This year, while live theater languished under lockdown, a group of local theater artists have been busy drafting a revolution.
The Not In Our House Committee of the Milwaukee Theatre Alliance has released the first draft of their ambitious “Milwaukee Theatre Standards” (MTS). Modeled after the Chicago Theatre Standards, which were drawn up in the aftermath of an expose of abusive practices in a respected small Chicago theater company. The MTS offers detailed procedures for reporting and following up on incidents of abuse in the theater community.
But the Milwaukee committee wanted to address a host of other issues, from fair distribution of income to child care and EDI (Equity, Diversity and Inclusion,) in response to BIPOC Artists (Black, Indigenous, People of Color, pronounced like “buy pock”), Artists with Disabilities, and LGBTQ Artists calling for more representation in Milwaukee theater. The resulting fifty page document (often referred to as “the document”) is a complete revisioning of how theater is done, with formerly-excluded groups at center stage. (You can find the full document here. )
In preparation for a launch of the document in June, Milwaukee Theatre Alliance founder Jaimelyn Gray and committee member and artist/educator Ro Spice-Kopischke graciously met on a brisk afternoon to talk about the Standards.
Who is the “Not in our house task force”?
RO SPICE-KOPISCHKE- We are a group of local folks who are involved in the theater and arts who are committed to reforming and improving and making the Milwaukee arts scene a safer, more just, and more equitable space. I like to use the word revolutionize [laughs] We’re hoping to make some rather aggressive changes.
JAIMELYN GRAY- I had moved back up to Milwaukee from Chicago right at the tail end of 2017. Not In Our House was a big deal in Chicago at that time. The investigation in the Chicago Reader of Profiles Theatre was just six months previous, and also there was this big explosion of the Me Too movement. So when we had the first MTA meeting in 2019 I had put it on the agenda. Then really, after the murder of George Floyd, I think it was Katie Cummings that said, well, you know, why don’t we just do it, and incorporate not only Me Too but all sorts of injustice that occurs everyday, that also includes the BIPOC community, and make sure that we’re starting the document off on the best foot that Milwaukee can, specifically for Milwaukee needs.
Let’s take the document one theme at a time. Briefly, how do the standards address sexual harassment?
JG- We’re trying to create environments where people can feel safe to report incidents and find paths— whether it be anonymous, or creating roles within theatre companies themselves, or within the Milwaukee Theatre Alliance—where people can feel they have a safe and welcoming environment to report abuse and really any sort of violence: sexual, mental, or emotional types of abuse.
RSK- I think that was the section we dove least into because it had been so comprehensively worked through by Chicago several years ago. And we were like, if it’s not broke, don’t fix it.
How does the document address workplace safety issues?
JG- I think a lot of us think of mental health first, as opposed to the past where we were thinking about you know, having glow tape backstage and things like that. Things like changing the work hour structure. Normally during tech week, right when we’re about to open the show, you’ll get a Saturday or Sunday where you’re gonna work for 12 hours. And it makes for a very long week, and so we want to change some of these structures to help re-establish healthier environments and healthier artists. Almost everybody on the NIOH committee is on the non-union, non-equity level, and a lot of these protections aren’t there for non-equity companies.
RSK- We wanted to make sure that no matter where the artist works in Milwaukee, they know they’re going to be safe, and that there is a shared understanding across the community of what that looks like. I think that idea can be applied to the whole document.
JG– Some of those safety measures also extend into things that were not previously [included]. There’s just a great scope, we’re talking about handicapped or disability accessibility, the LGBTQ community and. . .
RSK- Neutral spaces.
JG- Neutral spaces and things like that.
RSK- Just to provide spaces that are welcoming to all. We really intend to make it a “welcome to all” environment.
Now lets talk about how you address equity, diversity and inclusion based on race, gender, and disability.
RSK- This was probably the part of the document we spent the most time on, that the committee created from scratch. There was a little bit of the EDI stuff in the original document, but following the summer of 2020 and the murder of George Floyd and the BIPOC community coming out and speaking truth about so many things that are happening on so many levels of our society that as white people we can’t understand, we knew that this had to be a really crucial aspect of this document: how to make theater spaces more equitable and more accepting and a place that is accessible to everyone regardless of whatever identity they might be bringing with them.
JG- Katie Cummings is the artistic director of Pink Umbrella Theatre Company, which is a company in Milwaukee specifically designed to make a home for disabled artists, be it mental, physical, emotional—any sort of disability— to give those artists a space to perform and opportunities, so she was an excellent resource as far as the needs of that community. Ro is an excellent resource for the LGBTQ community. We had Marvin Hannah from Bronzeville, Kanita Hickman from Imagine, so we had representatives—and I don’t want to step too far and speak where I shouldn’t—but to make sure we had voices on this panel that could legitimately speak. . . like, I’m excellent at talking about the female experience in theatre over the past 20 years or so, and I can talk about my daughter, because she’s a special needs person, but other than that, I can’t speak to what they can, so it was important to have those voices there.
