Opinion: Business as Usual at the Public Theatre? by Amalia Ortiz, SAY SÍ, San Antonio
Business as Usual at The Public Theater?
By Amalia Ortiz June 24, 2023
[CTXLT note: The following text is from a download of the essay posted by Amalia Ortiz. It lacks the images presented in the article and despite time I spent reformatting the text, some of the text may be garbled. The full article with images is available via this link: https://tinyurl.com/3tjzsu68 ]
It was never a surprise to many people of color (POC) in San Antonio that the tenure of former Executive Artistic Director of The Public Theater of San Antonio, Claudia de Vasco, would last under two years. She said as much at my very first interaction with De Vasco when she met with members of SAY Sí’s staff. She mentioned a pattern of artistic directors of color being pushed out of organizations within a year. If all she had was one year, she would try to change as much as possible within that time.
To me, a lifelong Chicanx theatre maker in this city, I understood the pushback and uphill battle she would face in actually implementing the “unites the diverse communities of San Antonio” part of The Public Theater’s mission statement. The Public Theater’s “regular” audience was not going to embrace all the diversity she planned to introduce. Mind you, that meeting with De Vasco at SAY Sí was the first time that I remember anyone from The Public requesting my presence at a meeting or asking who I was and what I thought.
No, it was not a surprise to many POC she connected with during her less-than-two-years-long tenure. What was a surprise, however, was to see 3 of the 4 members of The Public’s “new” leadership team are returning or ongoing employees. One of them, Asia Ciaravino, was the President and CEO before The Public’s pledge to address diversity issues — meaning she arguably had the opportunity to notice a diversity problem and implement change on her own, but didn’t.
I went to college with Ciaravino. I respect her grind and professionalism. I also like what I have seen of J. Robert "Jimmy" Moore's work with the Classic Theatre. My apprehension about the "new" leadershp is not personal, but rooted in a long history of a Public Theater mired in exclusion. Their likeability does not change the fact that, after De Vasco’s momentous turn at leadership, I was really expecting something…new.
If you read the July 2023 article published in American Theatre which The Public has posted proudly on their social media, there is one glaring issue the article mentions and glosses over without a statement about how “new” leadership plans to address it:
“De Vasco, a Texas native, was the first Latina woman to lead the Public Theater and produced José Cruz González’s American Mariachi in 2022, which was also the first time the theatre had produced a play by a Latinx playwright, despite San Antonio’s predominantly Hispanic or Latino population.
The Public Theater hired de Vasco after artistic director and CEO George Green left in the fall of 2020 after he was placed on Actors’ Equity Association’s (AEA) Do Not Work list. Staff and actors accused
Green of creating a toxic work environment and of flouting safety regulations for the theatre’s reopening.”
Three years ago, a Change.org petition to The Public Theater’s Board of Directors created by Trevor Chauvin cited the lack of equity, diversity, inclusion and ethics that Green represented. “In the 2020 national movement of theaters catapulting forward as leaders in a conversation about EDI (Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion) and ethics, the Artistic Director/CEO of The Public is not the voice we want to represent our community or our city.”
As The Urban Institute reported in 2021, “When just 21 percent of executive directors and board chairs are people of color, the nonprofit sector’s effectiveness and relevance to the communities it purports to
serve are unquestionably at risk.”
In the wake of Green's departure and the summer of Black Lives Matter, a national theatre movement prompted The Public to acknowledge what POC in San Antonio have felt and experienced since the theatre’s inception: an equity, diversity and inclusion problem The Public had never before publicly acknowledged.
“In solidarity with Black Lives Matter, The Public Theater of SA has encouraged its committee and leadership to increase its EDIA efforts. We recognize that this effort from staff, leadership, board, and partners has not been at the level required.” That is what the Pubic admitted in a 2020 EDIA (Equity,Diversity, Inclusion, and Accessibility) Commitment Statement found on their website, https://thepublicsa.org/edai/.
The statement goes on to pledge, “We understand that, as a white-led organization, we must be committed to using our platform, our privilege, and our power to act today and every day to dismantle the current
system of oppression. Otherwise, our inaction makes us complicit in that very system. Therefore, we commit to a swift and sustained effort that invites People of Color to be an active part of our leadership,
decision-making processes, and operations.”
