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Being a Neighborhood Resource Center and Owning Our Tables

With Teresa Coleman Wash of Bishop Arts Theatre Center

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Yura Sapi: Imanalla mashikuna. Imanallatak kanki. Hello, friends. How are you? Welcome to another episode of the Building Our Own Tables podcast, season two. I’m your host, Yura Sapi, recording from Emberá Native lands on the Afro-Indigenous coast of Colombia in Nuquí, Chocó in the Gulf of Tribugá. The Building Our Own Tables podcast is produced for HowlRound Theatre Commons, a free and open platform for theatremakers worldwide, and by Advancing Arts Forward, a movement to advance equity, inclusion, and justice through the arts by creating liberated spaces that uplift, heal, and encourage us to change the world. I’m interviewing Black, Native, Asian, and other founders of color to find transformative solutions and ways of working together that are not replicating the same white-supremacy culture we wanted to get away from.

With the blessing that we all have a role in the revolution, this podcast checks in and learns from Black, Native, Asian, and other people of the global majority who have created arts organizations, movements, initiatives, practices, and beyond that are changing the game, making new things happen within, and building their own tables instead of focusing on getting a seat at existing white and Eurocentric ones. We’ll be learning from incredible arts-organizing visionaries on their processes, pathways to success, and challenges they’ve overcome.

Bishop Arts Theatre Center (BATC) is an award-winning, multicultural, and multidisciplinary arts institution with a tax exempt 501 (c)(3) status. BATC is the recipient of the Dallas Business Journal’s inaugural 2021 Leaders in Diversity Award. Founded in September in 1993, the mission of the organization is to create a diverse and vibrant arts community while creating sustainable opportunities for local and emerging artists through performances and education. The company offers a full season of theatre performances, jazz concerts, a speaker series, and year-round arts education programs. BATC is a cultural oasis for the next generation of acclaimed writers, directors, performers, and art administrators. Governed by ten board members, the theatre impacts over thirty thousand artists, art enthusiasts, and children each year via virtual and in-person seasonal performances and arts education programs.

Teresa Coleman Wash is a producer, writer, and founding artistic director for the Bishop Arts Theatre Center in Dallas, Texas. She started her theatrical career nearly three decades ago when she found that a complete marketplace of people in Atlanta, Georgia were being deprived of artistic and cultural opportunities.

Teresa Coleman Wash: My name is Teresa Coleman Wash. I’m the executive artistic director and founder for Bishop Arts Theatre Center in Dallas, Texas. We are a multicultural, multidisciplinary theatre company that was chartered actually in Atlanta in September of 1993. We moved to Dallas in January of 2000, when I married. My husband— I couldn’t get him to move to Atlanta, so I acquiesced and moved to Dallas. But Dallas has been really good for our organization. In 2004, we had the good fortune of having a ten-thousand-square-foot building donated to our nonprofit. It was located, at that time, in a blighted area of town, but we decided that we were going to raise a half-million dollars in private sector funding. We were able to get a construction loan for about $700,000. We started the renovations in 2005 and completed the renovations in 2008, just as the economy plummeted.

So we knew, at that time, that we really had to connect with our community in meaningful ways. We held focus group meetings. Those meetings really informed the programs that are on our stage. We consider ourselves to be a neighborhood resource center, not your traditional theatre. In fact, we never were bound by or felt like we had to follow the rules of a traditional, conventional theatre because quite frankly it didn’t work for us. So it felt like, also in that time in 2008, when the economy was plummeted, that it really helped propel us to our current realities.

Yura Sapi: Wow, that’s incredible. Since 1993. I’d love to hear more about the origin story back then. What was going through your mind? What ended up being the spark to create an organization?

Teresa: Yeah, it was a huge risk. I was selling broadcast advertising for an oldies format at that time, and I just really loved theatre. I saw Diana Ross in The Wiz—I’m dating myself. Completely changed how I saw theatre and what I felt possibilities were for me in theatre. I was living in an area and spending a lot of time in an area that was a cultural desert in Atlanta and felt like there were very limited artistic and cultural opportunities for... I decided that I was going to start this nonprofit theatre company and give opportunities for local residents, and so that’s how the company really started.

