Gwendolyn VanSant, Kristen van Ginhoven, Dawn Simmons and Lee Mikeska Gardner on co-producing Dominique Morisseau’s Pipeline while prioritising equity.
Interview by Lex Schroeder.
In autumn 2019, before arts productions moved online, WAM Theatre co-produced Dominique Morisseau’s award-winning play Pipeline with The Nora at Central Square Theater. First presented at Shakespeare & Company in Lenox, Massachusetts, the production has been nominated for two Elliot Norton Awards. This show was also an intentional effort to prioritise cultural competence and equity for cast members and audiences from the start.
In a 2019 piece for WAM, Gwendolyn VanSant (CEO and Founding Director of BRIDGE) and Kristen van Ginhoven (Producing Artistic Director of WAM Theatre) wrote about the unique collaboration, detailing common missteps of white-led, well-intentioned, arts organisations (i.e. not building relationships with local people of colour and not ‘giving due thought to issues that could arise when presenting work by or about communities of colour’). With Pipeline, BRIDGE and WAM worked to make sure that the cast would be embraced with care and respect. ‘Often extra unacknowledged, uncompensated emotional labour is requested and expected of [actors] in facilitating predominantly white audience talkbacks,’ wrote VanSant, ‘where audiences have been known to [get self-protective] and [say racist remarks] or make presumptuous, privileged gestures…’ In working to bring Pipeline to new audiences, van Ginhoven, VanSant and director Dawn Simmons with Lee Mikeska Gardner (Artistic Director of The Nora) modelled what true partnership looks like. Invited by VanSant, I followed up with this team in May 2020 to hear more about the collaboration in their own words.
Dawn Simmons (top left), Gwendolyn VanSant (bottom left), Lee Mikeska Gardner (top right) and Kristen van Ginhoven (bottom right).
Lex Schroeder: I realise I’m sitting here with the leaders of four fantastic women-led organisations. What’s unique about each of your organisations?
Lee Mikeska Gardner: The foundation of what we do at Central Square Theater – composed of The Nora and Underground Railway – is the radical collaboration that happens in our own leadership structure that we don’t always like. But it has taught me so much in terms of how to negotiate my gut instinct versus what is right for the company versus how I communicate versus how we three – there are three strong leaders – communicate with each other. Some of that comes with time and trust… But what I take away from these lessons absolutely permeates every part of my life.
Dawn Simmons: I’m a freelance artist, director and playwright. I’m the executive director of an organisation called StageSource, a member service organisation for theatre professionals. We focus on workforce development and sector improvement which means we get people jobs and focus on making [institutions and communities] healthy, happy, holistic… I’m also the artistic director and co-founder of the Front Porch Arts Collective, Boston’s newest Black theatre company in 10 years. With my partner, we’ve been working to bring the stories of the diaspora to the city of Boston and [provide jobs] through mentorship, apprenticeships and opportunities that they would not ordinarily get.
Kristen van Ginhoven: I’m the producing artistic director of WAM Theatre, the co-producer of Pipeline. I’m also a freelance director. I’m a social entrepreneur working at the intersection of arts and activism with a focus on intersectional feminism and philanthropy.
Lex: What was most powerful to you about this particular collaboration?
Gwendolyn VanSant: We have seen June Holley use this term ‘netweaving’ versus networking; I feel like that’s what we’ve done here. I brought value into this process by bringing in equity and inclusion work, ‘diverse’ audience engagement and thinking about and caring for the actors and the story they so beautifully told. Other people think about the actors and stories too but bringing in my identity in our rural area and bringing in the cultural competence and equity and inclusion lenses – this supported the entire experience from soup to nuts… For example, the way that actors had agency in how they spent their time after the show, choosing to participate in talkback panels or not… I also felt liberated to be as creative as I needed to be in this collaboration, so thank you Kristen, Lee and Dawn for that!
Kristen: In my experience, a theatre will often just decide to do a show that features the stories of a vulnerable or marginalised identity… Then they [will try] to build relationships with organisations that work in those communities. We wanted to flip the paradigm. We approached BRIDGE to say, ‘Is this of service to work that you are doing?’. If Gwendolyn had said no, we wouldn’t have produced this play. We thought of ourselves as one of the strategies in the wheel of the bicycle that is BRIDGE. If the bicycle is the cultural competency work BRIDGE is doing in Berkshire County, and BRIDGE has different spokes of how they are creating change, Pipeline would be one spoke or strategy to help deepen that work… We wanted the arts organisation to be a spoke in the wheel of the social justice organisation.