Knowing the gravity of what it means to local POC to have had and lost POC representation among leadership paints fans of the “new” leadership announcement on The Public’s Facebook post with a slightly “Make The Public Theatre Great Again” tone, especially when fans celebrate the old leadership but are not asking critical questions.
None of these Public Theater patrons is asking, “Since some of you preceded the Green scandal and The Public’s recent EDIA efforts, what are you going to do differently this time around?” There seems to be a lack of understanding of why POC might distrust someone’s longing to return to “good old days” which have never truly been good for all.
As explained in the Public’s EDIA Commitment Statement on their website, in 2019 SA created an EDIA Committee. The Public subsequently posted on their website their 2021-2022 Season Staff stats (Yes, thanks. Can’t wait to see 2022-2023 and beyond.), a 2021 HR statement, and the
announcement of a 2022 Artistic Advisory Committee. They also have a list of Community Agreements adopted in winter 2021 which were curated by De Vasco and “based on the work of many cultural workers,
experts and writers including Adrienne Marie Brown, Mellody Hobson, Aurora Lizardi, Brene Brown, among others.”
While these efforts are seen and noted, it is all the more important to see real commitment to diversity at the forefront of The Public’s “new” leadership. It is bad optics to see new leadership adorned in evening gowns and tuxedos in a story in The San Antonio Current touting,”Looking forward, our theater needs to continue focusing on inclusion, communication, transparency, and creating art that tell [sic] everyone’s stories.” They missed out on a real opportunity in the local press to draw in diverse community members by dropping afew specifics on how they plan to do that.
Also not good for optics is the recent relocation of Teatro Audaz’s run of The Ghosts of Lote Bravo from The Public’s Cellar Theater to Woodlawn Pointe (New Living Spiritual Center). This came after The Public’s air conditioning problems went unsolved and an audience member passed out during a show.
Local Latinx theatre makers are well aware of The Public’s annual/semi-annual production of one Latinx play relegated to the Cellar, with union memberships and union protections rarely extended to those majority Latinx casts and crews. This tradition goes back decades and is what made De Vasco’s sold-out main stage production of American Mariachi feel like such a hard-won success after a century of no main stage productions by Latinx playwrights.
Teatro Audaz has a history of producing plays in the Cellar, citing on their 2023 season announcement inthe San Antonio Report their residence at The Cellar Theater alongside a residence with the fine arts
department at San Antonio College.
Knowing that h9story, it was surprising to hear of The Classic Theatre’s move into the Cella this fall as its resident theatre company. In an interview with The Express News, Moore said, “I think this is going to be a wonderful opportunity to bring the best of theater to San Antonio under one roof.”
https:// expressnews.com/entertainment/article/classic- public-theater-partnership-18182603.php
I reached out to Teatro Audaz Executive Artistic Director, Co-Founder, and Board President Laura T. Garza who spoke matter-of-factly about the timeline of the air condition issues. She cited concerns over lack of communication from The Public at a time of so much change (i.e., De Vasco’s departure, The Public General Manager Laura Michelle Wolfe Hoadley’s departure, the new leadership announcement, and the announcement of Classic Theatre’s new residency).
As rehearsals began, Garza recognized it was not just Texas-hot, but the air conditioning was not functioning properly. Garza reached out through email several times over these concerns. Portable air conditioners were brought in by Hoadley before she was let go. This helped during rehearsals, but Garza recognized that theater lighting and a crowded audience would exacerbate the problem. Garza reached out for Public’s assistance again.
Once Moore joined The Public’s staff as new Producing Artistic Director, he reached out via email, and a phone meeting was scheduled with Garza. At that point two days before the show’s opening, Garza was informed the air conditioning was completely broken and was most likely not going to be fixed by the time the show opened because The Public was waiting on bond money from the city. It was then that Moore suggested that Teatro Audaz move the show.
Other piecemeal options were discussed and employed such as fans and signs with warnings to patrons. Opening night, the patron passed out passed out during act 2 of the show. EMS was called to aid the man, and Teatro Audaz paused the run of the show to reevaluate the situation.