RSK- And one thing we said multiple times, was we could have had a hundred people on this committee and we still wouldn’t have had a full picture, Not every voice would have been represented.
JG– We did the best we could with those that were available at the time.
RSK-And with the knowledge that we didn’t have all the knowledge. That’s why we used resources like the letter to the Shepherd Express and We See You White American Theater to help us full in any of those gaps, and that’s why the listening sessions are really important because it allows the community to come in and help fill in those gaps as well. And it’s been a really great, like so many light bulb moments of “Oh of course, how could we not see this before?” So the standards are essentially a set of best practices…
RSK- These processes are not just a series of steps that you can check off and, congratulations, you’ve done diversity. It’s going to be an ongoing process that is going to take a lot of work and a lot of energy on behalf of the theater community, but all of that is worth it. But essentially, it’s guidelines on how to build a season that is diverse, on building a company that is diverse, onstage and off, both in performance talent and admin talent and technical talent. Best practices for audition notices, and for casting, and how to reach communities that have historically not been reached here in Milwaukee, because these people exist, these actors are out there, they’re just not getting the work. So it’s like, OK, now we have to rethink how we get to these people. So the standards lay out a completely new framework for thinking about how we create theater, in a way that is intentional and equitable and just and still gives us all that creative and artistic freedom, just in a way that is allowing everyone to have that freedom, not just the privileged people who happen to be in power at that moment.
JG– I think, too, its important to note that it’s not a complete “how to” manual
RSK-Exactly. Its giving recommendations and resources, so, like, EDI is a massive topic. At the back end of the document it goes into all these resources that were aggregated from all of the people that were involved in the process at the time. Because each company is different, you know, and what everybody needs as resources to EDI is going to be completely different. All we can do is start the discussion, provide recommendations, provide resources, and from there each company is going to have to find paths that work within their structures, and what structures need to be broken down.
Could you briefly describe a technique for rehearsals from the Chicago Theater Standards called “ouch/oops”?
RSK- Absolutely. “Ouch/oops” is a framework for communicating. So something happens in a rehearsal room or whatever space you’re in that hurts you in some way, you can say “ouch.” And it signifies to everyone in the room: something has happened that is harmful in some way. And it gives you a space to stop and process that and the person who did the ouch to acknowledge the harm that they’ve potentially done, and to foster this open communication within the theatre space. So, like Jaimelyn was saying earlier, that people do feel comfortable talking about things that happen and don’t push them to the side or hide them away until the place becomes so toxic and everything explodes out. And the “oops” is to acknowledge when you’ve messed up because we all will, you know, every single one of us will continue to mess up as we learn and grow. We’re always works in progress. So the “oops” is a tool to acknowledge, “Oh, I’m catching myself, I’m fixing myself, I acknowledge that what I said is not what I should have said. or has a different impact. It allows us to have communication in a way that’s not super daunting because it’s just these two simple little words to help spark those conversations.
Great, thank you. There’s a section that calls for “Mandatory ongoing racial bias training” for pretty much everybody who works in the theater, including having them sign statements so that they could be held accountable. Could you explain a little about how you see that working?
JG– Well, I want to reiterate that the Milwaukee Theatre Standards is a voluntary document. We’re not going to sit there and say you can’t be a member of the Theatre Alliance if you don’t abide by the standards and whatnot. Again, these are recommendations that all these people, experiences, and resources have brought together to create systems like that. What we all recognize as white people is that there is a whole bunch of bias that is embedded in us that we have to work on. And it’s going to take a long time, all of this stuff is going to take a long time. But it’s about recognition and holding yourselves accountable. Each company will have to figure out the system that works best for them. But it’s about planting the seeds of communication and accountability and talking about them to make them a reality that will benefit every theatre company in Milwaukee.
RSK- We’ve worked really hard to provide actionable items. Because what we’ve heard from the BIPOC community and other historically excluded groups is companies say “Oh yes we stand with you absolutely, we support you, we’re going to make a change.” And there isn’t. It’s easy to write a statement that yes, we stand for these things, but there’s not a ton of accountability there. Actionable steps that have timelines and are measurable create spaces that aren’t just talking the talk, they’re walking the walk as well.
In the preamble of the MTS it says that this is a living, breathing document” In what ways?
