Decolonizing local theater

As cultural groups nationwide are called on to be more inclusive and diverse, Reno theaters try to raise their own bar

On June 25, I called Melissa Taylor, Executive Director of Reno Little Theater, to ask how COVID closures were affecting Reno’s theater community. I wondered what version of “going back to normal” she and her peers might be picturing on the horizon. 

They were not going back to normal, she said. And not just because the still-spreading pandemic made it practically impossible to picture reopening the doors any time soon.

It had been four weeks since George Floyd was killed and three weeks since a riot followed a Black Lives Matter demonstration in Reno. Protesters nationwide were demanding accountability for the high number of Black men killed by police. Social justice issues that had been simmering for decades came to the forefront. And all of these issues were reflected in the arts.

Discussions about “decolonization,” which had been gaining steam in art and academic circles for years, were now popping up everywhere from the New York Times to Teen Vogue. “Decolonize,” as it applies in the art world, means to undo the often exclusionary power structures behind cultural organizations. This can mean anything from the French government pledging to return the artworks it had looted from the African nation of Benin to the Nevada Museum of Art being called on to involve people of color in its leadership ranks.

When the pandemic hit in March, Good Luck Macbeth was in mid-run. The theater has been dark since then, and the set for Noises Off is still up – photo: courtesy of GLM.

Melissa Taylor didn’t have any stolen artifacts in her prop room. And while the national theater scene saw, for one, a 29-page list of demands for a more equitable Broadway, Reno’s theater community wasn’t fielding a groundswell of allegations of exclusivity. But Taylor and her peers decided to take a hard look at the racial makeup of local theater. Their own statistics disturbed them. Population estimates from 2017 indicate that Reno is about 40 percent non-white. Yet the three main independent theaters’ leadership skews almost entirely white.

Taylor and her fellow local directors—faced with an unprecedented season of empty theaters, empty schedules, and some actual free time on their hands—decided to try to decolonize local theater. 

So, how, exactly, is that done? The directors of Reno Little Theater, Brüka Theatre, and Good Luck Macbeth set out to figure it out. 

On June 1, as Black Lives Matter protests surged, they issued a statement condemning racism. Parts of it read just like the statements that other groups have made this year: “We stand together. … Silence is complicit.” This one also mentioned “acknowledging when we as individuals, arts organizations, and a theatre community have helped to foster or perpetuate [systematic racism].”

Good Luck Macbeth, Brüka Theatre, and Reno Little Theater posted this joint statement on June 1.

Taking stock

“I always thought white supremacy was KKK,” said Mary Bennett, director of Brüka Theatre. “I associated it with awful white men in the South wearing sheets.” This year, her definition of white supremacy expanded to include subtler expressions of hegemony—including things that she herself had done. In 2019, she taught middle schoolers that the ancient Greeks had invented theater. She learned only recently that theatrical traditions in places like India and China predate Europe’s by thousands of years, and that indigenous theater traditions have existed around the globe. 

“It’s so based in manifest destiny and teaching the white perspective of theater,” Bennett said.

Brüka Theatre Summer Workshop – Brukalton 2020 – photo: Brüka Theatre

Taylor and Bennett joined me for a Zoom meeting on July 2, along with Good Luck Macbeth’s Christopher Daniels and Joe Atack. They’d been reading up on white fragility and challenging themselves, their staffs, and their boards to learn all they could about how systematic racism works.

“I think there is such a great opportunity to completely dismantle what we think theater is, how we’re operating, and really restructure and re-form something completely new,” Daniels said. At this point, the directors didn’t yet have a solid plan for how they could restructure. But they had raised some questions for themselves. Here are a few of them: 

  • How do we make sure that BIPOC creatives have decision making power in our organizations? 

“Often, white theaters and white leadership and white institutions will put on a show that has BIPOC stories and BIPOC narratives in it, and there are no BIPOC individuals on the creative leadership team,” said Daniels. “So it’s still a form of colonialism. It’s still a form of exploitation because we’re taking their stories and producing them and promoting and making money off of it. But we are not including them in the leadership of telling those stories.”

I ran this comment by Geralda Miller, a longtime Reno arts advocate, because she often writes and talks about representation in local arts. (She also performed in a play in 2016 at the University of Nevada, Reno, as the matriarch of one of the few Black families portrayed on local stages in recent memory.)

“Chris is absolutely right,” Miller said. 

“As an African American woman, I’m used to having a consciousness about race,” she added. “But I don’t think white people have had to have that, even in the back of their minds, let alone in the front.” Miller said she brings up the subject so often she’s worried that people will think she’s a broken record. But she doesn’t intend to drop it anytime soon. She hopes to see organizations seek grant funding for DEI training and write diversity into their bylaws and mission statements. 

“They should be living it and breathing it,” she said. “And once they begin to do that, it becomes natural and normal. We’ll see it in productions. We’ll see it all over.”

