A Whole New Ballgame in Arts Hiring
Sunday, November 3, 2013
By Lily Janiak
In 2003, the NFL was facing a problem in hiring not dissimilar to the one theatres are confronting today: its leadership didn't look like the rest of its employees. That year, 70% of players were black, but only 6% of head coaches were. In fact, in the course of the NFL's history up to that point, only seven head coaches of color had ever been hired.
Those numbers meant that the problem wasn't a pipeline issue, i.e., that there weren't enough qualified candidates of color to interview for those positions. The problem, rather, was a glass ceiling issue, meaning bias was preventing qualified candidates from advancing.
That year, Dan Rooney, chairman of the Pittsburgh Steelers, after studying the problem, persuaded the NFL to create the rule that was eventually named for him. The Rooney Rule mandates that, when interviewing for general manager (where diversity statistics are similarly dismal) or head coach positions, teams must interview—just talk to, not necessarily hire—an applicant of color. The idea behind the rule was to force those who made hiring decisions to expand their networks. Even if they didn't hire an applicant of color upon meeting him (in the NFL, it's almost always a 'him'), they might meet a superb candidate they otherwise wouldn't have and hire him the next time around or recommend him to someone else. This idea that simply meeting someone outside your circle might indirectly lead to their hire sounds vague and overly optimistic, but in the first few years after the Rooney Rule's creation, the NFL saw major improvement in its numbers: coaches were 22% of color by 2006, which was perceived as a huge success of the rule. In recent years, however, the number of coaches of color has declined to 12.5%. In 2012, there were a total of 15 open head coach and general manager positions in the NFL, and no applicants of color were hired.
In the theatre world, the discrepancy between leadership and lower-level staff is not so great; outside the few remaining ethnic-specific theatres, few companies can boast a staff with a majority of members of color. Yet at the lower levels, theatre staffs are slowly evolving. At American Conservatory Theater, for example, 28% of full-time employees are now of color. Part of this change comes from a shift in priorities at graduate schools, a key part of the theatre industry pipeline. At Yale Drama School, for instance, 40% of this year's incoming class is of color. That's compared with 29% for all three current classes, 21.7% for all three in 2005, 13.6% in 1995 and 8.6% in 1985.
Yet at the leadership level—artistic directors, producing artistic directors, executive directors and managing directors—change is stubborn.
It's difficult to even track change in hiring, as the theatre industry does not collect data on itself in the same way that the world of professional football does. The closest we get to the NFL (and it's not very close at all) is the League of Resident Theatres, which has 74 members—a paltry fraction of the field, even if that number comprises some of the most influential companies. While LORT, according to its president Timothy Shields of the McCarter Theatre, does not get information on its members, most, though not all, LORT theatres have two leaders, putting estimates at the number of LORT leaders from 150 to 170. Joseph Haj, producing artistic director of Playmakers Repertory Company, a LORT theatre, says that by his count, of that number, there are only six LORT leaders of color—approximately 4% of the total. Interestingly, all those leaders are artistic directors or producing artistic directors; none are on the managerial side. The probable cause for this discrepancy is that, while there are no positions like artistic directors outside of the arts world, there are plenty of analogues to managing directors, and they make much more money than anyone in the arts does.
If getting data on hiring is difficult, getting data on interviewing, which is necessarily secretive, is nearly impossible. But the anecdotal evidence alone is dispiriting. Ralph Remington, director for theatre and musical theatre at the National Endowment for the Arts, says, "The comments that I've gotten frequently are that there may be people of color in the 12- to 15-person pool that [a company] originally puts together, but if you get down to the final three, it's only white people in the room." This creates a vicious cycle, says Paul Nicholson, executive director emeritus of Oregon Shakespeare Festival. "Interviewing is a skill you have to exercise," he says. "If you're not accustomed to it, you're not going to develop those skills."
