NEW YORK CITY: Theatre Communications Group (TCG), the national organization for theatre and the publisher of American Theatre magazine, has announced new officers for its board of directors. Nikkole Salter, actress, playwright, educator, and arts advocate, based in Bloomfield, N.J., will chair a slate of officers that includes three vice-chairs: Mara Isaacs, founder and executive/creative producer, Octopus Theatricals, New York City; Eileen J. Morris, artistic director, the Ensemble Theatre, Houston; and Meghan Pressman, managing director, Center Theatre Group, Los Angeles. Joining as treasurer and secretary, respectively, are Angela Lee Gieras, executive director of Kansas City Repertory Theatre in Missouri, and Lisa Portes, director and head of MFA Directing at the Theatre School at DePaul University, Chicago.
“As part of our strategic planning process led by Yancey Consulting, TCG is reimagining all aspects of our programming and organizational structure, including governance,” said Teresa Eyring, TCG executive director, in a statement. “We are therefore not adding new trustees until later this year. Instead, through the visionary leadership of these officers, our board will create a responsive new structure that evolves our governance alongside TCG as a whole. Nikkole Salter will bring her powerful artistry and commitment to equity to the board chair position at this critical time. Together with her fellow trustees guiding our efforts, we’ll work with renewed clarity and capacity toward a more just and thriving theatre ecology.”
All the new board officers are returning board members. Also returning are May Adrales, associate artistic director, Milwaukee Repertory Theatre; Raymond Bobgan, executive artistic director, Cleveland Public Theatre; Jeremy B. Cohen, producing artistic director, Playwrights’ Center, Minneapolis; Will Davis, director and choreographer, New York City; Snehal Desai, producing artistic director, East West Players, Los Angeles; Kelvin Dinkins Jr., assistant dean/general manager, Yale School of Drama/Yale Repertory Theatre, New Haven, Conn.; Teresa Eyring, executive director, TCG, New York City; John Fontillas, planner, architect, partner, H3, New York City; Nataki Garrett, artistic director, Oregon Shakespeare Festival, Ashland, Ore.; Derek Goldman, co-founding director, Laboratory for Global Performance and Politics, director, playwright/adapter, professor, Georgetown University, Washington, D.C.; Jamie Herlich McIalwain, director of development, Seattle Repertory Theatre; Laurie McCants, co-founder, Bloomsburg Theatre Ensemble, Bloomsburg, Pa.; Johamy Morales, director of education, Seattle Children’s Theatre; Ellen Richard, executive director, Laguna Playhouse, Laguna Beach, Calif.; Anthony Rodriguez, co-founder and producing artistic director, Aurora Theatre, Lawrenceville, Ga.; David Schmitz, incoming executive director, Oregon Shakespeare Festival, Ashland; Hana S. Sharif, artistic director, Repertory Theatre of St. Louis; and Harold Steward, producing co-executive director, The Theater Offensive, Boston. Members of TCG’s board serve up to three two-year terms. Board officers serve terms of one-year, renewable, and concurrent with the fiscal year of July 1, 2020 to June 30, 2021.
I spoke to Salter recently about the challenges and opportunities of this unique moment, and what they may mean for TCG’s direction going forward.
ROB WEINERT-KENDT: When the pandemic lockdown began I had a lot of conversations with theatre leaders about the need to rethink the field and reorient it toward justice and equity. Then the Minneapolis police killed George Floyd, and Black Lives Matter protests swept the world, and suddenly, belatedly, the need to overhaul the field seems more urgent than ever. It’s not just something to think about; it is imperative. Do you feel that urgency, and do think it will finally lead to change?
NIKKOLE SALTER: When I think about the trajectory of a shift in our field to becoming more just and inclusive and fair, I see a much longer storyline. There was definitely something very catalyzing about the George Floyd incident, but we’ve had plenty of similar incidents that were equally egregious that also spurred some to a response, and others not. I feel like the convergence of the downturn that COVID caused and the George Floyd event makes us feel now that we can seize an opportunity to make bold and sweeping change in ways we couldn’t before, when institutions were just concerned with maintaining themselves. The kind of bold and sweeping changes we are considering now would be so destabilizing in a quote-unquote regular world. But now that everyone is already destabilized, there’s really no point in thinking about rebuilding outside the context of just inclusion. So I guess my response is yes and no: Yes, George Floyd definitely had an impact on our world, but it was closer to the needle that broke the camel’s back than it is to the inciting incident.
