For the last several months we have been in discussions with some of the cast members of Berkeley Rep’s production of School Girls; Or, The African Mean Girls Play.
School Girls was in rehearsal in March as the coronavirus pandemic came to a head, and California, along with the rest of the country, shut down to protect the health and welfare of its residents. In the aftermath of the shutdown, we were contacted by some of the cast members who shared with us feelings of frustration and anger at the way they were treated by Berkeley Rep during that period. We are grateful to these actors for their vulnerability and their willingness to bring these issues to our attention—we know this is no easy thing, especially for BIPOC artists working in a primarily white institution. As we have worked with these artists to address their concerns, we acknowledge that one of the requests they made was for a public statement of accountability:
On March 16, when Governor Newsom directed that virtually all businesses in California shut down, performing arts organizations across the state scrambled to understand how to respond. We had already shuttered one production and our other production, School Girls, was in tech rehearsals and heading toward its first previews.
That day, we gathered our entire staff, and all the artists involved with School Girls, to share with them that by 6pm that night we would be closing down, for an unknown amount of time and that a significant number of staff (ultimately over 100) would be temporarily laid off. We notified everyone—artists, staff and crew—that we would record the show that afternoon and that, in accordance with the mandate of our local health department, up to 50 friends and staff could be there as our final audience.
Things were moving very quickly during that final week, and particularly on that final day. Decisions were being made in rapid response to changing government mandates. We thought we were communicating in a timely and open way with all of our artists and our staff. However, in the aftermath, it became clear that our actions and choices were not as transparent as we had thought, and that our communication was not as open as our artists and staff needed it to be. We appreciate that cast members of School Girls brought their specific concerns to us. The soul searching that has come as a result of the pain they shared with us has led us to think about our actions during those several days, and about what we could have done differently.
We realize that we should have, ourselves, spoken with the cast daily during that time, keeping them more fully informed of the external factors that were driving our changing plans. If we had been in daily dialogue with them throughout those last few days, they would not have been caught off guard and they would have been more party to all of our decision-making.
We realize that on the day of the shutdown, we should have met with the cast privately, apart from the rest of the company. We should have given them a safe space to hear the plan for that final day. We should have given them the space to process the information, to ask their questions about what it would mean to them, in a space that would allow each of them the time to examine what the shutdown meant to them individually, what the financial impact would be for them individually, what the recording now meant to them, individually.
In retrospect, we now wonder whether we should have proceeded with the recording at all. We went into the week wanting to preserve and share the work of the artists who had already been in rehearsals for over four weeks when the shutdown happened. We also wanted to honor our obligation to our audience, and share with them a play that Johanna was particularly proud to include in her first season. We were deeply disappointed not to be able to present this work live. But at the time, we considered the recording and broadcast to be the next best solution. With more time to consider, we might have made very different choices about proceeding with the recording. We certainly would have managed those chaotic days differently.
The concerns raised by the actors with whom we spoke did result in some immediate change at the theatre. These actors asked why there were no BIPOC members of the leadership team that day who could be there as as an advocate in that last, difficult meeting. They wondered whether, had there been a BIPOC person, and specifically a BIPOC woman in the room, their voices would have been better heard and more meaningfully responded to.
We heard what they were saying and have since hired a BIPOC woman to fill our newly created role of Human Resources and Diversity Manager. She works directly with the two of us and has already helped make some meaningful changes in the way this company operates. This is not the only change that will take place at Berkeley Rep. But it is one that speaks immediately and specifically to the concerns raised in the wake of the shutdown. This new position is not only a reflection of the organizational work that has become essential in light of the issues that were raised, it is also the first of what we expect to be more hiring that will be part of a broader set of initiatives inspired by our desire to become a truly anti-racist organization.
We now realize that the hurt that some of the cast experienced was exacerbated by the structural inequities that exist within our company. What we have increasingly come to understand is that the experience that many BIPOC artists and audience members have of Berkeley Rep is not the same as that of white artists and audiences. As we have come to better understand this, over the last several months, we have been engaged in discussions with our board and with our staff to begin to explore the ways in which this theatre can and should become part of the important social change that is finally happening in this country. We fully expect to be part of that change. We are doing the work required to make lasting and real organizational change, and look forward to sharing the details of that work publicly soon.
We offer our sincerest apologies to these artists.
Johanna Pfaelzer, Artistic Director
Susie Medak, Managing Director