OLNEY THEATRE CENTER, SOCIAL JUSTICE AND BECOMING ANTI-RACIST
The leadership, staff and board of Olney Theatre Center for the Arts (OTC) are challenged, inspired and creatively charged by demands for justice being made in our sector, in particular those demands made by BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, and People of Color) artists and their allies. American theaters have rightly been called to account for a long history of racism, and their historic exclusion of BIPOC artists and administrators from equity in the field. We recognize that OTC has contributed to this exclusion through our past support of inherently racist structures and the insufficiency of our efforts to change. We hear you, and commit to repairing lost trust and to healing those in our community who have been harmed.
With shared spirit and as collaborators in pursuit of a more equitable industry, we today publish a list of substantial changes we are making or plan to make in six areas: programming, personnel, audience, education, cultural competency, and workplace protections. These priorities are not an exhaustive list, but they represent the most urgent commitments we’ve made, from the sharing of authority in program selection to salary equity. Taken together, they’ll transform OTC into a better anti-racist institution that serves every member of its community in an inclusive and equitable manner.
These steps require we address OTC’s over-reliance on earned income. Not-for-profit American theaters, unlike their counterparts in other countries, are hamstrung by a culture that primarily equates success with rising ticket sales. Despite strong increases in contributed income, increases in earned income have driven the theater’s growth over the past seven years. (In OTC’s most recent full season, earned income accounted for nearly 60% of the budget.) This, along with old outstanding debt of nearly $5M, puts tremendous pressure on our productions to deliver dollars on a rapid schedule. Historically, that pressure has translated into a punishing season calendar, fewer dollars for community-based efforts, over-reliance on those paid least, and near-exclusive outreach to audiences we already know. Addressing our over-reliance on ticket sales must be a priority if we’re to become a truly anti-racist institution.
But no matter the speed with which we make that change, OTC recognizes the budgetary implications of these priorities. We follow through on our commitments - the way we’re striving now to follow through on the commitments we’ve made to artists and stories that have been postponed due to the pandemic. Those shows, and these steps, won’t all happen overnight. But we’ll follow through on these commitments, because we recognize that the more successful we are in transforming our institution, the more successful we’ll be - by every metric - in the long run.
Our process in creating these action steps has been months-long and multipronged. The process has included:
- Internal and external EDIA (Equity, Diversity, Inclusion and Access) committee meetings and practice reviews
- Paid listening sessions with BIPOC artists with whom we’ve worked
- Cultural competency work with staff and Board
- Working sessions with Senior Staff and the Board’s Executive Committee, with particular focus on the WE SEE YOU WHITE AMERICAN THEATRE list of demands
- All-Staff meetings on anti-racist and anti-harassment practices
- Executive Committee and full Board meetings, leading to approval of this document.
The work we’ve done and will continue to do has been guided by our values:
- Because we believe that inclusion is necessary to a full understanding of our shared humanity, we know our theater and our community will be made better and more impactful by taking these steps.
- Because we believe the essence of good artistry is collaboration, we will continue this anti-racist work with input from freelance artists and community members.
- Because we believe challenging ourselves is essential to creating impactful work, we will accept feedback with humility.
- Because we believe the essence of good artistry is collaboration, we will approach this complex work as collaborators, not adversaries.
- And because we believe that pursuing our values requires an ongoing process of reflection, training and application, we recognize these steps are just the beginning.
We encourage you to read the rest of OTC’s values here.
We are indebted to WE SEE YOU W.A.T., the Black Artists’ Coalition, and many other field-wide activists, along with the committed members of our internal and external EDIA committees, our senior staff, our Board’s executive committee, and our Board’s Long Range Planning Committee. We extend a special thanks to those BIPOC artists who shared their thoughts so transparently with us in our listening sessions.
OTC will review its progress towards these steps by engaging with these same constituencies on an annual basis.
We’re presuming a return to the kind of live programming we saw prior to the pandemic, but if the pandemic’s course prevents it, we’ll update these steps with others, based on different programming plans, that honor the same anti-racist
We hope members of all the communities we serve will share their responses to the following priorities with us. We invite you to hold us accountable for our actions and the progress we make. Feel free to email staff leadership at Jason@olneytheatre.org and Debbie@olneytheatre.org.
