Leaders at Center Theatre Group already knew something was amiss on the fateful Tuesday that would rock not only their $62 million company but the entire theatre world.
“We knew we had to pivot and let folks know,” said Meghan Pressman (she/her), the managing director of CTG, which had on Sept. 30 proudly announced a 10-show 2021-22 season at two of its Los Angeles venues (the mid-sized Mark Taper Forum and the intimate Kirk Douglas Theatre, though one Taper production, The Lehman Trilogy, would be presented at CTG’s larger Ahmanson Theatre). It was by many measures a diverse mix of plays and musicals, blending new work and revivals by both local and out-of-town writers, a majority of them people of color, but for one significant metric: gender parity. Only one of those 10 plays was written by a woman, Pearl Cleage’s Blues for an Alabama Sky.
By Oct. 5, CTG had received a torrent of calls, emails, and criticism on social media, including from prominent author and playwright Sarah Schulman, and was in the midst of crafting an official response. And then the other shoe dropped.
“Los Angeles audiences deserve an equitable showing of the playwrights working in the U.S. right now,” wrote playwright Jeremy O. Harris, whose controversial Slave Play had been announced as the Taper season’s February 2022 opener, in an email that he shared in a screen shot on Twitter. “I’ve spoken to my team and would like to begin the process of removing Slave Play from the season at this time.” He listed a group of female playwrights whose work might take his place in the season: “Celine Song, Tori Sampson, Aleshea Harris, Claire Kiechel, Antoinette Nwandu, Ming Peiffer, Whitney White, Clare Barron, Majkin Holmquist, Genne Murphy, Aziza Barnes and so many more.”
The theatre’s public response came quickly after, and while it spoke of understanding the “frustration, disappointment, and even anger” of the community, and included a paragraph addressing Harris’s announcement, it also described commitments to program and commission work by women and non-binary authors that could not have been the work of a single afternoon. That is because, as Pressman told me, it wasn’t.
“This was a defining moment, not a creation moment,” said Pressman of the weeks-long tumult. The initial 2021-22 season announcement was “part of a multi-year reopening plan,” she said, that included previous commitments to shows, many pushed back repeatedly by the COVID-19 shutdown, others pushed ahead into future seasons. As Pressman sees it, the place CTG “dropped the ball” was in failing to communicate those commitments. And a big part of CTG’s discussions with Harris after his tweet, she said, consisted of revealing to him more about the theatre’s plans, and figuring out how much of them could be publicly shared.
A week later, on Oct. 12, the specifics emerged: The Taper’s 2022-23 season will comprise work by entirely women-identifying or non-binary playwrights, while the Douglas’s season will consist of plays by majority women-identifying or non-binary writers, and both slates of authors will be mostly people of color. The organization’s “Not a Moment, But a Movement” initiative also announced six new commissions of plays by Black women-identifying or non-binary playwrights; while no one at CTG characterized any of these newly announced commitments as concessions per se, Tyrone Davis, one of five associate artistic directors be charged with programming the next season, indicated that the “Not a Moment” commissions had not been entirely nailed down when Harris made his public statement. And Pressman acknowledged that the conversations of the past few weeks helped solidify a commitment that six planned commissions for Black writers would go specifically to women-identifying or non-binary writers.
In a tweet thread that day announcing that he would keep Slave Play in the CTG season after all, Harris foregrounded this commitment (“over 90k for black womxn playwrights in commission”) and called CTG’s multi-year plans “much better than having one woman take my one post.” Harris added, “Having an artistic staff that wasn’t defensive but ready to work also helped.”
Indeed, that staff—which included associate artistic directors Tyrone Davis, Lindsey Allbaugh, Luis Alfaro, Kelley Kirkpatrick, and Neel Keller alongside artistic director Michael Ritchie, who is on his way out of the job at the end of 2021—found themselves in this recent whirlwind after a busy year and a half of COVID-19 contingency planning and social justice-oriented self-examination.
“Oh my gosh, the meetings and the calendars,” said Allbaugh (she/her) of the past 18 months, recalling serial Zoom convenings in which programming was reshuffled, postponed, pivoted to digital, and eventually hammered into reopening plans that would, over a longer timeline than a single season, include more gender diversity than was initially announced. But, I wonder, did anyone inside CTG clock that that 2021-22 season announcement might raise questions?
