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Reaffirmation

Updated November 1, 2022

SUMMARY

As part of our commitment to repairing lost trust and healing those who have been harmed, Olney Theatre Center’s staff and Board of Directors unanimously adopted a statement of intent in December 2020, focused on making changes in five areas: programming, theatermaker diversity, audience diversity, educating a more equitable generation of theatermakers, and cultural competency. The text of that statement and those priorities can be found here.

In the spring and early summer of 2022, the theater’s Equity, Diversity, Inclusion, and Accessibility (EDIA) Committee evaluated Olney Theatre’s progress in becoming anti-racist, and circulated its report card to senior staff, executive leadership and the Board of Directors. While the Committee found evidence of progress in each priority area, their report makes clear that, emerging from the pandemic, Olney Theatre has not yet fulfilled its anti-racist commitments as fully as it must. 

Olney Theatre is therefore issuing this affirmation of its anti-racist commitments, taking what we’ve learned in our first post-pandemic season, including the EDIA Committee’s report card, and adapting our strategies. Olney Theatre’s EDIA committee will continue to evaluate the theater’s progress on an annual basis, and successive affirmations will, together, become a living archive of the company’s efforts to becoming anti-racist: a long-term journey that has no end-point.

We hope members of all the communities we serve will share their responses to this living document with us. We invite you to hold us accountable for our actions and the progress we make. Feel free to email staff leadership at Jason@olneytheatre.org and Debbie@olneytheatre.org, or the chairs of our EDIA committee Eleanor Sobczyck (esobczyck@olneytheatre.org) and Kevin McAllister (kevin@olneytheatre.org).

NON-PROFIT THEATER IN THE POST-PANDEMIC ENVIRONMENT

As expressed in our first statement, becoming anti-racist requires that we address Olney Theatre Center’s historical over-reliance on earned income. Not-for-profit American theaters, unlike their counterparts in other countries, are hamstrung by a culture that primarily equates success with rising ticket sales. Despite strong increases in contributed income, increases in earned income prior to the pandemic drove the theater’s growth, with earned income accounting for nearly 60% of the budget in its most recent pre-pandemic season. This, along with old outstanding debt of nearly $5M, puts tremendous pressure on productions to deliver dollars on a rapid schedule. Historically, that pressure has translated into a punishing season calendar, fewer dollars for community-based efforts, over-reliance on those paid least, and near-exclusive outreach to audiences we already know. Addressing our over-reliance on ticket sales must be a priority if we’re to become a truly anti-racist institution. 

The post-pandemic upheaval in labor practices throughout the industry both complicates and adds urgency to the need for transformation. A substantial number of talented artists, technicians and staffers left the industry during the Great Resignation, and those who chose to remain are demanding higher pay and better working conditions. To address the latter, some institutions are choosing to reduce the number of productions they mount, and others are lengthening their rehearsal schedules; both strategies carry added costs. 

While some institutions have chosen to radically reinvent themselves to address these challenges, others like Olney Theatre are adopting longer-term, evolutionary strategies as envisioned here, and in the organization’s next Long Range Plan. By choosing the latter course, we must be particularly and constantly vigilant to ensure we keep these anti-racist priorities at the forefront of our thinking. We will be tempted to backslide in the interests of short-term gain, especially when moments of crisis hit. But if the pandemic taught us anything, it should be this: that a crisis can be tackled with perseverance and patience, and those who adopt the long-view and stick to their values emerge healthy and successful on the other side.

Olney Theatre’s EDIA Committee evaluated the theater’s progress through June 2021 in the following five areas.  Each area was given one of the following assessments:

  • We have accomplished this in full and are ready to move to the next step of continued work.
  • We have improved significantly in this and should keep moving in this direction.
  • We have improved some in this but there are still some opportunities we haven't taken.
  • We have improved slightly in this but there are still many opportunities we haven't taken.
  • We have not improved on this at all since the statement was created.

PROGRAMMING

EDIA committee evaluation July 2022: We have improved slightly in this area but there are still many opportunities we haven’t taken.

