The League of Professional Theatre Women (LPTW) last week held its inaugural Rachel Crothers Leadership Award Luncheon, which was named for the trailblazing woman who helped transform American theater.
Ms. Crothers, who was born in 1878 and died in 1958 a few months before turning 80, helped open doors to women in theater. Among her major accomplishments were the professionalization of the roles of the playwright and director; she was a proponent of training actors, and she advocated the use of scenic design. Ms. Crothers had more than 30 plays performed on Broadway showcasing strong, female protagonists, and she was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in Drama in 1918.
In many ways and on multiple fronts, the not-for-profit LPTW has continued Ms. Crothers pioneering efforts by dedicating itself to promoting the visibility and increasing opportunities for women in the professional theatre. Established in 1981, today it has close to 500 members representing a diversity of theatre professionals in both the for-profit and not-for-profit sectors. League members are actors, administrators, agents, arrangers, casting directors, choreographers, company managers, composers, critics, designers, directors, dramaturgs, educators, general managers, historians, journalists, librettists, lyricists, playwrights, press agents, producers, stage managers, and theatre technicians.
To support of women in the industry, the League offers its members numerous programs and events, including One-on-One Peer Mentoring Program; an Apprentice Program, and opportunities to read works in progress for a private audience in Julia’s Reading Room..
I was humbled and honored to be the inaugural recipient of the Rachel Crothers Leadership Award for modeling her warrior spirit through my efforts to expand access to the arts and the promotion of diversity, equity and inclusion in the arts. The ceremony was an absolute priceless experience and will forever be a treasure of my heart. Among the highlights: The extraordinary, Tony Award-winning actor Andre De Shields served as emcee for the luncheon, seamlessly navigating the program with humor, intelligence and grace. His presence is truly incredible on any stage. And the brilliant actress and singer LaChanze performed an arrangement especially for me! I have known LaChanze for many years, and she serves as an Advisory Board member for my youth-centered theater initiative, Impact Broadway, which I recently wrote about for Arts & Culture Connection.
The room was filled with my colleagues from many different projects; my company’s staff, and my mentees. Several of the League’s Board members later commented to me that this luncheon audience was the most diverse that had ever attended one of their luncheons. I do my best to “walk my talk,” and I want to thank all of my friends, mentors, and colleagues who came out to celebrate this auspicious moment with me.
It is my hope that we can all learn something from, embody and model the warrior spirit of Rachel Crothers as we continue our efforts to expand access to the arts for the sake of humanity and for the sake of the future. The following is an excerpt from my acceptance speech:
I must of course thank Rachel Crothers for her conviction and purpose-filled life. To receive the first leadership award named for Rachel is beyond humbling. She was a trailblazer and wore many hats—activist, playwright, director, casting-director of powerful plays about women, whose themes remain both resonant and relevant. Rachel helped transform the fledgling American Theatre into a mature art form by listening and giving voice to women; to their lives, and to their stories.
She also served her fellow citizens through her war efforts utilizing the arts around the world to address issues of the day. This concept is key to the purpose of the award. I cherish her warrior spirit and example, and I’m committed to continue to advance the quest to build and expand access to the arts to people whose voices and stories also need to be heard. Rachel’s life is a perfect example of what one individual with passion and conviction can accomplish.
Today, I am honored to express enormous appreciation to all the extraordinary teachers and mentors who have inspired and supported me– from my first ballet teacher, Carol Folkes, to my first piano teacher Mrs Malette, who taught me how to play with passion. To my African dance teacher, Julian Swain, who not only taught me African dance but also opened the door for me to both perform and teach. And to Najwa Dance Corps, which enabled me to perform and teach for many years. My appreciation also goes to my advanced ballet teacher, Diane Petty. While I was attending law school Diane taught a private class at 7am before I went to my law classes. And my deepest appreciation goes to Arthur Mitchell, who exposed me to the beauty of classical ballet. I will forever be indebted to Mr. Mitchell for asking one question in 1985 as Dance Theatre of Harlem was touring around the United States. He asked: “Where are the Black people?” That questioned launched my career in audience development and community engagement.
My appreciation goes to George C. Wolfe, who introduced me to the magic of theater, and whose sense of trust matched by limitless brilliance opened the doors to Broadway and gave me a platform to experiment and play.
Most recently, I have appreciation for NJPAC under the leadership of John Schreiber and David Rodriguez. These two amazing “Artspreneurs” have taught me that the arts do not have to be equated with poverty and to be opportunistic in creating access is not a bad thing. It doesn’t compromise the work. This has opened our eyes to seeking new streams of income, real estate development. The expansion into new modes of presenting arts and cultural experiences are in front of us and we should explore all of it.
Over the past 25 years, I have traveled to more than 100 cities and five continents to do one thing—to help create a platform that fosters respect for the dignity of each person’s life; harmonizes with the community and provides access to the arts experience.
What does this award mean to me? First it serves as an acknowledgement of my clear philosophical platform from which I do all my work: everyone should have the right to have access to the arts; no one should be left behind. It’s not the fact that I know how to market a show. It is instead focusing on creating access to the arts, which includes theater. It is an ongoing call to action to continue to be a changemaker.
(My focus includes) mentoring the next generation of arts administrators and providing them with the tools and support they may need to help them stay engaged and committed This is a great time to be immersed in the world of arts and culture. Be unstoppable! Live vibrantly!
To my mentees here today, young people should shake up society and revitalize the whole world. Create a winning life and through your art, inspire the world, inspire all of us to be our best. Advance like young lions—be ferocious, tenacious, innovative and warm-hearted.
You are probably familiar with the book, The Little Prince. I especially like this line from the book: “It is only with the heart that one can see rightly; what is essential is invisible to the eye.” I agree with the author (Antoine de Saint Expépury), only by looking with the heart can we discern the true essence of life. The arts are perhaps our most heart-based means of communicating and sharing with others. I hope you will make this your life-long journey. I encourage you to embrace it and celebrate it. Your job is to change the world and once completed, do it again.
For the rest of you, I urge you to do the work–engage in your communities, examine your belief systems, evaluate your successes, and don’t compromise. We have to focus on changing our culture to one of peace, to one that celebrates people from all over the world. Only you can do it. I think the arts is the safest and most important arena to make this happen.
What am I excited about? Being here with you. Completing my second book. Continuing with my weekly blog. Continued opportunities with my wonderful clients to define community engagement in limitless ways. Looking at the next 100 years of community engagement in the arts and projecting what that might look like. And how are the seeds we plant daily going to positively influence our collective mission?
I urge you to find the joy (and) put your heart at the center of everything—because it is everything.
In closing, as tough as it is to work in the arts, especially as tough as it is to carve out a sustainable living, we still have the best jobs in the world. Our work illuminates the human experience and allows us to promote the universal bonds that tie us together and unite us all. It celebrates our innate and limitless potential to learn and grow. It is an honor to do this work and make it accessible to the widest possible audience in order to build the bridges that can heal our hearts and heal the world.