Over the past few weeks, I’ve chatted with core MN-TAC (Minnesota Theater Accountability Coalition) members Shanan Custer, Maria Asp, Elena Gianetti, Pogi Sumangil, and Aidan Jhane Gallivan who, among dozens of other theater artists, have worked over the past two years to churn out the The Minnesota Theater Foundational Standards for Safety and Accountability for public use in fall of 2021.

The Standards state, “This document is a demonstration of our commitment to actively shift our culture in theater making and education to one that centers the physical, mental and emotional well-being of everyone above all else.”

It is that simple. It’s a public commitment, “an agreement to be in conversation about best practices, to commit to being our best selves in our working relationships, and be willing to walk towards accountability when things don't go the way they should.”

If these Foundational Standards are meant to be a beginning to this long-term shift, then how do we maintain? How do we hold ourselves accountable?

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One of the most impactful things I’ve read in the past 18+ months is the essay, "Dreaming Accountability." The essay describes accountability not as a destination or an end goal but as a practice and a skill we can build. One you can build, and I can build, individually and together.

"What if accountability wasn’t scary? It will never be easy or comfortable, but what if it wasn’t scary? What if our own accountability wasn’t something we ran from, but something we ran towards and desired, appreciated, held as sacred?

What if we cherished opportunities to take accountability as precious opportunities to practice liberation? To practice love? To practice the kinds of people, elders-to-be, and souls we want to be? To practice that which we can only practice in real time? After all, we can only practice courage when we are afraid. We can only practice taking accountability when we have wronged or harmed or hurt. Practice yields the sharpest analysis."

This is what the Foundational Standards are asking us as a theater community, what if accountability wasn’t scary? “What if we learned to desire the challenging and the transformative, instead of the easy and the comfortable?”1 What if we showed love to each other, to this art form, to our community through growing, changing, and being better together?

There’s a lot to learn from the unique ways these standards came together through, as Maria Asp so aptly called it, “one big messy community process.” This was not led by one theater or one director. Rather, it included people and perspectives in all aspects of our field from box office to crew to overhire and shop staff to administrators and producers to actors, directors, designers, students, coaches, and educators. This was not a small group, but an army of volunteers coming together to be in relationship with one another to take big risks toward the dream of a less harmful way forward.

The call and desire for a centralized document like this started at town hall-style community meetings in the Twin Cities in 2019. The common consensus was that we needed some baseline, some standards, for ways of working together better. So MN-TAC, before it was MN-TAC, met. They called for community support and participation. They listened. They kept meeting. Without any idea of the final result or how it was going to come together, MN-TAC began. And then the pandemic hit.

Transferring this community-driven work to zoom allowed for some of the hierarchical parts of theater to lessen. Squares of seasoned artists next to emerging ones next to old friends and new acquaintances, all invested in a common goal of a safer workplace. While MN-TAC does have a smaller “admin circle,” the majority of the work and content creation happened in the work groups. Some theater artists had a light touch, attending meetings or providing feedback as they could, some met every week for a year and a half, and many were somewhere in between. Overall, there are more than 200 individual theater artists in Minnesota that have contributed to this document. Whether you know it or not, someone you know personally probably worked on these standards in some capacity.

Shanan Custer was one of the leads for the Education work group focusing on students and educators of all ages. Shanan, like the rest of us, didn’t have a roadmap or some type of fool-proof strategy. She, along with her co-lead Stephen Yoakam, took the risk and tried something. They had meetings, held interviews, sent out surveys and questionnaires asking, “What would have helped you? What would you have needed to succeed?” From people graduating 30 years ago to people who graduated last year, the same themes and the same patterns kept rising to the top.

Shanan shared with me that there was some anxiety around this way of working. She kept thinking, “Is this the right way to do this? Shouldn’t we just be writing?” She felt like they were doing it wrong, as if there was some prescribed way to change an entire industry’s work culture and she somehow missed the memo. But there is no road map. And Shanan was continually affirmed in these conversations that they needed to hear the stories first, they needed to understand the background and the hidden moments of harm woven into our culture if they desired to change it.

