Last Sunday, Staff Writer Samantha Seiff attended the event “Tea and Conversation with Stage Manager Narda E. Alcorn,” hosted by the Barnard College Theatre Department and moderated by Professor Alice Reagan.
Alcorn also graciously afforded Samantha the opportunity to have a conversation about her article, “We Commit to Anti-Racist Stage Management Education,” following the event.
Narda E. Alcorn, who currently serves as Chair of the Stage Management Department at the Yale School of Drama, engaged in an intimate Zoom conversation with Columbia University theater students last Sunday. Alcorn spoke on her career as a professor and theater professional, as well as the article she recently co-wrote with Lisa Porter entitled “We Commit to Anti-Racist Stage Management Education.”
As students sipped tea in the comfort of their homes, Professor Alcorn kicked off the event by discussing some of the projects with which she has been professionally affiliated.
Alcorn expressed that she had been a longtime fan of renowned twentieth-century playwright August Wilson’s works before assistant stage-managing his play, Seven Guitars. Alcorn eventually worked on six of Wilson’s ten plays (collectively known as the “Pittsburgh Cycle”). Alcorn also fulfilled her aspiration of working on a Broadway musical when she embarked on her decades-long career as an assistant stage manager for The Lion King.
The self-proclaimed “anti-racist stage manager” framed her time working with August Wilson as an exercise in focusing on “relationships and environment and building community,” while stage-managing for The Lion King helped her develop “awareness,” an attention to “safety,” and an advanced “technical proficiency.”
Alcorn alluded to these professional experiences as having existed in a kind of “beforetimes.” The professor noted that, lately, this term has become synonymous with the state of the world before the emergence of COVID-19. However, the anti-racist educator refashioned the concept of “beforetimes” to indicate the era preceding the events of last June—the time before popular culture seemed to deem race an appropriate topic of conversation, let alone a subject pondered over tea.
This notion of breaking out of a historical “beforetimes” seems to manifest in Alcorn’s mission to create a universal commitment to anti-racist stage management education, as expressed in the article she co-wrote with Lisa Porter—Alcorn’s friend, fellow Yale School of Drama alum, and the Stage Management Department Chair at University of California, San Diego.
“We Commit to Anti-Racist Stage Management Education” is written from the unique dual perspective of Alcorn, “a Black stage manager [whose career] has been shaped by situations including becoming the diversity expert by default, enduring racist aggression, and being either invisible or tokenized throughout a production process,” and Porter, “a White stage manager, [who] with the accompanying and implicit privilege, lacks equivalent encounters.”
Alcorn and Porter published a book, Stage Management Theory as a Guide to Practice: Cultivating a Creative Approach, in December of 2019. While the professors had contemplated including “an entire section about diversity equity and inclusion” in their book, they ultimately “decided not to [include this section] because [they] felt like [their] field was not ready.”
However, only seven months later, Alcorn and Porter published their article, which explicitly names and targets anti-racist stage management practices. Alcorn noted that the piece was written “very much in reaction to the racial reckoning that happened after the murder of George Floyd,” for only after these “horrible murders did [the professors] feel like the world, or at least the theater community, was ready to hear what [they] had to say.”
“We Commit to Anti-Racist Stage Management Education” not only pinpoints harmful production practices in the predominantly White industry of theater, but also outlines “techniques [utilized by] stage managers who are fluent in anti-racism [to] dismantle [these] racist production procedures.”
Professor Alcorn urges production teams to contemplate the entire spectrum of practices that might be employed to promote an anti-racist rehearsal environment. Alcorn seems to indicate that a bonafide commitment to anti-racism manifests in transforming an individual or company’s “day-to day practices.”
A theater company might institute “check-ins at the top of rehearsals” and “closing rituals” to “inspire and build a sense of trust and community.” Having these discussions allows a company to “actually discuss all of the tension points in a production before [they] rehearse.” Such points of tension include moments of intimacy, violence, or heightened language.
Another way in which a theater company might practice anti-racism is by “naming race,” and not “speaking in code.” By “being very explicit about the racial dynamics of a production,” a team can actively work against contributing to racist practices.
