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A Living Intergenerational Conversation | HowlRound Theatre Commons


Star Finch: I really wanted to talk to you about theatre in the Bay Area for a number of reasons, but one is just the sort of depth and scope of your career, and the different roles that you’ve played within the Bay Area theatre scene.

Ellen Sebastian Chang: I’m hoping that you and I can have a dialogue about history, memory, and what we’ve been told, because I think these things are really important as well right now, how we continue to have a very living, intergenerational conversation.

Star: I know we talked about wanting to discuss the big shift in 2020 with the Living Document, which shook up the local theatre scene through anonymous testimonies of encounters with white supremacy within various organizations. But even prior to that, were there any shifts or differences that you experienced between, say, the nineties and the early aughts or the 2010s? Were there any shifts in theatre that way for you?

Ellen: Let me just go back to the nineties, because I think something happened at ACT [American Conservatory Theater] in the late nineties. I couldn’t quite remember, but I looked it up. ACT in 1997—in spring of 1997—got charged with racism, within the acting school. One of the things that was talked about was there was no full-time Black faculty. One of the students was quoted in a San Francisco Chronicle article as saying, “There are so many questions that haven’t been answered in our profession”—talking about theatre as a whole—“as to how does one deal with issues of cultural identity and distinction.” Then as we remember, most recently, Stephen Buescher—he sues, and settles. That was in February of 2019, before the pandemic.

Star: 1997 to 2019—wow, twenty-two years later and the same complaints. You mentioned the lawsuit against ACT in 2019, but even before that, in 2017, there was a lot of back and forth within the community around the Marin Theatre Company’s production of Thomas and Sally. I recall pushback around both the premise of the play itself and the response of the theatre towards protesters—the police being called on women who were out there holding space and lighting sage. And so, in getting ready for this conversation, I was really trying to recall the atmosphere leading up to the Living Document in 2020.

There was a lot of frustration and pushing back. But there was also the feeling that nothing was taken seriously enough to produce real material change. So that atmosphere made the Living Document, like you said, almost volcanic in its impact of just everyone vomiting up all of their trauma, all of their frustration, all of their experiences with white supremacy that they’ve had to swallow over the years here in the Bay Area.

White privilege systemically continues to control the resources.

Ellen: That’s right. I think vomiting is a good image, actually. Because now, we’re all standing in vomit. How do you bring unity, union, change, when we’re all standing in vomit? It is the vomit of the aftermath of ongoing COVID, designed racism, gun violence, the ever-increasing cost of living, and divisive ignorance of a nation still clutching historical amnesia and curated innocence. What is theatre in the midst of all of this?

Theatre, all of the arts, are a part of a historical arc, which includes access to funding and resources—real estate, healthcare, education, transportation, etc.—in the United States. I think that having some historical lens, no matter when we’re born in time, while it’s not everybody’s responsibility, it’s certainly someone’s responsibility. I’ve chosen this to be one of my responsibilities.

That Living Document, it was an incredible purging. Is the document already a past recollection? My concerns in these thirty-six months is what was potentially facilitated. Did it give “whiteness” time to shape-shift again? “We See You, White American Theater”; the rush to diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) workshops; the shifting of small theatres to change artistic leadership—all of these institutional concepts, the language and strategies provided by the historical thought labor of Black, melanated, Indigenous folks… Did this provide the ideas for the performative language, with some optical illusions thrown in, to continue the status quo? What has changed on a holistic, systemic level? It all feels like another charitable act. Charity, which, as the years have gone on, I feel is “spiritual” money laundering, along with philanthropy.

White privilege systemically continues to control the resources. Yes, the Living Document was personally powerful. People needed to get that out of their bodies and to feel their experiences were not singular. In the purging and making it public through the anonymous internet, it also became susceptible to hijacking. I read on the latest Google Doc, the closed document, or it’s hidden, because white-presenting folks came in and hacked, and tried to change—

Star: —delete it. It’s always the same playbook of deleting the language, the historical record, the testimonials of the oppressed.

Ellen: What are the results in the aftermath? The Living Document continues as a redesigned and managed website with chapter sites in SoCal and a couple other cities. Okay. Where are we now? A name change. Land acknowledgement. More workshops and more white papers to report on the issues, data, statistics. Or a college degree in DEI. Those are manageable shifts. And ones that are part of a learned pattern of a white mindset rooted in authoritative gatekeeping while continuing to profit from the creativity of the marginalized.

I read a New York Times article about Broadway where a playwright said something like, “The gatekeepers are opening the gate. I didn’t imagine it,” and about how this particular play of this Black playwright was being brought to Broadway so quickly. He was like, “Oh, it’s like the gatekeepers are opening the gate.” Let’s listen to our own language. Why aren’t we questioning the gate? Not that the gate is opening, but questioning who owns, operates, and controls the gate. It is one of the challenges of this creative industry because we need that recognition and the potential financial rewards that come with these institutions.

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