Recently, Shakespeare Theatre Company announced the results of their exhaustive search for for an artistic director to replace Michael Kahn: the young British director Simon Godwin. Naturally, the theatre community burst into conversation. One of the things that struck me was the sheer number of artists and theatre professionals who were rolling their eyes and saying: “Oh look, another white man.”
At an unprecedented level now, the community’s commitment to Equity, Diversity, and Inclusivity (or EDI) is at the top of everyone’s list. To many, this represented a baby step where there should have been a leap.
I wanted, as much as anyone, for STC to have a person of color or woman to lead them, but the reaction to Godwin felt, at its best, knee jerk.
As I scoured the discussions online, I realized that there were almost no voices from STC staff.
I was given the opportunity to speak to eight STC staff members from different departments, to get their thoughts on the selection of Simon Godwin and was struck by their honesty. Disappointed at first? Yes, for most. How has that changed after meeting with Godwin?
I spent time with Dat Ngo, Associate Director of Education and Inclusivity, Dan Crane, Resident Teaching Artist and Howard University Faculty, Marley Kabin, Development Events Coordinator, KayCee Tucker, Director of Development Events and Operations, Drew Lichtenberg, Resident Dramaturg, Laura Buda, Associate Director of Communications, Laura Willumsen, Senior Director of Development, and Chris Jennings, Executive Director.
Some artists and theatre professionals in DC have been grumbling about the selection of “another white man” to lead a premier arts institution. Do you think this is fair?
Dat Ngo: I totally understand it. I think when you’re looking at this huge scene change in American Theatre Leadership, and the opportunities it offers to traditionally underrepresented communities…I get that level of disappointment. I also know, as a person of color, in a predominantly white institution, the work that needs to be done to participate in that change. And that’s why I’m excited about the work we’re doing with our EDI committee.
Marley Kabin: The criticism is valid. I understand how it looks from the outside. He’s got the Straight White Guy exterior, but I think he’ll open up a lot of doors. I get where people are coming from, but I hope that right now, Simon will be the gateway for this new era.
Laura Buda: I understand why the criticism is out there. We were all cheering for a choice that would bring STC into a more modern context, make it more connected to the people in our community and make STC a more inclusive space in its art, its artists and its staff.
Laura Willumsen: There are plenty of us who would have loved to see a different representation in our leadership. On the other hand, if it were just another white man who was going to do the same-old-same-old, then I think we’d be crushed. But the fact is, Simon is so far from that and so thrilling. The nature of the work that we do, that classical theatre that we do has its traditions. To me, his deep roots in those traditions give him the ability to be innovative and pull people along, and will contribute to classical theatre’s ability to be more diverse andmore relevant and speak to our age.
Chris Jennings: The American theater is finally recognizing that it has truly has not been representing all voices and communities. And I am very proud of the work we have been doing to progress those efforts. Making sure our leadership represents those values is extremely important. I also recognize that there is a collective and holistic system that is required to make all the changes that we want.
We don’t want to just do Romeo and Juliet over and over until we die. – Marley Kabin
KayCee Tucker: So Simon is a White Man. He’s also heterosexual, as pointed out in the Post Article. He’s also married with kids. We can’t change that. Certainly for me, in that way, that criticism is totally valid! He is who he is. But EDI work is not simple; it’s complex. Simon has the power to walk into the room and ask why there aren’t more people of color on the board. He has the power to ask why aren’t there more people of color in our audience or about gender diversity and not be questioned about asking.
As a person of color staff member, I like the idea that I can hide behind that and do the work on the ground in calling the donors. It’s nice to know that Simon is backing the work that I’m doing. If Simon were a woman of color, I’d get that [she would be] doing it for me and for [herself]. But he’s not. It’s of NO benefit to him. He’s doing it because he believes in it, and that’s really what’s encouraging me through this. I’m really excited for him to have those conversations and to force those topics out into the open.
