Committing To A Season of Historically Excluded Voices

A Moment of Reflection at University of Minnesota

Have you heard of the JUBILEE? It’s a yearlong, nationwide theatre festival featuring work generated by those who have traditionally been excluded—including, but not limited to, artists of color; Native American, Indigenous, and First Nations artists; women; non-binary and gender nonconforming artists; LGBTQIA2+ artists; Deaf artists; and artists with disabilities.

The JUBILEE invites all theatre in the United States, including university theatre programs, to join by signing the pledge for their 2020–21 seasons, stating what the festival means to them and how their organization will engage with it. Organizations will have the opportunity to examine what would be a “growth edge” for them in terms of representation.

The University of Minnesota (UMN) Twin Cities department of Theatre Arts and Dance is, right now, preparing to submit a pledge to the JUBILEE. UMN has five programs: BA/BFA in Dance, BFA in Acting (with the Guthrie Theatre), BA in Theatre Arts, MFA in Design and Technology, and MA/PhD in Theatre Historiography. We are based in a robust and vibrant theatre community with a range of ecosystems from large professional houses to small experimental performance ensembles and everything in between. As we embark on discussions about our JUBILEE year of programming, I’ve been thinking back to conversations this community was having a little under a decade ago.

two actors onstage

DENIM created with Theatre Novi Most (BA Creative Collaboration). Written by Savannah Reich, directed by Lisa Channer, devised as a creative collaboration. Photo by Devon Cox.

Student Perceptions

In 2012, I taught a popular, upper-level course at UMN called Text and Performance. We read a play a week and dove in to each one from a different perspective in preparation to direct or design it. During our last class wrap-up, several students said they had the impression—(“I haven’t really looked too hard, I’m just saying what I feel”)—that the syllabus was way heavy on women both as writers and as main characters, that it was lopsided.

I was curious about that, because that was not my intent. We took a close look together and found we had read eight plays written by men, six plays written by women, and that in terms of “lead characters” it broke down to exactly an even split. The students were quite rightly dumbfounded—mouths literally fell open because these are progressive, highly intelligent, curious minds. How could they have had such a distorted impression, they wondered?

What an incredible opportunity to talk about perceptions. When you are used to privilege, equality can feel like scarcity. And this was only applying the lens of gender. I let them know that in my college days the World Theatre course we took was 100 percent plays by white men of European descent… plus Lillian Hellman.

When you are used to privilege, equality can feel like scarcity.

Speaking of Nearly 100 Percent White Men…

That same year, just a short walk down Washington Ave, the Guthrie Theater announced a fiftieth anniversary season that was nearly 100 percent written and directed by white men. It caused national attention and criticism and led to an outcry for the Guthrie to work on diversifying. The season was defended as an effort to attend to the bottom line of ticket revenue. Artistic director Joe Dowling accused the critics of being “self-serving,” defending the season’s lineup by explaining that the lack of diversity was not conscious but there are not many directors able to handle the pressure of the Guthrie: “It’s a very stern task to direct on a stage of our size.”

There was amazement. How could we still be here? People all over town and beyond debated the value of a diverse season vs. the bottom line as if these were mutually exclusive. What’s most interesting about the Guthrie’s 2012–13 season, revealed the next year when the books were settled, was that this particular season left the Guthrie with a deficit for the first time in two decades.

Was the obvious lesson from this that lack of diversity is fiscally unsound? Perhaps because of a tradition of radical politeness in the Midwest, neither the press nor the Guthrie screamed this lesson quite as loudly as I would have liked, but the community took notice.

three actors onstage

Boudica (BFA Mainstage). Written by Tristan Bernays, performed by the University of Minnesota/Guthrie Theater BFA Acting Class of 2019 at the Dowling Studio, Guthrie Theater, 19-27 April 2019. Directed by Tiffany Nichole Greene, scenic and properties design by Arina Slobodianik, costume design by Brandi Mans, lighting design by Claudia Errickson, assistant lighting design by Patricia Goodson, sound design by Dustin Morache. Photo by Dan Norman.

