From the perspective of many St. Louisans, the most important thing that came out of the horrors of #Ferguson and related events was dialogue. In living rooms and community centers, on television and social media, people were talking about very real, very complex issues that we’ve known about, but not known how to talk about, for years.
Today, the greatest fear that recurs in conversations is that the energy will subside. In a few weeks, #Ferguson and the truths it unveiled could regress back to shut-door and shut-mind corridors.
It’s imperative that organizations and theatre artists in St. Louis and around the country—and arguably world—bravely embrace the conversation. The place for it may not be on stage (though this great syllabus provides many outlets to open dialogue with patrons), but it needs to happen within our institutions. With boards, staff, volunteers, artists, patrons, community partners, classrooms, and stakeholders—the gravest injustice moving forward would be forgetting or minimizing the conversation.
What responsibilities do we all have, especially in our positions as leaders of institutions, to recognize the truths unearthed by #Ferguson, and to internalize the change that is needed? How do we release the realities on the minds and hearts of those we work and play with?
We, the founders of St Lou Fringe, had just such a conversation, as colleagues. The intention was to process, learn, and grow. Here is a glimpse into the active dialogue of one St. Louis-based theatre organization, which is laying the ground for institutional change, into post-#Ferguson reality.
EM PIRO: I’ve been thinking a lot about my role as an arts producer in a city experiencing turmoil. How do I do my job while our whole social fabric is shifting? Especially as a white person living in St. Louis, how much should I be doing, and how much being quiet and listening?
TARA DANIELS: N.K. Jemisin talks a lot about oppression and status quo: “There is no neutral when it comes to oppression.” If you truly believe that things need to change or something is wrong, being neutral does not help anyone that is being hurt by this particular situation. Being neutral tends to cosign those who have privilege and/or power.
But, the last thing you want is to do is be that person who says “I’m going to say and do this” and then realize you have no idea what you’re talking about. It’s important to be subtle at first, and in that time, also learn—and then begin to intelligently make your thoughts known. But also know it’s not your show to lead.
EM: I think there’s a difference between neutrality and…gentleness? Getting the message out, being vocal—but not alienating the people we need to reach, and not just preaching to the choir.
TARA: I’ve had some conversations where I realize there isn’t going to be a change. If a person doesn’t believe that there is racism, at least in the way that I see there’s racism, and other black people they know say there is racism, they are denying something that’s so real to me. We think we need to get all these people to be on our side, because then we’ll win—but maybe that’s not the point at all. Maybe the point is that I need to reach people who are more like myself, who are afraid to speak.
EM: Because it’s not my reality and never will be, I will never understand it until I hear it through other people’s voices. But because art is an interpretation, or vision, or whatever, it can be easier to dismiss.
TARA: That’s the scary part. There’s a fear of “If I create art about this feeling, this moment, this struggle, will people get it, or will they dismiss it?”
EM: I feel it’s not my story, but I’m a part of this community, so I am a part of the story. How do you participate in that way? Are you checking your privilege? Are you checking the institutional legacy that you are carrying with you?
TARA: Is this my story to tell, and if it’s not, who can I support who’s telling that story? At times, it’s checking your privilege; it’s checking the institutional oppression that’s in those moments. I think you need to be careful when stepping into a reality that’s not yours. Sometimes people want to dive head first into it, and they end up hitting their head real hard because there’s no water there, and they haven’t really gotten the gravity of what’s going on. But if you believe in what someone’s saying and if they’re depicting that truth in their narrative, then support them in the best way you can.
Sometimes when we have privilege we feel like “People are being mean to me!” when really it’s not about you. This may not be a kosher example, but I feel like having privilege is almost like being an alcoholic. You may become sober, but it’s always a fight. Just because you realize have a problem, and you work on it doesn’t mean it’s gone. It’s a constant reexamining, a constant learning, a constant “I might be wrong about this.”
EM: At Fringe, we want to create something that’s radically inclusive, but we can’t ignore the fact that there are deeply embedded and long-standing divides. How can you be a project that’s functioning healthfully within a bigger picture that’s ailing?
