On October 6, 2018 Nataki Garrett, joined by Hana Sharif, addressed a room full of nearly 200 theatre-makers and arts leaders at Statera’s National Conference in Milwaukee, WI. StateraArts is proud to publish Garrett’s address here in its entirety.
We are the Sea Change!
BY NATAKI GARRETT
Delivered at the Statera National Conference in Milwaukee October 6, 2018
Who are WE…and how did WE get here?
Earlier this year I listened to my friend and colleague Mica Cole in a speech delivered to a room of Artistic Leaders her view of artistic leadership in the 21st century. You should read it, it’s brilliant! In it she reflects on the negatives of our country and the world, by beginning almost every phrase with the word “WE”. She reflects on who “WE” are as if as if “WE” were one body of leaders that had already begun doing what was necessary to change those ills. It was devastating and empowering. Like, if we could reflect on what’s necessary and see ourselves doing it then “WE” might start doing it for real. Then again, I have to wonder if “WE” truly desire change and without enough desire to spark action, can “WE” make change happen.
Who are WE...and How did WE get here?
The other week I read an article by playwright, Quiara Hudes which is a transcript of a speech she entitled: The High Tide of Heartbreak. It is an honest account of her time in this field but it reads like Dear John letter. I read it thinking, Wow, if we lose Hudes, if her heart break breaks her tie to this art because it can be more cruel than giving, then who are WE? I have to say “I feel you, Hudes.”
In the last year, I have been privileged to visit several theaters across the country. I have learned a lot from my visits. I have heard from so many boards about their priorities and dreams for their theaters. BOARD MEMBERS who are deeply invested and committed to their organizations. They feel responsible for the longevity of their organizations and understandably, they want success over risk. Most see success as profit or recognition from the commercial market of their value. Almost everybody wants a Regional Tony except those who already have it and understand the downside of what they sacrificed to get it. Many of these benevolent boards don’t or can’t hear their own rhetoric reflecting a desire to “Make the Theater Great Again”. This would be easy to do since the primary patrons of American theater both -- nonprofit and commercial -- are mostly the same older white people who seem to have a similar agenda. They overwhelmingly support stories and styles of storytelling that reflects a nostalgia for a time when only a few people benefitted from the structure of the status quo while the rest were asked to eat the crumbs of the ideal American Dream. A crumbling façade both cruel and exclusive.
Who are WE? How did WE get here?
Since February of 2017 there have been 39-40 new Artistic Director appointments give or take. Seventeen of those are women; of those, five are women of color. Although the regional theater movement was started by a woman, almost all of the women moving in power are going to organizations that have only been run by men or have been run by men for the past 12-15 years, whose boards and stakeholders have no idea what female leadership looks like or feels like. They are moving into leadership in a socio-political climate that is growing in its division and polarization. The theater has been and mostly remains an elitist, entitled, fortress reserved for those who reside at the top of the status quo. My friends and colleagues have shared their horror stories about patrons who want to police voices that do not fit into their white, western, patriarchal vision for so called “good theater”.
Earlier this year in Chicago a battle erupted when a highly revered Chicago Tribune reviewer, Heady Weiss wrote a patronizing review of Antionette Nwandu’s acclaimed play Pass Over, which revealed her bias and practice of colonizing the voice of a black woman to fit into her narrowly prescribed, generationally tied, world view. In Denver, there was a letter to editor of the Denver Post complaining that Hamilton was racist stating: “I would love to see the reaction of our black communities if theater or film producers produced the life story of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. or Frederick Douglass and mounted an all-white cast.” The funny part is this man probably stood in line for hours to get one of the hottest tickets in town and possibly the hottest ticket in our lifetime and he didn’t know that the show featured a cast of all people of color? In our theaters, I hear women and people of color express trauma from having to work or make art in all white or all male rooms in which there is no acknowledgement of how disconcerting it can be. Earlier this year while working on a project, I experienced bigotry so devastating that I had to look up the word bigot so that I could understand why nothing I said would ever engaged their empathy. I had to accept that I would never help them see what they were doing and how terrible they were behaving nor how many people they were hurting.
