Toward a Model of Inclusive Practice

An Intern’s Perspective on the Guthrie Theater

As a Latino, first-generation college student from a small town in Texas, I regularly find myself in spaces where I am one of the only people of color. I also constantly note the different points of access to opportunity that I, and people like me, have compared to white students from affluent backgrounds. Unfortunately, people like me are rarely able to take advantage of internship opportunities and theatres across the US; thus, the lack of diversity in several internship programs. Last summer, I had the opportunity to spend six weeks at the Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis, Minnesota as a multi-disciplinary intern, specifically engaging with their work in diversity and inclusion. This internship is part of a trial run partnership between the Guthrie and the University of Texas at Austin Department of Theatre and Dance, and offers networking opportunities to students of color. As a college theatre student, I was already well aware of the prestigious status of the Guthrie within the American regional theatre landscape.

Before this internship, however, I was not as aware of the Guthrie’s efforts around diversity and inclusion across the organization. The Guthrie has historically faced many challenges around diversity and inclusion, and their current efforts acknowledge this past. The Guthrie recently began their “Level Nine Initiative” within their efforts around diversity and inclusion. The initiative sparked with funding from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, beginning with the appointment of their new Artistic Director, Joe Haj. This internship was an opportunity for me, as a Latino artist and educator, to observe and participate with a historically white organization trying to attract and nurture diverse audiences and staff. My time at the Guthrie was an opportunity to intern at a prestigious institution, a space rarely offered to Latino students. More importantly, it was a chance to examine how the Guthrie is leading the field toward more diversity and inclusivity.

As the six weeks flew by, I constantly reflected about what made this experience meaningful for me and necessary for other students of color.

group of actors on stage
South Pacific at the Guthrie Theater, directed by Joseph Haj. Photo by T. Charles Erickson

As part of my internship, I worked across the organization in four areas: production, management, education, and the equity/diversity/inclusion (EDI) committee. In the area of production, I watched technical rehearsals for the company’s mainstage productions of South Pacific and Disgraced. While watching the formation of a “Guthrie production,” I witnessed the telling of stories that the Guthrie’s primary audience is not used to seeing. Although South Pacific and Disgraced do have some problematic messages, the teams working on these shows aimed to make every character fully realized and human as possible, including both white characters and characters of color. Behind the scenes, the Guthrie has committed to assembling creative teams that are non-homogenous, and reflect the diversity of the Twin Cities community. I see the Guthrie mainstage as a stairwell to an ideal model of diversity and inclusivity. In this first step, the company tries to capture audiences by saying, “Look! This work is about people who may not look like you, but you can see yourself in the characters!”

While working with Guthrie’s previous General Manager, Hillary Hart, we developed a “Business of the Theatre” workshop targeted to young actors of color in the community and to the company’s “Guthrie Experience” students who work at the theatre over the summer. Then in education, I conducted research and presented findings about resource guides for student matinees and youth councils (teen groups facilitated by a theatre to engage young people with their work). Both of these initiatives aim to cultivate a more diverse and younger audience, particularly from schools and communities with large populations of students of color and students from a lower socio-economic background.

Perhaps most critically, I worked with the Guthrie’s EDI committee, which works with senior leadership to ensure ideas of equity, diversity, and inclusion infiltrate throughout the organization. This committee focuses on the organization’s staff embracing these ideas, whereas the Level Nine Initiative concentrates its efforts on programming and community engagement. The committee was in the thick of planning training and group meetings for staff around the ideas of EDI, a mission common across the nation because of organizations like Theatre Communications Group, who are pushing the industry to think deeply about how inclusion and equity are reflected in the work they do.

group of actors on stage
Disgraced at the Guthrie Theater, directed by Marcela Lorca. Bhavesh Patel, Caroline Kaplan, Kevin Isola, and Austene Van. Photo by Dan Norman.

Partnerships like the one between the Guthrie and The Department of Theatre and Dance at UT not only provide opportunities to people like me, but also offer first-hand experience of how the face of theatre in the US is changing.

As the six weeks flew by, I constantly reflected about what made this experience meaningful for me and necessary for other students of color. The professional development I gained while working across the organization aimed towards this idea of EDI, and was my biggest takeaway. Before this experience, I did not know my strengths, nor how to apply my experience to various aspects of a professional theatre. I also deeply realized a need to conceptualize and articulate who I am, and what is important to me as a theatre artist. The impetus and rationale of telling a story to an audience is deeply rooted in EDI work because in the end, we are talking about real people. The people who make your theatre have a reasoning behind it, whether that is intentional or not, and are responsible to the community they serve. Honest, genuine EDI work is about creating relationships with people, audiences, and theatre artists because that it is right and necessary to do as an artist and person. The Guthrie is starting to do this work and this internship is part of a bigger national trend currently unfolding. New “pipelines” and opportunities are needed to ultimately diversify the field. David Stewart, the Guthrie’s Director of Production and my main supervisor last summer, is a huge force in this fight.

With full transparency, this internship was unpaid so I had to receive funding elsewhere because my family could not provide the financial support necessary. This funding came from a scholarship program that I am a part of at the University of Texas and from the Department of Theatre and Dance at UT. Because there were so many people involved in supporting me, I felt even more pressure to perform exceedingly well. I knew that everyone at the Guthrie cherished my experience and perspective. Yet, I was one of two people of color in the internship program last summer. I do not mention this fact because I believe a certain quota should be met, but because the people creating the work in any theatre should match the audiences and communities they aim to serve.

