Deep breath in. Deep breath out.
So, I've been processing and considering how to/if I needed to address recent, though not isolated, theatre closures and resignations due in part to the conduct of boards of directors.
Here I go.
"In all my YEARS of the great American theatre…"
I can tell you where I first heard this phrase. I can not tell you who first said it. If you know, let me know. I'd like to give credit where credit is due.
I usually find myself saying this phrase in a melodramatic fashion, complete with a silly voice and a delicately placed hand on my chest to clutch my imaginary pearls, when something seemingly outrageous, surprising, and/or wonderful happens in the industry I have loved and have invested much blood, sweat, tears, physical, mental and emotional labor.
For context, I have been grateful to have worked professionally in the Chicago theatre scene for the last 14 years. WOW. What. Is. Time. In that time I have experienced deep mentorship, friendship, nuanced and exquisite craft-building art, incredible opportunities, some financial gain. I have also experienced harm and loss. I say this to say, the "negatives" are not necessarily bad. I find there's been a lesson in each situation. AND/However, there has been a pattern when ego fuses with positions of power that is not new nor is it specific to theatre or Chicago, but it is where I will focus most of this post: Harm (intentional or not) is exposed; It is acknowledged, sometimes corrected; Harm (intentional or not) is exposed; It is ignored and/or survivors of harm have been discredited, shamed and/or retaliated against.
For additional context, I have safety training in stage combat, some first aid, some emotional first aid, some intimacy captain/safety, some federal ethics training, and I read contracts. However, I am not a lawyer or a certified care professional.
I know it may seem like I'm dancing around, but go with me.
I have been an Artistic Director of a theatre. We were a touring troupe that eventually produced some more permanent sit-down performances. I started at the founding as secretary, then interim AD and eventually AD. We. Learned. So. Much. How to be artists in business. How to be friends in the business of art. How to be friends. How to discern and honor the boundaries of being in business and/or being friends in business. That friendship is not necessarily business and business is not necessarily friendship. How to care for our bodies to continue to be "trained movement professionals." This is not an exhaustive list of all the things we learned.
One of the best pieces of advice we received early on was from another Artistic Director of a long-standing, established company. He was talking about the life cycles of a business, and he asked us where our theatre was in it's life cycle. We joked that at the time, we were the four-year-old, excited about life and discovery and can't always find our shoes. We had a lot to learn, but we had the desire, the energy and a team to go along the journey. Then the AD dropped this gem (I wish I remembered it verbatim): [People will come to your ensemble to join in the work, and people will leave the ensemble and the work. And. If you can all be open about where you are [in your journey] and what you need and what you can give and can't, that's got to be ok]. We started our company with a leadership team of 10-12 people, eventually we had 8 people, then we had about 5 people. There were too few of us to carry the load that had grown, and the labor of love got too heavy. Around 2015 (though the dates are fuzzy now) we decided to dissolve. We had built in the habit of having postmortem and restructuring meetings after every show closing and anytime someone's life/career situation shifted to 1) Celebrate, 2) See where we could plug new folks in, where we could pick up slack, and 3) Process anything that didn't go as intended. It wasn't perfect because we're human, and it was messy because of the intimacy of friendship, HOWEVER, I believe that even in the hardest moments, at the very least, we had the book of the situation opened to the same page.
I scratch the surface of this very and varied and nuanced journey to say, When it's time to call it "done," it's time. And that's okay.
Considering some of the very recent resignations of Chicago theatre practitioners, and considering for most of them this was a very last resort—I. Under. Stand. The theatre closure? I. Under. Stand.
And, if you are seeing artists and administrators processing their frustration, speaking for myself and my own experience with three specific companies (not the one I've mentioned above), the frustration and the hurt comes from the fact that we/they tried to address the issues of concern internally with grace and patience (some may read— The "right" way), and yet, we/they were still shut out, undermined, concerns ignored, and additional physical and emotional labor placed on my/our/their shoulders to do the work anyway because isn't it great to be representing diversity, equity, and inclusion?