National Endowment for the Arts director for theatre and
musical theatre Ralph Remington. Photo: Lisa Miller
The impetus to diversify leadership comes from a widely held belief that who's in charge of a company affects the kind of programming it produces, which in turn affects the kinds of audiences it draws. As our country's demographics change rapidly, theatres must evolve in tandem for moral, artistic and economic reasons. It's unjust, the thinking goes—to by choice or by default—ignore with your programming the huge groups that already are or are quickly becoming the majority of many communities. Such a choice is also less artistically interesting; it restricts theatres to a narrow—and frankly, already quite well explored—slice of human experience. But finally (and this is the reason that theatres can most easily understand) it leaves untapped a vast income source in the form of potential ticket buyers. As Remington says, "We see by our own data that the field is very white, as far as who goes and why, but we also know if [theatres] program with certain communities in mind, they start to attract audiences they previously hadn't."
"If you want to look at it as a moral issue or an ethical issue," Remington continues, "there are arguments on both sides of the fence, but I don't think anybody can argue with the fact that theatres need more dollars and cents." Simply put, diversifying staff "is about not leaving money on the table." For Mica Cole, associate producer at OSF, to leave diversity out of your institution's planning is tantamount to signing your own death sentence. "If you're not tackling this issue," she says, "you're not thinking strategically about how your institution will remain relevant going forward."
Oregon Shakespeare Festival associate producer Mica Cole.
Photo: Jenny Graham
The good news is that the theatre industry is starting to talk about this problem more. Both LORT and Theatre Communications Group, a service organization for a much larger group of theatres nationwide, are working on other initiatives aimed at diversifying the industry's leadership. LORT has created a diversity task force, which is chaired by Jennifer Bielstein, the managing director for Actors Theatre of Louisville; that group is slated to release a major report in mid-October with "actionable ideas" in the areas of hiring, membership and recruitment to recommend to its members. TCG is already well into its own strategic plan regarding diversity, according to Teresa Eyring, its executive director. The organization's six-point initiative includes researching, writing a literature review, recording videos of legacy leaders, working with culturally specific theatres, and developing its Young Leaders of Color program and its Diversity and Inclusion Institute.
One of the proposals that have come out of the conversations about hiring in TCG, LORT and elsewhere is to create a version of the Rooney Rule for the theatre world. In contrast to a sweeping strategic plan, such a rule has obvious appeal. It's easy to understand; it imposes no direct monetary costs; it requires swift and meaningful action; and it worked in another industry (at least initially).
But what that theatre-specific rule might look like—and indeed, whether such a rule would be a good idea—is a subject of heated debate. I interviewed 15 leaders in different areas of the theatre world about the industry's hiring problem, and the only thing they agreed on was precisely that: that there is a problem. The Rooney Rule might be a very small piece of the discussion about racial equity in theatre, but it's a useful frame for a difficult discussion because it provokes strong visceral reactions and forces candor in a way that a more elaborate solution might not.
One of the first questions to tackle when considering a Rooney Rule is exactly which groups such a rule might cover. This alone incites much disagreement. In particular, some are adamant that these discussions include women, who are also poorly represented at the highest levels of theatre leadership. According to Haj—again, these are by his count, not LORT's—"Across the LORT landscape, women make up 50% or more of intern staff, part-time staff, full-time staff and senior staff. When you get to leadership positions, that number plunges to 21%, and that number hasn't budged in a quarter century."
Although these statistics show that homogeneity in theatre leadership is not limited to race, neither TCG nor LORT is initially focusing on gender in its diversification projects. While both recognize that this metric is also important, Bielstein says, of LORT, "We believe that as a membership group we can't tackle every issue simultaneously," and Eyring, of TCG, says, "We define diversity broadly, and over very short periods of time, we're going to focus on different aspects."
For Carey Perloff and Ellen Richard, artistic director and executive director (respectively) of ACT, a conversation about diversifying leadership that excludes women is symptomatic of a "wait your turn" mentality. "The fact that gender seems to be the afterthought is disappointing to us," says Perloff. "I don't understand why women are a sidebar." Susan Medak, managing director of Berkeley Repertory Theatre, thinks something like the Rooney Rule might actually work better for women than for people of color because the numbers for women in theatre more closely mirror those for people of color in the NFL, where the rule made a difference. "We have a very high percentage (over 50%, I believe) of women in mid-level positions in our organizations (general managers, marketing directors, development directors, controllers), but only a fraction of them in the top executive positions," she writes in an email. "I suspect they are not being considered for top-level positions. A requirement that female candidates be seen as part of a search might give some of these capable women a chance to be seen in a new light."
