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A Vulnerable Conversation About Inequality in the Arts
Episode 20

A Vulnerable Conversation About Inequality in the Arts

CI to Eye with David Stewart

This episode is hosted by Erik Gensler.

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Erik and David talk about the lack of diversity in the arts both onstage and behind the scenes, how the Guthrie has begun to confront these challenges under a new artistic director, and how we all need to recognize our blind spots and the larger societal and organizational structures that inhibit progress.

Erik Gensler: Welcome to CI to Eye. I’m Erik Gensler. I’m an entrepreneur, an arts marketer, and on a lifelong quest to learn and grow personally and professionally. In this podcast, I interview leaders and thinkers inside an outside of arts marketing to understand how we can grow to be the best we can be. My goal: to see eye to eye. David Stewart is the Guthrie Theater’s director of production and an outspoken advocate on issues of equity, diversity, and inclusion.

David Stewart: You’re talking about access, who has access to the theater, who has the want and the desire to go to theater. And for the longest time when it came to people of color, we weren’t allowed to go to these. We had to go to our own theaters and not allowed in. And these institutions became predominantly white, if not all white. And so then the systems within it are also structured around that, around protection of that as well. So how do you get different folks in there? How do you start breaking that up?

Erik Gensler: We talked about the lack of diversity in the arts, both on stage and behind the scenes, how the Guthrie has begun to confront these challenges under their new artistic director, and how we all need to recognize our blind spots and the larger societal and organizational structures that inhibit progress. Thank you so much for agreeing to talk to me today.

David Stewart: Hey, it’s an absolute pleasure.

Erik Gensler: Thank you. I have to say this was definitely one of the more challenging podcasts to prepare for because I feel a bit out of my depth in this topic and I’m scared I’m going to say something wrong. So I’m going to make myself very vulnerable here.

David Stewart: Well, I’ll make myself equally vulnerable with you because just because I’m a person of color doesn’t mean that I came equipped at birth with these skill sets. So I’m thrilled to be vulnerable with you for a moment.

Erik Gensler: Thank you. Let’s start with an easy question. We’re here to talk about ED and I. What is ED and I?

David Stewart: ED and I is equity, diversity, and inclusion. And so taking those three things apart and taking them individually, equity is the fair treatment access opportunity advancement for individuals to have access to an organization or a grouping of people or out in society as a whole. So take for instance, an example of a lack of equity would be say in a job description that says that you have to have a master’s degree that could be seen as a barrier and not necessarily through an equity lens. Diversity is along the lines of numbers. How many people do you have of different cultural backgrounds, different from the LGBT community, from the disabled community, from people of color, basically disrupting a homogenous organization. And inclusion is basically creating a culture and an atmosphere that is welcoming to all points of view, to different cultures, different backgrounds, different identity.

Erik Gensler: So how did you become so passionate and knowledgeable about these issues?

David Stewart: Passionate. That’s a good question. I don’t know if I was ever really passionate about this work. I knew growing up in the theater, coming up in the theater that I was always the unicorn backstage, that no one looked like me backstage, and I just was happy to have a job or be able to be in school. So I didn’t disrupt the waters too much. So it wasn’t until I would say about eight or nine years ago at the United States Institute for Theater Technology Conference, which is called U-S-I-T-T, where I met a friend named Tanisha Jefferson and just this dynamic powerhouse of a woman who was this production manager and a stage manager that happened to be black. And she would tell me that my voice needed to be heard, that I needed to be involved in this work, that there were so few people of color in particular in production, oftentimes theaters are working on diversifying the canon, what’s seen on stage, the actors, the audience members, board members, staff.
But no one was looking at backstage, no one was looking at who puts the work together in terms of equity, diversity, and inclusion. So we would sit around this table, this affinity space called People of Color Network, and there was about seven of us, there’s a conference of about 5,000 people and there’s seven people of color. Out of those 5,000 people gathered there. And we’d look at each other and go, yep, we’re the only ones here. And Tanisha was very passionate about, Hey, get out there, let’s do this work. And then five years ago, Tanisha had a massive aneurysm and passed away and it left a huge void in the industry and left a huge void in my heart and left a huge void in this work. I was one of a few people that U-S-I-T-T started looking at and saying, you need to carry this mantle. You need to carry this torch. And so I started becoming an advocate about it. I started steeping myself in it. I started speaking to it. I started standing up and trying to disrupt the narrative that was going on at the time. I worked for a university and a university’s a great bastion for critical thought and sometimes for outspoken thought. And I figured that my job was safe and it was that I could speak out nationally about this issue. And so I started doing that. And again, just with amazing allies and amazing friends supporting me, supporting them, and really trying to disrupt the narrative.