Grim Pie Charts and Stagnant Numbers

When I joined the theatre department in 2007, season selection discussions were at least partly about “getting butts in seats” because we needed to earn revenue. At UMN, several million dollars could be found for a new football stadium and the coach could be paid six figures, but the excellent theatre arts and dance department had to produce season after season of performances on a shoestring budget—something that has not meaningfully been increased in decades. Our department, like many others, had the burden of somehow making revenue from our seasons while also making sure to expose students to work that innovated theatrical form, was created by a diversity of voices, and that helped support our broad curricular offerings.

For decades, a moneymaker at UMN had been a yearly offering of nineteenth-century melodramas on a Mississippi riverboat. Just like The Christmas Carol does for professional theatres everywhere, this cash cow helped fund the rest of our season. But “the Show Boat,” as it was called, was expensive and no longer brought in the revenue it once did. The production was a rich learning laboratory of nineteenth-century scenic painting, acting, and musical styles for students for decades, but producing one every year meant that, by default, melodrama was our most consistent program offering while being only a fraction of our curricular focus.

The Show Boat was retired in 2015, the same year the Count study came out, letting us know that only 22 percent of plays being produced in the country’s professional theatres were written by women and only 9 percent by artists of color. Similar statistics were published a few years later about women designers and designers of color. These grim pie charts and stagnant numbers were disheartening and angering to read in 2015, but they were part of what got me excited to join the JUBILEE. The audacious vision to invite every theatre in the United States to program a single season that celebrates superlative work by artists who are not usually centered felt like the jump-start the doctor ordered.

These grim pie charts and stagnant numbers were disheartening and angering to read in 2015, but they were part of what got me excited to join the JUBILEE.

Choosing a JUBILEE Season

I chair the committee for season selection at UMN, and right now we are at work crafting a vision for the pledge we intend to make. We no longer talk about “risky” vs “butts in seats” but about “starting conversations” and “expanding community.” I asked our marketing and communications specialist, Amy Esposito, about JUBILEE and marketing. UMN is embedded in one of the densest theatre communities in the country and her answer to the question “how do we compete?” is “we focus on our strengths, not on competing.”

“People come to our campus theatre and dance performances to see people and unique interpretations of work, not because the title is recognizable,” Esposito said. “That is one reason why we don’t offer subscriptions any longer, which is a model that benefits from flashy known titles that garner recognition.” This frees us from being anchored to “safe” or “cash cow” choices. Esposito said JUBILEE will be a fruitful and exciting season to market because the community is interested in opening up conversations with the academic and artistic creators within the campus community, and that is what educational theatre is best at. “But,” she warned, “only if our choices of curation are supported and genuine—Minnesota eyes can tell when you are not genuine."

Because we are a department with five programs, the committee is gathering ideas from all program heads on how they’d like to see us tap into our “growth edge” regarding JUBILEE’s goals. Aaron Todd Douglas, the new head of the UMN/Guthrie BFA Actor Training Program, has said that all of their productions will be directed by artists of color and women, and a majority of the plays will be written by artists of color and other similarly marginalized voices. He added: “Looking ahead, a real ‘growing edge’ for the BFA will be expanding the definition of the term “classic theatre” to permanently include the enduring work of iconic playwrights who happen not to be cishet white men.” This is already well underway as a glance at the season of BFA projects today shows.

three actors onstage

Three Sisters directed by Bruce Roach (BFA studio series). Written by Anton Chekhov, translated by Sarah Ruhl, directed by Bruce Roach, and performed by the UMN/Guthrie BFA Acting Class of 2020. Performed at the Kilburn Arena 17-20 October 2019. Photo by Deb Pearson.

The BA program, with a focus on devised theatre and new work, is also proposing a season driven by women artists of color and Native American artists, including some exciting intersections with local Native artists and our MA/PhD students. This would include mainstage works (playwrights, directors, guest artists, curators) and also a core season of creative collaboration projects, which are devised with a guest lead professional artist. Ideas for guest artists, playwrights, curators, and directors are already flowing in from students and faculty. Our MFA design program has proposed a possible exciting JUBILEE year partnership with a local theatre company that works mainly with disabled artists. Our students have about twenty-seven ideas because, as usual in issues of diversity and bravery, they lead, and our dance program is already rigorously engaged in diversity-affirming work and eager to help craft the pledge.

