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Mentorship, Empowerment, and Cultural Equity: Ingredients to Build Community

The role of a creative producer is essentially one of empowerment. It is a role that gives creatives space to do what they do best: create. As a creative producer who used to be solely a theatremaker I found that relying on my own knowledge was too limited to be creating meaningful theatrical experiences. I realized the most successful way for me to grow enough as a person and as an artist was to engage with the mentors in my life who have artistic practices and life experiences that are vastly different than my own. Mentorship is one of many tools that underrepresented groups of culture makers, like me—a cisgender, gay, Latino, 1.5 generation citizen in my late twenties—need to help “legitimize” our skills, and by extension our place, within the ecosystem of the cultural sector.

I would define many of the pivotal moments in my career by my relationship with someone that I consider a mentor to me. When I was approaching graduation from my undergraduate degree, the former director of theatre programs for the National Constitution Center, Nora Quinn, came to speak to our class. I got to talk to her one-on-one which made me pursue the opportunity to work with her. A few years later I found myself working as her intern for a year where I learned so much about producing, company management, and visitor engagement. To this day she is still someone that I rely on to help me navigate career opportunities and my professional path.

My experience with Nora Quinn led me back to my college where I now speak to rising graduates about my experience in the field in hopes of serving as a mentor for them. It is one of the most gratifying parts of my year. I feel empowered to continue passing on my knowledge when graduates reach out to me and ask to speak further about my career path or to ask for professional connections. You can imagine how thrilled I was to find that CIPA is an entire community of like-minded individuals who, similarly, have thrived through various mentorship experiences. Deciding to join this community of creative practitioners who are figuring out how to learn from each other’s experiences was an easy decision for me. As a creative producer and a member of CIPA, I value opportunities to build community by actively bridge the gap between two of CIPA’s core values, mentorship/empowerment and cultural equity, because they have been core building blocks of my own success.

CIPA creates mentorship and empowerment through our work towards building a better future. We develop a diverse and inclusive community of independent and creative producers at all career stages who can create meaningful contributions to the alliance and the field by abandoning traditional hierarchical structures in favor of a collective learning model. The best ideas are the ones we come up with together by tapping into our collective knowledge and experience. One way we achieve this is by advancing cultural representation in our field in order to honor and support voices with diverse perspectives. We resist historically oppressive institutional structures and continually work to uncover and mitigate inequities in our practices—this we value as cultural equity.

The intersection of these two values is undeniable. Mentorship and empowerment are a central part of how we operate; they are the “what” of our mission. Cultural equity is the “why” that drives our decision-making, the structure of our meetings, the ways in which we work together, and how we hope to change our field.

Working through the COVID-19 global pandemic has seen many industries adopt new ways of working and the cultural sector is no different. When I first joined, CIPA members were actively discussing what it meant to be a producer in these pandemic times and why there has never truly been formalized support for the role of the producer. As we were having these conversations in the United States, I was interested in hearing what was happening internationally around these topics. Did international creative producers also feel like they were lacking support during these times?

Two people standing on stage looking out into the audience. One person is raising their hand while the other is person stands close to a teal backdrop.

Production photo from Living News with actors Dana Orange and Minou Pourshariati. Playwright: Larry Loebell. Original Director and Co-Artistic Director: David Bradley. Director: Allison Heishman. Sound and Video Design by Daniel Kontz. Lighting Design by Ben Levan. Costume Design by Robin I. Shane. Former Director of Theatre Programs: Nora E. Quinn Former Theatre Programs Coordinator: Melissa Erlick. Theatre Programs Support Wardrobe Supervisor: Sarah Mitchell Past. Creative Team Sound Design by Christopher Colucci and Mark Valenzuela. Lighting and Video Design by Terry Smith. Scenic Design byMatt Saunders. Costume Design by Rosemarie McKelvey, Becca Austin, and Jamie Grace-Duff.

 

I found some answers in my discussion with the International Creative Producers (ICP). Initiated by Art of Festivals in March 2020, according to the figurative definition of their work on their web page ICP is “an experiment in building a peer network [for creative producers] through co-learning and collective decision-making.” Many of the items that appear on the manifesto presented on their website are in direct support of CIPA’s values as well and include: working better, feeling better, engaging more, earning more, and being more equitable. These aspirations are what led them to develop a mentorship model based on collective decision-making.

I went into this call thinking I would be an interviewer, but the environment they created ended up making me a contributor, collaborator, and part of their community.

