IN THIS EPISODE

Robert and Erik discuss his bold, new, modern vision for Actors Theatre of Louisville as its first queer, Black leader. Throughout the conversation, they address how capitalism, equity, race, and theater history intersect.

 

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'Is Actors Theatre becoming a Black theater?’ That question says more about the party asking than what I’m doing to create a more pluralistic platform for artistic expression and voice.

ABOUT ROBERT

Robert Barry Fleming is the new Executive Artistic Director at Actors Theatre of Louisville. A native Kentuckian, this is his first year at Actors Theatre after serving as Associate Artistic Director of the Cleveland Play House and Director of Artistic Programming at Arena Stage. He previously worked as a producer, director, choreographer, performer, and teacher. Tune in to his weekly podcast, Borrowed Wisdom, which asks what we can learn from one another.

EPISODE TRANSCRIPT

Erik Gensler: Robert Barry Fleming, thank you so much for joining us here.

Robert Barry Fleming: Great to be here with you.

Erik Gensler: I listened to your podcast, Borrowed Wisdom, and, first of all, I just love the theme song and have been humming it (laughing) since I listened. It's so good.

Robert Barry Fleming: That’s Erica Denise. She's amazing.

Erik Gensler: I loved it. But the episode with Joshua Poe about racial capitalism and redlining, I learned so much and historically artistic directors at large LORT theaters, one, don't have podcasts; and two, don't have podcasts about social justice. And in some ways, this is radical and I love it. And it signals a lot of things, perhaps a lot of change and an exciting direction forward.

Robert Barry Fleming: I literally was talking to another AD who shared with me when it was announced over a year ago that I was selected as the Artistic Director of Actors Theatre of Louisville, that, literally, people came up to her and said, “Is this a mistake?” Like, they thought it was one of those things, like the Oscars, like it was announced by Faye Dunaway and Warren Beatty that I was selected and, somehow, it was another candidate because it seemed not intuitive. I'm not a Yale grad. I don't come from a traditional background, where ADs usually populate these positions. But I think it was also signaling that there may need to be a multiplicity of ways of trying to address some of the challenges that the regional theater had been facing for some time, with declining subscriptions, with programming that did not feel relevant, and a sense that maybe the scope in which we were programming and doing our activities was maybe too reductive, too narrow, too limited in its scope and scale of impact. And so, I think finding someone who was an actor, someone who is a Black, queer person, who comes from educators, who work in many different kinds of capacities and educational institutions, but also advising and private practice … I think all of that background maybe gave me a unique perspective about what I could bring to Actors Theatre as a native son of Kentucky, but also a native son of Kentucky that had done a lot of— and had the opportunity to do a lot of—critical thinking about who we are as artists and what we contribute, and what is the intersection between art and civic engagement? I think, usually, our community engagement areas are the least well-funded in the regional theaters, often thought of as tack-on activities. And as we have seen the landscape evolve, have really begun to, in terms of funding and in terms of support and what is legible to the public as essential, it's asked different things of us as artists, or, maybe more at atavistically, things that we really were centered in prior to really being commodified in the way that we have as an industry over the last 400 years. So, it's just having a wider perspective, I think, having … being afforded to say, I think there's a lot of other sectors that could contribute to our learnings and what we bring to our work that's made for me a chance to interview and learn from so many experts in so many areas and think about, “Are there transferable skills here for what we do has been a real privilege?” and it's been something that's been very exciting for me, both as an artist and as a leader.

Erik Gensler: Robert Barry Fleming, thank you so much for joining us here.

Robert Barry Fleming: Great to be here with you.

Erik Gensler: I listened to your podcast, Borrowed Wisdom, and, first of all, I just love the theme song and have been humming it (laughing) since I listened. It's so good.

Robert Barry Fleming: That’s Erica Denise. She's amazing.

Erik Gensler: I loved it. But the episode with Joshua Poe about racial capitalism and redlining, I learned so much and historically artistic directors at large LORT theaters, one, don't have podcasts; and two, don't have podcasts about social justice. And in some ways, this is radical and I love it. And it signals a lot of things, perhaps a lot of change and an exciting direction forward.