We live in a divisive time when at least one half of the country would love to go back to a time when women, poor people, LBGTQIA people, people with disabilities and people of color were second class citizens again. Hatred and fear of black people has caused white people to begin using 911 as a way to control us while doing ordinary things like having a cookout, swimming at a community pool and sleeping in a dorm room lounge or playing with our children in a public park, standing in a doorway to get out of the rain, moving into our apartments, selling water on a hot day or jogging. I travel for work, I have been asked a dozen times this year while sitting in a theater by some super sweet older white woman, “How did you get here?”. I usually reply, “in a car, how did you get here?” By the way, Flint still doesn’t have clean water; trans and native women are still being murdered at an alarming rate; and there are families still being separated at our border with Mexico. There are a lot of ills in this world. Seventeen women are rising into power in the American Theater in this America.
Who are WE? how did WE get here?
There is no doubt that this rising force of Women will need our support and guidance to succeed in these tumultuous times. It’s not enough to say on social media that you are happy for them. WE, in this room must pledge active support for them. They will need it if they are going to shelter our beloved field through this crazy time when our President mocks a woman for telling her survival story on television and while I deliver this speech elected politicians are appointing a bully and another sex offender to the highest court in the land. And even if these women have difficulty succeeding in their first year, we must remind the field that 30-40 years ago men in their 20’s and 30’s were given the keys and resources to start theaters and allowed to learn the job on the job failing up to success. More, these women must succeed despite the fields lack of experience or tolerance for female leadership but also because some of their organizations are in serious trouble artistically, morally, fiscally. And worse, there are some people who believe that at least half of those women will not last 2 years.
I was told this by a man who will remain nameless, who was introduced to me during one of those theater new play festivals some of us attend yearly. It was something he and his male colleagues had been talking about since last summer when it seemed like everyone was announcing that they were leaving their Artistic Director positions. You should know something about me. People often tell me things they shouldn’t. Usually, its white men who are emboldened to share their secrets with me. I imagine them thinking “who is she again…” and “who of any importance would she be able to tell”. Worse they are probably not thinking at all – I’m often inconsequential to them unless I’m seen as scary or angry, which to some of them is most of the time. As always, I leaned in and listened closer while he concluded by saying “…by then the boards will have no choice but to replace them with men, like they did a decade ago when all those women got jobs at theaters and non-profits and most didn’t last a year. I’ll wait until the second wave to apply.” He said it without irony or remorse, as if it were a fait de accompli. First of all, “all those women” were maybe 4 women but he was right that only one kept her job. More, this cynical idea that people are banking on half of these warrior women to fail so that they can take over, really fucks with me and ignited a powerful urge to stop this so-called second wave from happening, which is why I’m telling you all of you. Lean in and listen closer.
I believe that some aspects of living and learning under the patriarchy have given us some benefits, but this is one of those times when I give myself permission to send up my double fisted middle fingers to the Patriarchy. I give myself permission to be angry and show my anger by sharing what I know with all of you so that we can keep this revolution of women leaders going. Most of us have spent decades under male leadership. Leadership that was sometimes toxic, often condescending and always patronizing even when it was inspiring and profound. As my generation came up, Male Leadership was viewed as supreme and solid and the few women in artistic leadership were all branded as bitches and witches or hacks. We were mentored in male dominated theaters which maintained the status quo and then UPHELD tenants of the patriarchy and white supremacy even when they weren’t aware of what they were doing.
We women have a responsibility to use our leadership opportunities to evolve this industry and to evolve the theater into what it was created for. One that is inclusive, tolerant, and equal. One where equity, diversity, and inclusion are not buzzwords we toss around to prove our level of wokeness but a commitment to our highest level of engagement to save our field, our communities, and the world. We must help these warrior women build theater that becomes a wave engulfing and clearing out the negative tides we are currently facing. And to do that we must become united in shielding the women who will be leading the sea change.
1. Build a circle to strengthen our community by coming together to support each other.
I have several circles. One of my favorites is my circle of “bad asses” all women who all have been in the business longer than me who give me guidance, light the path and remind me of my strength and responsibility. They are better than mentors. They are assurance that one can stay in this field, build a powerhouse organization and make your life meaningful at the same time. I have a circle that is my net as I trapeze through this industry to remind me about self-care and self-love as I look for more ways to support my theater or work to save the world, whichever comes first.
