December 4, 2010

thought experiment: racial power analysis of indie theatre scene

I want you to participate in a little thought experiment. But first, I need to give you some background information.

I came across an article by Zora Neale Hurston called "What White Publishers Won't Print," and I'm sighing and shaking my head at how relevant it still is.

I've recently been involved with The People's Institute for Survival and Beyond's women of color anti-racist organizing group. What I really enjoy about this group is that it's not about tools and skills. It's not about rhetoric. It's about transforming institutions through anti-racist principles. In other words, The People's Institute forces us to look at what we take for granted and see how it contributes to racial marginalization and oppression. This is the most crucial aspect of anti-racist organizing*. Without a grounding in these core principles, we risk perpetuating racial marginalization and oppression despite our best intentions.

* What I love about The People's Institute is how they demystify organizing as something that only "experts" can do. The process of anti-racist organizing is extremely accessible to anyone who cares enough to put a little time and energy into it.

While racism is the focus of The People's Institute, the principles they use can apply to other forms of oppression as well. This does not mean that you should rip off their work and apply it to other forms of oppression without first wrestling with race. No, no, hell no. What I do mean is that once you understand how racism works, you have a leg up in understanding and counteracting other marginalizations and oppressions.

* Seriously, the last thing people of color need is yet another White person coming in, stealing our shit, and profiting off of it.

If you ever get a chance to attend one of their workshops, I highly recommend that you go. But for now I'd like to focus on a few ideas that really stood out to me as highly relevant to the indie theatre scene. All of the principles connect with each other. However, let's examine two or three: analyzing power and gatekeeping.

This is where we come to the thought experiment. It's very simple. I'm going to ask a few questions, and you answer as fully as you can. But first, a few ground rules.

  1. Focus on race. Too often, when it comes to discussing race, the temptation is to ignore or erase that and make it all about something else. Without question, all systems of oppression are linked, but let's not pretend that we already know everything there is to know about race and how it functions in our lives.
  2. This is engagement, not debate. This is a place for thinking and reflection, not judgment. Practice active listening. Nobody is on trial. Racism is not a charge you have to defend against. It's merely the situation we're dealing with because it was built into the fabric of our society.
  3. Speak from your own experience. Talk from your own life. It's OK not to know this right away because we're trained not to think or talk about it like this. Parroting what somebody else said or regurgitating something you read or heard somewhere else turns this from a human interaction into an academic one.
Power analysis

  1. Where is power concentrated? 
  2. Who exercises power?
  3. Who controls and/or has access to resources?
  4. What barriers prevent full participation?
  5. What are the effects of the power structures?
In your experience, how does the indie theatre scene do the following?
  1. Exclude
  2. Exploit
  3. Oppress
  4. Underserve

  1. Which institutions and/or organizations do you work with?
  2. What community does it serve?
  3. Who is in that community? Where do people of color fit into that community?
  4. Where does your organization or institution interact with that community?
  5. Who describes that community?
  6. Who represents that community?
  7. Who speaks for that community?
  8. Who mediates with or for that community?
  9. Who evaluates the people within that community?
  10. Who speaks for that community?
  11. Who helps people navigate the system?
  12. Who has access to your organization or institution?
  13. Who are the leaders in your organization or institution? Who is represented in that leadership?
  14. Who gets people to join your organization or institution?

Of course, there's no pressure to answer all of these questions right away. Just some things to think about. Feel free to leave answers here or to link to this post on your own blog with your answers.


  1. This seems like a good series of questions to try to wrap one's head around... might I (politely) suggest that in the second category (how does it exclude/oppress etc.) it might be worth ALSO looking at four "how does its," that are positive?

    I suggest this NOT (I want to underline bold, italicize and make blinking that NOT) to undercut how f*ed up things are. But rather to support the goals that you are underlining here in the following two ways:

    (1) Forestalling despair ("this is so fucked up its unfixable so why even try??!!?!")

    (2) Because the two studies I've read that are most effective in talking about these problems (David Dower's "Gatekeepers" study and "Outrageous Fortune") both include positive, copy-able (or at least adaptable) examples of what works well. Indeed, in Dower's work at Arena trying to talk seriously about how to diversify theatre and improve the lot of black playwrights, there is some emphasis on what is working, to help inspire next steps forward.

