The release of what has now become “Part One: Let’s talk about privileged access to a career in the arts” garnered a robust community response, revealing that this is a conversation many industry professionals have been eager to have, with few (if any) designated, safe, and inviting spaces to have such a conversation.
We've been reflecting on the responses of our community, and are sharing them in this piece ahead of our Moderated Town Hall: "Stagetime Community Voices" with Andrea Joy Pearson on Tuesday, October 4, 2022 from 7-9pm EDT.
Your voice and contributions are important. We invite you to be brave with us and join this conversation in whatever capacity you find yourself able and available – starting here:
“Thank goodness someone said the quiet part out loud!” (Grant Olson)
…I didn’t realize how quiet this “part” was. In my mind, it was a loud conversation. At least since the start of the pandemic shutdown and the Black Lives Matter movement.
But maybe that was the problem – “In my mind.” Considering how much it felt like I wanted to blow my top off while drafting Part One, there was a lot that was built up inside. The industry told me implicitly that this was my artistic cross to bear, so I never really said any of it. It remained loud in my own head. Turns out a lot of my peers/colleagues feel similarly.
We’ve felt this way for so long but have never had a designated, safe, and inviting space to hold this conversation.
“Loved this article and you are very right about everything you mention. Definitely hope to see change.” (Karen Gonzalez)
Part One was written with the purpose of bringing to light the fact that there are tons of qualified artists out there who are not part of the active circuit due to reasons surrounding (in)accessibility and (in)equitability, resulting in skewed representation and a lack of visibility in the industry - some of which are discussed in the piece. This includes performers you see on stage, performers you can’t see, composers and their work, recording engineers, producers, actors, and more. And regardless of the role, chops are assumed.
There are chops there. But chops are not enough.
Rather than assuming the role of deciding who is qualified for what kinds of jobs, and who isn’t, we are pointing out some of the problems in regards to why so many people WITH the chops are unseen/invisible in the actively working demographic of our industry. Our industry has continued to consist of members that belong to a certain “club” for which membership is granted through a series of privileges, and this is the problem at hand–the problem that needs to be addressed, tackled, and made better.
“Uh, yes.” (Alex Lin Dale)
“So extremely powerful.” (Malaysia Billman)
However, I do owe credit and huge kudos to those who are the “anomalies”. The “surprises”, based on what we know to be the “perfect, trustworthy candidate”. The minorities. The ones who didn’t go to a name brand school and are establishing a career for themselves (shoutout to you, Hannah LeGrand, now a freelancer in New York City), the ones who are people of color singing Mozart at Lincoln Center (let’s GO Tislam Swift, Karen Gonzalez, Jay St. Flono, and friends!!). The ones who were put in unsafe working environments just for being their true self (giving you the biggest hug, Grant Olson…). Without you all being so brave to pave the way, we would not even be aware that there were such big issues in this industry.
“I really appreciate your article! As someone who did not go to a name school, I’ve seen the challenges firsthand.” (Hannah LeGrand)
I won’t discredit myself either, for being an Asian woman playing musical theater – for being a strings-playing Asian woman who is a sucker for a good groove, and will get up and conduct or music direct a project that lives in the jazz/pop/soul world once in a while. It took me the longest time to realize “oh–this is something I can do as a career. It’s not that I don’t think I’m good enough. It’s just that I subconsciously thought it wasn’t possible for me because I wasn’t White or male enough.”
“...that article is straight ****ing BARS!!!! You snatched all the edges with that sh**. I felt every word and punctuation lol. But seriously I’ve felt this my whole life. Feeling like a token at every institution I’ve attended since middle school. Thank you for expressing this!” (Joseph Miller)
Another disclaimer is that there is no magical fix that will happen overnight.
Though we question the effectiveness of an organization’s generic statement posted as a graphic on Instagram saying they “don’t support the [bad thing that just happened]” followed by an ordinary concert announcement that exclaims “same old, same old!”, we also have to remember that this is a systemic issue that has developed throughout the years and it will take time to see progress.
So if we can’t benefit from immediacy and see sustainable growth and change, but we know we need to start yesterday, what can we do?
One of the best things we can do right now is have the conversation. Many individual professionals, and some institutions, have scattered some seeds for us. But what we need is that designated and inviting space to really dig in, realize our needs, and formulate a plan of action for some truly meaningful work to enact the change we want (need) to see.
I really want to highlight that we need a designated space because not any space is a safe space. Which feels silly to say, because duh, that’s essentially the problem, but it needs to be said. We can’t attack the problem in the place of the problem because that’s the problem.
“I’ve personally had a few instances where I got criticized by group leaders/others in the groups for being heteronormative presenting (colored hair and piercings) and it makes me appreciate the struggles minority groups including LGBTQIA folks like myself go through trying to navigate this White male dominated old boys club…” (Grant Olson)
There is SO much to unpack with these problems in our industry. What makes it even trickier (thanks, like we needed that) is that a lot of these issues involve circumstantial evidence. It’s easy for it all to feel intangible. But it’s hard to invalidate someone else’s personal experience, as a third party guest. We have to speak our truth, and trust others for their truth. First hand experience is some of the best we can get. (Side: I really don’t understand the legitimacy of investigations that involve discrimination against protected classes… our system doesn’t seem to support any way to rightfully “win” in those scenarios.)
