Last Dec. 3, 2017, 30-plus board members and artistic directors and managing directors of seven Boston-area theatres (Actors Shakespeare Project, Bridge Repertory Theater, Central Square Theater, Israeli Stage, Lyric Stage Company of Boston, New Repertory Theatre, and Sleeping Weazel) spent an intense and productive Sunday in dialogue with Bill Rauch, A.D. of Oregon Shakespeare Festival (OSF). The subject at hand: an exploration of how each of the theatres’ virtually all-white boards could attract and retain board members of color, as well as develop audiences of color.
The convening was organized by the Greater Boston Theater Board Leaders Group (TBLG), a four-year-old group I founded to create a sense of community among theatre board members (I’m a former theatre board member myself), to explore common problems, to learn from each other, and to identify issues that could be better addressed as a collective community rather than by each theatre individually. A visual “aha” hit the room at an initial convening of board members from six small and mid-sized Boston area theatres in 2015—we looked around and realized that almost everyone in the room was white—and that led to a second convening in April 2017. There a panel of five theatre and community leaders of color addressed the question: What do we have to do to attract people of color to our boards and audiences? Two clear themes emerged: For people of color, being on a white board was an uncomfortable experience. And, as they put it, if we don’t see you in our communities, why would we want to be on your boards?
These were stark questions with no simple answers, but as Boston has recently become a majority people-of-color city, they are question that cannot be ignored. Boston theatres will have to learn how to create board and audience cultures that are welcoming and inclusive. Who better to learn from than Bill Rauch? Under Bill’s inspired leadership, OSF has made Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion (ED&I) a centerpiece of its cultural aspirations. As I told the group: We invited Bill to Boston because we felt that if his theatre could do it in a predominantly white area of Oregon (Ashland), we should be able to do it in Boston.
Interviewed by Benny Sato Ambush, a freelance Boston director and one of the April panel members, Rauch shared stories of his and the festival’s nonlinear, sometimes rocky journey toward inclusivity and equity, what worked and what didn’t. The morning session focused on where OSF was in regard to ED&I when he became A.D. in 2007; why diversifying the theatre’s board was so important, and what the consequences of not doing so would be; and how he addressed and moved through the various obstacles, institutional barriers, and pushback he encountered in the form of very human dynamics of denial, fear, stubbornness, and unconscious bias.
Rauch was also quick to point out a critical element in moving the organization forward: the inspiration and mentoring he received from OSF company members of color and white allies. The design of the day allowed for a robust Q&A, followed by a small group session that mixed board members from the different Boston theatres to discuss the challenges raised by what they’d heard. This session focused on the “how to” of the journey, and on what Bill has learned so far in the ongoing process: How did OSF keep its focus on ED&I in the face of other festival priorities, such as fundraising? How did he manage anxieties, both his own and others’? What does ED&I leadership look like on a day-to-day basis? And, knowing what he knows now, what would he do differently?
The day ended with a second set of small groups, this time divided by theatre, with each organization identifying two or three next steps they would take back to their whole boards for dialogue and implementation.
With a candor that immediately put the whole room at ease, Rauch recounted changes that had been made at OSF, difficult conversations that had not always been well managed, and how both the people involved and the organization as a whole had changed as they struggled through the often-prickly process of building a level of comfort with being vulnerable. What they learned, he said, was to keep their eye on the longer-term prize, and to take time to build the skills needed to create a culture that is welcoming, inclusive, and artistically exciting.
Rauch was also very clear that while OSF may be further down the road than the theatres in the room, OSF still has a long way to go. Still, he was able to list an impressive set of foundational activities and outcomes: They rewrote the festival mission, spent a year writing an “audience development manifesto,” created a number of “affinity groups,” started an audience ED&I group, began a series of cultural mapping exercises to more deeply understand their current reality, set up a governance task force focused on dismantling the systemic bias inherent in their structures and processes, restructured their leadership team, and, after recognizing years of foot-dragging, finally appointed a director of equity, dedicated specifically to these issues. The acting company has gone from 22 percent people of color to close to 70 percent. The festival is doing more plays by women and playwrights of color, and the number of people of color on the board has increased, though there is still more progress to be made on that front.
Some of the most powerful things Rauch shared were the changes that occurred in the way he, the board, and the organization think and talk about issues of diversity, inclusion and equity. He spoke about the tough trade-offs they’ve finally been able to make, and of a shift in many of their core assumptions.
“There is always a person of color for a job,” Rauch told the Boston board members. “The only limit is our willingness to look for them. The real question is, do you really want to listen to different voices?”
He spoke about the danger of making decisions in a white “echo chamber,” and about the absolute need for boards to focus on more than fundraising. In his opinion, the future viability of arts organizations requires it. There was pushback from a number of Boston board members, who lamented the all-consuming nature of fundraising. Rauch’s response, though empathetic, was firm: “The souls of your organizations are at stake…What are the consequences of not having diverse voices around the decision-making table?” He went on to explain that OSF’s focus on ED&I had actually increased their ability to raise money exponentially: It turns out that foundations like it when you stand up for your values, and set out to dismantle bias and privilege. In short, Rauch said, “A board focus on ED&I makes good business sense.”
Rauch’s willingness to share his personal journey—his early fear of having the “difficult conversations,” of dreading interpersonal conflict, of the shifting language and the almost knee-jerk tendency toward defensiveness—produced many nods of recongition in room. He spoke of his collaboration with a broad range of people of color who had (and are still) educating and mentoring him along the way, and said that as a white man, he did not consider himself an expert on ED&I.
When asked one big lesson he has taken away from the whole journey, he spoke of the importance of reflection.
“There was never time to reflect . . . but we have forced ourselves to put time into reflection.” He has also learned how to have those “difficult conversations.” As he put it, “If it’s rooted in respect, you can have conflict of ideas” without interpersonal conflict. He has also let go of his defensiveness. He has also learned that as a white person, he doesn’t ever get to have the last word on the experience of a person of color; when he is challenged, his response is, “Thank you for telling me.”
This work, he went on to say, is never-ending. Creating an inclusive audience is a “biggie”; in fact, talking about this challenge openly with the audience itself is one step they’ve taken, and they are paying more attention to connecting their artistic choices with the interests of a more inclusive audience. Creating a solid “on ramp” to the board for more diverse candidates is a must, as is developing a broad range of non-white social networks and keeping a healthy tension among board factions—activists and conservatives, roughly speaking. “When you’re really uncomfortable,” Rauch said with a smile, “something important is happening!”
Joan Lancourt has more than 30 years of experience managing in and consulting for global and local organizations in a variety of industries, government, and nonprofit sectors. She founded the Greater Boston Theater Board Leaders Group.