Ahead of New Leadership, Ensemble Studio Theatre Seeks A Profound Cultural Shift
A restructuring around equity and anti-racism follows years of work by Black membership
Behind the Sheet was a critically acclaimed, sold-out hit for Ensemble Studio Theatre in January 2019, extending three times. Charly Evon Simpson’s play reframed the work of James Marion Sims, the “father of modern gynecology,” from the perspective of the enslaved Black women Sims forcibly experimented on. The play’s cast and creative team was also almost entirely Black.
Director Colette Robert remembers it proudly - but as a Black woman, directing a play by and starring Black women, she also recalls a stark divide when staff and artists gathered for the first table-read.
“The table of artists was beautiful and inclusive, and then the staff, seated in the audience area, was mostly white,” said Robert. The image was one of, “a divide - artists looking one way, and the staff of the theater looking another.”
EST has earned acclaim in recent years for its focus on challenging new work. Robert Askins’ dark comedy Hand to God was a high point, traveling from EST’s dingy West 52nd Street space to Broadway. Its under-30 playwright collective Youngblood has launched Annie Baker, Leah Nanako Winkler, Clare Barron and many more. Artistic director William Carden, who took over in 2007, is widely credited with rescuing the theater from the brink of economic collapse.
Now, the 53 year-old institution is looking to reinvent itself again. In July, Carden announced that he would step down, and that EST was conducting an internal review to address “the implicit racism in the structure of our theatre.” Interim executive director Susan J. Vitucci will also depart at the review’s end, clearing the way for new leadership.
Led by outside facilitator Rebecca KellyG, the review is inviting input from across membership, with particular focus on BIPOC, LGBTQIA+, 50+ and female voices. By spring, KellyG will submit a report proposing both a transition team, and structural changes aimed at sowing equity and anti-racism into the fabric of the theater.
Though the timing suggested a direct response to the summer protests, Carden’s departure actually followed years of internal work, led primarily by Black ensemble artists, in shifting the culture at EST.
“This is not a reaction,” said actress Sharina Martin, co-chair of EST’s Members Council. “It’s providence that right now is when Billy is stepping down, that KellyG has come in, and that we have this amazing cohort of BIPOC artists that are interested in making positive changes to the company.”
Black member artists took a more active role after now-board member Russell G. Jones hosted “Blindspot” workshops for artists and staff in 2017. Jones’ program teaches the recognizing and resisting of systemic white supremacy. The last day was “a call to arms,” recalled Robert. Jones encouraged participants to take the skills they’d built and apply them at EST.
EST’s over 600 ensemble artists are represented by an elected 25-person Members Council on which Robert, Martin, Erin Cherry, Lynette Freeman and other Black ensemble artists sit. The Council formed a sub-committee to re-examine the theater’s core mission statement.
That committee picked apart the mission word by word, working on revisions for a year. The changes affirmed EST’s commitment to end oppression based not only on race, but also physical ability and mental health. It was approved at an annual all-membership meeting in 2018. Then Members Council started pushing to make the new values a reality.
“Every step that we’ve taken since has been driven by holding ourselves accountable to that mission statement,” said Martin.
The work on the mainstage was shifting - before Sheet, EST staged Sylvia Khoury’s Against the Hillside, about the impact of drone warfare on a Palestinian family, and William Jackson Harper’s Travisville, a look at Civil Rights-era divisions within an African-American community in Texas.
KellyG was brought on in 2019 to facilitate work around the new mission. She first led discussion groups for staff and membership focused on tokenization, decentering whiteness, implicit bias, and how these issues manifested at EST. New community guidelines were also being crafted, before the shutdown forced a pause.
In the wake of George Floyd’s murder and the ensuing protests across the country, a number of Black member artists began meeting to support one another — eventually forming into a Black Affinity Group. Recognizing that the work EST had already begun needed to take on greater urgency, Carden asked KellyG to shift gears into facilitating a leadership transition.
“EST was already starting the work anyway,” said Cherry, an actress and co-chair of Members Council - though following the protests, “a lot of members feel able to express themselves in a way they haven’t before.”
For her part, KellyG characterizes her work as identifying the structural roadblocks that have kept certain voices - BIPOC voices in particular - from being heard.
“I don’t think anyone needs to be empowered - that comes from these ideas of saviorism,” she said. “People have been speaking, there’s just been structural and systemic practices to not listen.”
Her report isn’t done, but EST’s first planned in-person production hints at how a new leadership structure might operate. The Marathon of One-Act Plays, a beloved EST tradition, will re-open the theater celebrating BIPOC artists. Previously, Marathon plays have always been selected by Carden and his staff; this time, Robert and member artist Mike Lew are serving as co-artistic directors.
“It’s a step in the right direction,” said Cherry. “Even if we continue to just have one [artistic leader], I want there to be other positions of power representing membership.”
Mostly, members are non-committal on what a new leadership structure will exactly look like, preferring to let the process play out. “Everything’s on the table,” said Martin, adding only that a BIPOC leader should not be placed into an organization that isn’t changing around them.
Recent events at one of New York’s few other membership-based theaters The Flea, where a Black artistic director working within a white power structure dismissed the membership body, were mentioned as a concern. Artists seem confident that KellyG’s holistic approach will avoid this. EST’s board has backed the transition plans.
“We need to work on every level of the organization, down to equitable hiring in crew, apprentices and new company members, to better reflect the changes we’d made in our mission,” said board chair Bob Jaffe. The board has also pledged to diversify its own membership - it currently has two Black members out of 21 total.
In a moment where many theaters are making promises around equity and anti-racism, artists express confidence that EST is committed to the long-term work of structural change.
“This is work that is happening intentionally, aligning with work that is happening in the larger world, aligning within a moment of change within the company,” said Martin. “So it’s part luck, but also a lot of intention, and a lot of work.”