Yura Sapi: Can you speak more about how you envisioned the organization to be, thinking back over the years and comparing to what actually happened, what the reality is, and then also wanting to hear more about what you look towards in the future?

Teresa: In Atlanta, we were producing a full season of dinner theatre performances. We had some friends who kind of followed our progress and renovated this old union building in East Atlanta and gave us the keys to do whatever we wanted to do, to give us autonomy. They gave us autonomy. We started using anybody who would who was interested and willing in the community to be a part of these dinner theatre performances that we held.

We didn’t have philanthropic sponsors from corporations or foundations, we were very much a fledgling arts organization and we depended on the support of the community. And so in that respect, it was very well supported because people felt like they had a home. And I don’t know if you’ve ever built a theatre with community before but there is an ownership and a loyalty that people bring when they feel like they’re welcome and they belong. And I feel like those formative years were really some of the most important work that we were doing in the history of our organization.

Yura Sapi: You mentioned not being a “traditional theatre.” What does that mean for you?

Teresa: Well, we knew that theatre audiences were declining, so we didn’t have a subscription base. I also mentioned that we were not supported by the philanthropic community, we were supported mainly by, again, the people who live in the community.

I’m on a national artistic leaders coalition call. We meet twice a week, and it’s just interesting to me how working with the community is a novel idea. And so, even back in 1993, community was always our focus, we’ve always respected the community. So in that respect, I feel like we were a very nontraditional theatre company.

Yura Sapi: Well yeah, I always think that word is so confusing, or I guess maybe it’s just co-opted because what does traditional really mean, right? I think of traditional being ancestral. Community is ancestral and that is what is traditional, at least for so many of our cultures, right, as globally Indigenous people.

Teresa: That’s right. Yeah, so I want to speak more about the unconventional ways that we were able to build our own table. Prior to the pandemic, our earned income percentages hovered around 80 percent. But that happened— Because I surrendered my will and acquiesced to the will of the community, it was very clear at the outset when we acquired our building that parents wanted their students to be in an artistic space during the after-school hours and summer months.

Artists needed somewhere to hone their craft, and our neighbors wanted a jazz series. So prior to COVID, we had a waiting list for our summer camp. It’s common knowledge that our stage is a stepping stone for fledgling artists to receive national attention, and our jazz concert consistently sold out months in advance. So when we talk about our own table, or as I like to call it, “creating our own utopia,” we didn’t follow any of the rules, the conventional rules at the outset, we never sold subscriptions, we didn’t have six-figure or seven-figure donors in our Rolodex. Theatre audiences had been declining for years, so we consciously decided to explore other genres.

And early on, I was trying to follow a model that didn’t serve us. So my advice to anyone in the field, anyone who’s listening, is to please connect with your community. When we were renovating the building, I was focused on securing naming rights from local foundations that a lot of the Eurocentric arts institutions had in their buildings downtown and they didn’t give us the time of day. Now we’re in a position to offer health insurance benefits. With the SVOG (Shuttered Venue Operators Grant) grant, we were able to pay off our construction loan debt and we took that money and redirected it in our people. And what that means is we’re in a position to offer health insurance benefits and a retirement package to attract and retain talent.

We call ourselves “small company with big benefits.” And that was really important for me because when I left corporate America, I had stock options and retirement package. And I went to an industry, a nonprofit industry, where I absolutely loved what I was doing, but it was not sustainable for my mental health to continue to work at the pace that I was working and not be able to go to the doctor when I needed or not be able to prioritize my mental health.

So we’re changing all of that. And that’s what owning our own table, creating a utopia situation, looks like for us. We’re not interested in $5000 “go-away” grants from individuals or organizations who don’t have a genuine interest in the long-term sustainability of our company. We took that planning of Seven Generations mantra to heart so we are living and breathing by that. When we made it known that we were renovating our building people laughed and said, “Who does she think she is?” Because historically leadership doesn’t look like me. I wrote an op-ed piece for HowlRound years ago called, “The Ugly Truth About Arts Institutions Led By Women of Color.” And in that article, it just talked about how white men have dominated the space.