JG– There’s always room to add and take out because we are —hopefully—a changing society. As far as I’ve seen, Milwaukee hasn’t seen the likes of Profiles Theatre and I hope we never do. But we don’t know that for sure. This is a tool to open up the community so that people don’t feel like there’s going to be retaliation if they say something. In a small community like Milwaukee a lot of people feel like if you say one wrong thing, you’re not gonna work ever again. There’s so much anxiety and it puts so much pressure on people that people feel that they should not talk and so we’re trying to eliminate that and again create healthier artists to create better art. It’s an ongoing process and so we’re going to keep unearthing areas in our society and in ourselves that need work, so having a document that can grow along with us is really important. Because we’re never going to be done doing this work, so this document should never be done doing its work.
Now I’d like to ask a couple of dumb questions OK?
RSK- Absolutely. No question is a dumb question.
JG– There is no judgment here.
There are many levels of Milwaukee theater from the Rep to a little bunch of people who want to put on a show. What level of theater are these standards aimed at?
JG– All of them.
RSK- Every one.
JG– All of them. The bigger theaters have a lot of systems available to them, but we put in there a fair pay system. We came up with a ratio based on other things that we were looking at in other similar movements, a five to one ratio where the top paid person should not make more than five times the lowest person on staff. That’s something that the Rep, or any of the large theaters in Milwaukee could take a look at, if that’s something that could provide a more equitable pay environment. I don’t have to worry about that, because I don’t get paid. [laughs] But the Constructivists are a new organization and I do hope to build that organization to be, you know, hundreds of thousands of dollars a year. When that time comes, that five-to-one thing is a value of mine that I would want to invest in the people that work for me. And this is like the big idea of the Milwaukee Theatre Alliance: I said this at the first meeting and I really mean it: I want us all to get paid. I want it to be a societal value that artists are workers too, that we are job creators and that there should be in my opinion institutions in the United States, in Wisconsin government, in Milwaukee that provide pay for artists. One of the things that Covid showed us, is what happens when the artists aren’t there. Mental health issues just exploded when people were isolated and couldn’t go see a show in a small theatre in the back closet of a restaurant or whatever [laughs]. This is real to me. It’s real. These standards might work for some people now, but someday I hope it works for everybody, whether it’s five-to-one out of a thousand dollars or five-to-one out of 2.5 million dollars.
But just down to the basics of, like we said, gender bathrooms, that’s for everybody. That’s an everybody thing you know?
There’s fifty pages of detailed procedures and processes. How can small struggling companies with no money at all handle these standards?
JG- It’s not about handling stuff. There’s some stuff in there that doesn’t work for people right now, you’d have to determine what that is.
RSK- And to speak to the accessibility of the document, this is something we’ve all acknowledged–it’s a beast. We didn’t want to cut corners and leave anything out, so we just kind of accepted that it was going to be huge. One of our future goals is to make the document easier to use, and more accessible and more…
RSK- Yes, absolutely, edible.
Now I’d like to ask some questions that are a little more challenging, if that’s OK.
JG– [jokingly] What??
RSK- OK, yeah that’s fine.
Milwaukee theater is already pretty liberal, and it’s a small world. Do we really need formal standards?
RSK- The theater is often touted as this space that’s, “Oh everyone is welcome here, and we’re super-inclusive, and it isn’t true, you know. We’re better than we have been in the past, but we are nowhere near where we should be, and there are voices in the community that can speak directly to that. It might seem like we’re blowing this out of proportion. But if just one person feels safer, more comfortable and more respected and like a part of this community, then it’s worth it for me.
JG– If it wasn’t needed there wouldn’t be as many people involved.
RSK- And we wouldn’t have a fifty page document [laughs]
So you’ve heard stories that illustrate the needs for these kinds of standards?
RSK- Absolutely. And I’m not going to speak to anything that’s not my personal experience. But we have heard very serious very big long-term harmful things, and we have heard the day to day microaggressions that occur for marginalized people.
RSK- And both of those need to be addressed. Protecting people from sexual harassment and protecting people from being the only fill-in-the-blank in the room and feeling like they have to speak for everyone of that identity, or feeling like they can’t speak because it will reflect on their identity. Or feeling like nobody else in the room gets it and they can’t be their true selves. And if we can’t be our true selves in the theatre, where the hell can we be our true selves? [laughs].
JG- Amen [laughs]
Challenging question number two:
Do these standards basically mean that all plays we do have to be about race and gender issues now? Could this have a chilling effect on artistic freedom?
JG- It does actually say in the document: be careful that you’re not over-policing people so that people also feel in the opposite way, that they’re feeling silenced and that the artistic environment can’t flourish. So it’s not saying that you can’t do something, it’s just saying that do you have the resources to make it happen in the… right way? In the best way possible, in the most dignified, empathetic way that it should be done.