Erik Gensler: And you’re working for the university presenter, and were you approached by Joseph Hajj when he was coming to the Guthrie to join him there?

David Stewart: Joe and I didn’t know one another. When this job came open, I saw it appear, and as I said earlier about job descriptions being a barrier, I looked at the job descriptions says you need to have an MFA, you have to have X amount of years in a multimillion dollar institution. You have to have X amount of years in a multi venue space. And none of those things were me. And so I was like, the Guthrie doesn’t want an academic production manager there, so I’m not going to apply for the job. And then I went to TCG, which is Theater Communications Group, and I was speaking at one of their conferences and Patric Santos is Joe’s executive director, and she saw me speaking at the conference and suggested to Joe that they give me a looksie. And so I applied because when the Yankees of theaters calls you pick up the telephone. And I applied for the job. And I have to admit, when I was going through it, I felt that maybe it was a little bit of window dressing. This is the big mouth in the industry that’s talking all this stuff, so maybe we should interview him. But as Joe would say, all he could do is open the door. It was up to me to win the job and I am happy and thankful that I emerged as the candidate of choice.

Erik Gensler: And when you got there, your entire staff was white, is that right?

David Stewart: That is correct. I think we may have had one person on wardrobe that was a person of color, but yes, we were 99.999% white. Yes.

Erik Gensler: You or did you not broach that either? In your conversations during the interview when you got there with your team, how apparent was that to you as someone who’s not white coming into this environment?

David Stewart: I am always coming into a predominantly white situation. Well, I should say I have always been that person that has been the other coming into a predominantly white situation. So when I was going to interview, I’m interviewing with all white folks except for Joe Hajj, and I remember distinctly one of the staff members saying, Hey, this Ed and I stuff, I’m not so sure about it. I’m really loyal to my employees and my employees are very loyal to me and I’m concerned for their wellbeing. And I was like, no, no, you’re misunderstanding. What I mean by diversity, what I mean is when we have an opportunity to hire that we broaden our horizons and we look for different people that we don’t always go back to the same well over and over and over and over again, that we try to seek a multiplicity of perspectives when it comes to our staffing.
And so there was concern that I was going to come in here and say, look, the Twin cities is 30% people of color, therefore 30% of the production staff has to go so I can bring in people of color. It doesn’t work that way. What we do is, is that we look for opportunities when we hire to have a diverse pool of qualified candidates to interview and see where we go from there. Because ultimately what we would like to see is a staff that is reflective of our society, but that doesn’t mean that we’re not looking for qualities. Too many times people conflate, they’re like, well, why are you looking for people of color? Why aren’t you looking for the most qualified candidate possible? And I’m like, why are those things mutually exclusive? You want to explain that to me? So it’s not that we are not looking for the most talented candidate is that we are looking for many candidates from a variety of backgrounds to come to the table and be able to show us their wares.

Erik Gensler: I understand how an organization can get there. And I have to say in terms of growing capacity here, as we were growing at breakneck speed and I was looking to fill roles, we had our same job description that we posted in the same places, and we got candidates from a very discreet background, people who had master’s in arts administration, and they would come into the job and they were super successful in the job. And so we’re thinking, wow, this works great. Let’s post this job again on these same websites and go to these same schools. And it wasn’t until we had a critical mass of people that it was pointed out to me that we need to do something about this. And so it sort of happened and I had a complete blind spot it, which isn’t to say I’m not doing something about it now, once that blind spot was open, but I understand how people get there. And I imagine that is what happened before you got there at the Guthrie.

David Stewart: Absolutely. Absolutely. Yeah. It’s an easy place to get in this industry because we work in a union house and the unions, ie. Is the primary union that we work with here, started with they were families and those were families of white folks, and they came together and did these union things and coalesced around themselves, and then they kind of built seniority and all that. And so the longer the union was here, the harder it was for people of color to break into it because it was seen as this kind of tight-knit enclave. And in terms of when you’re trying to diversify your staff, of course, especially in production, what we’re trying to do is that all of a sudden that welder leaves and you’re like, oh man, I have to get another welder in here. And all of a sudden you start going through that mental Rolodex for us older people in the audience, but you start going through that mental Rolodex and you’re like, I know Fred, Bob and John, and they can weld like nobody’s business.
Get one of those guys in here right now. Well, more than likely, Fred, Bob and John are all white guys. The Washington Post had a study a couple of years ago that said for the average white person, for every 100 friends they have, only three of those friends are a person of color. So 97% of their network is white. And even for me as a person of color, 88% of my network is white. That number becomes even greater when you’re talking about backstage because there are so few people of color that have been involved in this work and getting there. And then so you have just the sheer numbers, and then you start putting, like you said earlier, the job description out there that says you have to have the MBA or the MFA, and then that’s another unconscious bias thing that exists when it comes to hiring folks, because you’re talking about access to education, where often what I try to do now is like, okay, so I would ask you, Erik, what skill sets are you looking for in an MBA or an MFA candidate? You would maybe say something like, I want a critical thought and good analytical skills and the ability to speak well and the ability to do X, Y, and Z. And I would say, Eric, why don’t you just list those things instead of a MBA or MFA in your job description
Because you don’t know where those people are coming from.

