Can Theatres of Color Get Support Without Strings or Hurdles?

A Zoom convening of THRIVE! in June 2021.

This story is one of three about the state of funding for theatres of color. You can find the others here.

Writing about the Theatre Communications Group (TCG)’s new THRIVE! Uplifting Theatres of Color regranting program leads me to struggle with the question of balance. As the vice president of the Consortium of Asian American Theaters and Artists (CAATA), I have witnessed TCG staff and Black, Indigenous, and People of Color (BIPOC) theatre leaders spend countless hours listening, advocating, and problem-solving around racism in theatre and philanthropy. The THRIVE! program is a direct result of these conversations. On the one hand, it is a lifeline and boon to the BIPOC theatres (hereafter referred to as BITOCs) and artists who have been working hard to straddle the demands of creating good theatre and addressing specific needs in their communities. On the other hand, the program has revealed fundamental institutional inequities in philanthropy, prompting deeper questions about how BIPOC-led arts can truly “thrive” within the history and reality of systemic racism. Simply put: THRIVE! is a great first step; BITOCs still need more.

In most cities, BITOCs hold a specific kind of space—sometimes permanent, sometimes peripatetic—where one can encounter myriad low-cost/no-cost resources: mutual aid packages, handmade masks, acting workshops, safer sex supplies, veteran’s services, tax advice, résumé clinics, voter registration, immigrant legal aid, yoga classes, or holiday gifts. And then there is the theatre: connected, aesthetically specific, and carefully crafted stage productions. As a young artist, I found my initial training and performing opportunities in such spaces, and I know many acclaimed BIPOC artists who can say the same. This combination of arts presenter and social services hub characterizes many—if not most—companies run a la W.E.B. DuBois’s “by, for, about, and near” BIPOC communities.

But despite creating full theatrical programming comparable in scope to predominantly white institutions (PWIs), as well as offering services more aptly provided by governmental or social organizations, BITOCs still struggle with funding gaps created by structural racism. Theatre Communications Group (TCG)’s new THRIVE! regranting program looks to address these gaps.

Funded by the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation and conceived in partnership with an advisory circle of BIPOC theatre leaders, THRIVE! is a $1.635 million regranting program that has been in the works since the early days of COVID-19. The subsequent groundswell of #BlackLivesMatter in the wake of George Floyd’s murder, the discoveries of well over 1,000 remains of Native/Indigenous children at former Canadian and U.S. boarding school sites, the publication of We See You White American Theatre, and the Atlanta massacre of March 2021, part of a troubling rise in rates of Anti-Asian American/Pacific Islander hate incidents, are just some examples of how racial reckonings have recently come to a head. THRIVE! emerges from this context of pandemic, protest, and increased visibility of various racial inequities.

THRIVE!’s grantmaking component includes $10,000 emergency funds (RESPOND), $50,000 in unrestricted general operations funds (RETHINK), and support to retain BIPOC consultants for RETHINK grantees (REBUILD). Of the grantmaking awards, THRIVE! followed a recommendation of the advisory council to earmark 30 percent to Indigenous theatre, and 20 percent to Black/African Diaspora theatres, with 50 percent to remaining theatres of color. In addition to these programs, THRIVE! will include support for national convenings for BITOCs, as well as for BIPOC critics and writers covering BITOC in publications and media. Heeding feedback that past TCG grants have not been accessible to a critical mass of BITOCs, THRIVE! Grants do not require 501(c)(3) status or TCG membership.

As is customary with any of its new programs, TCG held field conversations with stakeholders in June and August 2021. Four three-hour sessions hosted a total of 37 BITOC leaders, who shared their concerns, trends, and needs. The participants comprised a wide cross-section, representing both large, legacy BITOCs as well as smaller, newer organizations. Facilitated by TCG advisory circle members Andrea Assaf (she/her), artistic and executive director of Art2Action, Inc., and Alexandra Meda (she/ella), artistic director of Teatro Luna West, participants in these field conversations addressed questions around what a thriving theatre organization looks like, as well as the challenges they faced and successful strategies they employed toward thriving.

The Current State of BITOCs

In his now-famous “The Ground on Which I Stand” speech, August Wilson stated that “Black theatre in America is alive, it is vibrant, it is vital…it just isn’t funded.” Much has changed in the 25 years since his speech. Yet the “vibrant, vital…isn’t funded” aspect of much work by BITOCs remains. Like the rest of the theatre industry, only moreso, the ravages of COVID-19 hit BITOCs especially hard. Some companies laid off staff, deferred maintenance, or lost venues and space. Because so many BITOCs have social-justice-based missions, the urgency of their work rarely abates, and the combination of COVID-19 with various racial reckonings has led to over-stretching resources already pulled taut. Many artistic and administrative staff have ended up providing additional social services for their communities in the past year and a half.