When I had the opportunity to meet with the members of ICP, the environment was warm and inviting. I was instantly comfortable with them—a rare feeling for a painfully anxious introvert like myself who firmly believes that “stranger danger” is real. What was so informative to me about my time with the group was how quickly a sense of community was built amongst complete strangers—an outcome that is crucial to building sustainable relationships of mentorship. I was taught that creating an environment of this kind requires intention and a willingness to get out of one’s own way.

That intention is the proclaimed “magic sauce” of the group: a true lack of ego from everyone and a shared vison around rejecting institutional structures. Fanny Martin, a member of both CIPA and ICP, explains: “[ICP] came together rejecting institutions because there are mechanisms and systems at work that dehumanizes workers around the ‘pretend mission’. We wanted to connect our independent forever feelings with meaningful boundaries [through] co-learning. We conceived this project as peer-based and peer-led. We built it with the intention of paying people and paying for courses and learning. We wanted something practical, not something top down.”

This unique way of working puts the emphasis on the people, not their positions within the group, and opens space for listening—a key part of the mentor-mentee relationship. “Working this way is needed right now,” says ICP member, Daniela Gerstmann. “Having people that aren’t on one level and are talking to each other makes a project alive and versatile where many other things might fail. Only having older mentors is not enough anymore—we need to reach out in all directions.”

I went into this call thinking I would be an interviewer, but the environment they created ended up making me a contributor, collaborator, and part of their community. CIPA, and myself personally, are working to create more spaces like this where every person present is a valued contributor to the conversation. This will push our field forward.

Both CIPA and ICP are intentionally creating organizational models centered on collective decision-making. This mode of working has brought me a sense of empowerment to assert my own agency to make suggestions, offer solutions, and share what I know about our field. I’ve always struggled to feel like I am being heard and making meaningful contributions but I have found that these spaces of intentional de-siloing of power and decision-making have allowed myself and other members of historically underrepresented groups a platform to be impactful through their participation. It is so powerful to feel like my voice is making a difference and CIPA and ICP are leading examples in the field of how to do this by making every member simultaneously act as mentor and mentee. I challenge more organizations in our field to push towards this model of community building as it allows every person to be fully present and active participants in the conversation.

People performing on a stage with image of Martin Luther Kings projected behind them in blue.

Photo of I Have A Dream Presentation, during Martin Luther King Jr. Day at The National Constitution Center.

Building this kind of space for mentorship and empowerment doesn’t come easily, though. Fellow CIPA member and founder of Unbound Artists Greg Kastelman shared how many of the monthly CIPA meetings he’s attended can feel too big in numbers to foster real empowerment in the day-to-day. However, Kastelman has experienced many moments of personal empowerment and opportunities to think differently after conversation prompts, email exchanges, and Zoom discussions with the group.

Similarly, ICP faced difficulties throughout its creation as the process was not end-point driven, but process-driven. ICP member Jake Orr shares: “We all have different ways of producing and that challenged my notion of what producing is, to learn new ways in a safe, supportive environment.”

According to another ICP member, Mette Slot Johnsen, creating ICP mirrored the pandemic year with its ups and downs, optimism and fear, and panic and reassurance. But these feelings made them all realize that this “pandemic year” was the perfect opportunity for building this community. Looking towards more sustainable models for our industry as we navigate a return from pandemic conditions, it is important to step out of our comfort zone to explore new ways of collaborating. Learning new ways in supportive environments that allow space for learning at all levels will be essential to making this happen.

I’ve always struggled to feel like I am being heard and making meaningful contributions but I have found that these spaces of intentional de-siloing of power and decision-making have allowed myself and other members of historically underrepresented groups a platform to be impactful through their participation.

This kind of creative space where producers can provide co-learning and decentralized decision-making is the kind of space that CIPA seeks to create. We have already begun to do this in the way that our meetings are conducted. There are break out groups with focus questions in which all members are encouraged to offer their experience which we then discuss in an open forum session. It is gratifying and meaningful to hear so many different perspectives on the same focus questions.

These spaces, however, are only meaningful to those that have access to them, and marginalized groups frequently don’t have access, or invitations, to these types of spaces. CIPA is committed to several initiatives that are intended to provide greater access to all communities. In addition to open membership, two of these initiatives are the Producers Fellowship and the New Work Development programs. These programs are unique in their process of self-selection that steps away from the traditional modes of a decision-making body deciding who is worthy.

