As live, in-person theatre begins to return, many artists and administrators are focusing on the ways they can make this moment count—to come back to a changed industry rather than business as usual. In September, New York City’s Playwrights Realm gathered of a cohort of theatre professionals to wrestle with the question, What Does Anti-Racist Producing Look Like? Led by Hope Chávez, the four discussed the many ways they’re seeking to embrace a values-centric approach to putting on a show.
Hope Chávez (she/her), a creative producer, facilitator, and nonprofit arts consultant, is the director of artistic planning at Long Wharf, serving as the lead producer and chief deputy to artistic director Jacob Padrón. Shaminda Amarakoon (he/him/his) has worked as a carpenter, technical director, project manager, and production manager in regional theatre and on Broadway. Denzel Faison (he/him/his) is a Harlem, N.Y., native and the operations manager for the National Black Theatre. Sam Morreale (they/them) is an artistic producer, director, and facilitator who approaches work with a dramaturgical lens rooted in anti-racism and anti-oppression. And Mei Ann Teo (they/she) is a queer immigrant from Singapore who makes theatre and film at the intersection of artistic/civic/contemplative practice, currently teaching at Harvard and serving as associate artistic director of new work at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival.
The following is a transcript of their virtual roundtable, which has been edited and trimmed for clarity.
HOPE CHÁVEZ: I want to thank the Playwrights Realm so much for introducing this conversation for us. Something Sam challenged us to think about even as we began to take apart this question is: Maybe we should talk about what a producer is first. And it doesn’t have to be in a 101 way—it can be more about, what are we responsible for? As we think about how to approach an antiracism practice with producing, it’s probably important for us to first identify what is our role, our authority, our power?
SAM MORREALE: The first definition of a producer that was shared with me that really resonated was that we are charged with bringing an artistic process from concept to completion. And so what are we really charged with? I would say traditionally it’s the money, a lot of the budget. Deeper than that, because of the money, it’s also about the culture building of artistic teams. We are charged with holding the culture of the artists whose projects we are helping to steward and steer.
DENZEL FAISON: The producer’s job is to make sure that the production achieves its goals, whether that goal is to speak truth to power or to generate a certain amount of money. Whatever the morality of the goals, a producer’s job is to make sure that the production from start to finish achieves them.
CHÁVEZ: Adrienne Marie Brown talks about facilitation as being about bringing ease to process, bringing ease to difficult conversations. We have to do these hard things of bringing extremely diverse people and folks of different lived experiences together in order to create art, which is highly personal and sensitive. I see us as being really responsible for that—for the way in which folks communicate and the way in which power, information, and resources are allocated.
SHAMINDA AMARAKOON: I think I might just add some aspects about responsibility to the community, and how we as producers should be in service to the communities that we gather together.
MEI ANN TEO: I’m going to talk about what I want producers to have and not just do. I long for producers to have a vision based on understanding the situation of our society. How can we, as producers, be deeply connected to the most vulnerable, to those who need more access? How can our budget be our values?
CHÁVEZ: Don’t even get me started on budgets, man. I had a hard time not making this conversation all about budgets, but we’ll get there. So how is it that we go about beginning and laying these processes, so that we are living antiracism, and so that, as Mei Ann said, we are bringing our vision? And I don’t mean our singular vision, because a lot of us work within institutions that have cast a vision for the world we want, the community repair we’re striving for. But how do we start laying that foundation when we’re brought into the process?
FAISON: Angela Davis has a famous quote: “In a racist society, it’s not enough to be non-racist, we must be antiracist.” Coming from the perspective of the National Black Theatre, antiracism has been embedded into its mission since its founding in 1968. When you think of that time, in terms of the Civil Rights Movement and then just the history of arts and theatre in this country and how, at every step, every Black artist and person that came to the arts really, to quote: “All my life I had to fight,” in terms of being able to have spaces and to practice your craft and to share your craft with the community and not be dismissed. I think it’s important to acknowledge the specific concepts, the specific context of racial capitalism in this country, and how it affects people of color. And when I say racial capitalism, I mean racism as a technique for exploiting people of color and for fomenting hostility in working-class white people toward people of color to enable capitalists and people in power to extract value from everyone else.