American Conservatory Theater artistic director Carey Perloff.
Photo: Kevin Berne
Remington points out that what the word "woman" connotes might be part of the problem: "When people say 'woman,' sometimes it feels like they mean a white woman," he says. "I think [the Rooney Rule] is meant to address people of color, but I don't think that's exclusive of women." For him (and he is careful to say that neither he nor the NEA advocates the Rooney Rule, just that he encourages conversation), that applies to other marginalized communities as well, including LGBT theatre-makers and those with disabilities.
The theatre world, Perloff feels, is in general very selective about which numbers it cares about, paying little, if any, attention to the numbers on, say, stage managers or designers. Perhaps an equally crucial issue, Perloff suggests, is the socioeconomic class of those entering the theatre field. "I know who can afford to be an intern," she says, "and until we address this as a field, class is going to mitigate against diversity."
Perloff does acknowledge that, for different groups, "I certainly understand that the issues are different." Still, she continues, "in some ways they're the same."
The degree to which there's commonality among different marginalized groups is a complex, richly debated topic that extends far beyond the Rooney Rule. Jonathan Moscone, artistic director of California Shakespeare Theater, argues that we haven't even found the language to talk about this yet. "There's a lot of disagreement that there are different levels of oppression. Everyone has a different story to tell if they are not privileged. If you're talking to a woman or you're talking to a person of color, [oppression] has different meanings and has different levels of meaning and depth. In the American theatre, we are going under some really false assumptions that we have a shared understanding—forget that; we don't have a shared language. What I've been learning is that if language is not parsed out and really understood in the historical context outside the theatre—this is about things that are bigger than us in the theatre world—it all comes under the heading of 'I'm oppressed.' 'I'm oppressed.' 'Well, I'm oppressed.' In some ways TCG has its work cut out for it in going beyond the conversation of our careers as theatre artists." Moscone's comment encapsulates both one of the Rooney Rule's main advantages and one of its chief limitations. If the industry were to have a Rooney Rule for one underrepresented group, it would be relatively easy to make it also apply to another underrepresented group. But it's a blunt instrument; in itself, it does not write a new language for us to have these difficult discussions. Eyring takes comfort in the fact that the language already has changed. "It's not like this is the language right now, and this is how it's going to be forever," she says. "There are ways of talking about people that were comfortable 10 years ago but aren't any more."
California Shakespeare Theater artistic director Jonathan
Moscone. Photo: Jay Yamada
Another question the Rooney Rule brings up is what's causing the problem in hiring, and the answer is both simple—bias—and complex—the myriad ways that bias manifests itself. High schools and colleges might not be exposing young people of color to the arts in a way that lets them know they can have a career there. Theatres might not be doing the kind of work that gets young people of color excited enough to sacrifice a more lucrative career elsewhere. In the hiring process, candidates might not have the networks to meet people even if they have the skills. Boards might not know the field from which they're hiring—and if they do, they might know only their own, limited circles, and search firms might not always press them to expand their networks. There's also the tendency, as Moscone puts it, to "put people of color in positions where you think they should be"—i.e., as community builders rather than decision makers. And even if candidates of color get hired, institutional racism often makes those companies too hostile to sustain the new hire or hire more people of color. Finally, the current numbers prove their own obstacle, says Nicholson. "If I were a person of color," he says, "and I looked around the field and I saw that no one who looks like me is in a senior management level, that's a message. That's a very clear message."
