At the end of the spring '20 term the Theater Department released a "Statement on Racial Justice." In that statement, we vowed to devote the summer to formulating a specific plan of action and indicated that the first phase would be announced at the beginning of the fall '20 term.
We did in fact devote the summer as well as the fall, winter, and spring to the development of a plan of action. We did not, however, announce the first phase because we felt that we had much more work to do. We have already put a number of changes into place, but we know that this 'process' will require our ongoing attention well into the future.
We understand that outcome is more important than intention. With that in mind I want to announce some of the action items that have grown from our work thus far, and share the outline of what our process has been.
During the summer 2020 numerous theater faculty took part in a 2- week workshop run by Academics for Black Survival and Wellness. This group describes itself in the following manner:
'Academics for Black Survival and Wellness was organized by a group of Black counseling psychologists and their colleagues who practice Black allyship. Guided by a Black feminist frame, we hope to foster accountability and growth for non-Black people and enhance healing and wellness for Black people.'
In October, the entire Department took part in a workshop with the Armah Institute of Emotional Justice. For this workshop, Black students and alumni going back to the early 1990's were interviewed by the Institute and asked to discuss their experiences as past Theater students. The staff and faculty of the Theater Department then participated in feedback sessions in which we were confronted by the issues revealed through those interviews. Faculty and staff were subsequently divided into working groups to develop action steps in response to what we heard.
The Armah Institute describes its vision in the following manner:
We envision a global community in which emotions and emotionality are understood in the context of race, gender, culture and history thereby fostering greater harmony in human relationships and heightened productivity that improves the quality of life for all.
We treat the emotional as structural, as holding a pivotal role in developing, upholding or dismantling systems of inequity due to trauma from global histories of white supremacy.
We connect the emotional and the fiscal to build a powerful, profitable future that does not privilege some, but profits all. Emotionality education expands our notion of culture.
We do that by engaging, implementing, amplifying the framework 'EMOTIONAL JUSTICE'.
Immediately following this workshop with the ARMAH Institute, the Department created three sub-committees charged with developing action items specific to our Curriculum, Production Program, and Outreach. We also chose a faculty liaison to meet with the ARMAH Institute every other month for six months to discuss and evaluate the changes that we were putting into place.
This spring, a select group of staff and faculty from the Theater Department were engaged in a quarter long pilot workshop with the CRAFT Institute, a non-profit organization dedicated to promoting equitable eco-systems in arts and entertainment, in academia, and in the professional world. The goal of this workshop was to: "assess the eco-systems and culture within our department as they pertain to institutional racism, white supremacy and anti-Blackness."
The CRAFT institute met with current students and alumni to discuss the culture of the department. They subsequently met with faculty and staff of the Theater Department to present these issues and engage in conversations about our day-to-day operations 'in order to transform the departmental culture into one where equitable eco-systems exist.'
Dr. Monica White Ndounou (who is an Associate Professor of Theater at Dartmouth) is the founder and Director of The Craft Institute. Below is the CRAFT Institute website:
The following changes constitute the first phase of new initiatives within the department. We are keenly aware that these revisions will need to be assessed for their effectiveness and reimagined as necessary. The goal is to make the Department more inclusive, more open, more equitable, and more representative of the diversity of our students. We intend to place the students at the center of the learning experience.
Acting One is often the "gateway course" for students into the department. Our commitment is to create a diverse and inclusive course by removing the barriers and restrictions to enrollment, by diversifying the course content, and by including a diverse roster of instructors for the course.
To that end, we have removed the Instructor Permission (IP) requirement for enrollment and we have revised the course description. The new description is as follows:
"This course is open to all students. No theater experience is necessary.
To achieve success as a performing artist, an actor must commit to building an ensemble based on respect and mutual understanding and to embracing the notion that empathy is at the heart of the actor's art.
Students will be encouraged to explore their creative abilities on a journey of self- discovery in order to build this sense of ensemble. Through individual and group exercises, students will be introduced to the techniques necessary to play a character believably and honestly. The class will culminate with scene presentations from realistic American plays by authors of diverse cultural backgrounds.
(no instructor permission required)"
We will increase our outreach efforts to make all students aware of the new course description and to emphasize that no theater experience or permission is necessary to participate.
We are currently in the process of recruiting an African American guest artist to teach a section of Acting One in winter 2022 (as well as direct the musical production.)
These revisions will be implemented for the 21-22 academic year. We will evaluate the impact of these changes after year one and adjust our approach accordingly.
Last year the Theater Department initiated an annual rotating playwriting residency. Each year the Department will invite a new playwright to campus (focusing primarily on playwrights of the global majority) to teach three courses in playwrighting. In collaboration with New York Theatre Workshop, we have established a growing list of emerging and established playwrights as possible candidates. This past year Mfoniso Udofia joined us as our resident playwright. In 21-22 Liliana Padillo will join us to teach two courses in the fall and one in the winter.
All faculty in the "practice" area of our curriculum ( Performance, Directing, Design, and Technical Theater) have moved to create equitable representation within the content of their courses. Faculty have examined the texts and materials that we use to teach, what guests we invite to class, what artists we study, what productions we attend and/or discuss, and what projects we assign.
Production and Play Selection
Following our work with the Armah Institute, the Department has begun a series of steps to fundamentally reexamine how and what work we produce and for whom. At the core of these goals is the centering of the student experience, paying particular attention to those students who have been marginalized in the past.
As part of this important work, a committee of faculty and staff is looking at our production program and process, with student input included at each step. Included in this plan are the following:
- We have committed to a more transparent season selection process. A standing committee consisting of students, theater faculty and staff, and representatives from "partner departments" is being established to create a framework for season selection beginning with the '22-'23 season. An "interim season" for '21-'22 is currently being created, again with significant student input.
- Based on the need to create a more welcoming and inclusive environment for incoming students, we will be producing what we are currently calling the First Year Project. No auditions will be necessary so that all first-year students who express an interest will be able to participate. The choice of material will be determined by that particular group of students and the faculty director. We hope that this broader introduction to the department as a whole will create greater energy, transparency and inclusivity.
- We have invited BUTA (the Black Underground Theater Association) to have a yearly presence on our stages, with broad production support from the department. While we have had a long relationship with this important student organization, we are hopeful that this commitment will foster a sustainable and ongoing presence of BUTA in our program.
- We are committed to bringing in more guest directors and designers from the Global Majority and have been working with the Craft Institute and other sources to create a database of professional artists who identify with the Global Majority.
We will repeat from our statement from last spring:
"We are determined to create a more equitable, just world for our students. We are determined to use the power of theater to revitalize the political power of collaboration, imagination, solidarity, and care. We invite and welcome your involvement during the development and crafting of our plan. Please contact Department Chair Dan Kotlowitz with your thoughts and ideas, or use this form to share your ideas anonymously."