2018 Keynote Speech
Photo by Kaitlin Moreno
EMERGING ARTS LEADERS SYMPOSIUM
March 11, 2018
Seema Sueko Keynote Speech
Good morning. Thank you for including me in this robust symposium.
How many of you work in arts organizations or hope to work in an arts organization? [Raise Hands].
Back in 1981, Danny Newman wrote a book called “Subscribe Now!” It became a mantra for many theaters. The holy grail for how to build and sustain audiences.
I love the title of this symposium. ART NOW.
It feels like a reclaiming back from Subscribe now, and a reminder that it is about the art.
I’ve been thinking about who this directive ART NOW is meant for.
It can’t be meant for the artists, because we all know, artists will always create, have always, even under the most dire of circumstances.
Is ART NOW meant for policy makers, corporate leaders, and people on the street saying, “you need art!” Art Now!
I hope not. For if we have to say it, it’s not true. They don’t need us.
Instead, I’m going face this directive, “Art Now!” at ourselves. At the Artists and administrators who work in arts organizations. I can scan our fields and see examples where we’ve lost our way. Instead of Art Now, I see organizations whose mantras are still “Subscribe Now” or “Market Now” or “Fundraise Now.” They’re leading with these functions, putting them at the center, and they’ve forgotten their missions.
Art Now means to me: wake up, arts organization. Artists don’t NEED you, the Community doesn’t NEED you unless you prove yourself valuable to both.
What do you, arts organization, have to offer artists and community?
Because as arts organizations, our growth and sustainability depends on both. We must prioritize the art and the community or face extinction. And no one would care if our arts organization dissolved.
ART NOW to me means ORGANIZE NOW AND ALWAYS.
Today, I’d like to tell you some stories about organizing around this intersection of art, community, and arts organizations.
This first story is about Mike Eichler. It’s a story that has nothing to do with theater and the arts, and yet has everything to do with them.
This story takes place in the 1980s in the Mon Valley, just outside of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. The steel industry had closed its major manufacturing plants there, as many as 175,000 jobs were lost and without the tax revenue from the corporations, the Mon Valley was hard-pressed to provide basic services to their residents. People moved out, and the region was struggling.
Into this region, a man named Mike Eichler was sent. He was a community organizer, trained in the Saul Alinsky school of organizing. Are many of you familiar with the name Saul Alinsky? Saul was considered the father of modern community organizing. He wrote the book “Rules for Radicals.” He created a form of community organizing that is still used today. It’s CONFLICT organizing. In conflict organizing, you identify a target and use blame, shame, protest to achieve change. It’s often effective. So Mike Eichler was trained in this form of organizing and was working with the residents of the Mon Valley to protest the corporations that had moved out and decimated the region.
Now, Mike was starting to see that he could achieve short-term victories with conflict organizing, but he wasn’t achieving long-term change. But he fought harder and the protests got more vicious. One day he received a call from the Allegheny Conference, which was the very group of corporate leaders he and the community had been protesting. They said they wanted to meet with him. It had gotten so ugly, Mike didn’t know if they were going to kill him. To make it even more ominous, they met at dusk, at the top of the highest building in the area. When he got to the meeting, the corporate leaders said to him, “We see what you’re doing.” Oh-oh. But then they said, “we want to help, but we don’t know what to do. We think you can tell us what to do.” What? That was not what Mike expected. He had to think on his feet. He didn’t know if he was making a deal with the devil, but he said to them, “I’m the community organizer, I can’t tell you what to do, but you can meet with the community and together we can figure it out.”
What followed was a year and a half process where these corporate leaders came down from their tower and met in small circles with members of the Mon Valley community: teachers, students, the unemployed, etc. In each circle was one of these corporate leaders and a diversity of community members. Each person’s voice had equal weight. They met, weekly, with one question to answer “What do you really want?”
At first it was ugly, “I want you to give me my job back!” “I want you to stop vandalizing the building.” But they made a commitment and came back, week after week, what do you really want? Over time, they found everybody wanted the school system to improve. Everyone wanted unemployment to decrease. Everyone wanted that pothole to be fixed. Over time they discovered they had MUTUAL SELF INTERESTS. Once they identified that, they could organize to make those wants reality. Thus, the Mon Valley Initiative was born. It became a model for community revitalization and it continues to exist to this day. And thus, the methodology of Consensus Organizing was created by Mike. Where the primary question is “what do you really want?” and you organize only where and if there is mutual self interest or consensus. It’s not about compromise, it’s about building communities of mutual self interest.
