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Cascade of Change: Transitioning in Crisis

Regina Victor and Kaiser Ahmed in Conversation

Kaiser Ahmed: At Jackalope, I’m so proud of our reputation of being supportive of our artists and creating opportunities. We’re just trying to be as equitable as possible and as transparent as possible, and we've always held those mottos as the best way to navigate this industry. Diversity, inclusion—these are not just words, but core values. We want to get more diverse American stories representing America. That's the mission statement of our company.

Then this cascade of change starts coming in. Leadership is changing everywhere. I'm always so interested to see how leadership changes in different theatres and which transitions are fruitful and supported from both sides because it's been a big part of our company history. We're seeing many people of all sorts of diversity in leadership positions in the industry. I just thought it would take—I was prepared for it to take my whole life. The cascade is here now, on your doorstep. Everything I've been wanting and waiting for is here. Whoa.

Regina: I definitely feel you on that in terms of waiting for this moment to happen and not knowing if it ever would. I remember, maybe about three or four years ago, watching all of these brilliant Black women who were my mentors apply for these jobs over and over. They were not getting any of these jobs anywhere, and as a non-binary artist watching this I felt like, “When is this watershed moment going to happen for them? For me?”

There is something about the pandemic corresponding to the influx of leadership. Hiring people of color started long before that, but I do believe that people of color have more openings to lead in moments of crisis. I don’t think that's out of pocket to say. I say that because Shonda Rhimes made an entire show, Scandal, about how in times of crisis, we always tend to turn to people of color, women of color. Think of Colin Powell, Condoleeza Rice, and their role in our American heroism, right? I think it translates all the way down into theatre.

On The Chair Sandra Oh’s character says, "I don't feel like I inherited an English department. I feel like someone handed me a ticking time bomb so a woman would be holding it when it explodes." I think a lot of people in theatre thought that explosion would happen. I think that there was this industry-wide moment of “we no longer can carry it forward. Our backs are against the wall. People want diversity. They want change. We don't know how to do that, and our institutions are failing. The funding is changing for that to be the value, and so what do we do? We finally give people a chance.”

Then, because so many people have been waiting in the wings to do this work and to do it well, there is this really amazing renaissance in the theatre. Not only are people of color allowed to lead in a different way, but we're also allowed to lead in more ingenious and more intuitive ways. We're able to do new programs and to be inclusive faster than we would have been able to pre-pandemic, which I think is really an exciting opportunity that came out of this swamp.

For so long I thought my path was not relatable to new leaders of color, but it's all still the same industry that we're all working to change and shift it.

Kaiser: It reminds me that we started Jackalope to not have to work in institutions that are long-established rich clubhouses, which are hard for a young director to break into. It's a question of do you try to fix it or build something new?

I wish I could speak to what could really pull a larger institution to those systemic changes but that's not totally my asset or my perspective. I can build something, and hopefully I’m encouraging folks to build as well. I'd rather replace than repair because replacing is displacing, and I believe this is a numbers game until equity and diversity reach critical mass.

Regina: I think that's a beautiful notion. I always think about what kind of artistic director I was trained to be, you know? I think I went backwards. A lot of people start in storefront and community theatre and move upwards. I started in these internships, fellowships, and huge regional spaces where I learned the institutional ropes of everything. Then I was able to distill all that information. I realized I'd rather take this opportunity to build something than try to repair something probably at a huge emotional cost to myself.

What is really unique about your experience of transition is that you were the first artistic director of the company. Then you were able to aid in your institution's growth as associate artistic director and then step back into artistic director. I would love to hear how your goals and vision for the company grew or changed over that time.

Kaiser: I think we were always thinking about Jackalope as a forever entity. We named it Jackalope so it could be something that was separate from us—to create a symbol, an entity that is greater than any one artist—and then we can all contribute to that. Hopefully, when people think of Jackalope, they don't think of any one particular artistic director or show or director or production. Hopefully, they're just like, "Yeah, that Jackalope feeling." That can only be built over years.