One thing that I think about it is that there are often two conflicting impulses in a time of hardship and loss: a retreat to safety and old ways on the one hand, and on the other hand, a sense that everything is up for grabs—that we’ve got nothing to lose by being bold. Where do you feel the pendulum swinging between these two poles?
Given what I know about the sweeping changes being prescribed in the world of funding, retreat is almost impossible. There’s a song by Erykah Badu where she threatens, “And if you think about turning back/I got the shotgun on ya back”—like, you must go forward. Institutions that were used to being supported in crisis and non-crisis are now being told that they may not be. All of those institutions, along with other institutions that were already unstable, have to figure out a new model of doing business to maintain or reimagine their institutions to match the kind of funding they’re actually able to secure. Either way something’s got to change.
I’m curious what your experience of TCG has been over your career, and given that, what you think its role can be going forward.
My first engagement with TCG came in the form of a performance of In the Continuum when the conference was at the Guthrie that year. I was there for one day. I didn’t understand the implications of TCG at all. I do remember being there and feeling like, Oh, this is where everybody is. After that, my next realization was that TCG and American Theatre were one thing, and I thought, so TCG is not only this place that hosts conferences; it’s also this place that covers the field and publishes writers. Interesting.
The next engagement I had came under the auspices of my relationship with Marshall Jones at Crossroads Theatre Company; he was a very proud board member of TCG and referred to TCG often and told me I should go to the conference. And at the San Diego conference in 2014, I was blown away by the conversations that were being had or curated there—conversations I was having within my community that I thought only we were talking about. I lived in a bubble, like everyone does, so to see these conversations promoted across bubbles, as a norm in our field, was important. At the time I still looked at TCG as a white institution for rich people, so to have them talking about the varying experiences that people have, from varying affinity groups and intersectionalities in our field, and trying to understand those experiences in order to make the overall experience better—I was like, oh, okay. Then I always wanted to go to the conference.
I remember Marshall calling and asking me if I’d be interested in being a part of the TCG board, representing the individual artist’s voice. I was blown away by the possibility that I’d be asked to be a part of the governance or the decision-making process of anything other than my own personal career. But the person who occupied that space in the conversation on the board before me was a friend of mine, Lydia Diamond. I called and spoke with her, and she encouraged me to take on the opportunity if it came. I told him yes and I got voted in.
All of these experiences opened me up to really understand the theatre field at large that I’m part of. When you’re an individual artist, you go to your auditions and you hang out with the other artists, but it’s hard to get a sense of what you’re actually a part of, because you’re not a part of any of those other conversations. And you’re still treated in our field very much like a commodity—an expendable, replaceable commodity. So being there and hearing other perspectives on the field and hearing about how the field actually operated—I wasn’t too clear on how much it took to run a theatre, what all the positions were, what the best practices were in those positions. I was able to develop relationships with theatre professionals who weren’t individual artists, which gave me a lot more perspective and to be more useful as a representative of the individual artist voice in the board room.
Once you got to the board, did you feel like you were seeing the secrets of how things actually work? Were your thoughts more along the lines, “Wow, this is much harder than I thought, I really appreciate the challenges of leadership now,” or, “This field has a long way to go, and I need to be part of that work”?
I would say it’s a mix of those impressions. I did very much feel like, here I am in the room where it happens and I don’t know what’s going on. The assumptions we make about each other because of the titles that we have, or don’t have, were definitely something I had to overcome. I came to find that the instability of the field already existed at varying levels. You know, the multimillion dollar institutions and the scrappy, just-off-the-books institutions—none of these people claim to have money, right? Either because they have all this overhead, or because they literally have no capital. I thought that was interesting—how many people were operating in deficit.
It was also interesting to listen to people’s decision-making process in the services that they render: how they consider their community or their service to the world, or not. I’m a student of Zelda Fichandler, and her philosophy on the regional theatre movement was highly influential in the way I thought of myself as an artist. So to see how much the theatre field had become a pipeline of New York/Ivy league elite seemed quite counter to the theatre that Zelda was trying to make, where each of us is a kind of servant storyteller.
I guess in every field, not just in ours, you get to a place where you feel like the operation of the business and the mission and goal of service can come into conflict. But I felt that conflict a lot in the room.
It sounds like the conflict wasn’t necessarily personalized, like, Oh, those are the people on that side, and here’s the other side. The problems are more systemic.
Absolutely. And it was sobering in the sense that I felt like the system was already broken. The business model doesn’t work. Some people have found a way to navigate within it and they seem to be okay, but it’s actually not truly working for anyone.
