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Broadway needs big structural change. The producers behind The Theatre Leadership Project are hoping to deliver it.

A series of paid fellowships will create positions for Black creative producers, company and stage managers

A new group is aiming to make a sea change on Broadway by vaulting Black people into some of its most powerful positions. 

Broadway producers Barbara Broccoli (Once, The Band’s Visit), Lia Vollack (MJ the Musical, Almost Famous), Alecia Parker (Waitress, Chicago), Patrick Daly (The Mountaintop; August: Osage County) and Travis LeMont Ballenger (MJ the Musical, Almost Famous) have founded a new nonprofit organization, The Theatre Leadership Project (TTLP). Its goal is to train and support a new generation of producers, general managers, company managers and stage managers by partnering with the Black Theatre Coalition and Columbia University to create a series of paid fellowships that will fund moving expenses, child care if necessary, and provide a stipend for living expenses, along with health care.

“We want to break down as many barriers as possible so they can actually focus on the fellowship,” Ballenger said.

TTLP is partnering with the Black Theatre Coalition to create six two-year general and company management fellowships with six Broadway general management offices. After the first two years in the Black Theatre Coalition program, TTLP will assist fellows with job placement, TTLP told The Undefeated. TTLP will also fund a three-year fellowship associated with Columbia University School of the Arts that will place aspiring creative producers in a production office, and then place the fellows in producing jobs on Broadway. Actor and producer Whoopi Goldberg, Executive Producer at the Apollo Theater Kamilah Forbes, director Whitney White, SpotCo chief operating officer Aaliytha Stevens, producer Brian Moreland, CPA Partner at Willium Smith & Brown, Robert Fried, attorney Stefan Schick, producer John Gore, and agent Olivier Sultan are all members of TTLP’s advisory council.

The news comes just as Broadway and the New York theater community at large prepare to reopen, both with indoor productions such as Blindness, which require a negative COVID-19 test or proof of vaccination for entry, and outdoor productions, such as those already being mounted as part of New York Pops Up.

The past year has been one of tumult for the theater industry. Besides suffering enormous financial pains because of pandemic shutdowns, the sector, like so many others in America, is in the throes of a racial reckoning. That reckoning, spurred by the 2020 killings of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, and the worldwide protests that followed, has spurred action in the theater world to correct long-standing inequities outlined by groups such as We See You White American Theater and Black Theatre United. According to The Washington Post, “out of 3,002 musicals and 8,326 plays since Broadway’s 1866 inception, a mere 10 directors of musicals, 11 play directors and 17 choreographers have been Black.”

“We believe if you have people in leadership positions, it will have an ongoing effect because then those people will hire people and it’s more of a fast-track approach,” Broccoli explained.

I spoke with Broccoli, Vollack and Ballenger via Zoom about their new endeavor and their hopes for bringing big structural change to Broadway.

This interview has been edited and condensed for length and clarity. 

How did you come up with The Theatre Leadership Project? What was the catalyst? Why now?

Broccoli: Having a more equitable situation in both film and theater has been something that’s certainly been at the forefront of my mind for several years. I live mostly in England and I had been working on some things over the past few years to do with film and equity and inclusion and diversity behind the scenes, in terms of technical, craftspeople and creative. When I was working on Broadway and I was prepping here, I thought this should happen in the theater, too. Because certainly on Broadway, there’s a huge lack of diversity and inclusion in the industry. I thought, what can we do, and we zeroed in on the areas we felt were most important.

We did a tremendous amount of due diligence over the past 10 months, a lot of research talking to people about other programs — where they’ve been successful, where they haven’t. We wanted to work with other Black-led organizations who are already in this space.

Vollack: The lack of diversity in both of our industries is something Barbara and I have been keenly aware of. I think last summer, because of the events with the Black Lives Matter movement and the social justice movements, it actually provided an opportunity because there was much more focus and much more interest. In an odd way, the pandemic also provided an opportunity because we are all reimagining what our business is going to be and what the theater business is going to be coming back. There was the space and the opportunity and there were a lot of people listening to the problems who perhaps hadn’t been listening or even thought they were problems before. It seemed like a great moment to try to pursue this. We’ve tried to be really thoughtful about how to move forward. There are people we work with who are producers and general managers, but there are far too few decision-makers who are people of color.

One of the things we found is that people have come into the industry. There have been short-term programs. We have not been good at retaining talent, providing a welcoming environment for talent, and providing that sort of long-term sustained support so that we can actually break the systems that exist now that are keeping people out. We felt it was important to work with Black-led organizations and let them take the lead.

Ballenger: I’ve done a number of fellowships early in my career, primarily in regional theaters. It’s difficult to find a program that focuses on sustained, long-term funding. A lot of them do great work, but in a short amount of time. You have six months, a year, and then you’re kind of out on your own, and a lot of them are unpaid. So you’ve had six months or a year of unpaid work, then you’re left to your own devices to try to capitalize on the network that you may or may not have had time to create. The goal is to get people in, to give them the tools they need to be successful, and then to find a way to keep them there. In my own experience, that’s what I was missing. I was allowed in and given the tools, but it was such a short period of time that it was hard to stay, so you have to find work elsewhere and then inevitably end up leaving. 

One organization, or even a coalition of organizations, cannot alone upend decades of entrenched structural barriers. One of the problems that Black theatermakers have identified on Broadway is that an enormous amount of power is concentrated within a tiny number of people and organizations. How much of TTLP’s focus is getting people into an already-flawed system and how much is about changing it entirely?

