Response to the We See You White American Theater Demands

 

To our community,

As the leading Jewish theater company in the US, Theater J strives to infuse our Jewish values in every aspect of what we do. We place special emphasis on the value of tikkun olam: repairing the world. It is through this lens that we acknowledge that white American theater has created and benefitted from a foundation of systemic racism and oppression that has harmed generations of BIPOC artists, technicians, and producers. We are enormously grateful to the organizers of We See You White American Theater for shining a light on many of the ways in which our industry, including Theater J, is broken, and some of the paths we can take towards becoming inclusive, anti-racist, and anti-oppressive institutions. Theater J has both knowingly and unknowingly failed to live up to our values, and we are deeply committed to change.

Theater J is a Jewish theater, and a program of the Edlavitch DC Jewish Community Center. We tell stories of Jewish culture, history, and faith that speak to both the Jewish experience and the universal human condition. The experience of being Jewish is not particular to any one demographic, one set of beliefs, or one singular identity; for example, ethnically and racially diverse Jews represent a significant portion of the Jewish population in the US. As with many communities, Jews are and have been both victims of persecution and beneficiaries of privilege. Our histories tell stories of anti-Semitism, racism, xenophobia, and oppression in a multitude of forms. By producing and presenting both new and classic Jewish stories for our stage, we seek to teach empathy, create community and commonality, and reflect the world back to our audience so they can help make it a better place for everyone. We are committed to doing that work in a more just way, becoming more inclusive, anti-racist, and anti-oppressive both onstage and off.

We have been meeting regularly as a staff to outline the steps forward. The action items listed below are only the first of our commitments in this work, which we see as a constant journey toward a more just world. We are currently an all-white full-time staff, and we commit to listening and learning as we develop these practices further.

      • Judaism is both multi-cultural and multi-racial, and yet we have failed to seek out, fully support, and embrace Jews of color. We commit to seeking more representation of ethnically and racially diverse Jews on our stage, in our audience, on our staff, and in our leadership.
      • We have failed to produce as many works written by artists of color as we should or could have, and we commit to improving that ratio. One step toward that goal will be in revising our script submission policy, which previously required a playwright to have an agent to submit a play (with very few exceptions). By requiring agency representation, we were perpetuating an existing discriminatory system. We will now allow unrepresented BIPOC artists who have written plays that meet our mission to submit those plays directly to us.
      • We commit to producing more plays that explore the intersections of Jewish and BIPOC lives, such as Anna Deavere Smith’s Fires in the Mirror.
      • We have failed to communicate clearly to our artist community during the casting process, leaving actors unsure of whether they are eligible to be cast in specific roles. Many roles at Theater J are cast with an eye toward multi-racial inclusivity. But as a Jewish theater, we often produce plays in which we feel that white Jewish ethnicity is essential to the play and the production, such as in Arthur Miller’s Incident at Vichy, in which characters have been arrested because they have physical characteristics of being Ashkenazi Jews. We have had and will continue to have multi-racial casts playing Jewish roles in plays in which white Jewish ethnicity is not essential, such as in many of the plays of the Yiddish theater. We commit to publishing a clear explanation of our casting policy and communicating the specific casting goals of each production more clearly in all of our casting breakdowns.
      • We commit to compensating artists at all talkbacks and donor events outside of rehearsal hours at which they will be expected to speak publicly. We also know that artist talkbacks and donor events can be places that are or feel unsafe to BIPOC artists, particularly when those artists are invited to participate with a predominantly white audience. We commit to developing intervention protocols for these harmful incidents and ensuring that facilitators are culturally competent and well-versed in these protocols.
      • We know that the burdens of being a parent and caregiver can have disproportionate impacts on BIPOC theatermakers (artists and technicians). We have created a Parent/Caregiving Committee that seeks to find ways in which artists and technicians who are parents and/or caregivers can be better supported in our practices. We have committed to disseminating the full rehearsal schedule (including planned rehearsal times) at least 45 days in advance of first rehearsal so that theatermakers can better plan for their parenting and caregiving needs. We also have committed to sharing a policy about how and when parents can bring children to the workplace when caregiving needs arise. We will proactively reach out to all incoming theatermakers and let them know about our Parent/Caregiving Committee, inviting theatermakers to share their needs with us, rather than placing the burden on the theatermakers to initiate that conversation. The Committee will continue to examine ways in which we can be supportive of all theatermakers who are parents and/or caregivers.
      • The greatest subsidizers of the US theater are theatermakers working below livable wages, and this presents a disproportionate barrier to entry for BIPOC artists. Union rates, which are set nationally, are often too low to survive on in the DC metropolitan region. Theater J commits to publishing our actual rates for all artistic positions in all breakdowns and employment notices, as well as listing information about our artistic salaries on our website.
      • We will no longer hold “ten out of twelve” rehearsals. Furthermore, we commit to ending all rehearsals at least one hour prior to the last scheduled Metro train, so that artists and technicians who rely on public transportation will not be disproportionately burdened by our rehearsal schedule.
      • We commit to sharing a land acknowledgement in all our programs, on our website, and at every first rehearsal. Our current land acknowledgment is: Our building sits on the traditional homeland of the Nacotchtank (Anacostan), farmers and traders who lived along the banks of the Anacostia River. Beginning in 1608, European settlers decimated the Nacotchtank with disease, warfare, and forced removal. By the 1700s, the survivors fled to join other tribes to the north, south, and west, including the Piscataway Peoples, who continue to steward these lands from generation to generation. We know this acknowledgement is only a small step towards justice, and we ask that all of us learn about the past and present and invest in the future of our country’s Indigenous communities wherever we are.
      • All of our currently employed full-time staff members have recently completed anti-racism training, and we commit to continued training for all current and future full-time staff and lay leadership.
      • We commit to developing intervention protocols for incidents of racial insensitivity and harm both in the rehearsal room and the theater. These protocols will be distributed to stage managers, production assistants, technical crew, actors, designers, house managers, ushers, and all members of the staff.
      • We commit to developing a full and comprehensive feedback and review process for all current staff members, holding both managers and employees accountable for furthering anti-racist, anti-oppressive, and inclusive practices. We commit to full exit interviews for all departing staff members. Furthermore, we commit to disseminating an anonymized survey to all departing artists and show-specific production staff, the results of which will be shared with staff, executive leadership, and lay leadership.

We invite our community to share their input with us and hold us accountable; please send comments to Artistic Director Adam Immerwahr at adam@theaterj.org or Managing Director Jojo Ruf at jojo@theaterj.org.

 

Sincerely,

Adam Immerwahr and Jojo Ruf, on behalf of the Theater J staff

October 27, 2020