Throughout its history, OTC has followed a Eurocentric producing model in which a singular artistic director (who
has always been a white cis male) selects all programming with little input from voices unlike his own. OTC is committed to changing that model over the next five years. We’ll flatten the decision-making hierarchy by involving a diversity of voices in the artistic, staff and patron communities in programming decisions. We’ll share curatorial power and authority by hiring BIPOC curators to populate our stages with work we might not normally select. We’ll go beyond the Eurocentric palette to embrace stories from other cultures and a roster of interdisciplinarywork. We’ll tell more BIPOC stories, ensure BIPOC artists have our support to reimagine the canon, and ensure those stories receive equitable levels of support from every department in the institution. We’ll publicly define our color-conscious casting policies, which demand intentionality in casting choices. And we’ll ensure BIPOC stories are the majority of work we develop through our Vanguard Arts Fund.
- Already, half of our virtual programs are curated by paid artists not on the artistic staff: Just Arts: A Celebration of Arts and Activism and Signal Boost. This kind of decentralized programming is a first for OTC, and we are committed to staging work chosen by BIPOC curators starting in 2021-22. Our goal is to reduce the size of the season selected by the artistic
director to make room for different kinds of stories and storytelling that ensure all segments of our diverse community are included in our programming.
- These curators will be encouraged to follow the lead of Just Arts and Signal Boost by programming interdisciplinary and cross-cultural work, and space onstage will be provided for it.
- The artistic director will meet regularly with the internal and external EDIA committees to discuss the state of program planning and receive feedback.
- We seek to present a fully diverse theatrical program with at least 50% of new and recent plays being BIPOC-created stories, starting with the theater’s first full post-pandemic season.
- All three of this year’s Vanguard Arts Fund projects in 2020-21 are BIPOC stories and written or co-written by BIPOC artists.
Because we believe inclusion is necessary for understanding our shared humanity, OTC is committed to making our staff, Board and artists reflect the diversity of our community.* We humbly recognize we have a long way to go to make that happen. On stage and backstage we’re committed to normalizing diversity through casting and creative team representation, working towards more equitable contracts for freelancers to counter unconscious bias, working with our unions to help them diversify their local memberships, and aggressively pursuing new artistic relationships with BIPOC theatermakers. With staff and Board we’ll commit to intentionally diverse pools of candidates for every position we appoint or hire, ensure our next HR Manager is a leader in BIPOC advocacy and anti-racist issues, and we’ll commit to accelerated Board diversification so that in both general membership and leadership it reflects the County’s demographics. Board practices, including candidate vetting and membership requirements, will be evaluated and as necessary, changed to ensure that our Board of Directors is a more inclusive, equitable, and antiracist Board of Directors.
- Approximately 30% of lead roles in our currently-scheduled 2020- 21 season are cast with BIPOC performers. We have set a goal of casting at least 50% of lead roles with BIPOC performers, starting in 2021-22.
- We will commit to more equitable and transparent pay for actors: pay ranges based on union membership and veteran status will be publicly available immediately. And by 2025, we will reduce the spread in pay scale between first-time OTC performers and top-paid stars by 33%.
- We are committed to the goal of increasing BIPOC representation on our Board of Directors to at least 33% by 2024, and 50% by 2027, if not sooner.
- We will commit to creating pathways for Board membership with reduced financial commitments, and increasing the range of skill-sets members provide, including artistic skillsets.
- No senior-level position will be filled unless at least 33% of finalround interviewees are BIPOC individuals.
*While Olney itself (population 33,000) is 70% white, we sit near the heart of the State’s most populous County, Montgomery, which is majority-minority. For demographic purposes, when we consider who makes up our geographic community, we consider a ten-mile radius from the theater, which includes highly-diverse population centers Gaithersburg, Rockville, and Wheaton. Our diversity goals are to match the demographics of that population, which is approximately 51% BIPOC.
OTC commissioned a study of the theater’s patron demographics in early 2020, and the results demonstrated just how far we have to go to reflect the demographics of our community. “Build it and they will come” is no longer our mantra; instead, “Ask them to help you build it and they’ll own it” will underpin our audience development initiatives going forward. This means many changes, especially ending the one-size-fits-all approach to audience development that results in an unconscious bias towards existing, primarily-white audiences. Guaranteeing access for all in our community is going to mean big shifts in how we sell content, how patrons experience it, and how and when we make it available. That will include the creation of a membership model that provides accessible points of entry for BIPOC participation and counters inherently racist subscription patterns. And making all in our community feel they have ownership over the theater means changes to our talkback policies; encouraging culturally authentic audience behaviors; expanding the external EDIA committee to include BIPOC artists and patrons; and giving publicfacing employees in the front of house the same anti-racist and PR training as our fulltime staff.
