Caring for Ourselves So We Can Care for Each Other

Michael J. Bobbitt and Raymond O. Caldwell in Conversation, Part II

Michael: I used to work at the Smithsonian Discovery Theater with Roberta Gasbarre, and as we looked at plays to produce and write, she taught me that there were four pillars that had to be present in the shows. One, they had to be museum-worthy. Two, they had to be interactive. Three, they had to be authentic—whatever the subject matter was, the people putting the show together had to be of that community. And four, there had to be a call to action—now you’ve seen this play, what are you going to do about it?

We’re having a discussion later today with the staff about our post-show conversations, trying to figure out what our innovation behind them is and what we want to incorporate institutionally. I want them to be interactive, but I also want to take time at every post-show conversation to have a call to action and have the audience stand up and tell people what they’re going to do. I’m looking forward to seeing how that works out.

Raymond: That model for conversation is so important and it is central to what we do at Theater Alliance. Colin Hovde, the former artistic director, really brought this idea to the company during a production of Occupied Territories. By the end of the show, the audience was left sitting in the theatre and couldn’t move. They needed to talk about it but were frozen, captivated by the work. Colin thought, Let’s create a space for a conversation.

We’re so used to talkbacks where the artists sit on a stage and talk at audiences. A conversation asks people not only to share but to listen. Whoever is moderating has to create space for listening. This goes back to the equity work we’re talking about. How are we actually creating space to authentically listen, to acknowledge all of our biases? Because even as a Black, gay, Asian man, I have a number of biases. When I go into conversation, how am I bringing those biases and how am I checking them?

A large chorus of performers singing and dancing onstage.

Guys and Dolls at Olney Theatre Center. Choreography by Michael J. Bobbitt. Photo by Stan Barouh.

Michael: Bias is so hard. You have to become aware of where you have bias and then... I guess the question is how do you correct bias? Because being aware of it doesn’t necessarily change it.

Raymond: That’s a whole rabbit hole. That’s another margarita.

Michael: Our margarita talk, which happened when we initially met up to have this interview, was a good moment of self-care for the two of us. We were very vulnerable and emotional, and we needed each other in that moment. And we hadn’t had those kinds of conversation before, you and me.

Raymond: For the record, I was in full tears.

When I started saying yes to everything, I began stretching myself very, very, very thin.

Michael: I’ve gone on a journey in the last three or four years of self-care, becoming a little obsessed with it. I’ve gotten to a place where I am able to manage the stress, where I feel happy all the time. My body, at forty-seven, is in the best shape it’s ever been. I am dealing with all that is happening in my life.

I read an article about the ten most stressful moments you can have in your life and the things that contribute to that, and I’m doing five of those things at the same time. Sometimes I feel like sharing what I’ve done to take care of myself, to get to a place of tremendous health, is one of the biggest contributions I can offer to my colleagues.

What have you been doing to take care of yourself in this stressful time, being a Black artistic director at a company previously led by a white man?

Raymond: For the first three or four months, I just wasn’t taking care of myself. My partner’s mother said something quite brilliant: “You know, Raymond, this is like your immigrant experience in America, because you can’t say no. And you’re not saying no to anything. You’re saying yes.” People would come and be like, “Hey, can I tap dance on your face?” And I’d be like, “Yes!” Because I wanted to create space for everyone. It was the thing I thought I was supposed to do. But when I started saying yes to everything, I began stretching myself very, very, very thin.

I am working on being able to say no, on a big scale and a small scale. On a big scale that could look like saying no when I’m asked to direct. In my personal life, that could be saying no to an invite to join friends for vodka sodas. Could I make space for that? Yes. Should I? No. Because I should take that space for me.

I’m also better at turning everything off, telling myself I’m not going to answer emails, I am not going to think about what donor I’m going to chat with next. I’m going to do something completely for me, which could be going to the museums or watching Netflix.

Michael: Saying no takes practice, because that voice in our head makes us feel guilty about saying no or hurting someone.

Raymond: Or worrying that the opportunity will never come along again.

Michael: The separation I went through with my ex was traumatic, and I read somewhere: “You’ve got to put yourself first because you won’t be great for your kid unless you take care of yourself.” So I did. Part of it was, How do I make this a genuine and regular part of my life so it doesn’t feel like something extra? I got back into working out and doing yoga, I switched to a whole foods, plant-based diet, I got massages and facials, I blocked out time on my calendar to go on a trip or a weekend getaway, I watched TV, I hung out with friends, I found community…  

All those things are super important, and because I created that space for myself, I wanted that feeling in every single other area of my life. I helped create that for my kid and my partner, and even at work. We’re looking at a lot of new institutional work/life balance procedures and benefits to make sure the staff is also taking care.

