This is Precisely the Time When Artists Go to Work

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by Sam White

“Weary with toil, I haste me to my bed” ~ Shakespeare

 I have been feeling extremely lethargic lately.

The events of Charlottesville have made it very difficult for me to function properly this past week. All I want to do is hide under my covers, cry and pray to the Universe that things get better in this country before they become any worse. I have never been this scared, frustrated and exhausted in my life.

That’s the thing about the inequities and intolerance in this world -- they are exhausting.

I wrote this blog last week and then I had to write it again to express why I feel so passionately about Statera Foundation and why I am honored to accept a role as a member of the advisory team. My original blog was a bit more diplomatic and proper than what I am writing today because, if I may speak freely, I am tired. I am tired of the dangerous ideology of white supremacy and misogyny.

I just want to live in a world where my sisterhood of theatre makers everywhere can receive the same treatment that our white male counterparts experience in theatre and pretty much every other industry in this country.

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According to a 2013 survey by the American Conservatory Theater and the Wellesley Centers for Women, in partnership to examine gender equity in leadership roles in the League of Resident Theatres (LORT), the presence of women of color at the top of some of the largest organizations in the country is nearly non-existent. Astonishing facts were found, including a statistic of one woman of color serving as artistic director and zero women of color in executive director positions at that time. This was particularly disturbing to me when as someone who identifies as a woman and a person of color -- more specifically, as a black woman.

We must do better -- all of us with the privilege of presenting theatre in our communities cannot share in the disparities of, for example, the S&P 500, where only 5% of CEO positions are held by women. We must expect more of ourselves.

The present landscape is opposite the essence of theatre itself, which should be a democratic process for us all -- our industry created democracy, after all. We as artists and creatives have the opportunity to change the consciousness of this entire country. It is the lifeblood of what we do, both onstage and off. We have the power to shift the trajectory toward a world where it’s not okay to march down a street wearing symbols of hate, bearing torches and shouting Nazi slogans that deteriorate the spirit of this country that is supposedly a place where “all men (and women) are created equal.”

Let’s take a note from Pisistratus in 534 BCE, who grew tired of the divisions between four tribes and decided to create a theatre festival to remind them of their shared humanity, which was remarkably effective. Years later, the constitution was changed and people were no longer identified by their heredity, instead they were looked at as “demo” -- the root word of democracy meaning people. That’s right, just people. Not black people. Not white people. Not this group. Not that group. Just people. 

If the theatre is not representative of the people, I believe our nation and our world are in dire trouble. It is our responsibility to require that everyone have the opportunity to see themselves in every aspect of the theatre, from directorships to executive leadership positions. A top down approach to equity in theatre ensures that we honor the roots of the art form we love so very much and that as we change, the world changes with us. 

“Money is a good soldier” ~Shakespeare

I recognize that everything mentioned above is idealistic. Excluding this week, I tend to be an optimist. I have to be, because if I weren’t, I wouldn’t have started a Shakespeare company in Detroit 4 weeks after the city filed for bankruptcy. But I also have a healthy balance of reality when it comes to equity in theatre and I realize that the bottom line is important in most industries. That said, let’s explore the financial aspect of the theatre as well, which also validates the opportunity to be more inclusive of women.

According to a Forbes article in 2015, “women drive 70-80% of all consumer purchasing, through a combination of their buying power and influence. Influence means that even when a woman isn’t paying for something herself, she is often the influence or veto vote behind someone else’s purchase.”

The consumer power of women when it comes to theatre is just as substantial. They are responsible for 70% of ticket purchases according to a Huffington Post article published a few years earlier. Women also make up 70% of theatre audiences.

That’s right, women sustain our business. Their contribution to the profitability of our industry alone bears recognition and earns us a seat at the table in rooms where important decisions are made at theatres across the country. These are decisions that determine which productions audiences will consume - audiences primarily made up of women (takes deep breath).

African-American women are an important group within the cohort of women in this country who keep our economy on track. According to the Center for American Progress, we experience even more disparities than our white counterparts, including wage gaps and the lack of modern workplace protections. 

“Strong reasons make strong actions” ~ Shakespeare

All of these stats are undeniable reasons for us to improve.

