America must be reflected on stage, backstage and front of house, director says
The recent showing of the Broadway smash hit “Hamilton” on TV showcased several amazing Black actors. But the industry is coming to terms with the fact that it needs to be more diverse in all areas.
The Broadway League, a trade association of theater owners, producers and others in the business, pledged last month to perform a wide-ranging audit of diversity in the industry, prompted by the rising awareness of systemic racism in the country.
Colleen Jennings-Roggensack, executive director of ASU Gammage, whose programming includes touring Broadway shows, is on the board of directors of the Broadway League. She also is Arizona’s only voter for the annual Tony Awards.
“It’s been a long time coming,” Jennings-Roggensack told the New York Times about the new diversity initiative. “As wonderful as the field is, I often am the only one in the room.”
Jennings-Roggensack, who also is vice president for cultural affairs at ASU, answered some questions from ASU Now.
Question: What is the Broadway League?
Answer: The Broadway League is the service organization that oversees all of Broadway and what we call “the road,” which brings in New York Broadway shows. That includes producers, directors and presenters. I’m considered a presenter.
It also includes general managers, booking agents, press agents, marketing press people and theater owners.
The Broadway League began as an organization of theater owners, and then it was like a lightbulb went off that “the Broadway business is a much larger ecosystem,” which includes the road and a lot of other folks.
Q: Why is this audit important?
A: I’m a member of the board of directors and also on the executive committee and I chair several other committees, legislative, labor and government relations.
For many years, I was the only person of color on the board. There are two now and it’s a board of 49.
Broadway is often called “the longest road in America,” but it is not reflective of America.
When you come into a Broadway house, you want to see an audience that reflects America and a stage that reflects America. You want to know that behind the scenes, the crews, and the front of the house and the administration all reflect America.
Q: What has the Broadway League been doing in terms of diversity?
A: I chaired the first equity, inclusion and diversity committee that began to put programs together and we have 19 now.
This isn’t new but the sense of urgency is new.
We did an internship program in which ASU had the first ATPAM intern — the Association of Theatrical Press Agents and Managers. Jeremy Gillett was our first one and he is active not only on stage but also in the commercial film world. As an intern, he met with Erik Birkeland, who was the company manager for the show “Memphis,” and he took him through his job of what it means to be a company manager, the kinds of things you have to do, like payroll, making sure people are healthy, get the show in, be the contact with the producers and presenters. There are very few company managers of color.
We had seven young people go through our Broadway League ATPAM program and many have jobs across country and a couple are working in New York.
Then the Broadway League started the Broadway Fellowship for someone who is older and already engaged but the way you get into this business is who you know. Now we’re looking at expanding that, having more fellows in more houses. We’re looking at an overall larger commitment.
One thing that’s very interesting in our field is that people say, “We opened a job and only white people applied for it.”
We say, “Where were you advertising? Who are you talking to?”
We’re looking at job fairs not just at the collegiate age but at the high school age so young people can think, “I want to be a producer,” “I want to be a general manager,” or “I want to be a press agent.”
Do you know there was only one black press agent in all of New York City? Irene Gandy. And do you know how many press agents there are? A gazillion.
Q: So how will the Broadway League try to expand its commitment to diversity?
A: First and foremost, we will look at hiring an equity, diversity and inclusion senior director to look at all of the league’s programs. Is this program doing what it hopes to accomplish? Does it need a boost or is it not working and we need something else?
I sit on the labor committee so we would like the Broadway unions and guilds to be partners with us in this effort. The International Association of Stage and Technical Engineers is not a very diverse group in the back of the house.
We will look at anti-racism and unconscious bias training at the board level as well as staff and in the organizations we represent.
All of the companies on Broadway are undergoing their own conversations with their performers and creative teams and technical people. This is the entire industry coming together to do this.
We’re looking at partnerships with groups like Black Theater United, which is doing this work, and the Broadway Advocacy Coalition.
Now what we need to do is visibly see the numbers. We need to set goals and standards for ourselves and keep to them.
Q: What changes will we see at Gammage?
A: We have been strongly committed to equity and inclusion but we look at our backstage. We’re proud we have women backstage but we’ve not had great diversity back there in terms of Black, Indigenous and people of color. We’re hoping you’ll see a difference there.
Likewise you will see some of it in the front of the house, our house staff and usher staff, but we want you to see more of it there and at the box office. So you feel welcome.
I’m the first person of color to run Gammage and I’ve been doing it for 28 years but I hope the senior team expands and we look at ways to do that.
I think ultimately we’ll see the difference on the stage as Broadway follows through with this commitment. We’ll see different plays and musicals and we’ll see a difference in who writes them, who writes the music and who is conducting in the pit.
Q: Broadway closed on March 12 due to the pandemic. Are you worried about the future?
A: Yes. That’s why I start (meetings on Zoom) at 6 a.m.
We’re probably looking at January 2021 for Broadway reopening but we also have to know that people are coming from all over the world and they have to be safe. The actors have to be safe. And the musicians in the pit and the crews and the wigmakers and the dressers and everyone has to be safe. We have to get COVID under control.
But we’re able to do this work because we’re home. One of the things that has been really amazing and wonderful is how the Black Lives Matter movement has permeated so many different fields and so many industries and it’s caused us to look at ourselves and see how we can do better and see who we can partner with.
This is a lifelong commitment for so many of us.
Top image: Colleen Jennings-Roggensack, executive director of ASU Gammage, is on the board of directors of the Broadway League, which is launching a diversity audit of the industry. Photo by Charlie Leight/ASU Now