Recently, my cast attended an 80 minute long workshop on oppression, led by the Community Programs Manager at the theater. It was great to witness and incredibly powerful for our cast to experience. I've seen EDI training similar to this become more and more common in theater across the nation. Theater is no exception to the problems so highlighted in Hollywood right now, which was actually proceeded by the Not In Our House movement led by the theater community in Chicago. The recent issue concerning yellowface at the MUNY sparked national attention and many theaters have spoken out. Representation is a huge issue onscreen and onstage, along with providing access to communities that normally are not so welcome in our audiences. But theater is making strides, in more areas than one. I am proud and hopeful.
I work at a LORTA theater with a conservatory program, and it's like working at 2 different theaters with 2 different production teams. It can mean that any moment I have many resources (asking two different PM's for advice) and non at all (conservatory program has no $$$).
I am a queer cisgender white woman, with no developmental or physical disabilities. I am neurotypical.
I have close family members who are: autistic, transgender, queer.
I acknowledge that I have many privileges and biases that influence all my actions and interactions. I strive to be an ally and a life long learner. I will never be able to or strive to speak for any community that is not my own. I aim to make space for others and utilize my privilege for that purpose.
A Stage Manager in Conflict.
When any issues come up in rehearsal, it's vital that the stage manager is able to intervene, deescalate, mediate, and/or offer solutions. Most questions, concerns, and disagreements can be tabled for after rehearsal hours. Often, the director is able to navigate the room and move forward. Serious conflicts between people are handled by Production Management/HR. I've had my share of difficult conversations; most of the time between parties appropriate for a stage manager to be the liaison for (e.i.: the actor and the company, between actors, between myself and my ASM, etc.). Sometimes, the power dynamic is too difficult to overcome. I have heard of horror stories about Artistic Directors saying offensive, derogatory comments that leave any POC/neurodivergent/queer people in the room feeling deeply uncomfortable and disrespected. In these instances, I know of veteran stage managers who were present shrug and say "Oh well, that's just how they are" as a means of excusing old/white/straight/cis/neurotypical directors and artistic directors. The director must run the room and have a strong vision. Standing up to that is incredibly difficult, especially when they come with an impressive resume and whole company of artists who are loyal to them.
But what if you find the Directors vision of the show/artistic choices offensive?
Although Directors should NOT be coddled and should be held accountable for their choices, sometimes the power dynamic in the room is not safe for all voices. It is the stage managers responsibility to not only speak up for the actors, but also for themselves.
Take it Step by Step.
1. Remain Calm.
You may find out about this choice in an email, production meeting, or even in the middle of rehearsal. For the purposes of this post, let's call it "misrepresentation". Upon learning about said decision, your emotional response can be very intense. It's difficult not to immediately respond aggressively and begin to list off all the reasons why this decision is poor but the director/SM relationship is one that must be kept whole. There must be mutual respect, openness, and professionalism. Directors are a tricky group, and questioning their artistic choices is NOT an easy thing to do.
2. Address the issue promptly, and don't let on that you're offended just yet. In my case, I requested a check-in time, one-on-one after rehearsal, with the director concerning these choices. Instead of predetermining the meeting as negative ("This choice is offensive"), I set up this meeting with a question ("It's a choice I didn't know about and I would love to fully understand"). As the stage manager on a show, you must understand not only the physical aspects of the show but also the vision. Although stage managers don't normally get to make artistic decisions, they do need to know about them in order to maintain the artistic integrity of the show once it opens.
3. Assume the best - intention vs perception
My director had wanted to add this misrepresentation in order to achieve greater representation in our cast. It felt like representation for the sake of it and a lot like tokenism, so I pushed further. She believed that it was doing more for the community in question to be represented onstage by a non-community member than not at all. And didn't I want more representation onstage? Was she a better ally than me because she wanted more representation than we had, even if that meant actors portraying people that have had a long history of poor/general lack of representation in the arts/media at all?
I disagreed. Deeply. It was hard to hear, but I heard her out. She truly thought she was doing good, even when she was causing harm. It was a perfect case of "good intentions, bad consequences". I knew it wouldn't be perceived as positive representation, but rather poor and offensive misrepresentation. In that meeting, I had to be more honest and vulnerable than I ever had been as a stage manager before, while trying to keep our working relationship intact. These were the important things to convey in that first check in:
I consider myself an ally to the community in question. I hold myself accountable, and that's why I'm speaking up and wanting to understand fully what the vision is for the show.
I personally identify with the group you're trying to misrepresent. Without going into detail, I informed her that there were personal stakes for me which made this a difficult conversation. This is a risky thing to admit, because it puts you in a vulnerable position and also discredits your opinions the moment you get emotional/assertive. Assure them you can keep your cool (and then do that - keep. your. cool.).
I am an ally to this situation. Because there were personal stakes, I emphasized that it meant I was extra dedicated to assisting her and helping find a solution, NOT shutting her down or trying to destroy her vision. As a dedicated member of the theater community, I was doing this for the cast, production team, and industry as a whole as well.
