Livestreamed on this page on Wednesday 19 August 2020 at 6:30 p.m. EDT (New York, UTC -4) / 5:30 p.m. CDT (Chicago, UTC -5) / 4:30 p.m. MDT (Denver, UTC -6) / 3:30 p.m. PDT (San Francisco, UTC -7).
Anti-Racism And The Arts (ASL-interpreted)
Marketing Leaders Respond!
Reynaldi Lindner Lolong presented Anti-Racism And The Arts livestreamed on the global, commons-based, peer produced HowlRound TV network at howlround.tv on Wednesday 19 August 2020 at 6:30 p.m. EDT (New York, UTC -4) / 5:30 p.m. CDT (Chicago, UTC -5) / 4:30 p.m. MDT (Denver, UTC -6) / 3:30 p.m. PDT (San Francisco, UTC -7).
In a time where many arts organizations only exist online through websites, digital content, and social media channels, combined with a growing public accountability for social justice and institutional transparency, the role of the marketing and communications director is uniquely poised to bring about change. At the same time, these roles often sit within traditional white supremacist power structures designed to reinforce the industry norms.
This conversation will bring together four leaders in theater, music, dance, and opera for a frank discussion on the industry, anti-racism, and their aspirations for the future of the field.
Samanta Cubias is second-year M.F.A. candidate in Theater Management at the Yale School of Drama. Prior to beginning her graduate studies, she worked at Berkeley Repertory Theatre as the Audience Development Manager and served as a teaching artist with Berkeley Interactive Theater, participating in and facilitating workshops exploring the creation of inclusive classrooms and workplaces. In 2018, Samanta was selected to be in the inaugural cohort of the League of Resident Theatres’ Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion Mentorship Program. She holds a B.A. in Political Science and Theater and Performance Studies from the University of California, Berkeley.
Khalilah Elliot is the Founder & Chief Disruptor at Gafford Communications, LLC, a revolutionary consulting firm focused on providing deliberate and impactful communications strategies that promote equity, diversity and inclusion (ED&I) throughout all aspects of a client’s business operations with an emphasis on multicultural marketing, brand management, corporate social responsibility and ED&I initiatives, as well as ongoing engagement of internal and external audiences of color.
Prior to launching Gafford Communications, Khalilah worked as a marketing executive for major entertainment brands including Disney Theatrical Group and the world famous Apollo Theater in Harlem, NY. Throughout her career she has worked with a number of brands on their multicultural and inclusion initiatives including Coca-Cola, Essence Magazine/Essence Festival, HBO, BET, Fox, NBC Universal, ABC, Live Nation, American Express, and Broadway productions such as the Tony-award winner (Best Musical) Hadestown and the upcoming MJ: The Musical.
Khalilah’s passion and commitment to the cause of ED&I and social justice continues to inform her work even during the current pandemic. Her expert knowledge of how to attract, engage and best represent BIPOC communities and their interests has been widely sought out by companies and non-profits resulting in her appointment to the Broadway League’s Covid-19 Partnership Task Force and her role as Chair of the Covid Theatre Think Tank Safety & Health Marketing Subcommittee.
It is Khalilah’s philosophy that diversity is more than “a box to be checked” that informs her efforts and shapes her approach - leaving her clients with an infrastructure that makes it possible to sustain such efforts beyond her involvement. An engaging public speaker and communications strategist, Khalilah has spoken at multiple conferences, led webinars, lunch-and-learn workshops, hosted trainings and taught both undergrad and graduate level students.
A Louisiana native who splits her time between Dallas and New York City, Khalilah holds a Bachelor of Arts degree in Communications & Theatre Arts from her Alma mater Dillard University in New Orleans as well as a Master of Arts degree in Performing Arts Administration (with a concentration on Marketing/Non-Profit Management) from New York University.
India Haggins is the Director of Ticket Sales and Marketing at Jazz at Lincoln Center, where she oversees the subscription, single ticket and audience acquisition marketing strategy for Rose Theater, The Appel Room and Dizzy’s Club. She managed the institution’s shift to a digital-first marketing strategy and continues to have a passion for creating narrative content that deepens audience engagement and a connection to the music. During COVID, India has also managed Jazz at Lincoln Center’s transition from being one of the leading producing and presenting jazz performing arts institutions to a digital content company focusing on virtual classes, concerts, music and discussion.
India has worked in the non-profit marketing industry for over 17 years and holds a degree in Economics from Bucknell University as well as a Masters in Performing Arts Management from Brooklyn College. Prior to joining the team at Jazz at Lincoln Center, India worked at Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, New York City Center and Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts, among others.
As a native New Yorker India’s passion for the arts started at a young age. She has used that passion to inspire her work, finding joy in cultivating and connecting with audiences of all ages and backgrounds through jazz.
India is a mom, former dancer turned avid runner, dog person and practicing Buddhist.
Anh Lê is the Director of Marketing & Public Relations at Opera Theatre of Saint Louis, where she oversees all sales campaigns and audience development strategies while providing key strategic support for company-wide community engagement efforts. In addition to her duties at OTSL, Ms. Le has been a passionate advocate for diversity and equity in the opera field and currently sits on OPERA America’s ALAANA Steering Committee. Ms. Le completed her undergraduate studies at Harvard University and received an M.F.A. in theater management from the Yale School of Drama.
Cecile Oreste is the Senior Communications Officer at the University of Southern California’s Glorya Kaufman School of Dance, where she devises and implements marketing and public relations campaigns that advance the school’s strategic priorities. Prior to joining USC Kaufman, she worked as the Associate Director of Marketing at Signature Theatre and as the School Marketing Manager at Atlantic Theater Company in New York City. In addition to completing a one-year project management internship in London through the Mountbatten Institute, she received a B.S. in Public Relations from the S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications at Syracuse University.
