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A man in a red shirt standing on a set of stairs.
Playwright and novelist Jon Marcantoni poses for a portrait Sept. 27, 2023, at the Denver Performing Arts Complex in downtown Denver. (Olivia Sun, The Colorado Sun via Report for America)

The stage was set. Jon Marcantoni, a playwright and novelist, had selected the first member for his Emerging BIPOC Playwrights Project.

Marcantoni had just finished a successful run of “Puerto Rican Nocturne,” a play he wrote prior to the pandemic, and wanted to use the momentum and network he’d generated to shepherd emerging BIPOC — Black, Indigenous and people of color — playwrights into that space. So he built a website, partnered with Control Group Productions, secured funding, consulted his “Puerto Rican Nocturne” crew and put out a call for artists. 

Diego Florez-Arroyo, a local musician, visual artist and poet, heeded that call. Florez-Arroyo grew up in Colorado and made his way into the arts after dropping out of school at 15 years old, the same year his mother was deported. At 18 he got involved with Youth on Record, and at 19 he started a band, Los Mocochetes.

Florez-Arroyo had an outline for a play, but no playwriting experience. He was a poster child for what Marcantoni’s Flamboyán Theater and Control Group Productions teamed up for: a charismatic local guy, with an immigrant background and incredible artistic potential.

Everything was going according to plan, until it wasn’t. 

As seen on stage

According to Chris Coleman, artistic director at Denver Center for Performing Arts, Theatre Company, over the past three years, BIPOC talent has been in high demand. 

“We have to continue to really try to learn about new talent and broaden our network. Four years ago, you could put out a call (to a BIPOC director) and they’d be available. Now they’re booked 18 months to two years in advance,” Coleman said. “There’s more competition for a similar talent pool. So you have to start sooner and you have to really keep learning about new prospects.”

Since 2018, the Theatre Company has steadily and deliberately grown the diversity within its creative teams, a designation that includes directors, designers, choreographers and playwrights, among others. 

During the 2018-19 season, 29% of people on creative teams within the Theatre Company identified as BIPOC, according to Coleman. Last season, the 2022-23 season, 42% of the teams identified as such. This season they hit 45%.

Similarly, storylines that center BIPOC narratives grew to 42% in the current season compared with 37% in 2018-19, and the acting cast grew to 59% in the past season (they haven’t cast all of this season’s shows, yet), from 44% in the 2018-19 season. 

What contributed to this expansion? “We started measuring things,” Coleman said. 

The Denver Performing Arts Complex on Oct. 2, 2023, in downtown Denver. (Olivia Sun, The Colorado Sun via Report for America)

Those numbers matter to Coloradans, who are among the most active participants of arts and culture. In 2017, 66.5% of Coloradans recorded attending live music, theater or dance performances, according to a Survey of Public Participation in the Arts, making Colorado the most active state in arts and culture (only Washington, D.C., ranked higher, with 68.9% of their population attending arts events). That same survey reported that 61% of white participants recorded attending these events nationwide, compared with 29% of Black participants, 41% of Hispanic participants and 45% of Asian participants. 

According to the Consumer Spending Report, in the 2021-22 season, the Mountain West division — which consists of Arizona, Colorado, Idaho, New Mexico, Montana, Utah, Nevada and Wyoming — spent the highest average amount annually on fees and admissions to entertainment: $997 per person per year, surpassing New England, the West South Central region, and the Pacific West, which before the pandemic all spent more money on tickets. 

Still working on it

Continuing to broaden diversity within both creative teams and audience members takes stamina. Carmen Morgan, founder and executive director of artEquity, a national organization that provides training for cultural institutions on equity, inclusion and justice, said that one of the biggest challenges that organizations will face when they decide to commit themselves to diversity and inclusion is truly understanding the time, rigor, and creativity that this effort will take.

“Any culture-change work takes a long arc,” Morgan said. “But especially so when you’re dealing with issues of race, anti-racism, systemic structural sexism and patriarchy. We’re talking about the big systemic issues.”

At the height of 2020, artEquity held a national board committee training, working with trustees from major arts organizations across the country to help them assess, understand and expand diversity in their institutions. “We had a waiting list in 2020 and 2021,” Morgan said. “This year we had to postpone the training for lack of interest.”

The Denver Center for the Performing Arts has been a client of artEquity since 2017. They did organizational assessments, interviewed DCPA staff members and provided recommendations. It was during this time that Lydia Garcia, who hosted one of the trainings, reconnected with DCPA, where she had been a dramaturge many years prior.

Lydia Garcia, executive director of equity of the Denver Center for the Performing Arts, poses for a portrait Oct. 2, 2023. (Olivia Sun, The Colorado Sun via Report for America)

Fast forward three years, to 2019. Garcia is working as a freelancer in Los Angeles, checking her email while she’s working out on the treadmill. She finds a recruitment email from DCPA about a new equity position that they want to talk to her about. “I’m so clueless, I honestly thought that they were asking me for advice in terms of shaping the position, not that they were reaching out to me as a potential candidate,” Garcia laughed. 

She was hired as DCPA’s first-ever executive director of equity and organization culture that summer. 

“What really caught my attention was the fact that the title for this new position included the words ‘organization culture.’ That to me signaled such an evolution in the way in which the work was being applied.”

“The speed of trust”

Getting upper-management and trustee buy-in can be a huge hurdle for cultural institutional change, which is why Garcia was thrilled to see the way that DCPA understood the role as organizational. A more insidious hurdle to overcome, however, and one that can’t necessarily be hired for, is fear. 

“Not every organization has a culture where it’s OK to say, ‘wow, yeah, you’re right, we had a blind spot there, we screwed up,’” said Jeannene Bragg, managing director of Curious Theatre Company

Bragg and Jada Suzanne Dixon have been serving as co-directors of Curious Theatre since last year. 