The Producing Fellowship is a new initiative that is meant to provide critical support and monetary assistance to an emerging producer that intends on using the funds in a way that will benefit them both immediately and in the long term. This program is a self-selection opportunity that asks interested applicants to provide a brief budget for expenditures that will help stabilize, reinforce, and/or further the producer’s career. At least one expense needs to outlast the eleven-month period the fellowship supports. This program will also provide an opportunity for fellows to engage with a mentor of their choosing and will have an additional mentorship component built by the cohort of fellows to decide topics they’d like to interrogate together.

The New Work Development program is an initiative growing out of the increasing conversation around the importance of producers in shepherding the developmental process of new works. It aims to center industry-wide responsibility from all angles (funders, presenters, agents, managers, and producers) around the health of the new work development ecology in the United States—a position from which the presenting landscape historically, and by the very nature of its being, has been largely divorced.

Conversations among presenters in CIPA have led us to discover that artists are becoming less interested in working with producers solely on a per-project basis, and instead are increasingly interested in partnering with a producer to help develop the artist on a long-term basis. CIPA member Thomas “Tommy” Kriegsmann is at the helm of the New Work Development program and the founder of ArKtype, a new work development entity that aims to balance infrastructural support with creative growth, allowing the artist a long-term relationship with a producing entity based on establishing the artist’s continued presence in the national and international regional theatre, festival, and arts presenter communities.

Single person standing on stage in a spotlight, with text from  the Declaration of Independence projected on the floor around her.

Image of Freedom Rising at The National Constitution Center; photo by Samuel Quinn.

Hitting at the core of CIPA’s work, Kriegsmann explains: “Mentorship is absolutely essential to the evolution of a creative producer because there is no academic or truly practical training ground outside of actual artistic process that a creative producer can undertake in order to learn the craft of what this is. There’s simply none.”

There are, of course, academic programs that can teach the practical administrative processes related to producorial work, but as Kriegsmann so eloquently puts it, “There is no way you can learn how to align administrative and managerial and producorial approaches with actual artistic developments. The measure of our work is in the art, period.” Kriegsmann argues that academic programs typically teach about the commercial industry which, in some ways, is misleading because the experimental is what is at the heart of artistic process. It’s from this experimental laboratory space that commercial and corporate systems borrow innovation.

I have personally experienced throughout my career as an arts administrator, educator, and independent creative producer what it means to be boxed into one person’s view of what they think I am able to accomplish. For me, mentorship has been one way that others have been able to see a 360-degree view of the value I am able to bring to my work; mentorship has helped increase my equity in the field.

Community is what allows us as producers to be seen. It gives us a voice, a shared language, and a shared set of values that we can use to help bolster and uplift the many people working in the creative sector.

This link between mentorship and cultural equity shows up in how everyone begins at the bottom of the creative industry, which can be compounded by a cultural makeup that positions people in one specific framework because of a perceived strength or affinity for one kind of work. But, as Kriegsmann explains, “Mentorship can break that and really redefine and rearticulate where the placement of our own cultural specificity can inform on other cultural specificities and allow us to really get rid of siloes that are so plain and clear in the sector now. CIPA has the ability to redefine and restructure that mentorship process so that those facets are not seen in the same light.”

The common thread that kept reappearing in my own professional life, in my conversations with CIPA members and ICP Members is community. Community is what allows us as producers to be seen. It gives us a voice, a shared language, and a shared set of values that we can use to help bolster and uplift the many people working in the creative sector. As we continue working towards coming out on the other side of this devastating pandemic, community feels like the most appropriate panacea to begin healing traumas that have manifested over the last eighteen months. CIPA is just one community that is working towards building a strong foundation centered on co-learning, mentorship, and cultural equity.

My experience with mentorship and empowerment isn’t a singular experience. Regardless of discipline, every member of the theatre community can reflect on the role mentorship has played in their lives and in their careers. What opportunities are there for us to be mentors for others? What unique experiences have we had that we can bring to the table? How does sharing our whole selves advance cultural equity? In what ways can we as cultural practitioners provide access, education, skills, encouragement, and camaraderie to those that don’t have it?

I hope that my experience with mentorship and empowerment can be a call to action for others. By advancing our ideals of mentorship and creating an environment of mutual exchange of knowledge, we can bridge the gap between communities. In doing this, we can create a more equitable industry for every kind of theatre professional.

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