Reynaldi Lindner Lolong is the Director of Digital Engagement for The Public Theater and founder of the unofficial group BAMF (BIPOC Arts Marketing Folks). Past organizations include Yale Repertory Theater, Paper Mill Playhouse, and Z Space/Theater Artaud in San Francisco. He has been a frequent presenter at the Tessitura Conference, speaking on a variety of subjects including revenue strategy, organizational collaboration, and community engagement; a guest lecturer for Julliard; and has served on grant panels for NAMT, NYSCA, and the Lower Manhattan Cultural Council.
Reynaldi Lolong: Hello everyone. My name is Reynaldi Lindner Lolong, my pronouns are he him his, and I am the director of digital engagement for the Public Theater in New York. I am also the founder of the BIPOC Arts Marketing Folks Facebook group or as I like to call it "BAMF." So I formed this group as a response to a lot of other conversations I was seeing in the field around how theatre structures need to change in the wake of the Black Lives Matter uprising that continues to this day. Many of those conversations center artists and executive leadership but I've always felt that marketing and communications have a unique power to make change. These are the teams that decide your website and your social media, your press strategy, and so on. I really wanted to create a space that centered BIPOC voices in those roles and elevate those voices wherever possible. So today's panel is an amazing lineup of leaders in the world of arts marketing and communications from a variety of disciplines they'll talk for just under an hour and then we'll have little room for Q&A. So if you're watching on Facebook, feel free to pop them into the chat and I'll keep an eye out for them. And now I'll hand it over to Sami Cubias our moderator for this discussion.
Sami Cubias: Thank you Reynaldi. So good evening my name is Sami Cubias and I am a second year MFA candidate in theatre management at the Yale School of Drama as an emerging arts administrator I feel immense pride sitting among such a distinguished panel composed of entirely of women of color and positions in leadership in our arts community. It's my absolute honor to moderate today's panel discussion so with that let's get started um panelists if I may ask you to introduce yourselves. Tell us your names, your pronouns, your position, and company plus a quick overview of your organization with any relevant experience you'd like our audience to know about. And maybe we can start with Anh?
Anh Le: Sure, thank you Sami, and hello everyone. My name is Anh Le, my pronouns are she, her, hers, and I am the director of marketing and public relations at Opera Theatre of Saint Louis. We are of course an opera company, located in St. Louis Missouri and our primary activity is a six-week festival season that usually runs from about mid-May through the end of June. During that season we typically present four operas in rotating repertory along with ancillary concerts and events and fun fact we are one of the few opera companies in the US that performs every single opera entirely in English. Since our founding in 1976 we've produced 28 world premieres, and in the last 10 years most of those have focused on telling diverse stories by American creators. When we're not in season we remain very busy, we have a broad offering of education and community programs that serve about 18,000 people a year. So that's a little bit about our company.
Sami: Thank you, Cecile.
Cecile Oreste: Hi everyone, thanks for having me. My name is Cecile Oreste, and my pronouns are she or hers. And I'm currently the senior communications officer at the USC Glorya Kaufman School of Dance. USC Kaufman is one of six art schools at the University of Southern California. We currently offer a BFA in dance, it's a conservatory style training and also taking advantage of the resources of a research university. Relatively new school, just founded in 2012 and we actually just graduated our first class with BFA students back in 2019, which was last year. And they had the pleasure of having Mikhail Baryshnikov as their keynote speaker. So really great. And a little bit about me in terms of my background, before joining Kaufman, I've worked in arts marketing for more than a decade and in Washington DC as well as in New York which is where I've met Reynaldi and some of the others on the panel. I worked for two off-Broadway theatres while I was there: Signature Theatre and Atlantic Theatre Company. So I'm sure I'll talk a little bit about that experience during the discussion as well.
Sami: Great thank you. Khalilah?
Khalilah Elliott: Hi everyone my name is Khalilah Elliott. I'm the founder of Gaffer Communications which is a well I should say it's a consulting firm but we we specialize in a number of things including multicultural marketing, EDI, and then also corporate social responsibility because as we all have learned in the last few months, those things kind of run into one another when a brand is trying to align itself with social justice causes so that's-those are the solutions that we offer to our clients. My background includes, I was the marketing director at the Apollo Theater for nearly five years, I was, had a similar role at Disney Theatrical, as well as at Atlantic Theater Company, an off-Broadway theatre company. I actually got my start interning for Walker Communications. And more recently I've been doing subcontracting work through Realemn Productions, working on shows like Hadestown and before the pandemic getting ready to work on MJ the Musical, so lots happening in our in our world. And I'm really excited to be here, I should say my pronouns are she, her, and hers.
Sami: Thank you Khalilah. And I should also share my pronouns are she, her, hers. And last but not least, India.
India Haggins: Hello! India Haggins, she, her, hers. I am a New York resident born and raised I currently work at Jazz at Lincoln Center where I'm the director of ticket sales and marketing, overseeing all of our performing arts events that happen there in both theatre the Appel Room and also our small jazz night club called Dizzy's Club. Before joining Jazz-I've been there for about seven years now-before joining there I worked in the marketing department at at the sorry at Alvin Ailey for American Dance Theater and then I also worked at Lincoln Center and New York City Center for about seven years, so I've been in the field for about 17 years now. And I would say you know my background and what I kind of continue to bring to this field is my, steep and deep connection to Buddhism, which I try to kind of connect and bring through and everything that I do. Looking at the individual and really kind of cherishing and uplifting everyone and their interest and their input.
Sami: Thank you. So our conversation today is about anti-racism and arts marketing, so let's pull those two terms apart people hear marketing and they usually think butts in seats or season brochures, but it also includes branding and community engagement and social media and so much more. Could each of you share a particular part of your work as a marketer that the layperson might not realize is part of your work?
