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Institutional Responsibility: "Brown Bag" Discussion #25

Equity in the Arts
A brown paper lunch bag sits on a desk with a blue mug, filled with lark business cards, that says "rewrite your script." Assorted pencils and notepads lay nearby, along with two containers of play-doh.

This week, during our Brown Bag Lunch Program, the staff and apprentices of The Lark set about having a conversation exploring the concept of Institutional Responsibility. "Brown Bag" is what we call the conversations that occur in our office every six weeks, when the full staff and apprentice team sets aside an hour of a Wednesday morning to gather and discuss a chosen subject. The time is allotted to provide a space for open and regular dialogue around topics of access and inclusion within, and sometimes, outside of the theater field. Our discussions operate on the belief that the practice of engaging in these conversations should be routine, like brushing your teeth (or calling your local representatives). And the key word is practice. Our Brown Bag discussions are deep, and often difficult, so in order to create a safe environment that encourages the sharing of differing perspectives, each Brown Bag begins with a reading of The Lark's Discussion Guidelines (which can be read on the Equity, Access & Inclusion page of our website). The first tenet of these is:

What is said here stays here, but what is learned here leaves here."

In the spirit of sharing our learning, and now that we've had some practice (there's that word again), we're extending our topics of exploration to you! Check out the information below for some highlights from our most recent discussion, which focused on the responsibility of theatrical institutions. We know these topics are vast and complicated, and we often come up with more questions than answers during our hour in The Lark's conference room. We encourage you to continue the conversation both in your own lives, and in the comments section. And, as always, thank you for engaging!


INSTITUTIONAL RESPONSIBILITY

Questions we had going into the discussion:

  • What comes to mind when you think of institutions?
  • How would we function without institutions?
  • How do implicit societal structures influence institutions?
  • How have institutions succeeded and/or failed as a platform for equity and free speech?
     

Questions we left with:

  • How does theater become more welcoming?
  • How do playwrights feel they need to protect their careers?
  • What is a theater's responsibility to its audiences? To their artists?
  • Do exorbitant ticket prices make audience members feel entitled to a certain experience, and do/should institutions feel responsible for delivering that experience?
  • What do people view as "traditional" theater? How does this impact their likelihood of seeing a show?
     

Resources and Takeaways:

The follow resources were brought up either during or after the discussion, and may be useful in exploring the questions above from a variety of perspectives.

Why I Almost Slapped a Fellow Theatre Patron, and What that Says About Our Theatres
  • This article, written by playwright Dominique Morisseau for American Theatre, raised some conversation about theater etiquette. The perceived code of conduct for theater possibly contributes to why The Theater, as an institution, is often seen as an insular community, and "going to the theater" seen as a sacred activity. It is possible this perception is a deterrent to new audiences. 
Watching A Brown 'Hamilton' With A White Audience
  • For many people, "theater" is synonymous to Broadway, an institution in itself, which is synonymous with "expensive." Building upon our discussion of possible perceived barriers, this NPR piece by Gene Demby explores this concept further. He writes, "there's a whole lot of pricey entertainment that people of color are willing to drop serious dough on, but Broadway shows like Hamilton don't seem to rate. Money matters, of course, but it's not the whole story. When it comes to race and Broadway audiences, a big part of the story seems to be acculturation."
Flux Theatre Ensemble's "Open Book" Initiative
  • One theatrical organization challenging the dynamic between artist, audience, and institution with a unique approach to ticket pricing is Flux Theatre Ensemble. The shows are free, but the entire production budget is made available online, and suggested donations are based on questions like, "Do you know your hourly wage? If so, times your hourly wage by the 2.5 hour length of the show."
​​Long Wharf Theater Stages Play to Attract Audiences That Have Known Random Violence
  • As detailed in this article from The New York Times, the marketing department of one theatrical institution made it their responsibility to ensure the audience for their production Kimber Lee's brownsville song (b-side for tray) was comprised of people whose experiences reflected those of the characters whose story Kimber had written.
The Public Theater's "Digiturgy"
  • Digiturgy, which the Public defines as "byte-sized digital content used to further explore the themes and ideas present in the Public's plays." Seems like it could be a way into acclimating folks who feel "outside" of theater.

    Anybody have ideas for others?
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