Erik Gensler:And I think it is not even that we’re only hiring from those MFA programs, but we’re hiring people who had worked within arts organizations in the marketing department. And as you’re talking and speaking about production folks being predominantly white arts administration in general in the administrative side, and the development and marketing side is also predominantly white. So it’s not even the educational bias, it’s the structure of having, I guess, the privilege to work in the arts because you were exposed to it. So I’d love to hear the structural piece of it, what that is and how we go about working around that or working with that.

David Stewart: Sure. Which is such a crazy thing when we’re talking about the arts, because the arts were there to tell the story of others, and for some reason, all of a sudden the others became a very narrow band of people that we were telling those stories about. And so then you’re talking about access, who has access to the theater, who has the want and the desire to go to theater? And for the longest time when it came to people of color, we weren’t allowed to go to these. We had to go to our own theaters and not allowed in. And these institutions became predominantly white, if not all white. And so then the systems within it are also structured around that, around protection of that as well. So how do you get different folks in there? How do you start breaking that up when you’re looking at diversity?
Oftentimes when you’re saying looking at theater, you say it’s extraordinarily diverse. Well, but then again, we’re always looking on stage. We look at that culmination of work and you see maybe a few folks of color on stage, or you go to see an August Wilson show and go, look, there was the black show in the season. The theater is really diverse. But when you start scratching under the surface, not so much administration, leadership, production staff, creative teams, directors, designers, board members, all those things start seeking to reinforce a similar notion. And especially when you get into a board members who have a lot of influence on an organization, those have been predominantly white and affluent as well. So they start speaking with dollars. And I think a lot of theaters fear going under because if they make a decision to go somewhere other than the norm,

Erik Gensler: So an organization realizes that they have not done a very good job being inclusive or diverse in their administrative staff or backstage and maybe just a little bit on stage, what do you do about it?

David Stewart: The first thing you have to do is be intentional. When Joe Hajj got here, the first thing he did was go on a listening tour of not only the Twin cities but greater Minnesota and to listen to what people wanted from their theater because the Guthrie is very much a theater that belongs to its community. And what he was hearing back was that the Guthrie wasn’t always representative of its communities that the Guthrie may have been resting on its laurels that the Guthrie was no longer a leader in theater. And he took those conversations and he created four core values, and that was artistic excellence, porous walls and outreach into the community, a plurality of voices and equity, diversity, inclusion, and a financial responsibility to the organization. And so those aren’t four things on a to-do list. It’s four things that we look through in order to do the to-do list.
And so when it comes to the equity, diversity, and inclusion work, Joe put his flag in the sand and that is where we stand, and that is a space where we will stand in and we became intentional about our work. So an example of that is one of the first things that Joe said is that all job positions will remain open until we see a diverse and qualified pool of candidates. And that doesn’t mean when you open up for a marketing director that you have 300 applicants and you’re like, look, we have diversity in there. There’s the disabled and L-G-B-T-Q and people of color in that mix. And then you get to the final four and there are four white guys. No, in that final four, there needs to be be gender and racial diversity in those finalists. So we are intentional in that space on who we are seeing, and that means that our hiring managers have to be more proactive.
Gone are the days at the Guthrie where you just do reactive hiring where you say, we put these ads up on our same old websites and do our usual places, and people simply aren’t out there. We are removing that excuse from the table that is no longer a viable feedback when you’re out there attempting to bring in candidates. So you have to start engaging in proactive networking. You have to go out there and start cultivating those relationships. You have to get outside of your comfort bubble. You have to go out there and be part of the solution and not be part of the problem. So that was one way. The second way is that when I first got here, the director of HR said, you have a chance to make over these job descriptions how you would like them. What would you like to do? Well, the first thing I did was the thing that prevented me from applying from the job in the first place, and that was to remove the educational components to it. So no longer does it say you have to have an MFA in order to do this job. Now it says you must have X amount of years of this kind of experience because I don’t need a person to be able to write a dissertation on King Lear. I need them to be able to weld on King Lear.
So I try to remove those barriers. The other thing we try to do is those, again, like I said earlier, those skill sets that I’m looking for in perhaps an MFA candidate or an MBA candidate, I put those into the job description. I start putting leadership things in there. I start putting transferrable skill sets in there and try to make it more appealing to a wider range of people. The other thing that we did was with our creative teams, designers, scenic designers, design designers, costume sound designers, is that no longer can we have homogenous creative teams. They too must be gender and racially diverse. So we really put our mark in there with our intentionality. And that also means that we have to start cultivating the culture here at the Guthrie because it’s not like we can go and hit the light switch and all of a sudden it’s like, ah, we are here.
We’ve seen the light. It takes a lot of work, a lot, a lot, a lot of work. So we have an ED and I committee that meets quarterly. From there, they have affinity spaces, so there’s the people of color affinity space, there’s the white allies, affinity space, the women affinity space in the L-G-B-T-Q affinity space. And we also have workshops and continuous training. And it’s about repeating the mantra, repeating the mantra. Joe says, you cannot have a foot on the boat and the dock at the same time because the boat is leaving and you’re either on it or you’re off it. And some people will choose to self-select out because this is too much for them. And some people will be asked to leave because it is too much for them and they become disruptive to the organization. But we are in this space, we are staying in this space, and we are moving forward in this space because it is the right thing to do.