Some organizations (mostly smaller, niche groups of like-minded individuals) have begun to contribute their personal experiences in their own spaces. Sound Mind, for example, had an “illuminating conversation with Carl Alexander about his experience as a Black classical musician” (March 1, 2021). In it, he shares: “Expectations of a Countertenor are not exactly me. Countertenors tend to be - especially the ones getting hired - skinny white men… It’s about what people can see on stage. If your body is different from what people are expecting, some directors feel that it can take people out of the story. I personally don’t believe that’s true. If anything, it just gives people a different lens with which to view the story. // All the elements of who I am as a Black, queer man don’t have to cause dissonance on stage or with a director.”
Others are doing the work to amplify the voices of marginalized communities in the performing arts space. In their podcast series “Orchestrating Change”, the Canton Symphony Orchestra chats with guests from ChamberQUEER (an LGBTQ+ chamber music organization in New York City). D-Composed (a Chicago-based Black chamber music collective) is “holding the door open [by] giving access and exposure to Black creativity, Black culture, and Black life through thoughtful programming, events, and content” – like their coloring book series, “Music in Color”. Australian composer Jodie Blackshaw started ColourFULL Music to make intentionally diverse programming tools more accessible. MUSE, Maestra, and their partner organizations are striving to increase the working population of severely marginalized groups in the musical theater industry.
There are also statements being made by larger figures (stars, if you will) in the industry, but any chatter aside from the big press releases seems to be shushed quickly. No matter what the artist says or does, these large institutions refuse to budge and ignore the actionable items they could take the opportunity to enact. The large institutions have so much power, and their lack of care to make things right just shuts everyone down because they hold so much power.
Fairly recently, Russell Thomas performed as the Royal Opera House’s first Black Otello (finally…). Meanwhile, at the same time, mind you, Anna Netrebko performed in Blackface at the Arena di Verona’s summer festival, and the festival defended Netrebko in the controversy. As a response, Angel Blue announced her withdrawal from an engagement at the same festival, citing their “offensive, humiliating and outright racist” use of Blackface.
All this work is so great. We’ve seen some change from it! But the ability to create change, like the ability to establish a career in the arts, is not accessible to all.
It will take all of us working together in order to really create change.
The first step is being heard.
We do not all have a way to be heard.
But we are all valuable members of this community who deserve to be heard, and if we are not heard then the ones with the loudest voices remain to be the ones contributing to the problem because they happen to be the ones holding the seats of power.
…or, are they.
Who are they without us? They’re an incomplete story; they’re missing a window into their most vital, defining audiences. When they exclude us, we watch the industry falling further behind and further out of touch with what artistic culture demands and celebrates today.
There’s no industry without us. We are the industry. Together, we are a better future for the industry – frankly, we are the only future for the industry. Together, this gives us incredible power. We can make the change come from within, as long as we do it together. Because when we do it on our own, we are vulnerable. We are not safe. We are not heard.
If everything else is so hard, at least this is easy: we can all obviously agree that these problems exist and need to be fixed. So let’s come together and create a safe and brave space for us to all be heard, support one another, and really, truly, start the conversation that we need to have in order to identify what we can do in order to make sh** happen. And we can all figure it out together.
Andrea Joy Pearson is an optimization strategist who is committed to helping herself and others walk in their power and utilize their space to live more full and successful lives by championing honesty, vulnerability, and bravery at all times to foster high performance in work and life - thus reframing possibilities and perceived boundaries.
She specializes in process improvement, human capital knowledge, psychological safety, and Diversity, Equity, Inclusion and Belonging (DEIB). Andrea Joy is a fierce advocate for the cultivation of spaces where everyone feels they have the opportunity to bring their best and most authentic selves to the table.
Andrea Joy is the Director of Belonging and Inclusion and the Creative Director of Amplifying the Black Experience at Opera Omaha.
Andrea Joy earned her Bachelor of Arts degree in Voice Performance from Oberlin Conservatory of Music and her Master of Music in Voice and Opera from the University of Kentucky.
Additionally, she is certified in Human Resources Management and Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion in the Workplace.
Register for our online gathering here.
As a preparatory exercise, we encourage you to gather any thoughts related to the questions below:
How do we establish safe and inviting spaces to hold these conversations?
How do we make ourselves heard? How do we need to be heard; what needs to be heard? Who needs to listen?
What can we do now, so that in the future, we do not have such a painful need to make ourselves heard in this way?
Thank you to Jennie Moser and Maya Voelk for encouraging me to speak out and start this conversation in this space; Thank you to Stagetime for providing me with a powerful space to do so; Thank you to those of you who have engaged with this conversation, whether it be through the first blog post or not; Thank you to those of you who have been doing the work already, and continue to do so. Thank you to those who are joining me in continuing this work, for a long time, starting now.