One thing I think a lot about at American Theatre and at TCG is the extent to which we’re listening to the field and reflecting the field’s concerns vs. leading the field. Can you talk about that balance between listening and leading?
I definitely think that at this juncture TCG should take a leadership role in helping to shape a vision for what the field will become. Ultimately I see TCG as an institution dedicated to supporting the health of the ecology of the field. I know that sounds to some like TCG is the “theatre police,” but I think of it more as an institution with a bird’s-eye view of the entire garden, letting everyone in the garden know how well the garden is doing in your region or your institutions. You may not be able to see the entire picture, so our goal is to hold that entire picture and report the story back to you. It’s difficult for TCG because we’re also a membership organization, and a lot of people view TCG as a service provider: I’m paying you to give me services. But I feel that what the field needs now is that bird’s-eye view.
One of my main missions as an artist is to change the national zeitgest so that we look at the services rendered by artists and storytellers as being more than entertainment. Culturally that’s how we’re treated, which is in part why our business model had to be what it was before—in COVID terms, non-essential. But I think story is actually quite essential to humanity, right? That’s a part of what makes humans not animals: We actually can participate in our own evolution through the application of our will. And we do that through story. There’s a reason why we’re lumped together with schools and churches. We provide enrichment services. We help to provide sacred secular spaces for the consideration of humanity, our collective humanity and its expression. And that is a space that we need. We provide spaces where people can practice life. That’s what stories do.
I want to ask more specifically about the demands recently released by the We See You, White American Theater movement, which lay out in some detail a very clear vision for radically more inclusive, more equitable American theatre, one that decenters whiteness and puts BIPOC leaders and workers in positions of real power and agency. What do you think of the demands, and do you think TCG has a role in promoting or even enforcing them?
I’ve already had institutions reach out and ask how these demands should be used, and I’ve said, “I don’t know, how do you want to use them?” I think they can be used as a reference guide to the decolonization of our institutions. They are some measurable steps, like a rubric we can use to evaluate the activities we’re doing, and have already been doing.
With respect to how TCG may or may not promote these to the field, that’s a conversation I prefer to have with the departments at TCG that have been mapping out the trajectory of EDI work with their convenings. It will be interesting to see what the next evolutionary step is. So much of that work so far has been about building awareness. Now that we’re aware, what is the next step in our work to create a more just and thriving theatre field?
It would be a shame if after all this we just go back to the way it was. If we do, we risk undermining—continuing to undermine the value of the service that we offer. Some of these things you can do today, literally; some of these things you can do in a year or two. Some of these are overhauls entirely. We don’t want to look 20 or 30 down the road and have the same critiques of our industry. There will be some new things to examine, but hopefully not this.
Even before the We See You movement, a lot of the conversation around truly decolonizing theatre was moving beyond programming and even staff, which are widely understood to be in need of greater BIPOC representation, to focus on the makeup of boards, who hold the real governance of nonprofits and are overwhelmingly white. Do you feel that TCG has a role in pushing for change on that front?
I think that every aspect of what it takes to make theatre happen, whether it continues to happen at the proscenium or not, should include diversity and all of its messiness. You know, people still have hope that diversity won’t cause conflict. But even if you look at just the intersectionality of an individual, you’ll know that it causes conflict. I have many biracial friends, for instance—they are in conflict. But we’ve come to view conflict as evil, or, I should say, as the opposite of peace. I don’t think that conflict is necessarily the opposite of peace. I’m also a playwright, so go with me on this: Conflict is the catalyst for growth and transformation. Nothing happens without pain. Your mother screamed when you were born. How many times did you have to fall before you walked? Life without pain is a fallacy.
I want to close with two questions. First, what priorities are going to be in your mind as you take this post?
I would say that my priority is to ask questions. And the first question would be: Who is TCG and how can they be of service now to the field? What does the field need, and can we provide that? If not, what would it take for us to provide that? Again, I don’t think of TCG as the police, as top-down people telling people what the best practices are and what to do. It’s actually inviting people to the conversation to be a part of the amalgamated vision that we will hold on the field’s behalf. I would also love to see the TCG “membership” be a lot more reflective of the actual makeup of the field at large.
My final question is: If a young Nikkole were encountering TCG today, what would you hope that the organization could offer her?
Oh, wow. If my younger self were in this moment, what would I want TCG to offer her? Belonging. Information. The opportunity to both be a part of something and to help myself. Community and opportunity.