The next day, members of Teatro Audaz showed up at a meeting with the city that new Managing Director Christina Casella had already planned to discuss the HVAC situation. Casella confirmed bond money which was not yet available would be needed to fix the HVAC. In search of a solution to safely continue the run of the show, Garza brokered a deal with an air conditioning rental business willing to reduce their $3000 estimate to $800 for a small nonprofit. Audaz sent the estimate to The Public via text, but at that point, the city stepped in and made the call to end the run at the Cellar. Both Moore and Casella were helpful, reaching out to other venues on behalf of Teatro Audaz, but Garza secured the move to Woodlawn Pointe.
Garza wanted to convey thanks to The Public staff, specifically Michael Wark and Annette Arcos who assisted the team as much as possible with water, ice, and cold towels when the patron was waiting for EMS to arrive. “I would like to express my gratitude to technical director Carlos R. Nine who has been extremely helpful. We are grateful for his assistance in loaning us all the Cellar lighting equipment we needed in order for our show to be able to continue at Woodlawn Pointe.”
While The Public announced the change of venue on their Facebook page, nowhere was there a public apology to Teatro Audaz, the majority Latinx audiences who pre-purchased tickets to see the play, or the patron who passed out in their basement. Juxtapose the mental image of the dehydrated patron with “new” leadership in formal wear just two posts later on their Facebook page:
Garza expressed sadness, however, about The Public’s board, who she requested a meeting with and has yet to hear back about that request. Teatro Audaz has only heard from one board member who reached out to ask about the status of the patron who passed out. “As their theatre in residence, their lack of communication with us during this time is disheartening.”
With the amount of labor that went into moving lights, sound and other scenic and theatrical properties to Woodlawn Pointe, Garza pointed out how all of this could have possibly been prevented had The Public communicated the air condition problem before Teatro Audaz moved into the Cellar instead of once they were in the space.
(Above image from The Public Theater of San Antonio’s Facebook page. “Comments disabledon this post.”)
(Above image from San Antonio Current. “Bad optics.”)
The other issues of The Classic Theatre’s permanent residency and “new” leadership announcement beg further conversation with Teatro Audaz. When asked, Garza confirmed Teatro Audaz has had no communication about how The Classic Theatre’s residency or the “new” leadership will impact their future with The Public.
At an after party following a performance of The Ghosts of Lote Bravo, I huddled at a round table with Teatro Audaz Managing Director and Board Member Abe Ramirez, Public Theater Artistic Advisory Committee Community Representative Analisa Leos Garcia, and Lote Bravo cast member Cindy Rodriguez Martinez, who works with Seniors In Play “in community centers all over San Antonio.” I asked them to let me know if I have been off-base about the issues I am raising. Their answer was unanimously no.
It became obvious to me that these issues beg for a larger community conversation where more people can share their Public stories. Leos-Garcia informed me that she stepped down from The Public’s EDIA Artistic Advisory Committee. She suggested I speak with her brother and former Public Theater Board Member and Artistic Community Representative Omar Leos. He recently left his position on the board and asked that his and his husband’s names be officially removed from The Public’s Ovation Society long-term donor list.
“POC, especially brown people, have been working at the Public for years even though we continue to get ‘burned.’ But why do we keep coming back? I think it’s because we love our craft and have nowhere else to go,” Leos added when contacted for a comment.
As I hugged everyone at the afterparty goodbye, Rodriguez Martinez, 71, began weeping in my arms. “I feel abused, neglected... hurt on so many levels,” she cried.
The following evening, I attended The Ghosts of Lote Bravo with two Chicanx teatro colleagues. The play follows a maquiladora laborer tormented by the disappearance of her daughter in Ciudad Juárez. It is a border tragedy birthed by toxic machismo and American capitalism. Up until then, I had been writing about the production in abstract. By the final scene, my colleagues and I were weeping. The cast, crew, and producers of this production are not “entertainers.” They are activists. After the curtain call, Rodriguez Martinez, who played the role of “La Santa Muerte,” hugged me as I cried in her arms.
On the drive home with my colleagues, I mentioned how Bertolt Brecht didn’t want audiences to feel the relief of catharsis. Brecht wanted them to reflect on the play, from their discomfort. I tell them that even though we broke down crying, for us there is no real catharsis. We didn’t cry for the imaginary characters on a stage, but rather for the incalculable real-life tragedies they represent. They are our mothers, fathers, brothers, sisters, cousins, neighbors, friends, lovers... and there, but for the grace of God...
