For artists of color, a new residency creates a pipeline to leadership

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Makeda Easter
·5 min read
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Actor-director Elizabeth Carter and director-performer Sha Cage
Actor-director Elizabeth Carter, left, and director-performer Shá Cage are the inaugural participants in the Lloyd Richards New Futures Residency. (Lisa Keating / Uche Iroegbu)

The Stage Directors and Choreographers Foundation is expected to announce Tuesday a new residency program that will pair Minneapolis-based director Shá Cage with Los Angeles' Cornerstone Theater Company, and Bay Area director Elizabeth Carter with the Oregon Shakespeare Festival.

Named after the late Tony Award winner who was the first Black person to be nominated for best director, the inaugural Lloyd Richards New Futures Residencies are meant to create a leadership pathway for midcareer directors and choreographers of color. In addition to a yearlong partnership with Cornerstone and OSF, Cage and Carter each will receive a $40,000 grant and health insurance.

Richards, a five-time Tony contender whose historic nomination came in 1960 for "A Raisin in the Sun," was a founding member of the Stage Directors and Choreographers Society and the organization’s president from 1970 to 1980. He serves as a model of a Black artist becoming a leader in theater, said his son Scott, a composer and librettist who was part of the residency’s selection committee.

Scott Richards said his dad "became an artistic director, who became a producer, and through that position and through those skills, was actually able to really affect change, and create an environment where people like August [Wilson] were able to come up and come through.”

Through the residency, Cage will work with Cornerstone’s artistic director, Michael John Garcés, and will be embedded in the theater’s development process, which involves creating works in partnership with communities underserved by the performing arts. Carter will be mentored by Oregon Shakespeare Festival Artistic Director Nataki Garrett, joining the organization’s leadership as a lead artist on its digital platform and helping to plan its return to live, in-person performances.

The spark for the residency began more than five years ago when the Stage Directors and Choreographers Society, a labor union formed more than 60 years ago, began hearing stories from members about the challenges of sustaining a career as a director or choreographer.

In 2019 the union, in partnership with its charitable arm, the Stage Directors and Choreographers Foundation, launched a two-year, three-phase survey focused on members’ career trajectories, income sources, the impact of COVID-19 and the racial reckoning within the arts. After surveying 683 members during the first phase of the survey and 791 during the second phase, the organization found that midcareer directors and choreographers — defined as those with 15 to 30 years of experience — lacked the financial security and creative opportunities they needed to stay in the field.

According to the midcareer artists surveyed, only 17% of their income comes from practicing their craft. Further analysis showed midcareer women and midcareer artists of color were rarely given access to high-profile projects. And artists of color were almost twice as likely not to have health insurance.

Last July, the foundation formed a committee to design the annual residency, and as a show of solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement after the murder of George Floyd, reserved its inaugural year for Black artists.

Cornerstone was one of 22 theaters that responded to the call for submissions and later participated in selecting Cage to join the organization's staff. For Garcés, the residency was an opportunity to work with an experienced director who was also passionate about community-based work.

Although numerous fellowships and opportunities exist for emerging artists, Garcés said, midcareer directors often hit a crucial and often vulnerable point professionally. “The problem happens once you've accrued a little bit of momentum and made a little bit of a name for yourself, and you're not the new thing," Garcés said. Maintaining that career progression is difficult.

“It can be particularly vulnerable for BIPOC directors, and also for women, because the networks — and that's changing — but the networks tend to be white men. And so it can be challenging to make that transition to a place where you have more stability,” he added.

Cage, who is in her early 40s, has been directing community-based work for more than 10 years. During the yearlong residency, she plans to split her time between Minneapolis and L.A. The residency represents an opportunity to forge deeper connections with artists outside of Minneapolis. “There's limited opportunities for really sharpening and training, for national mentorship and collaboration,” Cage said.

At Cornerstone, Cage will join the senior artistic staff, attending board and ensemble meetings to help solve problems and make decisions about projects and community engagement. She has a commitment from the theater to stage a work.

In addition to fine tuning her directing skills, Cage said she’s “curious about the financial side of running a theater, and the politics of survival.” As an artist who is “self-driven” and has not spent significant time working inside a theater company, the residency also represents a chance to revisit a past goal.

“When I was younger, one of my hopes and dreams was actually to run my own theater. And I think a combination of realizing how hard it is actually for American theater institutions to survive, but particularly Black ones, and the lack of support that I had noticed — I just thought, well, that's not where I want to be,” Cage said.

“But I think it's always been in a place in my heart.”

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.