Black Theatre Coalition Founders T. Oliver Reid and Warren Adams

Black Theatre Coalition’s Founders on Creating a New Broadway

Black Theatre Coalition (BTC) cofounders T. Oliver Reid, Warren Adams, and Reginald Van Lee want to create a new Broadway. Their Broadway is inclusive, equitable, and sustainable for Black theater professionals. After studying the facts and figures of how American theater — most especially Broadway — has excluded Black people, they created the BTC Fellowship Program to help change this unscrupulous dynamic tenfold. “When theater shut down because of the pandemic, there were zero Black general managers on Broadway,” says Adams. “When it reopens, there will be six. That’s a 600 percent increase. We decided we’re going to set a task to raise the employment of Black professionals in the American theater by 500 percent. We started with Broadway because we knew that’s what would make the most noise — and we have.”

The BTC Fellowship is a 12-month program for Black professionals interested in theater production, writing, composition, direction, video design, wig/hair design, stage management, theatre management, musical direction, casting, marketing and advertising, public relations, digital media, and talent agenting. The program also includes a 24-month general management fellowship. A total of 48 fellowships will be awarded, with two in each category, except for general management and producing, which will both include six fellows each. The fellowship will provide immersion in the area of interest on a daily basis, opportunities to connect with theater power players, mentorship and guidance along the way, and a salary of $50,000.

Broadway Direct spoke with cofounders Reid and Adams to discuss the details of the fellowship, the disparities they uncovered, and how this program will support the growth of a more diverse Broadway.

What was the need you both observed that inspired you to build the Black Theatre Coalition?

Oliver Reid: Warren and I have been in the same rooms over and over and over. I had this idea for a concert series, and we started talking about that and the possibilities of that, and looking at what a three-year or a five-year plan would look like. This concert series is very similar to [New York City Center’s] Encores!, but only with Black and Brown bodies on the stage, and in all those areas that are off stage — only Black professionals in company management, producing, all of the creative areas, casting, and marketing. We realized there just were so few people in some of the areas that we would have to sort of recycle in a way that Broadway or American theater wants to recycle one or two people over and over, as opposed to making space and room for more opportunities for more people. Warren went on the deep dive of what the numbers really were looking like on Broadway, from its inception, to see how many Black professionals had really been given an opportunity to create on that Broadway scale.

Warren Adams: For me, the real jump-off was, people would just casually ask me when I’m doing my next Broadway show, like I was going to buy it off the rack at Whole Foods. As if it was going to be that easy. And I started thinking about myself, someone who has done a Broadway show, but was still not getting many offers like my white counterparts. At BTC, we fundamentally believe you can’t fix something unless you know how it is broken. A lot of times people say, “Oh, yeah. The system’s broken.” So, yeah, the system is broken, but that’s rhetorical. We all know that. But once you start to discover how broken it is, it just becomes alarming. I’ll give you a few ideas: Since the first Broadway show in 1966, there have been, since then, 3,002 musicals and 8,354 plays. Of those, there have only been two Black lighting designers, two Black lead producers of a musical, 10 Black directors of a play, 11 Black directors of a musical, and 17 choreographers — I was number 15; Jeffrey Page, after me, number 16, and Camille Brown, number 17. And so, once you start to understand those numbers, then you start to delve into things like the set design, general management, marketing, and advertising. We’re not talking about the people on stage — that’s what we call the illusion of inclusion because people go, “Oh, look at Hamilton.” But when you look at who made Hamilton, if you look at the creatives, you look at the producers, it’s, like, Paul Tazewell, right? That’s it. I think what we started to address is looking at the disparity between those who get given these opportunities — in particular, not just when it is — work that is culturally Black, but also, if white people can do The Color Purple, then why can’t a Black director do Oklahoma!?

The BTC Fellowship is one of the largest fellowship programs I’ve seen for theater professionals, Black or otherwise. How did you go about building a program of this extent?

Reid: We looked at what New York State government says is standard living wage for the state. We have to make sure that our fellows were not only being paid a living wage, but they were able to really immerse themselves in theater for the entire 12 months — not just from nine to six, while they’re in an office. But to be in that office from nine to six, and then in the theater and see how theater actually works and operates from 6:30 until 11. Learning everything from front-of-house, ticketing, and backstage, so they really understand what this business is at the end of the 12 months. We asked all of our industry partners to pony up at least $30,000 of the $50,000 salary we are paying the fellows. If our partners can pay the full amount, it’s great. And we do have some partners who are footing the full bill. It’s an amazing thing, so that the money that BTC is helping fund can go to places where it’s needed. We wanted, again, to make sure that our fellows could live and breathe theater while they are a part of this fellowship for the year.

So, the fellowship runs like a full-time position.

Adams: Yes! We have 26 different categories, including: producer, general manager, writer, composer, director, choreographer, set, lighting, costume, marketing, and advertising. One of the things we identified early on is that we can’t be an organization that’s about inclusivity and equity and then we know that, in these cases, 80 percent of these opportunities go to white men. So, we basically created two columns and made sure that, for every male position there, was a female position, and so you’re going to have 54 fellows, male, female, and nonbinary working. There’s two parts to this. There’s what we call “office-based.” So those are things that take place in an office. So, if you’re in costing, if you’re in general management, if you’re in marketing and advertising, anything that’s office-based, we are pairing those folks with offices in the city. So yes, it is a regular full-time job. They’ll be working at the highest level. Then, on the other side, you’ve got the freelancers: designers, writers, directors, composers, and choreographers. We made it very clear to our partners this is not about fellows getting coffee and picking up the phone. We’ll be matching them either with shows or with specific designers, but they’re not spending the entire year just in that. I’ll give you a case in point: For example, our two stage managers will each be funded by a Broadway show. Six months of that year, they are going to spend on the show. They will be learning how to call a show and everything that a stage manager entails on a Broadway show. But for the other six months, they’ll be pulled out and they’ll get to do a development experience, a 29-hour reading, a four-week workshop, an Off-Broadway play, and an Off-Broadway musical.

