Behind The Curtain: Anna D. Shapiro Speaks About Steppenwolf’s Executive Leadership Transition, Board Relationships, the Pandemic, and the Epidemic of Racism

It is no secret that Steppenwolf Theater Company is one of my artistic homes in Chicago. When the news came out about Brooke Flanagan’s appointment for Executive Director, and David Schmitz’s departure to OSF, I was excited and disappointed all at once. David deserves an excellent opportunity such as this, and Brooke seemed highly qualified for the job, but there had been no job search for the Executive Leadership position.

Once during my fellowship at Steppenwolf, Anna told me she saw my value to the institution, and to our field, in my ability ask the hard questions. With that in mind, I made a phone call, at first asking for a conversation, which became an interview. 

Rarely do our leaders seize an opportunity to tell the truth. When controversial decisions are made, I often ask arts leaders if they will sit down and speak to me about their decision-making process. They will always speak to me off the record, for my own education as an aspiring artistic leader. When it comes to going on the record? To date, every single leader has said no. Until now.

On May 27th, we spoke at length about not only Brooke’s transition, but her own transition into the position of Artistic Director, board relationships, racial inequity, the mysterious career “pipeline,” and police violence against Black people.  The world has already changed so much since then. I encourage you to read this in its totality. This is a rare offering of truth, and I hope it invites other leaders to be more transparent in their processes. My questions are in bold, all other responses are Anna’s unedited thoughts. Continue reading “Behind The Curtain: Anna D. Shapiro Speaks About Steppenwolf’s Executive Leadership Transition, Board Relationships, the Pandemic, and the Epidemic of Racism”

Victory Gardens Boards Windows Against Black Lives, Arts Community Protests Leadership

If you have not been following the ball of confusion that is Victory Gardens Theater’s leadership transition, let me catch you up:

1) On March 2nd, 2020 over 60 artists sent an open letter to the board asking for a transparent and equitable leadership search which you can read here.

2) On May 5th, 2020 Erica Daniels was appointed Executive Artistic Director of Victory Gardens Theater internally after serving as the Executive Director.  There was no transparent search, which caused the community to speak up in opposition of her appointment.

3) The Playwrights Ensemble of Victory Gardens Theater resigned in protest in an open letter originally published on Medium that you can read here.

“How can we do our best work when the basic tenets of trust and leadership are not guaranteed? We are calling on artists, audiences and donors to examine closely what happens when an institution like Victory Gardens Theater purposely ignores the mission it made for itself and abuses the very resources it claims to value and support.” – Playwrights Ensemble of Victory Gardens

4) The playwrights of the Ignition New Play Festival resigned in an open letter originally published on Medium you can read here:

“As the 2020 Ignition Festival of New Plays at Victory Gardens approaches, we four emerging playwrights have decided to pull our respective plays from this development opportunity. We demand that leadership in Chicago theaters dispense with hollow gestures of solidarity, hold themselves accountable for past mistakes, and listen to the needs of their community and artists.” – The playwrights of the Ignition Festival.

5) The opposition to her appointment revolves around many factors but that are exacerbated by the following professional concerns: Rumors persist that Daniels facilitates unsafe work spaces in the theater per her tenure teaching classes for Profiles and managing Second City. You can read about her involvement with Profiles in the Chicago Reader, and the exodus of Artists of color at Second City was widely reported on, including by CBS Chicago.

“The classes were held at the theater on Mondays or Tuesdays when there were no performances or rehearsals. But Cox knew that studying at Profiles alone wouldn’t be enough of a draw. So he asked his friend Erica Daniels, then the casting director at Steppenwolf and, therefore, a powerful person in Chicago theater, to help out. Daniels, now president of Second City Theatricals, also occasionally cast shows for Profiles, including the production ofThe Glory of Living directed by the fictitious “Carla Russell.” – Aimee Levitt, “At Profiles Theatre the drama—and abuse—is real” June 8, 2016. 

Currently there is a movement happening called #OpenYourLobby asking theatres to open their doors to protestors, and several Chicago theatres have found their lane in helping aid the current resistance movement. Steppenwolf is doing supply runs, the Goodman is opening its doors to protestors, and there are more efforts underway or in the works by our community.

The #OpenYourLobby initiative is especially relevant for Victory Gardens, outside of which protesters were arrested (photo below, Trigger Warning Police Violence). They could have provided a sanctuary space and facilitated a peaceful interaction with police, but the building was empty. As you can see, their marquis says “art will survive,” not “Black Lives Matter” which it was changed to after the incident.