It's rewarding to celebrate our leadership and challenge who has the opportunity to lead. We want to always try to offer that opportunity to people's career paths. What I imagine happens when leadership and founders try to transition their companies to the next people is a lot of “This is the way it is” and “But I made this, so that's the way.” I'm sure that causes a lot of turbulence in other transitions.

Three people rehearsing in a theatre.

Director Regina Victor, and actors Sydney Charles (L) and Janet Ulrich Brooks (R) in rehearsal for a reading of Marys Seacole at Timeline Theatre Company. Photo by Fatima Sowe.

Regina: We're in such a care-based moment as an industry, right? I was thinking about our mission at Sideshow Theatre Company, “To mine the collective unconscious of the world we live in with limitless curiosity.” That led us to ask what we are curious about. The resounding answers have been about hospitality and care and the way we work rather than what we're working on, which I just hear so much in what you shared. We made company values that I'm super proud of: we believe in process over product; we believe in harm reduction; we’re striving for non-hierarchical decision-making; and we need to put those things on paper.

I think Jackalope has always been really good about decentralizing power. When I’ve collaborated with Jackalope, it's always felt like I'm interacting with at least three or four different people whose jobs are equally important. I think that's really hard to do in a company of our size. There was another large theatre that was transitioning around the same time that Sideshow was, and a lot of people were like, "Why wouldn't you take that job? It's going to pay more. It's bigger. It's flashier." I was like, "Well, what's cool is that I know this outgoing artistic director who is the founder of Sideshow. I’ve been a part of this company, and I've been able to design with the ensemble what this job is going to look like, and what our needs are." Having that autonomy was very important to me, and it is something we’re both fortunate to experience.

Kaiser: For so long I thought my path was not relatable to new leaders of color, but it's all still the same industry that we're all working to change and shift it. As we go forward, there's so much that can be adopted from each other's changes and models. I'm so excited for that sharing. I think my favorite thing about being artistic director of Jackalope in this time, having done it before, is the challenges. Everything that we value must meet this next moment. Knowing that leaders in other institutions are reevaluating those values at the same time is just really, really awe-inspiring. We're not alone, Regina. We were so ready to be alone out here, but we're not.

Regina: I love that. I do think it matters. You were hired in January, and I was hired in October of the same year, and seeing you out there made me less nervous.

I did grow up seeing a couple of Black artistic directors and leaders, including Benny Sato Ambush. I grew up in the Bay Area, and he was at the American Conservatory Theatre and the Oakland Ensemble Theatre. That kind of energy, though, is why I was like, "Oh, I can do that." We undervalue representation a little bit more than we should.

We’re in a new moment, and I really hope that institutional change on all sides of the industry is feasible and within grasp.

Kaiser: I am positive that if I had seen more South Asian artistic directors in the field who weren't at specifically South Asian theatre companies, I probably would have reevaluated how I moved into my career after graduation. The lack of South Asians that I saw in leadership at that time in 2008… it was just another simple truth of being a person of color in this industry. But now, for young South Asian theatremakers who are coming out of college and thinking about which way their paths will go, maybe my existence gives them what they need to consider which way they go. I chose to build it, but that was me responding to my moment. I don't know if that's actually the answer going forward. Just making it is not easy to do safely and ethically these days. We’re in a new moment, and I really hope that institutional change on all sides of the industry is feasible and within grasp.

Regina: That resonates for me in terms of trans representation in artistic directors because, besides Will Davis, I've felt pretty alone in that endeavor until the past couple of years. That’s why working with emerging trans talent throughout our entire season has been the highlight. I'm always trying to explain to people that there is something absolutely extraordinary about what each and every one of these leaders is achieving against the odds. Because when you're the first, you are quite literally creating a new branch of reality, if you want to get Marvel about it.

Kaiser: And creating new branches of reality is creating new timelines.

