Theatre and art leaders commit to change

As the theatre season is reopening in the Berkshires, more than 30 arts and theatre organizations gathered with MCLA (in a virtual event) to talk with two nationally renowned theatre makers.

Dawn Meredith Simmons has worked with theaters across the country as a director, playwright, and she leads theater spaces in Massachusetts — she is co-artistic director of the New Exhibition Room in Boston and a founding member of the Small Theatre Alliance Boston, and Executive Director of StageSource.

And she is co-founder and artistic director of The Front Porch Arts Collective, a professional black theatre company taking root in Boston after almost a decade when the city had none. In the past four years they have told a wide range of stories. Sister Rosetta Sharpe playing early rock in 1940s Mississippi; a contemporary career woman returns home to Brooklyn to find bedrock in her life …

Nicole Brewer is anti-racist theatre advocate, author, and board member of Parent Artist Advocacy League. She and Simmons sat down with local theaters to talk about a conversation that has stretched across the past six months — A culture is being built around anti-racist work to transform the arts and theatre Berkshire community.

In January, a group of theaters and creative places in the Berkshires came together with the Berkshire equity and justice organization Multicultural Bridge, wanting to make measurable change. They formed the 2021 Inclusive Leadership Cohort to talk about what meaningful work looks like and give support for it.

The group first came together in response to a testimonial from theater makers across the country. As civil unrest grew in 2020, 300 or more Black, Indigenous and People of Color in theater drafted and signed an open letter, “Dear White American Theater,” calling for attention and action for the injustices they experience every day in their industry.

We see you,” they write. “We have always seen you. We have watched you pretend not to see us.

The ILC are using the We See You White American Theater statement as a guide. In MCLA’s virtual room on a summer afternoon, they had a chance to share their experiences and invite others to join them in the accountability work that has come out of the growing national movement.

“We are focusing on the movement-building of anti-racist work,” said Gwendolyn VanSant, CEO and Founding Director of BRIDGE.

‘We are focusing on the movement-building of anti-racist work.’ — Gwendolyn VanSant

The We See You White American Theatre statement outlined what BIPOC theatremakers have witnessed and experienced.

We have watched you program play after play written, directed, cast, choreographed, designed, acted, dramaturged and produced by your rosters of white theatermakers for white audiences, while relegating a token, if any, slot for a BIPOC play. …”

And programming is only a beginning. The statement calls attention to direct harm experienced BIPOC actors, makers and staff experience, as they see theatre organizations challenge their decisions, ignore their work and communities and take up their resources — “We have watched you… co-opt and annex our work, our scholars, our talent and our funding,” they write.

Gwendolyn VanSant, chief executive officer and founding director of Multicultural Bridge, teaches and consults on diversity and equity.
Gwendolyn Hampton VanSant

Gwendolyn Hampton VanSant, chief executive officer and founding director of Multicultural Bridge, teaches and consults on diversity and equity.

As a way to change these patterns, they have created a living document of actions to build a stronger, more open, more imaginative theater world. They call for trainings and anti-racism in working conditions and hiring, a larger BIPOC presence in making new theater work, accountability for theater boards, funding for BIPOC theatre organizations, protection and unions for staff, accountability within the press, and academic and professional training programs.

We See You WAT makes clear in their document, “Claiming you do ‘EDI work’ is not enough.”

In Berkshire County, VanSant has been working with some theatre and arts organizations for several years, bringing anti-racist work into their structures and programming. Several reached out to her for help in reaching a more diverse audience, she said, and she began a conversation with them about how to make sure people would feel comfortable if they came to a performance or an event.

“You need to set the table before you invite people in,” VanSant said.

‘You need to set the table before you invite people in.’ — Gwendolyn VanSant

But the We See You WAT collective has acted as a catalyst for change. The ILC grew out of an earlier collaboration between BRIDGE with MCLA, VanSant explained. When MCLA opened the new Institute for the Arts and Humanities in 2019, funded by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, they made it a goal to build networks in the creative community and curate programs for anti-racist work.

VanSant and BRIDGE partnered with Erica Barreto and Lisa Donovan, coordinator and director of MCLA’s IAH, and IAH and BRIDGE have extended their work across the Berkshires, with support from the Berkshire Taconic Community Foundation’s Creative Commonwealth Initiative.

In January of 2021, that work grew into the ILC, it has supported 30 arts organizations and 60 teams to meet regularly over the last six months and think through diversity and equity in short-term and long-term strategies.