That was the 1980s.
Fast forward to the 2000s.
Up until then CO, had only been utilized in community social work, like that example in Mon Valley.
I began applying CO to my theater practice.
This is story #2, the story of NIGHT SKY and one example of applying CO to theater.
NIGHT SKY is a play by Susan Yankowitz, written in 1991. It’s the story of a brilliant astronomer who is in a car accident which renders her aphasic. Aphasia is a type of brain injury, where the person knows what they want to say, but the words come out jumbled. You can get aphasia from a stroke or a traumatic brain injury. This play isn’t an issue play. It’s a play that’s been produced around the country and off-Broadway.
So it’s 2008, San Diego, and my little theater company, Mo`olelo, is thinking of producing NIGHT SKY, but I knew that in order to make the production artistically excellent, I needed to learn about aphasia. I had never heard of it before, I didn’t know anyone with it, and so how could we authentically portray aphasia on stage without meeting people from this community. And so, in pursuit of authenticity, artistic excellence and dramaturgical support, which were my self-interests, I connected with the San Diego Brain Injury Foundation. I let them know we were considering producing this play, but in order to do so, we needed help in learning about aphasia and wondered if they could help us.
They asked to read the play first, which I sent to them.
Several of their staff and board members read it and they came back to me saying, this is play is very compassionate and authentic about brain injury. We would love to help you. What can we do?
They introduced me to their clients living with aphasia, low functioning and high functioning. They generously allowed me to observe them in their homes, speak with their family members, tag along on their speech, occupational, and physical therapies, and just hang out and hear their stories. Eventually, when we did produce the play, I invited them to our first week of rehearsal to be our community dramaturgs and teach the cast about aphasia. In doing this, the Brain Injury Foundation was helping me achieve my self-interest for artistic excellence.
I then asked them what they wanted.
The folks from the San Diego Brain Injury Foundation said, “what we want, you can’t do, Seema.” I said what’s that? They said that their clients come to them after they’ve had a brain injury. They really want to prevent brain injury but that’s not what their organization is set up to do. They wanted to go to middle and high schools and educate young people about brain injury prevention.
I said, maybe I can help you with that. We have an arts education program called Three Part Arts. Part one, we prep the middle and high school students for the play. Part two, they see the play, and part three, we return to the classroom for a post-show workshop. Perhaps the Brain Injury Foundation could help us create brain injury prevention curriculum for the post-show workshop. They loved the idea, but recognizing they didn’t have all the expertise, they asked if they could bring other partners – CO Loves more partners – yes! They brought the Disability Awareness Network and Scripps Hospital’s stroke and TBI center. We met once a month for a year to build the post-show workshop. Now sometimes, we just gabbed and enjoyed each other’s company – but that was part of the community and trust building. At other times we dove deep into curriculum. What resulted was a post-show workshop that included an actor from the play, an expert from the hospital, and a brain injury survivor. The hospital expert talked about the science and physiology of the brain, the actor demystified the artistic process, and the brain injury survivor provided the real-life experience. These post-show workshops were extremely successful, touching on science, art, behavior, and values. And so in this way, the Brian Injury Foundation’s self-interest was met – brain injury prevention in the schools, and we served our self-interest for a robust Three Part Arts program.
