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Can I Come? Envisioning the Future of Inclusion on Broadway and Beyond

“I know I’m trans but can I come? Can I be free too? Can I coexist in peace? And in love with us? Can the beginning of my liberation start at the end of white supremacy as well?” — Indya Moore, “Can I Come Too”

Theatre is returning and rarely do I see myself reflected in it. Anywhere. Not on Broadway, not on LORT stages, not at the theatre down the street. As a non-binary, Black femme who identifies as trans, I am the only person like me in almost every room I enter. It makes me wonder why I am even invited into those rooms, because it doesn’t seem to be furthering my own liberation or the liberation of trans, neuroatypical, Black, and queer people like me.

This question extends even to the rooms where I have some decision-making power. I am a working actor, dramaturg, director, and artistic director of a storefront theatre, and still the question of “Why am I here?” persists. Pay inequity, erasure of identity, and overexposure of artists without compensation or decision-making ability are all serious problems. My face has been used to make many spaces appear safe, even when I am not safe within them.

Addressing this dynamic is an act of healing. In a white-supremacist system, I can’t take accountability for all of the harm done to me, but I can reshape what is in my control. The reality is that the empowered—aka older, whiter, and richer—people who have invited me into these spaces do not know why I need to be there apart from the fact that I fill a quota. This is a disenfranchising and stark view, but in facing this bleak truth, one can find infinite opportunity.

There is an absence of culture in these aforementioned spaces. Having exclusively old white people in power has created a vacuum of vision, which is directly expressed in the lack of diversity and excitement in our storytelling. I may not come into a room holding generational wealth and power, but I come in with an understanding of my purpose as an artist. That purpose is in creating and influencing culture. The Great White Way is suffering from an absence of culture, economically and artistically. Culture is something BIPOC artists have access to in a myriad of ways, including but not limited to heritage. And, culture is something that artists and other cultural practitioners can study, become expert in, and use to facilitate safe and open collaborations in the future of theatre.

Theatre is returning and rarely do I see myself reflected in it. Anywhere. Not on Broadway, not on LORT stages, not at the theatre down the street.

It is time for theatre artists to reclaim our purpose as creators of culture and envision an American theatre that truly holds the mirror up to American society. Our industry can comprehend the potential of art and culture to shape our society and the impact of our art on society as it develops, and it can invest in methods of creation that center cultural strategy. Nobody can tell anyone why they belong in the room, but everyone can identify purpose and can place equity at the forefront by envisioning the world through the practices of cultural strategy.

Let’s get into the visioning tools at hand. What is cultural strategy? I define it as the understanding that culture influences individual and societal behavior, and choosing to actively use elements of culture—fashion, music, theatre, film, art, storytelling—to transform, challenge, or preserve an existing culture. In short, cultural strategy is ethically responsible storytelling. Cultural strategy acknowledges responsibility for the impact of a story on individuals and society as a whole, and actively curates a desired impact throughout the process of creation. I, and likely many others, have been practicing it before I even knew what it was called. (Thank you to Amrita Ramanan at Play On, one of few cultural strategists at a major theatre, for introducing me to the proper title for this work and helping to pave the way for all.)

A magical black female figure breaking open a door.

An illustration by Wriply M. Bennet inspired by the essay.

Take a journey with me to envision a potential future for the theatre industry, with cultural strategy at the center. What if institutions and culture-makers centered the artists they hire to create instead of potential economic returns, and trusted that investing in highly skilled human beings has economic returns? As an example, let’s look at a cultural strategy on Broadway that centers trans and gender nonconforming (TGNC) inclusivity:

