Design with an Equity Lens

Cultivating a Theatre Ecosystem That Can Hold Us All in Our Full Humanity

By Porsche McGovern and Katie Freer
Originally published on February 22nd, 2021 by HowlRound

Take a moment, wherever you are, to pause and connect with your body. Imagine you are entering a venue as an audience member. There is a moment when you pass over the threshold, through a portal, and your reality shifts from the outside world to the world of the play. Every element of the environment acts as a guide to prepare you for what is to come. By the time the show begins, each one of your senses has been activated to prepare you for a journey into a new, imagined reality. There’s no going back until curtain call.

This is the magic of design. This did not happen by accident. Every single moment, every single element, was a choice made by a team of artists working together to create a cohesive experience in service of a story.

Katherine Freer, a white woman with long brown hair wearing a black dress, gestures at the slightly out of focus stage for a production of Antigone, where the architecture is illuminated by the projections of a colorful focus grid.
Still frame from TrokiaTronix Talking Shop with Isadora Advanced Users—Kate Freer from the 2018 production of Antigone.
Production Credits: The Classical Theatre of Harlem presented Antigone, inspired by Paul Roche’s adaptation from the classic Greek tragedy by Sophocles. Direction by Carl Cofield, producing artistic direction by Ty Jones, production stage manager Sujotta Pace, choreography by Tiffany Rea-Fisher, music direction by Kahlil X. Daniel, dramaturgy by Shawn René Graham, scenic design by Christopher and Justin Swader, costume design by Lex Liang, lighting design by Alan C. Edwards, sound design by Curtis Craig, projection design by Katherine Freer, props design by Samantha Shoffner, and assistant direction by Amandla Jahava.

Now back to the present moment. The last year has been pretty terrible for all theatre artists, including designers. We are still in the midst of a global pandemic that is rapidly worsening. We are on the heels of a failed coup of white supremacists that practically waltzed into the United States Capitol. Everyone is holding some form of fear, grief, rage, or trauma, which is manifesting in so many different ways in our bodies, minds, hearts, and souls. People’s physical and fiscal well-beings are constantly threatened. The rate of unemployment for theatre designers is dangerously high. This moment in time has forced many people to leave the industry, temporarily or for good.

We have before us an opportunity for drastic and sustainable change. The pandemic and calls for racial justice have ignited fieldwide revolution and hopefully serious reformation. Theatremakers are being presented with a chance to reimagine the way our art form is made, both within and without the systems that are supposed to support the people and the work.

As designers ourselves, we believe designers are an essential part of the solution, co-creating a strategy for an equitable theatre ecosystem. This series aims to shine a light on the work being done and share what is achievable—in terms of fostering a truly reciprocal, supportive, collaborative industry—if designers are invited to contribute to the ongoing conversation about not only how we’ll return, but how we can proactively create a space where we can thrive.

“We celebrate designers in their full humanity as artists, creative problem-solvers, changemakers, and leaders.”

How do we actually do this? It’s important to first look to the people in the design community who have been doing this work and the initiatives that already exist. We should provide both moral and financial support to these designers, examine what resources are already available, reframe and redefine value and excellence, intentionally set goals for change and revolution, and then take those intentions and activate them for a sustaining and evolving future.

The work towards equity in the theatre field is what brought us, the series curators, together as collaborators—Porsche’s a lighting designer, a researcher, and a facilitator for social justice conversations, and Kate’s a multimedia designer, filmmaker, organizer, and educator. In different ways and places, we’ve both analyzed the positional power and social locations of designers within the United States theatrical field. We celebrate designers in their full humanity as artists, creative problem-solvers, changemakers, and leaders.

Over the course of this week, we have invited written contributions from six designers—Dominique Fawn Hill, Lux Haac, Deb Sivigny, Masha Tsimring, Michael Maag, and Annie Wiegand—to engage in discussions of the impact of structural oppression on our communities, the social position of designers in the larger theatre industrial complex, the interconnectedness of artistry and advocacy, and strategies for co-creating a roadmap into the future. The series concludes with a TV event, structured as a departmental check in, with representatives from costume, lighting, wig and hair, video, props, sound, and set design: Asa Benally, Stacey Derosier, Cherelle Guyton, Caite Hevner, Kris Julio, Lawrence Moten, and Sadah Espii Proctor.

