Looking Back and Looking Ahead at Our Diversity in Theater Initiative

Posted on December 20, 2017 | Amanda O'Meara, Weissberg Foundation

Diversity in Theater Initiative 2018

As 2017 comes to a close, the Weissberg Foundation has a lot to reflect on and a lot to look forward to in 2018.  This year, we launched our new strategic framework along with our new Reframing <Washington> Empowerment Fund grant program.  In addition, we wrapped up the first year of our three-year Fund for Diversity in Theater Initiative to build the capacity of local theaters to advance equity, diversity, and inclusion (EDI) from the inside out.

A large part of our Fund for Diversity in Theater Initiative is convening our grantee cohort to discuss strategies, achievements, challenges, and ideas for their work. In the first year of this initiative, we convened the cohort three times with the help of Carmen Morgan from ArtEquity.  Carmen worked with foundation staff to develop a curriculum for the convenings based on topics that were prioritized by the cohort.  Some topics included: anti-bias communication and skills building, white supremacy culture, and the organizational stages of diversity and inclusion.  The convenings also allowed time for cohort members to share successes and challenges of their EDI work so far, which created some wonderful opportunities for collaboration and learning among the theaters.

The cohort members shared the most meaningful outcomes this year from their focus on EDI, as well as what gets them most excited for this work in 2018.

From Adventure Theatre’s Artistic Director, Michael Bobbitt

Learning from our facilitator Carmen and the other cohort members has been an incredible opportunity, but the most fulfilling outcome has been learning of our current deficiencies and finding areas to improve upon our EDI work: programmatically, operationally, patron services. Over the next year, we are looking forward to continuing to diversify our board, implementing a new consensus building strategy, and engaging communities that the organization has not served in the past. We are hoping to get the organization to a place where this work is second nature, and that EDI is part of everything we do all the time.

From dog & pony dc’s Ensemble Director, Rachel Grossman, and
Ringleader of Audience Integration, Ivania Stack

The most meaningful outcomes for dog & pony dc as a result of getting involved in the EDI has been the “normalizing” of dialogue about positive social change. Over the course of year one, we created a shift in organizational culture in order to discuss topics of social inequities more frequently and with less fragility. This helped in our lives outside the company. We are able to share with people, relate, and communicate in a more open, frank and thoughtful way, empowering others to do the same. Acknowledging inequalities and opening the conversation allows us to move forward in a way we weren’t previously able to.

In our second year, we’re looking forward to layering in an investigation of gender inequality, examining it at the personal, societal, and systemic levels, exploring how it plays out in dog & pony dc as a company, and then making art about it with PEEPSHOW. We are also diving more into the intersections of our social identities more–hearing/Deaf, gender, race, class, education, etc–and attempting to see beyond all the binaries that have been established in this world.

From Forum Theatre’s Artistic Director, Michael Dove

The most meaningful outcome has been relevance and hope for the future of the art form. Since we’ve dove into this work to increasing levels, what has become clear is that audiences respond to it and NEW audiences, unlike any other theatre in the DC area, are being built and that gives us great hope for the evolution of our art form. For too long, theatre has lagged behind in its efforts to diversify and create meaningful value to a large portion of the populace. But we can see and hear the effects of our hard work in the way audiences respond to the work “I never thought I’d see my story being told on stage” and find themselves represented in our work. Art has an essential role in making society known to itself and to hear from our collaborators and guests that our efforts are showing is a tremendous boost in continuing and expanding our work.

In year two we are looking forward to finding ways to expand the focus of the work, programmatically, beyond plays of identity politics. We worry that this is the primary and dominant vehicle for EDI work in artistic programming and could lead to pigeon-holed work that still props up the problematic dynamic of white European culture as the universal and all else as unique and “different.” As our programming and aesthetic shifts, we hope to move past these simplistic choices and show a variety of perspectives that are not identity-dependent. We feel that this is a relatively new area of thinking in DC Theatre and one we are thrilled to explore as we seek to be a change agent in the community.

From Gala Hispanic Theatre’s Associate Producing Director, Abel López

The most meaningful outcome of our focus on equity, diversity, and inclusion has been the dialogue that has occurred within the organization and with peers and colleagues in the theater community, and to think about systemic change rather than merely an initiative to address the issue.  As we enter year two, we are excited about exploring collaborations with cohort members that are multi-faceted and demonstrate collective action by the theater community to develop a more equitable arts environment and community.

From the Mosaic Theater Team

The most meaningful outcomes of Mosaic’s focus on I.D.E.A. this year have been in the realm of Accessibility. In Season Three we will have had fifteen open-captioned performances (with ASL interpreters for post-show discussions) and fifty-two performances with surtitles (for all of Queens Girl in Africa in January and Hooded, or Being Black for Dummies in May). We have also begun a 5-workshop series especially for staff to learn ASL basics relevant to our internal and external work as a theater company. In order to assess our level of diversity, we have just launched a new online surveying system that seeks to understand not only the age, race, ethnicity, gender and sexual identities of our patrons, but to gather more data about the kinds of political affiliations our audiences carry, as well as their reactions to our programming. We are proud to be maintaining that no more than 60% of our board or staff members are White, and no more than 50% are cisgender men.

From Woolly Mammoth’s Artistic Director, Howard Shalwitz

The most meaningful outcome of our EDI work has been a new level of awareness and dialogue at Woolly about unconscious bias and privilege, how they operate within our organization, and how we can adjust our practices to work more equitably.  Our new EDI working group, which operates on a consensus model, has been an incubator for new practices; and specific workshops have expanded the dialogue to our full staff, company of artists, and the search committee for our next artistic leader.  We have so much farther to go – in terms of hiring practices, Board culture and recruitment, etc. – but I feel we have opened the door to a new way of engaging together.  This is now clearly articulated in our mission statement, and I feel confident that we will continue to move forward from here.

For the Weissberg Foundation, the most meaningful outcome of our EDI work this year has been the launch of our new strategic framework and our Reframing <Washington> program area (keep an eye out for an announcement of 2018 Empowerment Fund grantees in January).  The Weissberg Foundation has always had a commitment to social justice, but through our strategic planning process, and applying learnings from our theater convenings, the Washington Regional Association of Grantmakers’ Putting Racism on the Table, and more, our board and staff explicitly named equity as a value and a priority for our Foundation.

We look forward to continuing this learning journey with our board, staff, grantees, and broader community. Let us know if you’d like to join us!

Amanda O’Meara is the Program Officer at the Weissberg Foundation, and she has been with the Foundation since 2009. She is the lead on our Criminal Justice funding area as well as the coordinator for many program and grantmaking facets of the foundation. Before joining the Foundation, Amanda spent some time living in Nairobi, Kenya while interning with the UN World Food Program.

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