But wait there’s more. When we were building the education program, we deliberately met outside of our offices, at coffee shops, at the hospital, all around San Diego -- that allowed for serendipity. So one day we were leaving a meeting at the hospital and saying the “long goodbye” in the foyer, when a woman walked in who I recognized. I said “Hi Jill,” and my counterpart at the Brain Injury Foundation also said “Hi, Jill.” In this moment we both realized we knew Jill. We found out Jill was a donor to both our organizations. She would give $1000 to Mo`olelo and $1000 to the San Diego Brain Injury Foundation. Ours were both small organizations and we didn’t have prospecting software, so we never would have discovered this commonality if we had not been meeting outside of our offices. Jill was surprised to see us both and said her worlds were colliding and inquired what we were doing. She was intrigued. So I suggested to the Brian Injury Foundation that we ask Jill to donate $5,000 to the brain injury foundation. They’ll use half of that money to buy 200 tickets for brain injury survivors and their caregivers to see the play, and they’ll keep the other half of the money because it’s not easy to get brain injury survivors and their caregivers to the same place at the same time. We floated this idea to Jill and she loved it. So a donor was happy, the Brain Injury Foundation was able to serve its constituents in a way it never had, by taking them to a play which prioritized their stories, and we, Mo`olelo, got 200 people in the audience we never would have been able to reach otherwise. And so, if you’re tracking self-interests and departments: artistic self-interest was met, education self-interests were met, and now an audience development self-interest was met. On top of that, the nights when the brain injury survivors were in the audience, the show was electric because of that magic thing that happens between audience and artists, and so the art became better and stronger because of the presence of the brain injury survivors and their caregivers.
Next, because I started meeting with the brain injury foundation a year and a half before we actually produced the play, I got to know their board members. One day, one of their board members said to me, when are you going to announce this production? How much do you need to make it work? We were a small company and I shared that the total production budget was $60,000. He said, “ok, I have two foundations. I can give you $20,000. Will that help?”
And so a development need was met.
We produced the play, it achieved 93% total capacity, and after the production, we maintained the relationship with the Brain Injury Foundation. We never produced another brain injury play, but we would donate tickets to their annual fundraiser, whenever a play with a disability crossed my desk, I’d ask them for guidance on who I should talk to at the disability awareness network, we invited them to every show, and they’d come as individuals or in groups of 10, and whenever they would do a workshop on aphasia, they’d ask me to perform the final monologue from the play for them, because it so beautifully captured the truth of aphasia.
A year and a half later, their board member who donated $20,000 to the production became Mo`olelo’s board member.
And so a board development need was served.
And so, in asking the question “what do I really want?” and knowing it was artistic excellence, that led to not only serving my artistic self-interest, but education, audience development, fundraising, and board development.
That’s CO – that’s CO led by the art.
Organizing Art and Community with an Arts Organization.
CO can take many forms in the arts. Here is a story about the NAACP in San Diego.
The NAACP came as a group to attend Mo`olelo’s production of STICK FLY by Lydia Diamond. They loved the play – absolutely loved it. Afterwards, I asked the President of the NAACP San Diego Branch if I could take her to lunch.
I shared with her my personal self-interest, which was to diversify the landscape of American theater. It was 2011. The Asian American Performers Action Coalition had just released a study that in the last five years 13% of all the roles on New York stages went to African American actors, 4% to Latinx actors, less than 2% to Asian American actors, and less than 1% to all the other others. In addition at this time, there were 75 LORT theatres in the nation (LORT is League of Resident Theatres and refers to the type of contract these theaters have with the unions.) Of those 75, only five of them at that time had an artistic director of color – that’s 6.6% (that number has now gone down to only 3 artistic directors of color or 4%). I shared with her that I wanted to try to change these stats but I needed the help of the NAACP. I said you might think, we’ve got enough on our plate, why should the theater industry matter to the NAACP? Well, look at the Boards of the major arts organizations around the country. You’ll see informal power there. On many of these boards are people who are getting people elected. Members of these board are sometimes at policy tables we don’t even know exist. If the NAACP wants to advance the communities, it should consider getting on these boards.
She liked the idea. Now how do we do that?
I said, “I need the NAACP at every production we do at Mo`olelo, not just the plays by the African American writers. If we’re doing a play about brain injury, that’s an NAACP issue. If we’re doing a play about veterans and war, that’s an NAACP issue. If we’re doing a play about immigration, that’s an NAACP issue. Let’s connect the dots across the social justice communities, let’s hold NAACP nights at all of our productions, let’s organize a networking mixer prior to the show where NAACP can connect with other organizations. Let’s do this and others will notice.
So we did. We got some funding from the Irvine Foundation to support our relationship with the NAACP and these pre-show receptions. We sold out night after night with robustly diverse audiences. And soon the president of NAACP called me, “I just got invited by The Old Globe to their opening night. I just got asked by La Jolla Playhouse to organize an NAACP night there.” Good I said. Accept those invitations. Know that by doing so, those theaters are getting what they want – their self-interests. Make sure you serve yours, too.