Cecile: Sure I can start. I guess one aspect for my role at USC Kaufman, we're a relatively small staff so there's only about 15 full-time staff members and I'm the only person who does marketing for the program. So I'm wearing a lot of different hats which I'm sure a lot of you do as well in smaller non-profits and one as of late that's been happening is not necessarily to external audiences but communicating with our internal staff and our employees, our faculty, and our students. COVID-19, there's been a lot of changes that have happened in terms of what we do as a school and also our response to the Black Lives Matter movement and how we are addressing anti-Black racism within our institution. So that's a relatively new aspect I think I'd say about arts marketing that's happening in my world right now.
India: I would add to that and say that with the changes that we've all been seeing with COVID, it's definitely been an opportunity for you to pull out all those hats you have. I feel as though as the marketer your hands are in everything at this point in time and I've really been at one point when things were once so siloed between different departments those walls luckily in my institution have kind of fallen down and we're really kind of collaborating to make things happen. So, you know right now I am contributing to video content-you know what works what doesn't work. Contributing not just to marketing but to creative, what colors have been-people have been responding to, what images we should be using and really thinking about how do you integrate the psychology of of marketing into everything that you're doing right now? How are you connecting with individuals? So you really kind of become you know a therapist as much as a marketer where you're really thinking about how are you solving a problem and speaking to people in a very specific way, while also pivoting in an instant, right? So you have to be looking at metrics you have to be looking at you know what's working what's not working and how do you adapt what you already have in place to respond to that?
Anh: Adding to what India said I also completely agree with being a digital producer that's definitely a new skill set that a lot of us are learning to acquire right now especially those of us in smaller organizations that previously haven't had the resources or maybe the buy-in organizationally to invest in video the way we would like to. But I think in addition to that marketing in non-profit I've found is really like being a business consultant to a number of different clients. We're not just marketing a show or a season we're not just marketing subscriptions but we help education to market camps and youth programs we help development sometimes think about how they're communicating with donors or acquiring new donors, even when it comes to helping our administrative or our production staff find interns and young people who are interested in being behind the scenes and learning how to be a stage hand or on a technical crew, that is something that marketing also helps with. So we're not just marketing our programming but marketing our institution and the jobs in our field.
Khalilah: If you're looking to me Sami, I think—
Khalilah: I think people know that branding is a part of marketing but I don't think that they realize, and India touched on this and Anh just kind of touched on this as well, I don't think that they realize that the alignment of brands with certain things so for in for instance what's happening right now you know with Black Lives Matter, they your organization, many organizations are looking to their marketing and communications teams to go "What do we do, What do we say?" and it's on the marketers and the communicators in in that space to be able to say, "Can we even weigh in on this conversation?" Can we do it in a way that one, is authentic you know because that's what you know consumers will ask is this an authentic an alignment with this cause and then beyond that considering you're kind of you kind of do risk management in marketing a lot you you have to figure out whether it's a program does this program align with our mission with our values and what I at least during my time at the Apollo and other organizations, I found that marketing people are often the ones in the room going, "How do we tell this message?" because this may or may not be in alignment with our mission or with our goals or this is you know the social justice cause that you're looking to align yourself with, two seasons ago we did some work that is in direct opposition to this so it's often on the marketing or the communications team to say, you know we need to do a close examination of how you know these things happen, how they align with our brand. So while people know I think the word brand, I don't think that they really understand what that looks like in action, so that's probably something that people aren't really familiar with when they think about marketing.
Sami: That actually brings us to kind of the other half of this conversation which is anti-racism. And it's something that's important to distinguish from EDI, or Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion. Because a lot of the conversation in arts has been centered around EDI which is really more about creating parity and opportunity, but anti-racism is about acknowledging white supremacy and that can be a much harder conversation to have. Can any of y'all kind of speak to those conversations that are going on now and kind of what the role you play in those as marketers?
Anh: Well just to jump in on that I guess, like Cecile our department was responsible for helping to craft a response… a Black Lives Matter statement of support in June. and So marketing necessarily became part of the conversation very early in terms of a department and a staff and a team. But beyond that I think maybe, it's a case of the grass is always greener but I feel like opera is even further behind than a lot of other art forms. I think it's hard when you have a legacy art form that is so steeped in and tied to white European culture, and that is a really hard thing when all of the traditional rep that audiences for centuries have loved and adored is in and of itself inherently problematic. And so I think that we have a very difficult road ahead in figuring out how we can reimagine and reproduce works that are deeply problematic in a way that won't alienate audiences who see the injustices and the the stereotypes perpetuated in that.
Cecile: Yeah, Sami, when you ask that question what I thought of was the characteristics of a white supremacist culture, which I've been reading a little bit about, and learning more about and really kind of grappling with that, and two that come to mind are the right to comfort, and also the fear of open conflict. And I bring those up because I feel like this conversation about equity diversity inclusion in our case too, we've been talking a lot about the word "belonging." So there's more of a focus on that, and making sure people feel like they belong as part of the community rather than talking about oh is there white supremacist ideals within our curriculum within what we're performing and also is there some anti-Blackness within the organization and how do we address that? So going back to those characteristics I think people are much more comfortable and it's more palatable particularly for some of our white colleagues to talk about this more abstract concept of belonging rather than really naming it because I think naming it is an acknowledgement that there could be something quote-unquote wrong.
India: Yeah, I mean I would definitely echo that, in saying that when you're thinking about equity and inclusion and direct, diversity inclusion you're really looking at how can we incorporate everyone's voice or as many voices as possible? But when you're looking at an anti-racism it requires you to look inward and to really kind of assess and question yourself and the things that you fundamentally believe in which is really challenging for someone and it requires you to kind of acknowledge and admit your faults acknowledge and admit the roles that you've played in the system. Which is hard for anyone really to do, and particularly I think white community really, for a long time because a lot of the negative past and history has always been swept under the rug or not told and and been kind of re- the narrative have been shaped to uplift as opposed to really kind of tear down and shine a spotlight on them. So I think that is a challenge and why it is so difficult to really think about anti-racism on on a real level. But also I know for instance at Jazz at Lincoln Center the work that we do, right jazz stems from African and Black American kind of roots in history and so with that it requires us to think even harder and say just because we're a Black art form doesn't mean that we are not in some way connected to that. Like what is our role being a Black art form to really step up and say even more? Which has been challenging right because it's like where we have this Black art form but does our audience reflect that? And what does that mean for us you know like the majority of our audiences are much older and are you know are White so like how how what are we doing to tear that down and to make sure that people of all races and colors feel welcome and are interested and willing to put their money and support us monetarily by coming to our shows?