In the center of four figures, Porsche McGovern, an Asian American woman in a red sweater and white-black gray scarf, is speaking on a panel. Her hands are raised like she is holding a ball.
Porsche McGovern presenting at Wingspace Salon #49: Breaking Down Class in Theater. Pictured (left to right) Jane Shaw, unknown participant, Porsche McGovern, Katie Christie.

We love that none of these designers subscribe to the notion that they need to put aside who they are to be successful. They all know they bring unique experience, perspective, and style to their roles that enrich each process. They are active participants in initiatives and conversations about the issues that impact the design community. We wanted to find out what would happen if we put these awesome people in conversation with each other and, in doing so, embrace a shared leadership model and the unexpected learnings that come from the collaborative processes.

If equity is the end goal, the destination, what is the best route? There are many options depending on someone’s position in the field. One of the biggest steps theatres can take is to seriously look at what designers contribute to not just the production but their organization as a whole. Artistic collaborators, for their part, can consider how their collaborations happen and work to disrupt traditional hierarchies. And designers must embrace their own agency in making change towards a more equitable theatrical field.

As we proceed on this journey, all theatremakers must examine design and the industry as a whole through an equity lens, analyzing the structures that exist and thinking about how to pivot to a culture that is just and supportive. To kick off the series, we want to offer, as a starting point, some routes and guideposts that might reframe theatremakers’ relationships to the design community.

“Theatres must make a point of inviting designers to hold more visible leadership positions. Even if some designers don’t want to be visible, everyone wants to be heard and acknowledged.”

Redefine Leadership: Embracing Collaboration and Collectivism

The community of designers is rich with leaders: those who have made the choice to take up space to advocate for progress and justice, and those whose leadership is less publicly visible, which is something that needs to be embraced as the field is shifting away from a hierarchical, heteropatriarchal structure. Designers hold an unbelievable amount of power to influence hearts and minds of society through their art. They are critical thinkers, dreamers, and innovators who are trained to work as a collective. Why don’t we draw on these minds to collectively vision a strategy for a sustainable future of abundance?

Designers have a unique skill set they engage to maneuver the field successfully. They are able to communicate abstract ideas between departments to set expectations for how a design will manifest so that collaborators can respond in turn, delegate responsibilities to teams of varying sizes at every phase, work on many projects simultaneously, and adjust to the dynamics of different collaborative teams. Freelance designers, too, have lots of experience with many organizational cultures and protocols from working with various theatre companies over time.

Leadership can be embodied in many different ways and power can be held by many people simultaneously. Designers have not often been offered leadership opportunities outside of their own teams. And it might seem there are not very many designers who have taken that space. Why should they have? If you don’t see yourself reflected, you don’t think you’re invited. Vicious cycle.

But designers are leaders. Theatres must make a point of inviting designers to hold more visible leadership positions. Even if some designers don’t want to be visible, everyone wants to be heard and acknowledged.

Leadership Pivots  
Power Hoarding> Power Sharing
Paternalism > Partnership
Individualism > Community
Leadership Pivots by Porsche McGovern and Katherine Freer, Adapted from the worksheet “White Dominant Culture & Something Different” created by Partners for Collaborative Change. Graphic by Katherine Freer.

Value All Forms of Communication

As the theatre field, we must celebrate all of the work, both seen and unseen. Even though what designers do is mysterious to most, it must not be dismissed or diminished. (Looking at you, folx who got rid of the sound design Tony Award for three years.)

Designers actually have a tremendous amount of power and influence on society—not just on the world of the play—and with that should come respect, responsibility, understanding of this power, and accountability. Designers essentially manipulate audiences’ emotions and perceptions. Doing this thoughtlessly has the potential to reinforce white supremacy norms, appropriate cultures, and perpetuate racism and many other oppressive systems, like heterosexism and ableism. If this is not addressed at every level of design, it’s going to continue no matter what the story is, what scripts are being written, or who is on stage.