Broccoli: Well, I think the first thing is to recognize that it exists. I think finally, it’s beginning to happen. This is the time now to say, ‘This is how it is and how can we reimagine it for the future?’ It’s essential for the health of the industry. It can’t go on the way it is. It’s essential culturally. It’s essential commercially to be more inclusive. We have a huge amount of talent that is being untapped. And it’s also reflected in the audiences. If you make product that is more diverse, then the audiences will be more diverse.

When you say it’s a very small group of people, it is. One of the most important components of this program is the networking. We are trying to build a network of people so that we can have a support structure to help people through and recreate a system. Maybe that sounds a little naive but that’s the ambition. 

Vollack: I do think there is a market imperative to doing this. There was a McKinsey report about the economic impact of not having Black leaders —

Ten billion dollars!

the op-ed [by Black List founder Franklin Leonard] was so great! I worked in the music business for a long time and there has been, even in my career, such a seismic shift, and it’s got a ways to go. But the most commercial music is created by Black creators, Black writers, Black producers. There are incredibly successful Black label executives, Black heads of publishing companies. And the film business is trying to get through it, the television business is trying to get there, because it’s a market imperative. If we are going to maintain our viability, we have to do that.

Ballenger: We do believe that there needs to be radical change, of course, and that is what this program is for. There is an impetus, in all of these programs, in learning these systems, because you cannot change a system until you understand it and why it’s operating in the way that it is, and then radical change can happen. The hope is that by bringing the fellows in, teaching them how the system works, and then getting them into job placement, that there can be radical change, that they can dream of how else we can do this.

How much is the Broadway League involved in this, if at all?

Broccoli: We haven’t involved them as an organization. We have members of the league who are involved. It’s independent of the league, but we’re starting to get a lot of support within the industry and as it builds, we’re hoping to get more support. At the end of this three-year period, we’re talking about having six general managers coming out and working full time within the industry. That may sound like a small number, but I think it will have a seismic effect. It’s similar with the producer fellows. We want to eliminate the barriers to get in the industry and then support them in the projects they’re putting together. Our work with other Black-led organizations will be part of that ecosystem.

There have been multiple pieces published alleging decades of workplace abuse by Scott Rudin, one of Broadway’s most prolific producers. It’s in The Hollywood Reporter, The New York Times, New York magazine. And what theatermakers have said repeatedly is that he’s not the only one. When you’re talking about placing fellows with producers, how do you ensure they’re not entering an abusive environment?

Broccoli: That’s why we’ve done research in getting to this place. The general managers that will be part of the program have been handpicked. These are conversations we’ve had. They’re uncomfortable conversations, but they’re important because we want the fellows to be in a welcoming environment and we see the involvement of these fellows will enhance the industry, the companies they’re working with. That’s part of the process — trying to make sure the people we associate with are going to be the right people.

Ballenger: This is not a program we’re doing to help Black people. This is a program we created to change the industry and the GM offices have been so excited to ready their companies … and to think about how do you create an environment that is hospitable, that is infused with anti-racism. It’s been really exciting to create that with them, and through BTC. That is their emphasis: it must be a place where people will be taken care of — and not in a childlike way. This has been part of the conversation from the start and it’s on everyone’s mind.

Vollack: We’re also trying to build community. We’re trying to create community with the fellows, who don’t know each other. We’re trying to create a community with our advisory council. We’re trying to give people a network so they will not feel isolated, so they will not feel like the one Black person in an all-white room and so that if there’s a situation that is not a good situation, they will have lots of people to turn to.

How do you create an environment to give people the freedom to fail? So often, there’s an unfair onus on Black talent to be an instant success, and when they are not, the entire enterprise of diversity and inclusion gets dismissed — we tried that, it didn’t work, back to the status quo.

Broccoli: What’s the old saying? You learn more from your failure than from your success. It’s about people having the time. Three years — you have time to learn and develop and experiment, so it’s not like if you’re in a three-month program and if things don’t happen right away, OK, we’re on to the next person. We’re making a commitment to these fellows that we are a network of people to allow them to fail and get up. This is a reality. As women, we know what that’s like. Women have not been allowed to fail, either. You look at the film industry and it’s had the second woman in [93] years become best director. Fortunately, it’s a woman of color, but only the second woman who’s gotten an award as a director. That’s part of the reason why we wanted it to be a three-year program.

Who are the artists you’re excited about right now?

Broccoli: Well, we’ve tried to grab some of them and put them on the council, like [What to Send Up When it Goes Down director] Whitney White. She’s just remarkable. Both Lia, Travis and I have projects with her.

Vollack: Travis and I are working with [two-time Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright] Lynn Nottage right now. She is a good friend and one of the most amazing, smart, fun, funny people I know. I met Travis through Lynn, actually.

Broccoli: We’ve got [The Sound Inside producer] Brian Moreland, who is on our advisory council as well.

Ballenger: This is an incredible moment because there’s so many amazing artists. [Playwright] Tony Meneses, who is just a brilliant writer, [playwright] Aleshea Harris — Is God Is is one of my favorite pieces that was ever created, ever, in the history of the world. There are so many brilliant artists of color and we want to make sure we are creating a hospitable space for them, too, and part of that is making sure that the leadership of the organizations they are going to be working for and working with is diverse.

Soraya Nadia McDonald is the culture critic for The Undefeated. She writes about pop culture, fashion, the arts, and literature. She is the 2020 winner of the George Jean Nathan prize for dramatic criticism, a 2020 finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in criticism, and the runner-up for the 2019 Vernon Jarrett Medal for outstanding reporting on black life.