In the Berkshires, in majority white theatre and arts organizations in a close to 90 percent white county, anti-racist work can meet many speed bumps, as many people at the MCLA talk agreed. Powerful non-profit organizations and higher education institutes are working together, they said, to build a culture and structure of this work, and some Berkshire organizations are seeing progress.

“We are building trust, so no one feels like they are on an island, trying to figure out Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (DIE) work by themselves,” VanSant said.

‘We are building trust, so no one feels like they are on an island, trying to figure out Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (DIE) work by themselves.’ — Gwendolyn VanSant.

For Van Sant, Barreto and Donovan, building off each other’s work is essential to amplify and heighten progress of anti-racist programs across the county — and bringing together a larger group of organizations is also key.ILC aims to create a network of leaders across the Berkshire’s arts community who are committed and accountable to address injustices for communities of color and other underrepresented people.

“We need to create safety in the community to share and create this work,” VanSant said, “We need to build more of an ability to have dialogues about anti-racism in the community.”

“Often there is a lot of great work, but it has been siloed,” Donovan agreed. “It is essential that we connect the dots to all of the cultural assets, everyone on (the MCLA) campus, and the work that is happening regionally and the change that needs to happen … There are many different components and parts across different organizations, but that is what it takes to really create change.”

Erica Barreto, Coordinator for MCLA's Institute for the Arts and Humanities.
Courtesy of MCLA

Erica Barreto, Coordinator for MCLA's Institute for the Arts and Humanities.

In the past, she said, work has often happened only in one town or area within the arts, and strength and progress depend on connecting organizations and creating a larger Berkshire culture of anti-racist thought.

As the ILC continues meeting weekly, VanSant guides the conversations along with Aseante Renee, principal and owner of The Axon Group consulting firm. Renee serves on the BRIDGE team for facilitation and strategic partnership.

BRIDGE offered support for leaders who want to make concrete changes in their organizations. These changes look different for each organization, VanSant said. Each place and person may be at different stages in the work, but they are imagining together a Berkshire County that does not push anti-racism work to the side, but sets it at the center.

Since its start in 2007, BRIDGE has developed strategies for sustaining change, VanSant said: tools for awareness, equity and access. These values translate into teaching leaders, influencing culture change within organizations and putting work into action.

As the ILC presented their first six months of work at MCLA’s IAH summer symposium, the whole virtual room became “Accountability Buddies.” In the panel conversation with MCLA, they gathered to share their progress and next steps, and VanSant asked the audience to consider their own place in the story of anti-racism.

MaConnia Chesser and Jasmine Cheri Rush rehearse in King Lear. Photo courtesy of Shakespeare & Company.
Photo by Katie McKellick

MaConnia Chesser and Jasmine Cheri Rush rehearse in King Lear. Photo courtesy of Shakespeare & Company.

The presenters shared thoughts on how Berkshire culture must work to nurture BIPOC artists and support them within the theatre and art community. Many people have been afraid of addressing racism because they were afraid to lose their jobs, the presenters explained, and they underscored that organizations could make active changes by taking part in thorough anti-racist work.

Simmons and Brewer shared their perspectives on the wider theater world. Simmons has led the Front Porch Arts Collective in their commitment to employ and promote artists of color, and to reject cultural segregation of the arts.

She has worked with theaters across the country as a director, playwright, and she leads theater spaces in Massachusetts — she is co-artistic director of the New Exhibition Room in Boston and a founding member of the Small Theatre Alliance Boston, and Executive Director of StageSource.

It is not enough, she said, to “actively listen” as a form of anti-racist work: “Just listening allows for a level of removal rather than action and putting things into practice.”

She talked about the challenges of “calling out and calling in” — calling in means to talk with someone privately about acts that harms people, like a hurtful or insensitive comment, and ways to change, and calling out means to talk publicly. Calling out and calling in are a powerful tool for positive change, she said, and not an attack in any form.

“If someone calls you in, it is a gift before someone calls you out in public,” she said. “It is like saying someone has spinach in their teeth.”

‘If someone calls you in, it is a gift before someone calls you out in public — it is like saying someone has spinach in their teeth.’ — Dawn Simmonds

The currents in an environment can be powerful and subtle at the same time, the ILC suggests, and learning to recognize them gives tools to change them. Working well with people of diverse beliefs, behaviors and backgrounds is a skill, the ILC affirms — they call that skill cultural competency.

Community leaders’ Cultural Competency can have a strong effect, the ILC underlines, as they make decisions in theatre and arts spaces that shape the experience of staff and artists and audiences. Directors and boards need to see and understand the importance of the work, VanSant said — “It needs to be clear that DIE work is a business imperative.”