Erik Gensler: That’s wonderful. Has there been a change in the makeup of staff since these policies have been enacted? Have you seen a more diverse and inclusive makeup of the staff?

David Stewart: Absolutely. Especially in our creative teams now, it’s fabulous to see just so many different perspectives coming to bear on a show. The one exception to the homogenous rule was Joe was Sunday the park with George, and he had an all woman design team and it was amazing. So we did it there. We see it in terms of our directors, we see it in terms of our show offerings, and we see it in terms of our staff. That’s starting to change. It’s not an overnight thing. When you’re going to run a marathon, you don’t run to finish line, buy a pair of Nikes and then run 26 miles. The first step is to get up off the couch and then go get a pair of comfortable shoes and then walk around the block and then jog around the block, and then that block becomes two blocks, which becomes a mile, which eventually becomes 26 miles. So we’re in this for the long haul. It’s going to take time. We see changes are starting to happen slowly, but we have to also change the culture first. A lot of times people seek to go to diversity right away and they’re like, look, we have three Latinx folks and five black folks, and some L-G-B-T-Q folks, and we have lots of women here. We’re diverse, but the culture still can be oppressive and hostile to those with different notions. So the thing that I always try to work on first is inclusion and then diversity, because I think that’s vital.

Erik Gensler: Explain that.

David Stewart: Even though we started becoming slightly more diverse first with the higher of Joe Hajj and then the higher of me, we knew that we had to start changing the culture here. We knew that it was important for us to relay to our staff that this is a space that we’re going to, and this is a space that we’re staying in. These are the tools that we’re going to try to put in front of you to be able to accomplish these things. We know that it’s not going to be clean. We know that it’s sometimes it’s going to be messy, but in order for us to start retaining folks, and particularly people of color, a person of color stays with a predominantly white institution in theater for about three years, and then they leave. And it’s not because they’re not talented or anything like that, it’s because they don’t feel welcome in the culture and then they get kind of squeezed out. So we have to start working on that culture piece.

Erik Gensler: It’s surprising you started this way when you think of theater folks and you think of the people who are open to art and dedicating their lives to being in a field that puts art on a stage, which is challenging ideas and opening minds, but yet this persists. And I feel like we have such a long way to go. Why does that spirit of inclusion and change and flexibility and openness, why is that still challenging when it comes to these issues? Even though we’re talking about a group of people that are allegedly enlightened? And I try to say that nonjudgmentally, but I don’t know how better to say it, right?

David Stewart: And my question back to you would be, are — I heard this great quote at a TCG conference that says theater, we’re not as liberal as we pretend to be. And with that, I don’t know of another profession where you can legally discriminate against a person based on how they look. I say that because you think about auditions, and every time we go into auditions I can say, Nope, you’re too short, you’re too fat, you’re too skinny, you’re too black, you’re too white, you’re too gay, you’re too x.
And there’s nothing we can do about that. That’s artistic license. I don’t think we’re as liberal as we’d like to think we are here in the arts. It’s like that conversation about when they were talking about Idris Elba being the next James Bond. Oh, a black man can’t play bond bond’s a white guy. It’s like bond’s a fictional character. He can be whatever. And sometimes when we’re putting these characters on stage, and that’s not just for the Guthrie, that’s for many theaters, it’s like that character can’t be, that character is white. I’m like, that character is white because that character had been played by a white dude for a hundred years. But it’s not relative to the story. So if it’s not relative to the story, why do you care?