On June 6, 2020,  upon learning that the institution was boarded up, scenic artists decided to lead an impromptu gathering to write messages on the boards that supported #BlackLivesMatter and the artistic community at large.

Below are original images from the protest, taken by me:

“The air is charged with an indescribable emotion. It is something that this world has not seen for centuries. It’s a combination of pride, fire, fatigue, tenacity, and righteous indignation. It is oozing from our pores, onto the streets, and into the hearts of all. This is for Emmitt. For Sandra. For Rekia. For Martin and Malcolm. Get on board little children. There’s room for many a more.”
– Sydney Charles, Actor / Director / Activist.

“VG was an institution I trusted to care about their community. It was one of the first spaces I worked at and one of the first spaces that thought me about the intersections of art and activism. Their recent actions have demonstrated a shift to the VG that I admired. Their recent decisions around their change in leadership sets a dangerous precedent in the American Theatre. I joined the artists and organizers to show solidarity and to demand that VG show us they care about their artists and they care about black lives. Theatre is and has to be a civic institution.”
– Abhi Shrestha, Steppenwolf Education Associate.

“Someone told me that they wanted to ensure my legacy at Victory Gardens would be honored.

I said that legacy does not live inside of buildings. They live in the people, artists, workers, audiences and communities. And wherever they go, the legacy of stories we told and shared will live on in these wonderful people.

That legacy was alive and well on Lincoln Avenue today.

And that legacy now belongs to these incredible citizen artists who will find another home or homes in Chicago to create and to lead where their voices, their skins, their communities are valued, and are treated equitably.

I stand with them.”
– Chay Yew, former artistic director of Victory Gardens Theater in a public Facebook post.

What Have You Done to Help Black People Stay Alive Today? or, Why I’m Not at TCG

Last year I had the privilege of attending TCG and writing almost 3000 words that ruminated on the topic: What is a Theatre Review(er) Good for? 

I didn’t re-read it, because I’m busy, doing whatever the fuck I can to help Black people stay alive. I’m neurotic, immuno-compromised, and generally traumatized but my Black ass is out here keeping supply lines tight and sending bodies where they need to be.  The far more urgent question I have for you today is: What have you done to help Black people stay alive today? Continue reading “What Have You Done to Help Black People Stay Alive Today? or, Why I’m Not at TCG”

Mass Resignation: A Letter from the Victory Gardens Playwrights Ensemble

On Friday May, 22nd, 2020, the Playwrights Ensemble of Victory Gardens resigned en masse via a public letter on Medium. See the full letter below.

Victory Gardens Theater Playwrights Ensemble:

Luis Alfaro, Marcus Gardley, Ike Holter, Samuel D. Hunter, Naomi Iizuka, Tanya Saracho, Laura Schellhardt

________________________________________________________________

We, as an ensemble of resident artists at this venerable institution, are deeply
disturbed by the notion that our creative home aspires to be a truth-telling temple on its stage, but not in its administration.

This is unacceptable.

The Board of Directors, who are of service to our community, took it upon themselves to eliminate communication with the ensemble, artistic staff, stakeholders and artists who have labored for a decade to build up this theater and its new audience.

For over five months, and after receiving a letter signed by over 60 of its biggest supporters asking for accountability, the board sat on a plan to reorganize the institution.

It ignored the limitless possibility of what the field might have presented in terms of viable local and national leadership.
Continue reading “Mass Resignation: A Letter from the Victory Gardens Playwrights Ensemble”

Columbia College Student Questions A Professor’s Potentially Offensive Language, Columbia Professors Villify Student in the Press

There are two types of education for the undergraduate theatre professional of color in America.

Option 1: An invigorating education where teachers can help you place your lived experiences in an academic canon and define your place in the world. This empowering approach allows you to fully step into yourself as an artist.

Option 2: An oppressive education that requires you to become an EDI expert before the age of 22, sharpen your ability to articulate yourself, and learn to facilitate your own safety and growth. This creates a very fierce, visionary, albeit traumatized artist. 

A student at Columbia College recently got a steaming portion of number two when her white professor Paul Amandes decided to use the phrase “magical negro” to explain a character death in his student’s work. Look left, look right. You guessed it, not a Black person in sight. The only person who could even challenge the professor was the student of color whose work he was also critiquing: Estefania Unzueta. When she brought up that the language was inappropriate in class on May 4th, Unzeuta describes his response:. Continue reading “Columbia College Student Questions A Professor’s Potentially Offensive Language, Columbia Professors Villify Student in the Press”

Where is the Vision? A Future Without Artistic Directors

In the future, art is not created it is produced.