Olney Theatre has begun evolving its producing model. We are evolving the decision-making process by 1) making programming choices more transparent, 2) involving a diversity of voices in the artistic, staff and patron communities in programming decisions, and 3) sharing curatorial leadership. Though we have begun to broaden our programming by presenting other disciplines, we still have much work to do to embrace stories from outside the traditional regional theater style*. We’ll continue in our commitment to tell more BIPOC stories and add that we need to tell more stories from other marginalized communities. And we won’t limit BIPOC artists to BIPOC stories, ensuring they have our support to tell every story with equitable levels of support from every department in the institution. Because onstage representation matters, we’ll continue to demand intentionality and authenticity in casting choices**. We’ll ensure BIPOC stories are at least half of the work we develop through our Vanguard Arts Fund. And because musicals – which compose a substantial part of our repertoire – have historically been the province of white men, we’ll plan for at least one Vanguard Arts Fund project each year to be a musical developed by BIPOC artists. 

Where we continue to be challenged

  • Identifying, developing and/or producing stories from outside the traditional regional theater style*
  • Making the play-selection process more transparent and open to community participation
  • Producing BIPOC stories on the mainstage
  • Developing new BIPOC stories through the Vanguard Arts Fund
  • Identifying, securing the rights to, and producing BIPOC-created musicals

Where we are making effective changes

  • Ensuring diversity and inclusion onstage via intentional casting
  • Sharing curatorial power
  • Making the play-selection process more open to staff and artists
  • Embracing other disciplines from a diversity of artists
  • Telling BIPOC stories in the Lab and in curated work

*The traditional regional theater style defines the kinds of stories that have traditionally been told for white, upper-middle class audiences on our stages: they embrace western tropes of naturalism in performance style, formulaic story structures enshrined in “serious” American and British plays of the mid-20th Century, and musical-theater forms made popular on western stages in the second half of the 20th Century. They ignore other American performance styles, as well as performance styles by non-western cultures.

**Olney Theatre Center aspires to intentionality and authenticity in casting when it comes to matters of race and gender. With the help of our BIPOC Artist Advocate we analyze the stories we tell to make choices about how roles are cast, what representation onstage should look like, and how race-based casting choices impact the plays and musicals on our stages.

THEATERMAKER DIVERSITY

EDIA committee evaluation July 2022: We have improved some in this area but there are still some opportunities we haven’t taken.

Because we believe inclusion is necessary for understanding our shared humanity, Olney Theatre is committed to making our staff, Board and artists reflect the diversity of our community.* We humbly recognize we have a long way to go to make that happen.  On stage and backstage we’re committed to normalizing diversity through casting and creative team representation, working towards more equitable contracts for freelancers to counter unconscious bias, and aggressively pursuing new artistic relationships with BIPOC theatermakers. With staff and Board we’ll commit to intentionally diverse pools of candidates for every position we appoint or hire, and have committed to accelerated Board diversification so that in both general membership and leadership it reflects the County’s demographics. Board practices, including candidate vetting and membership requirements, continue to be evaluated and changed to ensure that our Board of Directors is a more inclusive, equitable, and anti-racist Board of Directors.

Where we continue to struggle

  • Though we are making strides in favored-nations pay to freelancers, a fully-transparent system of pay across disciplines has not occurred
  • We continue to be challenged in identifying and/or attracting/retaining BIPOC production staff members and creative team members 
  • Some of our creative teams on productions are not as diverse as they should be
  • Our progress in diversifying Board membership is slower than we would like

Where we are making effective changes

  • Onstage representation of marginalized communities was particularly strong in 2021-22, especially in lead roles, and that commitment must continue
  • We have hired an HR Manager strongly committed to anti-racism, and she is ensuring our anti-racist efforts are interwoven throughout our hiring practices through salary transparency, intentional outreach, and formalizing the onboarding process.
  • Onboarding processes have been standardized and will include anti-racist and anti-harassment training
  • We are working hard to fulfill our commitment that one-third of finalists for senior-staff level positions are people of color, though that has been extremely challenging in the Director of Production vacancy.**  

*While Olney itself (population 33,000) is 70% white, we sit near the heart of the State’s most populous County, Montgomery, which is majority-minority. For demographic purposes, when we consider who makes up our geographic community, we consider a ten-mile radius from the theater, which includes highly-diverse population centers Gaithersburg, Rockville, and Wheaton. Our diversity goals are to match the demographics of that population, which is approximately 51% BIPOC. 

