The Future You Build

Dear Student of the American Theatre,

Instead of packing my bags traveling the country as an actor in the regional theatre, as I have done for the past ten years or so, I have traveled back from the future on the breath of your collective dreams to share how the story you are writing now has a good ending. As you look at the limited but ever-present moment, you can see that you are not in this perfect future yet, but you will be.

This message is for you. You, who are about to graduate high school and begin your education at the dream theatre school of your choice. You, who have just graduated with your bachelor’s or master’s and are getting ready to enter the acting world in a new way. You, a student of the arts outside elitist institutions. You, a student of the world and student of your self. Thank you for learning about being an actor and yearning to be a part of this often problematic industry. Thank you for continuing to engage in the arts, even as the art form struggles to define itself. This letter comes to you from the future and it comes with good news: You are creating a profession where more people will be helped, healed, and humanized.

I speak from the future, but will you travel with me for a brief moment into your past? Can you recall where in your body you experienced that feeling of boundless joy when you stepped on stage for the first time? Perhaps the memory is almost faint in the aftermath of this years racial reckoning, a worldwide pandemic, and the ghost lights on countless stages continuing to only shine on the comfortable parts of our industry. But in the future you build, the stage lights look dim on your brilliant skin. Because you didn’t just survive, you learned to thrive.

It is in the history books my students read in the future that, as social justice doula, Black feminist practitioner, and writer Lutze Segu puts it, in “a post-genocidal society built on racial capitalism” you somehow learned to demand more and you changed the world. You started by clicking in and out of Zoom rehearsals and classes and performances. Some of you went out of your way to tell those who had forgotten how to learn to be patient with themselves; this cost you something but you did it anyway. You gained a deep understanding that what you think and what you say as a student—especially if you are a part of the Black, Indigenous, people of color communities (aka the global majority)—is just as powerful and important as the words and thoughts of the teachers and mentors who might disagree with you. In the midst of racial hate, death, and chaos, you showed up, called in, called out, and organized. Those who chose not to were seen, and that part is in the books too.

I know that in 2021, the professional theatre had a lot of catching up to do in order to prepare itself for the amazing student-warriors like you—students who demanded representation, equity, the dismantling of systems of oppression, and harmful narratives created under harmful circumstances. In the future you build, you have become the mentors and leaders of the world, and your education is as multifaceted and inclusive as the people you teach. I know that in your present, much of the learning and responsibility has fallen on your shoulders, as confused adults look to you for inspiration. That happens less in the future you made, but we are still working on it. It seems adults do not yet understand that change need not only be on the shoulders of the next generation. How is someone supposed to rebuild the world without any of the structural power?

But in the future you build, the stage lights look dim on your brilliant skin. Because you didn’t just survive, you learned to thrive.

In the future you build, resources and power are shared equitably in all directions. Rehearsal rooms are filled with better critical thinkers—art makers who understand the direct social impact of storytelling. These rooms you made, by demanding the industry become more equitable, have changed the way older generations understand people, helped us unpack individualism, and brought nuance back into conversations. As you know from your current day to day, out of all the things capitalism takes from artists on a daily basis, the one that hurts the creative process as much as inequality is the time actors are given to create. In the future, you walk into a rehearsal room and know you have at least five weeks to create art in whatever regional theatre production you are working on. You know this time will be followed by a week of technical rehearsals. That’s six weeks working on one play, not four weeks from the first rehearsal until opening. What I love about this process and room is that there are no more eight-show weeks, the shows run longer, actors are valued and compensated fairly, and everyone has an understudy.

The future you build used the We See You White American Theater demands and the Black Theatre Matters Bill as a starting point for change. This means no ten-out-of-twelves, and your work schedule gives you two days off a week: one to rest and the other to do laundry and recover from the hard work that is dismantling white-supremacist ideologies, which is still working itself out of many systems. In the future you build, the Actor’s Equity Association has a new name and has reckoned with its white supremacist foundations.

Five people holding different sections of an auditorium and piecing them to the central part of the auditorium..

