The Brooklyn Rail

SEPT 2023

All Issues
SEPT 2023 Issue
Theater In Conversation

Victoria Detres and Helen Park with Marcus Scott

R.I.S.E.’s launch event. Photo: Heather Gershonowitz.
R.I.S.E.’s launch event. Photo: Heather Gershonowitz.

During the 2018-2019 Broadway season, 100 percent of general managers and 94 percent of producers identified as white, according to a 2021 report from the Asian American Performers Action Coalition. These numbers were reflected in onstage representation as well, with actors who identified as white being cast in 80 percent of the lead roles in musicals and 90 percent of the lead roles in plays.

Since then, there’s been a reckoning with “We See You, White American Theater” disrupting the status quo, promoting over one hundred theater organizations nationwide to respond with action to demands for better BIPOC representation, visibility, and leadership. Several collectives popped up, most notably Black Theatre United, which negotiated “A New Deal for Broadway” between Broadway shows and their touring productions in 2021. However, one might argue that these institutions, while transformative, are primarily concerned with the optics onstage, whilst larger issues loom behind the scenes. In order to incite incremental change, it will have to take those with clout, capital, and connections that operate sub rosa and in the spotlight. Enter Lin-Manuel Miranda.

On June 8, numerous theater artists and industry insiders gathered on the rooftop of the Civilian, a 27-story luxury boutique hotel in Hell’s Kitchen on the edge of the Theater District, for a special announcement: Maestra Music and the Miranda Family Fund partnered to establish RISE (Representation, Inclusion, & Support for Employment) Theatre, with the aspiration of generating more equitable hiring exercises within the theater community by centralizing Diversity, Equity, Inclusion, and Access (DEIA) tactics and resources through a network of partners. This came to be when the Hamilton creator approached Georgia Stitt, the illustrious composer and music director who developed Maestra, to discuss launching the RISE Theatre Directory, a free national digital almanac created to promote visibility and hiring of underrepresented artists, backstage crews, and other vital theater employees.

The Brooklyn Rail spoke over Zoom with Victoria Detres (the project coordinator at RISE) and Helen Park (a member of its community of advocates and a Tony Award nominee for her KPOP score) to discuss its service, mosaic of diverse supporters, and subsequent sea change they hope to witness in the years to come.

Marcus Scott (Rail): What was the spark for RISE and how did you get involved?

Victoria Detres: I’ll start with the logistics of it all. So, Maestra Music is a not-for-profit that supports female and non-binary musicians working in musical theater. They had a program formerly called Get To Work. It was designed to share the statistics about where our industry is with hiring practices, and it was formed as a reaction to the pandemic, where everyone recognized where we were failing, and we had a larger movement.

So, we started sharing the resources. It was cultivated with community partners who were also working in various lanes of equitable progress, wanting to move the needle forward. That was happening in 2020, and they were moving the needle forward with the small programming they were doing for Get To Work; it was 2021 when Georgia and Lin-Manuel, oddly enough, ran into each other at a pumpkin patch in upstate New York. Lin had previous conversations with Ava DuVernay because he had given some funding for the ARRAY Crew, which is designated for BIPOC representation in film and television. He was working with Ava to create the same ideal database directory for theater. They recognized that film and television are very different from theater, so they wanted to part ways amicably recognizing that they didn’t have the insight or the knowledge about the theatrical industry that would serve creating the directory.

At the same time, that’s when Lin had run into Georgia. He knew about Georgia’s work at Maestra, and she mentioned the Get to Work program, and the partnership felt like a natural next step. The partnership began officially in 2022. I came on in 2023. There was some formulating about what the program would be. They recognized that Maestra didn’t have the infrastructure to do the entire push of the RISE Theatre Directory on their own, and they needed to hire additional help. That’s where I came in, along with my colleague Adam Hyndman. I came on in January to start the program when they mentioned, “Oh, yeah, we’re launching in June of this year.” I said, “OK, great. Happy to do that!” Adam came on in February, and it was all systems go, ready for the launch, figuring out what RISE Theatre would be.

It wasn’t RISE at that time. It was Get to Work. We had a hot five months of just working to make it happen. And then that’s where Helen comes in with our launch aiming for June. We really wanted to be intentional about the partnerships that we were building and how we actually got the community involved. We wanted to reach out to industry changemakers; cultural leaders who are doing the work in the industry to really get the name out there, but also cultivate partnerships so that we can highlight the good work that’s being done and amplify artists who are doing everything they can to move the needle forward.

Rail: The acronym of RISE stands for Representation, Inclusion, and Support for Employment. What does RISE mean to you in this moment?