Robert Barry Fleming: I literally was talking to another AD who shared with me when it was announced over a year ago that I was selected as the Artistic Director of Actors Theatre of Louisville, that, literally, people came up to her and said, “Is this a mistake?” Like, they thought it was one of those things, like the Oscars, like it was announced by Faye Dunaway and Warren Beatty that I was selected and, somehow, it was another candidate because it seemed not intuitive. I'm not a Yale grad. I don't come from a traditional background, where ADs usually populate these positions. But I think it was also signaling that there may need to be a multiplicity of ways of trying to address some of the challenges that the regional theater had been facing for some time, with declining subscriptions, with programming that did not feel relevant, and a sense that maybe the scope in which we were programming and doing our activities was maybe too reductive, too narrow, too limited in its scope and scale of impact. And so, I think finding someone who was an actor, someone who is a Black, queer person, who comes from educators, who work in many different kinds of capacities and educational institutions, but also advising and private practice … I think all of that background maybe gave me a unique perspective about what I could bring to Actors Theatre as a native son of Kentucky, but also a native son of Kentucky that had done a lot of— and had the opportunity to do a lot of—critical thinking about who we are as artists and what we contribute, and what is the intersection between art and civic engagement? I think, usually, our community engagement areas are the least well-funded in the regional theaters, often thought of as tack-on activities. And as we have seen the landscape evolve, have really begun to, in terms of funding and in terms of support and what is legible to the public as essential, it's asked different things of us as artists, or, maybe more at atavistically, things that we really were centered in prior to really being commodified in the way that we have as an industry over the last 400 years. So, it's just having a wider perspective, I think, having … being afforded to say, I think there's a lot of other sectors that could contribute to our learnings and what we bring to our work that's made for me a chance to interview and learn from so many experts in so many areas and think about, “Are there transferable skills here for what we do has been a real privilege?” and it's been something that's been very exciting for me, both as an artist and as a leader.

Erik Gensler: You were already doing this work and I wonder if the events over the last few weeks around, really, the revolution around social justice in America is allowing you to take this work even further than you were planning to.

Robert Barry Fleming: Yeah, I think it's a very somber day here. We're one day past another murder around the protest of Breonna Taylor. Again, more violence. Again, a continued nuanced and complex situation of, what are the impacts of a system of white supremacy, a system that has been built on extraction, a system that is not consonant with its own history? We're just seeing so many ramifications of that and I think the work that Actors Theatre was the kind of leader they were looking for, which means a movement was already well afoot prior to my coming on board. That movement is something that was much more about alignment than anything that I was singularly bringing as many things are. And this is a movement that has been growing attention. That's been growing for over 400 years of really trying to come to terms with what it means to have a democratic state that is equitably serving all its citizens and having so much disconnect from that being a reality, as opposed to an aspirational goal, is the kind of tension that we're just experiencing. And the repercussions of not really aligning ourselves with these natural laws, that oppressive systems are not something that are really sustainable, and that they’re structures, that they're systems. And I think we're just at the beginning of not making that about interpersonal analysis—continuing to use that as a frame—but at the very beginning of really understanding what structural and systemic disparities, what those actually look and feel like in our day-to-day lives. I don't feel like I have to work quite as hard to make legible the reasons why the work is focused, why I thought it was always important to think about the art, not only for its artistic aesthetic, but also recognize part of the artistic aesthetic is, in what ways does this have confluence with the kinds of civic conversations and reflections of the human condition in the now that art, I think, always wants to have? That all art is political. What that actually means, means different things to different people, but I think none of it takes place without context. And that was always something that I found interesting about the work, even when I was a chorus dancer in Cats. I was curious about the movement, authentic movement, of cats, as much as I was about how many pirouettes I could do or how high I could kick my leg. And that probably was kind of a clue. It's like, you're probably not going to keep sustaining yourself with a chorus dancer’s career that your interest of why you're here and what you're exploring, this intersection of art and music and movement poetry lived in a slightly different place than your commodified system who hired specific types of artists to do that work seem to really cater to. So, I … I've been excited that the art that we're creating. that we're exploring on a digital platform, emergent technologies as an integral part of emerging realities and revealing something that might be unsaid, unspoken, not examined in the actual content is all a part of what gets to be a part of this moment in time. And, really, what this moment in time seems to be asking for.