Oregon Shakespeare Festival executive director emeritus
Paul Nicholson. Photo: Jenny Graham
An imperfect but nonetheless useful way to break that down is to ask to what extent the problem is a pipeline issue and to what extent it's a glass ceiling issue. It's telling that interviewees' opinions varied wildly on this. While everyone thought a glass ceiling played at least some part, the role of the pipeline was a matter of debate, especially farther along in the pipeline. None of my interviewees, for instance, contested the idea that more outreach needs to be done at the grade school level in order to bring people into the theatre who might not make it their on their own, to seed the idea that the theatre is a place where you can have a career. More divisive was how well we're developing people who have already committed to a career in theatre by majoring in it in college or studying it in graduate school: to what extent is the problem that their resumes aren't as strong as those of their white counterparts (which is also caused by bias, but earlier in a career), and to what extent is the problem that candidates of color actually are as strong as their counterparts, but that those in power can't or won't see it that way?
Haj is among those who say that the pipeline is full. "There are and have been for many years many pipeline programs," he says—for example, TCG's Young Leaders of Color program. "From my perspective," he continues, "if we look at the outcomes, those pipelines aren't doing the things that they're supposed to do, which is point people toward the leadership positions in those organizations, so for me it's a glass ceiling issue as much as a pipeline issue." For James Bundy, dean of the Yale School of Drama and artistic director of Yale Repertory Theatre, calling the problem a pipeline issue is deeply problematic. "People are inclined—in my view, in an oversimplified way—to frame this as a pipeline issue as though they aren't responsible for the pipeline," he says. "Why aren't LORT theatres saying, 'We are the pipeline, and we are going to open the spigot at the top as well as widen the opening at the other end'?"
For her part, Medak points out that it's only recently that the pipeline became less of an issue. "What has been so terribly frustrating in this field is how few people we've been able to attract into the pipeline until the last few years," she says. "I think there are many reasons for that, and things are finally, thankfully, changing." While she doesn't come out and say so directly, she implies that it makes sense that there would be a gap between when members of a disadvantaged group start applying for leadership positions in meaningful numbers and when they get hired for those positions in meaningful numbers: "Now that we've got more people of color working within our organizations, I am much more optimistic that we are going to see people of color in major leadership positions within our organizations over the next five years."
Berkeley Repertory Theatre managing director Susan Medak.
Photo: Lisa Keating
If Medak is slightly more critical of the pipeline than some of her peers are, she also takes ownership of it. Because, she says, Berkeley Rep likes to hire internally, "I realized, about eight years ago, that if we were going to change the color of our staff, our best bet was to train more candidates of color through our fellowships. So we began aggressively recruiting for our fellowship program, first by visiting historically black colleges and universities and then by recruiting throughout the California schools that had large populations of students of color. Our goal was to make students aware of theatre as a career option (a new idea to many of those with whom we spoke), to help them understand what they would need to do during their college careers to make themselves competitive candidates for our program and then to encourage them to apply to the program. Over time, we also met with faculty from those programs and career counselors. Since we began recruiting, we've seen a rise in the number of fellows of color, some directly attributable to our efforts and some, I think, due to changes in the external environment. The good news is that we have, indeed, hired some of those fellows to full-time and seasonal overhire positions. Others have gone on to work in other theatres."
The question of whether the problem in hiring is a pipeline issue or a glass ceiling issue leads to the question of what forms that glass ceiling—i.e., what requirements companies are using to set the bar. I spoke to one individual with deep knowledge of the arts executive search industry, whom I'll call Taylor (and who wished to remain anonymous to protect his/her place of business); Taylor has noticed that theatres have an easier time being flexible with their job requirements when it comes to artistic director positions. "If the work is good and the person can communicate, has passion, has vision, can speak openly with staff—there, black, white or purple doesn't seem to matter as much," Taylor says. But for managing director positions, especially at the companies whose annual budgets are $5 million and up, hiring companies are looking for a much more specific quality: a clear path through the field that has included management. For Taylor, if that's limiting, it's also prudent: "From a fiduciary point of view, they're hiring someone they know can do it."
