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What Theatre Do We Want to Return To?

Married playwrights and Ma-Yi Theatre National Playwright Residency Program (NPRP) residents Mike Lew and Rehana Lew Mirza took a break from picking up children’s toys for a rare sit-down to discuss the state of theatre as part of HowlRound’s Devising Our Future series. COVID has forced a breakup between artists and theatres—what will it take to get back together again?

Rehana Lew Mirza: There’s a lot of speculation about when theatre will come back, whereas I’m more interested in talking about what kind of theatre we want to return to.

Mike Lew: I’ve noticed that, throughout COVID, there’s been this funny sense that we miss theatre, but we don’t miss a lot of the lifestyle around theatre. Why is that?

Rehana: It’s like a relationship that was not equal in a lot of ways. And when you’re forced to break up, you start to have the distance to analyze what wasn’t working and why. So then you’re like, Do I even want to take theatre back?

Mike: With every announcement of reopening a space or trying out a production, I’ve noticed a real hesitancy among theatre people. They’re saying, “I’m not ready to do this yet.”

Rehana: We’ve grown accustomed to not having theatre, so to really bring it back into our lives, we need to reimagine the relationship.

So? What do you want it to be?


A National Reconciliation on Layoffs

Mike: One of my biggest concerns about our industry is that we will experience a comeback that prioritizes the financial health of the institutions and not the soul health of the stakeholders who create the work. If you look at the United States economy, the stock market’s doing great and a lot of companies have done exceedingly well, but people have died and individuals are suffering; there’s a mental health crisis and there are all these racialized undercurrents to how the recovery’s rolling out. My fear is that theatre’s recovery will parallel the national recovery—that a bunch of theatres will triumphantly say, “We’re back and here is our season” without addressing the human component.

A lot of theatres went through layoffs and furloughs to stay afloat, and we can’t move forward until we have a national reconciliation over that fact. I really feel for the lit managers and the marketing people and that middle tranche of staff and management who were all let go. It really pops for me how underpaid those positions were and how we’re sold this idea that “everybody comes together to make this show!”—the nobility of that idea in order to convince people to work long irregular hours and accept low salaries. But if they’re the first to be cut, that noble idea was in some ways a lie. It becomes more important for theatres to create work in a way that’s equitable and that addresses the real cost of putting up a show. I think the same goes for the artists: accounting for the fact that many artists are, in effect, subsidizing their work.

Rehana: Right, there’s this pretense of caring like we’re a community, and in a lot of ways we are, but then you get these pockets of behavior that are counter to that. Like with these layoffs. Or when you hear of BIPOC artists not being listened to or their concerns being ignored during production.

But also a lot of times artists are the admin. We’ve been taught a very separatist mentality towards theatre, like: these are the artists, these are the admin. But sometimes they intermix, and sometimes it’s not either/or—“Either we have a marketing team or we bring in this extra projectionist that you want.” We’ve been taught to look at creating art from a place of sacrifice. But what if we were to actually shift the view of theatre so that we’re not coming in being like, “We’re all going to sacrifice for the art,” but instead say, “We’re all going to bring our very best self for this story, and for that we will share in abundance.” I think that’s a very different framework in which I’d like to start approaching theatre when it comes back.

We’ve grown accustomed to not having theatre, so to really bring it back into our lives, we need to reimagine the relationship.

Reckoning with Cultural Competency

Rehana: When I’m having my work produced, theatres tend to consider the cultural content of the art without necessarily considering the cultural implications of how they plan to present the art, i.e. how they will find and communicate with an audience. I would love it if I could get a cultural consultant written into my contracts so they can be in on the audience conversation and I can be left to do my work. Because honestly my play isn’t a play yet until there are people there to receive it, who are there to be in dialogue with it. And the way the theatre curates an audience needs to be as thoughtful as the way they curate a season.

Mike: We fought really hard to get a cultural consultant on our musical Bhangin’ It.