Anh: I think right now we're in a time maybe where I don't know how everyone else in this panel feels but maybe we're at a time where there's more willingness than I can remember seeing in my lifetime of people wanting to learn and educate themselves and hopefully make a change, and I think we have yet to find out if that's lip service or if that is true intention. But I think where I am concerned and this is I think true at a broad level this is not specific to my organization or any one organization but I think just of the non-profit world in general is I think our a lot of our staffs are at the point not to generalize but a lot of our staffs are at the point where they want to have these hard conversations but how are we encouraging the board to also hold themselves accountable and to reflect inwardly and when you take a group of people whose entire identities revolve around being successful influential business people with accolades just pages of accolades to their names how do you encourage specifically that group of people too to engage in that inward reflection? I think is something that all of us are struggling with at the moment.
Khalilah: And if I can if I can say so, part of the reason actually the impetus for launching my company was literally because of a lack of intersectionality between what I feel like is the marketing world, and corporate social responsibility, and EDI, and the thing about when like for example when we're working with clients on the EDI side of things I think the difference between that and anti-racism as far as I'm concerned is everything that everyone has already said about EDI we don't have to go into that, but anti-racism is literally first of all let's talk about racism you have to start with the racism right? Racism is systemic, so if racism is systemic then whatever we're going to do to dismantle racism and to be anti-racist has to also be systemic. We have to first of all, break those systems down we have to completely rebuild something and I think just echoing what everyone has said here like I'm not with an actual organization at the moment but you know with clients what we're saying to clients is everything that everyone has said you have to do this really deep work internally within your organization, but it starts with individuals within those organizations right? It's from the leadership down, if like as Anh just said, if the board isn't interested in examining themselves, if the president isn't interested, and even down to like managers. If they're not on board with this effort then what happens is the institution ends up falling behind because change is here, progress is here, like it's going to keep moving because it has to, and so the question is do you want to be an institution that gets left behind? People of color are tired of being told to wait they're done we're done and I think that's the difference now I think, in terms of why EDI alone and I won't because I don't want to throw the baby out with the bathwater, but that's why EDI on its own is no longer sufficient. You have to go that step further and break down these systems that have allowed you know this, the lack of parity across the board within institutions.
Sami: Yeah, and I really appreciate I think what everybody's saying in terms of like these you know the murders of George Floyd, the murder of Breonna Taylor, they've kind of pushed a lot of these conversations to the forefront of our of our community but these are issues that have been happening and they're so ingrained into some of these institutions and so it's an uphill battle from the start. And if I can reach back to, I I'm sorry I forget who mentioned it but they said the power in naming naming racism, naming white supremacy, I'm wondering if we can go into the specifics because recently there's been a lot of buzz about how white supremacy and racism manifests itself in artistic programming and hiring. But I'm wondering if y'all can speak a little bit to how it manifests in arts marketing and what are some of the problematic behaviors that you've witnessed in your time in the field?
Khalilah: I’ll jump in and say for me, the the most egregious thing I think I've ever seen in my career with in regards to that is what I'll call girlfriend-ese and what I mean is when I've been in a voiceover session and I'm asked to ask an actor to make it more urban, or code words like that because maybe we're recording a commercial that will play on an R&B station. So all of a sudden my, you know classically trained actor who has been recording a VO for this particular brand for however long, and done it perfectly well without any special instruction. Because he's specifically recording a spot that's going to run on a station where the audience is primarily Black, he's asked to adjust his tone and his cadence and it's like, it's things like that where it's like, why? Black people are perfectly capable of interpreting straightforward language, we don't need it to be a you know we don't we don't need flavor it would which is which is what that is: “Can you can you add some spice? Can you add some flavor?” It's condescending. It's patronizing, it's insincere. And here's the thing: the audience knows that. The audience knows that this actor, because they've heard his voice before on another radio station, or on another program, they know it's inauthentic. That for me has I think with the most egregious—I literally told them I'm never running that spot. Never. And I never have. I never did. Cecile: Khalilah that reminds me just you use that word "authentic." And it makes me think of and you know i'm guilty of this too having worked in the field and specifically in theatre, but there's this notion of okay well we have these Black playwrights where you have these shows that are predominantly Black actors so now let's reach out to the Black community. So that's the only time that we're gonna reach out to the Black community.
Cecile: Yeah, Asian community as well.
Khalilah: Because all of a sudden we have a Black show so now we're calling all the Black publicists and trying to get their clients to appear on the red carpet, exactly.
Cecile: Yeah, and it's like, well do you want an authentic relationship with this population or not because you can do that and they have vast interests you know I'm not just interested in a play that's about Filipino Americans. I'd love to see that, but my interests are much more diverse than that. And another thing that I was thinking about that really hit home for me in terms of this conversation is we've had these really difficult conversations with some of our students, our faculty, and staff about what are some issues that we can address as a school, and one thing that came up that falls under my field is this idea that the way we promote the program is perhaps not accurate you know you have a lot of different people represented on the brochures you know the messaging is that we are valuing all these different forms of dance in the same way. But in actuality for some of the Black students they might not feel that way or from other students as well. So that idea of tokenizing and using these Black students to represent the program when perhaps they might not have the same value as others.
