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Seeding Change

Let’s begin by going back to that first spark, the place where our collective love of theatre and storytelling stems from. I/Porsche remember the first time I touched a light board. I moved a slider up and the stage changed. I felt agency and power, which, as a thirteen-year-old, I hadn’t felt before; it was like I was coming home. I/Kate remember the sense of wonder when I first turned a camera towards a performer standing in front of a projector beam. As they danced with their own image, it replicated into the void of the wall, their movement multiplied to infinity. I was hooked, this was real magic.

What was it for you? Let’s start from there. That feeling of wonder and love that brought you to the theatre in the first place.

A lot has changed since February 2021, when the first week of this series, Design (in a Time of Reckoning), was published, where we uplifted the work of the design community, both on stage and off. This time, we’re examining how that work is done. Six months later the landscape of our industry has completely shifted. In-person productions are on the horizon, with many outdoor productions in full swing and a full-on return to Broadway on the horizon. Many people are getting back to a more familiar way of working.

With this return comes many questions. What will happen to all the designers who were called to advocate for social justice and racial equity during the pandemic? Will theatres embrace the values and policies they have been preaching? Who is going to hold the field accountable?

The truth is, we will likely lose a lot of the newly activated folx as people go back to work full-time. Many theatres will continue with their scarcity models, using the pandemic as an excuse not to shift. It’s already happening. But this narrative doesn’t have to be everyone’s and it doesn’t have to be our future. Many of us will continue this fight and many institutions are embracing new practices. And maybe, just maybe, there has been enough movement to shift the path forward, even if most of the people on that path are only picking up pebbles.

With this return comes many questions. What will happen to all the designers who were called to advocate for social justice and racial equity during the pandemic? Will theatres embrace the values and policies they have been preaching? Who is going to hold the field accountable?

With this second week of the Design (in a Time of Reckoning) series, we’re asking specific questions. How do we continue seeding change and shifting the field towards equity? What are simple and immediate strategies that theatremakers can integrate into their practices that will have lasting impact? Where do designers have agency and how can we hold ourselves and each other accountable? Can we each find our position in the greater theatre ecosystem and care for it holistically?

Over the course of this week, we have invited seven designers—Calvin Anderson, Genevieve Beller, Elsa Hiltner, Lindsay Jones, Sherrice Mojgani, Clint Ramos, and Amber Whatley—to engage in discussions around their strategies for change and the impact of their work. Each strategy approaches advocacy from a different starting point, but they each help create a fuller, more humane way to think about theatrical design and designers. The series concludes with a TV event bringing together three other designer facilitators—Alexis Chaney, Margaret Toomey, Jesse Portillo—in conversation with the two of us to discuss how to turn analysis into action through embodied practice.

In her speech introducing the performers of Native Nations at the 2020 virtual Theatre Communications Group conference, Larissa FastHorse called theatremakers to action saying, “Whatever liberation we strive for now will fail as long as we continue to ignore the fact that this foundation is rotten through and through.” Not only does the entire theatre industrial complex need to be dismantled, but that foundation needs to be pulled up by us all. Instead of building up another structure, perhaps we need to cultivate a diverse ecosystem. For that to grow and be sustained we must start by caring for the soil.

A purple image with the words "Preparing the Soil" against a sunny background and the words "sunlight," "rake & weed," "clean water" and "nutrients" on the margins.

Image Credit can be found at the end of the essay*

For growth of the field there needs to be healthy soil, which is more than just dirt. There needs to be nutrients. Space. Light and clean water. Not everything will grow everywhere—attention needs to be paid to the environment, patience must be exercised. We are in need of great care after a period of intense challenge. Many of us designers have been investigating what has been eating at our roots, poisoning our groundwater, and strangling our trunks all while trying to understand our position within the whole.

The verb “rehearse” comes from Old French “re” (“again”) and “herser” (to harrow)—essentially, to be dragged along the ground, to rake; to rip, tear, wound; repeat. This is what the design community has been undergoing these last eighteen months. And we feel it in our bodies and our bank accounts, in the empty places in our lives and our hearts. Designers have been pulled out of productions, lost livelihoods, lost loved ones, lost hope, gained coalition, been called to action, called to analyze our place in the larger theatrical system, posed questions about why and how we do the work we do.