Gwendolyn: What Kristen just described isn’t what usually happens. She might have said, ‘We’re going to get into the racial justice conversation and do this [event],’ and the community would not have been prepared. Then the actors and audiences may have had a strange experience… not the one they thought they signed up for with these types of pieces and the promise of their impact. When this happens, some of the play’s purpose gets muted. Kristen and I took the time to develop trust and relationship amongst our two teams. That held us through some really tricky times. We had already spent time understanding each other’s work, training and envisioning what this project would be. So that, and the teaching we did with funders, helped. We [modelled] collaboration… Starting that way felt really solid and strong to me.
Dawn: I entered this project in one of its earlier phases by doing a reading. Kristen and I had met through other channels early on, so I had a sense of her mission and vibe. Kristen, I’m trying to remember the book that you gave me…. Was it Half the Sky?
Dawn: We both felt the importance of putting the stories of women forward. This radical feminism and WAM coming to me with Pipeline to say, ‘Hey, would you like to be part of this reading?’. It was an easy, creative way for us to feel each other out. After working with them, I was kind of thirsty. [Laughter]. I was like, ‘Do you want to do this project together? Tell me what you’re thinking…’ Kristen said, ‘We’re looking for partners, and here’s how we’re envisioning this’. I knew she was talking to The Nora, another company I admire also putting female-centred stories and artists first. So [even if I wasn’t] on the project, I knew it was in boss hands.
That’s something you want to see… you want to know that the stories you’re interested in telling will be shepherded well. Just watching how the partnerships came together… It made me hungry to work on this project. In the work that I do, I centre collaboration. I don’t claim to be the smartest person in the room; the thing that makes me at least a decent artist is that I can synthesize the other ideas and tie threads together… You see everybody’s hand in this work, from how Gwendolyn handled conversations and what they taught the artists and all of us, to the visions of WAM and The Nora and the way they work.
Lee: I also approach things in a pragmatic way. So while there is a thoughtfulness around the EDI work that we do at The Nora – there was a question about whether or not we should produce this show. I asked Dawn, ‘How do we authentically present this piece of work?’. And I was introduced to Gwendolyn and we had just started that relationship when COVID hit.
Gwendolyn: I think it was the preview night? That was good!
Lee: Yes. What came out of it for me was the way we were able to hear one another and then stay out of each other’s way. Kristen and I let Dawn do her work as artistic directors and came in at certain points to give feedback… We allowed each other to play to our strengths and were there for one another.
Kristen: This served the production without taking away from Dawn being the captain of the artistic ship of the play as director.
Lex: I know that this experience was impactful not just for audiences but for the cast. What impact do you think this has made on the cast?
Gwendolyn: There are a handful of people in the Berkshires who have wanted plays that are more impactful around racial justice and equity… So the same handful of community leaders often get called to be on a panel but [usually] are not part of the rest of the process. Those panels have been at times extremely harmful for people of colour. They have also been hard for the directors and playwrights of colour who join talkbacks. Some amazing Black playwrights come to the Berkshires and then people start critiquing and picking their work apart rather than recognising their own blind spots and areas of lack [of experience and knowledge]! This means all of the discomfort of the play gets transferred back onto the artists, directors and experts despite their immense outputs already. So this [history] is how I came into this collaboration… I wanted to create a scenario in which artists weren’t vulnerable to this kind of harmful behaviour… In the past, it was painful to even be a part of it. I wanted to create protection.
With this work, the actors could come check to see what we were doing with [talkbacks]… I had to beg some of my colleagues to come back to talkbacks because we’d had some rough ones months before… I’m like, ‘No, no, it’s going to be different! I promise, it’s going to be different!’… I had a lot of meaningful conversations with the actors, and they were able to really engage with the audience from a heart-centred place… They weren’t on the defensive.
Kristen: We also approached the actors about press interviews and asked them if they wanted to participate… Everybody wants to talk to the actors but there are a lot of microaggressions that just happen unconsciously in press interviews because unfortunately, the majority of interviews are with white folks. We created a press sheet with Gwendolyn that we sent to the press and requested that they look it over. The Berkshire press was welcome to it. We didn’t get any pushback, and [reporters] took a lot of thought and time when they did interview the artists. So we wanted to [understand] the emotional burden and labour it took just to do the play and not layer more onto the actors by making them do press or talk with donors or [participate in things that have] a lot of emotional pressure.