The president of the NAACP San Diego branch called me up not too long after that. She said, “I want to change the name of NAACP. I now want it to stand for ‘the National Association for the Advancement of Cultural Plays,’ because of you, we’re going to the theater and we see it as part of our mission to advance our communities.”
Organizing Art and Community with an Art Organization.
When I scaled CO up to the Pasadena Playhouse, the methodology delivered over 6,500 new audience members in two years. They bought over $200,000 in tickets, returned multiple times, and the CO work attracted over $2 million in regional and national multi-year grants.
But accomplishing all of that meant that the arts organization had to change.
Our first CO effort at Pasadena Playhouse surrounded our production of KISS ME KATE. Directed by Sheldon Epps with a majority African American cast, his production honored the long tradition of African American acting troupes of the early 20th century. Our Community Organizer, Peter J. Harris, reached out to a professor of African American history at Pasadena City College, Dr. Christopher Jimenez y West. They build a relationship over months, surfacing mutual self-interest. At Pasadena Playhouse, Sheldon Epps and I were very interested in ensuring the 647-seat theater was packed each night and that we engaged a robustly diverse audience. We had a particular need to fill the first Tuesday after opening, when sometimes there would be only 138 people in the 647-seat house. PCC had self-interests of getting its students off campus, featuring its faculty as experts, and prioritizing stories about diverse communities. Through all the CO meetings, we landed on the idea of PCC buying tickets for its students to attend the first Tuesday after opening, with a talkback that featured their faculty alongside the director and cast. Next came the process of determining the ticket price point. They had $6,000 to spend on tickets. I asked our marketing department to consider selling the tickets to PCC for $30 each, thus allowing them to bring 200 students. Our Marketing Director said she would do that only if they sat in the back of the theater so she could sell higher priced tickets closer to the stage. This would potentially mean segregating our audiences. Wealthy people in front, then a gap, and young students of color in the back. I pushed back against the organization. I looked at the comparables from previous productions and saw that we had a history of giving away for free 100-200 tickets in the front orchestra at the last minute on the first Tuesday after opening. I used this historic data to argue for selling these 200 tickets to PCC for $30 each and locating them in the front orchestra. After much push back, the Marketing Director relented. The organization had to change. AND we were then mightily rewarded for this change. PCC then bought ANOTHER 200 tickets to the following production STOP KISS for $30 each in front orchestra on the first Tuesday after opening. And the following two seasons, they increased that to 800 tickets total to two of our six productions each season, always on the first Tuesday after opening, the lowest selling day, and always featuring a talkback with their faculty, and always to the productions which prioritized stories their students could personally identify with: THE WHIPPING MAN, FLY, STOP KISS, REAL WOMEN HAVE CURVES.
The arts organization had to change in order to achieve this success.
But I suspect I’m preaching to the choir here. Let’s be honest. Some of the people who really need to hear this message are the board members.
It’s important I set the backdrop for this next story.
It’s 2015 in Pasadena.
By this time, I’d come to see that some of the Board and some of the donors of the PPH were anti-diversity. I had heard from our House Managers, development officers, and people in the community that board members would say things like “If Seema and Sheldon didn’t do so many Black plays old Pasadena would open their wallets to them.” Or our development department was giving a tour to a prospective donor who declared “I hate all Chinese people.” Or during a performance where we had some young people from a foster home in the audience, another audience member declared loudly “Where did all these colored kids come from?”
So this was the backdrop.
I was determining what play I would direct in 2015.
The CO process begins with internal CO – where you ask yourself and your organization, “what do you really want?”
My self-interest is always artistic excellence.
One of the board members came into my office one day and said “I just don’t know about this diversity thing.” My hackles first went up, but then I thought, she came into my office, so let’s talk. I asked her to tell me more about what she meant. She said, “Seema I love all our plays and musicals, but when we say it’s “an African American retelling of KISS ME KATE, or an Asian American this, I can’t get my friends to come to the theater.” Now this Board member had been a long-time supporter of the theater. I asked, “do you think your friends would like our shows if they came?” She said yes, our stuff is good. So I inquired, “Are you telling me that it’s our marketing blurb that’s keeping them away?” She thought about it and she said yes. “So we could do KISS ME KATE with a majority African American cast and just say “KISS ME KATE” not “And African American retelling of KISS ME KATE,” and they would like it. She thought about it and she said yes. This was most informative.
