June 26, 2020
To all who have reached out in recent weeks with your thoughts, suggestions, support, and criticisms of Village Theatre: Thank you. Your honesty, courage, love, pain, and hope have catalyzed the conversations happening now at Village Theatre as we take a long, hard, unflinching look at ourselves as an organization that has contributed to harming Black, Indigenous, and People of Color (BIPOC). We mean it when we say we will do better.
Statements of solidarity are not enough. The pervasive nature of racism reveals itself in myriad ways and throughout most established systems in the United States, and the theatre industry is not immune. Like most American organizations, Village has blind spots, biases, and processes that need further interrogation and transformation. We also have work to do in making sure our organizational culture allows all people to feel safe, feel seen, and bring their full authentic selves to work.
Village Theatre is starting an intentional journey from behaving as a non-racist organization—one that believes in equality and views itself as open-minded and non-discriminatory—to an anti-racist organization—one that takes action against inequity and to dismantle structural and institutional racism.
To that end, today we are sharing the first set of concrete actions Village Theatre will take across all parts of our organization—mainstage, new musicals, and youth education—as we do this work. We will also make sure our budget supports these commitments and our values.
First and Foremost
The first, most fundamental action will be to hear directly from BIPOC, listen to their experiences and needs, and create systems of accountability to the BIPOC community. We will immediately identify and hire a racial equity/anti-racism planning specialist to guide a group that includes diverse staff, board, students, and artists, and to coordinate with our existing EDI committee. The group will deconstruct and reconstruct the existing racial equity action plan used by our youth education department to ensure it encompasses all aspects of Village Theatre and meets the actual needs of our BIPOC community. This will not be a place to educate white people (which is also necessary but will happen in separate ways that do not burden BIPOC).
Which Stories Do We Tell?
Theatre is storytelling, which in turn is a powerful shaper of how we view the world, each other, and ourselves. Village Theatre selects stories to tell on our mainstage, in the new works we develop, and in KIDSTAGE productions and curricula. But we must consider: Who writes each story? Who is the story about? Who decides which story to tell?
We commit to being more explicit and intentional about why Village chooses to tell each story. We will enhance and formalize the structure for how scripts are reviewed. This will include creating a diverse external group specifically asked to read and consider each script with the lens of equity and anti-racism. Village Originals scripts will follow a similar process, with the understanding that those scripts evolve as they are developed.
Who Tells the Stories?
Not only do the stories we tell matter; it also matters who tells them and in what way. Village needs to hire more BIPOC in all areas of the organization. So far Village’s commitment to diversity and inclusion has been shown in administrative and leadership staff, youth education, and the performers on stage. We are now focusing on hiring more directors, designers, musicians, crew members, and shop personnel of color. We will dig much deeper to identify the culture and systems that perpetuate homogeneity, be honest about which perceived barriers to hiring POC are real vs. excuses, and adopt specific practices to increase representation in all areas of the organization. We don’t have quantifiable commitments yet (for example, X% staff/crew/production team BIPOC by X year), but we will conduct an organizational scan of where we currently are and then create goals for which the organization can be held accountable.
For actors specifically, we commit to color-conscious casting in all mainstage productions, new works, and youth education programs/productions. The identity, body, and history of each performer affects the story, and Village will acknowledge that and be intentional in our choices. Furthermore, the burden of initiating conversations about how a person’s identity influences their character and the production should not fall solely on actors. One specific action step is that a member of Village’s artistic staff and/or the show’s director will call each actor between offer and acceptance to discuss the show, role, and concept. Actors in a production should be informed about and commit to the piece, its purpose, and the director’s vision before signing a contract.
We commit to identifying and working with BIPOC authors and composers, especially when telling stories about BIPOC experiences and communities. This is particularly important in our new works program. The musical theatre canon was overwhelmingly created by and for white people. Even in the 21st century, musicals as a genre have not been as successful as non-musical plays in creating space and opportunities for BIPOC playwrights, librettists, and composers. One way Village Theatre will help address our art form’s author pipeline problem is to intentionally, repeatedly choose to develop and produce new works by BIPOC writers. Of course we will produce BIPOC-authored musicals on our mainstage as well; the new works program is not a place to which we relegate diverse voices, but rather a space to cultivate more such works to expand the canon. Youth education will do the same in its new works program.
Our youth education program is instrumental in creating long-term change by developing the next generation of storytellers. KIDSTAGE students are the writers, directors, designers, performers, and producers of the future. It matters who is and isn’t in these special programs. Village Theatre KIDSTAGE is proud to provide a simple, guaranteed-acceptance application for financial assistance to all students in need; ability to pay is not, and will not be, a barrier. However, there is more to do. We will evaluate and expand where programs are advertised, how students are selected, who Village hires as mentors and teachers, and how we are eliminating barriers to and uplifting the voices of BIPOC students and communities.
How Do We Treat Each Other?
Artistic and executive leadership of Village commits to continually upholding a safe and caring work environment. We commit to rigorous, consistent personal and institutional interrogation to root out deep cultural norms and behaviors that are harmful to BIPOC. We will include the organization’s core values and equity, diversity, inclusion, and anti-racism statements in first rehearsal/meet and greet presentations with HR and company management, and we will make it clear that Village will not tolerate or excuse behavior that violates those values. To establish trust and keep communication lines open, Village will implement a system of regular, individual check-ins with all performers from first rehearsal through closing night. We recognize that we have not sufficiently supported company members after shows open and the creative team steps away.