Do you have to be Black to apply?

Reid: Yes, you do.

Why did you choose to start with only requiring Black applicants?

Reid: We are going by that old airline phrase “Put the oxygen mask on yourself before you try to help somebody else.” There are so many Black professionals in this industry and in the American theater who have not been given the opportunity to show what they can do, to be creative, to show their artistry. We wanted to make sure that that is exactly where we’re starting so that we are moving the needle toward equity in this business for Black professionals. In 10 years, when we’re raising a glass in 2030 to the work that has been done and the change that has been made, Warren and I, and our cofounder Reggie Van Lee, will look at each other and say, “You know what? It’s time to truly expand this so that we are looking at other areas.” There are groups who are looking out for our Latin brothers and sisters. There are groups who are looking out for our Asian brothers and sisters. There are groups who are looking out specifically for our transgender brothers and sisters, and if our transgender brothers and sisters identify as Black, they are absolutely a part of what we are doing right now. We want to make sure that there is an organization that is looking out for this generation and the next generation of Black theater professionals.

Your application process seems fairly easy. Was this intentional, and do you think fellowship applications that often ask too much are a roadblock for underserved communities?

Reid: Not only the application process, but sometimes the way the applications are worded before you even start to put pen to paper say, This is not for you. We wanted to make sure that that was not something that we were going to put Black applicants, Black participants, and potential Black fellows through. We wanted to make sure that it was as easy as possible, as succinct as, Write something and explain to us exactly why you feel that this is something for you. Once we get past that, there will be a selection committee that looks through those applications. Then there’ll be an interview process so the fellows get to sit down and have conversations with our industry partners and vice versa, so that we really find the best possible fit for all of these offices.

Adams: I want to add onto that as well. It is also by an organic design. And by that I mean, typically, I think what you’re referring to is like, “Did you get your degree from Harvard?” as the minimum requirements. When I say organic, when T and I were building this, we asked our white counterparts, “How did you get this? How did you become a general manager?” for example. And I won’t disclose who, but this person said, “Oh, I was interning at this office and I was picking up the phone, getting coffee. And then all of a sudden there was a budget meeting and I was in a budget meeting. And then all of a sudden, there was a company management meeting. And before I knew it, I was a general manager.” And I said, “Oh. So, you didn’t go to Harvard for general management?” So again, when you look at the jobs in the industry, yes, there are jobs that you have to have training for. You can’t be a lighting designer unless you know how to run the board. So those are skilled things. But there are many jobs that our white counterparts have that do not require much of this. We wanted to make sure that the entry point for a lot of these folks, particularly people who have been in theater, maybe as an actor, or maybe as a creator, who wanted to move into an executive position or a management position, that we were not cutting them off. What we’re actually seeing is, one of our partners is getting a lot of applicants for people who had been in theater, but was so disenchanted with theater, went to corporate America, got into management there, but they’re looking to come back to theater, because that’s what their passion is. These are the people who we want to engage as well. The application process is, by design, not that complicated and also built on an organic experience that T and I had in our first, say, six months of discovering how this whole system works.

If you two had a program like this, would it have made your road to Broadway and beyond any easier?

Adams: We built a program with Columbia University earlier this year, and when we were putting it together, it was like, You’re going to get a whole producer experience. We have six producer fellows — you are going to be in preproduction, you’re going to be in ticketing, you’re going to learn front-of-house, and you’re going to learn box office. When we were breaking it down, myself being a producer, I was like, “Well, damn. Can I be one?” I think every producer should go through this. As a producer, there are about, 50 percent of the things that they are about to go through that I have never been in. I’ve never encountered those things. And so, yes. The short answer is, if this was around when I was coming up, or when T was coming up, it would exponentially have helped us.

Reid: We’ve had three initiatives over the past nine months or so, as theater was put on pause. As Warren said, our first initiative was with Columbia University and their master’s in Theater Arts and Producing program. That was an 11-week session this past fall. When we found out that Broadway would be closed a little further, we pivoted and we were like, “Let’s do another that’s a little more specific.” So we had a winter-spring initiative that had four different sections. One that was just producing. One that was general management. One that was casting. One that was marketing and PR, led by our industry partners. And we’re in the middle of an initiative with Disney Theatrical Group and Columbia University right now as well. But the winter-spring one was very interesting because, as Warren said, he wishes he could have done some of this, had some of this information, or be a part of this as a producer. We had six or seven producers who were leading the conversations and they all wanted to sit and listen to each other, because they wanted to know how the other was doing what they were doing. So, for our fellows, even those participants who have been a part of the initiative to start building those relationships and those mentee-mentor connections with these industry leaders, as they are learning, it’s something that you can’t take that course in school. You can’t buy that education.

What is your hope for this fellowship?

Adams: We don’t have delusions of grandeur. And so, we specifically only get involved with people and partners who are interested in quantifiable change that can be measured by a metric. If today there are three of them and in five years there are 30 of them, then we are having success.

BTC Fellowship applications will be accepted through July 16.

This conversation has been condensed and edited for clarity.

Original photo by Emilio Madrid-Kuser.