In a separate conversation, this board member had expressed to me that she wished we did more comedies.
So as I put these conversations together with my self-interests and the fact that The Pasadena Playhouse is located in the San Gabriel Valley of LA County -- region that is majority minority – majority LatinX and Asian American – but these communities weren’t reflected in our audiences, and that our houses were rarely more than 70% sold – I thought, what if I direct Josefina Lopez’s comedy REAL WOMAN HAVE CURVES in 2015?
So I said to the Board member, “I’m thinking of directing a comedy next year.” She got excited. I said it’s the story of five full-figured women who work in a small garment shop, and they have to sew 100 dresses by the end of the week or they will lose their business. She said “that sounds great!” I said, now the five women are all Latinas. Is it still funny. She thought about it. She said yes, but do we have to say that? I thought about it.
The original marketing blurb was something like, “a story about the Latina immigrant experience.” We changed it to “A story about celebrating real lives and real bodies in Southern California.” This did two things, not only did it give my Board member the ability to bring her non-LatinX community to the play (which she did – she organized her friends and investment group to see the show), but it also didn’t ghettoize and minimize the LatinX experience. Rather the new blurb recognized that this experience was dominant in Sothern California.
One other component of internal CO on this – I needed the playwright’s permission. I reached out to Josefina and said I’d love to direct RWHC at Pasadena Playhouse. I said I’m not Latina. I’m half-Pakistani, half-Japanese, raised in Honolulu, HI. Are you ok with me directing your play. Your answer can be no, but if it’s yes, I would like to involve you in our community organizing. She said yes.
So that was internal CO process on REAL WOMEN HAVE CURVES.
Next there was the external CO process where we ask are there any communities that want to see this play?
The Playhouse had received a $600,000 two-year grant from The Irvine Foundation which was focused on increasing arts participation among LatinX communities of the region by doing work outside of our theater – so nothing on our stage. On the very first day of one of our workshops out in the community, a woman came up to me and said, “It’s great you’re out here, but when are you going to put Latinos on your stage?” I acknowledged that it was a good question. It had been 10 years since PPH had produced a play written by a LatinX writer that featured leading LatinX characters, and then I said, “If we produce a play with Latinos on stage, will you come see it?” She said yes. I then said, “Can you help me get others to see it?” She said yes.
So now I had buy in from a Board member, from the playwright, and when I went back to this community member and told her about RWHC, I had buy in from her too.
The next step in CO is research and dramaturgy, exploring who are all the whos in the region who might be interested in the show, and seeking the dramaturgical expertise to help with achieving artistic excellence.
Our research surfaced over 100 organizations to reach out to. Some of them included:
The garment workers center – they helped me learn about the garment industry
The national Latina women’s business association - like the main character in the play, this was an organization of Latina business owners
Adelante Youth Alliance – a local organization focused on increasing opportunities for Latinx students
Then myself and our community organizer in the artistic department, Victor Vazquez, reached out to all the 100 leads on our CO spreadsheet. In each case, we shared that we were producing RWHC. Asked the organizations about their goals, mission, current objectives. Shared our self-interests. Asked if they thought their mission aligned with themes of the play. If they said yes, we asked if they would want to see the play. If they said yes, we asked if they would like to organize with us around this play.
What resulted was partnerships with 37 organizations, which built stake in the play, and we built stake in them. They organized 2183 new audience members to attend the play, buying $64,370 in tickets. Which resulted in the play, which would have only achieved 87% of its single ticket sales goal without CO, achieving 114% of its goal.
It changed the narrative of the board from “Latinos don’t see theater” to “Look at the demand for this voice and narrative.”
TYPES OF COMMUNITY NEEDS SERVED: As we analyze the 37 groups/colleges that organized around RWHC, we can find three primary needs the production served for these groups:
Fundraising– Several of the nonprofit CO groups used the production to raise funds. For these groups, the content of the play aligned with their respective missions and communities served that they were able to build fundraisers around the show. These groups included: Garment Worker Center, Adelante Youth Alliance, National Latina Business Women’s Association, Vecinos de South Pasadena, Alhambra Latino Association, C.O.P.A. Latinas for Education.