I’m finding myself needing to ramp it up a little bit because there’s a lot of work to do when you are coming into a new organization, like trying to figure out where the freaking files are. I’m still unpacking boxes and dealing with the stress of trying to live in a new apartment in a new city. There’s negotiating with my partner on new furniture and time together, getting to know the staff and the board—who are a little stressed because of past financial trauma—getting to know all the artists. I’m casting shows and I don’t know what artists are out there, so I’m trying to see shows and trying to get to know people. I’ve asked a few people up here to be my mentors and to meet with me once a month, and that’s been helping a lot.

Three young actors in school uniforms onstage in front of a graffiti wall.

Blood at the Root by Dominique Morisseau, directed by Raymond O. Caldwell, at Theater Alliance, March 2019. Photo by C.Stanley Photography.

I implore all leadership to take up self-care, because we live on islands by ourselves. Our names become synonymous with the organization’s names and we get blamed for everything, even if we don’t know about what happened. To be able to stand confidently and comfortably, knowing that you’re on this island by yourself, requires a tremendous amount of self-care and boundaries. We have to not be afraid to speak up.

Unless a light falls on somebody’s head, there are no theatre emergencies. It almost always works itself out.

Raymond: I think like that too. I try to take two hours for me a day, and I usually fill it with the gym or Netflix or reading a book I want to read or skimming through Instagram. Finding a community, as you say, is really important. I don’t think I could have gotten through this transition period without my partner, my therapist, and other artistic leaders who I can call and say, “Hey, can I talk this out with you?”

Having them do the same is actually quite relieving, because it helps put my own life into perspective. It makes me not feel so alone. It makes me know that I am a part of a network of a lot of people who also are experiencing, in their own ways, very similar things.

Michael: Given our unique experiences of being people of color leading organizations previously run by white people, what would help you be successful over the next six months?

Raymond: I love that question because it asks me to think from a place of plenty, where there is that amount to give. I’d venture to say that what I would need is a deeper connection to my community—other organizations, other institutions. I’d also need some demystifying around what it is to be in Anacostia, in Ward 8.

I’d also need access to resources. Everyone assumes that Theater Alliance, which has gotten a number of Helen Hayes Awards, is a company that does vital work. But we are often struggling with things like where we are going to rehearse. If other organizations have space sitting empty, it’s like, “Hey, let us use it.” I’m happy to work around their schedule.

Ultimately what I want most is folks to come. Our audiences aren’t matching the conversations that everyone is having.

The last thing I need is to discipline myself, to go, “Hey, Raymond, girl, sit down.” Like, why is it 6:00 in the morning and I’m up sending emails and going through my phone.

Michael: There is always a to-do list. It will never get completed. In my mind, unless a light falls on somebody’s head, there are no theatre emergencies. It almost always works itself out, but we put ourselves under a tremendous amount of stress.

Raymond: What are the things you think you need?

Michael: I would love executive coaching from a coach who is a person of color, who really has experience in—and this is an old term—integrating into a white community.

Raymond: My board has gone through a lot of growth, and it’s purposefully now predominantly people of color. There are opportunities there for that type of executive coaching, but I agree. I think that’s really smart.

I also want people to show up and give me a chance without baggage. To give me a clean slate, to not compare me to the last person, to not consider me a diversity hire but a person who is capable of this.

Michael: I also think funding would be helpful, funding specifically earmarked for a leadership transition to someone who’s a person of color. Because donors and patrons may walk away because of who you are and what you want to program.

The artists you want to bring in may not be in your area, so there are costs associated with that transportation and housing. The work and the time and the help to get more people of color from your community in the space all requires funding. I believe in a three-year rule. Every new program needs three years. I tell my staff all the time that if you’re going to bring me a new program idea, I want a three-year commitment. The first year is building it, the second year is seeing what worked and then tweaking, and the third year is building on the success.

I also want people to show up and give me a chance without baggage. To give me a clean slate, to not compare me to the last person, to not consider me a diversity hire but a person who is capable of this. I wish there was a way for people to jump in 100 percent. People are jumping in, but it’s with caution. I think the staff is really excited, but the board has gone through a lot. The search was exhausting for them. In some ways they may be a little worn out.

Raymond: I want to yes all of that. Can I have all those things, too?

Michael: There are so many of us moving into leadership positions. American theatre is changing right now. What a great time for us to be leaders of an organization. I think these days will be in the history books.

How do we all come together and take care of each other? Who’s out there who can help us?

Raymond: I wonder if there is a world in which we create that network, because it is so, so, so important.

Michael: Even just to know someone on the other side of the planet or the country is going, “Hey, how are you doing?” If that community could come together in some profound way, to check in with each other now and again, and share resources.

Raymond: That’s how we are all going to get through and improve the field and make space for future leaders of color.

Want to read Part I of this conversation?

 

 

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Thoughts from the curator

The US and Canada are in the middle of an unprecedented turnover of artistic leadership in the nonprofit theatre. This series aims to put a range of voices, issues, and ideas in play that can inform and reflect this historic changeover. 

The Changeover

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