“I definitely noticed it and asked, how are we counter-balancing this?” Allbaugh recalled. Hiring female designers and directors for many of the shows was one countervailing measure, as is producing a play like Benjamin Benne’s Alma, which features two strong female characters. But, said Allbaugh, “I acknowledge that this does not take the place of woman-identifying playwrights.”
That is where the majority-women-and-non-binary-authored 2022-23 season will come in. It will be selected by the five associate artistic directors, who are serving as a kind of interim replacement for Ritchie while new artistic leadership is sought. If there was any internal indeterminacy or contingency about how the first post-Ritchie season would shake out, programming-wise, everyone seems to be on the same page now.
“Normally we would not telegraph our intentions for a season plan before we announce the shows,” Pressman said of the commitment to a majority-woman 2022-23 season. “We don’t typically want to say, ‘Here are our programming desires’ while we’re still pursuing the people for those roles, and they don’t want to be perceived as us programming them just for those reasons.”
But, as Davis put it to me, the community, including Harris, “wanted us to articulate how we’re making space. Articulating plans in advance is not something we’ve done before, but we needed to let them know what’s coming. And Jeremy helped us have this conversation. To whom much is given, much is required. For better or worse, we are a leader in our field. And that means recognizing what people expect of us and voicing that.”
For a playwright to use leverage in this way is rare but not entirely unprecedented. Last year Sarah Mantell posted on Instagram that she had withdrawn a play of hers from a season at California’s Marin Theatre Company when she learned that the season they’d planned had only one play by a person of color, but that the theatre had at last achieved parity on this front (her play is now slated for the 2023, she told me). “White freelance artists have to speak up for anti-racist practices,” she wrote. In an email, MTC artistic director Jasson Minidakis confirmed that the company “did have a series of very productive and fruitful conversations with Sarah and director Kate Bergstrom as we were planning our season. We are incredibly grateful to Sarah and all of our writers and collaborators for being willing to have important conversations with us.”
I wondered what Pearl Cleage, the sole female playwright programmed at CTG in 2021-22, makes of all this. A veteran of the American theatre who is no stranger to being tokenized in otherwise all-white or all-male seasons, had she ever considered using her leverage in this way?
“I’m Black and female and Southern, so those are three areas of invisibility I have in many discussions about theatre,” Cleage told me this week. “So I don’t really think it has occurred to me to withdraw my plays. I want to put the plays forward. But that Jeremy did this was wonderful; I thank him for it. I don’t know him, but I was very impressed. I consider it part of the work that I’ve been doing and continue to do—part of the same struggle. And that my play is being done in that season, I think will make the conversation around it much richer.”
Cleage also stressed that while this moment of reckoning is necessary, it is just as crucial to keep in mind what it’s all for.
“The thing that’s so critical is that we have to come through this moment, and see that what is most important is to do what we can to make the art form vibrant, interesting, and deeply rooted in what America looks like right now, which is a whole lot of different people with different points of view,” she said. “That’s what’s going to keep the art form alive. If you start picking plays based on anything but whether they’re good plays, for their politics only, I think that devalues us as playwrights who are working hard.”
The key in that last sentence: the “you” that is picking the plays.
“What we’re really talking about is changing the decision-making point—that’s where the change has to occur,” said Cleage. “How can we open up that decision point?” Diversify the leadership, in other words, and the programming choices will reflect that. It’s something Cleage has seen firsthand throughout her career, which continues not only with the Blues revival but with a new play, Angry, Raucous, and Shamelessly Gorgeous, at Hartford Stage this coming season.
“When you have different people looking at this, you can avoid this kind of moment,” she concluded. Even then, she said, change is going to involve stumbles and lessons. “Sometimes it’s going to be graceful, but sometimes it’s going to be ugly and confused. It’s hard work trying to right something that has been wrong for so long. We are a small circle—it’s not a huge community still doing theatre in the 21st century. So let’s keep talking about it, and keep doing our work, talking about the politics but also writing the plays, directing the plays.”
The original draft of this story anonymized playwright Sarah Mantell and Marin Theatre Company.
Rob Weinert-Kendt (he/him) is editor-in-chief of American Theatre. firstname.lastname@example.org
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