India: I would add to that and say you know, from from a marketer's perspective another thing that that falls into all of this is really assessing and looking at your institution's budget and your marketing budget per se. How are you spending your money, right? With which, you know markets are you are you putting your money in? With which you know productions or advertisers? How are you really allocating your budgets and because that tells the true story, right? That tells the story of what the institution values. It tells the narrative of you know what they prioritize and how they really see certain communities. And so to go from and it doesn't really just only stem to to marketing I mean it includes PR as well right? So if you have an artistic person, or if you have you know an artistic director, or executive director, or an artist, that is not willing to participate in certain press outlets because they prefer to be with the New York Times or you know with the NPRs, you know what messages that is that sending? So being able to have a presence on the local, the local channels, the local radio stations, you know. Being involved with, in New York with places like WBLS or what have you those are I think the important thing. So really looking at where your dollars are going because that's ultimately what really matters I think. And do you have, or do you have money that is allocated and specifically set aside for community development or for community relationships? Because yes you don't see a direct revenue line all the time or directly who tie instantly to some of those establishing relationships but it's about what are you doing for the long haul how are you being how are you showing up in these communities and being engaged with these individuals so that way they know you're authentic and that you are there not just for your small community that you're serving right now but really for the larger community.
Anh: Everyone has already hit a lot of the the bullet points I had on my list of things that could have come up under this question but one one thing that was a little bit further down on my list that I will add because I think it's important in most organization if you're in the performing arts this might not even fall under marketing but I think marketing is closely tied to the front of house and usher experience, and how are you training the people who are welcoming people for the first time into your building into your space? Thinking about what your space says about the organization you are? And not that people should leave a building they own and that they have invested lots of money in for no reason, but to think about what you might need to do to offset what that first impression of your space is and what block your building is on, and what the history of that building is and training your ushers to not tell people they're probably in the wrong spot. Training your ushers how to deal with someone complaining that a Black woman with natural hair sitting in front of them is blocking their view like what are you doing to protect not just your artists and the art form but the people who enter your building once they're there in your seats? And making them feel like you have their backs no matter what. And I think even if marketing for anyone who's watching who is a marketer and says well that doesn't fall under my department no but that is how people will tie your marketing messaging back to your institutional brand and so thinking about how you can be an advocate in your organization with whoever is running a front of house department to make sure that that is being taken into consideration.
Khalilah: And if I can just kind of piggyback on what both I and India have just spoken about it's interesting because you know for those of us who have worked in the Broadway space we know the Broadway League publishes this-these reports about the statistics of what the typical theatregoer is and I have always railed against those statistics because bad data in bad data out and my question is because Anh was talking about the front of house experience-I've been going to theatre for a long time I have never been surveyed ever. None of my friends have ever been surveyed and it stands to reason that if all the primary group of people who are ushers are older White women naturally people gravitate towards people who look like them so if I am an older White woman and I am an usher at a Broadway show probably the data that is going to bear out is that older White women are the typical theatregoer so because I can anecdotally go in any Broadway house and look around and go well there are people of color here we go to theatre. So to Anh's point even taking that a step further and understanding the impact that your front of house has not just on the experience but on the industry itself because as India's talking about ad dollars the reason so many organizations you know give audiences of color and audience development that budget line such you know such paltry budget numbers is because in their mind that's not where our audience is. They think that people of color do not go to theatre which just is not you can go to a Tyler Perry production and know that Black people go to the theatre. Now what that theatre experience may look like may be different to some people but the point is if people are not to India's point if they're not cultivated if they're not as you know my mentor Donna Walker-Kuhne would say if they're not invited to the party if you're not engaging with them before they get there and when they get there why do you think they're going to come to your show? They're not. Because they don't feel welcome in that space. So all of those things, one thing impacts another, if I have a terrible experience with your front of house or I'm not surveyed then the direct impact or result of that is you don't spend ad dollars to cultivate and engage me and I don't come to your show.
Cecile: Yeah, Khalilah, that kind of reminds me of thinking back about something that Anh's saying as well in terms of how the front of house is treating the audience members but even the way that audience members react to a particular play if you're making noise or if you're cheering you know oftentimes that's frowned upon in theatre in particular I'm sure opera's a similar way, dance definitely, and and even just that that nature of how you're reacting to the art form is is being judged upon in a specific way and I you know as someone who has been to a lot of different shows and seeing the people get so upset at someone who is having a great reaction or really responding to the art, it's all those little things that kind of add up to what you were saying.
Khalilah: Yeah, I mean I think Lin-Manuel's experience, sorry to throw under the bus here, but I think his experience at Lincoln Center is a perfect example. Here is a man who is literally the genius of his generation right like he, is the most esteemed producer and playwright of theatre right now, and he went to a production of some classic show, I don't even remember what it was, but it was some classic show from the canon, and he's enjoying himself and clapping his hands and literally two patrons in front of him turn around and shush him. He's Lin-Manuel! So if Lin-Manuel is having that experience, what is the average person of color what is their experience like and unlike him who already has a love of theatre, what is going to bring that person back into that space? Because they've already been told in every way possible this is not for you you shouldn't be here.
Anh: This is such a small thing I'm just, because we're talking about it i'm just gonna like beat this horse dead with a stick if you are currently using volunteers as your front of house ushers this is a good time to reevaluate why you're doing that and if the only reason is because you don't think you can afford a front of house staff, now is the time to have that conversation with your board about how you can afford a professionally trained front of house staff. When your core audience space is older, female, and White, then your volunteers are going to be older, female, and White like Khalilah said, "Bad data in, bad data out." And the prejudices of your audience will become the prejudices of your front of house. One of the things that we, I don't pretend that Opera Theatre of Saint Louis has solved all front of house issues for all eternity but one shift we made and we really saw a really positive response in how our audience was responding was when we started hiring young high school students of all colors to be our front of house staff and we pay them you know above minimum wage, they are they're good staff, but they get trained, and they look different, they look different than the audience who walks into the for the most of the audience who walks into the theatre, and so hopefully I think people who come to visit us now see all sorts of body shapes and orientations and different identities represented as not just operagoers but as employees of the opera and hopefully that we're nowhere near close enough we have a lot of work to do but yeah I would be very careful about having volunteer ushers.