Start by building a circle with other women, trans-women and non-binary leaders to talk about ways to support each other. It would be sad if the only time we come can together in solidarity or in support of each other is during one of these conferences. You see at times, I feel like we emulate patriarchal leadership which is isolated by design when it doesn’t have to be. I suggest that we break that design by encouraging women to do what we do best – we build community. So, build a circle specifically for your position in leadership. Reach out to other women who are in similar positions your experiences and look for ways to support each other. Look for opportunities to collaborate and lift each other up as often as possible. Break with the idea that you don’t want to be seen as aligning yourself with other women. That is a patriarchal idea that must be abolished. Build a circle for yourself then build a circle for one of the 17. Call them! Reach out to at least one of these women and ask them what you can do to support them. Let them know you are here for them if they need you and even if they don’t need you, you are here. FOR THEM. If they still say “no thanks” then silently seek for ways to help them build their institutions. Find a way to help! look out for their blind spots and filling in where you can. And when you don’t support their visions remind them that they can do more but do it in a way that doesn’t undermine them – remember your mandate is to support – Give them a chance to risk and fail and risk and fail and risk into success - just Like the boys!
2. Build a circle for the future Leaders
Otherwise known as mentoring. This can happen online or in person. But find a way to support the next generation of leaders. I would not be here or still be here if it weren’t for my mentors. And to be honest I would not be here if it weren’t for those I have mentored and supported over the years because my mentors paved the road but those I mentored reminded me of why I was on the road in the first place. They all continue to motivate me as I watch them rise towards their dreams.
3. Build a circle to change the current tide of divisiveness and intolerance.
Nurture your circles – one of the most cynical things about our current state of politics is remembering what it was like only 10 years ago when we had the audacity to hope and some of us had the hubris to believe the nation had crossed a threshold. I did not believe we had crossed a threshold because I was taught that good change is hard fought but even harder to keep. My parents were active in the civil rights movement and they remind me often that there were really only a few people who did the hard labor for social justice. The videos make you feel like it was a whole generation marching around and being hosed and arrested but in reality, it was only a small percentage who made the biggest changes in our country. While my generation was benefitting from those hard fought changes, there were other people who were working tirelessly to stop the tide of change and equality.
This is how we got here.
While WE were sleeping, THEY were working to solidify their investment in maintaining a status quo embedded in so called “white supremacy”. While we were celebrating one victory they were preparing for the next 100 years of their kind of victories. We cannot let their push to go backwards, succeed. We must be vigilant, stay woke, change our country and leave the world better than we found it for the next generation. This is why this leadership shift IN THE AMERICAN THEATER is so important. I am relying on these women to use their power to change the field, their communities and perhaps the world. I am relying of all of us to use our strength, power and will to HOLD THEM UP.
Who are WE?
Sea change originates from Shakespeare’s The Tempest:
Full fathom five thy father lies;
Of his bones are coral made;
Those are pearls that were his eyes;
Nothing of him that doth fade,
But doth suffer a sea-change
Into something rich and strange.
Sea-nymphs hourly ring his knell:
Hark! now I hear them — Ding-dong, bell.
It is defined in the dictionary as:
“A substantial change in perspective – especially one that effects a group or society at large”.
Let’s make this sea change of Women Warriors leading the American Theater into the 21st century into something Rich and Strange!!!
Hark! Now I hear them – Ding-dong, bell...
Who are WE?
WE are the sea change.
ABOUT NATAKI GARRETT (She/Her/Hers)
Nataki Garrett is a nationally recognized director and the former Associate Artistic Director of Denver Center for the Performing Arts Theater Company. She is credited with producing the most financially successful production ever in their renowned Space Theater in the 40 year history of the DCPA. Garrett also served as the Associate Artistic Director of CalArts Center for New Performance (CNP). Nataki is a Company Member at Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company a recipient of the NEA/TCG Career Development Program for Directors and a member of SDC.
Nataki Garrett is co-Artistic Director of BLANK THE DOG PRODUCTIONS (BTD), an LA/NYC based ensemble Theater Company, which is celebrating its 10th year and is dedicated to developing and fostering new work by emerging, adventurous and experimental artists.
To read Nataki Garrett's full bio, please visit her WEBSITE.