Regina: Nataki Garrett modeled different ways of being a leader in the world that I did not know were possible. I have never seen someone so adept in every situation that she's been put into. Then, Raelle Myrick-Hodges, my directing mentor, is so clear about who she is and what she’s gonna do in any room she’s in. I learned the way I am from her—the balance between being that unapologetic but also possessing that institutional knowledge and respect, clout, fundraising ability, etc.

Kaiser: I love that. Just simply being exactly who they are in that position is such a big impact.

It's full support over here to go for new models. This is a new time, and we've got to try things in new ways. The most fun part of that is none of the old rules apply, so what do you want to try to create? New program creation is the name of the game. Especially now that we have artists generally more confident with sharing what they need. That is incredibly helpful for new program creation. That's how this change is going to actually be designed.

Regina: I'm thinking a lot about the turbulence of transition, too. At Sideshow, we did have quite a lot of subtraction, right? Whenever you establish a new artistic director, it’s always assumed they are bringing new areas of focus and direction to the company, and there’s always some measure of departure that I call subtraction. With my appointment, the perceived values of the company were changing, and frankly white people had concerns. People who don’t take the time to hear what I am advocating for interpret that advocacy as solely disruptive, when really I’m a radical, which means I’m not interested in destruction; I want to re-build and recenter from the root of the system. Even something as simple as being a signatory of the We See You letter, right? I’m a part of a lot of things that people could view as incendiary that I view as necessary to change. Folks did say, “I will not be giving money anymore because this person speaks on these things.” I barely noticed.

I think that the name of the game now is addition because, like I said, there's a lot of subtraction. That relates to what you're saying about new programs because listening to artists and creating things that make them want to be there will sustain companies.

The best advice I could give to leaders is don't try to appease anyone. People will fall away, so be extraordinary. Execute the vision so that you can attract people to your work. Be magnetic. Be the sun.

Two people sitting in audience chairs.

Jackalope Theatre Company leadership, artistic director Kaiser Ahmed and managing director Tina El Gamal, in their theatre. Photo by Azuree Wiitala.

Kaiser: Be gravity bringing in new people. I mean, room gets made. We don't need to push anyone out. It's just displacement. People will shift around as they need to. At Jackalope, we are always growing and shifting. Everyone's here, but we can all go to very inactive places—subtract yourself away into this wing further out from the center or move new folks into the center. If that's always shifting and moving, then we’re growing right.

Really I’m a radical, which means I’m not interested in destruction; I want to re-build and recenter from the root of the system.

Regina: I like not letting the subtractions feel like subtractions. It's just room being made. Again, we're deconstructing the myths of the American theater, which I think as it currently stands is that when white folks see people of color come in to lead they assume I’m going to be like, "I don't want any white people to work" or whatever…

My experience has been that people take themselves out of the equation by assuming that they would not be involved in my worldview, and therefore my artistic vision, because of what I look like. What that says is that when they were in leadership they never considered me in their worldview, and they imagine that I would do the same. I think that's actually really sad. I would encourage those people to stick around and see what happens inside of these radically inclusive visions for companies.

We're in a fortunate moment, though, where there's some really interesting work—that cultural triage paper that BLVE Consults and Brian Loevner put out, in collaboration with Miranda Gonzales at Urban Theater Company. It was important because it was about how cultural institutions can responsibly close and, therefore, make space for new things to be built.

The reason that we end up with a lot of people in positions for thirty, forty, fifty years is because there is nowhere for them to go after they reach that height of their career and become identified with their institution.

Kaiser: That is such a barrier. If it feels like there's nowhere to go in their career, then they stay. It creates this logjam of talent. I am seeing more examples of leaders who do step down and move into new supportive fields. To me, that's the move. You support who is next or go into different fields. It shows that our careers and talent can also take us to these new places in the larger cultural arena. I feel like theatre can be a very good combination of all artistic mediums.

Regina: We're storytellers. The theatre is the foundation of story. I actually have a double degree in theatre and religion. They go together because there's this ritual theory that every single performance and technique on the planet came from religious pageantry of different forms. That relates to the way theatre has begat every other art form.