So when we were renovating the building we were, oh God, we were laughed at. Folks who could have helped withheld resources. Then when we finished the renovations, we were under a microscope and scrutinized for every mistake we made. But it was a learning experience, it was a learning process. Then when we started getting national attention and winning awards, the naysayers had to reconcile.

Yura Sapi: Can you speak more on that process of getting health care for the organization for the first time? I feel like that’s something that I’m definitely interested in knowing how and so I don’t know if there’s specific tips you have in terms of getting into that process?

Teresa: I’ll just be honest with you. Our strategy was to appoint a white guy to invite them, and this white nonprofit leader who serves on our board of directors facilitated conversations. Sure enough, we had several people from the philanthropic community show up.

And I do think that… I think that the death of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, and Breonna Taylor helped people listen in a different way, and folks came to the table with an open mind, and we were brutally honest. I mean we’ve been struggling with our construction-loan debt for fifteen years, there was one organization we applied for for thirteen years and didn’t approve our application because they didn’t have confidence in our ability to manage that debt. It wasn’t until they hired a Black executive director...

And see that’s the other thing, I think that people who are in this position to really have a responsibility to push the envelope… Thank God in this situation this ED did, and this is somebody who has influence, and so we were able to have meaningful conversations. And from those conversations, we were able to have meaningful one-on-one conversations.

Yura Sapi: So tell me more about what’s happening today in terms of the organization and how you’re looking towards the future and even thinking about what happened this past year in the pandemic and difference between having a physical space, right, and not being able to use it?

Teresa: Yeah, so we, of course, had to cancel all of our in-person program back in March when the pandemic hit. But what we decided to do was experiment with technology and really partner in ways that we hadn’t before. I attended an arts and technology conference in Albuquerque, back in 2018, we were one of only three arts organizations. And it was very evident that the industry was not experimenting with technology in that way. And so I was really kind of drawn to XR and VR technologies. And when the pandemic hit, we dove right in because we knew that that was an area that we had not experimented with very much.

The other thing that we did was we really connected with community in meaningful ways. Prior to the pandemic, we had a program called Silver Stories where seniors were coming to the theatre to participate in the storytelling circle twice a week. Of course, when the pandemic happened, that population couldn’t come to the theatre, but we were not going to abandon them. So we started doing what we call PatioLive! Performances—workshops and performances on patios and parking lots of aging care facilities, independent living facilities, anybody who would partner with us, and we publicized those through Facebook, and we got a lot of really good engagement. I feel like the pandemic really helped us get back to being the original company that we were when we were engaging with community in that way.

And I do think that we’re going to be judged on how we showed up for our neighborhoods long after the pandemic is over. As you know, COVID created a deep need for academic support to meet the educational needs of thousands of kids across the country. One thing we were not going to do was create a transactional relationship with our community when they needed us the most.

I think, also, we formed really meaningful relationships with the school districts. Prior to the pandemic, we were working with the Dallas Independent School District to offer not only in-person programming or in-school programming, but also after-school programming and that really ramped up during the pandemic. So I’m proud of the work that we did with the school district and in fact, we’re in our next-to-last week for a summer theatre camp. What we heard from parents was that there’s so much learning loss that happened over the pandemic and they needed support.

We’ve always considered ourselves, again, to be a neighborhood resource center. Again, not your conventional theatre. And so we welcome those students to the theatre to help those parents with learning loss during the pandemic and so kids are reading a book every week and from that they’re creating art. Our summer theatre camp is an eight-week program where we teach music, art, dance, theatre, and life skills, such as financial literacy workshops or how to be environmentally friendly. It culminates with a production, a showcase by the students so the parents can see what they’ve learned over that eight-week period. So I really feel like how we are showing up for a community during the pandemic is going serve us well into the future.