RSK- Diversity fosters creativity, and a wider idea of what the world can be like. I personally find diversity to revitalize things. Yes, we need more directors of color, we need more writers of color, we need more trans writers and directors. We need to bring the stories that haven’t been told to the forefront. God bless William Shakespeare, I love him. I have a Shakespeare tattoo. But there’s only so many ways you can do Hamlet—if you’re thinking in a certain way. So it’s not just about telling stories about race and gender, it’s about telling the stories that we’ve always told in ways that are new and exciting and invite everyone into the story. When we bring diverse mindsets into the theatre it lets us view the work in diverse ways. It opens us up to so much more that wasn’t there before. I’m very passionate about representation [laughs].
Are you ready for another challenging question?
RSK- Bring it on.
Equality involves give and take. For people who are not from traditionally excluded groups, that is, straight people, white people, and men, is there anything that can be done to keep them from feeling like the bad guys?
RSK- That requires a lot of personal work, right? That’s on those individuals.
RSK- And it’s something that we have to do for all of us who hold privilege in any way. We have to look at that privilege and understand it and how it impacts others, and we have to do it in a way that is helpful. And it’s gonna be uncomfortable. A lot of us in positions of privilege are going to have to get used to stepping back and making space instead of taking space, And that’s hard work. It’s really, really hard. But it’s also really, really important. It’s not a pie; if someone is getting more, you’re not getting less. And it might have to be like that a little bit for a while, because there are only so many seats at the boardroom table and so many shows that can be done in a season. In that sense there are finite resources. But it’s not that just because somebody else is allowed into this space, doesn’t mean that you’re not. That is going to be difficult for folks who haven’t had an opportunity to examine their privilege before. But as hard and challenging and uncomfortable as it is to do, it’s worth it.
Emma Goldman famously said “If I can’t dance I don’t want to be in your revolution.” Is there room in all this for fun?
RSK- A thousand percent yes.
JG– God, I hope so.
RSK- [laughs] I personally find this work super invigorating, it fills my cup, as the saying is. Like I was saying before, it lets us imagine a world that is better and brighter and safer and equitable and just. I’ve had a blast working on this document, as difficult, as heavy as some of the topics are, as bleak as it sometimes looks like, “Oh boy it’s up to us to make this a better world?” It’s theater, right? What are we doing if we’re not having fun?
JG– I think, too, hard work has to be done before you can have the fun, right? And there’s a lot of people who haven’t been having fun. [laughs] So how can we change that environment, in a lot of ways bring the fun back? A lot of us have been getting burned out, trying to make American theatre happen. Because the systems that have been set up. . .
RSK- are broken.
JG- It’s excessive hard work. So how can we make it just old-fashioned hard work, that will pay off? And how can we have fun doing it?
Last Question: what can the performing arts do to create understanding and appreciation of difference, rather than division?
RSK- I feel that a lot of that anxiety about difference comes from anxiety from the unknown, and when you don’t understand those differences, that triggers fear. The performing arts are uniquely suited to help assuage that anxiety, especially when we can get people in who can tell stories from their lived experiences. So when we get trans playwrights, Black playwrights, and Native playwrights, and actors, directors, producers, costumers, technicians, musicians, who can really truly express what it’s like to have that experience, and present it authentically, that fills those gaps in knowledge and it makes those differences less unknown and less scary. That’s why representation matters so much to me. “Nothing about us without us.” Because if you’re not there, the story isn’t accurate and it can’t close those gaps in knowledge in meaningful ways.
JG– My mind is exploding. My predominant thought is that we as humans crave stability, right? We like routine and being put in a box, you know? Theater, when it’s doing it’s best work, is breaking people out of that box. It’s just like that classic Greek thing, catharsis? Bringing people to the theater and telling stories from the wealth of experience of all of mankind. Not that white men’s stories aren’t very helpful, or Shakespeare isn’t like a god and whatever. . .
RSK- They’re telling valuable stories, its just they’re not the only stories.
JG– They’re not the only stories. I’m telling you, let’s get the women playwrights in there let’s get the BIPOC community. I know it’s going to be hard for men to sit down for just a second; it’s just a minute! White men have had control with the monies and whatnot for… a bit. All we’re saying is, there’s more out there, there’s more stories to tell, and that’s what makes humanity interesting, is the full breadth of humankind. And if we can introduce people to that, people won’t be afraid. We just have to figure out how to be honest in our community and say what we mean, and do what we say. And create utopia yeah? We’re just trying to…
RSK- Change the world
JG– I know, but right now we’re just trying to do better.
This interview has been heavily edited for brevity and clarity.