The staff can do all they can, but without supportive leadership, that’s not going anywhere. Leadership can’t force a vision on a reluctant staff. As a staff, we’re probably in a similar place to where Simon is; he’s probably a good match for us in that way, as far as willingness to open doors and change paradigms and increase access. He’s probably on target with where we are as an organization in these ways. It’s important to acknowledge where you are as you plan for growth.
KayCee: I wonder if a lot of the grumbling comes from contrasting something that isn’t really contrastable. Woolly is not Shakespeare. Howard Shalwitz is not Michael Kahn. Maria Manuela Goyanes is not Simon Godwin. And I think that it’s important to examine an organization independently of the rest of the world in deciding where it is. Then in the context of the world, deciding where it needs to go.
What were some of the metrics in play when it came to selecting the new Artistic Director? How was this decision made in regards to Inclusivity?
Chris: I can truly say that it was of high importance to the selection committee to take diversity seriously. The Board of Trustees and staff spent over a year, prior to the process, training and talking to other leaders to more deeply understand EDI values. The search committee knew that EDI was important to the company, and had staff not reacted with such overwhelming support of Simon following their meeting with him, there might have been concern. Simon has a demonstrated past with classics that is unparalleled by many people in our field.
What about Mr. Godwin’s art and leadership makes you excited for his tenure?
Laura Willumsen: Oh so many things. I find him thrilling artistically. He’s my ideal in the sense that he finds the depth and the meaning in these classic works and can translate them because he has a depth of experience. He’s steeped in the stuff. When he brings it alive with a new interpretation, it’s convincing, and you have to take notice. He knows this work. So when he does something innovative, you have to notice. You have to take it seriously.
Laura Buda: I think his approach to the classics will bring new life to STC’s mission. In his own productions, he has consistently made casting choices that explore different perspectives on classic texts, and approached these projects with intense thoughtfulness that seems guided by his collaborators (not just his own vision).
… the small theatre scene in DC is FANTASTIC. The new work, even the productions of old work and the adaptations… KayCee Tucker
Marley: Just from my own research, and our meeting with him, I’m really excited about what he’s going to bring. Shakespeare is a wonderful theatre, but I’m excited for fresh eyes and fresh perspective. Especially from someone who is so much about inclusiveness. I feel like DC’s Shakespeare, like STC did it 20 years ago, will be like: “Hey, let’s cast Patrick Stewart as Othello, and everyone else will be black and SHAKE IT UP” but that’s not the right way to shake it up. I feel like Simon will actually shake it up with female, trans, and people of color actors, designers, playwrights, and directors.
KayCee: What intrigued me the most about Simon and the work that he does is the danger of whether or not it’s performative. Are you setting your Hamlet in Ghana because it’ll sell tickets, or is it because you’re interested in exploring this story in a new context. A lot of the internal conversation on the Artistic Director position is “What’s next for us?”. Simon seems to have a forward-thinking vision, not just in terms of progress in the arts and on stage, but where are we in five years as a company. Based on how he talked about his work, I have confidence that he has an idea of where to take us that’ll be fruitful and positive.
Dan: I knew of Simon Godwin’s work before I knew who he was. The Hamlet that came through, the Twelfth Night at the National. The Cherry Orchard on Broadway; a friend of mine was in that Cherry Orchard, who spoke about this lovely, crazy, elfish, thoughtful director. That got me really excited. Simon brought a little clip of his work to the staff meeting, a little montage of what his work represents. And again it was all those things that I saw that I’m inspired by.
What responsibility do you think ‘Theatre’ as a whole has towards diversity, inclusivity, and equity?
Dan: I go to the theatre to see myself reflected. Aristotelian Catharsis, right? I don’t go to the theatre just to see white men do plays about white man things. That doesn’t release those things in me; that’s not the healing art. I go to the theatre to see the human condition and see that human condition reflected in myself. I think that’s the role of the theatre. I think the phrase: “until all of us have a voice, none of us has a voice” is true, especially in the way this art form is expressed. And so, I think there is a responsibility for the art form and for theatre artists to represent the FULL spectrum of the human condition.