Even in our often difficult journeys as women to climb our way up respective ladders, we as theatre practitioners must do better and do right by our community.

When a door opens for one of us, we must hold on even tighter to the woman behind us to make sure that same door remains open for her, or that it creates entry for her to walk through another door of opportunity.

I’ll use myself as the example.

I need to do better. I will take some accountability and tell you that after examining the last 5 seasons at the theatre company I founded, Shakespeare in Detroit, I realized that I have only hired two women to direct the 12 shows I have produced -- this stat includes myself so that means I have really only hired one woman in my tenure as a producer. I am ashamed to say that, but the only way to get better is to acknowledge one’s mistakes.

This self awareness means that I need to improve my hiring standards so that they are more inclusive of my fellow women in theatre, and I am proud to say that I am taking actionary steps to ensure that SiD’s next round of shows be far more equitable.

It is my responsibility to pay back the generosity and mentorship extended to me, especially at this point in my career as I have been recently gifted the position as the 2017 Paul Nicholson Fellow -- the namesake of the Emeritus Executive Director. I am the mentee of the current Executive Director, Cynthia Rider, at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival.

Rider is a unicorn when it comes to executive leadership. She is a great exception in an American theatre that has a long way to go in the name of equity, diversity and inclusion. I get the opportunity to train as an executive leader with this incredible woman. From here, I must take all that I have learned and share it with someone who perhaps has not or will not have an opportunity like this.

Accountability is crucial to a progressive theatre industry. My personal reflections at my theatre company revealed to me that I had become so wrapped up in the struggle to create a classical company in Detroit and eager to just get the work done that I didn’t thoroughly examine who was at the helm of the shows I produce. I unconsciously neglected to create opportunities for women who are just as qualified, talented and capable as the male cohort of directors at SiD.

“We know what we are now, but not what we may become” ~ Shakespeare

Here’s what we know: the world can be a scary place. This week in particular was a painful demonstration of how ugly it can be and the importance of social justice work -- now more than ever. If the sight of a thousand angry men in white polos and khakis, holding torches and marching for a statue that represents one of the ugliest times in our country wasn’t a wake up call for a more equitable world, I don’t know what is.

Hate puts us all in danger. In fact, a young white woman lost her life this weekend during the horrific events in Charlottesville, VA. May Heather Heyer rest in peace and power for all of her strength in speaking out against the KKK, White Nationalists and Nazis.

We must all fight the injustices of our world with fair representation in every part of our theatres. It is imperative that we tell the stories of those whose voices often go unheard. We must create a seat at the table for every race, culture, religion, ability, the LGBTQIA community, those living in poverty and every underrepresented voice in America to inspire and activate our neighborhoods, cities, states and our country to work together towards a more united “demo” -- for, by and of the people. All people.

And with that, I look forward to getting out of my bed, wiping my tears away from this week and getting to work. I look forward to the opportunity to contribute my thoughts, experiences, perspectives and my humanity as a woman of color to the advisory board at Statera with hopes that I might contribute to making our industry and world a little better every day. I call on the Athenian theatre gods and you, my fellow theatre artists and administrators, along with board members and search firms to engage in fair hiring practices that will trickle down and manifest work through a conscious lens of equity, diversity and inclusion.

We must stand together as advocates, artists, sisters and brothers to acknowledge that we can do better. It is the only way to become better.

As one of my other favorite writers wrote:

“This is precisely the time when artists go to work. There is no time for despair, no place for self-pity, no need for silence, no room for fear. We speak, we write, we do language. That is how civilizations heal.” ~ Toni Morrison

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Sam White is the Founding Artistic & Executive Director of Shakespeare in Detroit where she has produced 12 productions in 5 seasons. She has been recognized by the BBC, Southwest Airlines, Complex Magazine and Playbill for her work in the city as an entrepreneur, theatre director and producer. White is currently the Paul Nicholson Arts Management Fellow at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival. 


"Statera Voices" is a series dedicated to reclaiming dominant culture narratives as a means towards intersectional gender balance in the theatre and beyond. "Statera Voices" is where we tell our stories, expand our histories and celebrate each other. It is here that we join in a circle of mutual trust and support to share our thoughts and self-reveal on our own terms and in our own voices.