As a Latino, first-generation college student from a small town in Texas, I regularly find myself in spaces where I am one of the only people of color. I also constantly note the different points of access to opportunity that I, and people like me, have compared to white students from affluent backgrounds. Unfortunately, people like me are rarely able to take advantage of internship opportunities and theatres across the US; thus, the lack of diversity in several internship programs. Last summer, I had the opportunity to spend six weeks at the Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis, Minnesota as a multi-disciplinary intern, specifically engaging with their work in diversity and inclusion. This internship is part of a trial run partnership between the Guthrie and the University of Texas at Austin Department of Theatre and Dance, and offers networking opportunities to students of color. As a college theatre student, I was already well aware of the prestigious status of the Guthrie within the American regional theatre landscape.
Before this internship, however, I was not as aware of the Guthrie’s efforts around diversity and inclusion across the organization. The Guthrie has historically faced many challenges around diversity and inclusion, and their current efforts acknowledge this past. The Guthrie recently began their “Level Nine Initiative” within their efforts around diversity and inclusion. The initiative sparked with funding from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, beginning with the appointment of their new Artistic Director, Joe Haj. This internship was an opportunity for me, as a Latino artist and educator, to observe and participate with a historically white organization trying to attract and nurture diverse audiences and staff. My time at the Guthrie was an opportunity to intern at a prestigious institution, a space rarely offered to Latino students. More importantly, it was a chance to examine how the Guthrie is leading the field toward more diversity and inclusivity.
As part of my internship, I worked across the organization in four areas: production, management, education, and the equity/diversity/inclusion (EDI) committee. In the area of production, I watched technical rehearsals for the company’s mainstage productions of South Pacific and Disgraced. While watching the formation of a “Guthrie production,” I witnessed the telling of stories that the Guthrie’s primary audience is not used to seeing. Although South Pacific and Disgraced do have some problematic messages, the teams working on these shows aimed to make every character fully realized and human as possible, including both white characters and characters of color. Behind the scenes, the Guthrie has committed to assembling creative teams that are non-homogenous, and reflect the diversity of the Twin Cities community. I see the Guthrie mainstage as a stairwell to an ideal model of diversity and inclusivity. In this first step, the company tries to capture audiences by saying, “Look! This work is about people who may not look like you, but you can see yourself in the characters!”
While working with Guthrie’s previous General Manager, Hillary Hart, we developed a “Business of the Theatre” workshop targeted to young actors of color in the community and to the company’s “Guthrie Experience” students who work at the theatre over the summer. Then in education, I conducted research and presented findings about resource guides for student matinees and youth councils (teen groups facilitated by a theatre to engage young people with their work). Both of these initiatives aim to cultivate a more diverse and younger audience, particularly from schools and communities with large populations of students of color and students from a lower socio-economic background.
Perhaps most critically, I worked with the Guthrie’s EDI committee, which works with senior leadership to ensure ideas of equity, diversity, and inclusion infiltrate throughout the organization. This committee focuses on the organization’s staff embracing these ideas, whereas the Level Nine Initiative concentrates its efforts on programming and community engagement. The committee was in the thick of planning training and group meetings for staff around the ideas of EDI, a mission common across the nation because of organizations like Theatre Communications Group, who are pushing the industry to think deeply about how inclusion and equity are reflected in the work they do.
As the six weeks flew by, I constantly reflected about what made this experience meaningful for me and necessary for other students of color. The professional development I gained while working across the organization aimed towards this idea of EDI, and was my biggest takeaway. Before this experience, I did not know my strengths, nor how to apply my experience to various aspects of a professional theatre. I also deeply realized a need to conceptualize and articulate who I am, and what is important to me as a theatre artist. The impetus and rationale of telling a story to an audience is deeply rooted in EDI work because in the end, we are talking about real people. The people who make your theatre have a reasoning behind it, whether that is intentional or not, and are responsible to the community they serve. Honest, genuine EDI work is about creating relationships with people, audiences, and theatre artists because that it is right and necessary to do as an artist and person. The Guthrie is starting to do this work and this internship is part of a bigger national trend currently unfolding. New “pipelines” and opportunities are needed to ultimately diversify the field. David Stewart, the Guthrie’s Director of Production and my main supervisor last summer, is a huge force in this fight.
With full transparency, this internship was unpaid so I had to receive funding elsewhere because my family could not provide the financial support necessary. This funding came from a scholarship program that I am a part of at the University of Texas and from the Department of Theatre and Dance at UT. Because there were so many people involved in supporting me, I felt even more pressure to perform exceedingly well. I knew that everyone at the Guthrie cherished my experience and perspective. Yet, I was one of two people of color in the internship program last summer. I do not mention this fact because I believe a certain quota should be met, but because the people creating the work in any theatre should match the audiences and communities they aim to serve.
Given their history, the Guthrie is in a very precarious position in regards to culturally aware practice. I deeply understand this because the Department of Theatre and Dance at UT is in a similar situation. The structure and context in which these entities began are rooted in a culture of racism, sexism, and discrimination towards marginalized groups. As a result, the art created in these places has historically perpetuated that culture. For this reason, we must fight against it and work towards a future of deep awareness and responsibility to the cultures and communities around us. “How?” You might ask. Well, that is the million-dollar question many people believe holds “the theatre” back from entering the twenty-first century. Haj shared with me, “My experience is that plural voices make the work better, and that diversity and inclusivity is a pathway to success.” A huge insight I gleaned from this experience is that efforts toward diversity and inclusion must start with honest relationships within the communities with which you want to collaborate. For example, partnerships like the one between the Guthrie and The Department of Theatre and Dance at UT not only provide opportunities to people like me, but also offer first-hand experience of how the face of theatre in the US is changing. “What can I do to be a part of this change?” you may ask. Make your internships and similar programs reflective of the populations you do not typically serve. Students of color like me are eager for the opportunity! Please see us and make yourselves accessible.