Why do you think Equity, Diversity and Inclusivity at STC are important?
Laura Buda: STC is a theatre with a mission that is built around a problematic western canon, one that has historically left many people out of the conversation and out of the creation of art. In order to celebrate what’s great about the classics and be a relevant art-maker in the modern world—not to mention a socially responsible part of the D.C. community—we have to face this problem head on and actively work to offset the limitations of the classics and of the regional theatre. I believe STC has started to think about this very seriously and made strides in this direction, and I believe that Simon will help us continue to improve.
Dat: So I have to come from a personal place. When I first encountered Shakespeare Theatre Company, it was as a theatre student in this region. And I always assumed that they were making theatre for other people. People that could afford it. People that didn’t look like me.
And here I was, a Shakespeare fan, a theatre person, who didn’t feel like he belonged here. Even as an adult, when I was teaching in Northeast DC, that school enrolled me in a professional development program here at the theatre, I still carried with me that impression of this theatre from when I was a youth. I was worried that I would feel stupid, or unprepared to understand the work, but that’s not at all what I received. It was incredibly inclusive. Accessible.
So I’m very aware of that type of impression that people might have of STC. We have a tremendous amount of resources to engage this community and really transform people’s lives. Through art and through the education programs. The work that needs to be done is entirely about how we break down those barriers.
Does the choice of Simon Godwin reflect who we want to be? I don’t know. But, I think he reflects a hope for who we could be. – Dan Crane
Laura Willumsen: The arts in general are struggling with this. There’s Black Lives Matter and #metoo. There’s so much breaking open in our world today about inequity. This is another level of how to make it accessible to a broader audience if no one sees themselves on the stage. How can you change your stage if your board and your staff are all white? It’s a massive challenge. I think we’re in the beginning. I think some people get frustrated because they expect us to get there instantly. You run the danger of making the change only on a cosmetic level, because you’re trying to make it look right whether or not the roots have actually changed.
KayCee: STC is a predominantly and historically white institution that has produced works of classic “White” theatre, which is important to note. I think both as a business and as an artistic community, STC and the idea of “classic work” is on the cusp of being something bigger than itself. I have said in EDI Committee meetings “A Raisin in the Sun was the first show produced on Broadway written by a black person, and we’ve never done it, but something about it’s achievements makes it classic.” We haven’t thought of “Classic” as anything other than “old” and “White”. We talk a lot in EDI about how white is the default, and there’s a lot wrong with it, but it’s not surprising, or in and of itself a negative thing. I like that Simon brings to the table the idea of expanding what “Classic” means. Simon has an investment in bringing different voices to the table and challenging contemporary norms. He did it with his Hamlet that came through the Kennedy Center, and now he’s directing a show in Tokyo with an all-Japanese cast in Hamlet at Theatre Cocoon.
Drew: He began his talk with the staff by holding up a program for Hooded by Terrence Chisholm at Mosaic Theatre and started it with: “I saw this show last night. I really loved it. Why don’t we do that kind of work here? Why don’t we partner with this kind of theatre or this kind of playwright here.
Marley Kabin: In DC, it’s important to represent such a crazy city. How many people here are transplants? How many people are from here? It’s important to represent them, so we can’t get stagnant with homogenized storytelling. Classics are classics not just because they’ve survived this long . We don’t want to just do Romeo and Juliet over and over until we die; we’re looking to find how we can use the classics to find the universality.
Dan: I think that we have a responsibility to explore and share the human condition. If we don’t reflect that in our make up, in our staff, in our board? Then it’s harder for us to engage the community in a meaningful and truthful way. We are not where we want to be. We have a lot of work to do.
And centuries of traditions to defy.
Laura Willumsen: And he’s already doing the work. He’s doing it at the highest level at some of the highest stages around the world. These are not novelties; there has to be some depth in order to do it right. And as a fundraiser, I have to say, you have to be able to bring in the resources to support this vision. He has a vision for a diverse stage, which means he needs to sell that vision and get people behind it. And a lot of those people are gonna be white people; and he needs to make that work. That’s part of the conversion process. He has to do something on stage that can work and continue to grow. I see it as a process, and I’m excited that he has the vision and the willingness to go out into society and make it happen. That’s not easy.
