TCG's New Generations Future Leader, Megan Sanberg-Zakian, responds to Drew Barker's question on diversity and inclusion.
"How do institutions and artists negotiate between sincere attempts at 'bridge-building' and creating productive 'multicultural' explorations without falling into the potential traps of audience pandering or cliché?"
No Rage, No Pity: Culpability, Choice, and Engagement
I'd like to build on my colleagues' excellent responses to this question by passing on three pieces of advice I've received over the years. I think about all three of these things almost every day.
1) Real, meaningful change is hard. Yes, we would all very much like to diversify our (fill in the blank... design teams, front of house staff, board, mainstage season...). We talk about it all the time. We reach out, we make good faith efforts to widen our net, but when it comes down to the wire, we too often find ourselves with something that looks more or less the same as the last thing we had. I think there's only one answer to this: try harder. We can't let ourselves off the hook. It will take more time, more energy, and more money than we think it will to get results. And at the end of the day, what matters is results; good intentions count for very little.
2) Follow The Money. If we only have four equity contracts in a show with seven actors, who gets the equity contracts? If we have the money to commission one play every three years, who gets the commission? If we can give extra hours to one front of house employee, who gets the hours? What about the businesses who cater our openings, do our dry cleaning, print our posters, do our audit, our accounting, our banking - who owns those business? (and where are they? are we supporting the local economies we rely on?) Arts organizations (and artists) do have and spend money. Thinking of the resources we have as abundant rather than scare allows us to take responsibility for the choices we make about what to do with those resources.
3) No Rage, No Pity. The best directing advice I every got was from playwright Lydia Diamond, while I was directing Harriet Jacobs, Lydia's beautiful adaptation of Jacobs' 1861 slave narrative. Like most works that tackle traumatic, violent aspects of our history, the play requires intense attention to tone. Too often we have all seen well-meaning and earnest approaches to this kind of material result in extremes of indulgent hysteria on the one hand or stoic heroism on the other -- neither of which honors the swirling complexity of the events and people whose stories we are attempting to tell, nor the multiplicity of the audiences who have come to hear these stories. Before the start of rehearsals, Lydia said to me, "The material must be approached with no rage and no pity." I wrote "NO RAGE, NO PITY" on the cover of my script and had the ensemble do the same. I learned that when our approach to storytelling comes from a place of anger (even righteous anger) or sentimentality (even well-meaning sentiment), it can cloud our view of the humanity and truth of our work, making us more fearful and less interesting, more strident and less dynamic. Engaging with material and characters simply and directly, with compassion but without pity, with precision but without rage, was a great touchstone for making acting, design, and even marketing choices (and if you're interested in exactly how this works in the rehearsal room I can talk for hours about it...). For me, this remains the best way to "avoid audience pandering or cliche" and make our work "productive" - in the sense of resisting and transforming, rather than reproducing, the old, tired images and discourses. It works for all material. But, you know... it's hard. See #1.
Thanks for this important conversation, Jackie. Please include my email address so that folks can contact me directly if desired: firstname.lastname@example.org.
I'm a playwright, dramaturg, and teaching artist. It is here where you'll find my queries and musings on life, theater and the world. My posts advocate for diversity, inclusion, and equity in the American Theatre and updates on my own work. Please enjoy!