This is from Producing Artistic Director David M. Jenkins in response to questions posed by members of our Black community about practical (as opposed to performative) actions organizations are undertaking in response to the current moment. These calls tie directly to internal discussions and long-standing challenges that we will make completely transparent:
As folks began to take to the streets in protest of the latest string of murders of Black Americans, I began to share Aleshea Harris’ “What to Send Up On Your Own” as a way to help heal, create, and combat the negative depiction and association of Black people in the media while ‘staying in our lane.’ It is a ritual response to the violence of ingrained anti-Blackness and systemic racism. We all watched as the country began to (once again) erupt over the murder of innocent Black people, and as the weekend progressed my soul collapsed onto itself like some sort of dying star leaving me blankly staring at my black mirrors with little more than anger, hopelessness, despair. I struggled with the thought of what I could actually do.
Since March 13 I’ve had the thing taken from me that helps me feel I make any kind difference: the ability to bring people together in physical space to experience and share in a theatrical reckoning. Dr. Mikell Pinkney, a brilliant educator and artist who was a mentor and served as the chair of my MFA at the University of Florida, often said “theater is ministry” and though I balked at the religious connotation at the time I’ve since embraced the phrase as a creed.
Since March 13, to put it plain, I’ve struggled both mentally and spiritually day-to-day. Sometimes my outlook swings wild within the same day or even the same hour. A way I handle these moments — particularly without my “church” — is often to just freeze up, become paralyzed. I know many of us do this and currently feel this way, it’s not a contest — just my truth. This is where I already was, and where I know so many of us were, when this important civil rights moment began to peak. Some of us are still there: What can I do?
I’ve watched all of this unfold while being confounded by those who can’t see the need for change, by those who would do harm for harm’s sake or revel in division, by those who refuse to embrace basic human empathy, and by those who refuse to lead. I can try to be an ally, and I can fight the good fight in the comments sections (though I’ve always questioned if anyone has ever really had their mind changed there). But what can I really do?
Change is slow. Painfully slow, usually. Often imperceptible. Change is also not a thing that only moves in a single direction. You can change a law easier than you can change hearts and minds. It takes a billion drops of water to break down a stone that also took eons to create.
In several ways the coronavirus closures and our civil rights struggle have intersected and made it impossible to not take a long, hard look at what we do as a company, how we do it, and why we’re doing it. Many of these conversations long predate the closures, but the dark theater has opened a space to give thoughts and talk the room they require.
Jobsite has, since the end of 1998, gotten by with proverbial spit, duct-tape, and bottle of WD-40 when it comes to hard resources. We’ve always had an embarrassment of brilliant creators and creative spirit to spare, we’ve always had an audience who supports us enough to keep the lights on, and we’ve always had gracious partners who help make us as strong as we are.
For a number of years all of our resources went to producing the show and/or season right in front of us while crossing our fingers there would be another. No paid leadership, very little overhead. That’s began to change in 2013 when we overhauled how we do business, separating our core artists from our board in effort to grow, but currently the company can only support one full-time position (that would be me). The marketing department? Education? Finance? Programming? Administration? You guessed it.
Insult to injury: before this mess started we enjoyed a string of success that indicated we were finally in a place to hire a second full-time employee within a year or so. That’s no longer likely.
We’ve managed as much as we have internally because of the love, care, and time given up by our Artistic Associates and Board of Directors who have very different but equally critical purviews.
The Artistic Associates are a group of core artists who’ve made Jobsite home and in a way ‘graduated’ from our ensemble to serve as our voluntary artistic braintrust. They help select our season and inform artistic direction. Each and every one is a human I value beyond words as my “inner council.”
Our Board of Directors works to ensure long-term stability, growth, and sustainability. They help fundraise (including my salary so that we don’t take ticket revenue away from artists), they help us connect with more and more of our community and develop new audiences.
Currently (but not always), both bodies are all-white. If you think we’re blind to that, you’ve clearly never been in either room. I disclose in recent grant narrative that “while I am very proud of the diversity within our ensemble and our history of commitment to identity-conscious casting, we currently lack proper representation in the board and artistic meeting rooms.”
This leads to a separate but linked issue we’ve struggled with (again, well before the past few weeks or March 13): how can we do a better job telling a wider array of stories, not just focus on diversity in casting?
