On the Path to Transforming the Landscape of the Arts; An Interview with Michael Robertson

Michael Robertson is an arts manager, artist advocate, organizational consultant and facilitator dedicated to fostering conversations, supporting training, and promoting systemic change locally, regionally, and nationally around issues of equity, access, and inclusion.

For the past 11 years Michael served as the Managing Director of The Lark, an international theater laboratory based in New York City, where he oversaw finance, fundraising, human resources, strategic planning, and co-led equity, access, and inclusion planning, policy, and training for the 23-year-old company. Representing The Lark, Michael was an inaugural member of the artEquity/Theatre Communications Group Equity, Diversity & Inclusion Institute. He is currently working on a study for the New World Foundation, exploring the intersection of theater and social change.

I met Michael several years ago when my company was retained by The Lark Play Development Center. Along with the theater’s staff and leadership, we worked together for several years to craft a plan and strategy to build a culture of diversity and inclusion within the theater. I also was able to work with the theater on a beautiful play, When the Road Weeps, The Well Runs Dry by Marcus Gardley, which is the second in a trilogy about the migration of Black Seminoles (African and Native American people) from Florida to Oklahoma. For three years, I was responsible for curating a Town Hall a meeting about the play in the four cities where it was produced, as well as edit a newsletter to document the process. Since then, Michael and I have stayed in touch and I have witnessed his development and emergence as an intentional arts administrator who has made it his mission to change the landscape of the arts. The following is Part I of a recent interview about Michael’s experience and perspective about working to develop equity, access and inclusion programs.

Donna Walker-Kuhne: How did you first become involved in theater?

Michael Robertson: I was born in the cornfields of Bunkie, LA. We had a community theater. When I was very young, I was an extra in the play about Tom Sawyer and, in my teens, I played the delivery boy in “A Streetcar Named Desire.” I was raised a hardcore, Southern Baptist, so I also performed in church plays. I loved doing it but didn’t think about becoming an actor. I went to the Louisiana School for Math, Science and Arts. It was a public boarding school that took kids from rural areas and put them on a college campus. It was like going to college two years early. My parents struggled to pay the $1,000 tuition. But it completely changed my worldview in terms of what was possible.

When it came time for college, I wanted to attend school on the east coast because I wanted to experience all four seasons. I was admitted to Trinity College, a private, very white, liberal arts school in Hartford, CT. I researched all the demographics—gender, race, etc., because I wanted to know who was there.

One day someone knocked on the door, and said, “I heard you singing. Do you want to audition for the musical?” By the time I finished college, I had performed in 11 musicals; I founded an acapella group, and I fell into producing and gathering resources for artists. I also produced a tour and a CD. At that point, I realized producing could be a job, so I switched from being a performer to the administrative side.

Donna: How did you begin your work focusing on Diversity and Inclusion?

Michael: I always have had a strong sense of social justice and concern for people identified as “other.” I was engaged with some movements in college and graduate school. However, I was not a hardcore activist. I wasn’t sure how to be an activist, due to my own “otherness” as a queer gay person who was navigating my personal struggles. I’ve always tried to engage in work that affects change, but I had not thought deeply about how greater systems of oppression in society have infiltrated our arts organizations. My naive idea that the theater “was a place for everyone” was turned on its head when I began to really study how many barriers exist to participation for artists, staff and audience members. Where did this come from?

About five or six years ago, I began to wonder about the relevance of the theater field to changing or influencing hearts and minds. I have always believed in storytelling as a powerful way to engage folks in conversation. That’s what I love about The Lark. It’s an environment where we are fearless about supporting any and every story a writer wants to tell. However, in looking around the field, I wasn’t sure what we (the field) were doing to bring in as wide a range of voices from as many communities as possible. Even before The Lark existed there were theaters—many of them theaters of color or scrappy grassroots theaters—attempting to help these writers tell their stories. But the vast majority of available arts resources weren’t supporting those efforts.