One of our colleagues, Ty Defoe, said, “If you’re not planning seven generations deep, you’re not dreaming big enough,” and that resonated with me deeply. So this theatre is not just about— it’s not self-serving, it’s not about what I want. I naively got in this business for purely selfish reasons and that was to write and produce all my plays. Although it was an area of talent that was not receiving cultural and artistic opportunities, I also had a dream of writing and producing plays.

But what we’re doing now, more so than anything else, is creating opportunities for other artists, and I feel like that’s one of the reasons why the theatre has been as successful as it is and that’s because we’ve removed ego, we’ve removed the self-centeredness and the self-absorption. And so when Ty says, “You’re not dreaming big enough if you’re not planning seven generations deep,” a lot of what we have been taught in the industry really needs to be dismantled in order for us to sustain our organizations.

Yura Sapi: Yes, and we’ve actually heard on the podcast, the first episode with Xemi Tapepechul, another Native artist, talked about her organization and the first name of the organization was the Seventh Generations Theatre. And it’s the same with thinking about the seven generations that come before and after. And I saw that quote from Ty as well as in “The Emerging From the Cave Study”—by Jesse Cameron Alick—“Reimagining our future in theater and live performance.”

“Emerging From the Cave: Reimagining our future in theater and live performance,” by Jesse Cameron Alick, is an independent study commissioned by the Sundance Institute.

In March 2020, the world stopped. The field of theatre and live performance came to a screeching halt with the spread of the coronavirus.

Artists live on the edge of tomorrow predicting trends, creating trends, we’re culture makers. But we had no idea what the future would hold. The Black Lives Matter movement resurged and embraced us, calling upon everyone to face the inequities of our field.

The reevaluations, both personal and professional, felt unending. The world may have stopped, but the real work had only just begun.

A year later, we emerged from our caves, blinking and staring up at the sun, gazing out on a landscape that has been forever altered.

This survey is a snapshot of where theatre and live performance stands a year later. Fresh from the brains of some of the smartest minds in the field, this document aims to orient us. The sampling of voices here is just that, a sampling, and there are ten times as many smart people Jesse didn’t get to speak with, and who hopes will add to this conversation as it continues. The study aims to give us a roadmap to follow in this new future which we now find ourselves.

The four key themes that emerged from the study were

  • collective leadership,
  • holistic artistic support,
  • digital theatre and hybrid futures, and
  • field ideation.

You can read the full study or watch a film version of the presentation capturing a summary of the process, overview, themes, conclusions, and the path forward at emergingfromthecave.com.

But yeah, I think it’s so important to look forward seven generations.

Teresa: Absolutely. Yeah, I think it means that we have to dismantle everything that we’ve been taught. I was recently contacted by a journalist from a major newspaper who was writing an article about us, and I was a bit perturbed when he asked, “So are you a Black theatre company?” Oftentimes we’re pigeonholed. I’m reading Isabel Wilkerson’s book Caste: The Origins of Our Discontent, and she tells a story of a Nigerian playwright who attended a talk she gave in London. That playwright was intrigued by the idea that six million African Americans had to seek political asylum within the borders of their own country during the Great Migration.

And so afterwards, Isabel Wilkinson said the playwright said to her, “You know, there are no Black people in Africa.” And she said, Africans don’t see themselves as Black. They’re Igbo or Yorubi or Ewe or Akwa or Ndebele. But it’s not until our ancestors came to the United States that they were considered Black. So we all know, we know, race is a social construct that upholds a caste system in the United States. And so what we take as gospel in American culture is foreign to Africans. So I do get perturbed when someone asked me to identify myself as a Black theatre because we’re trying to push back on the agenda that Black people can only have agency over Black things. We want agency over all things, not just Black things.

Isabelle talks about how we have all been infiltrated in this caste system. And so to decolonize our minds really takes being super conscious. We have to question everything in this moment and I think that we’re in a position to sink or swim. What I’m seeing is a lot of performative art, quite frankly. I think that last summer was a project for a lot of Eurocentric theatres.

Yura Sapi: An experimental year.