Many express frustration that requirements for many jobs are unclear and arbitrary. Moscone says the "‘qualifications' based on shared assumptions of what makes a good artistic director" need to be interrogated. "If we look at people's resumes, we see inequities in opportunity," he continues. "We need better leaders, and we're asking sometimes the wrong questions." As an example, he offers the standard requirement that artistic directors have fundraising experience. That's something "a board should be doing," he says, not necessarily the artistic director. Additionally, boards might be limited in what they consider legitimate fundraising experience. As Moscone puts it, what's really valuable in fundraising is "building communities"; how do you document that kind of skill? Bundy notes that in addition to being arbitrary, job requirements seem to be flexible for some but not for others. "People are regularly hired as associate artistic directors, or even artistic directors of midsize theatres, who haven't been administrators before. So the question of what is the prerequisite is a completely moving target. It's what a board decides to do at any given time." Haj is even more blunt. For him, the hiring problem "has something to do with our wildly overdeveloped sense of how difficult our jobs are. We have a black man as president. You're telling me there's no person of color out there who can run your little $10-million-a-year theatre?" Brad Erickson, executive director of Theatre Bay Area (who wrote a separate essay in passionate support of a Rooney Rule for theatre in our September/October issue), argues that the consequences of reevaluating job requirements needn't be so great, especially when there are other values to uphold. "Maybe you take a gamble on someone whose credentials don't perfectly line up, but I don't think asking someone to take your second choice is going to negatively impact your organization."
A Rooney Rule poses still another set of questions: If it were created, would it be better to unite as a nationwide theatre community and have a single set of policies, or would it be better to have regionally specific rules, the better to take into account the fact that different areas of the country have different sets of hiring problems? Then, at either of those levels, how and by whom would the rule be enforced? Unlike the NFL, which has a great deal of control over its member teams, the theatre world has no obvious enforcement mechanism. That doesn't stop Haj from envisioning that LORT could take that role. He says, "I'm in favor of a bylaw change at LORT that actually states that as a condition of membership that when there's an artistic director or executive director change, you must see a person of color. If it's not a rule, if it's not something that's required, I wonder if folks would actually do it. If it's only a matter of people having their heart in the right place, we would have done this a long time ago."
Cole of Oregon Shakespeare Festival also believes that a Rooney Rule in the theatre world should have teeth, but for her the emphasis placed on LORT, both as a funder and as a laboratory for change, is misplaced. "It's funny how much we focus on LORT to set precedents in our field," she says. "I just find it very narrow-minded. The majority of theatres in our country are not LORT theatres. The majority of theatres in TCG are not LORT theatres. This issue is field-wide, and if we wait for LORT to make it happen, it's not going to happen." For her, a LORT-specific Rooney Rule would both fail to hold too many theatres accountable and actually miss a great opportunity. "Small to midsize theatres can become the model because they're more nimble, more flexible," she says. "They can adapt to the changing times more quickly without having to go through these huge institutional processes—a diversity plan that's going to unfold over 10 years."
Instead, Cole wants the funding community to enforce the rule. "I know plenty of people who will be very upset hearing that from me," she says. "There are boundaries we set with funders; we don't want them coming in to tell us how to run our businesses." Still, because progress is taking so long—a Rooney Rule is "20 years overdue," she says—"I think [the rule] should be implemented from the philanthropic community. We hear funders talk quite a bit about the need to diversify the field. Until we have some accountability from the funding community, we won't make progress."
The funding community, not surprisingly, takes the opposite view about enforcing a Rooney Rule. Tommer Peterson, deputy director of Grantmakers in the Arts, says, "Looking at the funding community as enforcers or as carrot or bait is a problem. If you're looking at trying to initiate systemic change within an institution, it's not going to work if the impetus is external. It's treating the symptom, not the cause. Funders have tried to do that in audiences or boards, and theatres have responded with short-term fixes but haven't really changed the organization. They're very temporary and superficial measures." Worse, says Justin Laing, program officer of Heinz Endowments, is that if enforcement weren't in the right spirit, "you could get African American folks in settings where the interview is a bad experience or the job is a bad experience." He says this even as he concedes, "I surely benefitted from my organization here having a value to make sure they have black applicants."