Dawn: Pipeline is one of the most produced pieces in the last five years, right? There is a reason why. When you get your hands on it, just the lyricism, the poetry, but also the pain, the theatricality… It is an artist’s dream. So there was pride with this crew. That Elliott Norton Award nod that we got for best ensemble was real…
The partnership with BRIDGE and the way that we all held this piece brought us together as a family. You saw it when we had to close down early. We were heartbroken not just for ourselves as artists – because we knew we had something magical… there’s that moment when you know you have something magical – but because we had a desire to share it. That transcends ego… We were like, ‘This is a thing that we are blessed to put out into the world’. We knew we had done something special… That magic, some of it even came through in the video we were able to capture of the show. Then to see how it has resonated with folks who didn’t have a chance to see the play live… Family members of mine who wouldn’t have had the ability to see it were able to interface with it…
Lex: Yes, Lee, acknowledging that COVID-19 shut down the production, I’d love to hear what still came through for audiences who saw the video of the play.
Lee: We were able to do a two-camera shoot of the very last performance [through agreements] with the actors union and all of the artists. We had some restrictions. We could only sell or give away as many viewings as we had for the number of seats that we would have sold… Again, the magic of this whole thing carried us through even into the videotaping… Someone next door who had never seen the show set up the cameras. Nina Groom edited it beautifully… And in the shoot, I saw things that I had never seen before, including reactions from other actors and just the texture of the way the work was assembled, which was brilliant and sort of broke my heart. I was completely joyous seeing it come together. [Due to] union rules, the video is no longer available, but that magic permeated everything.
What we’re able to do as an industry with readings is [limited] but every theatre is trying to do something online whether it’s a conversation or a reading. I think in the long run when we finally can start making live theatre again, we will also have the ability to do a taping and have it accessible to people who for whatever reason can’t physically come to the theatre (whether they’re physically incapable, at a distance or financially incapable). With the video, I think we had a $10 minimum ticket price, and then you could donate more. Then for the actors and artistic staff, along with their salary, we did a profit-sharing so everyone got a little extra at the end of the day.
How do we move forward as an industry? We’re in the middle of the experiment… There’s a lot of enthusiasm at the moment as we continue to have to shelter. Our gatherings are tiny and our patience is tried and being tested… It’s like the biggest unknown I’ve ever come across in my life. I’ve been doing theatre a long time… I’ve seen recessions, seen theatres come and go, seen different models… This one, who knows? All I can say is that artists will continue to do art because that’s what artists do. And producing companies, for however long it takes to find a way through this, will come back.
Kristen: I think the streaming got 1,200 views. We’re all seeing the positive sides of capturing a live production and making it available beyond those who can come to it live in terms of accessibility. I think that’s going to be part of the future.
Gwendolyn: We also did an extraordinary amount of preparation and community engagement work for context-setting, trust-building and relationship-building. In this way, the collaboration did support our work at BRIDGE. We’re in schools, we’re dealing with the school-to-prison pipeline, we have a Racial Justice and Equity Task Force and still, the work we did together to get audiences to Pipeline (pre-COVID-19) was immense. We engaged so many people who had never been to the theatre to see the show… youth of colour, youth in general, teachers and educators. An amazing moment was when a whole courthouse department came in. They shut down and came into the theatre! I just about fell over. Several employees just all started streaming in! And we were proud to spend the time understanding the school-to-prison pipeline and how it impacts their work.
Kristen: As theatres, we also had to totally pivot about how people could reserve tickets. I was getting late night texts from new theatre-goers asking me why we wanted their information. But that’s the future! It’s all about relationships! We’re going to have to build them.
Lex: What was one of the biggest surprises of this collaboration for each of you?
Gwendolyn: We’re meeting on Zoom right now, and it’s this image of us on the screen that will, I think, endure. We’ll do more amazing things together. The quality and the potential of the relationships that we’ve built here will endure.
(From left to right) Lia Russel-Self, Talya Kingston, Stephanie Wright, Kristen van Ginhoven and Gwendolyn VanSant.
Kristen: One thing that surprised me, which is necessary to build relationships across sectors, is that my theater team got to understand how a social justice organisation works and BRIDGE got to see how WAM works… Gwendolyn and I, with Stephanie Wright from BRIDGE and Talya Kingston and Lia Russel-Self from WAM, we worked closely together and now have a much clearer idea of what is required to collaborate. For WAM, we now know the acronyms now that we didn’t know at the beginning: TRJ (Towards Racial Justice) and RTF (Race Task Force)… It does feel like the future of theatre has to be like this for us to survive. But this does take more time. We have to do less productions in order to do this community outreach well… So that’s a question for the world.
