The Next Evolutionary Step
This is the opening I gave to the board at the first meeting I chaired on Monday, July 27, 2020...there have been some modifications for embellishment and clarity.
Back in 2004 I co-wrote a play called IN THE CONTINUUM with Danai Gurira. It’s a play in monologue that follows two women from their first moment of HIV diagnosis to their first moment of attempted disclosure. What most people don’t know is that I came up with the title.
I got some push back from Danai on the matter, but she admitted that she didn’t have a different offering that incapsulated quite as succinctly and poetically the nature of the play:
Two black women, a part of the continuum of the African diaspora… two women, two different ages, two different dreams, but the same fundamental experience. How could that be? This sameness, that connection. Was there something about their inheritance from the world as Black women that caused their circumstances to mirror, even though they had never met, even while continents apart?
There is not a culture alive that doesn’t have, embedded within it, some consideration of this continuum... this inheritance…this connection to each other, to the past, to the future. Why is that?
There are many scientific reasons, I'm sure, but, narrative-wise, it seems to me that we come to understand who we are by understanding the story of what came before, and by asserting our relationship to it. And what we become, for most, is heavily informed by that understanding and relationship.
We are all part of a continuum that links us to our collective past. And while being a member of the continuum club comes with inherited benefits, it also comes with responsibilities. The cost of membership is that Life asks of us - demands of us, ALL of us - that we take the next evolutionary step in the continuum.
TCG is also a part of a continuum, a continuum I, admittedly, know very little about. So I asked myself in preparation for the introduction to this new board season, "What narrative have we inherited, and, as the governing body of TCG," "How can we consciously participate in taking our next best evolutionary step?"
I know that TCG started with the help of a grant from the Ford Foundation in 1961 to serve the needs of burgeoning regional theatres. I know one of my teachers, Zelda Fichlander, was among the founders. I know that in 1961 Kennedy had become president imploring Americans to, "Ask not," after Eisenhower left the presidency warning America of the 'military industrial complex'. I know the food industrial complex named fat the cause of heart disease, intentionally (we've recently come to find) avoiding any mention of the evils of sugar. There was a ever-mounting civil rights movement amid still legal segregation and people were being brutalized as they protested the second-class citizenship of segregated schools and universities, lunch counters, water fountains, buses and trains. I know that the recently deceased John Lewis was among those on the front lines of the fight. I know there was a burgeoning global space race to the moon and beyond, and that the FCC chairman Newton N. Minow condemned television programming as a "vast wasteland," from which we should all divest. LOL. And I know Neil Simon's show opened on Broadway, Gypsy finally closed after over 700 performances, Bye Bye Birdie and Beckett won the TONY, and, oh, yes, and Barack Obama was born.
I have also come to know that, while institutional support and fortification was TCG's original mission, like our nation has been, since 1609, evolving on its journey to manifest egalitarianism, liberty and justice for all, TCG has been, since 1961, evolving on its continuum of service to the field. And, for both entities, lots of things have changed... some things more than others.
Teresa hipped me to a part of the story of TCG’s continuum journey in an article she published in American Theatre online about what happened in 1990.
It was Tuesday, May 22, and Bob Falls, the chairman, called the meeting of TCG’s board to order to decide what they were going to do.
The board had just come off a national conference at Smith College in Northhampton, Massachusetts where every one was up in arms at the audacity of some congressional members to turn the NEA into a veritable censoring body, opting to withhold access to grants for content they deemed inappropriate or vulgar. At this conference, some of the participants expressed the need for the field to unite in efforts to fight the attack on artist's free speech. But there were many participants in that conference that had the courage to acknowledge that the congressional opposition the field was facing wasn’t just a censorship issue. "Who was being targeted? And in the efforts to silence what?" they asked.
Some spoke out against the use of the word 'homoeroticism' to describe the work that was being censored. They said, "Let’s call a spade a spade — this censorship is explicitly homophobic."
Still more participants were inspired to further "call outs" by Dr. Yolanda King - the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.s daughter - who was the keynote speaker of the conference that year. In her speech she encouraged conference participants to, “fight racism in our country and arts community." And during that meeting participants made it clear that part and parcel to the charge of fighting racism in the world and arts community was to fight it within theatre institutions and among theatre practitioners that embodied the racist practices being spoken out about.
There in 1990, the board asked conference attendees to develop a resolution to prioritize field wide coalition-building against censorship in the fight against the NEA, but the conference attendees came back with three resolutions they urged TCG, as a national service institution promoting and advocating for the field, to take on:
A resolution on the NEA and freedom of expression
A resolution on Gay and Lesbian discrimination
A resolution on racial, gender and class discrimination
That was 30 years ago. A generation ago.
Flashforward to Teresa Eyring as Executive Director of TCG and her vision for a better theatre for the world, and a better world because of theatre. In part, that vision picked up, more than her predecessors, on those last two resolutions in the 1990 charge issued by conference participants… and that vision has evolved the institution from one whose primary concern was the promotion, support and the stabilization of the institutions that make up the American regional theatre, into one that primarily seeks to promote, support and stabilize the health of the theatre ecology as a whole.
That was a bold move. That was an evolutionary step. And since then, the staff and board have been suffering some blows because of it. But, despite the blows, they continue to work to make the vision a reality in their offerings to the field and in the development of their workplace culture.
But like any juicy storytelling feeds on conflict, along this journey, there has been, and continues to be, a tension between who TCG was and who it is evolving to be.
Enter COVID-19 and the TCG board of fiscal year 2020-2021.
This is where we join the story in the midst of the fundamental uprooting and the chaotic shutdown of our industry. It is here - in these unprecedented, unstable circumstances - that we the Board are charged to take up the mantle to further evolve the resolutions proposed 30 years ago. And now that we know a little bit more information about what we've inherited, we have a better grip on the context we need to understand who we are, and are poised to decide how to govern for who we are becoming.
This becoming will take rigor. Focus. Honesty. Bravery. Compromise. It will take speaking up; risking being seen differently than we'd like in the name of the arguments we feel are vital to the decision making at hand. It will take wisdom. It will take generosity. Preparation. Respect. Humility. Boldness. Discernment. It will take many hard decisions and more engagement than you're used to, to initiate this next chapter. But, despite how much it is going to take to help guide TCG's next evolutionary step, its next evolutionary LEAP even, we will get there... together.
Why? ‘Cause 2020 isn’t just the date we've chalked up to COVID destruction…2020 is a metaphor for the hidden blessing, for the clarity this COVID chaos is giving us about the systems that are at play (I took that analogy from a conversation I had with May - THANK YOU MAY). 2020 is our year to bring crystal clarity to our new vision, which Teresa will give us all. Which we will support, with all of our resources, the development and strengthening of. Which we will support, with all our might, the implementation of.
I’ve said to many of you on our one-on-one calls that in COVID 19, it’s as though the terra-cotta pot TCG was in has been shattered, and our roots are exposed. Our goal as a board is to get the TCG plant into a new pot, plant new seeds, add nutrient dense soil, clean water, and a sunlit location where it can continue to grow for generations to come.
When we are done with this year, I want to look back at our time together and feel that we planted the seeds whose fruit will nourish our field and manifest a regenerative, sustainable, and inclusive future for theatre and a regenerative, sustainable and inclusive world because of theatre. Let's go to work.