Since taking on their director roles, the women have been deliberate to create an environment that’s open to screw-ups. For instance, marketing departments tend to cherry-pick pictures that show the most diversity possible, Bragg explained candidly. “We had taken one great image from 10 years ago that happens to feature a person of color and used it over and over, but it was pointed out that this is problematic. So now we only use an image if it was taken within the past two years.”

Team members of the Curious Theatre Christy Montour-Larson, CeCe Smith, Piper Stormes, Camdon Presley, Jada Dixon, and Jeannene Bragg on the set of “The Minutes” by Tracy Letts at the Curious Theatre Company Oct. 3, 2023, in Denver. (Olivia Sun, The Colorado Sun via Report for America)

Curious also holds monthly meetings that focus on diversity, equity and inclusion, where each person on their nine-person staff rotates through hosting and facilitating. They try to bring in current events and relevant articles and discuss how those mistakes and practices can be applied to their company. 

One month they talked about Americans with Disabilities Act accessibility (their theater occupies an old church) after a Denver city councilman couldn’t get onto the stage for a debate at Cleo Parker Robinson Dance (also an old church). They talked about Native American histories as it pertained to their current production at one meeting. They took a field trip to the Museum of Contemporary Art Denver during an exhibition of Black artists from the South. “We went there as a staff just to get into a different art form, but also to grapple with the ideas in it,” Bragg said. 

At DCPA, Garcia gets excited when she starts talking about their “culture of belonging” sessions that she facilitates with different teams. “I have a discussion guideline that says ‘this is the right place to ask the wrong question,’” Garcia said. “One of the first barriers to being able to really dig in is the fear of saying the wrong thing, the fear of looking like you don’t support this work because there are high expectations and thin margins [of error].” 

These conversations happen roughly every other year, allowing the team members and Garcia the time to learn from the sessions. 

“It’s been fascinating, to borrow a phrase, to be ‘moving at the speed of trust,’” Garcia said. “It takes time to build a learning culture, and bravery to learn in public. But all I need is for folks to just be in the room. They can be rolling their eyes, doing whatever they need to do, I just need them to stay in the room.”

“Why do you want to aspire to mediocrity?”

When Marcantoni set out, he was optimistic that his program would be able to amplify BIPOC voices and provide the community with quality theater.

“I don’t buy into this whole argument of ‘well, white people can be mediocre, so can we,’” Marcantoni said. “I’m like, why do you want to aspire to mediocrity? Just because white people get away with it doesn’t mean that we should do it too.”

After a first draft and a first reading from Florez-Arroyo, Marcantoni wanted more. More edits, more drafts, more meaning baked into every scene, every character, every movement. 

Florez-Arroyo stood his ground. When the two started to butt heads, Control Group offered to push the play through production. The supporting groups splintered apart from one another, while Florez-Arroyo moved between them.

What started as a joint venture, meant to shepherd BIPOC playwrights through development and into production, became more of a handoff — Flamboyán provided development, while Control Group worked on the production. 

Denise Zubizarreta and Cipriano Ortega were also selected for the Emerging Playwrights Project, joining Florez-Arroyo in the inaugural cohort. 

“Each work is just such a big task, and to be able to take on three projects at once is definitely a triumphant vision,” Florez-Arroyo said, thinking back on his summer working with Marcantoni. Florez-Arroyo diplomatically concluded that their “working style” was not the same. 

“I have a lot of feelings around it, but I don’t think feelings would be helpful. I want to champion the opportunity that Jon was able to put into my life,” Florez-Arroyo said. “But you gotta follow through, even if it’s hard. To be the leader, you gotta be in service of everyone, you know?”

Florez-Arroyo’s first play, Cuauhtémoczin, has been through several iterations since its first draft. It has nearly doubled in length, Florez-Arroyo said, and been revised multiple times. It debuts at the Holiday Theater on Oct. 6 and runs for two weekends.

The work is preparing for the work

The paradox for an emerging BIPOC playwrights program is that the playwrights are coaxed into an seemingly inclusive environment then must subject their stories and voices to sometimes outsize levels of criticism.

“It’s hard to tell people, ‘hey, your story matters, your voice matters, we see so much promise in you,’” Marcantoni said. “And then be like, ‘but you need to work on all these things.’ And give a laundry list of all the shit that they have to do to work on themself.”

“I think one of the biggest challenges for all of these programs that are putting empowerment first, and really building on (the idea) that ‘we want diverse voices, different perspectives,’ is that they’re building an expectation that what makes that perspective good is just the presence of it,” he added. 

It’s an ego death, in a space that was created to lure its members in with a sense of belonging. But what would it take to shepherd new playwrights of color into the industry while also preparing them for the soul-wrenching process of development and production? Maybe that process of development needs some development itself.

“One of the first conversations folks wanted to engage me with was how to recruit. Like literally, like where do I post the job posting?” Garcia, of DCPA, said. “I’m like, all right, we can have that conversation. But first I need to ask you: Is your environment ready for that person? Do you know how to support a team member who needs disability accommodations or, you know, who might be the first person of color in an entirely white environment? Do you have any awareness about racist narratives or ableist or anti-disability practices that are actually gonna make it impossible for that person to be successful in this environment?”

“There is a whole arc of capacity building just to get ready to do the work,” Morgan, of artEquity, said. “So that’s one big misconception. By the time an organization says yes to ‘doing the work,’ what they’re really saying yes to is getting ready to actually engage.”

Parker Yamasaki covers arts and culture at The Colorado Sun as a Poynter-Koch Media and Journalism Fellow and former Dow Jones News Fund intern. She has freelanced for the Chicago Reader, Newcity Chicago, and DARIA, among other publications,...