In 2012, The Lark was part of the inaugural cohort of the artEquity/Theatre Communications Group Equity, Diversity & Inclusion Institute. That became a lightning rod for me. Through Carmen Morgan’s EDI curriculum, which is based on community-organizing principles, I began to see what I now cannot unsee: arts organizations have immense potential to affect community if we are willing to deeply explore our internal systems and practices that often mimic the oppressive, colonizing, white supremacy culture of our society. By white supremacy culture, I don’t mean what we saw in Charlottesville. Rather, I’m referring to a series of norms and expectations that are based upon a predominantly white, Western framework. For example, ideas such as, “There’s only one right way” or “There’s a right and wrong way.” The focus is on product rather than process; and individual thought is valued more than collective thinking. We can make our organizations even more welcoming if we’re willing to rethink the ways of working that have been handed down for generations. This applies to how we hire people, cast people, build relationships with culturally-explicit community groups, lead our staff meetings, define “excellence,” etc., in order to allow for different ways of leading and organizing and measuring success —more consensus and collaborative rather than top down.

So, with that realization, I began to feel a calling to be more directly engaged in change. Simultaneously, Anna Kull, the head of community relationships at The Lark, was working in the Institute with me. We challenged each other to build an EAI (equity, access and inclusion) plan. We then sought you out, Donna, to help us craft a plan that would put more intention behind what was naturally occurring at The Lark.

Donna: How would you describe your mission for diversity and inclusion at The LARK

Michael: What I loved about The Lark is that we worked to be open for everyone and anyone; especially those whose stories were not being told or were being misrepresented. We did not declare our own social justice values as strongly as we could until we created our own EAI (Equity, Access & Inclusion) plan. A lot of great practices were already there, but we put a lot more intention (action, learning, processing) into our efforts, and we shared our efforts publicly so that we could be held accountable.

Donna: How were you able to execute your mission and what were the challenges?

Michael: It was a team effort and we received and heeded great advice. We realized we could not treat the people or audiences we were trying to reach as a finite list, or a “to do” list that we checked off. This had to be an ongoing process.

People couldn’t see themselves in the plan initially because we didn’t seek their input until later in the process. We thought we were being helpful by handing our staff a draft plan instead of growing the plan from the ground up with the full team. It was an amazing lesson for us!

Another challenge was using a common vocabulary to discuss these issues. We needed to be able to use the same language in order to move the organization forward. The initial questions were as basic as: “What do we mean by the word diversity?” “What does it look like when we finish?” “Is there an end goal?” It was a healthy exploration, during which we actually determined that our core values would be “Equity, Access & Inclusion.”

Because the word diversity has become so nebulous and co-opted, we realized that the work would be ongoing. Asking ourselves “What does it looks like?” was not the question, but rather more of the process. We gave ourselves permission to make mistakes. We embraced the questions every step of the way through the lens of Equity, Access & Inclusion. Anna and I found that the “brown bag” conversations were a great, initial tool; they pushed us to practice talking about issues and practicing language. It was the tool we used in the beginning to figure out what we did and didn’t know. Later, we were able to unpack what we learned at a staff retreat, with the assistance of an outside expert, who helped challenge us to reflect on what the application of our core values would look like.

Something we learned from the EDI Institute was that unless the organization’s executive leadership bought into the planning and the work we were doing, it would not move forward. Luckily, because of my position and the willingness of our artistic director John Clinton Eisner to engage in this process, we did not have that barrier to overcome. However, I know a lot of other organizations did and still do. Because of the slow and steady work we undertook, our EAI values are now in the DNA of the organization; in every conversation we apply the lens of Equity, Access & Inclusion, and we ask, “How can we be more welcoming?”

Not all parts are as inclusive and representative as they need to be. Our staff has a way to go; our board has a way to go. But the values are an integral part of every decision-making process and there are clear strategies behind those needs. Accountability measures are key. We not only have to talk about our core values, but also take action.

Donna: We’ll continue our discussion in next week’s blog. Thank you so much, Michael, for the opportunity to showcase and acknowledge the value of having diverse voices in the field of the arts, who are committed to social justice, equity, access and inclusion. We need everyone on the front-lines; not just people of color or members of marginalized communities. Let’s continue the dialogue, but we also must put financial support behind these efforts.