Erik Gensler: That is pretty groundbreaking. It actually reinforces something that I want to share. That is a very vulnerable story that I wanted to share with you. Yes, I feel like I had a major breakthrough in my mind around these issues where you think because you work in the arts and I’m a gay man, I’m a Jewish man. And so you think that you’re enlightened in these topics and you understand these things and you understand an oppression and you understand issues of diversity. So there was a while to go back in the history of my company where we were really growing fast and you looked around the room and we had a lot of people that looked the same, and there were some exceptions to that, but some people that weren’t white, but it was not, I wouldn’t say it was a diverse group, it was diverse perhaps in terms of more diverse in terms of sexual orientation, maybe more diverse in terms of we definitely had more women, but when it came to people of color or non-white people, we weren’t doing that great.
And it was really out of speed and growing quickly. And like we were talking about earlier, going to the same places the higher and saying, oh, great, you have a master’s in arts administration. You must really love the arts. Come. And so there were some conversations that I knew were happening at the office here after hours around topics of diversity. And this was probably a few years ago, and I swear to God in my head I thought, what is everybody talking about? Of course we’re diverse. We have gay people, we have women. I’m certainly not racist. I’m colorblind, which that makes me, the term now makes me sort of shiver. I know how that term is problematic. And so these conversations were happening. And then Christopher Williams, who’s our vice president here, we were on a trip with one of our teams to visit the Kennedy Center, and we were in Washington DC and we were at a hotel, a bunch of us having dinner and lots of wine.
And one of the guys in our office who was Latino, we started to have a conversation and Christopher was like, let’s talk about this. Erik is here. I’m here. You are here. Some of us, and let’s talk about this, what you guys have been talking about around the office, around issues of diversity at Capacity. And now this is the very vulnerable part of the story. We’re sitting at this table, it’s a big table and it’s in a nice restaurant in DC and I had a few glasses of wine and I said, I understand diversity. I’m a gay Jew. And at that time, there was — this African-American gay waiter was pouring me water. And he started to laugh when I said that. He started to laugh. And it was at that moment where it all made sense to me where I said, wow, that is such an ignorant thing to say because I’m white, I’m male. I can pass as non-gay. And through that, I have such a massive amount of privilege that this man does not have.
He was visibly gay, whatever that means. I don’t say that with judgment. It was clearly that he was a gay man. Clearly he was a black man. And his laughing at me in that moment and looking back at it, I know why he was laughing. I felt so embarrassed. But in that moment it erased my blind spot around these issues, because it’s not about saying it’s about the privilege and your experience because of your privilege and recognizing that we are in a world that favors people with privilege. And if you can recognize your privilege and recognize where other people don’t have privilege, it allows you to make change. And it’s the same thing about the theater. When we say that we are evolved, we’re enlightened, we’re in the theater. Well, that is not good enough. Right?

David Stewart: No, that’s exactly right. No, that’s a great story and thank you for sharing that. And it’s so true, and I have that same when I look at my social location, I’m a straight male with an education with a great job that is a huge social footprint, and I have to be very careful about what I do with that. To go back to my comic bird comic book, nerdy Self was said in Spider-Man, as Uncle Ben saying to Peter Parker right before Uncle Ben unfortunately meets an untimely demise. He said, Peter, with great power comes great responsibility, and I have to have that responsibility. So when my blind spot, I have many of them. So there’s not just one, it’s around the disabled, it’s around L-G-B-T-Q, it’s around women’s issues. And I have to say that around women issues, around gender issues, I am a work in progress.
I will continue to be a work in progress. And it’s like when you hear folks that say, I can’t be racist. I’m married to a Jewish person or a black person. It’s like I’m married to a white woman. We’ve been together for 25 years. That does not entitle her to my experience, nor does it entitle me to her experience as a woman. So all I can do is ask her and try to first seek education and then ask clarifying questions of her, of what is your experience like and what can I do to do better? Because every day it’s about doing better. There’s no finish line. There really isn’t not when it comes to this work. At least I don’t see one and I don’t see it in the current political day and age that we live in.

Erik Gensler: I think by being in the political day and age, and obviously it’s a horror show every day, but I feel like it has enlightened a lot of people to these issues, particularly around the misogyny. And we see all these things coming out now. We have a lot of strong women in my office and that have really enlightened me. It’s about structure, right? The structures of racism, the structures of misogyny. And now that I am aware of these misogynistic structures, I can barely watch TV without noticing it. I mean, once your eyes are open to it, it is so in your face.

David Stewart: Yeah. Well, even in the arts, my wife is doing reviews of high school shows and the other night she went to go see My Fair Lady and I’m like, oh, I remember really liking that show when I was growing up. I did Pigmillion at a theater early in my career. And then later on I did the musical, My Fair Lady. And I was like, oh, what a great tale. And I look back at it and I’m like, oh my gosh, what is this? Who are we to tell this person how they should be in society and conform them to who it is we ideally see them being?