Curriculum– Several colleges and universities used RWHC and the Talkbacks to serve curricular needs: Pasadena City College, USC (David Roman, School of Dramatic Art, Bedrosian Center), Antelope Valley College, Occidental College, California State University Northridge, Glendale Community College, Pomona College, UNAM, California State University Los Angeles, East LA College, UCLA.
Social– A few organizations used RWHC to bring their community together to socialize and build community pride: Mexican American Bar Association, CASA0101, Carmen Gilman, Beatriz Ochoa, Los Fotos Project, Leadership for Urban Renewal Network, District 5, Villa Parke Community Center, Sunday Funday LGBTQ Group, Latino Heritage, University of Chicago Women, All Saints Church, Lady of Angels Conference, Miguel Contreras Foundation, LA Female Playwrights Initiative (social with an added artistic element).
So as I think about the statement about this symposium
Art has the power to illuminate new perspectives, foster diplomacy between differing opinions, and bring fractured communities together.
I say, yes, Art has this power. RWHC always had this power. But the producing arts organization needed to activate and organize with community and change in order to fulfill this power.
And here’s a story of one subscriber’s experience:
Early on in utilizing CO at PPH, we instituted live pre-show announcements. Myself or the Organizer would welcome the audience and at first we would only give shout-outs to the new groups we had organized that were there for the first time. One evening, during STOP KISS, we gave a shout out to “Black Lesbians United.” The next day our ED got a call from a donor who said, why were these lesbians recognized and I wasn’t!
So we adjusted our pre-show announcements to:
First welcome everyone
Ask subscribers and donors to raise their hands.
Give them a round of applause and recognize that we couldn’t do our work without them
Then we asked the subscribers and donors to join us in welcoming anyone in the audience who was here for the first time. Those new folks raised their hands and they got a warm welcome. We then listed the groups.
In other words, we needed to recognize the subscribers and donors and then make them part of our effort to welcome new people.
We were doing a post show conversation for RWHC, and a subscriber raised her hand and said, “I don’t speak Spanish” But then she said, “I quickly realized that anything said in Spanish is repeated in English or replied to in English so I didn’t miss anything. But moreso, you had introduced the groups in the audience before the show. I saw that whenever something was said in Spanish, the group over there laughed. So I knew a truth had been spoken on stage.”
Fostering diplomacy across community divides at the micro level.
Skeptics of CO often say, so what you got the Latinos to the Latino play, the Blacks to the Black play etc but do they come to anything else. I say, if you treat them like a transaction, no. But if you build a relationship Yes. You heard the NAACP example. To paint this picture even more fully, when I moved across the country to DC and directed my first play at Arena Stage, SMART PEOPLE, which had nothing to do with a Latinx experience and nothing to do with LGBTQ experiences, two of the group leaders of organizations I had organized with at PPH, one around RWHC “Latino and Black men read” and one around Stop Kiss “Project 10” flew across the country to see my first play at Arena. That’s a relationship. They had built a stake in my work. It didn’t matter whether it was about their community or not.
Consensus Organizing for the arts (CO)* is one method of organizing with communities. It is a methodology through which an arts organization builds stake in multiple and diverse pockets of communities and those communities build stake back in the organization and art work by surfacing and organizing around mutual self-interests.
The Philosophical Underpinnings of CO are:
The process begins with the art, its needs and opportunities. Art Now!
The process takes time and labor.
Don’t assume you know the results or what the community wants. You need to arrive at that together.
We are not the experts – we might be expert in putting on a play, but we are not necessarily experts on the content and community. Seek the community expertise and invite it into the work.
We put ourselves in the audience.
We are transparent about our agenda; and we ask whoever we’re meeting with what it is they really want. What are their self-interests?
The individual representing the theater must have artistic power at our organization or access to it.
This is just one tool, not the tool, for an arts organization… there are many tools: marketing, community outreach, development, etc. that we must use to achieve all our goals.
Now this is the story of Trinity Repertory Theatre.