Rehana: La Jolla Playhouse, which is producing the show, immediately understood the need, but most of the time it feels like you’re insulting the theatre for even bringing it up—you’re basically forcing them to admit they don’t know something. And I think we all feel like it’s a weakness to admit when we don’t know something. But not everyone knows everything! You have to bring in folks who are going to complement what you do know.

Mike: I think about the ramifications of having, for example, a casting director who hasn’t yet had a project requiring a largely South Asian cast. Or the fact that we know there’s a large South Asian audience in San Diego, but the marketing team hasn’t addressed their materials specifically to them.

Rehana: I do think that if the theatre is like: “You know what? We haven’t engaged with this community before, and we don’t know how to—”

Mike: They can be honest about that, and that way there’s a dialogue going on about how to do that work.

Rehana: Admitting these gaps isn’t a weakness, it’s not an embarrassment. It’s actually a source of pride to be like, “My specialty, me, is as a playwright. I am not meant to be a marketer. I am not meant to be strong at tweeting about my show. I am meant to be a playwright and be able to do some badass rewrites during rehearsals and previews. That’s my job.”

In the same way, it’s not a sign of weakness to bring in a cultural consultant to a theatre so they can honestly engage with people who would love to see my work. The mantra of the entertainment field has always been “fake it till you make it.” I’d like to get rid of that.

Mike: It’s ironic that over the interim of COVID, there’s been a lot of talk about anti-racism training and increased awareness of the structural barriers for people of color working within large institutions. Yet even if that conversation extends to play selection or season selection, it needs to seep into the very fabric of how the theatre interacts with and welcomes the public.

A theatre may want to incorporate more diverse stories artistically, but they don’t necessarily have the capacity to reach the audiences needing to hear them. They certainly don’t have the capacity or forethought to integrate artists at the earliest phase in order to proselytize that work. The casting and marketing can’t be an afterthought: companies must holistically engage with the artists so they’re on staff for the season and have the tools and infrastructure they need to convey their vision, not just in terms of the play itself, but everything around it.

The mantra of the entertainment field has always been “fake it till you make it.” I’d like to get rid of that.

Reimagining Power Structures

Rehana: I would love to see theatre practice rebuilt in a way that gives agency back to the playwright. I think most times the playwright comes into a theatre as a guest: by the time rehearsals start up all these other public-facing things are happening—donor events, meet and greets, marketing materials that need the playwright’s approval like the day before they go out—and there’s always a time crunch. What COVID has done for us all this year is shown that time is actually very expansive. Time has no meaning right now! So what that points to is that the question should be: What needs our attention, and when? How do we include multiple perspectives while letting the artist lead the conversation? So much of the way I interact with theatres feels like, “Here’s a conversation that’s already started, you need to respond to this conversation right now…”

A man inflating a mirror with curtains.

Illustration by Nguyen Tran, inspired by the essay.

Mike: Too late to really have any input anyhow…

Rehana: But what would the conversation be like if it was just quiet and the artist was asked to speak first? That’s what I mean by agency. It’s not like I’m asking theatres to give the playwright hundreds of thousands of dollars of budget and say, “Go for it.” It’s more like I’m asking theatres to think to ask, “What is it that this play needs in order to be the play?” That is a dialogue among many parties, but it starts with the playwright.

Mike: Is there any other aspect of how you would want us to return that we haven’t covered?

Rehana: As Mellon-funded NPRP residents, I think a lot about funders and how deeply funders affect our work. Once, at a Theatre Communications Group (TCG) conference, I brought up that there should be more company residencies. Because at the time I was running a small Off-Broadway theatre company, Desipina, and I was like, “There should be more big houses willing to take in small, scrappy companies and give them residency and support them.”

Mike: Particularly companies that serve a niche demographic.

Rehana: That way, the bigger theatres are diversifying their audience while the smaller theatres get the structural stability they don’t have as a small, scrappy company. At TCG, the response was, “No theatres will ever do that because of ego.” Then grantors started moving towards that idea, towards rewarding behavior like that, and slowly we started to see smaller companies being in residence at bigger theatres.