In a forthcoming report surveying COVID’s impact on BITOCs and BIPOC individual theatre artists, researchers found that nearly 40 percent of the BITOCs surveyed organized social-justice-based events, while over half of the BITOCs surveyed presented free virtual programming. (Full disclosure: I am a member of this survey research team.) Meanwhile, although 80 percent of surveyed individuals had healthcare throughout the pandemic, the sources of their coverage were spouses, the state, or individual plans on Obamacare. Not a single respondent reported health insurance coverage provided via their theatre work.

These statistics are emblematic of what field conversation participants reported as high rates of donated and discounted labor, often leading to burnout and exhaustion. Many BIPOC projects are essentially or actually subsidized by BIPOC artists.

“Because it comes from our soul and our heart, we are sometimes used to sacrificing,” said Jackie Taylor (she/her), founder and CEO of Chicago’s Black Ensemble Theater. “In my youth, I was a teacher and I paid for the company to exist by giving them my salary.”

“Without transformative funding to improve those circumstances, these leaders have little choice but to work on for as long as they can. Without real support, one can imagine these leaders working until they or their companies die.”

The field conversations also revealed that many BITOC staff do not take accrued paid time off, or end up performing creative work for free because they are earning administrative pay. While certainly heightened during COVID-19, these patterns of overwork and burnout have been a chronic issue. Olga Sanchez (she/her), assistant professor of theatre and Middlebury College and artistic director emerita of Milagro in Portland, Ore., said, “The decades-long inequity of funding for BITOC companies means that veteran leaders who have committed their lives, sacrificing their salaries and long-term stability for their mission-driven, community-serving, culturally unique theatre companies will find themselves bound to their jobs for longer than they should. They bear an inordinately complicated workload in exchange for low wages, and such conditions naturally deter would-be successors. Without transformative funding to improve those circumstances, these leaders have little choice but to work on for as long as they can. Without real support, one can imagine these leaders working until they or their companies die.”

Similarly, BITOCs struggle with brain drain. Leilani Chan (she/her), founding artistic director of TeAda Productions in Los Angeles, attested, “Our organizations put a lot of work into training producers and administrators. They don’t stay with us because they need to go where they can get competitive wages, and theatres of color can’t provide competitive wages on a consistent basis.”

Many up-and-coming BIPOC administrators gain experience at BITOCs, only to leave them for PWIs. Micaela Garcia de Benavidez (she/her/ella), managing director of Denver’s Su Teatro, expressed frustration with the tendency of young talent to be poached from the communities that need them. “We have a project here called Diversity in the Arts,” de Benavidez said. “They put all of these interns of color into major [white] institutions instead of into organizations of color that could actually benefit [more] from their work.”

And because so many BITOCs run on in-kind resources and labor, their low budget sizes often bar them from larger funding sources, meaning most of their time is spent applying for small pockets of funding with strict programmatic requirements. Chan continued, “When we are blessed with funding, we’re scared to grow, because we’re scared to train the next generation of producers administrators to just lose them. I want to do more art-making and less of these meetings and less grant writing, but that’s a huge portion of my work.” Another participant noted, “When we look at our [PWI] peers… we still don’t get funded at the same level, although the number of grants we receive is pretty high.”

Pun Bandhu (he/him), independent actor and producer and co-writer of the Visibility Report created by New York City’s Asian American Performers Action Coalition (AAPAC), echoed this trend for BITOCs. Said Bandhu, “It’s hard for theatres to grow…They basically get the same amount of money year after year.” When The Shubert Foundation read the Visibility Report and invited AAPAC for a conversation, Bandhu saw two main obstacles to higher funding for BITOCs. One was eligibility mechanisms which often include 501(c)(3) status as well as organizational financial audits. Both require significant infrastructure and accompanying human and capital resources. The second was that many BITOCs take multiple years to complete large projects due to smaller funding, which leads to some years with high expenses and some with nearly none. Such instability in annual budgets often disqualifies BITOCs from certain funding pools. This then becomes a vicious cycle, where BITOCs cannot grow because they are not large enough and they cannot become large enough unless they grow—a kind of funding glass ceiling.

It should be noted that The Shubert Foundation is one of the very few national grantmakers that has historically focused solely on providing unrestricted support to theatre organizations and has provided over $500 million exclusively in general operating support to date. BITOC have been recipients of this support. In an effort to be more inclusive to smaller organizations, they have recently revised their audit requirement. 

It’s also important to note that The Black Seed fund, launched in October 2020 and supported by a cohort of foundations, will provide grants ranging from $10,000 to $150,000 to approximately 100 Black theatres across the U.S.