Regarding physical production elements (costumes, wigs, makeup, lighting, etc.): BIPOC actors have called us in and shared their experiences of having to educate theatre professionals about their own Black and Brown bodies. This is not acceptable. We commit to acknowledging the specific individual needs of each production and actor, identifying and discussing production skill needs, and hiring personnel who can do that specific work. Not just any hair and makeup artist—one who understands Black hair. Not just any costume designer—one who understands how to dress a range of skin tones and body types. Not just any lighting designer—one who understands how to light Black and Brown bodies. Many Village Theatre performers have other amazing skills, including hair and makeup, and we will 1.) stop assuming those skills will be available to fill gaps in production staff knowledge and 2.) stop asking or expecting actors (or anyone) to do this extra work without agreement and compensation.
Unpaid internships are a common practice in the American theatre industry that exacerbates inequity by favoring students who do not need the income of an after-school or summer job, i.e. predominantly white students from middle- to upper-income families. These internships are a clear bridge into the positions we wish to fill with more BIPOC in professional theatre. For several years Village Theatre has offered paid internships specifically for BIPOC. We will continue to offer paid internships and are building a fund specifically to support and expand this program.
What Happens When We Make Mistakes?
The work of becoming an anti-racist organization is never finished. We will get it wrong along the way, then acknowledge our mistakes and improve.
Village will clarify and enhance our HR policies and practices. All HR departments, regardless of organization, are tasked with maintaining confidentiality while resolving complaints and affecting change. We commit to unambiguously setting expectations about how information will be shared, confirming the next steps at the end of each meeting, and following up more quickly. We will make sure each complainant gets closure and knows what actions Village has taken/will take. We are also investigating whether Village can adopt a policy of mandatory reporting for incidents involving micro-aggressions or discrimination on the basis of race or any other protected class, much like mandatory reporting already in place for sexual harassment.
We recognize that the “good worker” mentality is a real barrier to reporting and that the theatre’s position of power as a current and future employer can discourage artists from coming forward. Village will make sure everyone on staff and on contract is aware of our non-retaliation policy. Speaking up or making a complaint in good faith will not impact the complainant’s current employment or consideration for future employment.
How Does the Audience Experience the Stories?
In addition to considering the origin of each story we tell, we also need to think critically about how the story resonates here and now. We commit to gathering, creating, and sharing more robust dramaturgical resources with artists, staff, and audiences. We will embrace Village’s responsibility to help educate our patrons. This can, should, and will be done in many ways: program articles, lobby displays, blog posts, mailed newsletters, pre-performance emails, social media, facilitated talkbacks, and much more.
We recommit to diversifying Village’s audience, and to expanding the perspectives of our current audience. Our audience, like many in the American theatre, is predominantly white and does not reflect our region’s diversity. Village’s responsibility here is twofold: to make our audience more representative, and to use art and storytelling to broaden the worldview of our existing patron base. While our patrons will be at different places in their individual journeys, we can and will do more to ensure Village is a place where all people feel safe and welcome. We will create a comprehensive audience development and engagement plan in the coming months, separate from this statement, with further details.
Just as our youth education programs must equitably develop future storytellers and artists, they must also equitably serve youth audiences. In addition to building crucial life skills, participation in the arts as a child is the main predictor of arts engagement as an adult. We will continue to provide student matinees and in-school workshops and residencies, and we will intentionally prioritize long-term relationship building to increase free and low-cost services to schools with a high percentage of low-income students.
How Do We Live Our Values?
In addition to committing to more rigorous dramaturgical material on a show-by-show basis, we can and will be more present in ongoing industry and societal conversations about equity. Village has shied away from this in the past; going forward, silence is not an option. Our mission statement explicitly includes “promot[ing] positive values through art”; we must get better at sharing, talking about, and standing behind our core values. Staff are gathering and circulating many articles, book lists, videos, and more, with the intent to create a resource library and to share some of that material with our patrons. We are making a point of knowing who created the content and centering BIPOC voices in what we share with Village’s audience. This month’s emails and social media posts about anti-racism to our full contact list, including a frank public discussion with the actors who played the title group in Dreamgirls about the experience of being a Black woman in theatre today, were a first step. There are many more to come.
Saying “black lives matter” should be natural for staff members, and for Village Theatre’s public voice on social media and beyond. Village has done some training but not at all levels of the organization, and not on an ongoing basis. When we began intentionally working on racial equity in 2015, we focused on our youth education program and did not expand quickly enough to the rest of the organization. We wrote our first organization-wide equity, diversity, and inclusion statement just last year, in 2019, and there is so much more to do. We commit to expanding Village’s existing Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion (EDI) Committee, enhancing its purpose from basic EDI to an examination of systemic and institutional inequities, and implementing a recurring anti-racism training program for all staff and board members. Youth education staff, teaching artists, directors, and designers will be trained additionally on bringing social justice into the classroom.
Village Theatre needs to rebuild the trust we have broken. It will take continued progress and actions over time for Village to prove we are changing and keeping our promises.
So what is different now? We’ve changed our mindset: rather than talking about and addressing incidents as though each one is isolated and independent, we are interrogating processes and cultural norms, and talking about implicit bias and racism as pervasive phenomena. We are admitting complicity. Most importantly, we are committing the full organization to specific actions and systemic change.
We recognize that this statement is incomplete. There is more to discuss, more processes to question and change, more transparency needed in how we share what Village is talking about and committing to. We are under no illusions that what we’ve written here is enough. We commit to continuing Village’s work toward becoming an anti-racist organization in the long term, not only when the struggle for racial justice makes headlines but all the time.
Robb Hunt and Jerry Dixon
Executive Producer and Artistic Director