I would challenge people in the DC Theatre Community to focus less on who Simon is, and more on how we, as a community, will keep him accountable. – KayCee Tucker
Dan: It’s what makes Simon compelling is hearing him speak about the community engagement projects that he wants to get involved in, and in seeing what he says backed up in the stories that he tells. Does the choice of Simon Godwin reflect who we want to be? I don’t know. But, I think he reflects a hope for who we could be.
Why do you think Equity, Diversity, and Inclusivity are important to your audiences?
Dat: I think representation is so important. I say that, again, from a personal place. I have not seen that many Asian people telling Asian-people story on stage. So having seen Vietgone at Studio for example, shook my world. And that’s been coming from a place wherein I’ve been teaching about representation…so to see it on stage? I was a hot mess. It’s important for audiences to see themselves in stories that reflect their lived experiences, where they have a window in where they might not have had before. Especially when dealing with stories that have traditionally been told by white Eurocentric artists. Especially now in today’s American climate, where there are sections of the population that are trying to draw bigger divisions. It’s more important that audiences see a true reflection of America’s diversity. A lot of that is through shared stories and common, universal experiences.
How do you hope Mr. Simon Godwin will express these ideas of EDI?
Chris: One of the things that Simon said to me during the interview process was that the best way to reach audiences of color is to have those stories told by people of color. The best way to develop young audiences is to have stories told by young artists. He in no way thinks that he fully represents all communities, this theatre and our work. I believe he will reach out to a broad pool of diverse American artists and make STC a home for them.
Drew Lichtenberg: I remember him telling us about the Hamlet that came through the Kennedy Center. He had been working with African-British actor from Ghana. Simon was so curious about understanding where this actor came from that he went back to the Royal Shakespeare Company and said: “I need to go to Ghana with this actor to understand his culture and his world, his viewpoint and his perspective”. That was not just the beginning of his relationship with this actor as a director, but also the birth of this concept and how this production came into being. That sort of open-minded curiosity really resonated with me, that this is somebody who’s not just interested in his own story or repeating stories that we’ve seen before but is legitimately a citizen of the world. Someone who is curious about people from all walks of life, people who are different from him, people who can reflect differently on Shakespeare.
The image you have in your mind of him is very different from the person you meet. – Drew Lichtenberg
Dat: What I responded to there was, this wasn’t just casting a black Hamlet; it was through a non-Euro perspective. Seeing that kind of work, and thinking about how it might have a life on our stages, in an incredibly international city, is very inspiring.
When I asked him about that, I said that there’s been an effort to have the work on our stage and the audiences that watch it reflect the diversity in our city. He acknowledged that there was work to do. He looked at our staff, and said: “Just looking at our staff, I can tell that we have work to do.”
And even though he’s not a DC person, not even an American, he was able to speak to specific institutions in this city that he would look to as resources to cultivate relationships with to help us get to that better place. My hope is that he’s an active participant in our EDI Committee.
Can you talk to me about some of your metrics for diversity off and on stage?
Dat: We know that we can’t make these decisions purely on an optics level; we can’t just be checking the boxes. We’re not going to just cast diversely just so we can say: “Look how diverse we are”. This is a cultural shift, and part of that is addressing reasons why we might not attract, say people of color or people with disabilities. A lot of it has to do with our work on stage. But more of it has to do with how we treat the people that are already with us.
How successful do you feel you’ve been in the mission so far, knowing that the bulk of the work is yet to come? How has enacting culture change as an institution been?
Dat: I think we’ve moved the needle. Perhaps not in ways that are apparent to everyone, whether it’s in the company or outside of it, But I have more conversations with people in our artistic departments about how they post casting calls, the language they put together for job postings, what the makeup of our literary circle is, etc. I know that in education, it’s at the forefront of everyone’s mission. We talk about programming for specific communities, or how we put together a panel for a discussion, EDI is the lens through which we prepare.