India: Yeah, I would, I would agree with all that as well and and just listening to to everyone speak it makes me think about Alvin Ailey in particular, which you know you see their audience and it's so diverse and it's so well-rounded and you will, the experience you have in there you know they encourage you to kind of hoot and holler when you see someone you know doing an amazing turn or or leaping across the stage where it is very different when you go to see like you know I don't know I'm just throwing out like ADT or something like that something a lot more classical where even I as a former dancer like you just tense off a little bit, right? And it's about feeling welcomed and more so than feeling welcome, feeling comfortable, feeling like you can be your whole self in this space. And I think that's one thing that certain institutions some are doing really well and some need some some help with.
Sami: So I'm wondering if we can—thank you for all of that! Just, moderator moment: I used to work in ticketing and it is kind of disheartening to see someone show up to the theatre so excited to for the programming and then you can sense that they're having a less than stellar front of house experience or just overall experience at the physical location and you tend to feel like you dropped the ball or there's a missed opportunity there to really see engagement with I think new audiences or potential long-term community members just end prematurely. so Thank you, I think yeah the emphasis on the in-person experience when we get back to that is really really important and a great opportunity for change, but I'm wondering if we can pivot and talk about social media and digital platforms? So because of the pandemic arts organizations really only exist as extensions of social media platforms and websites right now. And at the same time audiences are looking to these platforms for messaging and transparency. So how have you seen institutional social media at this moment in time, that pin the pandemic and the call for social change play out for better or for worse?
Cecile: Yeah, I'll just call ourselves out and say that we were about, it was about a week after George Floyd's murder and we did finally put out a statement and Kaufman is interesting because we're part of this larger institution. We're part of the University of Southern California so you know you're a small school but you're part of this larger institution and so part of me was waiting to see if we as an institution was going to say something. You know is there going to be a message from the president? And I think at that point which was about I think like a week after like I said, we decided we're going to put something out on our own, and luckily I think for me I was relieved in some ways that the president did put something out about a half an hour afterwards so, I'm like okay great I guess I'm not gonna get fired because of that but you know it was really a short message it didn't have much substance in it in terms of what we were gonna do. But I took it, I felt like okay let's put this out, because I know I'll be able to point back to it and say to you hey you made this, you made this statement and now we have to do something same thing with you know blackout Tuesday I think was two or three days after that and we followed up with that too like here we are posting, showing our solidarity you know we didn't take the day off but we were thinking about it and that was just another point hey so you made this one statement you did a follow-up statement you're doubling down, so now can we talk about what are the action steps we're going to take? So I think it was definitely performative in terms of those posts, but I think it was also a way to move the conversation forward and we've had a lot of productive conversations since then and in terms of our team I have a group of student workers who are working for me and you know they're very much in touch with what's going on and how everyone's feeling so it didn't feel right to be posting kind of back to normal or regular scheduled social posts so we really focused on sharing resources there's a lot of different events, talks like this one, that came out and have been continuing. So sharing those resources to make sure people have the opportunity to educate themselves and that's something that we weren't really focusing on before but definitely want to do moving forward.
Khalilah: I will say that for me knowing how long so many of us have been screaming into the void basically, I was a little frustrated by, you used the right word Cecile, the performative posting. We talked earlier about brand alignment. It—there are so many instances where it's so obvious that people's brands don't align with the causes that they've now decided to associate themselves with which is, hey, better late to the party than never. But, for me it, there there was a lot of frustration watching these organizations who I know institutionally have severe systemic white supremacist issues, or… I mean we're talking about organizations where literally maybe their entire cast on stage are people of color but nobody in their in their general management office, and no one in on their creative team, and no one who works on the crew, and no one who works, you know… not none of those people are people of color, all white people. And so when you see a statement saying we stand in solidarity, do you? Because that's, within your own organization you don't. So it rings false, right? So I mean and not to brag on like my former employer but like, organizations like the Apollo when the Apollo says Black Lives Matter it's real because they are continually invested in Black life right? Or you know even you know one of the clients that I worked with through you know in a subcontractor role through Realemn, Hadestown, has made including people of color like we were brought on specifically to make sure people of color were engaged in all of our-in all of their marketing efforts. So when Hadestown said, "What do we say? What do we do?" It was coming from a place of authenticity because they've been doing this work. They've already been doing this work. So I think just like with everything else people know when things aren't, we keep using the word authentic. They know when when you're just joining the bandwagon and again I would rather them join the bandwagon but I'm only interested in them joining the bandwagon if they're ready to do, make change because a lot of these companies a lot of these institutions are deeply deeply invested in white supremacy whether or not they understand that that's the case that's they are practicing white supremacy across the board except for on stage where their performers are. Which in and of itself is problematic because we're not going to talk about people of color tap dancing and performing for White audiences and White you know theatre owners and White producers and how that itself is problematic. But I think there aren't a lot of institutions or brands that I think were to me were that impressive because they weren't genuine.
Anh: I don't think I could really say anything better than Khalilah just said it. But I'll take a slightly different tack to the question and I think, something that I've certainly, this is not an insight on my part because this is a question I think for the other panelists, as even as a bi-racial woman I've struggled with what to do on social media on behalf of my organization because I think, I trust our intentions are in the right place. Now we have a long way to go and I'm not saying that we are completely devoid of the white supremacy issues that plague essentially every arts organization in this country. But I struggled when all this was happening with the number of posts that I saw from individuals as well as companies that I thought were performative. And it wasn't just posting a statement, it was the many many many things that came after the statement and I guess I struggle with where the line falls between being an ally but putting out your own content which to me feels self-serving versus using your organization's platform to amplify other voices and not to draw the attention back to yourself but what can you share and what where can you redirect people but not to try to do that work again yourself. Because A: who do you have on staff that's qualified to do that? And B: why do you need the attention from that if there are people who make livings doing this, BIPOC people who do this, who need support and who need that business. Why are you not pointing people to them? And so at the same time, I don't want my organization to look like we don't care. We made one post and we've done a few posts since then to try to amplify and share other, other content. But that's something that I still struggle with and so I think social media just continues to get more complicated. But I'd be curious to hear if anyone else in this group has wrestled with that tension of what is too much, what is not enough?