Speaking for myself, there is an organization I have officially stepped away from, mostly to open up my time and labor for other union opportunities, but also because when I asked how the org was going to work to minimize future harm and increase its diversity, equity and inclusion to better reflect the demographics of the planet and their audiences, I was told in a very long email they were going to do what they've done before. What they've done before for context: When I sent my exit/resignation letter, we had recently resolved a long and messy conflict in which I incurred harm and was dismissed and ignored by leadership when I brought it up, until I took the issue to the board and the union. I received a very long letter about intent without accepting the impact of their actions, but was assured that there would be a change in behavior and that leadership would do everything they could to rebuild our friendship and trust. They only reached out to me to work on the last project I did with them. Maybe they thought that was enough.
What strikes me so personally about recent resignations is that these are organizations who have brought in their most recent artists, staff and administrators, by broadcasting the organizations' (re)commitment to support BIPOC stories, neighbors and professionals, however, we BIPOC Neighbors and professionals are resigning because of lack of support, undermining authority and ignoring calls for transparency and access to resources agreed upon in writing at the time of hire.
If you are a predominantly white institution (PWI) authorizing the hire of BIPOC professionals with the shared and written understanding that BIPOC stories, neighbors and professionals will be supported by and have the agreed-upon access to resources in the organization, but ignore, undermine and discredit concerns raised by BIPOC professionals and other folks on your payroll when these agreements aren't met,
How is that fulfilling your mission/harm reduction/anti-harrassment/EDI statements?
Many of the resignation letters and receipts I've seen express that folks with concerns started with the invitation to address the issue(s) so that they could internally come to solutions that would keep the org moving forward and to thrive. Why not accept that invitation, challenging as the work may be?
I can speculate based on my experience in being a "diversity prop" for the benefit of donor dollars. AND. I would love for that to not be what's happening with these recently exposed toxic work environments.
"In all my YEARS of the great American Theatre," I've seen theatres close because of committing harm in these and other ways. Intentional and unintentional. I've seen orgs shut/shutdown overnight.
And. I am cautiously and wearily hopeful because I have also seen
Organizations expel folks who have harmed who are unwilling to accept the impact of their behavior.
Organizations doing the messy, exhausting, heart-work to attempt to build a more transparent community, to get on the same page of a different book, to not use the book of "upholding the status quo," and not setting the labor of this work squarely on the shoulders of BIPOC practitioners.
I have seen and felt encouragement and solidarity by and with my fellow theatre practitioners who have stepped up to say [Your experience is valid, what happened wasn't right, let's find a solution.]
One more Side-Quest. Stick with me:
When I was training for my motorcycle license, one of the first things our instructors stressed and reminded us of often was it's a huge risk getting on a motorcycle, so it's important to assess how much risk you can manage. Do you know how to operate your bike? Can you best operate your bike in this moment, mentally and physically? Is your bike in sufficiently working order? What's the state of the road you're on right now? What are vehicles and pedestrians doing around you? Risk Management. We were reminded of the risks and potential damage to life and property, and the thing was, on that first day they also said, [Hey, if at any point you decide you don't want to manage this risk, you're welcome to leave the class, no judgement. But also, if at any point any of the instructors repeatably observe that you may be a danger to yourself or anyone in the class, you will be asked to leave the class.] Safety first. Those where the clearly stated parameters and expectations set at the beginning of class. We started the course with maybe 20 students. We ended the three days of training with maybe 5 (and we all passed.) And that's okay.
Yes, there are nuances in each of these theatre-situations that I don't know, even the situations I was directly in.
However, and I know I am not the first to say this, being invited to address an issue is not being attacked. And resigning because of unchanged toxic behavior is not "cancelling" someone. When I go into a business partnership, I want us to make our expectations and parameters clear. The contract/agreement. Let's put it in writing, so we can refer to what we've agreed on and assess if changes and what changes need to be made.
"Let your yes be yes and your no be no." That and the humility to admit when you're wrong, are key.
Most of these resignations are happening because of a lack of humility and transparency from the boards/leadership. I'm sure there's more to each situation than that. AND. The lack of humility and transparency are very clear.
Please support the people of Flint, Team CULLUD WATTAH, and the resigning cohort/ensemble, and staff of Victory Gardens and The House Theatre. They/we have carried more load than is fair or sustainable.
|to sit in this theatre feels like a home away from home… sigh...|
I'm gonna go bake some bread to decompress.