That just shows that 1) we tend to say we can’t do something just because it’s never been done before, and 2) people chase money! At the end of the day, it’s all about money. Sometimes I daydream about having a million dollars, a little more than that, like a billion dollars, and just being like, “I’m buying out all of these theatres,” and drastically changing their structure.

If I were to do that, if I were to get a billion dollars and buy a theatre and just drastically change its structure, what I would actually do is figure out how to better allocate power. I’d figure out how the power works within the administrative and artistic teams and ways to remove some of that power structure. Maybe there would be no artistic director but multiple co–artistic directors.

A lot of the times associate artistic directors come in and they’re always the BIPOC artists, but they end up leaving and the people who stay in charge are still very much of the same demographic. It’s clear that the power never trickles down, so then the question becomes how do we create equal power structures? Is it that we create a shared artistic director position across multiple people? Can the theatre empower the associate artistic director to curate a season in one of the smaller theaters for places that have multiple venues?

Mike: I agree, unless theatres inject that associate AD position with real agency they end up enshrining a permanent underclass. I’ve also noticed that with the latest round of artistic director vacancies, there are a lot of people who I think of as leaders in the field who have not stepped up to fill those roles. I think that has to do with a skepticism around how the artistic directorship role is currently structured. These are smart people who have real vision but are maybe not interested in exercising power under the “I’m the artistic director and I decide all the things” way. The leaders are there, but the leadership structure has calcified.

Another thing I’ve been thinking about is that we wouldn’t be on our current Mellon fellowship if we hadn’t independently sought out the Mellon Foundation’s officers to introduce ourselves. I remember at the time I was writing grants for New Dramatists and noticed the way theatres often serve as intermediaries speaking on behalf of playwrights—“Playwrights need workshop opportunities, playwrights need bridge grants to spur production,” that sort of thing. These major foundations were having a seismic shift on our industry and yet oftentimes their decisions never involved making space for the artists to speak for themselves. So we reached out to the Mellon Foundation—cold-emailed—and sat down for a coffee.

It feels as though major funders still don’t have a lot of direct conversations with artists, and instead it’s theatres speaking on behalf of artists about what artists need. And the only way for us to radically reshape the way we do business is if there’s a more direct conversation between major funders and artists so that we can advocate for ourselves.

The leaders are there, but the leadership structure has calcified.

Parting (Or Returning?) Shots

Mike: So we’ve talked about the major barriers to getting back together with theatre. Can you think of anything simple or minor—maybe even petty—that theatres could do to make this relationship workable? For me it’s every theatre having an up-to-date handbook of family resources: local babysitting services, pediatricians, family-friendly restaurants, family-friendly attractions, etc. We’ve written before about being playwright-parents and at the time it was cute. Now we have two kids and several shared projects that force us to be in the rehearsal room at the same time. The prospect of being out of town for months and maybe even having to disenroll our children from school is not cute. Just a little sheet of active local babysitters would really help us slay that logistical monster.

How about you?

Rehana: No more panels. No more artist roundtables on how to solve racism. No more wasting my time on free labor. Don’t say you’re going to change, but then do the same old curtain speech with the aggressively prescriptive, white-centering talkback to follow up. I’m old enough to remember artistic directors all touting that they wanted their theatre to look like the subway cars of New York. Twenty years later and let me tell you, I have no idea what subway they’ve been riding. If theatres aren’t ready to undertake the serious work of inclusion, I’m used to that. But don’t steal my time while not doing anything new.

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Thoughts from the curator

It's 2021 and we're amid multiple pandemics that are revealing the structural failures, challenges, and opportunities facing the nonprofit theatre. Where do we go from here? What are we bringing with us through the portal, and what are we making anew? The Devising Our Future series asks theatremakers to consider a future theatre field where resources and power are shared equitably in all directions, contributing to a more just and sustainable world. This series is curated by HowlRound Theatre Commons as part of our tenth anniversary celebration.

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I dig this. Yes to the creating the position that explains cultural sensitivity and smaller companies being part of bigger theaters. And 100% please no wasting of time, we have heard all the promises before. And since money is the root whether we like it or not, who is mobilizing the BIPOC with money to invest in BIPOC arts? We need that.