Illustration by Nguyen Tran, inspired by the essay.

As you likely know—and which can be corroborated in the Black Theatre Matters Bill—the large majority of directing jobs in New York City and on Broadway over the last couple of years went to white people. Even in the nonprofit sector, over half of productions created by BIPOC artists had white directors, and most actors on Broadway and in the nonprofit world were white. It does not go without saying that in the theatre you build, the days of most industry jobs going to white performers and directors are over. Even health insurance is equitably attainable and the twelve-month lookback period that requires members to work more weeks to be eligible for only six months of insurance at a time—which the Equity League Health Fund implemented during an industry standstill due to a global pandemic—has officially gone right back to the hellhole where it was first born, a place of inequity and disregard for human life.

In the future you build, everyone still remembers how quickly Actors’ Equity was able to demand theatres to invest in testing or installing new HVAC systems in the middle of a pandemic, yet how the organization did next to nothing to uproot the systemic racism that harmed so many union artists. You are watching now, in real time, how quickly organizations, unions, and institutions alike can prioritize issues that are important to them and draft a plan of action to make monetary resources available if they want to. They are adept at putting their elitist cultures first, keeping their structural power, maintaining their economic privilege, and upholding white supremacist ideologies. In the future, you and the art are the priority. So when you hear there are budget concerns regarding your pay or that someone wants you to work for free, when you have childcare needs, or when you are looking for additional support requiring monetary compensation, you understand that resources are available. The myth of predominantly white institutions not having any money to pay artists a living wage is not a part of the future you build. In this future, the day you get an email notifying you that you booked an out-of-town Actors’ Equity job, it is not accompanied by the tagline, “Are you able to acquire your own housing?”

In the future you build, you don’t take any shit from the white American theatre, and you have a document of accountability thanks to all the activists and theatremakers who have been putting in the work.

In the future you build, you don’t take any shit from the white American theatre, and you have a document of accountability thanks to all the activists and theatremakers who have been putting in the work. You look to Ann James and the thousands of people her organization, Intimacy Coordinators of Color, has trained, who help ensure emerging artists learn how to decolonize intimacy at the start of their careers. In your future, when you transition to the professional theatre and enter the rehearsal room, thanks to the work Karen Olivo and Eden Espinosa did through their organization Artists for Economic Transparency, you know who you work for and who is getting paid what. In the future, you know you can seek support from ArtEquity and instinctually understand that theatre and storytelling play an important role in the development of bias, culture, and social change. In the future, nobody puts you in windowless rehearsal rooms and tells you not to worry about what is happening outside those four walls. Because, sabes que? Instead, there are so many windows that opening the door for someone and getting a seat at the table has become completely irrelevant.

So when is this window-full future coming then? It is a shame the industry is not ready, now, in your present, for the future you will build. What the industry has upheld and expected from actors up until this point is exactly what predominantly white educational institutions have been teaching. They have taught us actors to be small, to be director-proof, and to be easy to work with by keeping silent, and this type of thinking gets reinforced in the rehearsal room. It is toxic, and I come from the future to tell you that it does not survive.

In this equitable world, collaboration doesn’t mean no friction. Collaboration is just another word for healthy disagreement without tone-policing, and this rule works because each and every acting company is made up of at least 50 percent Black, Indigenous, people of color—but the values of our field are aligned with equity in such a deep way that we don’t have to make this a “rule.” In the future you build, equity is an instinct. Curriculums have expanded the meaning of what gets to be considered classic and developed trauma-informed pedagogy, and artists make art with dignity.

The future you build rejects unilateral thinking.

The future you build understands that although the role of the director is to see the whole picture, it is not the role of the actor to appease a single mind.

The future you build tolerates less.

The future you build hopes for more.

The future you build understands how valuable storytellers are to society.

I am reaching back through this letter not to save you but to meet you, however briefly, and share words from one performer to another, with our shoulders worn out but our heads held high. As I look back into your present, from the future you have built, I want to say: it was worth it.

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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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