On Site: Becoming an Anti-Racist Company

AWF Interviewing Tara Mallen: Founder & Artistic Director, Rivendell Theatre Ensemble

March, 2021


Rivendell has been working to get women’s stories on stage for over 25 years. How have opportunities for women in theater changed over this time?

It's getting better because there is this younger generation of women behind us, that do not accept status quo and do not have the patience to say, well, this is the way it's always been. I'm really inspired by this younger community of women, particularly in the theater who are asking, “Why shouldn't I have the same opportunities? Why shouldn't I get paid more if I'm more equipped?”

My husband and I moved here together from New York. I had my equity card, my BFA, and my off-Broadway credit. my husband had none of those things. we got to Chicago and he started auditioning and working immediately. And for every 15 auditions that he could go to, there was maybe one for me - and generally it was for some ingénue type role that literally had nothing to do with anything that I represent as a human, nor did it hold any interest for me. I remember thinking really clearly, where am I in this? It was because of this that I started the company.

In your proposal to the Arts Work Fund, you wrote that you wanted to continue moving forward toward being an anti-racist company. How does a white founded white led, company go about doing anti-racist work?

For 25 years I'm like, well, I'm all about equity and I'm all about, inclusion. And again, that is in huge part, thanks to the younger members of the Rivendell community who really hold my feet to the fire and make me push past what's comfortable. And I began to recognize that just because I make sure there is a person of color in every single Rivendell show that doesn't abdicate me from participating in the systemic racism that exists at Rivendell because we are a primarily white founded company. The voices we put on stage have been primarily white voices.

And so, I began to think I need to stop hard and look at Rivendell and recognize and admit and begin to make a plan for how we begin to change the systems that we have in place here. And it's not because we're bad people or not because we don't care, but it's because we were raised in a racist culture. Those of us that are in the creative arts, we think of ourselves as very liberal minded and we're here for everybody, but it's really easy to conflate diversity and inclusion and racism. And, that has certainly happened at Rivendell. So how do we make Rivendell be a company and a platform for all women's voices, not just the white middle aged ones.

So how's the grant going to help you do that? What are the steps you're taking?

We've been having conversations for the past three years, and more during this summer of protests, and we were taking little, tiny baby steps, right? Like, we're gonna make sure we always cast at least one person of color. And once a year we're going to do a play written by a person of color. And for five years, we’ve been talking about getting more people of color on the board and in the audience.

And I was sitting, talking to my wonderful friend, Willa Taylor, and she's like, You got to change what you're putting on the stage. And I was like, yes. And then I started thinking about who reads the plays that we choose? Well, a bunch of white middle aged ladies. And then of course the, we see you, white American theater thing went out, and it just really was an awakening to how much work we still had to do.

So then I started thinking, well, I have to have some leadership at Rivendell that has helping me determine the programming and helping making recommendations to the ensemble that is coming from a very different perspective than mine.

So, as a first step, we will hire a XXX and open up the responsibility to somebody coming from a very different background than myself. We need to have BIPOC leadership and we need to have more BIPOC artists engaged in the work, making the decisions about the work. But the only way that's going to change is as somebody at the top starts helping make those decisions on the programs we choose to put forth. The big thing is that we have committed to not making any more programmatic decisions until we have that person in place. We will not make any more decisions about what is going on our stage until there's somebody at the helm who's coming from a BIPOC perspective and has a voice in that decision-making.

And the grant will help support the salary of that person. But that is just one aspect of a more comprehensive plan you have. What else are you doing?

The staff, ensemble and board are committing to anti-racism training, ongoing anti-racism training. We're going to find a shared language. We're going to make ourselves be held accountable. We want to commit to that for our entire organization, our staff, our board, our ensemble of artists. We have a finite budget for that kind of training. And there have been lots and lots of opportunities over the last couple of years. The league has done some wonderful work that way some of the foundations have offered, but it's always, we are going to sent two of your members of your organization.

So then you go off to this really profound, amazing training, and then you have to come back. And attempt to relay all of that information that you are not in any way, an expert in back to 36 people who were like,what are you even talking? What I do that already?

And so, the question I have is, how do we make that kind of opportunity available to full organizations? What does that look like? A volunteer board can't give up two full days, maybe. So are there ways to do some sort of monthly bi-monthly check-ins. I mean, that's the part I'm really struggling with. How do we commit? How do we find resources that can impact our whole organization or it can be made available to all of the members of our organization.

The most important thing for us. As a community, as citizens as humans is to admit that racism exists and that privilege exists and that you are a part of it and it's in you and therefore it's in everything. Your artwork, your theater company, your family. And if we can't, first of all, admit it, how can we begin to eradicate it? That's where I'm at that right now. And that's where Rivendell is at right now. We just have to admit it and talk about it.

Tell me about the audience part of your plan for becoming an anti-racist company.

One of the parts of this grant that we wrote was looking at different models for tickets and really graduated tickets. And so that we can make sure the work is accessible. Because if we're talking about trying to get different people into the theater, we have to be mindful about making it inviting. And part of that is of course what the material is, you're putting on stage, but literally, how do you make a community that's not used to come into your theater, feel comfortable and safe and like there's opportunities for them to see themselves on your stage.

And some of that is making those tickets so expensive that nobody who isn't making $65,000 a year could ever dream of caughing up 30 bucks to go see a play. Or hiring someone to come watch their child. Another way that we're really looking through all of that is, Rivendell is radically family friendly. We encourage parents to bring their children. I never want someone to feel like they can't take the show because they have a baby. And what they're making is going to barely cover childcare.

I want you to bring your child and let us as an organization help figure out who's watching the baby while you're in rehearsal. And we need to get more like that, you know, that's amazing.

Any final thoughts?

One of my company members said this to me a month ago and it has just been, you know, rattling around in my head. He said, when is Rivendell going to just stand up and take the hit? Like you're real good at going quiet, Tara. And at some point you're going to have to stand up and take the hit. I think about that and that might be coming from the audience at first, right?

There's always going to be that one person who hates what you do and you can't please, everybody. This is such a little simple thing. Krystel who's Black, who in our company was in the cake. She played the Black person in the cake and she was in the photos on the poster. And we saw a lot of people of color coming to see the cake. And at one point I said to Krystel, what is that about?

She was like, you put me on the poster. So people looked at it and went, Oh, there's a Black person in there, but there might be something for me to see in this play. I was like, how did that never occur to me before. But then the conversations that people would after that play and the way they would walk down on the stage and take a piece of cake and talk to us about their experiences of, you know, coming out or when they married their partner and I think that's the key.

If you can create a diverse audience, they begin to talk to each other. And they walk out of the theater, talking about going down the street and sometimes they write something on a post-it and mail it back to me. And then I know they've been talking about it and then I get very excited and I cry, put it up on the wall. The biggest gift of that play was the playwright wrote in my ideal world at the end of the play, everybody will eat cake together. And I think it was one of the joys of being so small and, and flexible as a company. We literally had cake sponsors for every performance because we're tiny and it was 50 people.

And you can make a cake that serves 50 people, but for it to have the people come on stage and eat cake and talk about what they just saw and start to tell you their stories. That was just profound. Yeah. It was a gift. Yeah because I have some work to do to make my audience non-racist. It's going to be different and it's going to be hard, but it's going to be better. It's got to be. Cause it can't stay this shit.

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