Erik Gensler: Mm-hmm (affirmative) and, you know, it's an evolution, not just on form, but on content. And I think … we started by talking about your podcast as one of the many digital offerings that you're releasing. I look on your website and there are so many offerings, really vast and really impressive. I'm curious for you to talk about that evolution, the pivot to your digital programming, how you changed the makeup of your team to allow for that breadth and depth of programming, and just the overall just shift in content and form in the last few months. And, maybe, it probably goes back further than a few months.

Robert Barry Fleming: Well, you know, we were really invested in the idea of long-term artistic planning and the idea of moving into a virtual space. We had a project, kind of, five years down the line that I had proposed during my interviews and when people were like, “Well, what's the direction? How do you, how do you imagine that your artistic voice would be articulated if you were hired?” And so, we did have a kind of extended-reality-type project that would have needed to live on a virtual platform. The great thing about long-term artistic plans are they are very fluid and very flexible and you're always wanting to listen to what your ecosystem and your stakeholders are asking for and how you might respond to the agile and nimble way. And one of the things that became very clear as the pandemic just really descended into absolute paralysis in terms of public meetings and that that was no longer an option. It became immediately clear. It's like, “Well, we need to tape. We need to digitally capture the work. We'll figure out what the next step after that is. But while we have the talent here, while we're still able, let's capture what we can,” and we weren't able to capture everything that we had hoped or had planned even in that short time, but we were able to respond quickly enough to get something up. I think the evolution of that to what would now be a confluence of many, many different projects that are interactive work in a virtual space, not only in, like, emergent technologies, like virtual reality and odd, good to audio plays that it's to even gaming, like, it's, it's going to be much broader than simply, “I'm taping a show that was intended for a live audience.” And while it's a high-quality capture of Greek cameras, that may be only one way that we're trying to create connection through a technology and giving people who I think would otherwise not be able to engage with us a chance to do so. What we found almost immediately was the reach of Where the Mountain Meets the Sea by Jeff Augustin was able to make a connection, not just in the geographical location of Actors Theatre, but around the world. The show was seen in five or six different countries all across our country. And that, that kind of reach, while it was not a live event, did give people engagement with that particular show, with that particular brand, with Jeff Augustin's voice and his warm and enormous embrace of the human condition and inclusive foregrounding of queerness, of Blackness, of intergenerational family connection, of interracial connection, of desire, of many things that many people would say, “Well, that's clearly niche programming. That's clearly not gonna really get you big numbers.” We just find that the world has far more multiplicity and is far more pluralistic than many of our conventional wisdom suggest and finding a way to connect with people who are interested in connecting with the work that you're interested in exploring … that's really what the job is; not necessarily about editing the narratives, editing the representation. And I think that may even be a different way of thinking about the programming or understanding that it needs to really reflect something about your society, as opposed to guessing and prescribing or assuming that what was true in the fifties in terms of how stories are captured and how stories are disseminated, may still hold true in 2020. And so, a lot of adaptability and a lot of openness to hearing, I think, what your culture and your time is asking of you and translating that in a way that you're not making something that is not going through a lens of interpretation and expertise. I think it was the Ford Edsel. They asked people what they wanted. They gave them exactly that, and it failed miserably. It's the kind of idea of, like, you listen, but then you also have to lead and you also have to discern and you have to be willing to fail. You have to be willing to understand that this is an iterative process. That is an investment. I've been surprised at how many conversations that then is like, “Well, how can you monetize that?” And it's like, “Well, I don't know.” Did you think about that when you went into college and you paid for college, you know, it's like you don't … There's a time and place for everything. Some things pay off quickly. Some things take more time, but it's called an investment. And to reduce it to, “Does it pay you now in large sums?” is the kind of short range thinking that I think has gotten us in a lot of trouble. And it says that one is kind of, for me, being led by fear, if that's the only metric in which you are beginning to invest in something. Anything I've invested in, you just have to understand it's all an investment, and one's gotta be thinking about where are we going to be, and not two months or three months or six, but where are you going to be in two years, five years, 10 years? And you take calculated risks. And so, I think that's really what we're trying to be bold in. And recognizing not every part of this hit is going to hit just, you know … we know that that would be impossible, but by exploring this, by getting to recognize that there's been a real movement towards digital-capture emerging technologies, being something that can create more access for more people, finding the way to do that is the mystery. But I think it's undeniable that that is a no-regret pathway. It's just a matter of scale and scope.

