If I am your diversity hire, it will not go well.
Dear Theatre Departments,
I understand you are afraid your budgets will be cut; the black box theatres you spent years constructing will be repurposed; that students will leave you for other, more lucrative majors. I get that you feel you have no clout next to departments that pull in more revenue for the college. I know your every move is constantly scrutinized for how well it fits into your university’s ten year plan. But please stop boasting how diverse you are as the major reason you still exist. Just because you call yourselves feminists, produce plays by white women and hire white women as one semester guest artists, you are not diverse, (or feminist, for that matter.) Because if that is ALL you do for the students in your department, you have established a façade of inclusivity that has the potential to turn your program toxic. Until you take steps to change how you approach diversity, your theatre department will remain a breeding ground for systemic sexism and racism. You must do better.
College theatre departments mirror the state of the art of theatre in the US — neither are progressive or diverse. A 2018 study revealed that “black males, black females and Hispanic males” made up 2 percent of all full-time college professors while across the country less than 30% of all plays produced are written by women. Even fewer of those plays are by writers of color. Women and artists of color are underrepresented in the fields of set, lighting and sound design. Women directors have made the biggest jump, to 40%, but not so much BIPOC directors — less than 11 percent of US theatre directors are of color. Disabled actors are the least represented group of all.
For the past 20 years I have performed, directed, choreographed and taught at colleges in 47 US states, most of them with diversity, equity and inclusion policies which expound clear goals for a diverse enrollment. Yet within the many theatre departments where I have worked, I have come across full time faculty with the attitude that because they represent the arts, they embrace diversity. As a result, no one makes an effort towards real change. With the recent spotlight on the Black Lives Matter Movement, the lack of actual progress towards inclusivity in college theatre departments is even more apparent.
My last guest artist position was a mess. Granted, it was at the height of the pandemic but in thinking back on all my college experiences I began to see similarities. I offer these 11 steps a college theatre department can consider to promote a culture of equality on and off the stage and ensure that faculty, staff and students know they are seen, heard and respected.
1) Stop using the term diversity hire. You are marginalizing your hires by inferring they are only there because they check a box. Diversity is not solved with a hire of one or two people from minoritized groups. I heard my recent hire was touted as solving all the departments sexism problems. Unless you work to cultivate an inclusive environment within all facets of your department you are not addressing the root of the problem.
2) Understand that white women are not the face of diversity and that real diversity is not achieved with temporary hires. I recommended a BIPOC theatre maker to replace me when my contract ended. Several other BIPOC candidates applied as well. Yet, another white woman was hired. Discuss diversity and how you plan to mitigate bias in interviews. Again, know that diversity does not mean hiring white women.
3) Ask for referrals. Use the resources you have at hand and reach out for recommendations for who you might add to your team. This includes taking suggestions from students. Follow through with connections to BIPOC theatre makers. Go beyond posting in ArtSearch. Let your network know what your dream department looks like and be open to connecting.
4) Allow your students to select your season. Or let them choose at least part of your season. I understand you have to balance your season selections with regards to cast size, plays vs. musicals, etc. But if you permit students to have some hand in the selection you will most likely get exposed to challenging plays that demand diversity. You might surprise yourself and come away with brilliant, new productions. Season selection was always mayhem at my last position, particularly the musical. Because most of the majors identified as women trying to find works with more parts for them but other criteria like “must be singable by theatre majors” baffled me. Musicals are popular draws for many students, particularly music majors. Including a musical in your season is an opportunity to expose the entire student body to your department. Think of it as a chance to include instead of exclude. All of your majors, and indeed every student, can benefit from involvement in productions if you emphasize the collaborative aspects of theatre and team work.
5) Respect women, non-binary and trans creatives. Has there been a discussion among faculty and staff as to how you approach gender in all aspects of your theatre department? One male colleague boasted to me he was not going to honor any of his students pronouns. Similarly, I heard the department chair discuss a students height and weight as a barrier to being able to cast them. Many of the students in this theatre department were unhappy and contemplated changing majors. A handful had written formal letters of complaint. Thinking about gender takes work and unless you can come up with a way to pay them for their time your students should not be the ones spearheading this effort. Do it yourself.
