After the Reckoning: Reimagining Academic Theatre as a Space for Social Change
I believe in the American theatre. I believe in its power to inform about the human condition, I believe in its power to heal, “to hold the mirror as ’twere up to nature,” to the truths we uncover, to the truths we wrestle from uncertain and sometimes unyielding realities. All of art is a search for ways of being, of living life more fully.
—August Wilson, 1996.
August Wilson’s 1996 speech “The Ground on Which I Stand” was a moment of reckoning for the world of theatre, which for too long entertained a hegemony that disenfranchised Black artists while profiting from their labor. Wilson’s reflection on the field was a call for change, demanding that theatre interrupt its reliance on the European cannon, financially support Black creators, and challenge audiences to more meaningful dialogues. Twenty-four years later, “We See You White American Theatre” (WAT), a manifesto signed by hundreds of BIPOC theatre artists, recapitulated Wilson’s “The Ground on Which I Stand,” amplifying his call for meaningful support. “We See You WAT” signals a desire for white American theatre to dismantle predominantly white leadership, follow inclusivity statements with action, and to “prioritize the cultural care and feeding of BIPOC artists.” Both Wilson and the artists behind “We See You WAT” primarily direct their statements to Broadway and other major American theatrical institutions, yet some academic theatre departments have experienced similar reckonings through student testimonies of mistreatment and anonymous social media outcry.
In a recent panel hosted by the American Society for Theatre Research (ASTR) I joined theatre makers and scholars to discuss inclusive season selection and curriculum. During our time I shared my personal beliefs regarding how academic theatre should respond to recent demands for reform and create actionable change. I envisioned an end to rigid hierarchical directing, a reimagining of what artistic “experience” is, and the inclusion of community engaged praxes in curriculum and rehearsal spaces. In doing so, I believe that academic theatre can center inclusive pedagogy rather than feeding into white supremacist casting models and capitalist structures.
My experience working as a community engaged arts facilitator marks my directing and devising approach as focused on “process” rather than the final “product” alone. Here, I engage with the pedagogical aspects of artistry through an empathy-centric model inspired by community-engaged work. This is urgent during a moment in which BIPOC artists such as myself are questioning institutional commitment to honestly portraying multicultural experiences on stage. Every U.S. theatre, large and small, in academic, community, and in professional settings, has felt the impacts of COVID-19, a controversial election cycle, and recent Black Lives Matter protests in the wake of the murders of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, and Breonna Taylor. This has been a year of upheaval, a plague before a Renaissance. Because unprecedented times call for unprecedented solutions, I propose that academic theatre departments explore anti-hierarchical directing as an opportunity to divest from Eurocentric models of “traditional” training, which are often considered exclusionary. Nicole Brewer’s Conscientious Theatre Training asks artists to practice equitable representation and anti-racism, “where participants learn to utilize their sphere of power to disrupt white supremacy culture.” Envisioning artists and workshop attendees as “participants” rather than “actors” and “audiences” echoes Boal’s “spectactor,” acknowledging the participants’ ability to transform from passive to active through action and reaction. Traditional training regards the actor primarily as a vessel awaiting direction, inviting the “Magic If” after foundational acting skills are learned. Anti-hierarchical theatre pedagogy (such as collective collaboration) reverses this, treating agency and collaboration as foundational skills rather than an ability to listen to direction. A shift toward rhizomatic rather than arborescent learning suggests that every participant in the space has experiences to offer that will enrich others, and perhaps no one benefits from mining these experiences more greatly than a director. Allowing for open exploration through movement, free writing, and storytelling before director-led intervention, disrupts the patriarchal ideation that there is one “true” leader of an artistic project.
Published in 2020, “We See You WAT” directly addresses academic theatre programs, demanding “the full decentralization of whiteness... Assimilation to whiteness is not a learning outcome.” In my experience as a student-instructor-artist, “experience” becomes codified language for “assimilation to white-centered theatrical praxes.” Because I am fortunate enough to work with undergraduate artists, I often encounter creatives who feel rejected due to a perceived lack of “experience.” Recently, an actor confessed to having lied on their audition sheet, feigning acting experience where they had none. I laughed, understanding that many Black actors feel that their experiences in church pageants, praise dance, poetry slams, and other informal performance modalities “do not count” when auditioning in white performance spaces. This protects a very select group of young artists who are privileged enough to participate in formal theatre as “experienced,” redlining many who, like me, waited tables rather than enjoying summer Shakespeare programs. I ask that those in positions to cast and direct reconsider what it means to be “experienced,” and reconfigure auditions in a manner that invites inclusive neo-traditional performances found in churches, poetry classes, and social media dance challenges. Theatre professes to be a field of boundless imagination—it’s time that its structures invite such innovation.
Sharrell D. Luckett and Tia M. Shaffer’s Black Acting Methods: Critical Approaches (2016) includes the brilliant testimonies of artists who boldly confront social issues through performance interventions. It is true that many community-engaged projects are responding to a community need—hunger, racism, gender disparities, and youth disenfranchisement are frequent topics, yet it is unnecessary for the work that is produced to aesthetically reflect a struggle. Similarly, scripted performances that center marginalized people often depict the anguish of being marginalized, leaving audiences with the message that we are all “feeling brown, feeling down.”
Black Acting Methods offers thoughts from practitioners such as Rhodessa Jones, founder of the Medea Project, who “engage[s] in truth-telling, self-expression, creating beauty, and teaching revolution!” Jones’ work, though difficult, demonstrates the inherent hope and beauty of community-engaged art, asking participants and audiences to envision the intersectional dimensionality of all human existence, especially the experiences of our most oppressed, as beautiful. In privileging process rather than product, theatre’s function better reflects the experiences of those creating the art, instead of focusing solely the audience.
If a proposed season of academic theatre primarily includes selections that ask student-actors to perform trauma and cultural pain, what are we teaching our students? I find it troubling and unethical for predominantly white theatre departments to recuperate budgets through a constant cycling of death, racism, rape, and poverty performed by students from marginalized communities. By upending the pedagogical goals of a performance and prioritizing beauty, pastoral care, and consent in the rehearsal space, we borrow the notion that “empathy is the most powerful weapon” from Theatre of the Oppressed.
Envisioning a department, campus, and a cast as an inclusive community invites instructors and directors to practice caregiving and listening as vital artistic tools. Safety is never guaranteed, but it is academic theatre’s duty to create a space that relaxes tension, rejecting the common idiom of “leave it at the door,” which places a special responsibility on BIPOC artists to ignore their personal strife—unless it is to be performed for the entertainment of predominantly white audiences.
August Wilson stated, “...there is no idea that cannot be contained by black life, these men and women found themselves to be sufficient and secure in their art and their instructions.” Twenty-four years after Wilson’s reckoning, we find ourselves at the crossroads, an opportunity to transform our field at every level, and academic theatre can lead the way. I offer these thoughts to all who have felt the call to improve the lives of our students, and hope that two decades from now, we find ourselves standing on common ground, once again in studios and on stages.
 August Wilson, “The Ground on Which I Stand,” 1996. https://www.americantheatre.org/2016/06/20/the-ground-on-which-i-stand/  “We See You White American Theatre,” 2020. https://www.weseeyouwat.com/  Nicole M. Brewer “Conscientious Theatre Training” (2020) https://www.nicolembrewer.com/  We See You White American Theatre,” ibid.  Sharrell D. Luckett and Tia M. Shaffer, Black Acting Methods: Critical Approaches (Routledge: New York, 2016), 53.  Augusto Boal, Theatre of the Oppressed (Theatre Communications Group: New York, 1985), 94.  Wilson, Ibid.