MEGAN SANDBERG-ZAKIAN: It was thrilling to witness a conversation that many of us have had in bars and basements and black boxes for so long being presented as the sole focus of a formal convening for our national field! The opportunity to sit with this conversation with some of the most resourced and influential folks in the American theater, as well as other emerging leaders, was a new and thrilling experience for me.
JL: What were some of the common themes and challenges being addressed?
MSZ: We heard this over and over: “It’s so hard to [find board members of color/assemble a diverse hiring pool for management positions/identify strong new scripts]. We know it’s worth doing, and we want to do it, but it’s so difficult! We need resources, models, support, to make the changes we know ”
JL: What surprised you the most about your experience?
MSZ: I was surprised by my own strong response to this discourse of difficulty. As you will no doubt remember, Jackie, on your very blog a few months ago, I wrote a post that followed this same line of thinking, insisting that “real, meaningful change is hard.”
Hearing my own language reflected back to me at the Fall Forum, it felt very negative - functioning from an assumption of scarcity and challenge, rather than abundance and possibility. I began to wonder: How might we begin to shift this discourse of difficulty that we hear so often in conversations about diversity, into a rhetoric of opportunity? After all, nothing in our work is easy; we expend enormous effort to accomplish almost everything. We are constantly surprised by new information, we encounter unforeseen obstacles, we are disappointed when proposed solutions fall short. A daily fact of our work is creative problem solving in response to the unpredictable alchemy of the live event. I wonder if this growing sense that diversity and inclusion work is just another facet of organizational excellence - like strong aesthetic values, a safe facility, a good ticketing system - might lead to a normalizing of the effort around this work.
People who have some resources and power (including anyone who is selecting or casting a play, or hiring anyone, no matter how small the scale), might also benefit from recognizing that there’s some privilege to this discourse of difficulty. When we sit around the table earnestly trying to figure this out, saying “My goodness, it’s so hard to find a diverse talent pool, how can we identify more resources and support for ourselves to do this,” it is possible that we are detracting attention and resources from those we’d actually like to receive it -- our colleagues or potential colleagues who are not in position of privilege, who have been underrepresented or who have experienced discrimination, and thus have not had the opportunity to claim a seat at the table. How can we make sure that these conversations really do have the democratic benefit we hope for, rather than primarily benefiting entrenched and homogenous institutional structures which perpetuate the status quo? Personally, I do find myself in positions with resources and power, however limited, so I have been trying hard to keep this in the front of my mind.
JL: When considering Models for Diversity, what does it mean to have a commitment to diversity?
MSZ: You know - I’m not sure I can answer this one yet. My thinking is rapidly shifting here. Ask me again next year!
JL: Where do you see Models for Diversity working in the theatre community, whether locally, regionally or nationally? What can we learn from their efforts?
MSZ: The Fall Forum was full of inspirational stories from other sectors - health care, the corporate world, academia. More so than the models from our theater community, I hope for increased chances to engage with and learn from other kinds of models. I also think that small, interdisciplinary, and community-based arts organizations have been diverse and inclusive for years, in an effortless, mission-based way - it would be great to see more reflection of that in the national conversation.
JL: What efforts have you made, or been involved with, to foster diversity competence and understanding in your community? How were these efforts met? Do you see a change?
MSZ: It’s been exciting to see the wheels turning here in Boston. On local stages this season, we have the most number of substantive roles for non-white actors I’ve ever seen in this town (as I write this, the following shows are preparing to open: The Mountaintop, You For Me For You, Clybourne Park, Raisin in the Sun, In the Heights, Invisible Man, and By The Way, Meet Vera Stark). Our local arts advocacy organization, StageSource, was inspired by the 2012 TCG Conference in Boston to convene a “Diversity, Inclusion, and Gender Parity Task Force.” There are efforts being made to increase the diversity of our community’s designers, directors, and stage management. There is a new playwright development program specifically for female playwrights. The deaf community has been an integral part of the diversity and inclusion conversations and many companies (including mine, Central Square Theater) are learning how to be more accessible to the disabled community. So, I think the momentum of the national conversation is certainly having an impact. I’m looking forward to seeing where it goes and being part of it!
JL: Coming out of the TCG's 2012 Fall Forum, what goals have you set for yourself to Model the Movement?
MSZ: I’m making a personal commitment to shift my language from difficulty to opportunity - even in my own head. I’m making a larger, public commitment to doing what I can to keep the ball in the air to further these generative conversations in my community here in Boston, as well as amongst our cohort of emerging leaders, whom I learn so much from every day. Thank you all for the conversation!