Erik Gensler: We’re now having this very vulnerable conversation, which I think we both opened up to, but for me it was having to recognize my own blind spot in order for me to start having more open dialogue and start impacting change. How does, I mean, not everybody has Joe Hodge to come in and enact for policies that force these conversations. And so what can somebody do who works in the arts to start with this evolution?

David Stewart: Sure. That’s a great question because when I talk to people about this, and particularly friends that can open up and be honest and free with me, they go, it’s overwhelming. I look at it and I feel insecure in it. I feel like I’m going to say the wrong thing. There’s no end in sight. I can’t be bothered with this work, not so much I can’t be bothered with this work, but it’s just too much. And I have to remind them to stay in the space that the allyship, we all can be allies to one another in some way, shape or form, that it’s important to our humanity to stay in this space and start with the small things, a journey of a thousand miles begins, but with a single footstep, take that footstep. And the one that I oftentimes tell folks to do is disrupt the narrative in a homogenous grouping of people.
We’ve all been in those groups of folks, and the off-color joke gets told something like that. There’s a group of us on Facebook, five friends, y’all happen to be five straight black men. And we have some of the most open amazing conversations in that space. We make fun of each other. We talk about art, we talk about sports, but it’s an easy place for us to talk about women without eyes. And the only rule in that group is that we will not be disparaging of women. We call each other on it. Someone says something. It’s like if we’re not willing to say that in front of a woman, then we can’t say it here. So we hold ourselves accountable to a norm and disrupt that narrative. And so I would ask that any of us really, because we all find ourselves in homogenous spaces to disrupt that narrative when we hear it, call it out, give truth to power, stand up for it.

Erik Gensler: Have you felt that being involved in issues of Ed and I, that there has been momentum in the last few years, particularly in the theater and art space, are people talking about this more? Do you hear of organizations that are doing this particularly well?

David Stewart: Definitely. I think there’s strong movement happening, and that’s the thing about this work is that you have the people that are, that have been steeped in this work for a long, long time, sometimes all their lives that are going, oh my gosh, will you people please catch up? And it’s not moving fast enough. And then there’s some people that you’d go, Hey, what do you think about Ed and I? And they’re like, who? Equity, diversity, inclusion. They’re like equity. Isn’t that the union that represents the actors in the stage managers? And then so you have to begin at equity 1 0 1 and have those conversations. So sometimes the herd can only move as fast as the slowest buffalo, and you have to be diligent in that work. So yeah, it’s hard. You have to stay in the space and you hope you have some good folks around you to help move it along.

Erik Gensler: Charles Blow wrote in an op-ed piece in the Times last week. He was talking about sexism, but he was referencing something he said earlier about racism, and he said, if you’re not actively working to dismantle it, you’re supporting it.

David Stewart: That’s exactly right.

Erik Gensler: It is not sufficient to simply not be a sexist yourself if you’re a man. You must also recognize that you benefit from the system of sexism in ways to which you may not even be aware.

David Stewart: Absolutely. Absolutely. And that holds true for racism as well. We were having this conversation, it’s like there’s the N word with black folks and they’re like, what’s the worst thing that you could call a white person when it comes to this work? Is it cracker? Is it whitey? Is it honky? It’s none of those things because those things bounce off. It’s actually the word racist. If I call a white person a racist boy, watch some feathers, get ruffled there and or say that you benefit from a white supremacist system, and they’re like, no, I don’t. I’m like, yeah, you do. Every single day you do. You don’t get followed in a store. You don’t have doors locked when you walk past them. People don’t cross the street when you’re walking with some of your friends down the street. It’s death by a thousand cups. It’s not the first person that spills a glass of water on you. It’s the hundredth person that spills a glass of water on you that you take umbrage with. And it’s a tough space to be in.

Erik Gensler: For me, it’s recognizing the systematic racism and the systematic misogyny. And I think someone made it really clear to me where was really just explaining that racism is an attitude, but it’s also a system. If you see it as a system, I just feel like that just makes it more clear where you see it as a system that limits education, that limits opportunities, that keeps people down so other people can be lifted up.

David Stewart: Right. The thing about white supremacy is it protects itself. So when you start going into these spaces, there are far too many legal and innocuous things that you can do to prevent a system from changing. When you look at job descriptions, we have to have an educated person here, so therefore we have to have an MFA requirement to be here. There’s all kinds of examples of different systemic things that exist to protect itself, to protect its whiteness. Yeah, it’s a self-healing system.

