Risk and privilege

This week’s public theater discussion at Arena Stage (aka, The Summit), caused quite a stir on the interwebs, primarily around questions of diversity and equity — or lack thereof — in the Washington, DC, theater scene. The Summit is a series of live discussions, curated and facilitated by journalist Peter Marks (described here by Mr. Marks, himself). The first session featured artistic leadership from many area companies.

Risk and Priviledge

Flickr user avyfain

The stir was simmering on the Twitter feed throughout the event (captured here), and then brought to a full boil by a final question by Elissa Goetschius and her blog reflections thereafter (she includes her question within her post). She shared some brutal statistics, and asked the artistic directors how they planned to use the upcoming Women’s Voices Festival to improve gender equity among writers and directors in DC live theater, and how they planned, more broadly, to include writers and directors of color.

The question (from online reports…I wasn’t there) elicited some fumbling responses, some disbelief, and some inelegant guesses from the panelists. And then the event ended. Leaving the Internets to spin.

There’s quite an extensive conversation now running online about who’s to blame for the inequity, and who’s responsible to repair it. Some defend or explain the issue by describing the high-stakes economic life of contemporary professional theater…the risk of lesser-known artists or challenging content or different voices is too great to bear when margins are so low. Others suggest that professional theaters are subject to the pipeline that feeds such content to them, and the pipeline is failing women and minorities. Still others claim both arguments to be specious or circular or self-serving.

While it’s tempting to point in one particular direction — artistic leadership, administrative leadership, funders, audiences, pipelines, and the like — there’s a whole system of people and choices that conspire or just behave into such problems. In fact, there are multiple systems.

One seems to be the system of risk-assessment and risk-readiness of cultural organizations and their representatives (captured rather wonderfully by Adrian Ellis in this whitepaper). Another seems to be the system of privilege, where the connected favor those they know and understand, and together they construct entire infrastructures that keep it that way (captured with insightful, biting humor by comedian Aamer Rahman).

Adrian Ellis suggests that among the traits of a risk-informed organization are focus and backbone, or as he says it:

A clarity about ‘what really matters’: an ability, in all the genuflections and acrobatics that are part and parcel of effective leadership in a brokered environment, to retain absolute clarity about what capacities and purposes the organization chooses to protect, what can be negotiated, and what is nonnegotiable and why

The finger pointing creates conversational energy. But change requires concerted and connected effort to alter the machine.