In a time marked by widening divides, arts organizations are finding themselves firmly in the middle of some of the world’s biggest questions. Within the performing arts industry, as we grapple with the entrenched systems of inequity and oppression, leaders are questioning what it means to be inclusive and how their organizations need to change to do so.

The Alliance Theatre, located on the Woodruff Arts Center campus in Atlanta, Georgia, comes to mind as one of the organizations leading this charge in the southeast. Amid the “racial reckoning of 2020” and after a specific call out in September of 2020, the leadership team and staff of the theatre made a dedication to a new IDEA plan (inclusivity, diversity, equity, and accessibility) because in their own words, “an art form founded on the human story cannot ignore human injustice.”

One of the central and most immediate elements of this plan was the implementation of “Mandatory anti-bias training for all staff, Board of Directors, cast and crew members of all productions moving forward.” This training is part of what the organization calls the Allyship Program, and it has shifted the culture of the Alliance towards one of advocacy and allyship using the language of theatrical rehearsals and the foundations borrowed from other anti-bias training. This program is now a part of every production process at the Alliance, has been shared throughout all parts of Woodruff Arts Center, and is now being presented to external partners and corporate groups across the country.

Interested in how the Alliance is continuing to serve its mission as “Atlanta's national theatre, expanding hearts and minds on stage and off,” and the role that allyship plays in advocating for artists across Atlanta, I had the opportunity to speak to Maya Lawrence, Allyship Program Director and Resident Artist, and Aierelle Jacob, Head of Strategic Initiatives, to see how this program and others at the Alliance are advocating for a more expansive community. The excerpts from this interview are edited for this blog. 

Allyship and Advocacy
Maya, to begin could you tell me more about the Allyship Program and how it came to be?

Maya: The Allyship Program started from this seed of “how can I make this organization that I'm a part of a better place that I want to be and a place that I want to bring people into.” I realized in my journey as an actor, that the reason I didn't want to act was because it was one of the least powerful positions in the room, so I wanted to create a place where [everyone felt] like they had a say in what is happening around them. In the Allyship program, we have what we call Act One and Act Two. Act One is focused on the basics of anti-bias and allyship; what are microaggressions and what's intersectionality and the different identities that we hold? How does that play into how we can be allies to each other no matter what oppressions or privileges that someone holds? Then focusing on accountability. It's about trying to create an allyship culture because I always say it's a journey, it's not something we arrive at and it's not something anyone has all of the answers to.

Then Act Two is a follow-up that digs a little bit deeper into bystander intervention - when we're seeing microaggressions happen, what are some vocabulary, some tools that we can use in those moments? What I always find interesting in these conversations is the [act of] calling someone out or calling someone in…trying to create an environment where people feel like I can make a mistake because that's what rehearsal is, we're constantly making mistakes until we figure out the right thing. Act Two also dives into organization-specific policies and practices and traditions that exist that either because of [the racial reckoning of] 2020 have been revised and what has been the impact of that, or a brainstorm of what else can we be doing…to create an inclusive environment. Then, I like to break down those popular buzzwords that we use when we're talking about allyship, “inclusion, diversity, equity”, and what does that mean specifically to you and the people around you? What do we want it to mean and how do we want it to show up in that environment? When we meet with [external organizations], we have customizable versions of those two so depending on the conversation that organization is having, we can tailor it and bring in resources around how to animate that and bring that into a rehearsal sphere so that we can put some things into practice.

Ashley: How do you think the choice to implement this program and then bring it into the community affects the relationships that the Alliance is building?

Maya: I feel like one of the benefits I've seen is people feeling like they can use the language that they're seeing as the right thing to say. Not just using it because it's the right thing to say, but having meaning behind it or interrogating some of our own choices and bringing that into everyday conversation. One of the tools that I like to use is "Ouch" and "Oops." So if someone says something that feels harmful or damaging, I can say "Ouch" in the same way as if I was walking in the room and I bumped my toe. And then the "Oops" is building a culture of accountability. In our sessions, we like to talk about if there is an "Ouch" moment because we're in this rehearsal container. We can pause, which normally in life we don't do, and allow ourselves to fix that moment instead of building resentment and creating that culture where people feel like they don't belong.