Erik Gensler: Yeah, and money follows vision.

Robert Barry Fleming: Right.

Erik Gensler: You have to have the vision, the vision first. I had a conversation with the Artistic Director of the Miami City Ballet, Lourdes Lopez, and she likened to a sports analogy. I thought it was really interesting, where you look now at the world that the arts and culture has gone into where it was. You know, we're very much about getting people physically to our venues to see the art that we are producing. And now, the pandemic has put us in this moment where we can't do that. And we're really investing in digital programming and, eventually, we're going to be back in a space. So, we're going to have both and figuring out that. And she said, you know, “When you look at like a baseball team or a basketball team, they have the in-person experience, which was really powerful and people really want to be a part of, but they also have the like broadcast experience on television. And they never looked at it as a ‘versus’ scenario.” Like, I think a lot of times in the arts we've we said, “Well, we can't do this because it will take people away from coming to the in-person experience. But it being a sort of “both, and.”

Robert Barry Fleming: Who would pay $70 to go see a group that you hadn't sampled their music on Spotify, you know? Or you hadn't gotten a sense of, is this something that, when they come live, I would want to be engaged with? You know, it's the idea of being familiar with the brand. And we know this in the theater, too. I just don't think it's something that we really foreground in our thinking because the thinking has a strong kind of ethos and a strong narrative. But if we think, “Oh, Jesus Christ Superstar or RENT, or, you know, these brands that, like Superstar, a concept album that became a show that became a movie that became a national touring phenomenon that became a television special, reinvented with a new, whole new generation of artists that became, you know … and you go on and on and on and you don't say, “RENT, the movie, takes away from RENT, the stage show in New York,” or when it was off-Broadway, when it was on Broadway, you recognize that all of that is working on different platforms, sharing in a transmedia way, this particular brand is particular voice. And, you know, the debates … I remember Anna Deavere Smith in ‘92, ‘93, watching Fires in the Mirror and Twilight and the complaints of, like, “Well, that's not acting,” and, “It seems so academic,” and, as someone who comes from academia, it felt very clear, like, not relevant as a practitioner because it's impactful. It's some voice that people want to hear. I'm not going to have a debate if it fits the mode of Meisner-Stanislavski training or what I understand acting to be. I recognize a compelling voice and body meant that is creative inventive. And I also recognize the need to categorize and create narratives of what she can and can't do as a Black woman and recognize that that was a real … that's layered communication, when someone wants to define—and as a Black, queer person who's middle aged, I continue to watch how people … it's not a personal affront, but it's like, well, Black bodies, Black males, Black artists, you have a very specific role to play in North American society. And watching people try to make that narrative be true and try to control your movement or your actions based on that narrative gets to be a really revealing exercise that is deeply applicable to any sector that is being forced into certain kinds of binaries of what is or isn't. And, really, the question is, most of the time, it doesn't seem like a relevant concern, that the one doesn't take away from the other, necessarily. These are stories that we have and lead, practice in different industries and social context, but it's important to be able to have enough historical context, to hear from enough experts in the social sciences and history in policymaking, to really understand when you're hearing narratives that are not really about best practices, but are about other ways that humans navigate their discomfort in the world.

Erik Gensler: You talked about the Actors Theatre of Louisville and telling important stories. And, you know, the Humana Festival, that's always been about new works and pushing boundaries … has the Actors Theatre of Louisville always taken this, sort of, I mean, A) I’d love for you to talk about, like, the Actors Theatre of Louisville as a progressive institution, if you think it truly is, the history of being a progressive institution, how that manifests within the board makeup, the staff makeup, and your role, in terms of the evolution of leaders within the organization.