Given their history, the Guthrie is in a very precarious position in regards to culturally aware practice. I deeply understand this because the Department of Theatre and Dance at UT is in a similar situation. The structure and context in which these entities began are rooted in a culture of racism, sexism, and discrimination towards marginalized groups. As a result, the art created in these places has historically perpetuated that culture. For this reason, we must fight against it and work towards a future of deep awareness and responsibility to the cultures and communities around us. “How?” You might ask. Well, that is the million-dollar question many people believe holds “the theatre” back from entering the twenty-first century. Haj shared with me, “My experience is that plural voices make the work better, and that diversity and inclusivity is a pathway to success.” A huge insight I gleaned from this experience is that efforts toward diversity and inclusion must start with honest relationships within the communities with which you want to collaborate. For example, partnerships like the one between the Guthrie and The Department of Theatre and Dance at UT not only provide opportunities to people like me, but also offer first-hand experience of how the face of theatre in the US is changing. “What can I do to be a part of this change?” you may ask. Make your internships and similar programs reflective of the populations you do not typically serve. Students of color like me are eager for the opportunity! Please see us and make yourselves accessible.

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Brilliant! Thanks so much for sharing your story, Matthew and please reach out as you continue on your career path!

Matthew, I thank you for sharing your experience. While reading, I kept thinking of the overlaps I share with you. I, too, am a first generation college graduate-- my parents immigrated here from Mexico, I learned English when I was six, and I've made my way through positions at Center Theatre Group, The Pasadena Playhouse, and now I find myself in the artistic development department at Arena Stage in Washington DC. The past six years in regional theatres on both coasts has given me insight into the tremendous, often invisible, and ever-growing gap present within our field-- a gap we have to hurl ourselves across to obtain a position in the theatre, a gap that increases for us as we explore career advancement as well. I say, "it does get better for those of us who can sustain the challenges," and I wish I could say otherwise. Really, I do. There are a few factors I find that contribute to this problem of equity and inclusivity in our field, even beyond the internship, one that is deeply imbued into staffing as well. First, money. The entry level pay rate for positions in the theatre is too low across the board. This eliminates an equitable pool of competitive, young, diverse potential staffers because they can't afford to take on the positions. Sure, most of us have managed to make things work, but this is where we are meant to exhaust our resources, often personal ones, to see how we can afford housing, food costs, transportation, loans, debt, often to accept a job in the theatre. Simply put, some of us who enter are forced to leave the game because we can't afford to keep playing in the field. Second, theatres are building dynamic entry points for college students through internships, fellowships and student programming, but they have not bridged the gap on how to nurture the employee that successfully transitions and enters the field by continuing to develop them as they once did through their programming. A great solution to the challenges in pay rates are for theatres to explore the possibilities of "added value". What if theatres developed formal training and development programs for new employees to be paired with seasoned employees each year? They could then provide each new staffer with a $2,000 annual budget where the mentor and mentee can design a year of development; say the new employee can attend a conference or two, take a night class in management, or pay for a summer development training program. Better yet, what if theatre companies began creating partnerships with their local city government and real estate brokers, where donors and partners can help match an employee's down payment for a house? If an employee is able to root themselves in the local neighborhood, wouldn't this increase the sustainability of that employee in the theatre over time? Or say, what if regional theatre companies elected a program that supports new diverse employees by giving them company housing for their first year or employment? There are many ways to explore "added value;' the excuse of not being able to raise wages limits us in how capable we are as an industry to think on our feet, to think creatively, and it fails to nurture the individuals we once championed and are now forcing to swim fast in our pools.

Dear Matthew-- I do not mean to paint a negative picture of the theatre here. I want to be real with you. On one hand, the theatre is home for me, there are people, lots of the most beautiful people I've ever met rooting for the art to be more equitable and inclusive on stage, in the audience and in the offices backstage. We fight for that. I think what I want to communicate is how there are many of us thinking about this with you, alongside you, and should you ever find yourself in a challenge, I'd like to think it through with you. That is my added value, for now. Here is my email, Vvazquez@arenastage.org.

Thank you for sharing your experience, Matthew. In addition to the larger social/EDI/economic issues you have addressed, I also have a couple other specific and personal levels of interest in your thoughts about your time at 'the G.'a) I was an intern there a looooong time ago (in the way-back times of last century).b) With apologies for what may come off as a shameless plug (it's not really intended that way.....really!), my recently released book, *Painting the Stage With People; Garland Wright and the American Theater* explicates some of the EDI/social strategies and controversies at the G and in MSP during Garland's tenure as Artistic Director (mid-80's to mid-90's). You and others may have some interest in what was similar and what wasn't....and in what was tried and worked, kinda worked, and failed. In any case, it was a clear and present concern in 1990, too--and, as in many things, we, and places like the Guthrie, are still working on it. Thanks for the share, and good luck to you on your journey!

Thank you for sharing your experience Matthew. I did not know about this internship, something new I learned. I'm so happy you had this opportunity as well.

Thank you Matthew for the great article. The Guthrie and the majority of the non-profit regional theatres in this country have a legal, ethical and moral mandate to serve all of their taxpaying communities and constituents. Your rich experience supports the fact that too many people are being left behind. "Integrate!" should be the mandate for American Theatre in the 21st Century.

Thank You Matthew for your insight! As a Latinx artist myself, it is great to read an honest and critical piece about theatre and those places that are influential in the nation.