MORREALE: Something that I know to be true, as somebody still emerging and freelancing, is that I honestly just push against institutionally all of the previous models of producing that keep us as managers and not as people movers, which I think is distinctly the difference between a producer and an artistic producer, for instance. So holding that title feels very important to me. I’m just not sacrificing my values and my integrity as I move and attach myself to each institution. If you hire me, I’m going to show up with all of me, which might mean interrupting systemic ways of processing and offering my own thoughts as to how we should move forward with care for the artists we are trying to serve.
TEO: Also hopping off of what Denzel brought in about: You must be antiracist. Let’s just say, if you’re not doing antiracist producing, you’re doing racist producing. And what if everything that you did, you were able to go and say, How is this racist, given that we are in a dominantly racist society? So everything that’s there can pivot to being antiracist. Nataki Garrett, the artistic director of OSF, the clarity of her line is, “Who benefits?” If producing has always been a certain way and it has been racist, we can ask, who benefits? And then we can continue to ask, how do we pivot that for antiracist producing?
MORREALE: My experience of the American nonprofit theatre industrial complex is that we have forgotten that we are nonprofits, that the point is not to make money, the point is to reach net zero. [We need to] constantly remember we’re not trying to benefit ourselves, we’re not trying to benefit the institutions, that it’s more important to take the time to ask the question,, who benefits? How can we shift what we’re doing in order to support the storytelling, in order to support our local community?
CHÁVEZ: I have a friend who has really encouraged me to think about how nature composts and how we can compost. How can we bring intentional death in a cycle to a thing and have it be nourishing? Whether it’s the nonprofit or the show, how will we decompose this and then ensure that compost is creating more nutrition for our community as we continue to grow and sunset?
AMARAKOON: I think also what’s important to me is to remember is: This really isn’t the beginning. Folks have been doing this work for decades, for generations before us, and I really love Hana Sharif’s offering that we are part of that continuum, we are continuing with their work. Hope, I really think that’s an apropos metaphor: that decomposition is part of a cycle and we are now trying to help along with that. And you are not alone, you’re not alone in that endeavor.
CHÁVEZ: Something I’m not interested in is saying, “Well, I know what you—person who shares a different identity than me—are going to need, and I feel really great that I planned for it, and now I’m going to get defensive when you tell me what I did for you is not what you were looking for.” I think there’s a slippery slope when we think we did an antiracist thing but it wasn’t what someone needed. Talk to me about how you navigate that.
FAISON: I think that means, for a producer and a facilitator, to let the people—the people being these artists and designers that are part of the production process—to let them dictate what they need. Because once you dictate the speed of change, or once you tell people what they need, you’ve slipped into paternalism. You may not be able to address the need exactly how the artist wants, but address it as best you can, and then every time a new need comes up you, now have that in your eventualities: “Well, now that I saw this in this production process, I can keep an eye out for this in the next production process.” It all boils down to: Trust the people, trust your artist. And give them the space to let you know what they need.
MORREALE: I think that white supremacy really asks us to be mind readers in our jobs, and that’s pretty humanly impossible. But what I think producers can do is to reveal all of the doors, all of the many possibilities that exist. And to acknowledge that we do not know, so say, “I do not know, but I am very interested in helping you figure it out and using all the resources I have access to.” I think being really clear that I’m showing up in my own humanity here, that I know that we have an idea of what the producer is supposed to do, and I’m telling you I’m not going to be able to fulfill those needs, nor do I want to perpetuate the idea of what a producer is. And as we expand the canon we also see—particularly as someone who works at predominantly white organizations—that when you bring in a Black cast, when you bring in a multiracial cast, a Latinx cast, an Asian American cast, all the types of casts that are non-white, and you start serving them the way you’ve traditionally served white casts and white shows, you find that all of our systems are broken.
