Thought Leader Of The Week: David Stewart

(David Stewart)

Production manager for Disney Parks Live Entertainment, David Stewart is an important voice in the ongoing quest to increase diversity in our industry. On the USITT board, and a member of the USITT Equity, Diversity, & Inclusion Committee, Stewart will moderate the Live Design/USITT panel, A Conversation on Diversity and Anti-Racism in Entertainment Design on Friday, July 10, 2020 at 3:00pm EDT, including lighting designers Rachael Blackwell, Porsche McGovern, and Xavier Pierce, lighting/projection designer Roma Flowers, lighting designer/event coordinator Ebony Madry, and production manager Lawrence Bennett. In this Q&A, Stewart shares his point of view with Live Design, especially on the lack of diversity in the field of production management.

Live Design: Why is there such a lack of diversity in the American theatre, and particularly in the design and production areas?

David Stewart: I will only speak to the lack of diversity in production. I think the lack of diversity in the American theatre at large, is a deeper conversation than what we have time for here. When it comes to production, it’s two-fold. The first is hiring, and hiring is done primarily by production managers. I haven’t come across many PM’s that engage in deep and long term strategies around hiring. Usually we find out that someone is leaving the position, and we rush to fill the vacancy as quickly as possible. That typically means that we hire who we know and given that who ‘we know’ is often a very homogenous grouping of people, it usually means we continue to hire predominantly white folks for the vacated positions. Unconscious bias also plays a role in these quick turnarounds, as folks like to surround themselves with people that are like them thus perpetuating very non-diverse spaces. The second is speaking directly to the make up of production managers in the USA. Mainly men, mainly white, which feeds into the self-perpetuating loop of ‘hiring like bodies.’ Production managers usually come from two disciplines; technical directors and stage managers. Technical directors have historically been white men and while the same used to be true for stage managers (in Regional Theatre), that has dramatically shifted to those roles being held by primarily white women. So while the production managers of the American Theatre are becoming more gender diverse, we are not becoming more racially diverse. These factors, coupled with a lack of BIPOC feeling welcome in predominantly white institutions, contribute greatly to the lack of diversity in the field. 

LD: What is the role of the USITT diversity network and its activities?

DS: USITT enjoys four foci in our diversity network: Women in Theatre, The Human Caucus, Queer Nation, and the People of Color Network (POCN). We are there primarily as bold spaces (I’m not a huge fan of the term ‘safe spaces’) for people of diverse communities to be able to network with one another, and to be SEEN and HEARD. We also have an EDI (Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion) committee that focuses on assisting the institute with strategic planning, as well as shepherding the Gateway program, which provides two years of mentorship for early career individuals from industry professionals.

LD: What can be done to even the playing field, what kinds of programs should be developed across the country? 

DS: While we do need ‘programs,’ we need a shift in culture. A disruption of the power base. We need for organizations to invest actual dollars, as in a substantial budget line item, for EDI efforts. To pay individuals and/or organizations that have expertise in this field to come and assess, as well as become embedded in these organizations. Organizations must STOP leaning on a few interested individuals that make up their EDI committees to do this work. EDI is everyone’s responsibility and people should be held accountable for their involvement, or lack thereof, in these efforts. We need organizations to actually go out and cultivate relationships with communities they ordinarily do not usually interact in. Stop expecting them to come to you. Get out there and build some meaningful relationships and see what they need and/or expect from your organization. Start building those bridges and those pipelines.  

LD: What obstacles did you have to overcome to achieve your positions at The Guthrie and Disney?

DS: I have had an accidental career trajectory. Lots of being in the right place at the right time. Lots of sticking my neck out on issues that matter to me and my community. I have had lots of advocates and many detractors, but I am thankful for where I am and the platform I have been given to advocate.

LD: What advice would you give to college students wanting to enter the field?

DS: Be strong, be brilliant, be heard. Never back down. You are the change we require to become a better nation.

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