A Year Later, Bay Area Theater Companies Reckon With BIPOC Demands

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Ely Sonny Orquiza, one year after the publication of the "Living Document."
Ely Sonny Orquiza, one year after the publication of the "Living Document." (Courtesy Ely Sonny Orquiza)

In June of 2020, the pandemic's shutdown of live performance was nearly three months old. A wave of protests sparked by the murder of George Floyd were rocking the nation, bringing to the forefront demands for racial justice while challenging anti-blackness and structural inequities. And on June 8, 2020, an open letter from a nationwide coalition of BIPOC theater-makers, titled “We See You White American Theater,” was published online.

The next day, an editable Google doc titled “Living Document of POC Experiences in Bay Area Theatre Co.”—begun by Bay Area theater-maker and educator Ely Sonny Orquiza—quickly amassed hundreds of anonymous testimonials, as well as at least one attempt to erase it altogether. But not only was it impossible to erase the Living Document from the internet, it’s remained a part of the discourse around reopening Bay Area theaters to live, in-person performance ever since.

In the first weeks after the Living Document made its appearance, only a handful of companies released public statements addressing its contents. Undeterred, Orquiza and his collaborators published a comprehensive addendum in late July: the BIPOC Equity Action Plan, a series of concrete demands directed at the Bay Area “Predominantly White Institutions” (or PWI). These included conducting staff-wide anti-racism/anti-bias trainings, implementing land acknowledgements and contributing regularly to the Shuumi Land Tax, programming seasons with minimum 60% of plays written by “BIPOC, queer, trans, womxn of color, non-binary and/or disabled playwrights,” prioritizing cultural competency, and shifting the racial demographics of staff and board.

Orquiza and his collaborators called for a response to the demands “within ten business days” of the document’s release. As of August 11, 2020, they estimated that only 15% of Bay Area theater companies had promised to take action. However, since the beginning of 2021, more companies have released their individual action plans, detailing in depth the anti-racist actions they have taken, are taking, and plan to take in the future.

As the largest theater company in the region, A.C.T. was mentioned extensively in the Living Document, including links and references to a 2019 lawsuit filed by former Conservatory instructor and movement choreographer, Stephen Buescher. While Buescher’s allegations of institutional racism, brought to A.C.T.’s board as early as 2018, eventually inspired the formation of a formal Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion committee, the demands delineated in the Living Document and We See You White American Theater forced the company to look more critically at every aspect of its operations.

A.C.T. Executive Director, Jennifer Bielstein. (Kevin Berne)

“We've had a real intentional focus on developing an organizational culture that is welcoming and inclusive and transparent and accessible,” says Jennifer Bielstein, Executive Director of A.C.T., about the process. “Because diversity will not thrive if the organizational culture isn't ready to embrace diversity.”

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Referencing an internal spreadsheet that she estimates contains over 150 items, Bielstein describes hours of analyzing the demands from the Living Document and We See You WAT, “incorporating items from each of those documents into our work” throughout the organization. In November, the company published a 31-page document of their own detailing their updated Equity, Diversity and Inclusion strategic plan, a work they acknowledge is still in process.

Some actions mentioned by Bielstein include moving away from grueling “10 out of 12” tech rehearsals and six-day rehearsal weeks, paying artists for work done at fundraisers and other functions, and ensuring the availability of an on-site counselor or therapist for artists, particularly for shows engaged with racialized trauma, such as Toni Stone. Artistically, Bielstein says, the company is prioritizing works written and directed by majority women and BIPOC creatives, and committing to hiring more Bay Area actors and designers (currently the percentage of local hires is around 73%).

For Bielstein, the emergence of the Living Document has been what she terms “a gift” to the organization and to the field, noting that “our community at large will hold us accountable for delivering on these commitments and actions.”

Crowded Fire Artistic Director Mina Morita. (Cheshire Isaacs)

Even BIPOC-led companies and theater artists have taken the demands of the Living Document to heart. For example, while San Francisco-based Crowded Fire had already been engaged in EDI work internally over the past five years, the publication of the Living Document highlighted to Artistic Director Mina Morita the need to further the work throughout the greater Bay Area theater ecosystem.

“What's unique about the theater field is we all move through many different organizations to create,” she says. “So I was aware of some of the inequities and problems. But I don't think I was as fully aware until the Living Document.” So, in addition to hiring on EDI trainer Lisa Walker to coach Crowded Fire through a multi-week training, Morita harnessed the energy of the moment to collaborate and share resources with other companies.

One such collaboration involves Crowded Fire, Magic Theatre, and Playwrights Foundation instigating a “train the trainer”-style workshop series they’ve dubbed “Making Good Trouble,” led by Beatrice Thomas of Authentic Arts & Media. Over the course of nine months, a cohort of 20+ persons will develop the tools to train other companies—including their own—in anti-racist and inclusionary practices. This will not only make it possible for more theater companies to access the training necessary to implement these practices in their own institutions, but will provide the new trainers with an extra income stream—a welcome and needed benefit after a 15-month shutdown.

“(I) didn't think I would see it in my lifetime,” Morita comments about overall effects of the Living Document. “To have such a courageous disruption happen, where we could really open up the harms, and start to try to hopefully address and repair them.”

That these effects have reverberated outside of theaters is exemplified by the announcement of a new grant administered by the Center for Cultural Innovation. Called CALI Catalyst, the program funds individual artists and collectives active in what they term “moving the sector towards greater inclusion, access, diversity, and equity” by centering “Black, Indigenous, people of color, LGBTQIA+, and people with disabilities.”

CCI Program Director Laura Poppiti emphasizes how the Living Document—which she first heard about on Facebook—helped to inspire the creation of CALI Catalyst.

“For me it was a ‘Wow,’” she describes. “(That) one person like Ely can launch this document in a...guerrilla arts kind of way, and it’s really having tangible impacts...that was just so powerful.”

As a member of a funding organization that focuses on individuals, she and her colleagues began to design the guidelines for CALI Catalyst in the summer of 2020. She admits it’s been a slow process, but is confident that the program will help support “change-makers” whose demands of accountability from the arts sector have potentially put their own livelihoods and well-being at risk. In this spirit, the grants are unrestricted with no “measurable” outcome required, and the first round of applications are due by July 15.

Ely Sonny Orquiza, creator of the "Living Document." (Paciano Triunfo)

As theaters and performance venues move towards reopening their physical doors, an overarching hope expressed by the proponents of the Living Document is that the work of confronting and dismantling oppression within the arts sectors not become an afterthought. Or, as Morita calls it, a “performative” one.

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“I think the Living Document urged us as artists and as a community to be more sensitive and respectful and careful towards one another, especially in association with BIPOC artists,” reflects Orquiza. “Finding all the nuances within and affirming our identities and practices and policies—I think that sets us up for success.”