Last summer the live theatre industry’s commercial trade association, the Broadway League, plucked Gennean Scott (she/her) from Omaha, Neb., to fill a newly created position as the League’s first director of Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion. Hired from a national search conducted by Arts Consulting Group, Scott has been tasked with helping the industry navigate a more socially conscious time, when more equitable representation on- and offstage is becoming an increasingly non-negotiable requirement.
Scott’s hiring clearly signals that both the business and artistic sides of Broadway recognize that the issue of better representation in the theatre is not going away. The League found Scott after looking far and wide for someone with a track record of turning tough conversations into actions around EDI in the arts. A former dancer who founded a teaching and performing arts company, Scott has worked in education, human resources, and EDI spaces. Her first formal EDI work came as a site supervisor for an inner-city public school in Omaha through the No Child Left Behind initiative, where she found a sense of purpose training people to recognize their own bias and to respectfully engage with folks of other backgrounds. Her next job creating equity came at the Omaha School of Music, where she partnered with the John Beasley Theatre on a production of The Wiz that featured an all-Black cast and crew, providing many performers their first experience in theatre.
She comes to the League after seven years as vice president of Human Capital and Inclusion with Omaha Performing Arts, where she implemented EDI initiatives and programs. OPA is the presenting organization that brings Broadway touring shows to the city’s historic Orpheum Theatre, regularly selling out runs there, and its Nebraska High School Theater Academy, presented in partnership with the Broadway League, celebrates theatre and connects students to Broadway resources.
I spoke to Scott recently over Zoom about her background and about the challenges and opporutunities .
LEO ADAM BIGA: Did you seek out the position or did the League seek you out?
GENNEAN SCOTT: I found out about the position through several colleagues who are a part of the League. I saw the posting as well. So I applied. The whole time I thought, they’re not going to pick me, I’m from Nebraska, they don’t want me. Obviously I was wrong, and I’m glad. I am incredibly humbled. Statistically, I should not have made it out of the O, let alone hold an executive position on Broadway. I was born to a single mom with a high school diploma. Then I had a child at 19, having to rely on government assistance at times, working full-time while going to college full-time to provide for my child. I had some lean years.
You’ve said insecurities about being from flyover Nebraska reflect a mindset that can cause folks from here to undervalue themselves. But this state has given the world everyone from Fred and Adele Astaire to Marlon Brando, from Swoosie Kurtz to Merle Dandridge, or more recently Andrew Rannells and John Lloyd Young. Still, that less-than perception persists. Are you eager to put an end to that?
It doesn’t matter where you’re from. We have to believe in ourselves and help elevate, support, and edify each other. Because we are in the middle of the country, so far away from either coast, we get looked over. There’s lots of talented people in Omaha and greater Nebraska. As a community and as a state we have to do a better job of cultivating and encouraging our own and not letting them think that just because we’re from Nebraska we can’t. We can. We’re just as credible as anyone else.
With your EDI background, the League job must have appealed to you as a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to make impact at scale, in a public-facing space touching millions?
I knew that I would be the first. I knew it was going to take a lot of work, a lot of grunt work, a lot of grassroots work, and I am not opposed to getting my hands dirty. Everyone should feel as if they belong, not just audience, but administration, cast, and crew—everyone working in the industry. To be and to do that on such a grand scale and to know that I would be the first—yes, I thought it was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.
How do you describe the job, what prepared you for it, and what difference do you hope to make with respect to greater representation?
As the first EDI director for the Broadway League, my position is to streamline the League’s 16 EDI initiatives, serve as a resource to our over 700 members, build community relationships and work within the industry to create equity, diversity, and inclusion on- and offstage, in the audience and administrative offices. Drawing from my over 20 years of equity work with nearly 15 years in arts administration, I have developed training, leadership, mentoring, and recruitment strategies that have increased the representation of the global majority in management roles. In addition to the elevation of those individuals, I have implemented practices to engage a more comprehensive arts audience in marketing and education. I’m not one to wait on others to create a lane or space for me, and I plan to take that same approach within this role. We can no longer rely on the traditions and ways of the past that historically shut individuals out of Broadway. My mission is to create a more inclusive, diverse, and equitable Broadway for all.