In school I was told so often, “If you can do anything else, don't do theatre.” Right? I said early on that I would not work outside of a theatre. Even if I was a janitor, I would be a janitor inside of a theatre. Now I tell all my students to get other life experiences because that will help open your imagination to other paths.

Kaiser: It can be challenging to portray life onstage when you're not out there living it. Here's the real question: where are the grants for all of this?

Regina: That is one thing I would like to touch on. I'm curious about your experience, too, of trying to get new programs funded. Specifically, new programs that would be designed for emerging Black and brown artistic directors through mentorship and financial support.

Through various initiatives, I've found that a lot of grants and organizations have a path for giving to Black, Indigenous, people of color (BIPOC) institutions or predominantly white institutions who are just beginning to think about diversity. But there isn’t as much space for multi-cultural institutions who have been doing the work to create equity in their companies

Kaiser: I’d say there's a reckoning that's happening in the grantmaking world. I think many foundations are reevaluating how they fund and what they choose to fund—really going back and listening to artists. There have been so many listening Zooms. I think so many of us people of color have shared a lot, and it was labor.

But I am starting to see grant foundations really listen and change how they draft the application parameters. There are one or two new foundations that have reinvented themselves completely to support the unsexy, boring stuff that people don't always want to fund. They all prioritize equity, diversity, and inclusion (EDI) now, but some have a better understanding of what that actually looks like. Maybe that's just my experience, but I'm seeing some change. I'm given hope by that.

Regina: You named earlier that artists are feeling more confident about articulating their needs and that granting organizations are building structures to listen and, hopefully, respond to that. I hear in that a kind of an optimistic belief that leaders of color can start eliminating that sort of top-down structure—that patriarchal, capitalist structure—and maybe reintegrate funders as part of our artistic community.

Kaiser: Absolutely. I think if anyone is still in the industry at all, they're staying because they want some change. If they didn't, this was their perfect exit. Those who are here are ready for it. Now, it is a question of how do we bring it? What do the bones look like? What does that program that you want to build look like? How much does it cost? Changes do take time. I'm hoping that we just pick at this thing, never apologize, and believe that anything is possible in this time because anything is.

How we choose to act and what changes we make will define how successful these changes can be further down. We’ve got to make big waves now, hopefully based on a model of listening.

Regina: I mean, you got me with the phrase “anything is possible.” As we come to our close, what is your possible? What is a vision statement going forward?

Kaiser: I believe the greatest changes are in what's coming next and who is coming next. I think about how the leadership pipeline in Chicago is flowing, and we're seeing a big unclog moment now. I think the biggest opportunities for industry-wide change are in who we work with and we lift up as we work towards that future.

My vision is a wide, expansive, maybe idealistic picture of diversity and celebration of everybody's perspectives. This is the mission of the company but also my own mission—making space for a critical mass. It’s future collaborations that give me hope to learn and dream.

Regina: Thank you. That's beautiful. Who we lift up is something that I'm definitely still... I'm finding my way in terms of how we start to lay our own pipelines from where we are. A lot of that is in who we are hiring.

I write about visions annually now. I was looking at a piece that I wrote for Rescripted at the end of 2019, and one of the things that I envisioned was a future where all artistic and cultural leaders have a basic understanding of culture. At that time, I was just starting to understand the power of cultural strategy and theatre's ability to impact and be impacted by the field of cultural strategy.

All the stories that we tell correspond to, add to, or change the culture in which we live. Therefore, we actually have to be intentional, strategic storytellers and accept the responsibility that those stories can transform society. That's so much of what artistic direction already is, but... My vision is to really take our responsibilities seriously as cultural stewards, not just playmakers. If art imitates life, life imitates art, and all of those things, then we get to set trends, not just follow them.

That's something that I really feel about theatre: we're chasing patrons rather than inviting patrons into a culture that has the potential to impact their world, right? That is the power of the transcendence of our discipline.

Thoughts from the curators

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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