TEO: You can say, “What do you need?” but a person wouldn’t even say, “I need child care,” because that’s not the industry standard. So a culture of care is really about breaking the industry standard, because that is capitalist and racist and patriarchal. A culture of care is moving us into a place where we’re actually understanding what people’s lives look like and then operating from there, with their agency and our being able to listen.
AMARAKOON: I love all these thoughts, and particularly that culture of care is really resonating with me. And that individuality is necessary within that, because of the initial question of, how do we not assume we know what’s best for everybody? It’s super tough; I just want to name this. We’re going to make a lot of mistakes. As Nicole Brewer has reminded us often, you’re going to do harm, people are going to get harmed. We can’t just flip a switch and all of a sudden we’re in an antiracist society. Harm is going to happen, but if you’re first leading with love, if you’re leading with grace, also leading with “I’m sorry” and “I’m here to listen,” then you’re proceeding with care, including for yourself as producers, as managers, because we do often shoulder a lot of the responsibility, but that can destroy us too. If we’re not also mindful of the grace and love we owe ourselves, we’re not going to be of service to other people.
MORREALE: I really appreciate that offering, that harm reduction offering. Because I do firmly believe that white supremacy built all of these systems that we now all subscribe to with a lot of violence. When you are a person in an institution that has a lot of resources, that is because of these systems of violence. And giving up those resources or redistributing them is a sacrifice, and it will hurt. It’s not going to feel good to get rid of these systems, and I think that is something that I try to share in my own facilitated practices.
CHÁVEZ: What I’m hearing underneath all of your answers is that all of this requires a deep self-awareness and deep self-regulation. Carmen Morgan says this: “Facilitator, know thyself.” So, producer, know thyself. I just really want to underscore that, because I’ve certainly seen folks who are well intentioned jump immediately into what they understand to be antiracism work or EDI work. As a white theatre to bring in their first all-Black team and to be like, “We did it!” and then not as individuals have the awareness of what it is that they have to do for their personal work in order to do this community work. Something we’ve identified is that producers hold a lot of power; we know where a lot of money and information lives, so we often have the power—if not on our own—to persuade others to make changes in systems and in process. So with that power, how do we hold ourselves accountable, and how do we address harm when it happens?
TEO: I went through an incredibly hard time at an institution I taught at, and it required me to go through mediation with folks because the situation got so toxic. And I remember going through training with the mediator, and she pointed me toward the book Difficult Conversations: How to Discuss What Matters Most. One of the chapters was about how when you get defensive it’s because your identity is fragile. That was a very helpful concept for me. If I’m getting defensive, I can ask myself why. If we move from a culture of shame and blame, we can actually move to a culture of contribution. And so you can say: “I have a vision of making this institution, or this new-play development program or whatever, a place where people can really grow. If you agree with this vision, can you help me get there?” So I think, like in any feedback loop, it becomes about, what is actually the thing you are trying to create and do together? Then it’s less about attacks, and more about constructive understanding of what is.
AMARAKOON: I love that. I love the contribution framework, the shared vision framework. I’ll be honest here: I have a complicated relationship with accountability, as someone who is always going to be the first of something in my role. Whether I’m the first person of color in the roles that I do or the first South Asian in the roles that I do or the first Sri Lankan immigrant in the role that I do, I will always be the first. And that comes with both responsibility and a mindfulness for those who will come after me, as much as we might want to deconstruct that pressure.
MORREALE: I think we need to have many more clear conversations about how we would like to be in relationship with one another, and we really don’t.