But funders can help, Laing says, just in a different way, perhaps by "expanding your notion of what the canon is" or "helping first-voice organizations"—those that are created and run by oppressed groups—"as well as helping predominantly white organizations be more reflective of their communities." These other solutions come from a larger question that Laing believes funders should ask about diversity: "Who does our foundation primarily benefit, and what is the foundation's philosophy about who benefits?" Peterson believes funders should use their resources to help theatres ask similar questions of themselves, to help uncover institutional racism. "What funders might do," he says, "if they're really interested in seeing [a broad change in leadership], is support theatres in doing this kind of examination to give them the tools to address this internally. Anything that encourages funders to be directive about grantees' activities is not as good a thing. Let the organizations do what they're good at, and don't try to manage them."
Most others took a more moderate view. Nicholson, of Oregon Shakespeare Festival, says that a strong statement might in and of itself have some teeth; he also favors considering a phased Rooney Rule, one that would require more and more action on the part of theatres over time. "TCG and the NEA and Duke and the other major funding organizations could say—this would have to be the first step—before you can consider having funding from our organizations, you must have someone of color in your interview pools." Actually stating that you require those organizations to include applicants of color in first-round interviews, he believes, could be a second step. For him, the chief virtue of the Rooney Rule wouldn't be that it would immediately ensure many new hires of color; there isn't enough turnover in the industry for the rule to make that sort of difference swiftly. The benefit, rather, is "drawing attention to the issue and creating a venue for discussion."
For Perloff and Richard, an enforcement mechanism like the ones Haj and Cole describe might have the opposite effect than the one intended. "Shunning makes people defensive," Perloff says. "What happens when people get punished? They shut up." Richard adds, "Or they leave the community." The Rooney Rule, many emphasize, is not a good in itself. It's a means, not an end, and if it were to be implemented and it weren't creating the world we wanted to see, we would have to adapt it or try something else.
Many thus feel a Rooney Rule would serve the theatre best as a recommended best practice.
The Rooney Rule, after all, is not without its problems. The fact that in the NFL, it only made a difference in the first few years after its implementation makes some think it would have a limited application in theatre. "It really helps in the beginning," says Perloff. "It raises consciousness, and it identifies candidates who should have been interviewed all along. But then it levels off." At that point, the thinking goes, the industry would have to reevaluate its strategy.
Further, in the NFL, the rule led to complaints of tokenism. Especially at first, interviewees could tell they were being considered only because of their skin color. Even the rule's ardent supporters in the theatre world acknowledge that some initial tension would be unavoidable. "It's going to feel weird," says Moscone. "But if we don't do this, we'll never know how to do it. There are a hundred reasons to run from things like this. If we didn't see it working in another field that has a lot more money at stake than we do, I could understand the free-floating anxiety." For Taylor, the best way to tackle the tokenism in the executive search process is to be explicit about it: "If [a Rooney Rule] is not done without a lot of other education, training and adjusting ways of thinking, it'll become a lot of courtesy interviews, which can be incredibly demeaning. [Applicants of color] hate that more than being rejected. They feel like they were used, like there was never an attempt to engage them." Taylor says search firms shouldn't hide the fact that an interview is a courtesy interview, instead saying something like, "We have a client that is open to the conversation, to be surprised and delighted by you." If that sounds condescending, Taylor says, it's also candid. "We have found that's helped. We've been told by a number of people of color that they appreciate it being framed that way, given the world we live in."
Medak feels that a rule would solve nothing at best and perhaps prematurely relieve anxiety at worst. "I think the Rooney Rule in the theatre would be window dressing," she writes. "It would make us all feel good but would not address the dearth of skilled managers of color." For her, to address that dearth, "we need two-year fellowships specifically to ready mid-level managers for top leadership positions. We need to be able to give people a chance to interact with board members and donors, to operate within the highest levels of our organizations, to burnish resumes so that they are candidates of choice and not candidates by virtue of color. Or as I prefer to say, I want to train candidates who are inevitabilities." While no one else whom I interviewed so strongly opposed the Rooney Rule, others recognized the danger of rhetorical band-aids. "We do this so often in the theatre world," says Perloff. "We say, ‘Oh, let's make a rule.'"