Detres: We have this adage of “a rising tide lifts all boats,” and I think in our industry specifically, we are stuck in a scarcity mindset. When you’re seated at the table, you can’t open the door for someone else, and we kind of wanna challenge that. Or, at least, I wanna challenge that with the work that I do. Doing this work, elevating and cultivating community in more intentional ways is only gonna benefit the greater community. But I think we are stuck in a place where we are so at odds and we worry. I feel like the word “equity” doesn’t actually have a good rep because people don’t understand it. Equity means to create an equal playing field for everyone involved, and that’s not the current state of our world, in our industry. And by creating an equitable platform, everyone’s gonna benefit in the long term. For me, it’s really about moving from a place of abundance. RISE is abundance; it’s the abundance mindset. It’s cultivating community for long-term standards. That means everyone is represented at the table.

Rail: Between 2021 and 2023, Broadway saw a major boost in diversity. However, virtually all of those shows shuttered within months or closed early. What are some of the problems or issues that need addressing? Because we’re going into very uncertain times, as indicated by the various layoffs, cutbacks and cancellations by national and regional theaters across the country. How can RISE and organizations like it answer the call?

Helen Park: What I love about RISE in particular is the feeling of action, the emphasis on the action. I think right now it’s hard to see the culmination of this movement that started during the pandemic, like with Black Lives Matter… this reckoning of Broadway. Broadway is actually like “the Great White Way,” you know? I think it’s a problem to just look at it as “Oh, it’s such an easy fix! Let’s just do a play written for the Black community! Let’s do K-pop, let’s do a Korean show!” But then in order to actually execute it and pull out the best capabilities to really make meaningful actual change that does represent the culture accurately, I think there’s a lot of different reasons why these shows in the past season didn’t succeed or run for as long as they maybe deserved. One of those reasons I think is that the people who have always been in this field, who have always done things the way things are done, are doing the same thing over and over again. Then when they’re met with something that’s not familiar territory (in terms of the story or the source material or the cultural background of said project), there is difficulty and they need help. It’s not also just about replacing who’s always been there. It’s not just like giving up space to have someone else to take over, you know?

Rail: You mentioned a reckoning.… In the midst of a global quarantine, there was a cultural and societal reckoning, particularly in the arts and media landscapes where advocates, activists and artivists came out of the wilderness to shine a light on many of the problems facing those who were not cisgender heteronormative white men. Right? In that time, we saw various movements take place, such as #MeToo and We See You White American Theatre and during that time various organizations either generated a listserv or directory. One that comes to mind is “Underrepresented Theater Critics.” How is this one different?

Detres: We have to, first of all, acknowledge the platform that we are on. That I can’t go about saying we are on an elevated platform because of the associations we have. There are so many Excel spreadsheets that I have used in my lifetime that are about BIPOC designers, Black directors, but only because I was in the community did I know those existed. And when I would speak to people I worked with in spheres—when I spoke to white people in spheres—they didn’t know about these. But I think that’s the disconnect with the communities that exist in the industry and I’m really excited about the potential of actually being the connective tissue for our industry. So much of the time we talk about “our voice is power.” Communication is power. How can RISE be the connective tissue for all of these systems to exist? We want to be clear that we don’t wanna override any work that has been created before. We’re not trying to steamroll. But we’re actually trying to recognize what has come before us and understand that this is a natural evolution, that we can ride on this wave of amplification and visibility to become a centralized source, so that we can fight that narrative. Like, we don’t exist. Okay, well then, here’s an easy digestible way to find us. It really is capitalizing on this situation now and understanding that this is a natural evolution of years of work in our community and how we can continue moving the needle forward by understanding that our history cannot be erased, but we can actually evolve from the history that we’ve had.

Park: Right now, we are at a critical time where people acknowledge the need for better representation and more authentic storytelling. It can only enrich our community and this medium of theater. I think everybody’s sort of onboard with the theoretical, you know? Like, “Of course, inclusivity!” But I’m really hopeful that through this very specific directory we will see gradual change.

Detres: I think what’s lacking overall is support. All of these shows that closed early because producers broadcast to this audience once and then never invited them back for a different show. The audiences at KPOP showed up because they were excited about this; because they were actually welcomed for the first time. What happens when we start doing that with every show? We gotta stop that model that’s, like, “You’re only welcome to go see a show that fits your personality and your identity.” How many white shows have I seen in my lifetime that I don’t resonate with but I was excited because it was on Broadway and I wanted to go see it and be part of that?! How do we create systems to support people of color when they aren’t given leadership roles, when they’re set up to fail? That’s what I’m really excited about. I think we just don’t talk about what support looks like and how to create structures of support for new things that we’re bringing in.


Marcus Scott

Marcus Scott is a New York City-based playwright, musical writer, opera librettist, and journalist. He has contributed to Time Out New York, American Theatre Magazine, Architectural Digest, The Brooklyn Rail, Elle, Essence, Out, Uptown, Trace, Hello Beautiful, Madame Noire and Playbill, among other publications. Follow Marcus on Instagram.


The Brooklyn Rail

SEPT 2023

All Issues