Giving the community greater and more diverse ownership over the theater requires the immediate hiring of a Community Engagement Director, and empowering that individual with an appropriate budget and job description to learn about the communities around us, to deepen our relationships to them, and to establish new, long-lasting relationships with an antiracism lens.
- Since August, OTC has held over a dozen listening sessions with nonprofit and community leaders to learn what their constituents need and how the theater can serve them. We will hold many more listening sessions, with both leaders and ordinary community members, as part of our Community Engagement strategy.
- The Board has approved the Community Engagement Director position as our next full-time hire, in February 2021.
- OTC will roll out a new membership model by fall 2021 that will be less restrictive and provide pathways for less expensive access to our programs than its traditional subscriptions.
- Talkback policies are being revised with community agreements and facilitator training now to ensure that, when we return, BIPOC artists are protected and our anti-racist values are maintained.
- When we return, we will engage with and educate audience members about the variety of cultural responses to live performance, encouraging patrons to respond in the moment with authenticity, energy and delight.
- Upon its return, we will add local mobile-unit work to the National Players activities to increase accessibility in our community to OTC’s artistic output.
- With the agreement of the artists, we will provide streaming options for all live work we produce and curate.
Educating a more equitable generation of theatermakers
Theater will be a more anti-racist industry in the future if we ensure the next generation of theater-makers is a more equitable one. OTC’s Advanced Training Program (our Apprentices) and National Players are at the forefront of our anti-racist efforts in paving the way. We’ll start by prioritizing increases in salaries and/or benefits for these early-career professionals to drop barriers to access. Early Career Artist and Apprentices of Color Funds will be part of the plan, too. We’ll aim to select each class of Players and Apprentices with intention, to reflect our community’s demographics. We’ll continue to tip the scales in favor of mentorship, and away from labor. And when any funds can be put towards salary increases, we’ll commit to raising entry-level full-time salaries first.
- OTC commits to raising full-time salaries to at least $40,000 per annum before providing merit-based raises to higher-paid full-time staff.
- OTC commits to raising apprentice and National Players compensation annually by at least double the government’s cost of living adjustment.
- OTC’s freelance teaching artists for both in-person and off-campus work will continue to align closely with our community’s majority-minority demographics.
- OTC commits to the goal of having its freelance teaching artists, for both in-person and off-campus work, be at least 50% BIPOC.
Ensuring every individual at OTC understands our anti-racist commitment and can follow it through means ensuring cultural competency at every level. In addition to mandatory antiracist training for staff and Board on an ongoing basis; we’ll empower our internal EDIA committee to interface with every department, including the artistic department on programming and hiring decisions; and we’ll expand our external EDIA committee to include local BIPOC artists. It’s crucial that we compensate BIPOC individuals for cultural competency work they do with us, whether through attending listening sessions, providing cultural context, or serving as BIPOC advocates in rehearsal rooms. We also recognize that educating ourselves and our patrons about OTC’s origins is essential to cultural competency, so we’ll add land acknowledgments to all our programs, which include not only the debt we owe to the Piscataway-Conoy Tribe, but also recognize the impact to BIPOC individuals in the suburbanization of our region.
- Starting with Just Arts, we are incorporating land acknowledgments for all our programming.
- BIPOC individuals working with us on cultural competency, whether as advocates or through listening sessions, are being paid for their work with us.
- The Board of Directors will incorporate anti-racist work at every meeting, and anti-racist training for staff will begin once we return to programming and staff has come back from furloughs.
Demanding a safe and responsible space for risk
OTC recognizes it has failed in the past to protect its BIPOC artists and staff adequately, and we’re committed to learning from those deficiencies to ensure this theater is a safe space for risk, and a rewarding place to work. Public group agreements in every rehearsal room will require everyone to share in our anti-racist priorities, and empower every artist to demand accountability. Until such time as our artistic staff reflects the diversity of our community, we’ll commit to hiring and empowering BIPOC advocates to ensure BIPOC concerns are addressed. Production schedules will be eased over the course of our Long Range Plan to ensure opportunities for reflection and self-care for theatermakers: extending rehearsal periods as we can to eliminate 10-out-of-12s and 6-day weeks, and creating more space in the season calendar. Employee policies will be revised with the help of the internal EDIA committee. Special attention will be paid to the Board of Directors, ensuring they are a partner in our antiracist efforts, and they are working to replicate them on the Board and donor levels.
- Production schedules for upcoming productions have been adjusted to eliminate 10-out-of-12s for non-musicals immediately.
- Group agreements will be posted in every rehearsal room, including virtual rehearsal rooms going forward.
- We are revising our employee handbook based on recommendations from the internal EDIA committee.