by Michael Paulson
New York Times
July 10, 2020
A 29-page document released this week amounts to a call for wholesale restructuring of the system, onstage and backstage, on Broadway and beyond.
Rename half of all Broadway theaters. Impose term limits for theater industry leaders. Require that at least half the members of casts and creative teams be made up of people of color.
A coalition of theater artists, known by the title of its first statement, “We See You, White American Theater,” has posted online a 29-page set of demands that, if adopted, would amount to a sweeping restructuring of the theater ecosystem in America.
The coalition, made up of Black, Indigenous and people of color (BIPOC) theatermakers, has declined to make anyone available to answer questions, and says on its website that it has no leadership or spokesperson. “We understand the desire for individual interviews, but this is a collective movement and it would not be appropriate for any of us to speak on behalf of the all,” the group said in response to an email inquiry.
The group’s initial statement was signed by more than 300 artists and then endorsed by thousands online; among its more visible supporters are the playwrights Lynn Nottage and Dominique Morisseau, who on Wednesday called attention to the list of demands online.
Stephanie Ybarra, the artistic director of Baltimore Center Stage, said she too is a supporter of the demands. “We’re in the business of reflecting on the human condition, and the fact of the matter is that Black folks and Indigenous folks and non-Black people of color are telling us the conditions they’re working under in the theater are not humane in a lot of ways,” she said in an interview. “I believe them and I think that their lived experiences should be taken seriously.”
An Off Broadway nonprofit, Ars Nova, also welcomed the document.
The demands are wide-ranging and far-reaching. Among them:
- Black, Indigenous and People of Color should make up “the majority of writers, directors and designers onstage for the foreseeable future.” At nonprofit theaters they should also make up a majority of organizational leadership and middle management, as well as of literary departments.
- Theater organizations should stop working with the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees (IATSE), which represents stagehands, unless it makes a series of changes to its leadership and practices, including instituting an anti-nepotism policy. (A spokesman for the union said “We have no comment at this time.”)
- Broadway producers should stop relying on the Casting Society of America until it diversifies its leadership and membership and changes many of its employment practices. (The society’s president, Russell Boast, responded by email that the organization was aware of the document and that continuing to create “visibility and opportunity for BIPOC” is an “immediate and ongoing priority.”)
- Theaters should end all security arrangements with police departments.
- Theater leaders should have term limits. Those who have served more than 20 years (that includes the heads of many New York nonprofit theaters) should view it as “an act of service to resign.” And top paid staff members should make no more than 10 times the lowest paid staff members.
- Theater owners should rename half of Broadway theaters after artists of color, and ensure that half of Broadway shows are “stories written by, for and about BIPOC.” (A spokesman for the Shubert Organization, which with 17 Broadway houses is the largest of the theater owners, declined to comment.)
- Tony Awards administrators should appoint a group of nominators that is at least half people of color, and increase the number of voters of color. (The producers of the Tony Awards responded by email: “Every path to equity will be fully explored. These ideas and others will be presented to the Tony Management Committee for further review and discussion.”)
- Influential news outlets, including The New York Times, should stop funding salaried critics and feature writers, and instead “invest in contract-based positions that are filled with at least 50% BIPOC writers.” And theater producers and presenters should stop buying ads in publications, including The New York Times, unless at least half of the feature writers and critics are people of color. (A spokeswoman for the newspaper said “The Times is committed to a diverse staff in all parts of our newsroom, one that reflects the society we report on.”)
- Productions should provide on-site counseling for those working on shows that deal with “racialized experiences, and most especially racialized trauma.”
- Theaters should acknowledge Native peoples who have lived on land being used for theatrical endeavors, and offer free tickets to members of those communities.
The We See You coalition is one of several pressing for change in the theater industry as the nation grapples with its history of racial injustice in the wake of a series of killings of Black men and women by police officers.
Another new organization, Black Theater United, on Thursday held what it said would be the first of a series of virtual town halls; at the event, the actors Audra McDonald, Wendell Pierce and LaChanze interviewed Sherrilyn Ifill, president of NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund Inc., who encouraged the establishment of specific goals for change.