Like their British counterparts, US theatres are unable to stage performances. But the Open Your Lobby campaign enabled them to help protesters and stand up for racial justice, writes Amber Massie-Blomfield
Theatres across the US, like those in the UK, are currently unable to welcome audiences to attend performances due to the coronavirus lockdown. But through the recent wave of action tied to the Black Lives Matter movement, they have found another purpose.
Almost 100 theatres and arts centres across 14 states have been taking part in Open Your Lobby, a campaign in which venues have thrown open their doors to protesters, offering a place of respite to those involved in anti-racism marches.
“Our lobby looks like a Costco right now,” jokes Timmy Metzner, director of marketing at Washington DC’s Woolly Mammoth Theatre. During the protests, about 100 people have visited the venue hourly, stocking up on free supplies including water, snacks, toiletries and sunscreen, as well as making use of phone-charging facilities and toilets. The theatre is also offering eyewash stations for those exposed to teargas and has volunteer counsellors on hand to provide emotional support.
‘Our core values are focused on radical inclusivity – whenever there are protests demanding change, it really feels like we’re invested’ – Timmy Metzner, Woolly Mammoth Theatre
Situated two blocks from Pennsylvania Avenue, the main thoroughfare for political marches in the US capital, Woolly Mammoth Theatre is used to welcoming protesters: it has previously opened its doors to the Women’s March, an annual protest against the Trump administration, and the March for Our Lives, a rally against gun violence.
“Our core values are very focused on radical inclusivity,” Metzner says. “So whenever there are protests demanding change, and with the lens of oppression, it really feels like we’re invested.”
The Open Your Lobby movement was started by an anonymous coalition of colleagues – black people, non-black people of colour and white allies – in the New York theatre community. “[We] were out protesting during the initial weekend of [Black Lives Matter] actions and saw protesters struggling to find refuge in a largely boarded-up city. We realised that many of the theatres we loved, which had been shuttered for months, were located right next to major protest hubs,” they explain, via email.
It continues: “We called on institutions to open their lobbies and offer tangible assistance to protesters doing the physical labour of resistance and liberation. We also challenge those who cannot provide bricks-and-mortar space to find alternative ways to support the black community.”
They established a network of volunteers distributing flyers about each day’s open lobbies at major protest sites, and an automated text message service offers quick information on the nearest hub. Daily updates were disseminated via @openyourlobby on Twitter and Instagram.
The easing of lockdown in many states in July has made access to facilities easier, meaning these measures have now been reduced, but the Black Lives Matter marches are ongoing and venues continue to announce resources for protestors via the #openyourlobby hashtag.
For Leelai Demoz, associate artistic director of Chicago’s Steppenwolf Theatre, signing up to be involved was an obvious choice. “Our work is all about connecting with our city in a really organic and authentic way,” he says. “This is what we do.”
But he acknowledges the risks associated with opening the venue up to protesters, particularly in the midst of a pandemic. “Of course, there was a concern about how you bring people in and do it safely. But the staff said: ‘We really feel this is important.’ So, we figured out a way.”
The theatre put in place a set of procedures to ensure the risk of coronavirus infection was minimised, including the provision of personal protective equipment, regular cleaning, implementing social distancing, and ventilating spaces. It was also important to ensure that none of the team felt pressurised to get involved, particularly those vulnerable to infection. In fact, an initial call-out to staff generated three times as many volunteers to steward the lobby as anticipated, from right across the organisation.
While most participating venues haven’t encountered resistance to their involvement, Open Your Lobby acknowledges that not every community has been welcoming of theatres being used in this way – “one of our locations in a small city in a conservative area was forced to shut down when they received death threats for opening their doors”.
‘By aiding where we can, we hope our message gets to the necessary people at the front lines’ – Natalie Thomas, Alliance of Resident Theatres/New York
Demoz’s colleague Megan Shuchman, director of education at Steppenwolf, is, however, swift to rebut potential criticism. “First of all, we do take a stance about Black Lives Matter. Our stance is, they do… that’s unequivocal,” she says. “But I don’t think saying that someone’s right to protest, to have their voice heard, to have shelter, to use the restroom, to be treated like a human, is a political act. I hope that all these things we’re doing send a signal that is: you belong here.”
That sentiment is echoed by Natalie Thomas, media and outreach coordinator of Alliance of Resident Theatres/New York, a membership organisation that represents many of the theatres participating, as well as having opened its own lobby.
“We measure allyship by our ability and willingness to stand with the protesters, making their voices heard,” she states. “By aiding where and how we can, we hope our message gets to the necessary people at the front lines.”
Playwright, performance artist and educator Daniel Alexander Jones, whose work is rooted in black American traditions and often explores issues of race, sees the scheme as “a welcome gesture. It feels political.”
But he’s cautious about congratulating any of the venues involved prematurely. “What a lot of us are waiting for is – will this be a thing that shifts your relationship to the public? How does it become embedded strategically at the core of what the organisation’s about?”
Brandon Michael Nase, an actor and executive director of Broadway for Racial Justice, agrees: “They’re doing the work because there is a lot of work that needs to be done. They have to look at what they’ve done wrong in the past, what they’re doing wrong presently and how to reverse those things… how are you casting? How are you hiring your staff? Are you actively seeking to view things through a different lens?”
He established BFRJ in response to the Black Lives Matter movement, demanding root-and-branch change to the structure of US theatres. “Most of the organisations birthed outside this moment had to serve whiteness in some way. There is a foundation that has been laid that is very poor,” he says.
BRFJ is committed to redressing that, “fighting for racial justice and equity by providing immediate resources, assistance, and amplification for BIPOC [black, indigenous and people of colour] in the Broadway and theatrical community at large.”
On September 1, the organisation will launch a hotline offering aid and advocacy to those who have experienced racial trauma within US theatres, as well as an emergency fund for black, indigenous and people of colour in the industry.
‘Will this shift a theatre’s relationship to the public? How does it become embedded strategically at the core of what the organisation’s about?’– playwright and performer Daniel Alexander Jones
Each of the venues interviewed here is participating in Open Your Lobby as part of a wider programme of strategic change around racial justice. At Steppenwolf, alongside an education programme that works closely with young people in Chicago at risk of experiencing violence, “there has been a charge to diversify our ensemble, diversify the work on stage, and our production staff”, says Demoz.
“All of those things are very deliberate. “But as a large organisation, there are always challenges,” he continues. “This has brought it into focus… it’s made us think about who are the people in the administrative staff? What are the efforts we’re making? How do we diversify every part of this organisation? It’s been part of our strategic goals for years. But this has been a reminder.”
Open Your Lobby may have seen huge take-up among theatres in the US, but it hasn’t crossed the pond, in spite of the Open Your Lobby team reaching out to British venues around the Black Lives Matter protests that have taken place here.
While they “recognise that every space needs to self-assess their risk, both to coronavirus exposure and to counter-protesters”, they have a message for UK theatres: “Sometimes doing the right thing means breaking the rules. Protesters are assuming a far greater amount of risk by putting their bodies on the line than a theatre that might get a slap on the wrist for opening their lobby. We urge you to stand in solidarity with the protesters and accept that risk alongside them.”
‘Venues have to look at what they’ve done wrong in the past, what they’re doing wrong presently and how to reverse those things’ – Brandon Michael Nase, Broadway for Racial Justice
Open Your Lobby: @openyourlobby
Woolly Mammoth Theatre: woollymammoth.net
Steppenwolf Theatre: steppenwolf.org
Alliance of Resident Theatres/New York: art-newyork.org
Broadway for Racial Justice: @broadwayforracialjustice