Earlier this season we produced a play by Sicangu Lakota playwright Larissa FastHorse who, frustrated that she couldn’t get Indigenous stories on regional stages because companies said they ‘couldn’t cast’ them, wrote a play using only white actors to get at her frustrations. Over the years we’ve offered the perspectives of Black men and women, queer and non-binary folks, controversial voices within the Jewish community, and so on, and what pains me is that they have failed to attract an audience large enough to avoid a financial blow. Each time we offer such a show we convince ourselves “this one will be different because _____.” And we are, almost without exception, proven wrong.
Which isn’t to say that we won’t produce these plays moving ahead, it just limits how often we can produce them without private funding or fixing our audience problem.
For the past few years, we have put most of our grantwriting effort outside of basic general support into soliciting funds to cover our Shakespeare initiative. We chose this annual production so that we could not only improve the quality of these identity-conscious spectacles and share them with a wider regional audience, but also so that we could expand our education outreach to thousands more middle and high school students at little-to-no cost. After 7 years of dedication to this one initiative I feel like we have something special, most recently thanks to generous gifts from the Saunders Foundation, Gobioff Foundation, and Cornelia T. Bailey Foundation. Hopefully we will get good news any day now from the NEA, this is the second year we are a finalist.
In addition to our commitment to approach Shakespeare with identity-conscious casting, we have always had a dedication to non-traditional casting in all of our work where it is allowed by the playwright and it makes sense. That dedication has allowed artists and audiences access to work that has challenged not just conceptions of race and gender but also age, physical type, etc that allow us to experience even well-known material through a different lens, creating space for new insights. Yet we fully recognize that we have been limited in the range of whose stories we have told.
There isn’t a single finger to point at why we struggle with offering plays that — I guess I just have to say it — fall outside of white Christian heteronormativity, but I’ll speculate that it’s a permutation of 1) us not doing a good enough job convincing semi-regulars (non-passholders who come frequently) that a show is relevant to them, 2) whether we like it or not our broader audience simply might lack interest in stories they deem “too political,” “depressing,” “ripped from the headlines,” or “identity-driven” (all phrases I’ve heard), 3) we lack meaningful relationships with communities the stories do reflect and so our messages are never really received, and/or 4) if those communities do know about the work they may not feel that we’re a space for them.
Wanna talk about paralysis? I want to fix it all right now, but I’m one man and this is a complex web.
Less than 20% of our attendees are passholders (yet they are a very dedicated, wonderful group). As a result, we live and die by single ticket sales. And so we do — over and over, from the ground up with every show every season. A number of these folks are good for 3-4 shows a season. Can you guess which shows get passed on in the largest numbers?
Now my tail-chasing begins:
- We need to diversify our Artistic Associates so that there are more perspectives offered into the material we choose and who we should be,
- but we also require the assistance of our Board of Directors and volunteers (who we have a critical need of in terms of both growth and diversity) to help cultivate relationships and raise funds to help offset the box office until we can expand our audience,
- and we need more of our current audiences who consistently turn out for Shakespeare (and other lit-based work), musicals, modern classics, and comedies to understand how much full-season support means to the future of this organization and community. Even if folks don’t want to (or simply can’t) personally attend every show, they can always give them to a friend or donate them to us for a member of the community who can’t afford tickets.
Our situation is not as simple as fixing one of the above and the others will fall in line. I wish it were that easy. Nor are these issues unique to Jobsite. I can only worry about us, I have enough on my plate.
One colossal box-office dud (not a small or anticipated loss, the big’uns), despite the quality of the work, sets us back for the rest of that season. If we have two of those in a calendar year we’re lucky to survive — you may recall this nearly happened a few years ago after Irma destroyed our run of The Flick and audiences decided that HIR was not for them (despite being one of the most highly-decorated shows we’ve done). Those losses forced our hand to select “sure things” for our 20th season and weighed it heavily for our 21st.
Small not-for-profit theaters like Jobsite always walk this precarious razor’s-edge. We have a mission to serve as well as responsibility to both our dedicated audience and the greater community. We are, like it or not, bound to both ideals and dollars. Of giving audiences what they want to see and what we think they need to see. Of doing the right thing and doing it in a responsible, sustainable way.
After the 2016 election I wanted to produce nothing but angry agit-prop theater, but knew damn well it would put us under within the year. So, I dialed it back and made a spot for my one statement. The “one spot” in a season covers many types of plays I wish we were able to produce more of but that we simply can’t afford the losses on. People are right to call the pattern out in theaters. I do not not offer this as an excuse but as an explanation.
We can and do take risks (though not enough, it was so much easier when we had nothing to lose), but until we fix this Gordian knot we can’t become the company I want us to be.