For Bundy, however, Medak's reasoning is "unfathomably procrustean." Saying that we shouldn't create a rule because it might make us self-satisfied "is like saying we shouldn't have equal opportunity voting laws because we might not enforce them," he says. "It's inconceivable to me that there is any significant cost or risk to implementing best hiring practices that engender diversity in the pool of applicants in leadership in American theatre."
For many, the potential problems Medak outlines are small compared to the rule's potential benefits. And it's telling that in the NFL, rather than scrapping the rule entirely for failing to fix all of the industry's problems, the league is considering extending it to mid-level managers (though no official plans have been announced yet).
Because there's no concrete cost to the rule, Haj sought other explanations for why so many were opposed to it. "I've been thinking about this and working on this for some time," he says. "The response has been so strongly opposed from some quarters. My takeaway is that I think there are people who have been in the game for a long, long, long time, managing directors and artistic directors who have been fighting the fight on diversity and inclusion in meaningful ways for many years. The Rooney Rule on some level suggests to them that they have not done their job. Why wouldn't it seem a good and necessary next step? It's not because people don't care. I think it's the opposite. I think this feels [like] they have failed."
Another possible part of the resistance that none of my interviewees mentioned but that I can't help but think is significant is the fact that, if you're white, it's impossible to talk about the Rooney Rule and not feel that you're part of the problem—not just in that your diversity efforts have failed but in the very fact of your own job. The Rooney Rule makes diversity about data, and it makes concrete what a company must do to correct its failings, but it also transforms the problem of homogeneity in leadership from an abstract mass of white people into a concrete group. With the Rooney Rule, every single decision to hire or interview a white person and not a person of color matters—including the decision, however long ago, that got you your own job. The very act of writing about the Rooney Rule for this article has heightened my skepticism about how much my own privilege, as a white person and in other ways, has advantaged me in my own professional life (though I am no leader), which means my successes are not, as I'd prefer to think, born solely of talent and skill. It's hard not to get defensive about that. But in my moments of self-justification, I try to tell myself that what I'm feeling is the right awareness—that there is a problem—but the wrong reaction, and that I can choose to channel that awareness into being part of the solution.
The solution isn't always that hard. Erickson already knows the power of the Rooney Rule because he's enforced it himself at Theatre Bay Area. When you interview, he says, "you learn about [people] in a deeper way." In one recent case, he interviewed someone he'd known for nine years. He didn't end up hiring her, but as he said, "Boy, could I imagine a job for her." If he can create that new position, "she's the first person I'm calling."
Diversifying, Erickson continues, "just doesn't happen accidentally. It's not enough to be liberal-minded and just put out a job advertisement. It happens on purpose. It's intentional." Nicholson concurs: "We're operating on this issue in a field of dreams: Build it and they will come. We're making the assumption that if we build a theatre where we say we're open and inclusive and we want to increase diversity on our staff, then that will be enough. I don't believe it's enough. It's great for a movie, but in the real world it's not going to happen."
Even if the theatre world created something like the Rooney Rule, says Moscone, "the arc of time it will take for our audience to consistently reflect the diversity of our region is a huge, long arc, but that doesn't mean that we don't have to take steps internally. Nothing is a solution in and of itself. No putting someone in a room is going to make change. But change is enabled when you put someone in a room and you have to listen."
There are some causes for optimism. Ellen Richard notes that, decades ago, the theatre world encountered a similar problem, and now it's safe to claim a partial victory: "30 years ago, AEA wanted to see that you were auditioning people of color," she says. "Now we just call that American casting. Now this is mostly, but not entirely, practice. Change is never necessarily organic."
And compared to other industries, the theatre world, says Moscone, has at least some advantage moving forward. "We're creative minds, and we have a lot of creative tools that can help us. That doesn't mean that we know more than other people or that our issues are really at the center of the problem," he says, but the problem of someone not having a voice, of not being able to tell his or her story, he continues, "is an inequity that we don't have. We have a voice. We're already one leg up."
Lily Janiak is listings editor for Theatre Bay Area.