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LOOKING BACK, GOING FORWARD: Reflections on 2016 and Hopes for 2017

The Chicago Inclusion Project founder and producer, Emjoy Gavino, discusses this past year's brightest moments and her wishes for the new year.

My Favorite Moments of 2016

June, The Gift Theatre

The day after the Orlando shooting, there weren't many rooms I wanted to be in, aside from my own dark corner at home. But it was the only time I could see a run through of The Grapes of Wrath at Gift Theatre before it opened. I hadn't seen many of these actors since director Erica Weiss, artistic director Michael Patrick Thornton and I cast them several months before. It was their first run through after teching the entire beast of a show. This point in any show's process is typically tense and tiring and stressful. But I saw none of that. I saw an ensemble and production team become a family. They were mourning too, but they had to do their job. And they did it with more care and love than I had witnessed in a very long time. They told Steinbeck's story of an American family incredibly well, and obviously would continue to get better at telling it. But beyond that, they exhibited a spirit of true generosity. Looking at this stage picture: black, white, Asian, Latino, gay, straight, able bodied, differently-abled, crying, hoping, singing, "IF NOT NOW THEN WHEN?"…They took every ounce of sadness they must have been feeling - we had all been feeling - that day and turned it into something beautiful that permeated the rest of the run: Care, hope, love. That day will never leave me.

July, Jackalope Theatre

I was one of the lucky few who barely made it into the closing performance of Prowess by Ike Holter, directed by Marti Lyons. 4th of July weekend in Chicago is one where citizens brace themselves for the popping sounds of explosions, not knowing if they're gunshots or fireworks. Leaving the theater after what was one of the most terrifying and cathartic things I could imagine seeing, we walked to the car in silence, not talking to any of the industry friends we knew on the way out. Donovan Diaz, Andrew Goetten, Julian Parker and Sydney Charles did more than perform play well. They reached into our collective heart and soul and forced us to deal with our present day and fears, with all the fierce honesty I've only seen displayed in Chicago. I still shake, thinking about it.

July, Writers Theatre

Avi Roque is a trans actor and devisor of color who also happens to be charismatic and wonderful with language. To be at the first table read and see them as the titular character in George Bernard Shaw’s Saint Joan – I kid you not, it felt like this is the way Shaw wanted this story to be told. Played by some of my favorite actors in the city, some making their Writers Theatre debut, the men that surrounded Joan had no idea what to do with this vibrant, brilliant leader who dared to defy the Church and the order of things. The world couldn’t put Joan in a box. Over 100 Writers Theatre patrons stayed for the talkback and strongly advocated for the show, with this cast, to be done on the mainstage.

August, American Theater Company

Alongside fellow TCIP associate, Steph Diaz I got to watch ATC artistic director Will Davis run an audition room (both at the ATC generals and in callbacks for upcoming productions of Picnic and Men on Boats) with the exact creative, inclusive and loving spirit that we expected to see from Will. I witnessed actors I’ve known for years do some of their best work because of the space and opportunity to delve into roles they hadn’t necessarily been able to explore. When

theaters do a William Inge play, they seldom invite minorities into the room and to Will’s point – Inge wrote himself into each character – marginalized, misunderstood, yearning for a better life. Who better to tell his stories than people of different gender identities, abilities, ethnicity? The generosity of Will’s direction throughout the day provided a new jumping off point for text we thought we knew.

August, Timeline Theatre AND Victory Gardens

The Chicago Inclusion Project collaborated with Timeline Theatre Company for a staged reading of Sarah Ruhl’s In the Next Room: or the vibrator play, featuring an amazing cast, directed by company member, Mechelle Moe. The cast members assembled and their performances were

spectacular. We had a sold out house, standing room only, mostly full of Timeline Theatre patrons who were seeing some familiar faces in different context and some very new faces to the Timeline stage, but we also had industry folks, which wouldn’t be out of the ordinary…Except that evening was also a major theater event a few miles over: The Alliance of Latinx Theatre Artists (ALTA) was hosting a town hall event responding to whitewashing of Latinx roles in the theater community. The Victory Gardens event was also full of artists and patrons trying to figure out how to create action toward making change in the representation of minorities onstage…These two packed houses on this one night told us something about THIS MOMENT in time: that artists and patrons are ready for change.

