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State of the Art Address: Annual Conference 2016

Posted By TBA Staff, Tuesday, April 5, 2016
Updated: Monday, April 4, 2016
By Brad Erickson

Well, here we are, at the closing plenary of another Annual Conference, a day when we’ve been focusing on “bright spots”—looking at the makers and the methods that are working, that are succeeding in making real change happen. We’ve brought thinkers and leaders from around the country here today so we could have the opportunity to learn from them—and, just as importantly, so they could have a chance to meet and hear from all of you, the artists and leaders of this incredible Bay Area theatre community. When we’re looking for bright spots—for people and ideas that are making a difference—many, many of them can be found right here, and your successes in making change real are helping to lead our whole field forward.

Last year at this plenary, I unveiled to you our new strategic plan, something that not only continues to excite us but is making real change happen within this organization. Our plan is one of hope, and the future we see is a brighter and better Bay Area than the one of today—in very real ways because of the work all of you are doing. But none of us operates in a vacuum, and recent months and years have been filled with sometimes unspeakable anguish. The place names tell tragedies in a single word: Ferguson, Staten Island, Charleston, West Oakland, Hunters Point, Syria, Greece, Paris, Brussels, San Bernardino. We’ve agonized through the horror of the current political dialogue where group after group has been vilified and degraded: immigrants, Mexicans, African Americans, Syrian refugees, Muslims, women, the disabled, the rich and the poor, the homeless and the billionaires. All have been attacked, disrespected and made the scapegoat for every manner of evil—real and imagined. And just this past week we’ve seen a law passed in North Carolina that denies basic civil rights to gay, lesbian, trans and bisexual people.

It’s a disheartening time. One where our communities here in the Bay Area are being torn apart by an economic boom that is making millionaires of 20-year-olds and pushing artists and workers, nonprofits and theatres out of their homes. A time when our nation is more divided than at any moment since the 1960s, and maybe even the 1860s—a pretty sobering thought.

At times, it feels like the divisions and divisiveness of the larger world has penetrated deeply into our own community. There are divides between the haves and the have-nots, the big-budget companies and the small, the included and excluded, between whites and non-whites, between men and women, between gender conforming and non-conforming, between the able-bodied and the disabled, between the Boomer, Millenial, X, Y and Z Generations and on and on.

I would assert that in this time—this troubled time—we need theatre and theatre-makers now more than ever. And we need a fully inclusive and equitable theatre now more than ever. And here’s why. For at least three big reasons: 

  • For the sake of social justice and fairness
  • For the sake of simple economics
  • For the sake of our audiences, our communities and our nation

One of the first arguments put forward for inclusion is one of social justice. Simple fairness. It often gets framed something like this: Z Group (name an under-represented demographic) make up X percent of the total population of the United States, but only Y percent (an appallingly low number) of the total number of theatre-makers (artists, administrators or leaders, depending on the study). Clearly, goes the argument, this is unjust, and something must be done to bring the numbers of Z Group theatre-makers to full parity. As Viola Davis, the first black woman to win an Emmy, so beautifully put it, “You cannot win an Emmy for roles that are simply not there.”

The argument is strong and virtually impossible to refute. And rarely does anyone try, at least directly. What might be heard, in terms of pushback, is the need for time, for evolutionary rather than revolutionary change, for more Z Group theatre-makers in the “pipeline.” But almost no one says the argument is false, that Z Group theatre-makers shouldn’t be fully represented in the American theatre.

We know that our stages, our theatre companies—this service organization—do not look like the world around us or the community we live in. We know this. And we, as a field, are engaged in efforts to make change happen. We are talking, we are making space for conversation—as we are today—which is important and necessary as a start. And we are developing programs and initiatives to address the issue—as TCG is doing, as Carmen Morgan is doing at artEquity, as many of you are doing in your own theatres.

And the dial is starting to budge—slowly and with great effort. Now, here’s some transparency and also a case study of how complex this work of inclusion can be. In preparing this address, I thought about this organization, about Theatre Bay Area, about how our own gaps in reflecting the full diversity of our region, and I considered our recent hires—eight people in the past several years. Of those eight people, one was a white male, two were white women, and five were people of color. And yet we have today the same ratio of whites to non-whites on staff that we did three years ago. And we have to ask ourselves why. How can that be? And while we realize that hiring is crucial, what about retention? About development and promotion? We will have to acknowledge that there are very likely other factors that we need to address if we are to going to make real the progress that we want to see for ourselves. As your service organization, we will need your help—and we will also need you to hold us accountable.