Robert Barry Fleming: Yeah, yeah. Well, I mean, I think we've always had, to my understanding, cisgendered, heterosexual, white, male leadership in the artistic area prior to my arrival, which would be consonant with most systems and institutions in the United States. I think it's always interesting when people—and this is where I kind of think the systemic structural piece is so important—because for every individual or figure, you know, I'm just going to be another person (laughs) in a hundred years, 150 years. I'm not going to be … It might be more relevant to just kind of look at the progression of the profile than it is to say, “Oh, it was about Robert,” because I'm only a compilation of everything that was invested in me by everyone who helped me be who I am. So, it doesn't really say much about me as much as it says about understanding the world and Actors’ organism. The thing that I always found, there's a kind of artistic or poetic way that I look at it. The company is 56 years old. I'm 56 years old. We are at 316 West Main Street, our theater, and I grew up at 316 Exum Court, an hour away in Frankfort. I have these kinds of spiritual beliefs that intersect with really rigorous data that I like to weave and intersect and kind of just hearing both from a very cognitive, rational space, and then, also, from an intuitive, spiritual space, where are you seeing alignment? Where are you seeing a flow? Where are you seeing things moving? And one of the things that's been really interesting about Actors is, I think, it's been reflective of all systems and institutions has probably had as many—it's all degrees—as many challenges about equity as any system or institution in the country. Progressive is a relative term. I think it's absolutely unquestionable that starting a new works festival and the kind of breadth of dramatic literature that's come out of that has been a singular achievement of a really brilliant and creative mind and collective of people who, together, made that happen, led by John Jory; that those stories were unique stories, that some of the most successful ones were rooted in our region or ecosystem or ethos to give a window into what it means to be human, just like Spike Lee's Brooklyn. You know, we had our own way of sharing stories and being able to understand the world through Beth Henley's eyes or other forerunners of dramatic literature, and some of them rooted right here in Louisville, with Marsha Norman, who wrote for the Courier-Journal, for instance. You know, I think there's just great wisdom in investing in and validating the value of your own ecosystem and not always looking externally outside of you or taking direction from other people and other cultural milieus that somehow subordinate your own sovereignty to program and say what's important and how to guide and lead. There's no shortage of people who want to tell me what to do or how to lead or want to lead instead of, you know, would love to see, not me, personally, but a Black person continue the narrative of being guided by the dominant culture overseer kind of a thing. Just finding those threads, understanding those threads, and saying, “Might there be a way to destabilize that ideology, to disconnect from those ideas, to understand that all things have an interrelation and maybe none of them are that significant to talk about on an interpersonal level, as much as it is to think about the system, because if the system is an equitable, that's where we're going to create more numbers of equity looking at one individual or individuals or groups?” sometimes I think is the diversion and the successful one and addressing the more systemic or structural take its appropriate space and that, who are the actors of that oppression? And the fact that that can be anybody since we all were indoctrinated under the same system, for the most part, unless you are coming from another country, you got the same thing in school I got. And so, those kinds of internalized messages are free-floating amongst all people in our society to a greater or lesser extent. So, the question is, how are you enacting that oppressive system? And then, what ways are you disrupting that?

Erik Gensler: Yeah, well, thank you for doing the work of explaining that. I think that's a, it's an important distinction for people to understand, to be able to participate in this conversation and often a hard one for, particularly, white people to understand because it's easy to point to individuals as exceptions to systems and to really, truly, you have to look at the systems. And thank you for explaining that on here. I, you know, there's so many directions to go from there. We haven't talked as much about the content of what you're putting on the digital stage and in the sort of idea or the framing of stories as performance. How did you think about this, this first digital season? And I don't think we've given enough airtime to talk about like what you've put out there, what you've put together. So, I want to give you some space to talk about that.