Teresa: It was an experimental year but racial equity cannot—it can’t—be experimental and it can’t be professionalized. This is not about who we are as theatremakers, it is about who we are as individuals. I think that’s where the work really need to be done. I’m not concerned about what shows you have in your season, that’s not racial equity. That’s not racial equity. That’s not the work that needs to be done because what can happen is you can set particularly people of color up to be harmed even more.

The guest, Teresa Coleman Wash, smiling and wearing a red shirt against a galaxy background.

A portrait of Teresa Coleman Wash.

Yura Sapi: Yeah. It’s not about choosing the season, it’s about stopping the harmful ten out of twelves, overworking, underpaying, about not taking money from the fossil-fuel industry, about having parents and caregiver accessibility in what you’re doing, about having health care provided.

So tell us about your role as a founder and artistic director. I’d love to hear about how you make decisions in the organization, how you share power and what the organizational structure is like as a community-centered space, as a neighborhood resource center.

Teresa: Yeah. Well, I mentioned that we didn’t follow any of the rules that we were expected to follow that were laid out for us for the American theatre because we’re not a predominantly white organization. We are an organization of color and as a Black woman leading an arts institution, my path has been incredibly different. I do think that because we remained nimble is one of the ways that we were able to survive the pandemic. So we’ve always been a small theatre company and several of us wear many different hats. That’s definitely been a strength. But because I am the founder and artistic director for the theatre and we’re going into our twenty-eight years of existence, we’re really being intentional about training the next generation of leaders and moving to a shared leadership model.

It’s been all encumbersome to have all of the decisions on my shoulder, on one person’s shoulder. And so as we are moving, we’re reimagining what our organization can look like, we’re really being intentional about training the next generation of leaders. And I’m excited to say that we just were able to bring on a full-time playwright-in-residence. I mean that’s never happened for us so we’re really given agency to artists.

The other thing is, I distinctly remember podcasts that I was listening to, I think it was CI To Eye. But Robin Terry, who’s the chair and CEO of the Motown Museum, said she asked her uncle Berry Gordy, “What’s more important? Ability or loyalty?” And he immediately responded, “Ability,” because anyone with ability will become loyal if you treat them well.

Now that we paid off our construction loan debt, our focus really is investing in people and I think that that’s a novel idea for the American theatre. Not only do we have a responsibility to train the next generation of leaders, but we have a responsibility to set them up for success. I’m so excited that we’re having conversations around mental health, that we don’t have to be... My ego is not that big that I have to make all the decisions for the organization. Quite frankly, I don’t want that responsibility anymore.

I’m really excited that we’re investing in people in this way and setting them up being intentional with the board, having buy-in from the board about making sure that folks are not only physically healthy, but spiritually and mentally healthy. And that way, you can bring your whole self to the job, not just bits and pieces.

Yura Sapi: Absolutely, and I think with theatre especially there’s so much culture around overworking and being underpaid and making it work, especially in the nonprofit world. And even as administrators, it’s like working off of scarcity. And now that we’re creating our own spaces and we’re the ones making decisions, it’s super important to not make those same decisions that we’re having to suffer in these predominately white institutions.

Teresa: Yeah. One of the things that we’re also doing is having really hard conversations around equity. Our theatre participated in Dallas Truth, Racial Healing & Transformation’s Racial Equity Now Cohort—we were at the inaugural 2019 cohort. Dallas has the largest segregated schools in the country, taught this during the cohort. And women of color who run nonprofits nationally received 0.6 percent of philanthropic dollars. It was incumbent upon us to really do some really meaningful work around equity.

That was really a hard conversation because there were some people that we had to leave behind, there were some people that we had to ask to serve in other areas of the organization. But one thing for certain was we were not going to not do the work. And if we’re not willing to hold ourselves accountable as individuals, then really what are we doing? And I’ve always said—I’ve said this before and I’ll say it again—we can’t professionalize racial equity, we have to be careful not to be performative in our approach to dismantling systems of oppression.

I’ve lost count of the number of times that I’ve sat across the table from an artistic director of a historically white theatre company who had just finished producing Bootycandy or the like, hurling microaggressions. Understanding allyship cannot be performative, this is not about, again, who we are as theatre leaders, it’s about who we are as people, and racial equity is not a performance, it’s an ongoing individual process.