More ideas will roll in in the coming months, and each one will ignite new questions and new edges of growth. It is our goal to have a departmental pledge for the JUBILEE by February 2020.

The goal of building a more balanced season is, it turns out, an invigorating opportunity.

Call to Action

The 2012 debates over the Guthrie season feel almost quaint now compared to the Twin Cities conversations today, which feel more like calls to action. The leap in thinking about diversity from less than a decade earlier is palpable. The students, faculty, city, and world are waking up and leaning in and opening up and trying to demand better. Universities must be part of this awakening and reckoning if we are to train the artists of the future and stay relevant. JUBILEE is a part of this—and a great way to join a movement that jumpstarts change.

The goal of building a more balanced season is, it turns out, an invigorating opportunity. There is a sense of shared mission in my department around the JUBILEE, and the hope is that once we make the commitment to expand our vision for a single year, we will see we had that power all along, and we can move forward with more voices and talents as our new normal.

actors onstage

Collidescope 4.0: adventures and pre and post racial America (BA Mainstage). Whiting Proscenium Theatre 24 October — 3 November 2019. Created and directed by Ping Chong & Talvin Wilks, assistant directed by Nathan Aastuen, scenic and properties design by Arina Slobodianik, costume design by Mathew J. LeFebvre, media design by Katherine Freer; lighting design by Patricia Goodson. BA Theatre Arts production. Photo by Dan Norman.

I hope other universities are having a similar experience, though I know there might be pushback or fear of change in some programs. That can be exhausting to face and counter, but if that’s your situation, know that you are not alone. And if you want to join the JUBILEE, here are some tips for talking to your department about the process:

  • Survey the faculty on what plays are being taught across curriculum in all programs or tracks. Who on your faculty is most in touch with contemporary work? Ask them to lead a discussion about what’s missing. Also ask your university or college to join the New Play Exchange.
  • Take note of the directors, production leaders, and designers who are most often in your building, as these are the artists your students will be networking with and see themselves represented by. Can you see any gaps? Are there local opportunities to fill them?
  • Talk to the students! Generally, the next generation is way ahead of us on all issues of diversity and inclusion. What are the students hungry for? How can they be empowered to help lead the discussion?
  • What community partners (community theatres, schools, civic organizations, advocacy groups, etc.) are near you that you might reach out to for ideas or missing voices?
  • Share the Count survey and other factual resources with your faculty for those who might not be aware that there is a problem with representation and fairness.
  • Talk about “growth edge” not as an absence but as an opportunity—and as something for your program to define for itself.
  • Speak often about how the JUBILEE has no enforcement. It’s about joining a nationwide celebration that widens circles on the terms that work best for your specific community. You hold yourself accountable to your own goals.
  • Remind your colleagues that it’s a cool thing to do! You can see a full list of participating theatres at the JUBILEE website.

I know there are more solid tips I’m missing. Comment below with your ideas about how we can build a vibrant JUBILEE year together!

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Joan. I agree it's so much more than just playwrights or directors - as important as these may be. I'm so glad dell arte is participating in JUBILEE! I am looking forward to these conversations as we all plan our seasons. the BA program here is heavy on devising as you know so it will be about what "lead artists" we bring in I think as much as it's about play titles. Lets keep talking!

Lisa

Thanks, Lisa for detailing how different departments can develop their Jubilee pledge. We are working on ours now. Though not a university we still have a complex scenario to develop. As a a primarily devising institution we don't choose a play season, but we have to figure out how our summer festival, the company shows, and the student work at both graduate level and certificate level all generate ideas that come together in our 20-21 season. Plus, as you point out,  it's not just about actors, directors, and playwrights, but also about designers, technicians, house crews, etc. It helps me think about how this can reflect the values of the organization as a whole.  I think we'll have some exciting conversations about it.