I am not a trained EDI or Human Resources professional - I'm your stage manager! I needed to make it clear that, although I wanted to be utilized as a resource, I am in no way trained to professionally handle these conversations between herself and the actors she was asking to do this. There must be structured, set aside time to discuss these topics. Putting you on the spot in rehearsal ("Oh hey! You're 'X'! Can you tell me if I'm doing this 'X' accent right??) is inappropriate. You are an ally and not there to excuse their actions. They can't vie for your approval because that's not how it works.
"...our goal remained the same: make this show happen and happen well."
4. Offered Resources. I knew we had a strong team of professionals that led EDI workshops and dealt with this type of thing before. I offered them as a resource because, hey, aren't we too busy for this? Wouldn't it be great if we got assistance to make sure we were doing this properly? I encouraged her to do her research but at the end of the day, we needed HELP in navigating this. There was no way she could do it, and do it well, on her own. I disagreed with the decision, but I knew that there were people from the company who could talk to her about it in a way that a) was going to be listened to because they had the creds and b) wouldn't harm our working relationship.
5. Immediately inform your supervisor and their supervisor.
After the initial discussion, I immediately called my Production Manager and Producer. Contacting the Producer may not be an option for you, but it's important that multiple departments are aware of risky decisions like this. I expressed that 1) I found these decisions deeply offensive and I knew others would too and 2) I requested help/support for my director in navigating this conversation. I also mentioned that, although I would speak up as needed, educating my director/cast was not my job. They could not lean on me heavily, as I was already stretched thin from a very demanding rehearsal schedule. I also made it clear that, if these decisions stayed, I would stay with the show but I would not be quiet about my disappointment. I would tell people not to come. That was the closest I've ever come to a "threat", and it was a pretty mild one, but they needed to know how strongly I felt. Feeling "upset" is not the same as "I will be telling people that this is offensive and not to attend". One person telling their whopping 3 friends is not exactly a real threat, but many theaters are not interested in stirring up controversy right now. Luckily, I was listened to.
My Production Manager contacted the appropriate parties to have a meeting with our director. They expressed their concerns and ultimately the director "went in a different direction" with the characters in question. It wasn't a perfect meeting (a lot of "patting ourselves on the back" for talking about diversity at all like it was a miracle) but the outcome was better. Although there can be tension in the room between my director and I, we were able to move forward positively as our goal remained the same: make this show happen and happen well.
This Sounds Too Good to Be True...
This is an exceptional experience in many ways.
For one, this was with a group of young actors who technically fell under the Education department of the company. Thus, the educational component made it particularly compelling to discuss the impact of this directors actions on our youth.
Also we were working with a guest director (not an Artistic Director, or Director we had a stake in the relationship with) and I had been with the company for over 3 years. My opinions did not weigh more than hers, but I was and am a trusted member of this theater. I would not raise a red flag over nothing.
This decision was NOT made before casting. If it's not a part of the casting process, is it really a part of the vision? It makes it hard to justify if it's an afterthought. What makes you need this NOW? If it's so important, why not recast?
This decision was NOT supported by the script. It's hard to justify when it's not in the text! Other shows may have compelling textual evidence (or possibly a problematic playwright).
The cast already was diverse. What qualifies for "adequate" diversity in a cast is not something I will get into at the moment, but it's important to note that this casting was done in a way that allowed for many roles played by POC and a lot of queer representation onstage (the typical male romantic lead was cast as a female - so now it's a gay love story). Although there is no way to truly know how diverse your cast is without asking them personal questions (religion, ability, sexual orientation and other "invisible" identities), it's important to look at what you have an embrace what you have instead of adding on layers that are not real representation. If you failed to cast diversely from the get go - that's not an issue you can solve later with false representation.
The Take Away.
There are things that could have gone better. My director remained on the defense with me for a while (although I also learned that this was just part of her directing style/personality). It was important to follow up with her about her decision and make sure she felt supported by the company. Her vision did not suffer after she revoked these character choices, but her ego did. I can only hope that she learned from the experience and makes more informed decisions in the future, but it's not on me if she doesn't. Things that I could have done better include:
1. finding specific examples in our industry (instead of just personal ones) that were shut down because of their offensive nature. I needed that real world backup!
2. More follow up. Our one follow up conversation went just fine, but as she became very defensive I had a hard time bringing it up again.
It was an incredibly important experience for me to have. When I normally stand up to my director I know I have the backing of production, and in this instance, I felt unsure where the rest of the company would fall. It's important, when signing onto any projects in the future, I can identify who my allies are within the company and what their policies are when it comes to casting, complaints, and EDI training. All theaters are at different stages - some theaters have begun to put pronouns on their name tags and some are performing in yellowface. Know where your theater stands and always find ways to push and promote justice. As a freelancer it's not always possible to make concrete change, but making your voice heard will never not be important.
Over and out.