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The spreadsheet that shook the theater world: Marie Cisco’s ‘Not Speaking Out’ list

Producer Marie Cisco created a Google doc to list theaters that did not publicly support Black Lives Matter protests.
Producer Marie Cisco created a Google doc listing the names of theaters that did not speak out in support of the Black Lives Matter protests roiling the nation in the wake of George Floyd’s brutal death while in police custody.
(Maya Goodridge)

Marie Cisco was fed up. America was in turmoil, rocked to its core by the brutal killing of George Floyd at the knee of a police officer in Minneapolis. Protests against systemic racism and injustice had been raging for five days, and the nation’s theaters were excruciatingly silent in expressing support.

Cisco, a producer who has worked with the New York-based National Black Theatre, the Public Theater, Lee Daniels Entertainment and the Apollo Theater, was not surprised by the crickets coming from some institutions — even self-professed bastions of liberalism and equality. But she felt hurt and angry all the same.

So Cisco created a public Google spreadsheet and titled it “Theaters Not Speaking Out.” It was open for anyone to edit, and it had a simple directive: “Add names to this document who have not made a statement against injustices toward black people.”

At 5:50 p.m. PDT on that Saturday, May 30, she shared the document on her personal Facebook page as well as with the Theater Folks of Color Facebook group to which she belongs. It has more than 7,000 members and serves as a supportive space for people to share thoughts and experiences about working in predominantly white institutions and provides a place to “unite around common concerns and plan collective direct action.”

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The death of George Floyd sparked protests in Minneapolis, Los Angeles and New York. The officer who knelt on Floyd’s neck was charged with third-degree murder and manslaughter on Friday.

“I went to bed afterwards and thought 50 names will be on this list in the morning and I’ll be over it,” Cisco said by phone from Atlanta, where she has been living since March. “But it started to get a lot of traction, and there are now over 400 theaters on it listed from across the country.”

Theaters are listed alphabetically by city, beginning with Barter Theater in Abingdon, Va., and ending with the Palace Theatre in Wisconsin Dells, Wisc. In between are some big institutions — companies that produce plays and musicals as well as venues that largely present touring productions — including the Wallis Center for the Performing Arts in Beverly Hills, the Goodman Theatre and the Second City in Chicago, Yale Repertory Theater in Connecticut and Playwrights Horizons in New York.

It did not appear to be a coincidence that the following day, and into June, theaters began posting messages of solidarity with Black Lives Matter en masse, black theater artists said. The response was problematic because often the statements were perceived to have come from a place of shame and felt slapped together and hollow, Cisco said.

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More disturbing than the slowness to speak out, Cisco said, was the language of the statements themselves, many of which fell back on pledges of support without acknowledgement of the historical diversity problem in theater or commitments to take concrete steps to support black artists.

As theaters posted statements to social media and emailed them to their supporters and the press, Cisco and her crowd-sourced contributors recorded when each company’s message went public, whether it cited Black Lives Matter specifically and whether the institution had donated to the cause or pledged “actionable commitments,” among other criteria.

After the spreadsheet began to circulate, it grew quickly. (A number of theaters asked to be taken off the list. Cisco’s answer: No.)

Cisco’s spreadsheet has become a living document. It is being fact-checked and audited, she said, and additional columns (still mostly empty) are for the difficult, time-consuming work of tracking the number of black staff in executive or artistic positions and the number of black board members, among other details.

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Cisco’s list does not attempt to confirm whether theater companies issued their statements in response to the spreadsheet or if the scope and power of the protests prompted organizations on their own to speak out. The point of the list is not to hold organizations hostage to a timestamp but rather to address the long-simmering feelings among theater makers of color that the artistic institutions that claim to support their lives and work need to be more active, inclusive and urgent.

L.A.'s largest nonprofit theater companies — Center Theatre Group, Geffen Playhouse and Pasadena Playhouse — all issued statements before Cisco’s document went public, although CTG is included in the spreadsheet. Cisco said certain theaters are on the list because the crowd-sourced contributors felt the protest statements were not in line with current practices or earlier promises, and that the companies needed to be held accountable.

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The Times reached out to some theaters on the Theaters Not Speaking Out list, and most said they had not seen the spreadsheet when they wrote their statements. A spokesman for Yale Repertory said that company had been drafting a statement when Cisco’s document began circulating and that it added a sense urgency.

After issuing its statement, Yale Rep held an open forum for faculty, staff, students and interns at Yale School of Drama and in the Yale Rep theater community to begin formulating actionable commitments.

“We feel that the work that we will be committing to in order to improve the lives of black people in our country is the most vital part of our response,” the spokesman said, adding that the organization will circulate those initiatives once they are fully formed.

To what extent can a crowdsourced spreadsheet be a starting point for a much bigger conversation and call to action? Victor Vazquez, an independent casting director and founder of X Casting in New York, was instrumental in helping Cisco to track theaters and has gathered a team for a long-term project to hold theaters accountable.

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Theater artists have long expressed frustration with the number of playwrights of color whose work gets produced, the diversity of voices and experiences reflected onstage, the consideration of actors of color in the casting process, the opportunities for directors and other creatives behind the scenes, and the need for outreach to make audiences more inclusive, among other issues.

“Thinking about standing in solidarity is a start, but it’s not enough,” Cisco said. “We need to see and hear detailed action steps and see the results. We shouldn’t have to follow up with you. I don’t want to have to do this work — we’re in the middle of a pandemic.”

Playwright and actor Jordan E. Cooper, who worked with Cisco last year at the Public Theater when the company staged the world premiere of his play “Ain’t No Mo’,“ said Cisco’s spreadsheet dovetailed with feelings he shared on Twitter earlier in the week when the Public posted about its upcoming gala with no mention of the trauma black Americans were experiencing and fighting against.

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“My frustration came out of the obliviousness,” Cooper said. “I love the Public, but I’m seeing posts about their gala coming up and I’m like, ‘The world is burning. Yes, congratulations, I hope you raise a lot of money, but if you are a platform that is supposed to be for the people, why not speak out on this?’”

Cooper Tweeted: “Dear Theatres: Don’t produce black work anymore if you think that’s the ONLY work you can do. Y’all are too damn quiet. You know who your subscribers are and the resources they have.... speak!”

Critics of the Public’s silence on the protests are careful to praise the theater’s track record, including its role in staging the world premiere of “Hamilton” in 2015. Lin-Manuel Miranda’s musical featuring a cast made up almost entirely of people of color has raised awareness about the lack of diversity in casting. It also powerfully disproved assumptions by some in the theater world about what kind of work is capable of commercial success on Broadway, opening doors for those who might follow.

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The Public still receives a 1% royalty of the adjusted box-office gross, which is partly what made speaking out absolutely necessary, critics said, emphasizing that the financial cushion had protected it from the economic fallout of the coronavirus.

On May 31, the Public announced it was postponing its June 1 gala. The company acknowledged that it had been amiss in waiting so long to speak out, and that time should be reserved not for a gala but for mourning and reflection.

A representative for the Public said the theater opened its lobby to protesters that day, joining other organizations in providing a safe place to retreat from police, administer first aid and get water. It followed calls on Twitter from anonymous activists working under the name Open Your Lobby, which identified itself as “a resource calling on theaters to repurpose their spaces in support of protesters nationwide fighting racism and injustice.”

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Some activists have criticized #openyourlobby as a low-stakes contribution to the important question of what real change must look like. How can institutions forged in a dominant white culture do the difficult work of dismantling the systemic racism that plagues them?

Seeing Cisco’s Google sheet prompted more thinking by playwright Stacey Rose, a 2018 Sundance Theatre Lab fellow and a 2019-20 McKnight fellow, and playwright, activist and Pace University professor Keelay Gipson. Together they are soliciting and compiling a list of demands and rules of engagement “to hold white spaces accountable for the way they engage theater makers of color.”

Their survey, titled “Theater Makers of Color Requirements,” has generated more than 350 responses from artists of color. The survey asks what a racial and cultural harassment policy should look like; how white-dominated spaces need to be held accountable for improvements in outreach and creative resources; and what difficulties artists and theater makers of color face in education, production and opportunities for career advancement.

Gipson posted the survey to his Facebook page, with a promise to keep responses anonymous if requested. He included a message:

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“Many of us feel a sense of deep betrayal after the lag in response to gross violations to Black bodies around the nation by the illustrious institutions that claim to hold our stories so dear... Equity is no longer a request. It’s a requirement.”

Rose said Cisco’s spreadsheet helped her and Gipson in their efforts. She recalled seeing the list of hundreds of dispiriting entries, and then looking at the actual posts from theaters. The statements struck her as last-minute and not substantive.

Cisco, she said, “lit the match, we poured some gasoline, and we’re going to see what happens.”

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Rose said the survey responses so far are both gut-wrenching and amazing. When they have accumulated enough information, they plan to organize and distribute it as a list of actionable points so that black theater makers can tell companies: “These are the things you have to comply with to do this play — are you good with that?”

Feminist poet, playwright and grassroots organizer Erika Dickerson-Despenza, among those to whom Cisco sent her list, said it’s important to contemplate the apocalyptic trifecta it took to get to this moment: a pandemic that disproportionately affects black people, a financial meltdown that does the same, and an international uproar against the brutalization of black minds and bodies.

“At the time that we are under siege, we are hearing nothing from institutions that profit off the backs of black and brown people,” she said. “How dare you be silent? How dare we have to ask you what side you are on?”

Many black theater artists said there should be no discussions about reopening theaters until glaring inequalities have been truly addressed.

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Past moments of upheaval resulted in hollow promises from theaters to do better, but this time is different, activists said. If white-dominated institutions can’t change, black theater makers will go their own way, joining and cultivating institutions led by people of color. Those institutions are already there, and they are already helping.

This moment in time is not just about remembering what happened to George Floyd, said Cisco.

“It’s remembering all of our Amy Cooper moments, and that’s what coming up right now,” she said, citing the woman who called the police on a black birdwatcher in Central Park. “It’s years of things that are coming up.”

The coronavirus pandemic has served to further clarify the urgency.

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“People have been in the house with our thoughts and our feelings,"she said. “And we’re coming up and out of the house.”

Updates:

11:03 AM, Jun. 11, 2020: This article has been updated to clarify that Cisco was spurred to action by the general silence of theaters, not specifically the companies for whom she previously worked.


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