Aierelle: I think it's been helpful too, as we're talking to external partners and clients, to be able to say, “This is something we're doing too,” so it's a little bit like practicing what you preach, we're able to say this is something we're implementing all the time. We're constantly looking at the curriculum and making adjustments and changes if we need to because we're constantly facilitating the material. So I think it is super helpful and impactful that we started internally and continue to do the work internally, too.

Ashley: In the initial phases of the project, did you encounter resistance to the implementation? And if so, what did that resistance look like?

Maya: The way I've seen resistance appear the most has been confusion as opposed to direct conflict. I think especially when we went outside of the theatre and started sharing it with our arts partners [and external organizations], the personalities are different. I think a big part of what my superpowers are is giving people the gift of curiosity. When I am more curious about you and creating an opportunity for you to show up as yourself…you then reciprocate that and are then more curious about me, then I feel like I can show up more authentically and give more of myself into that environment. One of the goals of an allyship culture is for people to show up authentically. When we come into these environments pretending like we're not people…we're not creating real connections. So when we're creating an environment where people feel like they are allowed to be themselves, there is more passion in that work and then the product has much more quality.

Ashley: How do you see this work supporting and feeding into kind of the overall goal that the Alliance has of educating and advocating for and supporting artists of color and black artists over the trajectory of their careers?

Maya: One of the things I'm thinking about is currently where we have this co-artistic director model. Being able to acknowledge that we are human - we have limitations, we have strengths - and being able to collaborate is a strength, and makes us as a theatre more competitive in a society where theatre is becoming less relevant. We're creating access points because we're expanding our perspectives, it's allowed us to see more possibilities for the work that we can do, and that creates more ties into more communities.

Aierelle: The first rehearsal training has been a really big shift for people. I mean, they come here and a lot of times we've never really had allyship in their rehearsal process, so we always get the feedback that it started them off on a great note in the room. A lot of actors in Atlanta and beyond will say, "I love this and I wish we could do it in every rehearsal that I'm ever in." I like to think that sometimes people come back and do shows with us because they know that's how we start and we value this work within the rehearsal process. And it's not something we're just saying, but there's action behind it.

Allyship in Practice
It sounds like using this training has made a huge impact on the culture of the staff. I'm wondering if we can shift a little bit to more talking about advocacy within programming for the K-12 audience. The Alliance has one of the broadest regional theatre education departments in the country, especially in the south. What are the driving values of the arts education arm and why are they important to serving the mission overall of the Alliance?

Maya: Our last artistic director, Susan Booth, used to always say, "Once a mind has been expanded, it can't go back to the size that it was." I feel like the stories that we tell truly expand my mind every time that I'm exposed to [them], and then being able to see that spark happen in our audiences, to create new conversations. That's the off-stage part that I'm so engaged with, whether those are talkbacks or the workshops that we're developing for the classrooms, the way that I think theatre can be so subtle in a transformational way, and people don't realize they're being transformed.

Aierelle: We also don't shy away from allyship and advocacy and DEI work with any age because I think it is something that anyone can understand. I mean, if we're talking about inclusivity, it’s just “Everyone belongs here, everyone can be here and we should celebrate differences and make sure that everyone has what they need to thrive.” So even in our younger grade camps or classes, it's not like we're giving a dissertation on systems of oppression, but we are creating inclusive classrooms and inclusive learning environments. We believe in this work and we're integrating it and incorporating it into all the work that we do, especially with young people.

Ashley: The more that I dive into the material around advocating for the arts and our communities the more it becomes abundantly clear that that it has to be simultaneously supported by resources and the community. I'm wondering if y'all would be willing to talk about what feedback systems the Alliance employs in conversations with the community.

