I have learned so much this week from curating an interview series on the Works by Women San Francisco site, TACTICS: Theatre Artists’ Collected Thoughts Insights Challenges and Strategies for gender parity advocacy.
I expected to learn a lot about what individual advocates have been doing for decades, what the idea of gender equity has been doing for centuries, and what new initiatives are popping up now in the age of technology and constant connection. I did not expect to learn how easy it is to be blind to your own biases, even when you think you’re aware of them.
The first eight TACTICS profiles we posted are stellar. I am very proud of the series so far, and very excited about the pieces that are still in the pipeline. The interviews feature a mix of longtime advocates, artistic directors, and individual artists. I was pleased to notice that they feature women from different generations and a couple of LGBT voices. I also noticed that these wonderful, intelligent, articulate, passionate women all happen to be white.
Happen to be. This is the phrase that artistic leaders use when they’re excusing their season of plays that happen to be written by, directed by, designed by, and starring mostly white men over 40. This is the phrase they use when they want to say “I don’t want gender and race to interfere with my artistic choices.” This is the phrase that suggests that women and people of color just aren’t making the kind of work that the artistic director wants to do at his/her theatre – it won’t resonate with their subscribers, or it’s not good enough.
I didn’t intend to interview mostly white advocates for gender parity. Going in, I was consciously aware of this long-standing bias in the feminist movement. I deliberately brainstormed women of color to ask for interviews. I emailed many incredible women of diverse backgrounds. I followed up on leads from friends saying, “Have you talked to so and so yet?” As responses started to come in, my focus shifted to the logistics of getting the features up on the site. This has been a busy week for gender parity on Howlround’s blog and weekly Twitter conversation – as well as being my first week of rehearsal for The Helen Project. I stopped thinking specifically about artists of color. The diversity of the TACTICS profiles was still in my mind, but no longer at the front of my mind.
And then today, a good friend emailed me with congratulations on the interview series, and the question, “Will we see an artist of color soon?”
The easy answer is YES, in fact, the very next interview is from an artist of color. But the real answer is yes, I can do better. I can look harder. I can reach out to people I already know and I can educate myself on the organizations that are specifically serving female artists of color. I found some really inspiring companies around the country that focus on Asian American, Black, and Latina playwrights. I’m now following them on Twitter so I can continue to keep them in my field of vision and help stop the blindness coming back.
Let me be clear: I don’t want a cookie for making a little extra effort. I was missing something, got a nudge from a friend, and took some simple steps to self-correct. It remains to be seen how successful I can be at improving diversity in the interview series. It remains to be seen how I will keep diversity in the front of my mind, vying for attention with my conscious and unconscious biases. This is the effort I always need to be making, to counterbalance the input I am getting from the whitewashed world around me.
This is the effort I am asking artistic directors to make when they’re choosing their seasons. If their seasons just happen to be filled with middle-aged white men, then questions of gender and racial diversity are not getting enough space at the front of their minds.
I know many artistic directors who are consciously trying to improve representation for women and people of color in their seasons. Sometimes they make it, sometimes they don’t. I know that season planning is complex, and that gender and racial representation are intertwined with a whole host of other challenges, too. Lack of parity is a symptom of a white-male-dominated national culture, not a deliberate intention of any theatre to program more men than women in their season, or more white artists than artists of color. No individual is responsible for our white-male-dominated culture, and no individual theatre’s season can fix that culture. So why shouldn’t your local theatre do Eugene O’Neill instead of Maria Irene Fornes? What difference does that production make?
We’re asking our artistic leaders to have faith that their actions will help to change the tide, even if it takes a long time, and even if it takes extra effort. We’re looking to theatres to break the self-perpetuating cycle by deliberately programming greater diversity into their season, even when it’s hard. It requires not just awareness but active commitment and constant vigilance.