In June 2015, Rebecca Noon, Community Engagement Coordinator at Trinity Repertory Theater embarked on a CO process. She reached out to Marta Martinez of Rhode Island Latino Arts about Trinity Rep’s upcoming production of The Hunchback of Seville by Cuban-American writer Charice Castro Smith. Rebecca and Marta had very frank conversations about inclusion at Trinity Rep and that there were only two Latinx actors in their production. Marta was disappointed, as was Rebecca, and she was transparent about it. The short story is that their deep CO work, which included tough conversations, resulted first in a “Latino Night” at the show, engaging 35 new audience members, then a free bilingual production of Romeo and Juliet with community actors and Trinity/Brown MFA students, then in their next season a production of Fuente Ovejuna directed by Mark Valdez, hiring more Latinx actors, funding from Rhode Island Foundation, NEA, Doris Duke Charitable Foundation, many, many many more points of contact, connection, sharing, and their work culminated most recently with Trinity Rep announcing this month that Marta will be their artist-in-residence. Marta said, “As an artist-in-residence, my main goal will be to connect Latinos with Trinity Rep’s creative team of directors, writers, producers and actors,” Martinez said. The organization changed over three years of CO and now have a robust and exciting collaboration that will continue to bring new people to the theater.
At Arena Stage, another way we are organizing is through our Power Play Commissioning initiative. This is brain child of our Artistic Director Molly Smith. After many years of making art at Arena in DC, and listening to our audience and communities, Molly saw that DC is a place where our communities eat, sleep drink politics. Our communities are smart, critical thinkers who live in DC to change the world. They want to understand who we are as Americans. And so Molly and Arena Stage announced in 2016 our Power Play commissioning initiative, where we are commissioning 25 new plays or musicals that deal with the people, events or ideas that have shaped who we are as Americans. 25 projects because it’s been 25 decades since the founding of this nation, so it will be one story from each decade. We have cycles focused on Presidential Voices, Women’s Voices, African American Voices, Insider Stories, Musical Voices. The commissioned writers so far are: Lawrence Wright, John Strand, Jacqueline Lawton, Mary Kathryn Nagle, Nathan Alan Davis, Georgia Stitt, Eduardo Machado, Craig Lucas, Theresa Rebeck, Sarah Ruhl, and Kenneth Lin.
The Power Play commissioning initiative is an investment in art, artists, and community.
So as you embark on your symposium titled Art Now, I invite you to think about how you are organizing art and community with your arts organization. Or how can you?
I invite you to think about What do you really want?
I have a final Coda story.
About the board member at Pasadena Playhouse who had come into my office saying she didn’t understand this diversity thing. In 2016, when the artistic director, Sheldon Epps, announced his retirement after 20 years, the LA Times did a profile piece on him. In it he told a story he often told: when he first arrived at PPH in 1997, he would sit on the courtyard and watch the audience go inside the theater. He saw that the audience was majority Caucasian and over the age of 60. Then he would walk a couple blocks to Colorado Blvd and see a greater diversity of people, young and old, a richness of ethnic backgrounds, all shopping along the boulevard. He wanted to attract those folks to the Playhouse. And he did over his 20 years. When this profile piece came out in the LA times, this board member confided to me that she hates that story. I was surprised and I asked why. She said, “Seema, I was one of those people who was on the Courtyard when Sheldon first arrived. I wasn’t good enough for him.” I was surprised by her interpretation of the story. I said, “I’ve never heard the story that way. May I tell you what I hear when I read that story?” She said yes. I said, “I hear that Sheldon wanted everyone to attend PPH, to be in all markets. To be the coca cola of theater, where all communities attend.” Her eyes widened. She had never thought about it that way. She called me a week later, “Seema you changed my mind about diversity.” I did? “Yes, I understand now that it is about audience development.” Now we had been saying audience development all this time. It wasn’t until I said the word market, and more so, until she could express her hurt feelings, that she was able to hear audience development.
This was my lesson. There are many ways to interpret a story.
So as we think about Art Now: Art, community and arts organizations.
Advancing our organizations means we all have to change, and in order to change, we all have to listen to and hear one another.
Know what you really want, and find and build those communities of mutual self-interest through Art Now.