FAISON: I agree with everything that everybody said. It’s wonderful to hear these things, and it speaks to the value of communication and trust in building a culture of care. It’s funny, we produce theatre to tell stories, but to get to the point of telling stories to the audience we also have to tell stories among ourselves as the community that is creating the piece. When we tell those stories and we openly communicate, it allows people to approach situations with a perspective they wouldn’t necessarily have had if they hadn’t heard your story. And I think that’s key to everything that’s being said and the idea of building this culture of care.
CHÁVEZ: I’m so grateful for all of that. Accountability is a really challenging thing. When we talk about, How do BIPOC folks take accountability? How do folks who sit at other intersections of marginality, as queer folks, as trans folks, as disabled folks—how do they take accountability within systems that are not only oppressing them, but on many unfortunate occasions, seeking to make it harder for them to succeed? That looks a little bit different than the accountability processes that one might expect if they sit in as many buckets of privilege as a white, abled, heterosexual cis man. But I also feel very strongly that we all hold places of power, and we also hold places where we don’t have power. And in the positions where I hold power over others, it is essential for me to remain accountable.
So just to offer a couple of ways that looks like for me. Budget transparency is a big one, giving me an opportunity for feedback, an opportunity for me to have missed something, for me to be wrong about how their needs need to be supported. And then I have peers at my organization who I regularly ask for feedback from, and that’s really critical to my process. Folks who can hold affinity space with me and call me into account, as well. We have so many questions in the chat, so I’m challenged to pick only one, but I’m going to go with this question about the ways in which a producer can support coming into a community: “How can one assess needs and create real tangible outlets of support? Basically, where do you start?”
MORREALE: I would to jump in first because I have an observation from my own work. It is important to me that when I step into my workplace, I am not just a worker, a producer, but I am Sam. I am brown, I am queer, I am nonbinary, I come from a poor background. All of these things, they’re a part of me and I would be remiss, for my own sake, not to show up with all of that. And what a gift to be lost by everybody else! When I think about serving each other, it’s really going back to asking for new ways of being and being adamant. Instead of just re-subscribing to white supremacist ways of being, doing what we all are speaking about here, truly taking a moment to breathe through something, ask the question, say: “No, you will not have my hours past X time anymore.” I know that at least for myself I’m coming back with a lot more fortitude to be able to do that, and I think that fortitude, collectively, is what it will take to create systemic change in the industry.
FAISON: As far as tangible actions: If, as a producer, you’re coming into a community and feel like you can just come in and change things based on what you know, you’re not participating faithfully. You’re just assuming things, and that’s paternalism. So when you come in, identify the issues within the community and build from there. That’s always the first step. And just to be honest and humble about where you’re coming from, what your perspective is; don’t act like you’re something you’re not. You have to know your limitations in triaging or building the community. And then, everything you say, you’ve got to back it up. Don’t pay lip service to the community; you’ll lose the community. Everything you say, back it up with some tangible action. Those are the things I think of when it comes to coming into a community as a producer and trying to change the culture or trying to better the culture.
CHÁVEZ: The thing that’s hard about this to answer in a straightforward way is that it’s about creating a culture, and a culture, as emergent strategy teaches us, is an iteration of small things. Having a pre-production check-in for the first time with your artistic team, you offer your name and your pronouns, you ask everybody to share their pronouns; it’s an opportunity, a reflection that you’re not making assumptions about people. It’s about access needs, it’s about lettings folks know about those options, like Mei Ann said. Everybody should know we’re going to have a community care consultant who is going to be able to speak to you if you ever have any needs throughout this process. It’s about the accumulation of all those little things. I actually don’t see it as a failure that I get now, more than even at the beginning of my time at Long Wharf, critical feedback, because that tells me the systems are working and I have helped to successfully create a culture that allows for feedback, that allows people to feel safe enough to say what their needs are and what they want in a process. Racism doesn’t just show up as someone using an offensive term on somebody, right? It’s the assumptions we make about what people need and how people ought to be treated, and everything we do can be questioned. The beauty of being a producer is that we can change many things. We can change almost all of it—not necessarily alone—but we can change anything we want to.
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