Some thoughts on the Dialogue and the Slow Progress of Equity, Diversity and Inclusion (EDI)

  A few weeks ago, I was invited to be on a panel focusing on how to increase equity, diversity and inclusion in the professional Broadway community. Sponsored by the Commercial Theater Institute (CTI), a joint venture of The Broadway League and the Theatre Development Fund (TDF), the purpose of the three-day intensive was to provide direction and instruction to people interested in becoming Broadway and off-Broadway producers. My fellow panelists were Jim Joseph, whom I featured in last week’s blog; Kevin Lin, an agent for the performing arts division of the Creative Artists Agency; Nella Vera , who also specializes in arts marketing and audience development, and producer Ron Simon, President and CEO of SimonSays Entertainment. We were asked to consider several questions critical to increasing diversity in the theater community, including: What is the importance of inclusion in theatre, particularly behind the scenes and in administrative positions? What are the biggest roadblocks to inclusion in the theater? How do you build, hire, an inclusive and diverse team? How can we insure a supportive work environment for inclusion? How do you respond when people say they didn’t get enough diverse candidates?

These are all relevant and important questions. The challenge I have, however, is that 10 years ago, I was on a similar panel at the CTI conference discussing a similar topic about audience diversity. I would like to believe that there have been changes in the field; I would like to believe that Broadway producers not only engage diverse audiences but also are proactively creating opportunities for staff and leadership positions to be equitable, diverse and inclusive. I am grateful that the dialogue is now continuous, which I believe means more people are open to listening, hearing and taking action. However, the truth is progress has been slow.

There were many questions in response to the panel’s very frank and honest comments about how to foster equity, diversity and inclusion. The aspiring and current Broadway producers in the room were interested and engaged and I found that quite inspiring. There was a healthy sprinkling of women and a modest group of people of color in the audience. I met many of them after the panel, and they each declared they were going to be changemakers for Broadway and beyond in theater. Ultimately, I believe that many in the field want to see equity, diversity and inclusion in their work. But they aren’t sure how to implement it, or don’t know what steps to take. Panels like this one are important. But the dialogue must continue after the panels end if we are to see substantive, meaningful and impactful change over the next 10 years.

I think we can all learn something from the example of the dance community, which is proactively taking on issues of inclusion in a way that few people outside of this community consider, let alone discuss—access for people of different abilities. I recently moderated a panel sponsored by DanceNYC about engaging dance audiences for integrated and disability dance and the New York City dance community. The panelists not only brought ideas to the table, but also reports on the actions they have been taking within the community; the lessons they are learning, and the impact of those efforts.

Alejandra Duque Cifuentes, programs manager of Dance/NYC, shared how her organization was implementing its award from Dance/USA by working to create innovative programs, such as online marketing for integrated and disability dance performances; the creation of a directory of dancemakers for integrated and disability dance artistry; a local guide of resources and accessibility services to support artists navigating the creative life in NYC; master classes, symposiums and week-long residences.

Alice Sheppard, Artistic Lead and Founder of Kinetic Light, shared her organization’s plan for a pilot accessible transportation program. Kinetic Light’s Managing Director Claude-Andree Louissaint discussed the challenges of finding accessible space for performances and rehearsal; and Mary Verdi-Fletcher, President/Founding Artistic Director, Dancing Wheels Company & School, shared the challenges of forging relationships with dancers of different abilities in order to reach new communities and increase attendance from the dance community at-large.

The topics discussed by this panel could easily be applied to the broader arts community’s discussions about equity, diversity and inclusion. For example: How do you expand the dialogue about disability and lack of inclusion from barriers to access? What are the opportunities people have and the best tools and resources available? What are the developments and innovations that will allow disabled artists/diverse audiences to have an aesthetic, cultural and artistic experience? How can our collective years of experience and knowledge advance the conversation beyond barriers and get people to move or to take action with us?

The panel’s recommendations for breaking the cycle of exclusion included ideas we can all learn from: openly address the role of fear and how it feeds into ignorance rather than progress; create opportunities for integrating cultural and artistic value for the audience; make accessibility an integral component of diversity so that it takes into consideration more ways for an audience to experience the arts, such as audio descriptions and sign interpretation—services that don’t necessarily require an exhaustive investment.

I will say this: Dialogue remains a critical phase of the changes we are seeking. However, we must accelerate our efforts and turn dialogue in to action. It’s time for us to demonstrate concrete deliverables within a finite timeline dedicated to achieving the goals of equity, diversity and inclusion for specific organizations and shows. Arts and culture have historically offered insights that have led to the transformation of challenges facing our communities at-large, as well as the world, from social justice to gender rights. Given the current inflamed social and political climate, whether artists and cultural organizations stand up to lead us out of this quagmire will be determined not only by our intentions, but by the actions we take. It’s imperative that we work together; work smarter, and become clearer about possibilities and expectations, especially when considerations also include the capacity of the producing entity to engage diverse audiences and the arts/cultural experience. It’s time for us to fine-tune our thinking, surround ourselves with thought leaders who can develop executable action plans and get moving!!