The fact that I can gather one third of the company’s staff for two hours every so often JUST to talk about EDI issues internally. It’s really invigorating. They obviously care. It demands of them such a personal reflection and change, because we’re talking about not just things like casting, hiring, and policy, we’re talking about behaviours and how people regard one another.
How do you think Mr. Godwin’s presence will change the DC Theatre Community as a whole?
Drew: The image you have in your mind of him is very different from the person you meet. Even the name “Simon Godwin” feels like someone out of an Oscar Wilde play. “Here’s this aristocratic British guy who’s gonna come and be forced upon us.” That sounds terrible. But the reality of meeting him was the polar opposite. He felt like someone we could talk to, relate to, and work with. So I think that he’s gonna have a similar effect on the DC Theatre Community.
Laura: I love that he’s going to live in DC. That’s exciting. You look at symphonies and music directors and they rarely live in the city since they’re too busy touring. So I’m particularly struck by the fact that he’ll live here. That’s profound, because his children will grow up here. His wife will live here. He’s gonna need to feel good about this community and be part of it.
KayCee: I see Simon fitting into the DC Community and the spectrum of change. Honestly I think there’s a lot of power that comes from being a white man who’s willing to say: “These lives, these stories, these donors, these communities are valid.” And I don’t know that there’s a lot of that in this community. There’s a lot of uplifting of voices of color, and I think the whole community has rallied around Maria Manuela Goyanes over at Woolly right now. But that’s sort of a different thing than standing up and saying: “I’m not supporting someone else in doing this work, I’m willing to do it myself.” I hope he energizes the community in that way. I hope that he energizes the community to stand up and say and be and do the things they say they wish were done.
What do you hope that Mr. Godwin will keep the same at STC, and what programs do you want him to expand?
Marley: I love our Free-For-All, and our education initiatives. Anything that engages kids or young people, especially those who don’t come to theatre. I love working Free-For-All. Either folks come in tuxedos and capes because they don’t know how to dress, or they’re in shorts and flip-flops, and it’s just amazing. It’s a lot of people’s first exposure to Shakespeare, or sometimes to theatre. Student matinees are always so fun; I love hearing kids freak out about Shakespeare. I hope he expands on all of these programs.
Drew: What I want to see more of, and I want to talk to Simon more about, is really understanding what our mission is and how it has evolved over the past 10 years. I want to come away with a strong sense of what it should be and how it can continue to grow and evolve. I think a lot, as the literary manager, about the canon, and how we can expand, reevaluate and grow the canon to be more inclusive or diverse. Even how we present the stories of Shakespeare in a way that challenges and grows the canon.
I was working on a show in London a couple of years ago, and Simon was directing a show at the National, a production of Twelfth Night with a female Malvolio. I was in the canteen at the time, and everyone was just talking about Tamsin Greig, one of these great British actors, and how great it was that she was really starring as Malvolia for this play, and what a paradigm shift it was for that company. And they’ve had, in London, Glenda Jackson play Lear, and she’ll be playing it again on Broadway, but it started over there. They, as a theatre culture, are reinspecting their practices.
Can you talk a little about the evolution of STC’s mission?
Drew: When I started, in 2011, we tended to do three Shakespeares a year; now we do two. We did translations from the classical canon, which meant the Western European canon. German Romanticism. A lot of French Comedy, which we still do. But, over the last 8 years, I’ve been able to observe how our mission has evolved. We’ve started doing original plays by female authors. Salome in 2015. Noura by Heather Raffo last season, which is going to Playwrights’ Horizons this year. Some people can say “Well, they’re adaptations…”, but they’re really not; they’re response plays to these classics from the Western European Mostly Male Canon. Our new play programming has not done a 180, but is adding to and supplementing and replacing the kinds of more conservative translations and adaptations we’re used to doing. After talking with Simon, I felt that this was achievable, not that it’d happen overnight, but these are changes we can make.