6) Teach theatre students how to collaborate. Beyond throwing them all into a production and hoping they learn as they go, recognize that collaboration is something that can be taught. Start with the structure of your department. Does everyone — students, faculty and staff — feel safe, secure and equally important? Who runs your production meetings? Who is invited and who gets to speak and how often? What about your department meetings? Are you leaving anyone out? Who steps in when communication breaks down? Theatre students should have an end to end experience, from the moment they enroll to the moment they graduate, of successfully contributing in meaningful ways to the collaborative art of making theatre. You have to mentor and inspire students and often the lessons are hard. As a director I have worked with student designers, many of whom were creating a final thesis project and often they had no idea how to engage with a director. I have also been involved in production meetings that broke down into side meetings which excluded some members of the group. To truly teach how to work together means to host inclusive meetings, encourage strong teams and emphasize the give and take of theatre.
7) Encourage student directed learning. Give them the space and the resources to create. I have been in theatre departments which think of themselves as commercial venues with a subscriber audience to whom they must cater. My last students were desperate to see BIPOC actors on the stage. I helped them propose a student production of “Dance Nation” by Clare Barron, which they mounted (without any assistance from the faculty, FYI). It was a strong show and everyone involved learned a great deal. They were proud of the fact that it was the first time three BIPOC actors had been seen on the main stage. Yet, the two other faculty in the department said nothing positive to the students about the production. The next proposal for a student led show was declined. Granted, mentoring students in this way is time consuming but theatre students need to make theatre to learn. Mentor your students. It is part of your job.
8) Conduct exit interviews, especially if your guest artists and adjunct faculty are not straight, white, able-bodied men. Create an anonymous form for them to fill out at the end of the semester. You should already have a plan for receiving student feedback. Set up a way to find out what your temporary faculty and adjuncts experience. I was never asked about my experiences as an adjunct and if I had one of the things I would have emphasized is there was so much more I could have contributed. If part of your goal in bringing in guest artists is to expose your students to what it is like to work in the theatre then let your guest artists bring all they have to the table. I wanted to host talks with a professional casting director and organize a new play reading but my ideas were not welcomed or encouraged. All it might have taken was to fill out a few forms to put these plans into place. Find a way to utilize every person working in your department, especially those who might not be there very long.
9) Create an inclusive department. If you focus on diversity without putting in time and effort to make the atmosphere of your department inclusive your hires will come and go and nothing will change. Measure the climate of your theatre department and formulate a plan to make it more all-encompassing of the entire community. Ask yourself how you can broaden participation in your productions and activities.
10) Spread love. As I overheard Lanford Wilson once say after viewing a less than successful play at Circle Rep, “When in doubt, rave.” Yes, theatre is really hard to do and when someone does it don’t focus on what went wrong, focus on the good stuff. Of course critique is important and I am not suggesting we do away with it. But critiquing can also be a way to exclude. Theatre is an art form where rejection is constant. Your students will get enough corrections and have many failures in their lives and careers. But when they get through a show you should be distributing high fives, fist bumps and “well dones” all around.
11) Get over yourself. You may work professionally as a director or a designer but if you treat your students as if they have nothing to teach you because you are such a pro then it is time for you to get out of academia.
In conclusion, adjunct and guest teaching in Higher Ed is exhausting and most of the time it can be demoralizing as well. We are never paid enough; we do not have insurance or pensions. Our contracts are short term; we are teaching full plus loads; a tenure track opening is not on the horizon. Tackling sexism and racism in theatre departments is vital but temporary hires are not the ones to assign to this task and neither are your students. Take an honest inventory of your department. Talk with your dean. Get the president on board. Have a conversation about the pressures you feel you are under and come up with ways you can address diversity, teach and make theatre at the same time. Begin by engaging and celebrating the community of students on your campus. It is up to you, the full time theatre faculty, to make the changes necessary to squash toxic environments and immobilize racist and sexist status quos. If you do not begin this work immediately, you may very soon face a theatre full of nothing but empty seats.
Donna Kaz aka Aphra Behn
-DONNA KAZ is a multi-genre writer and the author of UN/MASKED, Memoirs of a Guerrilla Girl On Tour. Along with her alter ego, Guerrilla Girl and Guerrilla Girl On Tour, Aphra Behn, she creates visual art and performance to attack sexism and prove feminists are funny at the same time. ggontour.com donnakaz.com Donna Kaz