Aierelle: I think naturally and organically community engagement and education intersect well, so the Education Department does a lot of community engagement. I value feedback from community partners and members of the community. I feel like one of my biggest pet peeves about this work is people who make decisions for people but don't involve them in the decisions that they're making.

Maya: I think we're very creative and innovative in the ways that we try to either partner with other organizations or find funding for the things that we're trying to do. So I think one example is with our Alliance at Work, part of that money goes into funding some of our education programs. We got a lot of money from being able to use film tax credits during COVID-19 and we were like, “Okay if we're going to be filming things, how do we put that and allow that to be money that we use in other ways?”

Responsibility and Accountability
I'm wondering in our last couple of minutes if you all had any thoughts about the responsibility of prominent cultural leaders to support artists who may not be as well supported and what responsibility either you, as individuals or The Alliance, as an institution, feels to that call?

Maya: I think we understand that we can't be the only one, this has to be something that the community benefits from, and that means it has to show up in many forms because we can't support everyone. And so I think partnership is a large part of how we see ourselves being viable and sustainable moving forward. So that's been one of our charges this year; what are the different partners that we aren't working with, what are the needs that they have, and how can we support them?

Aierelle: As a part of our Allyship Training Act One, we talk a little bit about privilege and how you use that privilege to be an ally. We do have a position of privilege with this institution because of our size and reputation, so I feel strongly about making sure that we're using that privilege responsibly and we're sharing the wealth, so to speak. We just actually had a conversation with Chris Moses (co-artistic director)… he was talking about how we work with partners and how sometimes it is like a lifting up of what they're doing and a partnering, like “let’s do this together”…and sometimes it's just moving out of the way because someone else knows how to do it better, and they already have the resources to do it.

We do try to be smart about our resources and how we can make sure that we are involving the community… I think the majority of our theatre feels the same as far as using the power that we hold in this institution. We're always thinking about that barrier to entry and how we can knock it down so that we are creating access for other people to come in and learn the way we do the things we do, and also that we can learn from them. Because, you know, though we are this big theatre, there's still so much we can learn, too.

Ashley: That's awesome, thank you so much. Before we wrap up, are there any other thoughts that you'll have about allyship and advocacy in the arts?

Aierelle: Just that's important!  I think this is what has kept me at The Alliance, doing work like this because it's so near and dear to my heart. I think everyone here is deeply invested in the mission, and I think that that has been crucial in the amount of success that we have had in this space. I'm just excited that I get to do this work, excited that I get to do it with the people that I get to do it with, and excited to have leadership that supports and believes in this work as well and advocates for it and gives us the resources to be able to do it.

Maya: I think the more power that you have, the more responsibility you have to empower others. And that is a principle that I see consistently in the environment of the Alliance. It's both an individual charge, but I think also a community charge of how we make sure that we are empowering people so that we have the tools to advocate for ourselves as well.  I think about theatre - I say this in our Allyship Program - I think of theatre as an imagination exercise. Someone comes up with a vision of what they want and then they get people together with the unique skills and talents that they have, to make that vision a reality for other people to experience in real time. And I think of building justice and building equity in the same way. I think I've been fortunate that this has been an environment where that's been able to be a reality for me, and I find my responsibility in making that a reality for as many people as possible.

As the performing arts sector continues to fight for its relevance in an ever-changing landscape, arts leaders may want to ask themselves two questions regarding allyship through advocacy: What can we do to advocate for our communities and what can we do to advocate for our artists? The answers to both of these questions may be found in the implementation of intentional, radical anti-bias training which provides language, processes, and time for organizations to reflect on the ways they have been complicit in systems of oppression and exclusion. In doing so, organizations can begin to shift organizational culture towards one of allyship, developing a more expansive community, and ultimately increasing patron and artist capacity, safety, and inclusion.

Written by Ashley Cooper, M.F.A. in Theatre, Arts Leadership candidate.