**Olney Theatre contracted with search firm Production on Deck, which specializes in “identify[ing] talent from marginalized communities” to help with this search.  Their principals report major challenges in BIPOC hiring in the production sector, citing their own research which points to an outsize decrease in BIPOC representation in the theater production sector as part of the Great Resignation. After a four month search, and in partnership with Production on Deck, Olney Theatre filled the Director of Production vacancy with a person of color. 

AUDIENCE DIVERSITY

EDIA committee evaluation July 2022: We have improved some in this area but there are still some opportunities we haven’t taken.

The post-pandemic return to live programming altered many of Olney Theatre’s audience engagement plans, but the main point we made in our 2020 statement remains the same: “Build it and they will come” is no longer our mantra; instead, “Ask them to help you build it and they’ll own it” now underpins our audience engagement initiatives.

In June of 2021, Olney Theatre hired its first Director of Community Engagement (DCE). The DCE has transformed Olney Theatre’s approach to community engagement and expanded the Theatre’s capacity to build partnerships and to connect our community through conversations inspired by our work. With the creation of an external Community Engagement Committee and a Community Partners program Olney Theatre is receiving community input on programming and strengthening relationships with new members of our community. It will take time and sustained efforts to establish strong relationships but Olney Theatre has made progress and demonstrated its dedication to increasing community involvement at and with us. 

Olney Theatre has also made progress towards its commitment to ending the one-size-fits-all approach to audience development that results in an unconscious bias towards existing, primarily-white audiences. With the 2021-22 Season Olney Theatre launched the “First Time Free” initiative which invited those who have never attended a show at Olney Theatre to attend their first show for free. In 2022 Olney Theatre also launched a new membership model aimed at providing accessible points of entry and to counter the inherently racist subscription patterns. Additionally, with the introduction of more diverse art forms being featured on campus through curated programs including Olney Outdoors and the Olney Performance Series, Olney Theatre worked to attract new audiences. 

Anecdotal evidence suggests audiences for curated work are much more diverse than audiences for season productions. Thus there is a strong need for data to determine the actual impact of Olney Theatre’s efforts on audience demographics, and a plan to ensure all our audiences reflect our community

Where we continue to struggle

  • Increasing access to Olney Theatre’s artistic outputs: though progress has been made there is still significant work needed to break down barriers to access for many marginalized members of the community
  • Audiences for our higher-priced long-run productions lag behind curated programming in terms of diversity, and a strategic plan to change that needs to be included in the next Long Range Plan
  • The successful launch of the all-access pass needs strong followup to non-traditional communities; part of the challenge has been our inability to plan non-traditional programming far enough in advance
  • The planned hiatus for National Players starting in 2023 cuts off an avenue for community-engagement through mobile-unit-type programming

Where we are making effective changes

  • Community engagement efforts have increased rapidly, providing multiple touch-points to non-traditional audience via a variety of touchpoints
  • Marketing outreach to non-traditional communities through targeted ad buys and via new consulting partnerships is increasing
  • We have made progress in revising talkback policies and providing facilitator training to ensure that BIPOC artists are protected and our anti-racist values are maintained, and anti-bias training for front-of-house members has been beneficial
  • Program information about how different audiences respond to theater was included in the Music Man program and should be continued for all our work

EDUCATING A MORE EQUITABLE GENERATION OF THEATERMAKERS

EDIA committee evaluation July 2022: We have improved slightly in this area but there are still many opportunities we haven’t taken. Of note from their report: “...we would do better on this section overall if we reevaluated the structure of the apprentice program.”

Between its generous non-professional onstage ratio, the National Players, and its Advanced Training (Apprentice) program, Olney Theatre is uniquely positioned as a primary source of early-career theatermakers in the region. This means Olney Theatre plays a major role in ensuring the next generation of theater-makers is a more equitable one. 

