For theatre makers and theatre lovers around the world, the last year has been heartbreaking.
One highlight of my career as a theatre maker took place ten years ago in the Spring of 2011. Over the course of a couple months, I Assistant Directed “The Homecoming” and produced a Pinter Festival at A.C.T. in San Francisco, participated in the TS Eliot US/UK Exchange and directed “Lost Cause” at the Old Vic in London, and Assistant Directed “Company” at the NY Philharmonic, while also running the social media campaign for the filmed version’s release. (During tech for “The Homecoming,” I also flew cross country to New Haven for a final call back to Yale, returning to tech in San Francisco less than 24 hours later, because the line between hustle and masochism is often very thin.)
Every few years, I think back on this moment and why it made such a positive impact on my life. It wasn’t the whirlwind. The credits are not the point. It was the joy, the excitement, the growth, the education, the people. I am still so grateful for the amazing collaborators from this time.
Ten years later, in a season where live theatre was all but absent, I’ve found myself thinking a lot about its impending return. What will it look like? What stories will we tell? Will a long-awaited reckoning over systemic racism and abuses finally make it center stage, or be banished to the wings?
I’ve always believed that many of the issues facing the American theatre stem from a lack of government support. The Arts, in particular the theatre, are not seen as an essential service, nor as a harbinger of cultural vitality. In order to survive, about half of regional theatre’s operating costs have come from private donors (mostly white, rich, old – with tastes that follow), while theatre makers themselves usually come from upper/upper middle class backgrounds, or by necessity, have had to supplement their theatre work with alternative revenue streams. On top of that, the average Broadway musical ticket price of $125 does very little to negate the common perception that theatre is a luxury for the elite.
Over my lifetime in the theatre, I have seen, heard, and experienced some truly horrendous behavior from various industry leaders – real traumatizing stuff. I don’t believe in relegating protests to social media. I don’t believe in just changing the copy on your website either. The real change happens in real time, in contracts, in offices, in rehearsal rooms.
We’re all anxious for theatre to return. But I’m already seeing big-lettered declarations of DEI commitments placed at the top of major audition notices, right above, in a much smaller font, “There is no compensation for this show.”
Let’s decode this practice for a moment. What that actually means is, “We’re thrilled to make theatre again and profit off the hard work, labor and sweat equity of people of color.”
If your business model relies on a plethora of unpaid labor, in particular the unpaid labor of POC, I’m sorry, but you’re doing it wrong. Period. Full stop.
I’ve worked over the years with All Star Code, an organization that believes the way to empower people of color is through economic opportunity and the closing of the wealth gap. We may not close the wealth gap with theatre, but we can start by paying everyone – EVERYONE – for their work.
Look, making theatre is so hard. We all need jobs. Profit margins are slim and rare. No one’s doing it for the money. I’ll sing “What I Did For Love” for the rest of my life. But if you love it, if you truly love it, commit to making it better. Commit to actually making it diverse, equitable, and inclusive of ALL, for theatremakers and theatregoers alike.
To be clear, I’m not taking issue with any employee of a theatre or producer here. I do not conflate the responsibilities of the two. Accountability starts at the top. But what will it take? What will it take to eliminate these systems of abuse?
You can’t support #MeToo and then continue to work with known serial abusers.
You can’t support Black Lives Matter and then pay Black people $0 for their work.
These are not controversial statements. And we can’t afford to tip toe around them any longer.
Websites are meaningless without action.
Diversity is a checklist without equity.
Theatre is hollow without humanity.
“If you stand for nothing, Burr, what will you fall for?”
If we aim to be true advocates for our industry and each other, we mustn’t be afraid to speak up.
I look forward to all the real life conversations ahead. Now’s our chance. Let’s work together to build back a better American theatre. A theatre of integrity and safety. A theatre for all.