Risk. Imagination. No more waiting.
photo credit: Joe Mazza at Brave-Lux
The following is a full transcript of the post show dicussion, following our non-traditionally cast staged reading of "The Time of Your Life" that took place Monday June 1, 2015 at Victory Gardens Theatre
Sandra Marquez (Moderator): Let's begin. I want to start with your responses to the reading. Just throw out words, phrases, what struck you about the reading tonight?
Patron 1: Alive.
Patron 2: Diversity.
Patron 3: Contemporary.
Patron 4: Honest.
Patron 5: Warm.
Patron 6: Fun.
Patron 7: Provoking.
Patron 8: Poetic.
Sandra: I found it beautiful. I found it mournful. I'm from Fresno, California, so Soroyan's our guy. We claim him. We have Fresno pride. Don't say anything about that.
Sandra: You know, I think the amazing thing that Emjoy has done with this - and this is amazing - is brought together the players...All of you...I think everyone in this room has had micro conversations about the issue. And what's really fantastic about this idea is that we're coming together now to talk about at a more macro level. And we're going to do that in twenty minutes.
Sandra: But obviously...we're not going to be able to get too far, but we what we are going to do make a start. We're going to start a conversation which is going to continue, hopefully, for a very long time. And so start thinking of it as a "check in." And we have some panelists that we're going to check in with. For our three panelists, I would love for you - in three or four sentences - to introduce yourselves, tell us what you do and why you're here tonight.
Chay Yew (Panelist): Hi, my name is Chay Yew , the artistic director of Victory Gardens Theatre. I started out as a playwright, became a director and I'm now producing theater here. Is that enough?
Sandra: And why are you here?
Chay: Oh. I directed this play.
Dionna Griffin Irons (Panelist): I'm Dionna Griffin Irons. I'm the director of outreach and diversity at Second City. I started out as an actor. I've been doing work in inclusion and diversity for fifteen years.
Charlie Newell (Panelist): I'm Charlie Newell, the artistic director of Court Theatre. And I'm here because Emjoy asked me, after a conversation we had that was inspiring.
Sandra: Great. Fantastic. So what we're going to do is I'm going to ask you some questions and (gesturing to the audience) we'll eventually get to some comments from you all. But I want to start with you guys. And I want to hear your take on what is the state of equitable representation on Chicago stages right now, what are the triumphs we've seen, and what are the challanges that we still have? Anybody want to start?
Charlie: Well I'm a guest in your house, Chay, so I better do what you say.
Charlie: What's the state? I mean, I think we've taken some steps, but it's only preliminary. And I think tonight is a triumph -- I'm trying to keep this short because we don't have a lot of time. And I think the challenges are a lack of imagination.
Sandra: Wow. Great! Okay...
Dionna: I think that we've been diversifying our audiences for awhile. I mean this conversation has been happening for a long time but it's taken the world and the community a long time to catch up. We've been here, the work has always been there, stories...we've obviously wanted our work represented, But it seems like there's always been a disconnect with having that representation and the community or the supporters to connect. And it seems like now we're having a lot of connection now, finally. Where the synergy is meeting, where we're now speaking the same language and we see how powerful it is. But yet it's only been happening within our own circles for a long time. So it's a challenge and it's a triumph because what I see is that this is something has been in the making and has been happening for a long time...
Sandra: And so the circles are getting bigger. The ripples are getting bigger.
Chay: Yeah, I agree with both of the panelists here. I just want to make something very clear, too...I want you to know that Chicago is not basically behind in the movement. It's actually the typical thing that is happening throughout the country. I think that if anything should happen in American theater, that Chicago always should be in the forefront. And I think the fact that we are here tonight, gathered to do this experiment, maybe just first step of many steps is a testament to the city and the community of Chicago theater. And the other thing I want to say too is that it takes some people and not a lot usually. I look at two positions in American theater and they are the director and the artistic director. When the director casts the play, he or she has the option. And you will find sometimes even artistic directors and casting directors are saying "You can open up your choices" and the director comes back saying "I'm doing Moliere and my cast is all white." Which is fine too...but I think for the conversation to change you have to take a look at what the director is thinking about in that play. Also, artistic directors, too, taking leaps. Actually, artistic directors are taking more leaps because the can say "Well we're taking America tax payers money and we have to represent America anyway, so can we do?" So the conversation is always there. I think there should be more of it and that Chicago is a very special community with ensemble. And these ensembles need to look at how they need to grow. So I think we're in a very good place for lots of wonderful things to happen right here in our own back yard?
