Divestment and Dissent – Artists Speak Out on Steppenwolf Theatre

Steppenwolf has had internal complaints about equity from their staff of color for years, which began to accelerate after The Great Leap when Deanna Myers’ complaints of harassment on the job went viral on social media. In the past year they have struggled to retain their staff of color for a variety of reasons, many having to do with inhospitable job environments, under-resourced shows, and pay inequity. Recently, two artists affiliated with the theatre have spoken to their journeys of navigating and negotiating with this institution. This article includes all three statements from these artists including the essay published by Isaac Gomez just today.

It is only fair to present these separate and yet deeply related arguments alongside each other, in order to ask ourselves what our path of engagement or divestment may look like. It is not a short read, but diligence is required of those seeking justice. Lowell Thomas served as Video Content Producer and resigned from the company earlier this month. Here, Thomas states his reasoning in his own words, posted on Instagram April 15th:

Steppenwolf Theatre Company has committed itself to inequity. Time has revealed that the leadership of Anna Shapiro, Brooke Flanagan, and Leelai  Demoz betrays the very people who have helped it maintain its renowned status. It smugly ignores the urgency of the We See You White American Theatre Demands and offers only tepid reflection as a response. It buries claims of harassment, racism, and sexism to avoid accountability and real change. There is no redemption for this kind of leadership. It will continue to exploit its artists and staff under the guise of “grit” while clutching its pearls whenever presented with the harm it has inflicted on others. 

For these reasons, I decided to step away from the company, I have done what we have said we would do if we cannot be treated with respect and fairness; I have divested. I have no interest in publicity, “famous friends” or proximity to “power” if it serves a place that belittles its people’s integrity. 

If you wish for change, then I also ask you to divest yourself from Steppenwolf. I am not asking you to protest outside the building. I am not asking you to join a diversity committee. I am not asking you to teach this leadership. I am asking you to remove yourself from its operation and productions. 

As artists and administrators why should you offer your bodies, words, spirit, and time to leadership that consistently denies you and pays you little? Why serve a leadership that places its hope and millions of dollars in a building instead of you? There is a pattern of inequity that precedes my time at Steppenwolf and threatens to coninue if nothing is done. I have no intentions of returning, but for those of you who might stay, you know what’s happening. Collectively you could make it stop and open the door to new possibilities. 

You deserve better – all of you.

Playwright Isaac Gomez has had two productions at Steppenwolf Theatre Company, La Ruta and I Am Not Your Perfect Mexican DaughterThe latter production ran to great success last year with its run halted by the pandemic, and was recently adapted into an audio presentation that began running yesterday. Gomez published his complex thoughts on both the process, and his own growth and traumas navigating the American Theatre, Steppenwolf Theatre, and predominantly white institutions as a whole. More than anything, it speaks to the immediate need for a solution to the exhaustion of our artists that are constantly navigating violence and racism just to create work. Read the statement in its entirety here, and the excerpt below:

I think it’s fair to say I’ve spent most of my life loving my parents, and being angry with them. This is still true. I love them for nourishing me. I love them for believing in me. I love them for putting a roof over my head. But also? I’m angry with them. I’m angry that they didn’t see me when I asked to be seen. I’m angry that they didn’t protect me when I was vulnerable. I’m angry that they didn’t love me the way I needed them to love me.

Even typing this out, I know if they ever read this they would disagree with every word I’m writing. I can feel my mother burning holes in every vowel. “It didn’t happen like that.” “Why are you being so dramatic?” “There are two sides to every story.”

Stories are complex. I mean, why am I talking about my parents when I came here to write about theater? Because much like my parents, I love theater as much as I am angry at it.

I love it for nourishing me. I love it for believing in me. I love it for being a home for my stories to live and breathe with people who live and breathe. But also? I’m angry with it. I’m angry theater didn’t see me when I asked to be seen. I’m angry that theater didn’t protect me when I was vulnerable and needed its grace. I’m angry at theater for putting buildings before people.

For better and for worse, I’m really good at talking to white people. Like… really, really good. The shape of my tongue was strategically formed by my parents as a response to their own displacement, to their own genocide, to their own painful recollection of the ways in which they, too, have been violently harmed by white people.