This process of listening and “slowly churning, boiling it down, stirring the sauce,” as Maria called it, is radical. It feels uncomfortable because it is polar opposite to the way we work in theater, even though it is fundamental to the way we make theater. We don’t nurture our people in order to improve our work, instead we toss aside our people and hope to sustain our work. But investing in big aspirations and big solutions through big risks is foundational to the success of any social and cultural movement. Just like it is foundational to our work as theater artists in bringing a play from page to production. We have to have a dream.

… Does that sound too utopic?

I know our workplaces have not had the sea change we all hoped for post-pandemic. I know some workplaces have gotten even worse, tightening and squeezing the humanity out of our work with more ferocity, all for the sole purpose of money and power retention. The hopelessness is very real. That pessimism, the very loud critique that change is slow and challenging and the reality of all of us working together is some pretend dream - that makes sense. We, as humans, are biologically motivated to move away from perceived threats and towards perceived rewards. In our brains, our basal ganglia literally wires our automatic and routine behaviors. We rely on our basal ganglia to make things easy, to settle into our habits, to not have to consciously make decisions about everything all the time. Right now, we’re seeing decision-makers and people in positions of power rely on the basal ganglia. Conscious action, breaking the mold, takes more effort than maintaining habits. Our brains literally have to switch and rewire to use a completely different part, the neocortex.

When I break it down to science and our physical functions and impulses, it helps me understand why so many of us lean into our wiring to just “fall in line” when we see or hear of abuse. It makes sense, biologically, why raising red flags and breaking the silence feels like so much more work. I can understand why these Foundational Standards calling for a cultural shift at all levels within our institutions may seem like too much, too soon. It may sound impossible, or just like a daunting amount of work.

And we see these parallels across other industries, too. We are the product of decimated social programs, of criminalized ways of looking and being, of poisoned and purposefully isolated communities, and of even more violent stories and narratives about who we are to each other. We have attended bias awareness training and EDI, DEI, and IDEA sessions. We have read the codes of conduct at the first rehearsal. We have used the reporting system in place and seen abusers get hired again and again. We have been those disruptors and seen those disruptors fighting oppressive systems from the inside only to watch them continually repeated when coworkers and institutional knowledge turns over. Our as-many-butts-in-seats-as-possible business model, and our people-centric art form are at odds with one another. I feel the churning in my bones too. Can we break this cycle? Can it actually be different? Why would theater institutions and leaders suddenly change and listen now?

So here we are at a crossroads in the Minnesota theater community. Do we stay with our basal ganglia or do we choose our neocortex? Do we go back, fall into comfortable patterns and maintain what we have? Or do we lean into discomfort, sacrifice, and the imperfect practice of collectively reimagining and restructuring the ways we work together?

To quote the exceptional Alicia Garza, “Many believe that change happens because a few extraordinary people suddenly and miraculously mobilize millions-” But this is not true. Change happens “through the sustained participation and commitment with millions of people over a period of time, sometimes generations.” MN-TAC isn’t a few extraordinary people mobilizing an entire industry. And, to be transparent with you, I don’t think most theater leaders will change as urgently and passionately as we may hope. Inevitably, some leaders will find their wiring too ingrained and their comfort too alluring to override the system. That’s on us. We have to be that sustained participation and commitment, individually and together.

We are living through what I believe to be the first intersectional social movement for change in our country’s history. We are at that breaking point. That culmination moment, the time you read about in history class. And as "Dreaming Accountability" asks, we have to figure out “the kinds of people, elders-to-be, and souls we want to be.”