So these are the conversations that we’re having at the board level, that we’re having with our philanthropic partners, that we’re also having with our audience members. And I feel like because we’re really doing this very important work, it’s going to help propel us to get to really achieve that Seven Generations sustainability that Ty is talking about.

Yura Sapi: Yes, and what happens with those conversations? And I think what you’re saying in terms of being an intentional anti-racist organization versus a performative anti-racist organization—which I don’t even think you can be an anti-racist organization if you’re being performative—what does that look like? How does it work out? I know you said in some cases it simply means we have to let some people go or we have to distance ourselves.

Teresa: Yeah, I love that book The Wisdom of Crowds, because it talks about how heterogeneous groups are more effective and more accurate than groups that are not diverse, and so for us it’s been really important to have diversity of thought on our board of directors, not just people who can write a big check. And this is another thing that I think that sets us apart from most conventional Eurocentric theatres, and that is we’re not necessarily looking for people who can write a check, we’re looking for people who will use their privilege and use whatever privilege they have and invoke their network, because that’s where I think the real power and the passion comes in. And so we very much value diversity of thought.

Anyone who knows me well know that I don’t like “yes” people around me. I don’t think people can really grow when every decision is rubber-stamped. I want someone who can challenge the way that we think and really have uncomfortable conversations about what that look like. That’s the work that we’re doing on our board of directors and that’s the work that I’m really, really proud of.

Yura Sapi: Yeah, and I think the uncomfortable conversations and this healthy conflict goes hand in hand with the mental health stuff. We were saying before, right, I mean being able to have these moments of feeling conflicts, feeling in our bodies, potentially feeling stressed, and being able to get through that and being able to have techniques to process that and not respond on our stress, respond from a fight-or-flight moment, and keep working together, and not just walking out, saying goodbye, or peacing out.

Teresa: That’s right. Yeah, mind you we’ve had people walk out too and that’s okay because it made space for the right people, so we’ve kind of conditioned ourselves to not really fret when somebody’s not the right fit, it just makes space for someone who can come in and help grow the theatre in meaningful ways.

Yura Sapi: I feel like your story with the Bishop Arts is a testament to what happens when we keep going and keep investing in our communities and seeing all that work paying off over the years. And I’d love to ask you: What are some tips you have for folks who are starting off in this world of not following the rules in the American theatre?

Teresa: I used to beat myself up so bad for making mistakes. So the first advice that I would give is to fail deeply, fail spectacularly, because that’s where you really grow and that’s how you learn. Give yourself grace and don’t allow your failures to define your possibilities because that’s where you really learn what is and is not possible, what you can and cannot do. So I would say don’t be afraid to experiment also.

I will tell you that when the theatre was donated to us back in 2008, we tried a lot of things. We didn’t know what was going to work but prior to the pandemic all of the programs that were informed by the community were sold out, they had a waiting list, they were created— 80 percent of the total income for the theatre, 80 percent of our revenue came from earned income. We were not dependent on the philanthropic community. That’s what I didn’t know at the beginning. I thought that we would be able to get naming rights, all the naming rights in the big buildings, Stephanie buildings, downtown, I thought we’d be able to replicate in our building. None of that happened. But we didn’t need any of that, what we needed was the support of a community.

And so what I would say, first and foremost, to anyone who’s interested in working in this industry and building any kind of art institution, is please connect with your community, because when the community has your back, you’re going to meet that seven-generational goal. Anyone who’s listened to this podcast and interested in building their own table: Don’t be afraid to take a risk or be different. What works for me in Texas might not work for you in another part of the country and that’s okay.

The other thing that I want to say is I facilitate a biweekly meeting with artistic leaders for TCG. I’m just astonished at how many theatres are waiting for Actors Equity to give them permission to resume performances and to set guidelines for them. To me, this is an incredible opportunity for us to be so innovative. So essentially there are theatres who are waiting to get back to business as usual when there are those of us who are excited about reimagining a new model.

