Decolonizing local theater, Part 2

Last summer, stage directors pledged to create a more equitable theater scene. They're still shuttered, but there's been some progress.

The pandemic has shuttered Reno Little Theater and other performing arts venues for the better part of a year. Photo - courtesy Reno Little Theater

It seems like we’ve lived a lifetime since summer 2020. We have a new president, for one; a vice president who is a woman of color, for another; not to mention the recent images of a frenzied crowd waving Confederate flags in a stormed Capitol Building, and a pandemic situation that seems wholly different now than it did in summer. We’re in a very different place now than in August, when Kris Vagner shared the highlights of her first conversation with local theater companies about decolonizing local theater

Nearly 10 months since that early, panicked shutdown, performing arts venues remain among the only businesses that still have no idea when they might open again. Is the commitment from company leaders to creating a more diverse, inclusive local theater industry still a priority? And how far have they come after five months of effort? 

The short answer is yes, it’s still a priority. But after almost a year of dark stages, they say progress on this front is slow going. 

Five days after rioters breached the U.S. Capitol, I had a Zoom call with three members of Reno’s theater community to reflect on their efforts since summer: Goodluck Macbeth Theatre Company’s executive director Chris Daniels and producing artistic director Joe Atack; and Reno Little Theater’s executive director Melissa Taylor. 

Reno Little Theater Director Melissa Taylor on a Zoom call with the Ally.

The pandemic, by its nature, meant that theater would never look exactly the same again. This mandatory time off meant they had the time to really be thoughtful about coming back in a way that considered—in fact demanded—a focus on inclusivity, of creating and fostering opportunities for Black, Indigenous, and People of Color (BIPOC) communities. 

“From a GLM standpoint, we knew one of the first things we had to do was identify the ways in which we were complicit in white supremacy, the ways in which we upheld racist practices as an organization, the ways in which we made theater inaccessible to BIPOC individuals, not just to creators but patrons as well, and really own the mistakes of the past,” Daniels said. “I think that’s first and foremost—you have to acknowledge that you messed up and made these mistakes.” 

“I think one of the things that’s hardest about dealing with this work is that what we’re talking about isn’t what you might see as overt racism,” Atack added. “It’s the socialized racism that’s fed into everything we as a society have done for decades. It’s a really complicated process of recognizing, for a lot of people, where those mistakes are happening … What we think of as normal about how we operate is based on a kind of white supremacy, so learning how that happened and recognizing when it’s taking place is a challenge for everyone. That’s what makes this really challenging—it’s insidious and inside of everything that we do, so finding the ways to undo that damage is really difficult.”

For Reno Little Theater, which, in its 86th year, is the community’s longest-running theater company, this challenge is even more acute, as Taylor pointed out. “We’ve got reckoning to do that goes back to the ’30s,” she said. “But I also think it’s important to acknowledge that there is no end to this work. There’s not a goal where we’re going to be like, ‘We did it!’ and pat ourselves on the backs. It really goes into looking at all the ways we’ve maintained or upheld any sort of white supremacy, and that means, literally, looking at our organization, going back to the mission statement and the values and practices, and the stories we’re choosing to tell, and who’s choosing them. Once you start peeling that back, you find more places and go, ‘Oh, wait, we need to look at that, too.’ So right now is really a period of examination and education.”

Some measured movement

With theaters closed, gaining real traction has been hard, but there has been some movement. Daniels and Atack held listening sessions with BIPOC artists in the community to hear their thoughts on how Reno theaters had centered white bodies and, specifically, how they felt GLM had been complicit in that. That discussion spawned a project they’re calling The Table. Daniels, Atack and others on the GLM team have assembled several BIPOC and LGBTQIA+ creatives together to curate content as a collaborative group. 

