural elements, jokes, themes, and events are simply off-limits to those outside the culture; we seem to think that being irreverent and transgressing boundaries tears them down.
- The fact that you may experience oppression on some level does not give you carte blanche to participate in the stereotyping of other peoples/cultures. I’ve experienced this number of times, but where it was most damaging was in the rehearsal room. A once safe space, became inflamed with racial insensitivity.
Stereotypes act as a kind of currency within American culture. As humans we learn to sort and place value on sorting categorizing and accumulating, which is linked to capitalism. It was at this point that Sarah introduced us to the four D’s, which blew my mind and instantaneously shattered by heart:
- Disassociate – I am different from you.
- Devalue – Your difference makes you less valuable than me.
- Dehumanize – I understand the worth of myself and those like me, but I cannot empathize with those who are not like me. When I am unable to empathize, I am unable to recognize their humanity and I am now objectifying “the other.”
- Destroy – Without humanity, I don’t have to feel guilty when I wish to rid myself of that person, abuse or make use of that person, and all those I regard as similar or belonging to that group.
With all of this work around stereotypes, Sarah reminded us that we have to chase the train of meaning. If we don’t understand the history of the images, then we will miss the meaning that’s been created. So when you see the image of watermelons on the White House, you understand immediate and irrevocably the incendiary intention of the message.
As you can see, the session was comprehensive, challenging and necessary. There was a lot to unpack. A major question that was posed early in the session still resonates with me and deserves a great deal of meditation: how do we combat racism in a world that looks progressive?
A Conversation with Ayad Akhtar with Gabriel Greene
Novelist, screenwriter, playwright and winner of the 2013 Pulizter Prize for Drama for Disgraced, Ayad Akhtar is a passionate, eloquent and dynamic speaker. It was hard to take notes during this session, because I want to absorb everything he said. Fortunately, you can listen to it here.
It was inspiring to hear his journey to theatre and his writing process. He grew up in a household where theatre was not a part of his growing up experience. In fact, the television show Dallas was the family’s entertainment of choice. While he knew that he wanted to be a writer when he was 15, he fell in love with theater in college. He started out writing outside of himself in a European tradition. He wanted to write something universal and didn’t think that his experiences would relate to others. As he grew older, he had a growing awareness that he was running away from something. It became clear to him that he wasn’t writing what he knew. He wasn’t writing about his identity, but that has since shifted. Towards the end of the interview, Ayad revisited Aristotle’s definition of catharsis: “the expression of emotion through pity and terror. Terror is key and is defined as when the Furies arrived on stage, women miscarried in the aisle.” This is the type of visceral response that is both religious and mass, and it’s what he strives for in his writing. It was really great to be reminded of this.
By the way, I just finished reading his novel, American Dervish, which follows Hayat Shah a young Pakistani American who falls in love, discovers his faith and works through the confusion of both forces in his life. It was magnificent and absorbing. I read it in two days. His Pulitzer Prize willing play, Disgraced, will be published in the July/August issues of American Theatre Magazine and I can hardly wait. Also, he participated in an interview with Caridad Svich as part of TCG’s conversation around Artistic Innovation, which can be read here.
Diversity and Inclusion Homeroom
This year, the TCG Conference’s had four focused programmatic arcs--Diversity and Inclusion, Audience Engagement, Financial Adaptation and Artistic Innovation. Each day, we were divided out into homeroom sessions along our respective arc. For the Diversity and Inclusion arc, we were asked to submit have a diversity and inclusion challenge that we were wrestling with, if we wanted to hear advice and feedback from others. Understanding that Diversity and inclusion begins with awareness and advocacy, but that it must shift to action, these homerooms were a great way to strategize and build allies in our efforts.
Here are some of the questions that were raised:
- As culturally specific theatres compete with theaters doing multi-cultural/multi-disciplinary work, how do you standout? How do you draw audiences?
- When the community for whom the theatre is serving doesn’t have a strong or longstanding history of support for the arts, how do you attract the money? How do you cultivate philanthropy?
- When the field of theatre is not seen as a viable or sustainable field of employment, how do you identify applicants of colors for staff and board positions? When working to diversifying, how do you do it without making tokens of the people of color?
- How do we work to empower women in the community? The men deserve to be in the room, but where are the women who also deserve to be there?
As these questions were asked, we quickly realized that we weren’t alone in our struggles. Here are some of the useful suggestions that were made:
- Suggestions and examples of successful collaborations were given. In some instances, large theatres would program the work of smaller or culturally specific theatre into their seasons. Also, there were successful examples of having the staff of a larger theatre serve on the board (or advisory board) of the smaller theatre, which proved beneficial to both parties.
- In general, theatre needs to be better at marketing itself as a business. This goes to the values in the arts in our society.
- People of color want a job. If you’re able to re-imagine and re-envision your expectations about how the individual gets to theatre, then you’ll more than likely find the candidate. This speaks to how candidates are found. If you’re looking to hire someone in Marketing, Development, Finance, etc., consider that this person doesn’t have to have experience in Theatre to do the job that you need.
- In efforts to avoid tokenism, there is a suggestion to make an advisory council, which allows the potential board members time to get to know the theater and vice versa. Being transparent about why you want the candidate to be a part of the organization is an essential first step.
We ended the conversation reflecting on Dr. Manuel Pastor’s presentation from the day before. He reminded us that the importance of theatre to social discourse. With theatre, we can reflect the important issues, values, and challenges going on in society. This is the kind of discourse that can only happen in the theatre. But in order for theatre for theatre to do this, we have to update the narrative: What theatre is now with regards to race, gender, ability, sexual orientation etc.? How is it reflective of the change that is happening in America?
Always, I’d love to hear your thoughts on these questions and any of the issues address over the course of the day. If you're interested in joining TCG's online year-round conference community, check out Conference 2.0.