Responses to THRIVE!

In this context, many participants conveyed a sense of disbelief and relief that THRIVE! funding had so few strings attached. Voicing a frustration over many “well-meaning” funding sources with specific programmatic requirements, unrestricted support marks a refreshing change. In comments collected via an anonymous web platform, one participant wrote, “[Unrestricted funding] should be a standard in the field of philanthropy.” Another wrote about how the practice of placing restrictions on funding reinforces white supremacist structures of capital that prioritize older white audiences and the subscription model. Doing away with a paternalistic prescription of how resources are used, THRIVE! allows grantees to “rethink how we do our work and for whom.” Another wrote, “Often project-based funding isn’t enough to cover operating costs,” highlighting the precarity of funding for BITOCs created by the assumptions many funders seem to have that BITOCs somehow magically generate enough funding for operations. When Bandhu met with The Shubert Foundation as a member of AAPAC, he said he got the sense that large foundations “don’t want a theatre company to be so dependent on them, and yet, at the same time, they want to give a chunk of change that will make a difference.”

These assumptions are a hindrance to BITOCs doing innovative work. Many welcomed TCG’s message that BITOCs know best what their communities need to create theatre. A general sense among the participants was that BITOCs stretch money far and are scrappy with soft resources. Meda noted, “Our BIPOC theatres are using money more efficiently and better than the PWIs, and still funders are resistant to fund us more.” Many saw their theatre work as interconnected with community well-being. “White supremacist colonialism [has] this perception that art is a privilege. It’s not a privilege, it’s a right,” said Vickie Ramirez (she/her), Tuscarora playwright and founding member of Chukalokoli Native Theater Ensemble.

“The intention feels exciting—but it’s so little after so long.”

So, back to balance: THRIVE! is necessary. It is helping to fulfill an urgent need. Yes…and. Many participants conveyed important critiques.

One critique is that of representation. Toya Lillard (she/her), executive director of Brooklyn’s viBe Theater Experience, noted, “I appreciate the efforts to center BIPOC voices, but I’m deeply concerned about colorism, classism, and the ways that it still shows up in these efforts to center BIPOC voices. What efforts are being made to include darker-skinned, marginalized, poor, fat Black folks in decision-making processes?”

Questions around representation mirrored some historical conflict and negotiation between TCG and BITOCs. In particular, a trend that many BIPOC leaders experience with PWIs, including TCG, is the way the intellectual and emotional labor and knowledge of BIPOCs becomes a kind of social/intellectual capital that can be bartered and bought. As one participant summarized it, “Harvesting our knowledge and repackaging it for the field is something that has happened with TCG a lot. Those of us who run theatres of color have that experience in the field. As much as [TCG has] been working to shift from being a PWI, that history is real.”

This affirmed the need to specifically name and honor the activism and labor of BIPOC artists that has been going on for decades, as well as the recent groundswell of BIPOC theatre activists. Arnaldo J. Lopez (he/him), managing director of Pregones/Puerto Rican Traveling Theater in New York City, said, “This is one initiative among multiple philanthropic initiatives. There is this sense that it is a titanic and noble effort to do something new. That’s not what it is. It’s part of the outcome of decades of people pushing for this to happen. Context goes a long way.” Another participant wrote, “The intention feels exciting—but it’s so little after so long.”

Not knowing the future of this grant, many expressed a concern echoing Chan’s concern of being “scared to grow,” lest the funding they receive dry up before they can reap the fruits of their labors. One anonymous written response stated, “$1.635m is less than many PWIs get in a go,” and expressed a concern that larger legacy BITOCs could not discernibly transform the field with the grant sizes on offer. This pointed to a larger concern, expressed in multiple contexts, about the role that organizations like TCG have in serving as intermediaries between larger funders and BITOCs Veteran leaders particularly voiced frustration at past experiences being turned away by prestigious and deep-pocketed foundations, with little to no conversation. Why can’t larger legacy BITOCs get that kind of funding directly? Bandhu noted that while the ideal situation would be for philanthropic organizations to develop relationships directly with BITOCs, he added, “I don’t see any problem with TCG coming to fill a void.” Still, many posed the significant question, “What will TCG do to broker a new direct relationship between BITOCs and philanthropic funding bodies at large?”

As a kind of sigh—conveying borderline burnout, mixed with the ambivalence of being excited about unrestricted funding yet wary of the massive task on the horizon—Lopez said, “Why is the one grant that comes out for BITOCs saddled with [the] heavy lifting of correcting whiteness? Let this grant champion the work and lift the artistry. That’s what I want to see.”

Writer kt shorb (they/them) is also a director, scholar, and performer.

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