After all this “rehearsal” we might be finally ready to clear away some of the invasive plants and old practices to seed a new field. We don’t need to throw everything away, but we do need to examine how it all works in relation to the whole. This is hard work. This is heart work. This is healing work. And this work will make it possible to make the most impactful art. In this essay we invite everyone to pause and give attention to three areas that affect all designers: education, advocacy, and pay equity. In the words of adrienne maree brown, “What you pay attention to grows.”

An image of seed growth with the words "Planting Seeds" in the center of it and the words "seed variety," "continued growth," "rich soil," and "germination."

Image Credit can be found at the end of the essay*

A designer’s practice begins when the roots are established. For many, this is in school, though it could also be in non-traditional training environments and through mentorship. Rising designers in this context are the seeds—impacted by all that was planted before they arrived, shaped by the seeds around them, and fed by the vast network they are connected to, both above and below ground.

Not everyone knows they can dream about becoming a production artist or technician, as these careers are not frequently visible or celebrated beyond the field. The amount of time and space given to design and production at televised award shows or coverage of live events is negligible, but that can and should change for the advancement of the field as a whole. Learning about these positions allows theatremakers to explore the massive variety of theatre work available. Focusing on early exposure to a career in theatrical design and recruiting for university programs is part of creating a non-homogenous field, but it is not like all systemic racism and oppression will vanish by suddenly beginning to recruit global majority students.

So much inside of the traditional design education pipeline is not set up for the success of all individuals. In fact, much of it is designed to create a monocrop, a field full of production artisans with similar skill sets, encouraged to erase their identities to be able to design any production. While understanding what goes into the technician and artisan work that makes up a design is vital, having good technician and artisan skills should not be a prerequisite to being allowed to design. Not every approach is going to work for every human, nor should it. Any approach that encourages a student to put aside their unique voice and experience is perpetuating a system that is made for the dominant culture and harms those who do not conform. If we want to change this system, we must focus on changing the nutrients in the soil and caring for the seeds. The way we care for our students is an indicator of the health of the field.

This initial germination becomes an inextricable part of our makeup. As our cells expand we incorporate those lessons and they impact every person and production we interface with. But learning doesn’t have to and shouldn’t stop when a student has reached the end of whatever training they are undertaking. Continually being aware of one’s own missing tools and incomplete knowledge is a valuable skill throughout a career of theatrical design. This ongoing self-assessment and continued growth aids in shedding ideas and practices that no longer serve us. Like pruning branches or dead leaves, it will allow us to thrive.

An orange image with trees in the background and the words "Sustainable Practices" in the center. The words "Photosynthesis," "System for Regeneration," "Deep Roots," and "Solid Trunk" are in the margins.

Image Credit can be found at the end of the essay*

To weather each pending storm we designers need to create and maintain sustainable practices that support individuals and the field as a whole. To do this we each need a solid trunk, deep roots, a wide network, and systems for regeneration. All life is connected, so the stronger we are as individuals the stronger we will be as a whole.

Sustainability in the theatre field means making sure theatremakers are and feel valued and nourished. Sustainability means these folx can feed themselves and their families. That they won’t burn out. That they can show up to any space in the fullness of their humanity and not have to justify or explain why they deserve to be there.

No one decides on a career in theatre because it is easy. Most of us decided to join the field because of a love of storytelling and the desire to be part of something spectacular and life-changing/affirming. It’s hard to keep that dream alive when community care and longevity is prioritized far behind ticket sales and New York Times reviews. When a ten out of twelve actually translates to a sixteen out of fourteen. When budgets are looked at as moral documents and show that most institutions value things over people.

Can you imagine a future of American theatre where designers and technicians feel valued? That would mean that institutions, creative collaborators, critics, and audiences put time and thought into our well-being and longevity. Pay equity is one crucial part of sustainability. Who gets to do this work should not be based on who can afford to. If we tend to this, our community will flourish in ways we can’t begin to imagine. We could give more of our attention to weeding out other invasive practices that drain nourishment from our soil and block the sunlight from our leaves.

A blue image with the words "Growth and Evolution" against a floral background and the words "pollinators," "wide growth," "fruit," and "foliage" in the margins.

Image Credit can be found at the end of the essay*

When a particular cause is uplifted, the environment gets nourished in the process. Ideas are the pollinators that sustain our ecosystems. The more conversations that are had, the more progress that is made, the stronger and wider the field grows.