Erik Gensler: Talking about removing the education component, you also mentioned having to see finalists that were more diverse. And I believe the last time we spoke, you talked about the Rooney Rule, and that stuck with me. Can you explain that?

David Stewart: Rooney Rule is from the National Football League, and it was created in a time when the majority of players were black and all or most of the head coaches were white. And Art Rooney, who was the owner of the Pittsburgh Steelers, felt that this was a grave inequity that was occurring and that that opportunity was not being afforded to those that actually are the bedrock of the NFL, those being the players. A lot of times players become player coaches, become assistant coaches, but then they hit the ceiling and can’t seem to advance to the head coaching position. So what the NFL did was create what was called the Rooney Rule and was saying that, in the final candidate, said a person of color must be interviewed. And to this day I see the pushback and the blowback against it in that folks are saying, this is just tokenism.
You’re just going to bring in the person of color. They’re not qualified, you’re just going to bring ’em in anyway just so that they can be seen. And then you’re going to hire the person you want. Well, you know what, that might be true, but there’s also the Mike Tomlins who all was interviewed because of the Rooney Rule and because became the head coach of the Steelers and is one of the more successful head coaches out there and has become great. And even if that candidate of color doesn’t get an interview, what you’ve done or doesn’t get the job, you’ve given him an interview, you’ve given them another chance to interview and flex those muscles that they’re so rarely asked to flex, and then they become better at it and they say, oh, I’m shortened this area. Let me go shore that up. And they come back to the next interview better prepared, and they come to the next interview better prepared, and then they can get through, or they may be simply skilled and qualified in the first place and land the job that was otherwise not afforded to them.

Erik Gensler: But they didn’t have the opportunity.

David Stewart: That’s exactly right. Our job is to open the door so that you can get to the table and show off your worries. Once you get there, it’s up to you to bring it across the finish line.

Erik Gensler: Absolutely. I went to a conference at Google and they had the head engineer from Slack talk, and he’s talking about how in Silicon Valley, this is really something that they’re focused on and they’ve thrown millions in millions of dollars at it. Twitter, Facebook, Google, slack, and to your point, they’re making very small progress. It’s incredibly challenging, and even with all the resources in the world, it’s not like all of a sudden that their workforce represents the communities that they’re serving. It’s a massive amount of work, but by doing things like that, they’re chipping away at it.

David Stewart: Absolutely. You got to get after it. And if someone were to sit there and hand me a pot of money and go, these two, what are you going to do with this? Tens of millions of dollars? I’m like, I’m going to create a program so that I can go into middle schools and early high schools and start training young people about what it means to work backstage, to be able to give them exposure to the art, to be able to let them see what it is that we can do and watch their eyes light up. When the set for Romeo and Juliet turns around by itself without human power, I want to be able to also take some of that money and go into the communities and because I remember growing up, my folks were like, you want to go into what? No, you know what?
We didn’t go to college. If you’re going to college, you need to go do something that’s going to make some money. And I want to be able to talk to families and go, this is viable. Your kids are doing it anyway. And I started tying in the arts into something that is in their everyday lives and to sit there and go that there are other opportunities for you out there that involve the arts, arts involved in your life every single day, whether you realize it or not, and just to expose them to that possibility is what I would like to do.

Erik Gensler: Yeah, it’s breaking down that exposure. Yes. That’s really so much of what it’s about. There’s this amazing program that Google and some of the other tech companies are involved in where one of the ways that they’re working on this is they partner with universities like in New York, the city University of New York, cuny, that has a more diverse student body that is generally from less economically privileged backgrounds. They have a program where they will take some of the honors students and train them in digital marketing. So you get to go and you get Google AdWords certified and you get Google Analytics certified and they help bring you all of these skills and certifications. And then they create a job fair where Google invites all of their agency partners to come and meet all these smart honor students who now have months of digital marketing training. And we now have an intern from that program. And that is an amazing pipeline where perhaps this person never would’ve been exposed to digital marketing, perhaps we never would’ve been exposed to this person or anyone from that program. And it’s what you’re saying, it’s bridging these gaps that don’t exist naturally because of systems.

David Stewart: Absolutely. Absolutely. And one of the keywords you said in there is pipeline. One of my best friends is a mountain climber, and he went to Everest, and I can tell you there are many different paths to the peak of Everest, not just one. So I think that far too often we look at this pipeline is singular that there’s only one way to do it. You somehow, the theater bug grabs you in middle school or high school, and then you decide to go to college and get your undergraduate, and then you get your graduate degree, and then you get the internship that doesn’t pay you anything because mommy and daddy can pay for your food and your housing, and then you get on as a low level something and then you can become whatever it is you want to. In the arts. That’s one way. But there are many other ways. There’s a program, there’s a roundabout theater in New York City that teamed with I Osse, local one called their Workforce program, where they take students and put them through a three year program to teach them electricity and painting and carpentry and sound technology and projection technology and stage management so they can sit there and again, expose them while giving them a tool set to use in this career. So yeah, there’s many different ways that we need to cultivate as a whole as an industry.