Khalilah: I’ll let everybody else respond but I will say on something that you just said triggered a thought for me and that is I think the one piece that was missing from what I was saying before is, I think that organizations who haven't previously spoken out or done the work, I think starting with a mea culpa is the first step like before you send out a post saying "Hey we stand in solidarity solidarity with Black people or with Black Lives Matter," say we have been remiss we have some work to do on our part we're doing that now, but we want to say in this moment that we hear you, we see you, and we're going to start making some changes. I think for me that, and for a lot of people that's the piece that's missing from these dialogues is the acknowledgement of the fact that you have dropped the ball like and yeah it's great for you to come into this conversation but acknowledge that piece because to your point Anh, they're organizations and individuals who've been doing this work for a long time. I mean I, just to kind of, not to go on to too much of a bunny trail but I look at brands like I look at what Nike did two or three years ago when they aligned themselves with Colin Kaepernick. That was at a risk to themselves, they did that at that time because that was where they wanted, that was part of the way they wanted to present themselves to the world. so now when Nike stands up again we go well yeah because you've been here you've been doing this so for other brands to come in or other institutions to come in I think it starts with that acknowledgement, we were late to the party but we're here now, right? So just wanted to add that one caveat.
India: Yeah, I mean I'd also say I've seen a couple of posts from institutions that very clearly outlined what they're going to do, right? What actions they're going to take to make that change and to pivot, and to really be an agent of change and to really kind of acknowledge. So it's doing two things, right? It's acknowledging their flaws and their faults and what they've done wrong in the past while also saying we acknowledge this and this is how we're going to make it better. Which is, a lot of institutions did not do that, right? A lot of institutions kind of threw something at the wind and said okay, check. You know I kept myself off of that like Google open source sheet where people can look at who posted and who didn't post right but they didn't they didn't really take ownership or acknowledge you know their role and everything else, and so I think that's really that's really kind of like the next step I think for a lot of a lot of institutions and and there's no accountability, right? So now you have this out and like who's keeping tabs on whether or not you're really living up to the statement you just put out, right? No one And so by putting that out yourself you're kind of saying look people keep us accountable, right? This is what we say we're going to do and we are committed to doing it. So I think that's part of it, and I know, you know at Jazz at Lincoln Center we put out several statements and the first one did not go over well. It was very generic, very glossed over and you know to your point Anh, it's like it turned the spotlight back on ourselves and back on the roles that kind of historic jazz artist have played in in the history of kind of uplifting people and and instituting change right? But it didn't specifically talk about what's going on right now, and so we put out another statement that started with, listen we were wrong, we didn't-we missed the mark for the first one and this you know we've had some time to think about it and this is what, this is what we should have said, right? And so I think that acknowledging your faults and acknowledging your missteps is just as important as getting it right you know the first time obviously getting it right the first time is better but you know at least you can acknowledge that aspect of it. But you know I would say that we people need to be held accountable and changes need to be need to be made, but it also needs to come as we've said in the past it needs to come from the top down, because you know one person in the middle writing the copy can't change things from up and below at the same time, right? And so it really needs to come from the top down and be something that the institution is committed to.
Sami: I would actually love to jump on that and we are getting some great questions from our audience quick shout out to everybody who's tuning in thank you. And our first question from the audience actually has to do with accountability. “So how do you open a productive dialogue about holding your institution accountable not just now but from here out, when you are when you personally are still struggling with their response to date, do you speak to leadership about their actions, and the effect it has on you, and your public facing position?“
Cecile: I’ll take that one, and just say I've been very vocal with our administration right now, I'm the only person of color on the senior leadership team, so I do feel a strong sense of responsibility to make sure that these issues are being addressed. But that can be a lot for one person especially, I'm relatively new to the organization only being there for two years. So I've been trying to see who my allies are within that that group and the larger institution to say hey can you bring it up this time? Because I think it is easy for our senior administration both White people to say "Oh well she's just mad cause she's a person of color." But if there's other people also saying no this is an issue that we need to address wholistically then they'll pay attention and you know it's disappointing to me that I think I have to play that game, but I do think I'm gonna do what I think is effective and for me that's been relatively effective.
Khalilah: I do think that there's a little bit of grace now in this window you know in part because most of us are working virtually but also because people are aware of the reality of what's happening, right? So I think to Cecile's point there is actually, I think a lot more grace to be able to go into an employer and say, "I'm having challenges with how we're addressing this, or not addressing this." While I'm not at an institution currently, I actually wrote a letter to my former employer, Disney and I detailed for them what it was like being a woman of color in their business. And I explained to them it was a terrible experience for me the worst one I've ever had in my time as an arts marketer and I wrote an article, but in the article I didn't go into all the details in which I went into this email to them because, I wanted them to understand specific instances and specific grievances that I had. So I think even if it's reaching out to former employers, and institutions that you worked for, because especially as a former employer-employee you have nothing to lose. You have nothing to lose and they have everything to gain, if they take advantage of that to be able to say, "Oh this is someone who was here and they didn't have a great experience. What can we, you know extrapolate from that, and apply so that you know to our current circumstances and do better by our current employees?" So, I think right now is the window in which, to the person who posed the question if you have a grievance, now is the time to let folks know cause I think you know, a year from now who knows what the wind will be, but what the environment will be but right now people are at least presenting the front that they that they are interested in having the conversation.
India: I mean I com—
Anh: And to that point… Sorry go ahead India.