Director Melissa Taylor said it feels lonely inside Reno Little Theater, but pandemic closures provided a rare opportunity for theater leaders to devote time and energy to diversity training and revamping their inclusion policies. Photo courtesy of RLT.
  • How do we diversify without “burning it all down”?

The theater directors want to diversify their boards. But it wasn’t clear, as of July, how they could do that without ousting current board members—many of whom have worked for years to help develop and fund these grassroots groups from the ground up. 

Mary Bennett put it this way: “When you’ve got people who have been committed to an organization for a long time, do you suddenly say, ‘You no longer have a place here’? Is that right? How do you do both?”

When Bennett and her team first set a diversity goal for Brüka, her gut reaction was, “I need to get out of the way.” But she quickly reconsidered. “You can’t just pack your bag and leave,” she said. “You have to be able to maintain a company that is still a company, so that it can grow.”

  • How do we foster and create opportunities for future leaders of arts in Reno? 

Joe Atack mentioned this one during the Zoom call. Gesturing to the grid of white faces on the screen, he asked, “How do we make sure that in five, 10 years, this call doesn’t look like this?”

I ran his question by Dr. Donald Easton-Brooks. He’s the author of a textbook about ensuring academic success for children of color, and he’s been stationed in Reno for a year as dean of UNR’s College of Education. The first thing that came to his mind was that performing arts groups should do their best to involve high school students.

“One of the things I hear from kids of color about high school, and even music, is that … it’s very Eurocentric, and it’s not appealing,” said Easton-Brooks. He added that his teenage son, who is Black, was frustrated when he arrived in Reno and encountered arts programming options that didn’t represent him very well. “Before we came here, he was involved in drama and theater, and he didn’t do it here,” Easton-Brooks said.

His son’s frustration is particularly notable when you consider that slightly more than half of high schoolers in the Washoe County School District are non-white. (That figure comes from Public School Review, a national education data site.)

Easton-Brooks brought up a concept that he teaches to education students at UNR: “How do we train our teachers to really think in that kind of equitable diversity lens? We really strive and push on opportunity gaps, not achievement gaps.” He has an example from his own childhood. When he was in middle school in Houston, a theater program related to Upward Bound reached out to his school to offer a summer course. He enrolled.  

“We would really get engaged and get involved and writing skits, doing skits, and then even putting on a play that was designed for us … and it was pretty exciting to do that,” he said.

“More than anything else, it gave me confidence,” Easton-Brooks said of the experience. It also made him a theater fan. In college, he was often the only one in his peer group who wanted to see a ballet or a play, so he went alone. In New York, he relished seeing Cats and Ragtime.

Dr. Donald Easton-Brooks, dean of the College of Education at UNR, said that arts organizations can open doors to future leaders of color by involving high school students. Photo courtesy of UNR.

He mentioned that as a Black student in urban Houston, he likely would not have turned out to be a theatergoer, had the outreach program not existed.

Joe Atack, for one, does work with local students. In addition to being a GLM director, he’s also the director of education for Lake Tahoe Shakespeare Festival. He shared an observation that’s consistent with the “opportunity gaps” that Easton-Brooks mentioned. He estimated that at schools in low-income neighborhoods, around 80 percent of students say they’ve never seen Lake Tahoe—let alone a Shakespeare production at Sand Harbor.

Charting a path forward

The four theater directors talked with me again in August. By this time, although they stressed that decolonizing local theater was still a work in progress, they had some progress and plans to report.

Reno Little Theater had received a grant from Renown Health. The funding allowed board members Moira Bengochea and Adriano Cabral to train with Art Equity, a national group that instructs arts leaders on how to build cultures of inclusion.

 Good Luck Macbeth’s Daniels and Atack connected with two national groups to learn more about how to provide a productive environment for BIPOC actors, directors and crew members. “In order to be at our best as artists and creatives, you need to feel safe,” said Daniels. “You need to feel supported and accepted. And what are the ways in which our companies and our policies support systemic oppression that then make creatives feel unsafe, that they have to compartmentalize or sacrifice who they are, in order to just be in that space?” 

Mary Bennett said Brüka is rethinking its Biggest Little Festival, an annual fall event that showcases new plays, some written by locals. Even though this year’s event will be virtual, she said, “We want to be able to create a place that, that if anybody has a story, no matter who you are, where you’re from, you can tell that story.” She hopes to assemble a diverse festival committee.

“We’re challenged with finding folks,” Bennett said. “If anybody reads this and would like to be part of that committee, we would love it.”

Kris Vagner is an arts and culture writer who’s earned awards for critical writing, entertainment writing, feature writing, and—somehow—sports writing. She’s also the editor of Double Scoop, Nevada’s visual arts news site. More at Support her work in The Ally.

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