TARA: As an arts organization, you have to make where you stand known. And acknowledge that there are institutions like you that, whether intentionally or unintentionally, shut people out. Bring people in. Say, “Look, we aren’t great at this, but we want to get used to this. We want to give you a stage. Do you want to do that?” And see if people are interested in doing so. Being clear about where you stand, and honest about the fact that there are institutions to this day that have not included different kinds of people—that’s a good way to be a part of something.
EM: I feel like a huge step that a lot of art organizations could take is acknowledging the things they don’t know. If your organization doesn’t have patrons or performers or volunteers who are truly reflective of your community, why is that? You could have inherited generations of exclusive behavior that you’re then inadvertently perpetuating because you still have the same people at the party who have always been there.
TARA: A lot of places say “We’re welcoming!” and then that’s all they do. You go to those places and there’s nothing except what’s always been there. There are theatre companies that have never ever done a show that wasn’t written or directed by someone who wasn’t white. They don’t try to connect with people, but then they expect women or people of color or whoever to come in, just because they opened the door.
EM: What role do theatres and other arts institutions serve as a safe place?
TARA: Safe places are made by a certain people, for a certain people. I may make a place for black women to talk about art. Making a bold statement like “I’m going to make a safe place for everyone!” may not always work. Brave places are where people can talk through an issue and lay it out; safe places are more for people to have support for one another. Do you think Fringe is a safe place?
EM: I honestly don’t know. Fringe is a pretty homogenous group. There are certainly exceptions, but they are just that—exceptions. Here in St. Louis, our organization is not truly representative of our community.
TARA: Though Fringe does things all year, it really leads up to one big event. It’s great, I love a Fringe festival—but Fringe is something that happens and it’s gone. It’s hard to slide in and try something different. That may have something to do with it.
EM: Because we aren’t curated, we cannot be exclusive because no human has control about who gets in and who doesn’t. But at the same time it makes us a little exclusive, because there’s a sense of helplessness for those artists who are trying to connect. It’s important to not shut down the conversation. We need to say, “If you have a story you want to tell, if you want a safe space for your art and we can’t be that this year because of lack of resources or whatever, how can we help you get where you need to go?”
TARA: I think a lot of people feel like “Well, if I don’t get in this one time, I’m just never going to get in” because that’s how life has treated them—if you don’t get in, you’re just not going to be included at all. You have to support them in different sorts of ways so that when the time comes around again, they know “Okay, I’m going to be supported here.” Because traditionally in those institutions, they have not been supported.
EM: It comes back to acknowledging the ghosts of the past that we may not recognize today. If you’re trying to remain welcoming to someone who’s coming from a history of oppression, you don’t know what they’ve been through. Even if it is “Sorry, your name wasn’t drawn, it’s not personal,” that could still be perceived as a rejection.
That goes for Fringe, but really any kind of creative process. Behind this audition, behind this play submission, there’s a human being with an intention and a will and a desire, and that that should be respected. So that at least they feel welcome in the next round. Now, maybe that person never gets cast, never gets their lot drawn, that’s just life—but the thing that we can do that’s intentional, that might lead to systematic change, is maintaining that humanity and keeping that connection. To not be the passive bystander or the net neutral that perpetuates damage, but to take simple clear actions that can be healing. To have these conversations among boards and with staff and volunteers, can be an active step.
TARA: Talking with yourself is a great thing, but eventually someone else has to be a part of the conversation. Because eventually you’re going to have the same conversation 5,000 times and then pat yourself on the back and then go home.
So many people I know consider themselves to be open-minded because they say “Well, I don’t hate anybody, so I can’t be a part of that thing that people are talking about.” People think of bigotry as hating, and we think about people being mean. But to acknowledge that sometimes we silence people who are different from us, we dismiss them. Or sometimes worse—we idolize them and they become a symbol, and we forget they are human beings. It’s important to start thinking outside yourself, especially if you are the privileged person. It’s easy to make the conversation about you when it’s not always about you. So, listening—not silencing, not dismissing—while also supporting someone else are keys that may help us grow. It’s not the only thing to do, but it’s an important thing to do.