In the future, there are no questions, only answers.

In the future, diversity is a statistic and not an ethic.

In the future, budgeting decisions rule out artistic ones.

In the future, our audiences remain predominantly white, and privileged.

In the future, theatre is solely a product for entertainment.

In the future, every Story You See will be the Story You Just Saw Only Better and More Diverse.

In the future, judgement replaces empathy.

In the future, artistic vision is a business plan.

This future is not so distant.

“We are at the precipice. Everything in our society could change tomorrow, simply because it cannot sustain its way of being any longer. How are we envisioning that future, in the arts and beyond? At Rescripted we are envisioning an empathetic future, driven by advocacy and dialogue, rather than this present cycle of trauma and fear.”Regina Victor, Letter From the Editor: Artistic Visions for 2020. December 31, 2019.

We are experiencing a vital shift in the landscape of American Theatre that requires our attention. We cannot afford to look away for another moment. Do you know who determines your future?  Continue reading “Where is the Vision? A Future Without Artistic Directors”

‘The Chicago Artists Relief Fund’ Raises $75000, Doubles Fundraising Goal

 

The Chicago Artists Relief Fund was founded in response to the devastating impact of the quarantine on the performing arts community. Recent surveys have indicated 95% of artists have lost income due to the pandemic.

We didn’t need a poll to know that thousands of our peers, friends and collaborators lost their jobs and income overnight. The service industry jobs, the teaching artist jobs, and the wide variety of survival gigs artists rely on simply evaporated. The need is immediate and urgent. The founders of the Chicago Artists Relief Fund rose to the occasion.

Since March 15th The Fund has raised over $75,000 and distributed emergency grants to over 315 artists in need across a variety of disciplines. Today (May 4, 2020), they are announcing an updated goal of $150,000.

I caught up with two of the founders, Cruz Gonzalez-Cadel (Jeff Award Winner, one of my favorite Chicago actors and fellow theater mama) and Elle Riley-Condit (Co-Artistic Director of The Syndicate). Continue reading “‘The Chicago Artists Relief Fund’ Raises $75000, Doubles Fundraising Goal”

Institutions Do Not Define Our Artistic Practice

Institutions do not define our art.

Like many of us, I am an artist who has defined my artistic career by the institutions that granted me entry. This quarantine is causing them to suffer, which is causing my colleagues and mentors and teachers to suffer. In this moment of tremendous uncertainty, where the future of these institutions is unstable, it feels like our future is too. Continue reading “Institutions Do Not Define Our Artistic Practice”

Rescripted’s Guide to Streaming Theatre From Home

There are a lot of things that we currently miss about the outside world — writing in cute coffee shops, hanging with coworkers, the lakefront — but perhaps the most gutting thing for us artsy folk is the fact that all theatre in the world has pretty much ground to a screeching halt. We still have movies and TV, of course, but there’s nothing else quite like the breathless thrill of a hard-hitting story that is happening in the same room as you.

Luckily, however, there are plenty of theatres across our nation who have managed to make their art available despite shuttering their doors, and so we are happy to provide this handy list of streaming theatre productions. NOTE: We’re going to limit this list to streaming theatre that is either newly available because of the pandemic, or was recently made free because of the pandemic. We will also make regular updates.

Continue reading “Rescripted’s Guide to Streaming Theatre From Home”

Chicago Financial Aid Resources for Artists During COVID-19

“Mutual aid projects are a form of political participation in which people take responsibility for caring for one another and changing political conditions, not just through symbolic acts or putting pressure on their representatives in government, but by actually building new social relations that are more survivable.” 

This quote comes from the Big Door Brigade, a multi-regional collective inspired by scholar/lawyer/organizer Dean Spade’s uplifting of mutual aid “as a strategy for survival and mobilization.” 

In the wake of CDC recommendation to halt public gatherings of 50 people or more, theatre has been especially affected. Broadway has closed down, as have many theatres in Chicago. Google docs and GoFundMe’s are ripping across our social media feeds as part of an endeavor to lift up and provide support to those who need it. (Local Chicago journalist Kris Vire is keeping us up to date on arts cancellations, and it is staggering.) Writing from the perspective of an artist and graduate student, I’ve seen and felt the economic and emotional impact of the collapse of jobs and social support systems. We are witnessing how the intersection of human rights and our government interests continue to butt against each other — when they don’t have to.  Continue reading “Chicago Financial Aid Resources for Artists During COVID-19”