Dawn: The surprise for me was just how smoothly it went. And that doesn’t mean that there weren’t disagreements. But the idea that we could work together so well and agree or disagree thoughtfully and respectfully. At the end of the day, it was like, ‘This is the art we are trying to make and this is the story we are trying to tell’. That’s how it’s supposed to be but you don’t always see that. This experience lets me go into other conversations [knowing] we can make it happen… And as I’m sitting here looking at Gwendolyn, I’m thinking, ‘I’m in a conversation in another group that you need to be in!’ And I can’t tell you how many times Kristen has talked about resilience in theatre and how many times that comes up in other conversations I’m having… These people are my thought leaders and partners. As I keep doing my work, these are people I go to for counsel. That’s the extended magic of the play.
Lee: For me, it happened on a very deep personal level. The craft of putting Pipeline together moved the way I thought it would (some differences and misunderstandings aside). That level of [collaboration] is the way I move in the world and the way I expect things to go even though my understanding of collaboration is growing every day… (and I feel like I have a lot to learn from you, Gwendolyn!) But the real thing that surprises me – and this isn’t small but it is intimate – is when I run up against stuff where I don’t know what I don’t know. In this case, around a sense of my own privilege and the ways I have engaged in microaggressions unbeknownst to me and certainly not deliberate… At some point early on I said to myself, ‘My job in actuality, other than to make sure the lights get turned on, is to step back and watch and learn because there are people who are working in this area who know way more than I do’. I am still processing things that I heard. Every now and then, I would step into a conversation and step out again because it was not going to be helpful.
Lex: How will these lessons inform your future work?
Lee: I’m already just much more thoughtful about a number of things. Again, about why we’re doing any particular play and how we frame it and work with it in an enlightened and progressive way… Sometimes it’s as simple as vocabulary. This thing is now named this. This microaggression is this. This power dynamic exists because I’m an artistic director… I’m just much more thoughtful about how I approach these dynamics. This is a little off-topic but I just interviewed to become a contact tracer in the Baltimore area and the very things that we’re talking about are skills that transfer to becoming a contact tracer. I don’t think I would have had the skill set, the presence of mind or communication skills to feel competent doing that work if it hadn’t been for this year-long process with Pipeline.
Gwendolyn: The ripples of change! Kristen, I feel like our organisations (BRIDGE and WAM) are truly sister organisations now… In this collaboration I felt profoundly supported. In the larger mission of racial justice and equity work, I feel like we’ve [created] a model. I’m grateful for you, Kristen, modelling that and bringing all the courage and tenacity that you bring as a white ally and activist. This wouldn’t have happened without your clarity around approaching race equity work as a white woman first and an artistic director second. So I don’t know what’s next but I know it’s going to be damn good… I was a little nervous about going to Boston… I inserted myself in spaces I typically wouldn’t. Kristen’s like, ‘Wait, where’s Dominique Morrisseau’s Rules of Engagement?’ and Dawn was like, ‘Thank you!’. And we were still a team. I don’t think that that escapes us with Pipeline moving on to different parts of our country. Right now, I don’t know exactly what the future holds but I feel like it’s about women working together and getting shit done. That’s really what we held really tightly.
Kristen: Gwendolyn said she loves hanging around artists. I’m obsessed with hanging around social justice warriors. [Laughter]. It’s kind of my to-be-place at the moment… I’m going to the African American Policy Forum webinars. I’m going for it because I know it will affect my theatre work immensely. It’s about deep research… reckoning and reparation, right?
As an organisation that’s white-led – white-female-led but still white-led – there is implicit bias and privilege that comes with that that I’m constantly unpacking. If white-led organisations are going to continue to earn a spot, then reparations work has to be at the core of their work. Because otherwise we just should turn over our organisations, right? For example, the show that we were going to do this autumn (we’re not quite sure what form it will take) – the beneficiaries we selected for that around reproductive justice, that process was deeply informed by the process we went through with BRIDGE. We’re asking, ‘Will this play inform the fight that you’re having in Georgia around abortion? Will this play be of service to the work you’re doing around reproductive health here in the Berkshires?’ The answer was yes… It’s the level of thought and intention that goes into community outreach work and working with the artists, trying to create an equitable space while, like Lee said, being aware of power dynamics.
Kristen van Ginhoven works as a director, producer, educator and actor. She is drawn to stories that make her think, feel and question. Her favourite job involves using the arts as activism in her role as artistic director of WAM Theatre – creating theatre for everyone and benefitting women and girls while also donating funds from each show towards creating opportunities for them. She’s worked at many theatres in the United States and Canada, including the Stratford Festival of Canada – which was a long-time dream come true. She used to teach at the International School of Brussels, where she initially became involved with ISTA. She loves being part of the ISTA community and ISTA festivals are always the highlight of her year.