And so because of this skillset, I’ve had the privilege (read: ‘privilege’ as in ‘access to resources’ not ‘privilege’ as in ‘honor’) of working in several predominately white institutions throughout my career. And every single one has caused me great harm and trauma that I’m still healing from. Some more than others. All of them the same story as the one before. To bring a few into this conjuring — Victory Gardens Theater, Northlight Theater, Writers Theater, Goodman Theater, South Coast Rep, Denver Center for the Performing Arts, Audible Theater, and, of course, Steppenwolf Theater Company.

I could say a lot about each of these institutions, but I won’t. For the context of this prayer, all you need to know is that each of these companies took a piece of my spirit that I’ve been trying to get back. My healing is a very private process. I don’t need anyone to bear witness. I don’t need anyone cancelled or fired or dragged through the mud. Public shaming does nothing for me. It doesn’t heal me, which is all I want.

It’s wild to me how I know I’m not alone as I type this. It saddens me to say that I wouldn’t be surprised if every person of color I know (artist or arts administrator) has experienced harm that mirrors mine or parallels it — not just in predominately white institutions but predominately so.

More than anything, I want to move on. I want to heal. I want to feel better. I want to be whole. After my time at Victory Gardens Theater, I quickly learned that institutions weren’t for me when I became part of a machine of employees who were responsible to repair harm we never caused on behalf of the institution and its leaders, when the change we fought tirelessly to see stayed nothing more than empty promises and language for grant applications.

Which is why Lowell’s post regarding his departure at Steppenwolf resonated with me so. I believe him. Because I’ve been there. I have been there time and time again. As an artist, as an arts administrator — I have been there. And every damn time, I go back for more. Why? Why do I put myself through that? Why do so many of us? Perhaps it’s because I do believe systemic change can happen, with the right infrastructure in place to ensure its sustainability. Maybe I’m a masochist for believing that I could burn it all down from the inside and build something beautiful and communal and sustainable from its ashes. Perhaps, I’m just naive. But I do believe it’s possible. And I have hope for it.

Yesterday, April 26, 2021, my audio adaptation of Erika L. Sánchez’s brilliant book I Am Not Your Perfect Mexican Daughter dropped to thousands of Chicago students (for free), and will be available to the public via Steppenwolf’s digital season programming in the coming weeks as well. The same digital programming that wouldn’t exist without Lowell’s innovation and brilliance. With the same institution that wronged him and harmed him in so many ways it forced him with no other option than to leave his job in the middle of a pandemic.

Let that sink in: it forced him with no other option than to leave his job in the middle of a pandemic. I don’t take his departure lightly. I hope you don’t either.

I thought about pulling the play. Many times. I thought about pulling the play when Steppenwolf first approached me about the audio adaptation when I learned the time and support originally allocated wasn’t going to be enough. But then, thankfully, additional resources were provided so we could have the process we deserved — but only after myself, Karen Rodriguez, and Sandra Marquez advocated tirelessly for what we knew we needed. And in speaking for myself — needing to open scars to understand that we weren’t asking for more money; we were asking for our humanity to be seen and valued in the same way as our white colleagues and peers. Our work was also able to be buoyed by the work of our brilliant and fearless artistic producer Kenya Hall — her first go at being lead producer. Who, curiously, has also chosen to leave the institution.

So why do I keep coming back? Why don’t I just pull the play?

Because, ultimately, that’s not my decision to make. Because that decision doesn’t solely affect me. Dozens of staff members of color, queer folks, teaching artists, femmes and women have worked tirelessly to bring this audio play to life so that Chicago students can see themselves in Erika’s incredible world at a time where catharsis is desperately needed.

So many who, like our protagonist Julia, are struggling with their own mental health while attending school at home in the middle of a pandemic while Black and brown CHILDREN are being killed by the police. IN OUR OWN CITY. Divestment is absolutely necessary for systemic change to happen. And also? I’m tired of being the person who has to divest where in the wake of my removal, my white colleagues and friends will talk about how sad the circumstances are while continuing on, business as usual. Most systemic change is often lead by those who need it the most. And it often comes at a great cost. Does that have to be the case? I don’t think so.

I don’t think a show about a Mexican daughter, a child of undocumented immigrants, should be the martyr towards a movement of change for a predominately white institution and their inability to live up to their word. And it makes me wonder… what might happen if white people divested first? What happens, white colleagues, friends, leaders — if you divested first? So that re-investment can be allocated to those who historically need it the most? So that the institutions we both love can evolve and be as great as we know they can be and should be?