When you were a dance student and competitor in Omaha, did you personally experience what it’s like to be on the margins as an artist of color?
I didn’t see anyone who looked like me. At that time my mother was a single parent. She was working two or three jobs to provide for me to do all this stuff in dance. I recognized we (people of color) didn’t have access. I just knew it wasn’t right.
In your late teens you won a talent competition that took you to New York City and gave you your first glimpse of Broadway.
New York City and Broadway are, of course, the mecca. It really opened up my entire world view globally to what we can really do. I went to a musical (Five Guys Named Moe) and everyone onstage was Black. It was just mind-blowing to see that there are other people of color who actually love dance and the arts. I’ve always had this quest for trying to expose people who come from backgrounds like mine. The whole feeling of the system not being right is what’s driven me my entire career.
It seems early in your career you were very much following an intentional path, from teaching about bias to creating more avenues for equity. Did that make joining Omaha Performing Arts a natural next step?
I liked teaching about unconscious bias. I liked looking at and creating programs to level the playing field for students who are marginalized. It was great. We had opened up a whole new world for this community. I was like, this is what I want to do with my life. Then an opportunity presented itself at Omaha Performing Arts, the largest arts organization in the state of Nebraska, and why wouldn’t I want that because of the much larger footprint it offered to make a difference? When I interviewed for the position we talked about what the perception of Omaha Performing Arts was as I saw it as a person of color. I saw it as sterile, unapproachable. The only persons of color I ever saw were the housekeeping, box office, and security staff. When I walked in I didn’t see anybody who looked like me. I didn’t know if I was really welcomed. My job became dismantling that. I believe in transparency and in holding people accountable. We created a leadership training program and pathway that reached out into the community and internally within the staff.
Do you feel that people’s potential goes unseen or unappreciated in many organizations?
It’s not that they don’t know how; it’s that nobody has opened the door for them. That’s really what it became about: opening up the door. One of the things I am most proud of of the work I did there is that we not only checked a box in creating more jobs, but those people actually are in leadership positions and they actually drive stuff.
During the pandemic you initiated a Voices Amplified series showcasing the work of local Black artists and creatives. Your approach to curating that series is similar to how you’re approaching things at the League, correct?
We pulled together this community resource group and we listened to what the community had to tell us they needed and wanted from us. I’m really proud of it because we celebrated our own in the community. We also put the marketing machine of Omaha Performing Arts behind them.
You’re also co-founder of a networking-support group for Black professionals working in white institutions and organizations.
You’re referring to the Black Arts Leadership Alliance. We talk about different things and issues. Microaggressions, hiring practices, marketing programs. We bounce things off of each other. We provide that safety net.
And didn’t you start a dance studio in Omaha?
Yes, I AM Dance. I didn’t want anyone to feel what I felt when I would walk into a studio sometimes and wonder, do I belong here, why am I the only one? I didn’t want parents to have to do what my mother did: work three jobs in order for me to be able to do something that I loved. We looked at cost and how we can offset the expense. We looked at our teaching staff. Our teaching staff is very diverse—the majority of them identify as people of color. We looked at how we marketed. We made sure we marketed to those communities that are not traditionally marketed to. Even though I’m in New York now, it’s still my baby. I have an artistic director and office manager who run it day to day.
And now you’re among a group of allied professionals working in the equity, diversity, and inclusion space on Broadway.
A lot of the shows have hired their own EDI directors, and we talk all the time. None of us are performative. We are all committed to this. We all have a passion for this type of work. We check in with each other all the time. This work is heavy and this work can be daunting, because everybody wants to see change right now. We didn’t get here overnight, so It’s going to take patience, it’s going to take time.
There were already programs here at the Broadway League: a young audiences initiative called Broadway Bridges and a League fellowship program that fosters diverse talent behind the scenes. The problem is they weren’t communicated to those individuals they were built to help. I’ve had over a hundred conversations with producers, writers, company managers, you name it, and there has not been one person who’s said, “I don’t understand why we’re doing this,” not even privately or off the record, and that is actually quite surprising to me. They have all been: “Whatever you need, Gennean, call me any time,” “How do we do this, how do we move this forward?” “We don’t want this to be a one-time thing, we recognize we have to change.”