Dan: There’s so much about this institution that I love, but I know it has to change. It has to develop. It cannot stay static. “Good Enough” in this industry, is death. When the work is informed and inspired, THEN we get a reverberation throughout the company.
In education, when a play is cooking, when it’s really spicy and hot, it is so easy for me to roll into a classroom, whatever classroom, and get those students inspired. I’m not making anything up. I’m truly inspired. I’m not trying to sell it like: “You’re gonna love this play” when it’s gonna be a really expensive nap. When I’m inspired by a play, it gets into my DNA, and I carry it with me into a classroom. Those students bring that energy with them when they come see the show. That’s when a really powerful, interesting dialogue appears in that space between the artists and students.
What do you want Mr. Godwin to know about the DC theatre scene before he arrives?
Drew: I think he knows a little bit already. He’s an exciting candidate because London and New York have this rhythm similar to DC in the intelligence of the audiences, and their hunger for content they can sink their teeth into. I think that he should know that it’s an audience that wants to be challenged, that is really well educated about theatre and politics and culture and about all of these things. And I think that he should know that it’s an audience that if you challenge, it will reward you.
Laura Willumsen: It’s an opportunity to bring the theatre community even closer, and to really make the statements we want to make. Otherwise we’re stuck in our very governmental and political DC life. The ability of theatre is to comment and help us learn about all of these troubling issues that we’re all grappling with. Our colleague theatres are all presenting such important work.
KayCee: I would tell Simon that the small theatre scene in DC is FANTASTIC. The new work, even the productions of old work and the adaptations…the small theatre scene in this city is robust. It’s diverse, not just in color of participants. Like Deb Sevigny’s Hello My Name is, but we’ve also got companies like Pinky Swear and Nu Sass that’re doing their thing. There’s so much theatre happening on the “small scale” that really has the opportunity to create some really interesting combinations with what we do at STC. There is the potential for some really cool partnerships. If I could say anything about STC, is that I wish that we were more into the local theatre community. A lot of the people that work with this company work all over town with the indie companies. And I would want him to know that, investigate it, and engage with it. We have a lot of opportunity to elevate voices that are already existing . We have an opportunity to not have to lead the charge on our own, and let the people who are not only already doing the work, but are also the most deeply affected by the work that’s being done to sort of lead US in that way. It’s already here.
Drew: I really think he’s going to try and connect us more to DC Theatre as a whole. It’d be a total paradigm shift for us as well; a lot of people within the company feel frustrated that we don’t already. He thinks it’s strange that we don’t do that.
Marley: I just want to bring him to all the kooky theatre. Let’s go on a Fringe Festival Rampage. Let’s find all the little weird stuff. The stuff where you’re sitting on the edge of your seat and you’re like: “WHAT IS GOING ON!?”. That’s the stuff I saw when I was a little freshman in high school Metroing down to see some weird show. I want him to find the passionate people, the plays with music, this beautiful culture of cool ideas and different conflicts. We’re this artsy/political city. There’s nowhere else like DC, and I hope he realizes that.
Dat: There’s amazing work happening at every level. Whereas it used to seem that the performing arts were really centralized in Northwest DC, I hope he realizes that art happens all over and to really take note of what’s happening.
Dan: I want him to know that there are a lot of incredibly talented and passionate people fighting for what they believe in through art in whatever space that they can find. That includes our friends at Woolly. Our friends across the street at Taffety Punk. That includes our friends up in Bethesda, Flying V. That people are passionate, astonishingly talented, and trying to do the right thing. That’s where people are coming from. I truly believe the people who are pissed off at this choice for artistic director are pissed off because they’re fighting for the right thing. And you know what? They are. I really think that they are.
KayCee: I would like to issue a slight challenge. I would challenge people in the DC Theatre Community to focus less on who Simon is, and more on how we, as a community, will keep him accountable. We have no power over what the board of a company chooses. However, as a Theatre Community, we get to decide who we are. I would encourage the community to think about how we’re going to make sure that Simon hears us. That’s my challenge.