Working on I Am Not Your Perfect Mexican Daughter has been the greatest joy of my life and career. There was nothing like the feeling of seeing Mexican mothers, daughters, sisters, and friends — experiencing Erika’s beautiful world right in front of them. I don’t think I’ve seen that many brown people inside that theater at one time, at every performance, EVER. And that’s not because of Steppenwolf. It’s because of us. Because of this beautiful team and this brilliant story. And the team that kept it alive throughout this entire pandemic, fighting to ensure its visibility in one way or another. I hunger for the reaction of those audiences again. I want to experience it again.

Steppenwolf has, and remains to be, for me, one of my greatest artistic homes. It’s where I learn the most, grow the most, and do my best work because of the collaborators and staff I’m able to work with. But like the home I was raised in, it’s a home that also sometimes causes me great pain. And with love comes great questioning because that’s what I do with the things I love the most. It’s who I am. How I was raised. How I live my life and create my art every single day.

So with that, I have one question for Steppenwolf — where do we go from here? What will you do, now, to prove that actions speak louder than words? I’m listening. We all are.”

So where does this leave us? What can an institution like Steppenwolf do to reignite its trust in its artists? I leave the last word to an excerpt of a follow up to his original statement that Lowell Thomas published on April 23rd:

“… keep in mind that Steppenwolf has already paid another company to hear, distill, and present your thoughts and concerns over a year ago. There was no tangible follow-up…. They have said retention of Staff is essential to them. They have said BIPOC staff retention is essential to them. Neither Anna nor Brooke reached out to me during the entire six-week ordeal that led to me leaving despite knowing my concerns. They never reached out after I left. Steppenwolf touts the diversity of their plays yet remains silent as communities of color continue to suffer and die at the hands of the state and rogue white supremacists. You have made your voices heard in many ways, and I can tell you firsthand they know your concerns. Know that their claims of ignorance are a facade. They’ve shown you where they stand. Restating what you have already made clear is an exercise that will leave you exhausted and discouraged. 

The Staff, not the Leadership, initiated the calls for pay equity, accessibility, mutual aid assistance, Land Acknowledgements, the support for protestors this past summer, the push for BIPOC representation, anti-racist learning, and more. 

You have the leverage and support to have your demands met. Do not be placated by hollow promises to listen to what you have been saying for years. You deserve better – all of you.” 

If you have read this piece to the end, thank you. It is this kind of close attention and listening with compassion to those most affected that will ultimately decide what kind of society, what kind of industry we work within. The most important work we can engage in right now is imaginative. For those of us who have been fighting for years, who have been disappointed by a lack of change, and are struggling to see how our personal sacrifices could be for the good of all. My own fight with against the violent and racist leadership of Ann Filmer at 16th Street begat very little change despite ten years of testimony from various artists. But it was not until I was in conversation with a fellow artist of color who now serves as the Artistic Director of The House, Lanise Shelley, that I truly felt hopeless. It was July of 2020, Shelley was the first Black person to return to direct there on the audio play Raustus and Hattie, and asked to speak to me in the face of public dissent about the show.

Shelley did not feel it was her duty to abstain from working at 16th street or any other theatre because she had no responsibility to her fellow Black artists beyond a vague claim of ‘upliftment’. She did not feel a need to Google companies she worked for or ask her fellow artists how their experiences traumatized them. All because Ann Filmer had been a reference, and supporter of her career. When I asked who she was doing it for, why she was returning to the company, Lanise Shelley said and I do quote “I am doing it for me. Honestly Regina, everything I do is for my own ambition…. I don’t answer to ‘the community,’ I don’t answer to anyone but myself.” As I said to her in that conversation, it is never too late to make a different choice to not reinforce white supremacy once you do have all the information. Clearly, she disagreed.

I share this incredibly painful personal story of lateral violence, because there will always be people who are unaffected by the bodies thrown on the line, the careers ruined, and only see opportunity. Let’s take more care this time, and use these departures, these vulnerabilities, these sacrifices to create a more equitable world and field. Reimagine, divest, or burn down these institutions, the choice is truly yours, but we need to make it now.

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Bias Alert: Regina Victor was the Artistic Apprentice at Steppenwolf for the 17/18 season,  their last production with the institution was Danai Gurira’s Familiar.

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