I do think something is different now. I think it’s because we have changed. We, as theater workers, have found our collective breaking point. We, as a larger theater and arts community of makers and consumers, think about our work and our value and our time differently now. And I believe we also know what to do about it, even when our anxieties are raging and our amygdala tells us otherwise. We are trained in imagining and envisioning whole worlds out of words. We are trained in talking to people, creating space for vulnerability, and taking big risks. More and more of us are telling our basal ganglia to fuck right off. We are choosing to sit in the discomfort, in that new career, new industry, or new working relationships. In the new ways of bringing ourselves more wholly to the room, in setting new boundaries, and breaking the mold of how or when to speak up. 

And, for me, that’s what makes these standards, at this time, in this specific community, different this time around. These standards are a massive grassroots community-led call for change. We are not the same, and we have the collective power to make sure our workplaces aren’t the same either.

As Pogi Sumangil shared “We don’t have to feel like we’re ‘the only one’ because we are collectively asking for this.” These Standards are a tool, a beginning, of a larger cultural shift. Let’s literally rewire our brains together. Just as MN-TAC built these standards, let’s implement them and move them forward as one big messy community process. And since, “practice yields the sharpest analysis,” let us practice together.

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Some theater leaders have started to sign on, shout out to Walking Shadow, Frank, Wonderlust, and Prime. You can sign on as an individual too, sign-up. But, signing on is just the beginning.

Below is a long list of actions and quotes to get you started

On those dark days, in those hopeless moments, when you feel alone in the fight, I hope you can rely on or refer back to this list to find little moments of hope, or inspiration, or just small steps to keep the work moving forward. These are many of the little bits of wisdom these artists and MN-TAC members shared with me and I wanted to make sure you felt their words too.

It is through practice and risks, through sustained participation and commitment, through the skills we as theater makers excel at on a daily basis, that we can navigate new neural pathways and transform our working culture to one where Safety and Accountability are the new normal. 

 

Actions and Quotes:

  • Read the Minnesota Theater Foundation Standards for Safety and Accountability: Here Download them so you have them for when you may need them.
     
  • “Study the document. Take the script and really dive into it, so it can be alive in your institution. We build the world on our stages - why can’t we do that in our organizations?”
  • Talk to people about it!
    Talk to friends, coworkers, family, theatergoers and theater makers. Share it with them, and read it together! Then, chat about it afterwards. Keep the conversation going.
     
  • “Let’s be curious together.”
     
  • Email 10 friends you’ve worked with over the past 10 years - “Do you know about these? Can we read them together? What questions do you have? What rubbed you the wrong way?”
     
  • “We can make better decisions about our careers as freelancers when we have more information.” 
     
  • “This can never be a PDF, it just can’t be. This is a living art” 
    Give feedback on the Standards here. MN-TAC will continue accepting feedback, any thoughts big or small. Feel free to share your input and any changes or revisions you’d like to see.
     
  • “Where you’re doing your best work is where you feel valued.”
     
  • When starting a new production process, bring these Standards as a tool! It’s not about ‘if’ harm will happen, but about what to do when it does. Prepare in advance, talk to your team, and set up steps for what to do when harm occurs.
     
  • “HR (Human Resources) is not for the people, it’s for the company” - Don’t forget that.
     
  • Speak Up
    Can you identify in the room when things feel weird or are starting to go wrong?
    Build solidarity in the room, go in as a pair or a team and address harm when it happens.
     
  • “Through this document individuals can start to recognize their own power and ability to have a voice.” 
     
  • “How can I show up for this? We all have skills! We can’t fix everything, but we can do one thing.” 
     
  • Connect with MN-TAC’s current efforts. Where is your experience, curiosity, and interest? Volunteer for a work group and keep the work going!
    Coming Soon: 
    • The Standards Toolkit will include Area Specific Standards such as goals and strategies for a variety of concerns in all areas of theater making and education. 
    • The Standards in Action will include policies and procedures for a variety of situations from audition notices through post production evaluations.
    • The Minnesota Theater Standards for Education and Learning Spaces is also being finished and will be released publicly soon.
       
