The Open Letter
To WVU School of Theatre and Dance faculty and staff, and to the Chair, Josh Williamson:
We are writing on behalf of the West Virginia University School of Theatre and Dance alumni and current students regarding the recent events that have brought to light the historical presence of systemic racism and white supremacy in our nation, especially as it exists in our education and performance spaces. We appreciate that the WVU faculty and the institution as a whole are examining their practices and pedagogies broadly in light of the current cultural moment. We also acknowledge that many faculty members have already come forward and affirmed that deliberate action needs to be taken to create an anti-racist and inclusive learning environment, including CCA Dean Keith Jackson’s moving call to action. For this, we are proud of our university and offer our full support.
Across the country, BIPOC artists, students, and industry professionals have asked theatres and educational institutions to examine and dismantle the ways in which they have been participating in the systemic oppression of BIPOC voices. Today, we are asking the WVU School of Theatre and Dance not only to explicitly state its historical participation in an antiquated, white-centered system of thinking, but to actively dismantle racist ideologies, oppressive ways of thinking, and white-centered teachings by committing to actionable, measurable steps to create an educational environment that supports BIPOC voices and artists. To assist the department as it examines these steps, we have compiled a list of the following action items:
Make the welfare and safety of your students a priority as the institution moves through these necessary changes. Create a diversity, equity, and inclusion liaison position where BIPOC students are safe and feel heard to air their concerns. This position should be held by a person of color that is trained to handle conversations regarding inclusion and diversity. Additionally, use existing avenues at WVU, such as Title IX, to create a system within the School of Theatre and Dance that allows students to make a formal complaint against racism, micro- and macro-aggressions, and implicit bias, where there are clear consequences for the perpetrator, be they student or staff. Include these systems and statements in every syllabus to ensure every student is aware of the resources available to them at the beginning of each semester.
Educate faculty and students on the issues of white supremacy through tokenism and microaggressions within productions and classrooms. Create a specialist position, different from the BIPOC liaison, to run ongoing sessions, full semester classes, and workshops on equality within the entertainment industry that all students and faculty are required to attend throughout the year, and compensate these specialists appropriately. Implement long-term performing arts-specific IDEA (inclusion, diversity, equity and access) training, led by this specialist, for faculty and staff that is centered around anti-racist activism, with added emphasis on interrupting microaggressions in the theatrical production and training context. Build relationships with current and former BIPOC students and listen to their experiences. Hold online forums with these students and the faculty to have these conversations and learn how to do better in the future.
Commit to revising, reforming, and diversifying your educational materials and current curriculum to move away from an antiquated white centered way of learning. This can be done a number of ways: Expand your knowledge of BIPOC plays and playwrights. These stories and storytellers should take up as much time and space in the curriculum as Tennessee Williams, Harold Pinter, David Mamet, Arthur Miller, etc.; Include new works that are more reflective of the times we are currently living in; Actively fund BIPOC stories and put BIPOC artists in positions to tell those stories; Promote BIPOC voices in every area of education, including production positions, crew, casting, dance, choreography, administrative staff, and teaching staff.
Foster deeper institutional relationships with multiple BIPOC artists and alumni over the next several years. Hire them as guest artists, lecturers, workshop and masterclass leaders, and guest speakers, while working to create a safe work environment for these individuals. Proper cultivation of these relationships could help draw a more diverse student body and representation in marketing without relying on the use of tokenism while recruiting.
Work with communities that have a higher percentage of BIPOC prospective students to create a more equitable submission process. Work towards setting up a fund with the College of Creative Arts and the WVU Foundation Office to bring more BIPOC students into the program. Partner with organizations already in place at WVU such as WVU NAACP, WVU Black Graduates Association, and the Department of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion if you need help reaching out to said communities. Create a more accessible audition process by utilizing virtual audition days and further broadcasting scholarship opportunities.
Create a 1-year, 5-year and 10-year plan that is shared ubiquitously amongst the West Virginia University community, including alumni, with specific, measurable, and timely goals that document how the School of Theatre and Dance plans to create a BIPOC-inclusive environment. If funding is an issue, begin to look at your budget as a moral document and understand the importance and necessity of these changes. We ask for these long-term plans to ensure that the School of Theatre and Dance is doing more than just “window dressing” the department to appear inclusive.
We affirm that the world of theatre is a safe place, a place of acceptance and inclusion. WVU should set the standards of equity and inclusion that the nation is moving towards in the professional theatre and performance world. Theatre should be a community that does see color, and pursues to correct the injustices that have been blanketed over our industry. The students who attend WVU choose you; make sure their choice is filled with hope for a better future.
It is easy to continue in the way that we always have, settling for comfortable conversations, and to pass on the torch of change to someone else. If the current faculty finds that they don’t have the capacity for change and are set in their complacency, then commit to diversifying the faculty by ensuring that the next time the department is in a position to hire a tenure-track or adjunct faculty member, the BIPOC artists with whom you will be fostering deeper relationships are directly encouraged to apply.
The concern we have voiced today does not end after sending one letter. Current students and alumni both are actively working towards the betterment of the place that we have called home. We are invested in the growth of students that graduate from this program. We have ideas, resources, and enough energy and drive to give towards seeing these changes succeed. We ask that the department see us as allies and engage with us throughout this process of growth and development -- we are your greatest resources, and we want to help. We acknowledge that creating these changes won’t be instantaneous, but it is the institution’s job to start the process and become better every day.
We expect the institution to schedule a follow up conversation that includes faculty, alumni representatives, and current student representatives to listen to further details, plans, and suggestions for moving forward in order to work towards transparent, collaborative, and measurable efforts to bring the necessary changes about at WVU School of Theatre and Dance.
Thank you for reading our letter and hearing our unified voice. We look forward to the day when the WVU School of Theatre and Dance is seen as a beacon of how things should be.