  2. A follow-up... I realized that I forgot to end that comment above with the following:

    "Or, to put this in a questioning way, as I'm interested to learn more about your own POV in terms of organizing anti-racist campaigns etc... if you feel that including some positive-exemplar-rooted questions as a small part of a larger whole would be counterproductive, I'd be interested in finding out why."

  3. I'm glad you decided to rephrase that initial comment. My response to it would not have been kind, especially considering that you've already read this.

    I think it would be counterproductive because focusing on what people intend undermines the value of accountability to the people underserved by the way things are. I've seen it happen a lot, and I have no interest in derailing this discussion even further with that sort of thing.

    The problems I'm talking about are systemic. The vast majority of initiatives address symptoms. It's the difference between treating the symptom of a disease and examining how that disease really works in order to find a cure.

  4. I'm going to take this in bite-sized chunks, because I tried to write a big mess of words last night and experienced technical difficulties.

    So: power analysis in regards to race in Chicago indie theater... we often use the word "storefront" so that's what I'm going to go with.

    Who's got the power? One response that I can predict in others (and feel welling up in myself) might be a derailer. A whole lot of us are big believers in the DIY aesthetic of Chicago storefront theater. That DIY aesthetic, and the hard work we put in, leads many of us to buy into the bootstraps myth. We like to think we started with no power, but created this awesome art, anyway. And to prove it, we'll point to the hundreds of other storefront theaters and say something like "nobody is stopping you from starting your own theater." The gatekeepers (subject for another comment) are separate from the storefront theater creators, and most of us think of ourselves as creators, or at least as parts of producing organizations. Further, there appears to be too much supply for the demand around here, which really does erode the power of the producing storefront theaters. So... that's the derailment I would expect in this discussion.

    The problem with it is that whole bootstraps myth. Remember the guy who said George W. Bush was born on 3rd base thinking he hit a triple? Well, I was born on 2nd, I think, as a straight, white, hetero, cisgendered male. I wasn't born with financial resources, but I've had access to an education that has let me land pretty solidly in the middle class. I look around, and with the exception of sex and sexual orientation, the vast majority of Chicago storefront theater practitioners look like me.

    Honestly, I suspect we wouldn't even be doing this at all if we weren't pretty privileged. Even when we live in poverty for this art, it is very very often by choice. And it is usually a reversible choice. I think most of us know that if this doesn't work out, we're going to find some other perfectly suitable employment. I did, so now I serve on the Board of a storefront theater, supported by my arts admin job at a big white organization of the classical music persuasion.

  5. But that comment didn't go very deep with your systematic analysis framework, did it?

    Among practitioners, those with access to resources are those with strong networks, family money or connections to money. Resources also accrue to those who have simply been taught how to work the system: how to write in the weird language of foundation grants, how to mingle with wealthy people at receptions and get appointments with executives at the upper echelons of theater. Connections up to that next layer of theater production are pretty powerful, indeed, because that creates access to more resources.

  6. As for the gatekeepers, I can think of a few important ones related to the storefront theater as an ecosystem. Within each company, it would be different than this.

    But when talking about the "scene," it is important to recognize that the producing theater groups aren't necessarily gatekeepers. New groups start producing theater all the time without asking for any kind of permission. Playwrights start their own theater companies. But there are other gatekeepers.

    I think the first gatekeepers you encounter are actually keeping physical gates. You need a space to perform, and generally speaking, it has to have the proper city licenses to be a performance space. Those trying to get the licenses are going to potentially face all the bureaucratic bullshit typical in a city like Chicago, one with a less than stellar reputation for good governance. I don't think it should be easy to get a performance space up and running, because we really don't need people doing this who aren't really, really serious about it. But I don't honestly know what sort of racial profiling and whatnot goes on in this process. The potential is there without a doubt. Did I mention this is Chicago? And if you just want to rent space, well, then you have to find somebody to rent it to you. Because it requires more capital and logistics and more risk to manage a performance space than to simply start a theater company, you don't have all the massive oversupply of performance spaces. So you get competition between producing theater companies for space rental. The performance space operators become gatekeepers.