  • “We know that on all levels of the theater structure, people talk. What currently happens is a whisper network where people tell others about their experiences with particular people or organizations (good or bad), and that can sometimes lead to a dearth of collaborators if enough people have bad experiences with a particular organization or individual. 
    By prioritizing accountability, safety, and transparency at your theater, you could be increasing the number of people who want to work with you, rather than having to direct resources toward finding new people all the time.
     
  • Oversight and Reporting - This process is complicated and will be uniquely developed with individual companies.
    • Bring the Standards to theaters you’re connected to, and institutions where you know people in staff positions. Ask them, “I would love to know your plan for bringing this on, can we talk about it?”
       
  • “We want the Standards to become a habit in our community. And the way we get there is by people putting them into practice in small and eventually big ways, proving as they go that it can work. And hopefully sharing their best practices around implementation with others. In the short term, I hope it looks like mentorship.”
     
  • “We need a full audit of our culture. What are our values? And when it’s crunch time and we’re stressed, how do we operate? When we’re stressed we find out what we really believe.”
     
  • Practice Accountability together. “We acknowledge we don't have all the answers but are committed to finding them.”
    • What accountability practices already exist in the social justice movement sector? How can we not recreate the wheel?
       
  • “Our Movements must reflect the best of who we are and who we can be.” - Alicia Garza
     
  • “We will make mistakes. This is not a perfect document or perfect people who wrote it. We just hope it opens the door for the conversation that this needs to be fixed.”
     
  • Representation - MN-TAC has been a majority white, cis group of artists. Due to the time this document was created, community need and support pulled artists’ energies in a multitude of different directions. There are likely blindspots that were missed in the creation process. If you do not see yourself in this document, share back about what is working and what isn’t.
    • You can also join an Accountability group. MN-TAC is seeking “a collective of self-selected people that will go through the Standards documents as they are developed and utilized with the intention of considering the content through a variety of lenses.”
       
  • “If I’m not showing up as a well-resourced partner, that doesn’t do anyone any favors. Do what you can and give when you’re in a grounded, centered place. It’s important to recognize when you aren’t, and step back.”
     
  • Audience Empowerment - “How can audiences push for this too?” 
    • Buy AD space in the program to advertise the Standards and educate audiences!
    • “Part of my dream would be audience members calling to reserve tickets and asking whether the company has adopted the MN-TAC standards, and beyond that, audience members standing up and not reserving tickets unless a theater has committed to the safety, accountability, and transparency in the Standards. Hearing about the standards from audience members will be a powerful thing.”
       
  • Because if people were actually honest about the things that happen, then maybe you’d look at the stage and really ask yourself, is this still entertaining if I know all of the things happening in the background? Am I going to give up my enjoyment so that you can have your humanity?” - Karen Olivo
     
  • Recognize your privilege and power in this industry - “What doors can my face open, or can get access to, that others might not?”
    • If you have racial, gender, or financial privilege, if you are an established artist with positional power, if you came out of this pandemic stronger than many others - Use it! Use your privilege and the positions of power you hold to push these Standards into new rooms and in front of new faces. 
       
  • Not taking action is taking an action. Inaction supports and perpetuates the status quo. In order to do the work to dismantle systems of oppression, those who benefit from privilege in those spaces must demonstrate allyship with those who do not.”
     
  • Support current theaters that have signed on. 
    Go to their shows, invite your friends and family, work for them, donate to them, and share their posts on social media. As the list keeps growing, check out the Endorsements here.
     
  • “Long term, what I would like to see is the cultural norms in our community being upheld by everyone in the community.”
     
  • Read and get inspired by other cities that inspired this work: Chicago Theatre Standards, Cleveland CLEan House Standards, NYC Toolkit, LA Anti-Racist Theatre Standards 
     
  • “We need time with the gaping hole, too. If we accept mistakes and transitions and large gaping holes and ugliness, then we can keep going. It may be a transitional time, but accept that and keep coming back to the Standards and do not give up.”