  • Envision a visible coalition of trans performers, designers, producers, and directors stewarding work for, by, and about us. This coalition is a pipeline for new work as well as a potential producing or producer-matching entity, removing the barriers to economic access and exposure for TGNC artists. There is a clear career pipeline for TGNC artists to have further access to opportunities. There are fellowships and jobs for emerging trans artists that put them into mentorship networks with their trans elders.
  • Envision entering a production with pay transparency and rates of pay far above minimum wage. Imagine feeling good about the amount of hours and soul we put into a project because of that transparency. One of the biggest barriers historically to Broadway is a lack of investment in trans and BIPOC projects, specifically in their development and in the profits they make once they open. Anyone contributing sweat-equity is eligible for subsidiary rights in this culture.
  • Envision strong developmental contracts for artists, even if some producers are only able to offer honorariums until they secure more funding. We invest our intellect in shows and in exchange they invest in us. These contracts cover the work of generating book and lyrics, a score, and casting, and are paid at an hourly invoiced rate until the production is contracted to sit at a theatre.
  • Envision a fully funded week of work with a cultural strategist before beginning to work on the script or material. This week is devoted to group evaluations and workshops to determine a shared language and set of values, accompanied by anti-racism training and conflict-resolution training.
  • Envision that the producing institution understands its role as a steward of culture and works through cultural strategy to both set the culture and provide the necessary tools for invited artists and staff to do their work.
  • Envision a theatre that is intertwined with the society it reflects. It starts with defining a clear relationship between the story onstage and the audience and community. The TGNC community and desired audience has a place in each story before an artist even begins to tell it. Local centers, youth groups, influencers, and others are involved throughout the preproduction, rehearsal process, and run as consultants, artists, or even curators of special events surrounding the show.

That’s just one small vision of trans-forward cultural strategy entirely imagined by me, a cultural consultant who runs a storefront theatre. Imagine what would happen if the resources of our institutes and universities, whose funds are often the catalyst for cultural investment, were invested into this work?

Everyone can identify purpose and can place equity at the forefront by envisioning the world through the practices of cultural strategy.

Investing in cultural strategy is necessary because we are already commodifying culture; producers already look to the culture they have outsourced for a show—usually artists of color or queer artists—to guide them instead of paying a professional cultural strategist to do that work. This uncompensated labor, usually vulnerable and painful, needs to come to a quick end. I’m talking about everything from asking an artist to translate lines in a script, to what they want their dressing room setup to be, to what radio stations should be marketed to. The solution is not as small as a stipend for their trouble. The solution is widespread, imagination-powered reform in the theatre.

Cultural strategy is one of many avenues to institutionalize these changes. It is the one I deploy the most because of a genuine love of radicalizing systems aka reconstructing them from the root. As the artistic director of Sideshow Theatre in Chicago, Illinois, running a company over the past year has logistically contained many responsibilities. But, at its core, it has been equal parts cultural strategy, imagination, and artistic curation. We have made huge shifts recently: I’m the first Black ensemble member and the first Black leader of the company, and this season is the first where we are operating with a majority BIPOC ensemble. Our season is predominantly BIPOC and queer in its creative teams. We have raised thousands of dollars for local activist groups and revamped our working values.

These were not acts of programmatic prowess, but radical imagination and cultural strategy. I envision the future and I apply it, every day. It comes with internal and external challenges, but it is possible.

“Radical Imagination, specifically Black Radical Imagination as I apply it, requires you to interrogate every story you ever told about yourself, or that was told on you. I need you to imagine who you will be and shed that old story inch by inch like a snake shedding its skin.” This quote is from an essay I wrote about the need for radical imagination and love of self to live in a healthy culture.

I want to live in a working world that understands that perfection is impossible, diligence is achievable, and difference is the great unifier. Pursuit of perfection cannot limit exercise of imagination. In our future, cultural strategy facilitates methods of care unique to every artist’s needs. We pour our culture into our civic, not-for-profit institutions, and those institutions must invest in and pour into us as well.

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Thoughts from the curator

It's 2021 and we're amid multiple pandemics that are revealing the structural failures, challenges, and opportunities facing the nonprofit theatre. Where do we go from here? What are we bringing with us through the portal, and what are we making anew? The Devising Our Future series asks theatremakers to consider a future theatre field where resources and power are shared equitably in all directions, contributing to a more just and sustainable world. This series is curated by HowlRound Theatre Commons as part of our tenth anniversary celebration.

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