Robert Barry Fleming: Sure. Yeah, I mean, I think there's just some, some really intuitive things to the, I think, the critical consciousness, the self-awareness piece, and kind of being bold and seeing what you see and allowing yourself to know what you know, and just kind of own that as your own truth. You know, we have had a system that is like, when we program African-Americans, it's usually during Black History Month in February. There's been years where that was kind of common knowledge, that that's when you get your August Wilson play, that's when you see Pearl Cleage on the predominantly white institution stage, that's when you'd be able to engage Katori Hall or … and, you know, some companies that mix that up a little bit. But I think the real question is just that commodification, that system, that predictability of doing that, I think, speaks to the intersection of capitalism and the construction of race in this country. And it's only when you begin to say, you know, “What would it look like if you did a season that had more than one black show in a predominantly white institution? What would people's response to that be?” When we had a African diasporic representation in every Humana show this past season, that led some people to say, “Oh, wow. So, is Actors becoming a Black theater?” and I think the question is not about Actors. It's kind of like James Baldwin says: “I'm not an n-word, but America seems to need that word need that figure, need that image.” And so, the question is, for dominant-culture Americans, why do you need that? What is that serving? And having clarity as a person who's identified as a Black person that this society first—human, maybe second or third—it begins to be the question of, “What of that am I attaching to and attaching meaning to and identity to?” because at a certain point, what I mean by, “I'm Black and queer,” might not actually mean the same thing to you. I offered that in one situation and someone said, “Well, I see you as more than that,” and I was like, “Well, what really is more than Black and queer? I think black and queer is amazing and great and full, and I'm not offering that as a diminishment,” but the framing of, “I see you as more than that,” I think, is an interesting one. It's like, “Well, I don't see your queerness. I don't see your color,” and I was like, “Then that's about erasure. That's not about acceptance. That's not an embrace. That's actually erasing, which actually is, in some ways, more compromising than hate, you know?” So it's, so it's the kind of thing, you know? Yeah. It's the kind of things of, as we're reckoning with this constructed idea of capitalism, this constructed idea of race, not natural occurring, real things in terms of the meaning, those things carry in our society, but as constructs of hierarchy. Same with genders, same with class. It's the same with ability. These are things that, as they have meaning, they just seem to be too far in the front and not enough of, “Well, those are not facts. Those are not naturally occurring facts.” So, it's exciting to be able to start a season, for instance, with a Black, female-centered event that is spoken word, the generating artist is a spoken word artist, that they are local, that they are a creative and civic force in our community, and a way for not only people in our region, but throughout the country and the world, to understand in an authentic way, what kind of conversation is happening here and how that's impacted them, has been impacted by our history with plantation capitalism and how universal that framing is for many parts of the world, because there have been … the colonial project has been a global event and its permutation in different countries is only detailed and there are details that are different, but there are some things that really connect that whole global movement. So, why not see that from the kind of programming where Hannah Drake would be able to be exploring the idea of a Black girl, always having to fix a complication that was created by someone other than herself? Societally or culturally, Black people have often been put into the position to be helpers, to explain, to educate, to meet desire, to be extracted, to be the sites of violence. If there is someone who is afraid or anxious or feeling existentially cheated, a brown or Black body unconsciously or consciously has always been a site where that can be excised on that instrument, from the days of the slave patrol to the kind of racialized justice that's disenfranchised many people from our criminal justice system because just by the color of your skin, one could be considered dangerous and therefore a target. Injure first, ask questions later. So, when that's kind of the experience and the reality that some of us see and experience, that we have been here for extraction purposes, on many, many levels, one begins to rethink how you want to engage with your fellow human beings and the systems that they populate and say, “Maybe, one of the ways to reclaim our humanity is to challenge some of those operating assumptions by asking for something different.” Do we only have one Black show or can we have an African presence in all of them without that making it “not an American festival, but a Black festival,” or, “Is Actors becoming a Black theater?” because it is embracing a significant population that's been disenfranchised. You know, the questions say more about the party that's asking the question than anything that I'm doing by creating a more pluralistic platform for artistic expression and voice.

Erik Gensler: Absolutely. I followed, like … everything you're saying makes sense, but it also assumes that an audience has done the work and knowing the white American audience, I would assume, I don't know, a lot of them have not done the work, especially if you say, “Historically, it's been this slot mentality of your August Wilson play on Black History Month,” and then moving to programming that challenges and presents a different, you know, reality. I can't imagine all of your audience—as much as I would love to hear it was great and everyone just jumped along—I have to imagine you were, had to be willing to lose audience in the benefit of gaining others. And so, I'm just curious how the staff and the board, and, perhaps, the audience, has gone along with that evolution and programming, as just my own curiosity and also as a lesson to, I'm sure, other organizations that want to make a similar evolution.

