2013 is the 150th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation! TCG couldn’t have been more timely in focusing its Fall Forum on the issues of Diversity and Inclusion in the theater. It was a wonderful Forum, full of stimulating ideas as well as practical tools. I came home energized! And now that I am home – Challenged! “What can I/we do in our theaters that would make this anniversary year a fitting mark of progress, not just toward eliminating racism in all its many forms, but toward a real celebration of the power of diversity and inclusion to enrich our lives and come up with creative solutions to the many problems we face on a daily basis. I liked one of the Forum’s definitions – ‘Bringing together diverse perspectives to create something where the sum is greater than the parts.’
My theater, (I’m Board chair) the Underground Railway Theater at Central Square Theater’s first production of 2013 is Katori Hall’s The Mountaintop, a play whose ending poses the question of how we pick up Dr. King’s baton for racial, social and economic justice and carry it forward. So, the stage is set! But as with any piece of theater, it’s not something one can do alone. Fortunately, the TCG Forum offered a number of models and tools for us to use, some of which we got to try out during the forum itself.
Two themes laid a foundation: first, addressing the issues is the right thing to do from a moral/humanist perspective; and second, it is also necessary from the perspective of organizational business survival. The data presented by Angela Glover Blackwell, CEO of Policy Link, made it crystal clear that the days of primarily white middle class audiences are numbered. Simple math tells us that by the 2040s, whites will be in the minority, so it wasn’t hard to realize that if theaters want to sell tickets, the stories they tell on their stages will have to appeal to a very different and diverse audience. She posed a question that had great resonance for me – ‘How can theater help us build an inclusive society?’ and ‘How can we begin to transform our culture?’ I thought the answers she offered were instructive – ‘We need support from the Boards’, and ‘We need to start the conversations from the perspective of where we want to be when we get there’.
TCG also modeled diversity by offering several speakers who were not from the theatrical field. Anthony Carter, Vice President for Diversity and Inclusion for Johnson & Johnson, and Dr. Hannah Valentine, Senior Associate Dean of Diversity and Leadership at Stanford Medical School were two of the speakers who made an indelible impression on me. Both Carter and Valentine underscored the importance of having organizational goals – measures for J&J managers and supervisors were based 50% on meeting their business goals, and 50% on how well they developed and promoted their people. Stanford had a diversity goal of “50/50 by 2020”. Both also emphasized that their efforts were a learning process. Carter told how at first, even the 50% people development goal wasn’t producing the desired results. After interviewing numerous managers, they realized that contrary to some stereotyped assumptions, the managers were not ‘racist’; they genuinely did not know how to address the racial issues in the workplace. Training was developed, managers and supervisors were trained, and lo and behold, they began to get the performance outcomes they had hoped for. They also were able to demonstrate to J&J as a whole, that addressing diversity was good business. A field trip to a large mid-western city revealed an untapped market for a medical product in the African American community that they were able to turn into a new line of business. Dr. Valentine had a slightly different story to tell. Stanford’s efforts to hire and promote diversity were hampered by what they termed the ‘unconscious bias’ of their search committees. So even though they included people of color in the interview pool, the final decision usually maintained the status quo. Their solution was to develop training that helped surface people’s ‘unconscious bias’, a key step in overcoming that bias in hiring decisions.
Hearing about these programs helped set the issues of D&I in their larger societal context: institutional racism exists everywhere; who is at the table and who isn’t is an endemic problem; and how do we create ‘safe’ spaces in which to have these conversations? It was heartening and hopeful to hear how progress was being made, and there was palpable excitement the following day when we heard from three theaters that have already made significant commitments to addressing these issues: The Oregon Shakespeare Festival; CENTERSTAGE; and The Public Theater. All three spoke of the importance of being ‘intentional’ and ‘proactive’; of leading from both the organizational AND the artistic sides; and of the criticality of leaders really leading. This latter seemed key in ‘holding the course’ because as with any significant change, there is always some resistance. And I loved it when OSF spoke of how they had even begun to view resistance as a sign of success. Addressing these issues will change how we think about a whole lot of things. As with J&J and Stanford, all three theaters spoke of the importance of specific goals (e.g. 40% plays by women; 45% actors of color, etc.), and of creating benchmarks. OSF emphasized that it took them a whole year to develop their ‘audience development manifesto’, and to create a D&I Planning Council structure to support their organization-wide effort. Clearly, this is not a quick fix or a ‘one shot and we’re done’ kind of undertaking. The Public Theater focused on ‘who is at the table’ and shared their concept of ‘radical access’, and CENTERSTAGE was clear about the centrality of full BOD support, and the importance of ensuring that their strategic plan embodied their D&I goals in every way.
A final piece of the forum was experiential – tables of eight, with a theater person as facilitator, discussed a series of questions related to D&I and worked to come to some consensus. The questions were designed to surface the many unspoken assumptions we make, and it gave us a little taste of one method we might use back home. Which of course raises the question of ‘What now – back home?’ Our ED, our Associate Artistic Director, and I all attended the Forum, and we will be meeting to prepare a suggested approach to present at our January all Boards meeting. I know that one of the challenges for each of us as we move forward on this issue will be how to chart a steady course and hold firmly to it. I think my definition of commitment will help me there – for me commitment is about staying the course even when it’s not convenient.
Joan Lancourt is an Executive Coach and organizational development consultant and the Board Chair of the Underground Railway Theater.