Sandra: Yeah, fantastic! So to that end, I would love to hear from you -- and then up here as well, but from our panelists…What, in your opinion, are things we can do...Well, actually, let me back that up. What are tangible things that you have been doing that might inspire us out here, and what are things we can do today, right now, to start changing the landscape?
Dionna: I'm not from Chicago. I'm originally from Ohio and Michigan. And when I came here and noticed how segregated the city is, I was curious to go out into the community and bring certain groups of people together and not knowing that I would go into diversity work, I just wanted more people that looked like me and see them onstage and enjoy all the theater that Chicago has, particularly what I was familiar with. And that kind of grass roots, where we're going door to door, when we're not afraid of going out of back yard and our community needs to happen more.
Sandra: Can I ask specifically how you did that?
Dionna: Gosh...I took a train, I went to the South side, I went to the West side, I went to the North side -- I was living on the North side. I took a train, I remember looking at the [Chicago] Reader, looking at different spots where there were artists performing, places I'd never been. And I became curious. Curious in a city that I lived in. And I wasn't afraid to go out of my comfort zone, to meet new people. And I sometimes think that the rift - we have this kind of rift - in our conversations, in our circles, and that start of outreach, the access, creating more access, getting people to come over into this community. Removing these invisible lines, unique to Chicago, and getting people to experience art.
Sandra: In a very literal way, crossing borders.
Dionna: And that can ripple over into emails, into relationships, forming partnerships. And a lot of times what happens when you're in a diverse company or ensemble then we have other people who will make the phone call to you, still staying within their box, contacting you for the resource instead of doing the foot work and making those relationships. And I think that's because we're in a position where we're not used to that kind of change. We're stuck a bit.
Sandra: It goes back to what Charlie was saying about using your imagination and finding different ways, different avenues to start opening things up. Guys, are there anything you want to add to that?
Charlie: I liked what Chay said about directors and artistic directors because I am both. And what you said about taking risk and getting over fear. Because in my experience, our culture doesn't encourage taking risk. We have a critical community that sees things as it should be not how it might be. We have audiences who want to be challenged but perhaps they are afraid in my opinion. So if it ain't us taking the risk we shouldn't be in these jobs. And for me it has to come from an authentic place and it has to come with a strong powerful personal point of view.
Sandra: It's also making me think of my own experience. I am actor, I'm also an educator and a director and I find that for me, when issues of diversity come up in my class I sometimes become so incredibly emotional because at the end of the day, I don't have a choice but to think about it. I literally have "skin in the game." And sometimes when something very sensitive comes up, I notice that I shut down in a way, when it's actually an opportunity to take a risk.
Sandra: To force myself to say something from a very personal level, a personal point of view and it's frightening. In my perspective, that's the sort of the state of where we are in the country. That we all know there's this situation, there's something that we need to talk about. And we're afraid to talk about it. And we don't know how to talk about it. And I think what is beautiful about what Emjoy is starting is we're trying to accept all of us, in our imperfect way and figure out how we get there in a way that is compassionate and kind and sensitive and imaginative and risk taking. And that's going to be hard. And yet we are called to do it. Now. Today. No more waiting.
Sandra: Does anyone else have anything else to add to that? Yes, Blake.
Blake Russell: Dionna, you were saying some fantastic things about how we can actually reach the community, and I would love to actually take a moment to see who is not here, whether it's through incarceration or deportation or access. You said the word access and I think that's so important. How to access our communities across the city. It's so easy to get caught up in our routines and neighborhoods...I just finished a festival that focused on getting people out of their neighborhoods. We tend to gather -- "I've got my coffee shop, I've got my bar, here's work, here's home. I'm good." You know? And so how our institutions who have the financial backing of state or the government or donors, It's an important element that institutions have that things like this organization may not have yet, aside from you wonderful kickstarter backers. But I'm wondering how we create more of an access for maybe are not able to physically travel here and what the sort of outreach that an institutions can or might be interested in doing along those lines, specifically with access across geographical boundaries.