We already said, we’ve already established, that the current model was not working for us, theatre audiences were declining way before COVID happened. So to return to that to me seems like a function of our ego. Inviting culturally incompetent critics to our shows to tell us how wonderful we are. And to my knowledge, there has not been a seat change among critics, so why are we still eager to return to that?

I don’t want to rely on the philanthropic community to financially bolster the work we put on our stage. I don’t want to rely on culturally incompetent critics to tell me how wonderful I am, my ego is not that big. I would say, first of all, it creates a golden-handcuffs situation, so I have always, always been connected to the community and I want to overstate that. I want to overstate it that, whatever you do, connect with your community because, in the end, that’s what served us. And that’s one of the reasons why we’ve been able to sustain our organization in meaningful ways.

Yura Sapi: Thank you so much for saying that. Yes. Wow, so many things that you’re saying are really resonating with me. That golden-handcuffs metaphor and naming of what it can feel like in the theatre industry, especially as people of color and marginalized people. And then, yeah, this way in which we are inflicting the same thing on our own community once we have the power or we think, yeah, it can be difficult to maybe almost get out of that mentality that, that it has to be that way.

Are there any other resources you can recommend for folks?

Teresa: Well, as you and I know… I mean artsEquity is doing some amazing work around racial equity and it was a game-changer for me. I really had a chance to connect with people who were at the top of their games and who just shared different perspectives and that’s one of the things that I loved about artsEquity is that we were able to mingle with people of different backgrounds.

But I feel like our ticket-buying audience values have changed. People are educating themselves. I think I’m becoming a little bit more conscious now, I distinctly remember attending the Dramatists Guild conference in 2005, when I learned that 20 percent of plays produced on American stages were written by women, and a paltry 10 percent by women of color. So although women are the ones who are purchasing tickets, I do think that patrons values are changing.

I mentioned the organization Dallas Truth, Racial Healing & Transformation. Well, they received national attention and they are going hard. They’re going hard to expose the inequities that are happening in our communities. And I think people want to be on the right side of history—that’s the other performative thing that’s happening—you know, they want to be on the right side of history, but again, this is about who we are as individuals. And so those are the dynamics, the nuances, that are happening here in the Dallas area, but I know that those racial equity conversations are happening all over the country because artsEquity is working with, you know, a lot of companies across the country. I just think this is our moment, this is our moment to really dismantle and break away from the elitism and the division and all of the systemic oppression that has upheld the caste system that we all know.

And it’s unfathomable to me that people are just waiting for things to get back to normal. I want to be in a position to really build our infrastructure and have the right team in place. So, on the other side of COVID, we’re able to hit the ground running and make an impact on the community in ways that are really unimaginable. I think our work in the American theatre is so important now more so than anything, more so than any time in the history of our organizations.

When you think about critical race theory, making sure that society understands our history, that storytelling is so important, and so I would encourage theatremakers to really partner with school districts so not just young people but our society understand the history of our country, the history of our origins.

Yura Sapi: On Critical Race Theory by the American Bar Association:

Critical race theory is not a diversity and inclusion “training” but a practice of interrogating the role of race and racism in society that emerged in the legal academy and spread to other fields of scholarship. [Kimberlé] Crenshaw—who coined the term “CRT”—notes that CRT is not a noun, but a verb. It cannot be confined to a static and narrow definition but is considered to be an evolving and malleable practice. It critiques how the social construction of race and institutionalized racism perpetuate a racial caste system that relegates people of color to the bottom tiers. CRT also recognizes that race intersects with other identities, including sexuality, gender identity, and others. CRT recognizes that racism is not a bygone relic of the past. Instead, it acknowledges that the legacy of slavery, segregation, and the imposition of second-class citizenship on Black Americans and other people of color continues to permeate the social fabric of this nation….

The originators of CRT include Derrick Bell, Kimberlé Crenshaw, Cheryl Harris, Richard Delgado, Patricia Williams, Gloria Ladson-Billings, Tara Yosso, among others.

You can read more about this on americanbar.org.