August, The Hypocrites

I don’t know what I expected at first rehearsal when I finally got to work with The Hypocrites. But when we were all seated and I got a chance to look around the room, the cast, production and artistic team of mainly minorities and women, each person beginning their introduction with “My name is, my pronouns are…” I remember thinking this is where I’m supposed to be, this is what every room can look like. Artistic leaders (director, Devon De Mayo, artistic director, Sean Graney and casting director, Lavina Jadhwani) made space for all of us. They believed that this group of people (many of whom had never worked together before) could tell these classic stories from American and British literature. Jaclyn Backhaus's You on the Moors Now challenged what those heroines could look like. Throughout our run, there were quite a few girls still in grade school in our audiences. And the idea that their first picture of Jane Eyre, Jo March, Cathy Earnshaw and Lizzie Bennet could look like this...

It proved that in theatre there is a bigger world. And they deserve it. And so do we.

My Wishes for 2017

For there to be new voices in theatre criticism. There just aren’t enough different perspectives. When audiences wonder what shows they should see, not all audiences have a voice that represents their ethnicity, their gender identity, their economic status, their educational background, their physical ability. There are some smart artists out there, giving their opinions on shows that are culturally relevant to so many people, but they’re not technically a “critic.” Yet so many audiences and so many theaters representing different groups would benefit greatly from these writers getting their word out there. Your opinion is valid. Your voice is valid. And needed.

For institutions to start teaching ethics in casting. Now I understand this is still controversial – not everyone agrees that if you are not the ethnicity/gender identity/physical ability of the role you shouldn’t audition for it. And I also know that there is nuance to this conversation. But this is a conversation that can start to at least be opened up in school so students don’t have it drilled into their heads that “if they can pass, they should go for it.” Representation in theater is a major problem and is just now getting the attention it should be getting. Let’s start it early.

For accessibility for artists and patrons. Theaters complain they lack the funding or staffing to accommodate people with different abilities for audience members. And consideration for artists from that community is hardly a whim in many institutions (making the audition, rehearsal, performance process welcoming to all). There isn't an excuse for this anymore. At the ADA Cultural Accessibility summit hosted by The Goodman, Michael Patrick Thornton asked artistic leaders in the community, "Are we coasting? Or are we leading?" He challenged everyone to do what they can within their institutions, even though "the right thing is often the hard thing...Do the right thing." Evan Hatfield (co-chair of the Chicago Cultural Accessibility Consortium) offered solutions - can't afford ASL interpreters? Captioning is possible in most spaces. Touch tours are always an option. Want to know more? Check out the CCAC website for resources and workshops.

For audiences to realize their power. Your pocketbook can be your activism. Literally the CHANGE you want in the world. Do you believe in inclusive casting practices? In stories by playwrights with a new perspective? Buy tickets to the shows and theaters already doing that. The more successful they are, the more likely everyone will follow. Many of these shows don’t even cost very much, but if expense is an issue, email the producers telling them you want more of this. OR email producers who aren’t making these new choices and tell them exactly what you want to see. Producers make decisions based on what they think you want. Don’t give them a chance to decide you want the old regime. Keep the institutions already doing good things the chance to keep doing them. And stop supporting those that refuse to see the light.

For all of us to dream bigger. No one else is going to do it for you. You have to dream the theater scene and the artist trajectory you want for yourself. A lot of us have been trained to not aspire to things "outside of our boxes," to make those around us comfortable, not to ask for what we want. That mandate often comes from people afraid you'll take something precious away from them. Remember that opportunity belongs to all of us.

For artistic leaders to let go a little. Look. I get it. You’re the artistic director of a company, money is tight, board members are scared of a risky season, you don’t know if your audience is ready. But…do you have to direct every show in the season? Do you have to use the exact same design team for your space? Do you have to do that classic piece the exact way it would have been done 30 years ago? NO. You don’t. It's time for you to step up and step aside. To make room for people. To give opportunities to new voices, new directors and designers, new administrators, new decision makers. We are storytellers. We take risks. You can do this and it can be beautiful.

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