India: I think it could be very you know it can be really scary especially we all know that a lot of times we are you know token one, right? Token one Black person, token one person of color at that table, if we're at the table, right? So I think it can be very challenging to be that person to to speak up, and I will just champion and kind of harp on and and push forth Cecile's suggestion of finding your allies, right? Because if you can go to someone and say, "Hey the five of us feel uncomfortable with this." You know, draft something, write a letter that is sent to someone in your executive team with your signatures on it and propose something that that should be done. Perhaps it's a committee of you of people that come together and talk about ways in which things that can be changed internally and invite members of the executive team to partake in that, right? And so that way you have the buy-in of everyone you have the support of your allies to feel comfortable to step forward and it's not like okay this person of color is going to lead the way for us all because we don't know all the answers, right? And that pressure is so challenging right and so having having the buy-in and the support of the executive team of the institution and of your allies to make a difference I think is one way, one tactic to know.
Anh: I just want to echo India's point, I want to speak a little bit about allyship not needing to be at an executive level. I think that's maybe a harmful fallacy that we find ourselves in now and I think it's easy an easy one to make, because there's an assumption that in order for things to happen there has to be pressure from the top down in order to set the vision and make the change. But at Opera Theatre I work on a annual staff of 35, so I don't know if that's small or large for some of you I guess perspectives differ, but we have annual staff meetings still on Zoom every week and the entire staff is very vocal about their desire for progress on these issues. But I am one of only two people of color in the company. So everyone is talking about it, everyone is demanding it, every time there's a job opening people are asking what are we doing to try to get diverse candidates in the door. Every time that we see one of these tragedies happen in the public sphere people want to talk about it we just got through working through Me And White Supremacy as a staff and had a staff book club about it, and so all of that doesn't just say that again we are not a perfect organization but just to say to anyone who's listening who doesn't have director or VP in front of their name, it doesn't mean that you don't have power and that you can't still advocate for the change you want to see and find-if it's not your department head or your immediate supervisor find another one who will listen find someone who will be in the rooms that maybe you don't feel like you have access to but even if you just take advantage of any time where you do have any chance to speak with your executive leadership and you can be the voice asking for that change or just asking for a progress update or asking for more information on what's happening. I know our executive leadership hears it, and feels like there is real, a real mandate for change. So it doesn't have to be top down-top down helps-it makes it a lot faster but I don't think it all has to be top down.
Sami: Thank you. So we're going to move on to our second audience submitted question and it's actually going to be we're running a little short on time so it's going to be our last question for today. “With publicity how do you explain to your clients or institutional leaders that outlets specifically created by and for people of color may take time to develop a genuine and authentic relationship before you see actual press pieces? Some institutions…” I lost my place give me one second. “Some institutions seem to think that those relationships will just happen naturally, even though they have not attempted to engage with these members of the press, or audiences in the past, and when nothing tangible can be seen right away, they are quick to give up and move on.”
Cecile: Sami I think I've talked about this a little bit before too in terms of how I see white supremacy may be falling within arts marketing but that idea of okay we'll reach out to this audience now and only now and then you know two years later when we do another play for that community we'll reach out again so, I guess I don't know if this necessarily answers the question but I would ask these organizations you know well, do you want this audience to be part of your community? And if so then great then have continued investment in that community. If not that's fine too, but then just kind of say that, cause I do think there's this almost like oh well we need to be reaching out to that community because this is you know such and such. Well you don't have to be saying that if that's actually just part of your DNA and part of your overall strategy. So I think that answers part of the question at least.
Khalilah: I will say that I throughout my career I've all I've always beat that drum like when you're in the room you just have to beat that drum and it, it's frustrating it's annoying to have to keep repeating it but you literally have to just keep echoing it and it doesn't mean that they're going to accept it, but you just have to keep saying that and I think again, I think we are in a unique unique position right now in our current environment in the current climate that is affording us the opportunity to have a lot of conversations and to push a lot of initiatives forward and a lot of more a lot more efforts for because, even if an organization isn't fully committed to like shifting the way they do things, they know that everybody's watching them, right? So there's a little bit of pressure of how do we not find ourselves on that list that open list of theatres that people shouldn't do business with or performing arts institutions that people of color should not do business with? So I think right now is an opportune time that those of us who are in the field really have to take advantage of and that's what i'm saying have those uncomfortable conver- it's no longer for us to be uncomfortable, is my feeling. It's now time for them to be uncomfortable and to make the adjustments that need to be made.
India: Yeah I'd also just echo and say that you know it it does take quite a few years for you to develop that relationship you know it takes four to five years for you to develop that relationship and and to kind of be upfront with their expectations and kind of manage those expectations and saying you know if we want to diversify our audiences if we want to bring in new communities and new audiences to sustain this institution after you know our current people are long and gone, we have to make this commitment in this investment now and just as a business person would invest in an, in you know in a product or invest in stocks or whatever to make a dividend, or a profit at the end, we have to invest in this community at this moment in time and going forward with those kind of expectations and being really clear about them and also just thinking back it's like well how long have we been working with the New York Times, you know we didn't see a response with the New York Times in the first, you know the first call we made, how long have you been working with these with these you know other institutions and and say a lot of times people who are at those institutions haven't been there since the first call to the Times or since the first so it's been years that this relationship has been cultivated and so you know to expect that someone will all of a sudden think that you're genuine and jump on the bandwagon because you because you asked them to is a problem in and of itself.
Sami: And with that we have run out of time, and that will conclude today's discussion. Thank you so much to our panelists India Haggins, Khalilah Elliott, Anh Le, and Cecile Oreste for sharing their wisdom with us today, thank you to HowlRound Theatre Commons for hosting our event and to Reynaldi Lindner Lolong and BIPOC Arts Marketing Folks for organizing, and finally thank you to everyone tuning in to today's panel discussion. We hope our time together has inspired you to keep these conversations going and to take action, so visit HowlRound.com to continue engaging in these critical conversations, and if you identify as such please join BIPOC Arts Marketing Folks on Facebook. With that, please stay safe and healthy, support your local arts organizations, and have a great evening. Thank you.
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