So we’ll continue prioritizing increases in salaries and/or benefits for all early-career professionals to drop barriers to access and continue the diversification of our staff. In particular, Apprentice compensation will rise annually by more than the highest percentage raise given to any group, union or non-union, and non-Equity performer pay will rise at the same rate or more than AEA artists. We’ll aim to select each class of Players and Apprentices with intention, to reflect our community’s demographics. We’ll continue to tip the scales in favor of mentorship, and away from labor, by emphasizing year-long training paths. When any funds can be put towards salary increases, we’ll pursue strategies that raise entry-level full-time salaries first. And we will work with like-minded local theaters to create the shared role of BIPOC Staff Advocate who, alongside our BIPOC Artist Advocate, will provide resources and serve as a liaison between staff members from marginalized communities and theater leadership. 

Where we continue to struggle

  • Compensation for Apprentices and National Players continues to rise, but at slower rates than is effective for lowering barriers.
  • Olney Theatre still relies to a large degree on the labor provided by Apprentices during productions, and needs to incorporate strategies to combat this in its next long-range plan.
  • Identifying and hiring candidates from diverse backgrounds for entry-level production jobs continues to be a challenge for Olney Theatre.
  • Despite strong efforts, the National Players touring schedule continues to present challenges to the performers at times.
  • Olney Theatre’s next long range plan needs to address structural changes to both the ATP and National Players, and ensure non-Equity performer compensation tracks with inflation.

Where we are making effective changes

  • Olney Theatre recently raised the floor for entry-level salaries to $40,000 per annum; another raise needs to occur soon.
  • Olney Theatre is aggressively improving ATP training and orientation processes under a new Director of Education and Training, whose primary focus is the ATP
  • The installation of a full time BIPOC Artist Advocate has enhanced the institution’s ability to care for and engage with a diversity of artists.
  • Non-Equity rates are rising across-the-board and equitably, on a favored-nations basis per production.

CULTURAL COMPETENCY

EDIA committee evaluation July 2022: We have improved some in this area but there are still some opportunities we haven’t taken.

Ensuring every individual at Olney Theatre understands our anti-racist commitment and can follow it through means ensuring cultural competency at every level. In addition to mandatory anti-racist training for staff and Board on an ongoing basis, we’ve empowered our internal EDIA committee to interface with every department, including the artistic department on programming and hiring decisions. It’s crucial that we continue to compensate BIPOC individuals for cultural competency work they do with us, whether through attending listening sessions, providing cultural context, or serving as BIPOC advocates. We also recognize that educating ourselves and our patrons about Olney Theatre’s origins is essential to cultural competency, so we’ve added land acknowledgement to all our programs, which include not only the debt we owe to the Piscataway-Conoy Tribe, but also recognize the impact to BIPOC individuals in the suburbanization of our region.

Where we continue to struggle

  • Olney Theatre conducted anti-racist training for all employees in 2021, but has yet to add ongoing training for current employees and training for new employees 
  • Olney Theatre needs to build efficient systems whereby the EDIA committee can interface with every department
  • Supporting the needs of a majority-BIPOC National Players ensemble has been challenging 
  • Though Olney Theatre’s Board of Directors received EDIA training in 2021, ongoing training and the activation of the Board’s EDIA Committee have lagged 
  • Olney Theatre has yet to educate the artistic staff by setting meetings for them with representatives of non-traditional cultural groups

Where we are making effective changes

  • Olney Theatre has hired a BIPOC Artist Advocate, is working to hire a cooperatively-funded BIPOC Staff Advocate, and provides funding for cultural consultants as needed on a per-show basis
  • All artists, including BIPOC artists, are being compensated for contributions outside what they’re hired to do
  • Olney Theatre’s launch of its land acknowledgement was successful and Community Engagement has ensured it’s not a one-off event
  • Olney Theatre has formed a Community Engagement Committee that meets regularly to respond to, support and help create programming
  • The EDIA Committee has begun quarterly meetings on programming with the Artistic Director

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