JACQUELINE LAWTON: What excited you about attending TCG's 2012 Fall Forum?
J.J. EL FAR: I was excited to continue the momentum generated in the TCG Conference around diversifying and making more inclusive the theater field at large as well as nurturing the emerging young leaders of color and identifying success stories within our field leaders. I was thrilled to reconnect with my cohort of YLC'ers and looked forward to furthering our leadership training, which I found enormously useful in June.
JL: What were some of the common themes and challenges being addressed?
JJE: Some of my concerns coming into Fall Forum were that the conference would fail to move the conversation forward on this topic and that we would be rehashing the familiar needs and conflicts of diversifying. I also was anxious about the idea of commodifying Diversity, which seems like it echoed among my fellow YLC cohort as well. Would this be a passing phase, or were we really developing sustainable shifts within our hiring structures and season selection that would affect the field for years to come. Fortunately, I think Katori Hall's opening keynote really hit the nail on the head asking how we can transcend tokenism.
Going in I wondered: Who is Diversity for? Who are we serving by Diversifying our theaters? Who is asking for it? What are well intentioned white folks supposed to do? What the hell does "White" mean anyway? And specifically, the question I asked after Katori spoke, which ended up becoming a framing question of the Fall Forum: "What would the ideal situation look like and how can we envision it so we can enact it?"
I felt that we spent so much time reiterating what wasn't right and working, that we needed to flip the conversation to talk about what was. My mom, sage that she is, always tells me that I need to visualize what I want so I will be able to recognize it when I get it. Isn't that just exactly what we needed to do? Theater makers have the unique ability to envision other worlds and create scenarios that do not (yet) exist, surely we should be the leaders of the field, setting the example for other industries.
JL: What surprised you the most about your experience?
JJE: I was surprised that my question to the whole had such resonance with the folks at TCG and the conference as a whole. I was really grateful that we were moving in a positive direction. When we were in our small group sessions working to find group definitions of huge terms like "institutional racism," "diversity," "sexism," and "inclusion," I had a really difficult time finding language to describe these terms that wasn't already loaded with slanted meaning. I struggled deeply throughout that session. I ended up going home that night and writing six pages on the experience. A short excerpt from my rantings:
"I expected this weekend to be as stimulating, overwhelming, and beneficial as the conference in June. Fortunately I was prepared this time, or so I thought. Having spent a considerable amount of time reflecting on and formulating my perceptions of the subject of diversity and inclusion, I had my pre-packaged catch phrases in command ready to pop out as readily as a pez dispenser. I had made up my mind but forgot that it still has to respond to my tongue.
One of the concerns I have felt as someone socially identified as white, especially someone coming up in the 1990's was the issue of political correctness. In an age of whistle blowers, where one misinformed word can mean the end of someone's career, regardless of intention, it was a tricky time to keep up with the ever shifting moral and verbal battleground. My terminology and vocabulary have been positively uprooted.
4. When considering Models for Diversity, what does it mean to have a commitment to diversity? A commitment to diversity would look like a more colorful and cultural administrative and artistic staff, a reflection of global perspective in season choice and artists on stage, and a sincere effort to broaden audiences through expanded access and outreach.
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?
JJE: I think TCG is definitely a model in this area. I think Oregon Shakespeare Festival, Cornerstone Theater, Signature Theatre, and Centerstage are leading the charge. They are placing diversity as a core value of their organizational structure and making sure that it is represented on all levels of their work.
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?
JJE: Where I live in Harlem, we have a very unique situation. In my work with the Harlem Arts Festival, part of our goal is to represent the changing and diversifying faces of the artists who call Harlem home. While the Harlem Old Guard has historically been rooted in the African Community, many artists who are not of African descent find themselves left out of the conversation to begin with and denied access to opportunities for creating and showcasing their work. I am trying to create a broader global conversation that Harlem can participate in that is reflected in the artists in our line up. We have changed the requirements for artists to be "inspired by or inspiring Harlem," notably including those that live here, and those that see themselves as part of the larger conversation. I am usually still the whitest person in the room at most community events, and its a role that I am increasingly comfortable with. I enjoy the process of breaking down stereotypes and educating folks about new definitions of culture, diversity, and what progress truly looks like. I think we have a lot further to go. It is a rapidly shifting landscape, loaded with landmines. We are keenly aware that in Harlem, the conversation is still very much about color. I hope we can move beyond that in the coming years.
JL: Coming out of the TCG's 2012 Fall Forum, what goals have you set for yourself to Model the Movement?
JJE: I would like to offer myself as a diversity ambassador and hopefully develop an ambassadorship program that would include my fellow YLC people. After the Fall Forum, I started the tumblr, "bindersfullofcolor," as a joke after hearing a desire expressed at the Forum for a kind of showcasing resource that would be available to theaters looking to diversify their staff. Rather than a binder, I think we should work towards having a reserve of individual artists and administrators who were available to consult and offer critical and positive feedback to an organization looking to improve in this area. We would hope that this type of program would develop a sustainable funding structure, and offer leadership and diversity training as in the YLC program for those who participate. This is an idea in progress, and I welcome your thoughts!
TCG has invited those who attended the 2012 Fall Forum on Governance: Leading the Charge and those, like me, who wish they could have attended, to keep the conversation on diversity and inclusion going. They have created a public group on 2.0 called, Leading the Charge: Advancing Diversity and Inclusion. Here, you can take part in the conversation. They've even uploaded the brilliant and useful documents and resources made available at the Fall Forum, and you can even upload your own.
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!