So training encompasses leaders, boards and all staff. She has developed programs for bystander intervention and tools to resolve conflicts.

“Setting the table” means doing the work to make people feel comfortable — and it means that when someone suffers harm, the organization pays attention and acts to support them.

Cultural Competency is especially important when white-led organizations present work by or about communities of color, VanSant said. She worked with Kristen van Ginhoven of WAM theatre in Lenox to ‘set the table’ in 2019, in which BRIDGE and WAM collaborated to ensure the cast of Pipeline, a play by Dominique Morisseau, was treated with respect, welcomed and supported in the WAM environment.

She also guides the ILC in dealing with their own mistakes, within their conversation. Mistakes are expected and important learning opportunities, she said. As she guides discussions, she has felt that it was not infrequent for something to occur to disrupt the safety of a space, and when that happened, the group needed to pause.

“Micro-aggressions necessitate a pause,” she said.

For her, these pauses can lead into conversations with a person who may have make a mistake, increasing their understanding and affirming people who have felt friction.

Many of the theater professionals in the ILC conversations are white, as their organizations are, and VanSant and her team have created a framework that relies on accountability in all spaces, with individual sessions where an individual can learn and address both their mistakes and successes.

Alexandria Danielle King appears as Nya and Hubens 'Bobby' Cius as her son, Omari, in WAM Theatre's production of Dominique Morisseau's Pipeline, directed by Dawn M. Simmons. Photo by Nina Groom, courtesy of WAM
WAM Theatre

Alexandria Danielle King appears as Nya and Hubens 'Bobby' Cius as her son, Omari, in WAM Theatre's production of Dominique Morisseau's Pipeline, directed by Dawn M. Simmons. Photo by Nina Groom, courtesy of WAM

The ILC has talked about damaging moments and patterns in Berkshire County — and the challenges people often face in sharing difficult experiences. Tools have emerged in the past year to give people spaces to speak honestly and safely — VanSant spoke of the Change Berkshire Culture Instagram, where people working at creative places can speak anonymously about their own experiences and trace larger inequities in the area. She has brought general themes from Instagram into ILC conversations, she said, to spur conversation and offer a range of perspectives.

The Instagram page itself features posts that raise problems of health and safety violations, HR problems such as immediate dismissals and ineffective avenues for support, disruptive compensation practices, lack of care for BIPOC artists and lack of representation, overt discrimination, microaggressions and stereotyping that the writers feel have gone unaddressed.

Changes to correct harmful patterns like these do not happen over a week with one or two workshops, VanSant said. In her experience, working with many Berkshire organizations, culture change work takes at least three to five years.

“When you’re trying to repair relationships and harm that was done, that takes time,” she said. “… We are building the muscles to do the right work.”

‘… We are building the muscles to do the right work.’ — Gwendolyn VanSant

It takes time, she said. For the organizations in the ILC cohort, the representatives have committed to eight hours a month for their group work.

“Although it is a slow burn, I have seen major changes,” VanSant said. “These changes appear in improved programming and partnerships.”

The pandemic has brought both challenges and opportunities for anti-racist work in these organizations to grow and evolve, she said. Some places felt they had to pause on DEI work during the pandemic, but she has found that the pandemic is an essential moment to concentrate as Covid has often affected minority communities more than white communities.

“When there wasn’t that show to put on, or that rehearsal to run, there was time to focus on this work,” VanSant said.

The cast of Shakespeare & Company's King Lear rehearse for July's performances.
Shakespeare & Company

The cast of Shakespeare & Company's King Lear rehearse for July's performances.

Many ILC organizations have made visible commitments to DIE work that have grown over the pandemic. As each organization made organization specific changes, ILC created accountability buddies to support each other and a timeline to ensure accountability and keep the work moving.

“Milestones are really important,” VanSant said.

They focus on direct actions, step by step. The cohort began with a 100-question survey, focusing on a detailed look at each organizations’ practices and relationships, within the organization and in the community — how they look at salaries and benefits, how they choose organizations to work with, and what artists they support.

Kristen van Ginhoven of WAM Theatre and Adam Davis of Shakespeare & Company spoke of their desire to take action and responsibility for their own personal anti-racist commitments, as well as the work of their organizations. For Shakespeare & Company these changes, prominent on the front page of their website, include funds for an in-depth look into the company’s environment, a commitment to building a more diverse board, and training for all staff and volunteers.

The conversation touched on the problems and stagnancy that are present in anti-racist work. They identified a kind of fear among many white people, or a kind of “unimagination” that something can look or work differently. The cohort will evolve with new organizations each year as they imagine and work towards a better Berkshire culture.

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