Dionna: We are having some of those conversations right now at Second City and it may mean...with ticket pricing, there are many tiers, so one way is to set up ticket pricing where if you have a higher price ticket, that affords a large amount of tickets to be donated. It may mean budgeting $200 at certain times of the year where you get a bus of colleges, high school students and bringing them to the theater. I think our dilemma is that we're waiting for people to come to here to our home, to our space, and we have to go to them. And I know as artists we reach out our comfort zones. I go to Cook County jail often and I work with and talk to the people who are there. We get those calls and reminders all the time. We get the ask. So we're here in the free world, all of us have had those kind of nudges. All the time. Are you receptive, are you hearing the call? Are you using your voice and are you taking your voice where it needs to go? Because we're here...all of us have that responsibility. It's in us. But are we listening and are we acting on it? We are the free ones, we have to be the voice and the eyes to those who need this art to empower, to see the world to transform us. We have to go to those dark places, to the voices that are unheard.
Sandra: So we're talking about changing a pardigm. Instead of being stationary edict -
Dionna: We are the change. Right here.
Sandra: Out here I'd like to hear what is striking you about this conversation? What words or phrases are popping out at you? That are striking you? And the second part of that is what might be some things on a practical, every day level starting now, that you might be able to do about changing the landscape?
Patron: One of the things that Blake with the Chicago Home Theater Festival - is this your third year? I was involved with them that first year, right? And that's exactly what I was excited about that was that you were bringing art into areas, all around the city that people were not accustomed to going to -- people's homes, empty warehouses, they were very creative with where and who was invited into those. And it was very opening and very diverse. As someone who is very involved with Chicago theater and a donor, producer, creator, I was very excited. I grew up in a very diverse community...so things like what you guys did in the last few years, I applaud you so much for that type of work. Red Moon also did something like that last year where they took this park that was where there was high incidents of murder, and people were able to feel safe there because there was art there. And people were having their pictures taken and all of a sudden these dangerous places that people couldn’t go to and those who didn’t have any access to art, and it was in a place where you wouldn’t have thought to go to otherwise…It was a safe place. Those kinds of things.
Sandra: Thank you so much.
Patron: I was struck by your comment and sometimes I think that the institutions we trust in have failed us. And there are things that happen in theater that are really incredibly moving. I remember seeing Proof years ago at the Goodman which was cast with black actors and it opened up a whole world of what that language was in terms of how it was living in Hyde Park. And it just made the whole play so different. So these simple moments, taken out and recast with different ethnic groups and you’ll have a whole different tone and some of these exist there, if someone could just open up their mind and their heart – that’s a simple thing. The other thing is that there are so many opportunities of people to attend, but we live in such a technological world that disciplining yourself to sit in theaters is becoming a lot harder and there is something so tragic about that on many levels…
Sandra: I read an interesting comment from a girl about a year and a half ago who said “I am the product of a post-Reagan world. And so I didn’t experience the world or the arts through my school. I experienced it because my parents could afford to take me to things.” And I think that has a lot to do with it. One more comment and then we’re going to wrap up.
Patron: One thing – I’m a teacher, too – that in terms of sustainability in the arts…there is going to have to be this sort of thing. Because the kids in my class when they read plays they don’t have labels or ideas of “these parts belong to these people…these are girls roles, these are boys parts,” they’re ready to do that, I think they’re going to expect to see that. We’re going to want that generation to see it.
Sandra: There’s so many things to talk about, so many exciting possibilities in the entire room. And so I really want to encourage everyone as you’re leaving, as you’re driving home, as you’re going to bed, as you’re moving through your daily lives to start these conversations so that when we come back, when we meet again, there’s even more ideas going forward.
Todd Garcia: Before we end, can I just say one quick thing?
Todd: I won’t take up too much time, but I just want everyone to know – I just want to speak really quickly about Emjoy Gavino. And she had no idea I was going to do this, I didn’t know until just this moment, I just think we need to give her an enormous amount of support and thanks for what she did today. I personally have been going through an enormous personal change in my life, and theater, while I’ve always loved it and will always love it, it’s sort of wasn’t sparking me as much anymore. And then she came to me and asked me to be a part of this. And I was at first of course “Sure, you’re my friend, I’ll do anything for you,” and then I realized what she was trying to accomplish and then I realized that I cared a great deal about this. Because right now the story that I got to tell tonight was the story when I met my wife ten years ago and how much love I felt for her immediately when I saw her and didn’t want anyone but her. But when I get onstage sometimes in theater, I’m asked to tell the story of someone that I’ve never known, and who I’d never know because of how I grew up. And what we’re trying to do here, with the work the Emjoy is kicking off, with the team that she’s gotten here, has been a really wonderful collaborative experience. So thank you so much.
Sandra: What Todd said. (laughter) Thank you all so much for coming tonight!