End unpaid internships. Set term limits for leaders. Get real about inclusion. Take performances to the streets. Say yes to joy, and no to couch plays.
By: Jennifer Schuessler and Scott Heller | Sept. 11, 2020 | 7:30 AM
Whoopi Goldberg had a suggestion: Stop calling Broadway “The Great White Way,” she proposed on “The View” in June, and nickname it “The Great Bright Way” instead.
Merely symbolic, or a meaningful recognition of unconscious racism? Following the pandemic shutdown and Black Lives Matter protests, the proposal by Goldberg (a five-time Broadway performer) was one pointed challenge to change among many buffeting the American theater this summer.
Here, six months after most stages went dark, 20 theater figures — many far from the heart of the commercial sector — offer their own suggestions. They have been edited for space and clarity.
“Pledge to stop supporting productions that are not inclusive, diverse or equitable when it comes to pay, hiring and opportunity. It will mean more due diligence, but our money speaks.” — T. OLIVER REID, actor and co-founder, Black Theater Coalition
“Producers, entertainers and creatives who began in the theater and have gone on to ‘make a killing’ on Broadway or in Hollywood should help to sustain the community by creating a pooled fund with the excesses of their wealth to provide medical insurance and universal basic income for theater-makers who need it.” — JAY STULL, playwright and director
“We need a new Federal Theater Project, a national arts program in all 50 states as ambitious in scope as the original New Deal-era program. Make federal funds available for a working corps of artists charged with putting their skill to use in service of their local city. Commission local writers in all 50 states to write local plays. Encourage theaters to bind their fortunes to the wider community — partnerships with hospitals, schools, YMCAs, parks departments, libraries and local restaurants.” — LEAR deBESSONET, artistic director, Encores!
“Challenge the theater industry’s leadership model. Let us consider a model where there is more than one artistic leader in place, or a model where there are term limits for leadership staff.” — JORDANA DE LA CRUZ, co-director, JACK
“Eliminate unpaid internships and low-paying apprenticeships. Too many organizations rely on exploitative labor practices that condition young theater workers to devalue their personal and professional worth. If theaters truly want to cultivate a diverse work force, they need to make sure early career opportunities aren’t limited to the most wealthy and privileged candidates.” — LAUREN HALVORSEN, dramaturge and writer
“It’s time to reopen. More people are flying because they have friends who have flown and lived to tell about it. Compelling discounts at first. A credible testing system in place. Masks. Selling every other seat for a month or two. Intrepid New Yorkers will be the first, as they were after 9/11. Then the more watchful New Yorkers. Then the tourists. People need to see other people entering and leaving the theaters. Little by little this will seem normal, not frightening.” — ROCCO LANDESMAN, producer
“Assuming that theater as we know it still exists, I would love to see more small, community-focused theaters getting funding and media attention. The primary impact of Covid-19 will be to worsen the already unacceptable inequalities of our society, and our current elitist pipeline shouldn’t be treated as the only valid form of theater in this country.” — YOUNG JEAN LEE, playwright
“I hope to see and be part of more works that are made to span traditional theater venues, digital media and the streets. Performances that might have components designed specifically for the theater and for our TikTok feeds, or a musical that spills out into the streets as a protest.” — NIEGEL SMITH, artistic director, the Flea
“When theater returns it must return with danger. I think of roving bands of actors, post-plague, performing mock mystery plays on the street that lead, eventually, to a theater where people assemble.” — TIM ROBBINS, actor and artistic director, The Actors’ Gang
“I hope I never have to see a couch onstage again.” — RAQUEL ALMAZAN, playwright and president, Indie Theater Fund
“The theater industry is gasping for diversity (honesty), for patience (listening), for reparations (action). I hope for a theater industry that prioritizes the artistry and truth of the people over the influences of the elite.” — KUHOO VERMA, actor
“We need health care for our freelance artists that is not dependent on weeks worked per union requirements.” — MARIA MANUELA GOYANES, artistic director, Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company
“White supremacy, ableism and the tyrannical effects of capitalist time have been ruining theater since well before Covid, but with no opening nights on the horizon, we have the opportunity to identify them, rout them out of our practices, and at long last reinvent the way we make our work. Theater has the power to revolutionize. Our methods matter as much as our message.” — ELINOR T VANDERBURG, playwright and co-creative director, Fresh Ground Pepper NYC
“We have to keep prices low and make events free, be willing to travel to where people are rather than ask them to come to our spaces, and use our new digital capacities to reach audiences beyond our immediate geographic area. We’ve also got to make theater that matters and establish our usefulness in this new world. That doesn’t just mean important and serious themes, although we need those; it also means we have to spread joy, the celebratory and communal nature of the theater, to a much larger community than those who enjoyed us pre-Covid.” — OSKAR EUSTIS, artistic director, Public Theater
“We should replace our high-speed, cookie-cutter, season-driven approach to artistic development with a wholesale investment in poetry and tragedy, the deepest and truest responses to the world’s horrors and to the wonder and fragility of human life. How? With real support for artists, giving them the time and resources they need to make complex, meaningful, and challenging work, and by subsidizing tickets so that all audiences can join them.” — GIDEON LESTER, artistic director, Fisher Center at Bard
“Let’s build systems for the delivery of our services that are not predicated on hierarchy or scarcity, so that storytelling may be restored to its proper place as an essential service for the practice of life.” — NIKKOLE SALTER,actor and playwright, board chair of Theatre Communications Group
“We playwrights have a new obligation — a happy one, I might add — to start exploring stories that up to now have lived in the corners of our society. And not just for the sake of tragedy. Surely there is comedy in the wearing of masks. Of lives turned upside down overnight. In getting through dinner with your 28-year-old son who is living back home again. Comedy always comes surging out of change and angst. We just have to look for it.” — KEN LUDWIG, playwright
“I’ve been streaming a ton of content from home and as a text-based director I love watching plays with captions and having the language right in my ears with headphones. I hope that we continue to prioritize access post-pandemic.” — LAVINA JADHWANI, director
“Theaters that had to make incredibly difficult and painful decisions to reduce staff during this shutdown will have, and should take advantage of, the unprecedented opportunity to rebuild with a much sharper focus on ensuring that our organizations are more diverse, equitable and inclusive than they have been historically.” — JOSEPH HAJ, artistic director, Guthrie Theater
“If this pandemic has shed light on anything, it’s the invaluable role that technology plays in keeping us connected despite being physically distant. Theaters should institutionalize media production departments. We, as theater artists, must couple our herculean creativity with technology in order to ensure that we can continue to bring our stories to our audiences uninterrupted.” — PSALMAYENE 24, playwright and director