In March, when Good Luck Macbeth Theater closed its doors until further notice due to the pandemic, the company was in the process of striking the set for the play Noises Off. Photo – courtesy Christopher Daniels

“With The Table, Chris and I will relinquish what we’ll call our ‘curatorial power’ over the content GLM produces,” Atack said. “Our goal is to give that voice and agency to a more diverse collection of people — as opposed to saying, ‘Here’s a play about a BIPOC character,’ because that’s not a solution. We’ve done that quite a bit, and our initial approach was to try to take on diversity in Reno and do BIPOC shows. But when there’s no real commitment, long term, to having BIPOC creatives and directors and technicians, and to reaching out to all the communities in Reno, it’s a sort of tokenism, even if it’s unintentional.”

For RLT’s part, Taylor indicates that education is a cornerstone of its efforts. Its board has prioritized adding more diversity to its makeup and is using, as its playbook, the list of demands from a team of 300-plus equity professionals comprising We See You White American Theatre, from which they’ll develop a plan to address short- and long-term change.

Thanks to a grant from Renown Health aimed at nonprofits that are working to increase the presence and participation of people from underrepresented groups, RLT has developed the IDEA — Inclusion, Diversity, Equity and Accessibility — program. Its committee, formed by community, board and staff members, will determine what concerns about RLT’s operations and practices they can tackle immediately and how they can clear roadblocks for other, more complex changes.

But that’s strategizing — a practice Daniels warns is a white supremist tendency.

“The author of My Grandmother’s Hands, Resmaa Menakem, did a podcast where he talked about how white people love strategies,” Daniels said. “And dismantling white supremacy, decentralization, decolonization, it’s all strategy-focused. And in some ways that’s inherently flawed. He made a point that white supremacy has a culture; there are symbols, chants, rituals, things that identify you with this culture and therefore create longevity and movement. And culture can’t be rushed. That rushing is a product of white supremacy — that action to get to an endpoint. I think we’ve all been trying to take the time, not to rush, without using that time as an excuse not to take action.”

“Like I said earlier, we took this document and turned it into a strategy!” Taylor laughed. “That is a very white thing to do. But it’s also trying to balance that with the need to have action versus inaction. And that’s super tricky. None of us can solve this on our own. It’s about expanding who’s at the table and having these conversations, sharing resources. We can’t do that ‘white savior’ thing. But I think it will be a lot of little steps that hopefully lead to systematic change.”

Surviving

After my conversation with Atack, Daniels, and Taylor, I had a quick phone call with Mary Bennett, producing artistic director for Brüka Theatre, so she could update me on what the 28-year-old company is doing toward decolonization. Bennett, who’s currently teaching theater at Reno’s Doral Academy, said progress has been slower than she’d like, simply because the company is struggling to survive amid shutdowns. 

“I’m an absolute beginner in all of this,” she admitted. “I thought I was pretty keen on relationships and how we were serving the community, but we’re very much beginners. Our partnership with RLT and GLM has been monumental in trying to figure some things out together … It’s such an odd time for us in terms of where we are with COVID, it’s been hard to barrel forward, so it’s really been baby steps for us.”

In Brüka Theatre’s 2020 summer youth workshops, screens took the place of stages. Screenshot – courtesy Mary Bennett

She said the company’s first goal was to look at how it could broaden both its board and its community reach, including welcoming a more diverse team of volunteers and staff members. Could a position be created — once the theater reopens and is making money again — for a staff member who’s tasked with identifying ways to engage a larger, more diverse community? Brüka will participate in the IDEA project to identify what communities need and want from local theater companies. 

This, she said, is the question on everyone’s mind, and not just in terms of a more equitable theater scene.

“A colleague said to me the other day, ‘Honestly, how many artists do you think are going to be able to come back to us [after the pandemic]?’” Bennett said. “Our lifestyles are very different now in terms of how our work has changed. So there’s a bigger question that goes beyond equality, which is how we can help our families and meet our needs. I wish I could say we’d done more, but we’re all still beginners and are having some important conversations, and we look forward to being able to reopen in a more equitable fashion, to create a place where ALL people feel they want to create art and be challenged and entertained.”