Ensemble director Rachel Grossman reflects on dog & pony dc’s recent involvement with the Theatre Communications Group (TCG)’s Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion (EDI) Institute: 

“If we are responsible for nothing else we are responsible for the state of this world.” — Anna Deveare Smith quoting James Baldwin in her 2016 Theatre Communications Group plenary address

“The arts bring us closer to justice.” — Carmen Morgan, founder & director art.Equity

In dog & pony dc’s May 2014 newsletter, I reflected (rather transparently) about why the ensemble was forming a “diversity committee” and recommitting itself to inclusion goals. This was four months before the premiere of Toast, which explored the mixing of curious minds as an asset to technological innovation. We prioritized “community development” outcomes for Toast over our “artistic development” outcomes. We performed in venues throughout DC and Maryland, we worked with artists of ranging racial backgrounds, and prominently cast a Deaf actor. The learning curve was huge; we attempted to apply this learning to the next project Squares, which itself addressed systemic privilege. We failed. And it took a long time to pick up the pieces.

You see, dog & pony dc made a critical error: we shaped our initial diversity initiative around hiring people to make our company less homogeneous. This is typical of diversity initiatives. The “diverse people” are then tasked with changing the content of the artwork; often only for select productions. The company doesn’t take action to change the culture of the company or the content of its work overall. (It’s the equivalent of having Black History Month or Deaf Awareness Week, and then returning to the accepted frameworks of White and Hearing cultures for the rest of the year.) Typical diversity initiatives are add-ons.

dog & pony dc too followed this approach, and started hiring “diverse people” to “assist us” with making change. But our overall culture didn’t change with it, and because the creation of original work is dog & pony dc’s primary focus, we couldn’t compartmentalize our “diversity initiative” to a show or two within a larger season. Following the typical process back-fired. We needed to change from the inside out; embrace diversity and inclusion as part of our core identity, in both ensemble practice and audience integration.

The leadership team—myself and Ringleaders Ivania Stack and Jenn Larsen—decided we should apply to Theatre Communications Group’s (TCG) Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion (EDI) Institute. The three-year program provides to a cohort of ~20 theatres from across the country skills-building webinars, regional organizing, and one-on-one consultations. We were accepted from among the many applicants, and on June 22, 2016 Ivania, Board Secretary Brandon Gryde, and I attended our first EDI meeting at the National Endowment for the Arts.

June 22 was a momentous day for the EDI Institute: it marked the “conclusion” of the institute for the first cohort and the orientation for the second cohort. The room was bursting with energy; you don’t become involved with EDI work without strong emotions. (Plus, the events in Orlando not 10 days earlier were still fresh in our hearts and minds.) Cohort two’s day was full of definitions, questions, and setting expectations. The 19 companies entered the space with different needs and agendas; we were a mix of “predominantly white” or “historically white” theatres and theatres of color, large and small budgets, traditionally structured and ensemble-based organizations; some of us had confronted EDI topics previously, others not.

Ivania, Brandon, and I found ourselves frequently listening and nodding. If our self-assessment was honest, we were in a state of “re-defining/self-renewing” according to an art.Equity handout. This is a point when “questioning organizational norms is not just tolerated, but encouraged.” It is a healthy place for us to be in, but not one we will exist in consistently without focus and diligence, without changing our organizational culture and internalizing diversity as an organizational value in perpetuity. We seek the guidance and resources to do this from the EDI Institute.

One point we didn’t need the institute to remind us of: the vital importance of equity, diversity, and inclusion to the arts. EDI is essential to the creation of high quality art. dog & pony dc recognizes diversity and inclusion as part of its core identity: in both ensemble practice and audience integration. And we look forward to sharing how EDI Institute, over the course of the next three years, lifts our ensemble and our work up.