(Side note: As the Director of Theatre at SAY Sí, I had planned a field trip for our high school ALAS [Activating Leadership Arts and Service] students for the 7/21 “Pay What You Can'' performance of Lote Bravo at The Cellar. When the run was canceled, I notified students and parents of the cancellation via email. Then when I discovered the venue change late at night on 7/19, I felt I did not have enough time to communicate yet another change to parents and decided it was too last minute to attempt to take students. One parent still showed up that Friday with a student at The Cellar, and I had to apologize over the phone for the confusion. After watching the show, I now wish the students who I took to see The Public’s production of Footloose last month could have seen The Ghosts of Lote Bravo. It would have generated a great conversation about theatre as entertainment compared with theatre as activism.)
As for De Vasco, her legacy at The Public may be unfairly judged by many. Whispers from the local Chicanx community that she did not change enough clash with the not-so-quiet rumblings from The Public’s “regular” community that she tried to change too much. The truth is, De Vasco has the skills to do the job she was hired for: to lead a nonprofit theatre. San Antonio didn't get a chance to see all that De Vasco is capable of, my guess is because of resistance and pushback from all sides.
When I reached out to De Vasco, she offered no comment for this article on the record. She was candid, however, about initiatives she pioneered and the difficulties of being a woman of color in leadership on her Facebook page:
(Above images from De Vasco’s Facebook page used with permission. Identities of commenters protected by theauthor. “It’s a lot. Maybe too much.”)
More importantly, De Vasco led conversations with local POC theatre community members and asked what our issues and needs were in search for true diversity, equity and change. The Public’s “new” leadership must take cues from De Vasco along with the historic POC-serving arts institutions of San Antonio for examples of what diversity and inclusion really look like. Local organizations like The Guadalupe Cultural Arts Center, The Esperanza Peace and Justice Center, and the Carver Cultural Center to name a few have had diversity and the San Antonio community at the center of their work, for decades before the summer of Black Lives Matter.
The Guadalupe, for example, recently held extensive interviews with community members, residents of the Westside, and theatre makers past, present, and future from across the city in preparation for beginning extensive renovations to their building.
Since De Vasco is the first to enact The Public’s mission to value diversity, equity and inclusion, any new leaders who come after her must acknowledge what her leadership meant, and say something weighty about it to have any trust or respect from the local POC community. If not, they are suspect of representing diversity in name only, especially if they recall a time when The Public leadership was complicit in an overwhelming and undeniable lack of diversity. What local POC need to hear from “new” leadership is that they see and understand the gravity of what De Vasco meant for The Public Theater, they understand all the hard work she did focused on diversity and inclusion, and they are committed to building on it. This must be with specifics. Not platitudes rehashed from their (De Vasco era) mission statement.
Back in 2021, De Vasco was immediately asked about what kind of changes she would usher in an interview with Art Scene SA. Answered De Vasco, “There will be some new things we will announce in the new year. Definitely, when I was brought on, it was clear to me that hearing stories about what the theater had undergone in the past year or so that it’s at a transition point, trying to reconnect with communities and people that it had burned bridges with or never tried to connect with in the first place.“
As a member of the community The Public never tried to connect with in the first place (until De Vasco), I’m waiting for the “new” leadership to answer the same question. Honestly, behind closed doors many SA POC are not being as diplomatic discussing this topic with each other. I’m talking real talk here. But I put a lot of time, effort and thought into writing this in a way that is “nice” and formal so that non-POC can really hear what I am saying and consider my valid points without getting defensive. As The Public lists in their Community Agreements curated by De Vasco:
“WE SEE COLOR Physical, mental, and emotional safety are of upmost [sic] importance. Look out for yourself and others. We are all here to make theater. To tell stories. To make art. That connects and inspires communities. "Niceness" can be a toll of oppressive systems used as a tool to silence harm. We value direct talk over tone policing. We see everyone and their whole identity for their beauty and their history. This is the only way we can move forward and address injustices in our work.”
I hope The Public Theater can listen to this direct talk. I also hope they understand above all, my questions and apprehensions come from a place of love for my theatre community. But ultimately, I haven't written all of this for them. I’ve written it to hear the reactions of the local POC theatre community. Am I wrong? I’m a reasonable person who can be convinced otherwise with facts. What say you?
More suggested reading: