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  • Sara Katzoff

White silence in American theater training and practice (and the urgency of disrupting it)

By Sara Katzoff (Theater Maker/Director and Teacher) Silence is insidious. Insidious means, ‘gradually and subtly but with harmful effects’. Silence causes harm. I speak of my own silence as a white person and a white theater artist in the ongoing wake of Black murders... of George Floyd, Ahmaud Aubrey, Breonna Taylor and the accountability for racist police brutality that has been demanded in Minneapolis and in cities across the US…. I also speak of silence as the cornerstone that upholds systemic racism in the cultural spaces and institutions where I work and learn. Silence is a product of white supremacy, colonization, misogyny and oppression. Among many other forms of violence, colonization and white supremacy privileges a hierarchy of narratives and perspectives and places value on certain lenses (white, male, cis gendered, heteronormative, western, christian, etc) while silencing others (Black, Indigenous, Queer, nonbinary, disabled, etc) This practice cultivates intellectual, spiritual and cultural erasure and devalues curiosity and shared exchanges of knowledge and wisdom. This practice is pervasive in my industry and community. I have at many times in my life been silent on issues of race and privilege because the risk of not being smart enough or informed enough or articulate enough or well read enough is so profoundly ingrained and conditioned within me that it is paralyzing. As a white person and as a person often in a position of power as a theater director, it is both a privilege and an act of violence to have remained in this paralyzed state for a large part of my life. Fear kept me silent. Fear is a tool of white supremacy that breeds inaction. It is deep, sustained, conscious, continued, ongoing, intentional and daily work to disrupt silence. Being a theater maker is my way into the world. This is the micro sphere where I have started the work of antiracism and where disrupting my own silence can impact the consciousness and actions of my my white colleagues, peers and artistic collaborators. Since theater is also the space where artists from many backgrounds and lenses come together to question, probe and grapple with the deepest and most complex issues of the human condition, it is vital to move past white discomfort and radically, consciously and unequivocally demand that the active work of antiracism is centered in our work spaces, classrooms and cultural institutions. I do not walk into this work alone. Countless volumes of critical thought by Black artists, playwrights, collaborators, writers and thinkers exist that have shaped and driven my own thinking and consciousness (a list can be found at the end of this document as well as in links throughout) It is crucial that you seek out, purchase and read Black writing and scholarship and continue to listen to, amplify and compensate black artists and collaborators for their labor and creative work. Disrupting silence in our work as theater artists In his book, How to be an Antiracist Dr. Ibram X. Kendi writes, “...There is no neutrality in the racism struggle. The opposite of “racist” isn’t “not racist” it is “anti-racist”. What’s the difference? One endorses either the idea of a racial hierarchy as racist, or racial equality as an antiracist. One either believes problems are rooted in groups of people, as a racist, or confronts racial inequities, as an antiracist. There is no in-between safe space of “not racist”. The claim of “not racist” neutrality is a mask for racism.” A first step in disrupting silence is identifying where racism lives and breathes inside myself and where it manifests in my life and work. I am a white, cis, female identifying, queer, jew-ish, fat theater artist based in the Northeast. Because of the predominately 'progressive', liberal, arts-centered spheres I work inside, I have often taken for granted or assumed that others around me (family, friends, colleagues, teachers) are participating in the work of antiracism. I hold myself accountable for not doing the work of educating white colleagues or amplifying the urgency of anti-racist action or for assuming that others were doing this work and that by being in proximity to them and their work, it was somehow enough. (It's not) It is too easy to be adjacent to the work. What is much harder is to engage with and initiate expansive antiracist conversations and action centered on justice and equity within my artistic field and community. This is something I am continually learning how to do thoughtfully and effectively. It's a muscle that needs to be exercised and practiced. Maintaining the current status quo of silence, fear, dismay, rage and hand wringing in our institutions, rehearsal spaces and classrooms perpetuates a culture of anti-black violence and racism. If you are a white theater artist/maker or educator, I share some of my experiences in the hope of fostering transparency, dialogue and a critical examination of the systems and structures of white supremacy we all participate in. If you aren't a white theater artist but work and move in other spheres, I still invite you to participate, contribute and keep the ongoing work of antiracism at the forefront of your own practice. I invite you to learn, grapple, act and fight for equity with me. Anti-black violence in theater training Anti-black violence and racism is systemic. It lives in our institutions, workshops and rehearsal rooms. It lives in me. It is atomized into the air we breathe and the water we drink. Because of this, racism is also present in all the pathways we learn and in the skills, knowledge and techniques that are passed down from generations of theater practitioners that came before. Having recently completed a Masters Degree, I speak from my own experience that in nearly 20 years spent in over a dozen schools, companies and predominantly white-led institutions, there has been a seismic absence of Black voices, mentors and non Eurocentric methodologies and narratives in my training. The work of theater is the work of lineage. What we learn as theater artists is passed down from mentor to student through a direct channel. There is beauty and rich history in lineage but there is also violence in what has been erased from it. I invite you to take a moment to think deeply about your own lineage as a white theater artist in three parts.

  1. Who has influenced you? Inspired you? Shaped your practice and ethos? How many of these people were black artists or mentors that were central to your training and growth?

  2. What were the techniques and approaches you studied in your acting/directing/playwriting/design/technical theater classes? Who pioneered these techniques? What plays, critics, sources, histories and scholarship did you study and who wrote them?

  3. Share five names of Black artists, practitioners, playwrights, critics, scholars, theater historians or artistic leaders that you embrace as a central part of your lineage.

If you are struggling to come up with examples of five Black artists as easily as you can say “Shakespeare, Stanislavski, Hagen, Checkhov, Linklater, Ibsen…” Start here. Widen your lens, decenter your white lineage and expand your circle of influence. Erasure and tokenism of black innovation, leadership, perspective, achievement, artistry, pedagogy and scholarship is an act of violence. Seeking out this vibrant lineage is vital. Seeking out this lineage and integrating it thoughtfully into both consciousness and practice takes time and it takes intention. Disrupt the culture of scarcity As a theater artist, I have experienced the harmful practices that emerge within a field that is too often driven by competition, scarcity, exhaustion and output. These are extensions of brutal capitalist structures built to drive production and oppress producers. Capitalism was built on the institution of slavery. Is this the status quo we want to continue inviting into our artistic practice, classrooms, organizations and rehearsal spaces? It is vital that we name and examine what is broken and unsustainable in order to radicalize or radically dismantle our existing structures and institutions. Expansive thinking, equity and innovation will never be part of the shared narrative if we as white people continue to be driven solely by our need to survive and our constant suspicion and fear of losing 'our' ground, 'our' spaces, 'our' mission, 'our' constituents, 'our' processes, ‘our’ methodologies. White supremacy perpetuates the false narrative that there is not enough space, enough resources or enough time to do the work to thoughtfully and intentionally dismantle systems of oppression and injustice. So, these systems of silence prevail in our schools, nonprofits, small theater companies and cultural institutions. That is why it is critical to start with myself/yourself/ourselves and then radiate the work of antiracism outwards to all the constellations of networks you move between. Disrupt the feedback loop The arts and cultural sector are in survival mode right now and reeling due to the seismic impact of COVID-19. Silence and inaction is a feedback loop. How can we do the work of anti-racism when we can’t even produce work? Make payroll? Pay our bills? Figure out how to teach theater classes via Zoom? Scarcity is both a construct and a harsh reality. So, what is to be done? First, we must disrupt the cycle, the silence, the feedback loop. We must use this fallow time to critically examine the pandemic of racism and how it manifests in our classrooms, theaters, rehearsal spaces and inside ourselves. We must talk about it with each other and take clear and decisive action to dismantle it. Second, space must be created and yielded in order to celebrate and amplify black voices, stories, movements and narratives. More institutions need to hire black leaders, teachers, guest artists and directors and insure that these leaders are empowered to do their work in equitable, affirming spaces. Students and young artists need to see and learn about and experience this work directly. More funding must be available for black artists, scholars and educators whose work decenters whiteness. Lastly, accessibility and equity must be priorities for survival. This is the only way we can rise. Are you doing yours? Poet and activist Audrey Lorde gave voice to a conversation on silence and I have been drawn to her words. Below is an excerpt from “The transformation of silence into language and action” found in the book Sister Outsider: Essays and Speeches “What are the words you do not yet have? What do you need to say? What are the tyrannies you swallow day by day and attempt to make your own, until you will sicken and die of them still in silence? Perhaps for some of you here today, I am the face of your fears. Because I am a woman, because I am black, because I am a lesbian, because I am myself—a Black woman warrior poet doing my work—come to ask you, are you doing yours?....” Five Action Steps This is the work of learning and unlearning, making and remaking, listening, seeking out, reaching out, educating yourself, making mistakes and being transparent and accountable for those mistakes. Here are five action steps I have started to integrate into my own practice that I share as a starting place:

  1. This is the most vital, the most crucial and the most challenging to grapple with: It is essential that I as a white person, in a position of power as a director, administrator, producer and collaborator fully yield space, power and resources to black artists and artists of color. This means stepping out of the way, handing over the mic, supporting, celebrating, championing and amplifying their work in every way I can, with any small resource I have available to me and through direct action like ticket purchases and donations. Part of this action is to actively seek out independent artists and companies working in small spaces without the support of major institutions or platforms.

  2. Decentering whiteness within all rehearsal spaces where I hold power as a director/deviser. This is ongoing work. This is necessary regardless of the material, the venue, the audience or who else is in the room. This includes material selection, conscious and equitable casting practices, transparency, vulnerability and shared leadership with Black collaborators and collaborators of color who hold positions of power. Diversity in casting is not enough if whiteness is still centered in the work and in the play.

  3. Decolonizing the curriculum of plays, scenes, theater histories and teaching methods I call upon and implement as an instructor regardless of who I am teaching or where I am teaching. Some questions to begin this process: Whose stories and theories are being lifted? What readings, articles, interviews, sources and examples are being highlighted? Are black students and students of color always being asked to assimilate to whiteness with casting assignments or material selection? Are white students only being exposed to white plays and white narratives because I as a white person am hesitant to teach beyond my own cultural background? How about devising processes which theoretically foster more circular leadership and agency? As a director/facilitator, am I allowing those processes to breathe and reflect the needs and will of the ensemble or am I stepping in and taking control because I am concerned about quality or deadlines? Are there guest artists, speakers, colleagues or visiting faculty who I can collaborate with to expand my own and my students/collaborator's networks and engagement with Black theater makers?

  4. As a director and artistic leader, I am committed to continually reexamining the hierarchical structures for collaboration, production and administration that often perpetuate cycles of racism and colonization. Some questions to begin: Who has agency in decision making practices in the rehearsal spaces and meetings I hold? Can leadership happen in a horizontal or circular structure? Whose voices are not present/represented? Who is in power or driving the conversation? Who is silent? Who is doing the heavy lifting? Where is my own bias in all of this? Am I unintentionally privileging certain ideas, choices, pathways, options, voices? Am I really listening? (Really listening?)

  5. I am committed to seeking out and hiring non-white practitioners, artistic leaders, collaborators, training models and methodologies outside of those that dominated my own eurocentric education. Below I am sharing some of the artists whose work, articles and scholarship I have read, or performances I have attended and patronized. The list is only a fragment.

The resources above are specific to theater. Theater is vital but it is also a privileged space. Our work as theater artists has to contribute to the radical dismantling of our violent and oppressive systems of injustice, police brutality and racial inequity in health care, education, employment and housing. Read, share but also ACT. You can engage with a comprehensive list of antiracism resources and most importantly ACTIONS specifically for white people found here and here. Engage with, study and donate to the Black Lives Matter movement (which was started by artists and writers ) Learn about and join your local chapter of Standing up for Racial Justice- SURJ. Donate and join Real Justice PAC to elect prosecutors who will fix our broken criminal justice system. What is missing? What hasn't been considered? Do you have resources to exchange or thoughts to share? Are there Black artists, mentors, organizations, companies, playwrights or practitioners whose work you want to amplify? Do you have antiracist theater training/resources/workshops or groups to include? What are you currently doing in your work and practice that you can share? What action will you commit to today? Leave a note in the comments, message me on FB or Instagram/sarakatzoff, email me at sarakatzoff@gmail.com, text me at 917-685-2982. I will make a collaborative google doc and distribute it. Join me in disrupting white silence.

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