Looking for racism in the theater industry? According to veteran stage executive Stephanie Ybarra, it’s not hard to find — because it shows up everywhere you look.
Listen to this week’s “Stagecraft” podcast below:
“There are so many ways that we as theater consumers and theater makers are just completely, unknowingly indoctrinated into a set of behaviors and beliefs and practices,” said Ybarra on the latest episode of Stagecraft, Variety‘s theater podcast. Now the artistic director at Baltimore Center Stage and a co-founder of Artists Anti-Racism Coalition, Ybarra was working toward anti-racist theater practices well before the protests over the murder of George Floyd spurred widespread activism and reflection across all industries.
“One of the more insidious ways that white supremacy specifically shows up in our theater practices is this idea of: Sit quietly, ‘politely,’ in the dark, and mind your manners while the work of art is being performed before you, and do not disturb it,” she explained. “There’s hierarchy built into that behavior system.”
Informed by her experiences as the director of the Public Theater’s Mobile Shakespeare Unit, as well by workshops with the People’s Institute for Survival and Beyond, Ybarra came into her role at Center Stage with anti-racist work already in mind. “One of the first places I look when it comes to anti-racism, [in terms of] where systemic inequities might be operating: Usually, if you look at a budget, you will find inequities,” she said.
One of the places she saw it was Center Stage’s tiered fee system — a widespread practice that pays artists working in smaller spaces less than the artists who work in a theater’s larger auditoriums. At Center Stage, performers were being paid equally no matter what space they worked in, but the same was not true of directors and designers. “What happens is the artists get paid less, the idea being that the theater cannot earn as much money in those smaller spaces,” she said. “But when you look at who is being produced where, then you start to see economic inequality, and a wage gap starts to emerge.”
With that in mind, Ybarra and her executive team mapped out a plan to change it. “We don’t get to fix it all in one fiscal year, but my executive director and I have charted a path toward parity,” she said. “We created a set of production budgets and parameters that prioritized accelerating increased fees for our designers and directors, and we did that inside of an overall reduction in costs for our productions. Like everybody else, we had to pinch pennies and what have you, but because we put stakes in the ground first around closing these gaps, and then built the production budgets accordingly, it was not a hard conversation.”
Also on Stagecraft, Ybarra recalled some of the biggest lessons she learned during her time with the Mobile Unit, pointed out some of the racist blind spots at work in the theater industry, and explained how the current moment has influenced her own approach to anti-racist work.
New episodes of “Stagecraft” are available biweekly during the summer, with a weekly scheduling resuming this fall. Download and subscribe to “Stagecraft” on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Stitcher and anywhere finer podcasts are dispensed. Find past episodes here and on Apple Podcasts.