Teresa: It’s exciting to me to be able to give a platform to unheard voices to those stories that perhaps we haven’t heard of or even considered, so I’m excited about where we are and the platform that we have right now.

Yura Sapi: Yeah, I’ve actually been hearing about critical race theory and these conflicts that have been coming up, especially in Middle America in terms of the school districts, and I’ve even heard of putting fines on teachers who mention race or make “the white kids feel guilty.”

Teresa: Yeah, and in Texas, there’s an all-out ban against critical race theory. So as we’re looking to plan our season, we have an opportunity here, we have an exciting opportunity, and one of the things that I’m finding that I’ve embraced about myself as that I’m an agitator, right? But I think we all have to be agitators in this moment and partner with our elected officials and our school districts in ways that I think can transform the communities that we live in.

Yura Sapi: Absolutely, and nonprofits… That tax status on paper legally is so connected to being service organizations to community, this nonprofit government status is given because nonprofits are doing the work that these government entities can’t necessarily do as well because the nonprofits are able to get into the community. You’re definitely hitting something super important. And also elected officials, they represent us as individuals and so we should all have that connection, that line to be able to talk to them and tell them what we need.

Teresa: That’s right. Nonprofits exist to serve the community, but I think we get away from that when our egos are involved in the work that we’re doing. For the past almost a year now, I’ve been meeting with national artistic leaders for twice a week to champion the Save Our Stages legislation, it started back in August and as we can see those funds are just rolling out now, and it’s affecting, it’s impacting, theatres across the country. So I’m hoping that on the other side of COVID that that work still continues.

Yura Sapi: Well, thank you so much for this interview and for sharing time and space with me.

Teresa: The last thing that I’ll say, my final thought is, one of my biggest regrets has been my inability to nurture people of color, often on my staff, that I’ve had to lead. I just want to make sure that I’m prioritizing my mental health so that I’m not causing more harm to people of color on our staff. Oftentimes, I think— I’ll just speak for me. For me, it’s been a struggle to nurture and lead. And so, those managerial opportunities or skills have been a struggle for me just dealing with day in, day out microaggressions and having to take care of myself and take care of other people.

We have all been traumatized by our current realities. And so I’m really hoping that in the months to come, as we build out generational planning, that we create a space where people of color will not feel like they are being harmed.

Teresa: I feel like in this moment, again, our work is so important and I invite your listeners to join us in this work.

Yura Sapi: Thank you so much. Yupaychani.

This has been another episode of the Building Our Own Tables podcast. I’m your host and producer, Yura Sapi. Our editor is Daniel Umali. Original music by Blackos the Producer and Julian Var. This podcast is produced as a contribution to HowlRound Theatre Commons. You can find more episodes of this series and other HowlRound podcasts in our feed on iTunes, Google Podcasts, Spotify, and wherever you find podcasts. Be sure to search HowlRound Theatre Commons podcasts and subscribe to receive new episodes.

If you love this podcast, donate to support future episodes at advancingartsforward.org. You can also post a rating and write a review on those platforms to help other people find us. There is a transcript for this episode along with a lot of other progressive and disruptive content available on howlround.com.

Have an exciting idea for an essay, podcast, or TV event the theatre community needs to hear? Visit howlround.com and submit your ideas to the commons.

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Thoughts from the curator

I hear talk about wanting for racially diverse populations to “get a seat at the table” or “bringing chairs to the table for POC,” meaning that we want our people to have a position at existing organizations and institutions with decision making power. For me, a few years ago, I decided to not focus on infiltrating existing organizations, but rather start my own. I know I’m not alone. With the blessing that we all have a role in the revolution, this podcast checks in and learns from BIPOC founders of various organizations in and related to the theatre industry changing the game, making new things happen within, and expanding beyond white and euro-centric experiences. We will learn from these incredible visionaries who have created their own tables of arts institutions, movements, collectives, initiatives, and more. We learn about their processes, pathways to success, and challenges they've overcome. This is an outside-the-classroom leadership learning from folks who are doing the things.

Building Our Own Tables

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