It’s not just about ethnicity or about Black, Latinx, or Asian Pacific Islanders. We’re talking about people with disabilities, we’re talking about sexual orientation and the non-binary. We’re talking having (appropriate) dressing rooms, creating an (inclusive) environment in casting and all of those types of things. We’re talking working with the different unions. So this conversation is vast.
What role does the League play in a case like Jagged Little Pill, which has had serious allegations leveled against it by both cast members and outside activists, or the case of a high-profile star, Karen Olivo, who leaves a hit show—in her case, Moulin Rouge—to protest systemic oppression?
The producers of those shows are conducting their own individual investigations. Because the actors involved are represented by Actors Equity, that organization is conducting an investigation as well. We step in to provide training, education, resources—whatever we can to make sure every individual in every show feels included. It may mean bringing in experts to come in to speak to this and help create a plan. The shows have EDI individuals and plans.
What about Broadway as a whole, in terms of making sure the old status quo will not stand?
I believe there’s going to be change. I believe there’s some education that has to take place, so that cast members feel like they can be their authentic selves. Any room I walk in, my ethnicity, my gender—we’re never negotiating that. That’s who I am. You know who you hired, you knew who I was when we connected. I think we all have to step into and be boldly who we are and never make it negotiable. It should have never been on the table. I know that is where we’re going.
The work of broadening horizons and thinking outside narrow prisms comes down to education, right?
Absolutely, I think that comes with exposure. I mean, we’re creatures of where we’re from and of our environment, right? If we’ve never been exposed to anything different or interacted with anyone different or been taught anything different, then we’re going to continue to operate the way we’ve been operating. Sometimes people don’t know what they don’t know, which is why we sent our leadership and staff through anti-racism and implicit bias training. We’re looking at other trainings to build on. Shows have hired positions like mine to do the same things.
It’s challenging work and we are in a challenging time. The traditions of the past can’t be of today from this day forward. We can’t fall back on those things, because those ways shut people out. The business has to evolve. The business side recognizes this—that in order to be viable they have to change.
Do you carry forward any lessons from your time at Omaha Performing Arts, whose president, Joan Squires, is a veteran in the field?
Don’t apologize asking for what you need and what you want, and don’t accept no—I learned that from her. I use that every day. I don’t apologize asking for stuff, especially when the stuff I’m asking for is like, c’mon.
The league supports the recently formed Black Theater United and its New Deal for Broadway to create a more equitable, diverse and inclusive landscape, is that right?
We signed onto it with many other industry stakeholders. It calls for more transparency. Task forces and committees are meeting to establish these competencies and roll out a plan for implementation.
Just as Omaha Performing Arts crafted a statement embracing EDI, and at that point you emphasized that this cultural moment required more than words, are you impressing upon Broadway’s stakeholders the same put-your-money-where-your-mouth-is message?
Okay, we said this, but we’ve got to do something. We can’t just put out a statement and continue with business as usual. There’s so many exciting things I wish I could talk about right now that are going to be happening within this next year that my new boss, Charlotte St. Martin, signed off on. I can’t wait for you all to see it. There’s some big things. It’s been with the community informing me. I went on a literal listening tour of people in the community and hearing everything they had to say: good, bad, and indifferent.
As I’m establishing some of these programs and initiatives, I’m going out into the communities in New York trying to embed myself. I’m looking at who the key stakeholders are and developing relationships, asking, how can we be of service to you? I learned that in Omaha, seeing how much easier it was to get things done when I had a community of people who supported me and said, yes, this is what needs to happen.
I’m asking with the backing of the community. Then we’re able to start putting these initiatives in place. And it’s not just for New York, because Broadway is national and international. Keeping in mind where I came from—OPA hosting Broadway artists—one of these things actually developed because of the need that I saw with touring shows on the road.
What happens if Broadway somehow backslides and all this momentum and mandate around EDI wanes?
If we fall short, hold me accountable, call me to the carpet. I have no problem with that.
Leo Adam Biga (he/him) is an Omaha-based freelance writer and the author of the 2016 book Alexander Payne: His Journey in Film.
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