TBA Online: News & Features: March 2019

Designing Diversity: An Interview with Dr. Myrton Running Wolf

Tuesday, March 5, 2019   (0 Comments)
Posted by: Rotimi Agabiaka
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by Nicole Gluckstern

For Dr. Myrton Running Wolf, the principles of EDI (Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion) are far more than a marketing strategy. In his view, centering EDI within the operating structures of our theatre institutions can only make them stronger, more resilient—and even more profitable.

A graduate of Stanford University, where he earned his PhD in Theater and Performance Studies, Dr. Running Wolf lectures around the country—and at his first alma mater, the University of Nevada, Reno—on the politics of race and gender in mainstream media and production. Steeped in Stanford’s unique problem-solving methodology of “Design Thinking,” which has been a touchstone for tech and other user-research-oriented fields, Dr. Running Wolf will offer a keynote speech at this year’s Theatre Bay Area conference on how to apply its principles to our arts institutions with the goal of creating lasting structures of collaboration and cross-cultural diversity.

Dr. Myrton Running Wolf. Photo courtesy University of Nevada.

One of the things you’ll be talking about is the five stages of design thinking and how they can apply to theatre making. Can you give a synopsis of those five stages?

The first part is basically going out and asking people...why would we have to diversify? Because even when you're out there and asking people...it can cause people who know they should be doing better to have a negative reaction. (So)a needs finding analysis that not only deals with a lack of diversity and inclusion, but also makes the question less threatening...to the people who are actually benefiting off of exclusivity and the lack of diversification.
Once you have that information, you can start to define what the problem is. You have all of this data...and now you have to craft a thesis statement that you’re going to have to test. So by “defining” things, you’re not just trying to come up with a singular definition, you’re trying to open up a conversation. Then, once you have those problems worked out with the questions you’re going to be asking, then you can start thinking about the different ways to solve them.
Then you test them! And there are some [theatres] that financially have less resources that have had to, out of necessity, embrace some of these ideas. So I think the idea of prototyping is that the larger theatres will look to the smaller ones who are already doing this work.
And then, you have to actually put these things out into the marketplace in front of crowds. The thing about creating a prototype is you don’t do just one, which is, I think, a lot of the “diversity” programs out there right now. You measure against other prototypes. What will work with this one compared to that one? You need multiple prototypes to consider what is working and what is not.
So how do you create institutional systems that allow for this kind of iteration and dynamic strategies?
I think the conversation we have a lot is: what are the players’ real motivations for changing? One of the things I’m seeing right now...the reason we’re getting rid of “diversity” programs is that people are “over” the term. I agree that as a marketing tool or a PR campaign, “diversity” has run its course...but the fundamental idea underneath it, the meaningful interaction with people who are different from us—we as a nation are so far away from that, and moving further and further away from it. So even though “diversity” has run its course as a marketing campaign, we are so far off from the spirit of true diversity that I think this is where our leadership really needs to kick in and say “We still have a problem, and we don’t have differing voices at the table.” We can’t put our heads in the sand and pretend what we put on our stages is neutral. It actually sends a powerful message as to how we see ourselves, and how we see other people.
And do you have a picture in your mind of what will it look like when we’ve really progressed in this area?
Thinking of a typical theatre production, we have department heads that are reflective of our society. That we have a director, we have a stage manager, we have all of our designers...and that that looks like our population. But inside of that, underneath these department heads, their departments also reflect that kind of diversity. For me, the natural thing that comes out of that is that what we put on stage will be actually reflective of that group—of diversity of thought, diversity of color, diversity of gender. To where diversity is not even a thought, it just is...because it’s the best plan in terms of the best ideas, and the best economic model.

The Theatre Bay Area conference will take place on April 1 at Freight & Salvage and the Berkeley Arts Corridor. Early bird registration ends March 13. Register here.

Nicole Gluckstern is an arts journalist and theatre-maker in San Francisco. You can read her most current work in KQED Arts, or stalk her on twitter at @enkohl