Erik Gensler: Definitely. So I’m asking you a person of color to teach me and teach the listeners of this podcast about diversity and inclusion. And I have heard from some people that I perhaps that is burdensome, that asking someone from a different background to teach you about these things is not ideal. And so the question that makes me ask is, well, A, how am I supposed to learn? And B, do you feel that way?

David Stewart: I don’t feel that way personally. I can’t speak for, we’re not monolithic as people, we are individuals. So it for the most part is not burdensome to me because if I don’t talk about it, who will talk about it. But there are times where I’m just like, you need to go do this on your own. I can’t do this. I cannot drag you along. First thing is you have to be a willing spirit. When you and I first sat down talked, we had a great conversation, you are a willing spirit. You’d already had a couple epiphanies on your own and we could talk about those experiences together and then use that as a basis to build our relationship on. But me coming to you and you’re an unwilling spirit. You don’t care about what’s going on. No way. I am not interested in that work. I am not interested in sitting here and trying to tell you to do something you’re not interested in because I got to tell you, not in the too distant future, a lot more folks are going to look like me than not.
So it also becomes an economic imperative if you do not change this, your homogenous organization will go under the economics of it, dictate that. So coming back to the burden question, no, I don’t mind doing it. I know there are some folks doing it that have problem with it. And I think the problem of it is, is that if you come to me with a question that you could have found on Google, we’ve got a problem. First of all, I want you to seek information on your own and come to me with like, Hey, this notion of equity versus equality, or it is a very nuanced conversation. I don’t understand it. Can you help me with it? You’ve done some homework. Let’s dig into that conversation. But if you come to me and you’re like, ah, I don’t see it working, you got to explain this to me. It’s like, why do I have to convert you? That’s not my job. My job’s not to convert you. If you want to be an ally and we want to go down that path together, great, but I’m not going to waste my time trying to convert you. I’ve got enough work to do as it is.

Erik Gensler: Do you have any resources that listeners who want to dive into these topics more beyond Google, like organizations that people can look for?

David Stewart: The first place I’m going to say is LORT, That’s the League of Resident Theaters. It has a great ED and I page. It has a ton of resources on there and it has jumping off points like USITT, the group I was talking about earlier. There’s TCG that I’ve spoken about. So has great resources. has great resources. There’s a group out there that is run and owned by one Carmen Morgan that is Art Equity, and that is a training firm that helps deal with facilitator training and organizational training in this work. And she and her team are amazing. There’s some great affinity spaces out there. So if you go to Facebook, there’s USITT POCN, which is the People of Color Network. There’s the USITT Women in Theater, and there’s USITT Queer Nation. And I would also say that there is some great articles out there by Robin DeAngelo that has one about white fragility, which is fantastic work.

Erik Gensler: So we’ve come to the last question here and this is your CI to Eye moment. And the question is, if you can broadcast to the executive directors leadership teams and boards of a thousand arts organizations, what advice would you provide to them to help them improve their businesses?

David Stewart: I would say that if you are working and expecting this work to happen naturally and of its own volition, you are sadly mistaken. You need to be intentional in this space. You need to set policies that back what your vision is. You need to have values that reflect what it is you’re saying you’re going to do and you need to do it and know that you’re going to get blow back. You’re going to see adversity not only from the outside but the inside. And there are tools and there are organizations out there and people out there that can help you through that. And that you need to stay in the space because as I said before, it is the right thing
to do.

Erik Gensler: Thank you. This was a really great conversation and I so appreciate you taking the time to speak with me.

David Stewart: Erik, I really appreciate that. Thank you so much.

Erik Gensler: Did you enjoy the podcast? Please join Capacity Interactive on email and on Facebook so you can be the first to know when we release new episodes. You’ll also get content all about digital marketing for the arts, and you’ll be the first to know about our webinars, workshops, and our annual digital marketing bootcamp. Thanks for listening. If you’re enjoying CI to Eye, please share it with a colleague. I also invite you to please rate and comment on iTunes, which helps us get discovered. We love hearing from you on Twitter, Facebook, or the contact form on the Capacity Interactive website. Please don’t be shy and thank you so much for listening.

About Our Guests
David Stewart
David Stewart
Director of Production, Guthrie Theater

David Stewart is the Guthrie Theater’s Director of Production and an outspoken advocate on issues of Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion.

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