An Action Plan for a More Equitable Theatre
This is an extraordinary time to be a theatre artist. The entire theatre sector has spent the last three months soul-searching about how we can keep our art and our community whole while a global pandemic prevents us from performing our most basic function: bringing people together for the shared experience of live performance.
But the spectacular displays of civil disobedience and impassioned protest in the wake of the murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and Ahmaud Arbery have put these existential questions about the nature of live theatre into even clearer relief.
Because the truth is that the American theatre has done a poor job of bringing our whole community together for a very long time.
And that includes Know Theatre of Cincinnati.
Though many of us have proclaimed a commitment to diversity, we remain complicit in the establishment and maintenance of environments that do not value or foster Black voices. We have participated in racist structures and failed to recognize the voices in our own community that we should have been lifting up. We have prioritized efforts including gender parity and economic accessibility without giving the same energy or resources to anti-racist work.
It is time to own that history, and take action.
Some of this work has already been going on behind the scenes – but solidarity cannot be silent, and it is important now to make plain the work we have quietly been undertaking, as well as the next steps we will take to make the Know a more expressly anti-racist organization.
The work already underway in support of an equitable Know Theatre includes:
- Ensuring our board of directors better represents the Cincinnati community at large, which has taken us from a 6-person board with only 16% representation of people of color to a 15 person board with 27% representation of people of color. Our goal is to continue thoughtful recruitment until we reach at least 40% representation of people of color.
- Forming a board-lead committee of staff, Diversity, Equity, & Inclusion professionals, and local artists, to define policies, review vendors to prioritize BIPOC-owned partnerships, and discover ways in which this artistic community can collectively liberate us all from the constraints of systemic racism and economic inequality.
- Our staff is instituting a system of education and anti-racist training to acknowledge and interrogate existing biases and lack of education around anti-blackness and white supremacy. This is an ongoing learning and unlearning process necessary for us to fully engage with anti-racist work as a company; and our work in this space will focus on harm reduction, harm prevention, and relationship repair.
- Sourcing funds specifically for hiring artists of color. This is a continuation of an effort we quietly undertook in the 2019-2020 season, with support of the David C. Herriman Foundation of the GCF, to enable us to bring visiting designers and directors of color to work with us, be paid competitively for their artistry, be offered housing to support their stay in Cincinnati, and give all of our artists the chance to work with rising artists they would otherwise not have had the chance to collaborate with.
It is clear that there is much, much more work to be done to ensure that members of our community who are Black, Indiginous, and People of Color (BIPOC) feel welcome and embraced as artists, as patrons, as board members, and as staff.
As we launch into a new season, we commit to the following actions:
- Over 22 seasons, we have maintained an average of just under 20% of shows on our MainStage by BIPOC writers, which we recognize is simply not good enough. To reflect the fact 40% of the Cincinnati population identifies as black or African American, we pledge to produce an average of 40% plays by BIPOC writers on our MainStage, and work to maintain that level of representation in future seasons.
- We also pledge to not only cast BIPOC performers in BIPOC stories, but also seek to cast at least 50% of our roles across a season with artists of color. Our casting representation over the last 6 seasons has ranged from a high of 50% BIPOC actors to a low of 28% – we pledge to meet and maintain an average of 50% from now on.
- The low salaries of small nonprofit theatre reinforce racial and economic privilege in hiring – unless you have inherited wealth or alternate sources of income, job opportunities in companies including the Know have not been open to you. We will work to raise full-time staff salaries to at least $30,000 so that job postings become more welcoming and viable for BIPOC applicants.
- We will rewrite our artist and employee handbooks to ensure that we are no longer creating a hostile environment – intentionally or unintentionally – for BIPOC artists and staff members. We will use the guidance from the #dearwhiteamericantheatre petition and Stratford Festival’s #inthedressingroom conversations as starting points, as well as conversations with local artists who have come to us with concerns.
- We will be open to criticism and we will not meet criticism with defensiveness. In all things, we will strive to honor our history as the Know Theatre Tribe and a voice for inclusion and change in Cincinnati’s theatre community.
Know Theatre began 22 years ago as the Know Theatre Tribe, a multicultural and nomadic arts collective committed to bringing the voices of diverse artists into Cincinnati communities.
As we launch into what already, due to the pandemic, will be an unprecedented season full of experimentation in how to deliver art in digital forms, we will no longer backburner the work that needs to be done to honor that history and take us toward an equitable, anti-racist theatre.
We will proclaim with both our work and our words that Black Lives Matter.
We welcome your thoughts and ideas about the theatre you want to see evolve across Cincinnati in this moment. We invite your stories and your criticisms. We look forward to building a theatre that better represents and celebrates all of our stories – not just the stories of a few.