The professor also asserted the efficacy of creating “community agreements” that not only outline company values and boundaries, but also proactively define “what is going to happen when harm happens,” and how a company might “repair [this] harm.”
Alcorn and Porter also correlate harmful or racist procedures in theater communities with values of “white supremacy culture,” as defined by Kenneth Jones and Tema Okun in their text Dismantling Racism: A Workbook for Social Change Groups. Some characteristics of white supremacy culture include “binary thinking,” “perfectionism,” and an oppressive “sense of urgency.”
The notion that “urgency” inhibits the creation of a safe theatrical workspace seems particularly piquant, because if there is one thing that collegiate, amateur, and professional theater companies alike lack, it is time.
Alcorn insisted that this perennial excuse is no excuse at all. The professor reminded the event’s attendees that many theater companies (along with what seemed to be the rest of the nation) issued “statements” regarding their commitment to anti-racism. However, if considerable time has not been carved out to consistently promote anti-racist practice, then anti-racism has not been prioritized as “a number-one value.”
As of late, the theater community has been particularly focused on the issue of unequal representation in film and stage productions. However, Alcorn asserts that because “the actual structure of [an] organization [remains] unchanged,” corporate remedies to the problem of representation—like tokenism and hollow statements—seem more like flimsy, morally-questionable band-aids than feasible solutions.
One of the professor’s major qualms with contemporary theater culture is that “the vision often comes before the people” who work on a project. Alcorn compels theater-makers to earnestly consider whether constructing “some set piece, or choreographing a dance or scene until two o’clock in the morning” is more valuable than the team’s collective wellbeing. She puts it simply: “the mindset needs to change.”
And perhaps this mindset is changing at the Yale School of Drama, for Professor Alcorn seemed optimistic about the velocitous anti-racist practices being implemented there. The professor shared that Yale has instituted “an anti-racism class [and trainings] for the entire student body, faculty and staff.” Alcorn explained that “though [Yale] is at the very beginning of the process, the idea [in taking these measures] is to change the culture so that anti-racism [eventually] becomes a core value at the drama school and Rep.”
Though the legendary drama school opted out of their 2020-2021 theater season due to the “incompatibility of theatrical production with best public health practices in response to COVID-19,” it seems that this rare operational pause has allowed Yalies the time to begin the process of anti-racist theater education.
By “slowing down” and taking the time to create a safe and actively anti-racist theatrical environment, the students and faculty at the Yale School of Drama are taking the necessary “little steps” to “set [them]selves up as structures of support.”
Likewise, having a set of predetermined, community-wide guidelines would allow stage managers to simply “support existing structures” rather than having to create and enforce potentially draconian rules of their own. The crux of Alcorn’s article is that all of these measures would theoretically alleviate the burden frequently forced upon stage managers to “police” cast and crew. Alcorn believes that “all of the different collaborators on a project [should] view stage managers as their partners–as the people to turn to when they need anything, because they know that we will meet them with kindness, love, and compassion.”
There are surely many ways in which our Columbia theater culture might take a nod from this conversation with Professor Alcorn. After all, Alcorn reminded her audience that “there is no destination: that this is truly changing who we are as a theater community,” and the process is only just beginning. The professor insists that this process of anti-racist education “can start anywhere… so start where you are.”
As theater groups on campus continue to create virtual productions throughout the pandemic, Alcorn’s reminder that “[racist] practices can happen when you are producing online as well” seems prudent. With timelines for on-campus productions falling between six and ten weeks, it would be wise to consider how we might productively slow down.
Though to “slow down productively” might read as oxymoronic (especially to a Columbia student, who is undoubtedly pressed for time), this tea with Narda E. Alcorn makes me believe that one must take pause—earnestly considering the role they play within their environment, be it a theatrical setting or not—in order to effect any kind of genuine anti-racist action.
Update: February 23, 12:10 pm: Bwog has updated this post following a conversation with staff writer Sam Seiff and Narda Alcorn to reflect the ideas expanded upon in their conversation.
Banner Image via actorscareerguide.com.