I don’t have all the answers and I also understand that, like all change, this won’t come quickly. This letter is my beginning. I’m trying to un-freeze. I’m trying to get my hands around what I can do. I’m embracing the discomfort and laying bare my need for help. This is just the start of an honest conversation with my colleagues, stakeholders, audiences, and community.
When I stated in the image at the top of this post that “We must do better,” I meant it — we — I hold myself accountable to that. I hope that you do, too.
I was loathe to virtue signal through a public statement at the start of the week positioning/defending ourselves as “good folks” nor did I want to write a check in the form of a promise that our ability can’t cash considering the continuing fallout of the closures. I also don’t want to be seen as another company who, to paraphrase ensemble member Nick Hoop, “produces a full season by Whitey McWhiterton and that August Wilson play you’ve seen 16 times in February.”
One of the greatest responsibilities I have, what I think about all day every day, is sorting out how to provide for up to 60 regional artists every year. I can’t do that if we’re bankrupt, and cutting labor costs is non-starter since I’m still fighting for a living wage. Since March 13 my greatest source of anxiety has been that I can’t provide work and income to what is now almost 50 regional artists between the shows planned for the Shimberg and Jaeb, with that number sure to climb in the coming months. Most of our core artists are unemployed right now, and there isn’t a lot I can do about it.
But what can I do? (Stay on topic, Jenkins) A few thoughts:
- To my BIPOC colleagues: If you’ve worked with us I hope we’ve made you feel valued and respected in our space without exception. I’ve always said I need to know if we can do better and I have never meant it more than I do right now. There is always a place for you at our table. Come take a seat, you know how to find me. If you haven’t worked with us, reach out. I want to know you. Once this all blows over I want to have an open house for this express purpose. We will continue to make our conscious approach to casting a top priority.
- To our season ticket holders and those I’ve been trying to convert for years: this conundrum is one of the reasons why that pass means so much to Jobsite. For everyone who asks why we don’t offer a “punch card” or flex pass — this is precisely why. The more of you there are who embrace the totality of our work the more risks we can take and the more facets of human existence we can illuminate on our stage. Passes are on sale right now at our best price.
- To those of you who grace us with your volunteer time and/or donations: I hope my blunt transparency helps you see how your contributions help ease binds like these and help us move toward becoming a more egalitarian company that reflects all parts of our community. If you’re reading this and want in, reach out to see how we can get you involved or make a gift right now.
- To those who have said over the years that a play doesn’t sound like it’s ‘for’ you because it features stories or bodies that do not mirror your own: I hope recent events have challenged thoughts like those and that this cultural moment has helped you understand the vital urgency of seeing, experiencing, and listening to people who are perhaps not ‘like you’ if we’re to heal and progress. One of the greatest gifts live theater offers is how it develops our mechanism for empathy.
- To everyone who continues to push me and this organization to do better: Thank you. Call it out when you see it. Specifically, Salem Brophy initiated a talk with me that acted as a shove to “unfreeze” and the chats I have had with him and Nick Hoop since have been important. Chelsea Yvonne and Andresia Moseley: thank you for continuing to ask what people plan to do.
- Our board has an ongoing initiative to recruit members with a top priority being better representing the community. Once we have successfully recruited our needs, a priority will be to establish the position of a diversity/inclusion officer. Follow the link and use the contact form if that interests you or you simply want to learn more. We’re interviewing right now though the summer for both the coming season and 2021.
- I’m making it a top priority for our Artistic Associates to take a harder look at ourselves and the ensemble and see how we might re-make this inner council to be more inclusive. Since the AAs are a ‘promotion’ of sorts from within the ensemble, I want to once again impress on regional performers that I want to get to know you and we are currently accepting video auditions for 20/21.
We have agreements in place for mainstage programming through at least the end of 2021 (including the reschedules of shows in the current season moved by the closures), and we know we may end up needing to postpone more shows this fall which could keep our mainstage calendar full into 2022. Those titles already have contracts signed and advances paid — we’re not in the position to lose that by replacement. As a group we will put our heads together and consider how we can better center marginalized voices until we begin to undertake mainstage play selection again. Perhaps that also helps give us the time to better strategize how to raise funds those projects will require since most granting is done at least a year ahead of a project coming to fruition.
Those who know and work with me should know where I stand and what is in my heart, I’m just sorry that it has taken me this long to articulate and publicly express what I hope to do about it.
Thank you for your continued support. I cannot wait to get to work.