NEW YORK CITY: A group of eight producers who are Black, Indigenous, and people of color (BIPOC) are launching a new company, The Industry Standard Group (TISG), the first completely BIPOC commercial theatre investment and producing organization in the country. The company, with founding members Rashad V. Chambers, Miranda Gohh, Adam Hyndman, Toni R. Isreal, Rob Laqui, Sammy Lopez, Ronee Penoi, and Cynthia J. Tong, was created in response to the striking fact that the names that appear in playbills above the title of the play—i.e., those who invest money in Broadway productions—are overwhelmingly white.
“We’re creating this group so this group doesn’t have to exist,” said Laqui in an interview. As Laqui (he/him) explained, this organization was created to support BIPOC theatre producers in the commercial realm, while also supporting BIPOC-led projects and opening the door for new BIPOC producers who may have previously been excluded from this commercial producing world.
Laqui recalled two moments that demonstrated the need for the intentional curation of more BIPOC producers. The first came as he was walking out of his first production meeting for the North American producing office of the U.K.’s National Theatre, where he works as a production coordinator. After that meeting, he said, he turned to a colleague and noted that he was the only person of color in the room. While he had been aware of this lack of diversity during his performance career, he said it was moments like this that led him to truly realize just how much that lack of representation truly dictated the work that made it onto commercial stages.
The second moment came when he was working on the Broadway production of Hadestown as a representative for the National Theatre and having conversations with producer Mara Isaacs. “When I got into the Hadestown production room,” Laqui said, “I saw the real, intentional diversification of the creative team.”
This led to conversations with people like Isreal, whose company Realemn Productions works on diversity outreach and diverse press and marketing, and Lopez, a co-producer on Be More Chill and a team member at Marathon Digital representing Broadway productions. The shutdown of Broadway gave them the chance to reflect on the racial inequality in the industry (and the world), and they started to dissect the feeling of exclusivity they felt around the producer table.
“All of us within this industry see the inequality and have just kind of lived with it and participated in it,” Laqui said. “We’re really trying to answer the question, ‘What about a different model? What about a different way of thinking?’”
With TISG, these theatremakers are proposing a new way of thinking about funding and producing on Broadway, with the goal of creating more access points for BIPOC individuals interested in commercial producing. While the organization is only seeking investments from BIPOC individuals and communities, they also recognize that the historical economic inequality BIPOC people face means that the investment point usually needed to produce Broadway productions can prove to be a barrier.
So recognizing the need for allyship in their mission, TISG is accepting philanthropic giving from both BIPOC and non-BIPOC allies to support the building of a fund that can lower the initial investment point and help decrease the risk of that initial investment. These conversations, Laqui and Lopez pointed out in an interview, are not limited to only other theatremakers. They intend to work with a variety of organizations, both within and outside of the field, as they work to amplify the work of BIPOC artists and professionals who previously hadn’t been invited to these producing tables. In fact, said Lopez (he/him), they are looking to eliminate the accreditation barrier by accepting non-accredited investors.
“We’ve always had discussions around the idea that BIPOC folks don’t really see themselves as investors or producers in the theatre,” Lopez said, “and I think it’s about changing that perspective and creating our own narrative that we are and we can be a part of this.”
“As a newer producer in this business, it does get hard to identify mentors, those people you can look up to and see a trajectory of where you can be in x number of years.”
In that vein, the folks at TISG are also looking to serve as educators and community builders, helping those who may have less experience in the commercial sector of the field learn how the sector works while exploring new ways it can work. From there, a new community of BIPOC investors can grow. The hope is that TISG can serve as a springboard for new work, and that producers who meet through their organization may find mutual interests and go off to produce projects that they’re passionate about. The snowball effect will ideally be in the way this community grows and playbills diversify, as a future generation of potential BIPOC theatremakers will be encouraged to see themselves as Broadway producers.
“As a newer producer in this business,” Lopez admitted, “it does get hard to identify mentors, those people you can look up to and see a trajectory of where you can be in x number of years.”
In the short term, TISG needs industry buy-in and commitment to trying something new in an industry that can get stuck in its ways. They want to use this group and the work that springs from it to amplify the voices of artists and to place responsibility on the shoulders of producers to go beyond simply investing in the work, and to place real intentionality behind what they invest in and make sure that investment includes making sure the work done in a production is being done the right way. That intentionality includes democratizing the producing process, making sure that the work they produce is work they believe follows the mission and values of TISG—not dissimilar to how a regional theatre might evaluate plays for their seasons.
In the long term, they hope this will lead to changes in the productions seen in commercial theatre—productions that aren’t coming up through the same old pipelines with the same voices. Ideally, 10 years or so down the line, the industry will be experiencing and accessing a whole new breadth of work, work that makes BIPOC artists and audiences alike feel like they belong in a Broadway theatre. This effort includes creating real community engagement and diversity initiatives to make honest connections with BIPOC communities.
“We don’t believe that, in order to get you into our theatre, we just need to have discounted tickets available,” Lopez said, pointing to a common Broadway strategy of publicizing discounted tickets as the minimal effort to get BIPOC audiences to the theatre. “It’s really about getting active within the community and investing your dollars into those communities to reach them.”
With Broadway shut down until next summer at the earliest, TISG’s founders feel that now is the time to try something new. As Laqui noted, trying to activate a producing organization like this while Broadway was in full swing would have been a much longer process, not least because of the difficulty of getting schedules to line up. As Laqui and Lopez pointed out, this is an opportunity to enact real change that could affect not only the work seen on commercial stages, but entirely change the inventory from which theatres across the country choose plays.
“We’re trying to do all of the front end work so that when Broadway does come back, and it will, it won’t be the same as before,” Laqui said. “We’ll be able to really enact the strategies and the missions that we have put forward and really serve the people that have come along with us to be able to change the industry.”
Jerald Raymond Pierce (he/him) is associate editor at American Theatre. email@example.com
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