So, social justice is the first reason. There’s a second reason—far less lofty but just as real. Inclusion is just good business. We all know the demographic trends in the country as a whole, and we know the Bay Area is way ahead of the curve. Fortune 500 companies, many of them, spend millions of dollars to diversify their staffs and vendors, to make their work environments more inclusive, and to tailor their products and their messages to appeal to a diverse population. They do this not because it is morally right—and I’m not saying that there is no sense of ethics inside the corporate world—but the main motivating factor for these companies is the bottom line. And for them, inclusion makes the best economic sense.

As an aside, before coming to Theatre Bay Area, my day job was at an organization called the Northern California Minority Supplier Development Council—a mouthful—and our mission, as a nonprofit, was to promote and advance ethnic minority-owned companies as suppliers and vendors to major corporations. Essentially affirmative action for business. It was major corporations—along with the heads of minority companies—who sat on our board and who sponsored our work. Because it was good for business. If it’s true for corporate America that inclusion makes good economic sense, it must be true for our field as well.

The third reason is what inclusion means—not just for us, as individual theatre-makers, or for the long-term viability of our companies—but what full inclusion means for our audiences. What does it mean for audience members to see a fully inclusive world on our stages? When this point is raised, it is generally from the perspective of how important it is to recognize ourselves, our own experiences, our own communities on stage. To hear our own stories. It’s a potent assertion, to be sure. “Social bonding,” as our friend, researcher Alan Brown, explains in his intrinsic impact research—which we commissioned—is enormously important for us as human beings. Personally, I remember what it meant for me to come to San Francisco from the Midwest in the mid-1980s and to see, for the first time, gay and lesbian people portrayed on stage, at Theatre Rhinoceros, the only LGBT venue in town at that time, and one of the only in the nation. It was transforming. I felt for the first time that I had a place and a role to play in the larger community—and in the theatre—just as I was.

As crucial as it is to give voice and to hear our own stories, there is another argument for full inclusion that we could hear far more about, especially at this troubled time, and that how essential it is for all of us, from every demographic and psychographic group, to see on stage the lives of people who are not like ourselves. In an interview last year for TCG, Impact Theatre’s artistic director, Melissa Hillman, whom many of you know very well, was asked by playwright Jaqueline Lawton (an African American), “What is the most significant challenge—or opportunity—facing the world, and what difference can theatre make?” Hillman replied, “Empathy. Empathy. Empathy. Lack of empathy,” she asserted, “underlies literally every social ill: racism and bigotry, misogyny, economic oppression, homophobia, transphobia, fatphobia, Islamophobia, you name it. War, income disparity, rape—every kind of violence, every kind of injustice.” And Melisa added, that as theatre-makers, “We run this. Empathy is at the core of what we do as storytellers... and stories create empathy.”  Bill English, artistic director of San Francisco Playhouse (producer of this year’s Glickman Award-winning play), tells audiences during his curtain speech at the top of every single performance that the theatre is an “empathy gym,” affording us all a chance to meet and feel the lives of people who are very unlike ourselves.

Alan Brown would call this “social bridging,” bringing people from one context closer to people in another. Try Googling “theatre empathy” and see the number of studies (not issued by theatre professionals) that directly link increased empathy to theatre experiences. Some of these studies point to “mirror neurons,” nerve cells that make it possible for us to understand what another person is feeling and intending. We are hard-wired for empathy. When we are caught up in riveting narrative experience, our mirror neurons are shooting rapid-fire messages to our brains, which respond as if we ourselves were actually involved in the story. Our mirror neurons make the phrase “I know how you feel,” literally true, and our art form is one that makes that experience powerfully possible.

The work of inclusion necessarily means that we must acknowledge exclusion. We must name our differences and privilege, and we must take a close look at what is keeping people out and down, and this is hard and can feel exhausting and even depressing. I’ll confess sometimes it feels that way to me.

But for me it is also incredibly encouraging and heartening, this passion for inclusion in our field. People want in. Young people. Trans people. People of color. Women. LGBTQ people. Even straight white cis male people. All kinds of people want in. Into an art form where we sometimes question our own relevance. It’s reassuring, it’s inspiring, how important it is to so many who have been left outside to come in. Let’s welcome them. Let’s welcome us all—to this art form, to this community that we love. So that we can truly make change happen. In our field. In our communities. In our nation. And in our world.

Brad Erickson is executive director of Theatre Bay Area.

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