People are constantly growing, iterating, and evolving. This is true for all life and it is true of theatre artists and the field as a whole. While seeding change can be very rewarding, it is frequently uncomfortable and sometimes painful. It’s much harder to advocate alone—it can feel very isolating—which is probably a major reason so many collectives of designers have come together in the last eighteen months, building coalitions around a shared cause and/or identity. There are also a number of designer-lead organizations and initiatives that have been around and fighting for change for a long time. Staying power seems to come from a sense of community around a shared cause and shared values.

However, no one has to be part of a national organization to advocate and work for change. One of the most helpful things people can do is just have conversations about working towards justice and liberation with colleagues, acquaintances, and friends. Talking about plans or memories of how to integrate equity-based thinking and decisions can seem like low stakes, but this is essential to creating a cultural shift. It might feel uncomfortable at first. But with practice and rehearsal, it will become more natural and relationships will build based on knowledge exchange and accountability.

A pinkish-orange image with the word "Strategy" against a forest and mountain background with the words "diverse ecosystems," "long growth," "mycorrhizal networks," and "seasons" in the margins.

Image Credit can be found at the end of the essay*

All living things are connected, just as all of us who work in theatre are connected. What we do within the design community will impact the greater theatre ecosystem through the mycorrhizal network. There needs to be a holistic approach to change, making sure every part of the field is getting care, attention, and nutrients. Some strategies for change will take effect immediately and we will see the foliage flourish. Some will need to germinate, their effects only making themselves known after years of growth.

This reckoning is not over. We’ve seen lots of attempted reform and revolution in the past and have witnessed people fall away after a big event happens or they return to paid work. Advocacy work, like a life in theatrical design, is a marathon, not a sprint. People are allowed to rest and take breaks to take care of themselves. The design community experienced a surge of newly activated people, some who are just beginning their journey towards anti-racism and advocacy. The lessons we have learned and the discussions we’ve engaged in as a collective over the last year… People don’t get to forget those unless they actively choose to. No one gets to make excuses about reverting to old ways of working. We have the opportunity now to put all of these learnings into practice.

We don’t always need to be making work in spite of the challenges we face. In fact, we will be better designers and happier humans if we are not in a constant fight for survival.

People can do amazing things under the most challenging conditions. The way designers have all worked, grieved, created, supported, rallied, and innovated throughout the pandemic is proof of that. Many art workers and theatremakers found ways to form connections and collaborate in ways that might not have seemed possible. This is proof that a large number of us are not satisfied with the way the system is functioning, that the system can change, and that we can all as individuals evolve. We don’t always need to be making work in spite of the challenges we face. In fact, we will be better designers and happier humans if we are not in a constant fight for survival, if we are instead provided the grace to create an equitable world and share that grace with others in turn. The impact will be more than we can imagine.

Designers deal with a lot of technical challenges, which can be fixed with known procedures and knowledge, but there’s so much more to our work. A great deal of what we are doing is addressing adaptive challenges that require new patterns of behavior, learning, and innovation. The task of cultivating change we are faced with now is full of both technical and adaptive challenges, and we need to be ready to recognize and respond to them as they arise. It’s important to remember, though, that no one person can do everything. People are allowed to focus on one thing—where they have agency might be where they can have the biggest impact.

When a team of designers is given a script, the final production will look and feel and sound differently depending on who is on that team. Each designer brings their own approach, experiences, and techniques with them, which is one of the beauties of collaborative art-making. There is no one right way, but there is the production that only that team can make at that time. If we take that same approach to designing the system of theatre in the United States, we can create an ecosystem that can hold all of us in our full humanity. There is not a prescriptive path forward with the challenges that face us. Inequity impacts all the issues that face us as a field, every challenge that we undertake as people who participate in storytelling. Let’s take the same strategy that we use in designing theatrical productions and apply it to cultivating a sustainable theatre ecosystem. Let’s create a landscape where we can flourish together.


*Illustrations by Katherine Freer. Text by Katherine Freer and Porsche McGovern.

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Thoughts from the curators

What would it mean to have a culture of justice in theatrical design? This week, we are uplifting the work of the design community, both on stage and off. This series aims to build a deeper understanding of what work is being done and engage in discussions around the impact of structural oppression on our communities, the social position of designers in the larger theatre industrial complex, the interconnectedness of artistry and advocacy, and strategies for co-creating a roadmap into the future. There’s a lot to cover. We’re not going to get to everything or everyone this time around. Luckily, this is only the beginning.

Design (in a Time of Reckoning)

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