Communication Pivots
Superiority of the written word > all forms of Communication Valued
Narrow Valuation of Intelligence > Broad Appreciation of Differences
Official Title Outweighs Experience > Holistic View of People
Communication Pivots by Porsche McGovern and Katherine Freer, Adapted from the worksheet “White Dominant Culture & Something Different” created by Partners for Collaborative Change. Graphic by Katherine Freer.

Sustainable Progress: Growth, Learning, and Iterating

It seems like most of the equity, diversity, and inclusion initiatives leave behind design, production, and support teams because the measurable growth is not publicly visible. But without paying attention to the entire ecosystem, there will not actually be a cultural shift—it will just all be surface change—and it will only take society so far and only bring possibilities for those who want to pursue more publicly visible paths.

To ensure sustainable progress there must be constant growth, learning, and iteration combined with reflection and accountability. This is not new to designers, who dream, iterate, revise, learn, and intentionally adapt in every single production. How can institutions incorporate the learning and experience of the freelance artists they hire more deeply into their organization’s fabric, acknowledging the invaluable nature of their vantage point?

We cannot hold onto systems that do not serve us just because they are familiar. Instead, let’s create feedback loops that value and incorporate the needs of those most impacted. Encourage a culture of accountability, with knowledge of how to be accountable to ourselves, our collaborative teams and audiences, society as a whole, and the environment.

Progress Pivots
Priorities and Timelines that Perpetuate White Supremacy Culture > Priorities and timelines set for sustainability and equity
Perfectionism > Appreciation
Changing the Subject away from the Role of race > Compassionate Curiosity About How Race, Cultural Differences, and Racial Bias May be at Play
Progress Pivots by Porsche McGovern and Katherine Freer, Adapted from the worksheet “White Dominant Culture & Something Different” created by Partners for Collaborative Change. Graphic by Katherine Freer.

Culture Shift: 360 Holistic Strategy

How do we move forward together as a field embracing personal and collective agency? Can we learn from the systems that already exist and unlearn the parts that hold us back? Can we decide which spaces we can reform and which we need to tear down and rebuild, and make note of which don’t exist yet? This is the first time many people, including designers, are analyzing their position, participation, power, reputations, and histories inside of this system. There is momentum building to gather more people in this fight for change and break down the hierarchy to horizontalize the process.

We must intentionally redesign the structure of theatre, looking at teams that function more holistically. We can start by taking care of people in mind and body, prioritizing their full humanity: emotional, physical, spiritual. Healthy and happy people will make the process smoother, more enjoyable, and safer—plus the art will be better. We can create a 360-degree collaboration strategy that considers all people and resources for less division between the departments, more input early on, and more voices involved.

Designers imagine realities that have not been created yet into existence. We figure out the systems that are needed for support and make sure they are in service of the story being told. Being in a room with people who are creative in this way is unbelievably inspirational and sparks new thinking and innovation.

Culture Pivots
Transactional Relationships and Goals > Transformational Relationships and Goals
Overworking as Unstated Norm > Self-Care/Community Care
Comfort with Predominantly white Leadership > Leadership Representative of the Communities Most  affected by Inequity
Culture Pivots by Porsche McGovern and Katherine Freer, Adapted from the worksheet “White Dominant Culture & Something Different” created by Partners for Collaborative Change. Graphic by Katherine Freer.

“There is momentum building to gather more people in this fight for change and break down the hierarchy to horizontalize the process.”

Wouldn’t it be amazing to have a think tank for the future of American theatre, to cultivate this field intentionally without supremacy? And if that gathering was not just composed of those who have come to be known as leadership, but with people from every discipline, including designers? Where everyone’s voice had equal weight because paternalism has been rejected? What if we centered creativity while reimagining the theatre field? We could harness that energy and focus it on reinventing the ways we work together, talk together, and support each other.

This series can almost be experienced as a small subset of that think tank—thoughts and learnings generously offered by a group of designers working to create change. Some of these lead to reformation, some to full on revolution. No matter the path, this is a time of reckoning for theatremakers. Let’s leave behind oppressive systems and co-create a roadmap to a more just and equitable future.

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