Robert Barry Fleming: Yeah, well, you know, it's interesting cause I think of white supremacy, not unlike any other kind of pathological reality or mechanism. Then, you know, if you look at the 12 steps, AA, it's, they say, “AA is not for those who need it. It's for those who want it.” I think you have to do what is … when you have information that seems to … and data, you know, I don't … The reason we called the podcast Borrowed Wisdom is because it's like, everything I know, I borrow from other experts. That's not stuff that I made up or I created or has been generated. It's data and information and wisdom that I have had the privilege of hearing and getting and being oriented to and continue in this 56th year of life to always try to be one who questions my operating assumptions, my biases, and just to be a lifelong learner. And, you know, we can only lead in the way that we know how, and that's one of the ways that I know how. And when you have a curiosity or two and you want to investigate and be in a process of inquiry, that can't be led by a lack of reason or fear, or, you know … That's not a way to lead. You have to be willing to be the recipient of people who may not be able to follow along the object of their scorn or their derision or their sense of being bright to maintain a certain status quo, even if that status quo has proven to be something that's impoverishing the whole community and not just those who seem to be immediately affected by the injustice. White supremacy hurts white-identified people in deep and meaningful ways. It's not the kind of thing that's useful for anyone. And the white part of that is a construct. There's no such thing as white, without juxtaposing it to Black. We know that we're all humans. If you talk to a biologist or a geneticist, they'll say, “You're the human race.” That's a misuse of the term, “race,” but there was a good reason, culturally and socially, for that to be constructed. And so, that's how we find ourselves here. It's not sustainable. It's not aligned with the natural law of how the world really is, but it has its own social reality that now we must all together untether. But we have to be clear on whose pathologies is whose. In AA, you don't try to convince somebody they're an alcoholic. You wait until they hit bottom and they're ready to come because they say, “You're not going to be able to be useful to them if you're trying to force that on.” So, I don't try to force people to necessarily believe that this is the way, but I've been asked to lead and serve, and I have that privilege. And part of what it seems the necessity and the call to action was, was to really create an equitable system for all. All who are stakeholders in the organization, have a multiplicity of voices in conversation and that requires a certain kind of generative conflict that may lead to some people saying, “I don't choose to participate,” or, “I'll wait and see.” I was told that by a number of folks, when they came in; they weren't going to support me right from the jump. And I can respect that. At the same time, I have a mission to implement. We are here to unlock human potential, build community, and enrich lives, and I have to fulfill that through theater as best I know. And it's really exciting to be in a community where people seem to be deeply and meaningfully responsive to that, even prior to the uprisings and the pandemic, really, really challenging impacts in our community.

Erik Gensler: So, we've come to your last question here and our last question is an opportunity to, sort of, share an idea with your colleagues and in the arts field. We call it your “CI to Eye moment,” and the question is, if you could broadcast to executive directors, leadership teams, staff, boards, of thousands of arts organizations and leaders, what advice would you provide to them to help them in this moment?

Robert Barry Fleming: Oh, I think the same that I'd offer myself as, stay curious, keep investigating, keep asking questions, keep a rigorous process of disconfirming your own operating assumptions, seek to do that, seek to problematize what you think, you know, and keep asking questions and be teachable. I think that's, if there's anything that makes life worth living, you know, it's like, I feel like I got some part of that from having educator parents, but also from being an actor and an actor in the largest sense of the word, both in the discipline, but also one who keeps trying to learn, keeps trying to grow, and keeps trying to divorce oneself from ego and lean into just that. What, you know … It's like, sometimes, I think for many of us as artists or historically marginalized people, we have both overestimated our ability and centered ourselves sometimes. And then, sometimes, we haven't done enough to allow ourselves to be centered and foregrounded and be open to being wrong and making mistakes because they're so strong impulse of like, “You only get so many chances, so you've gotta be perfect.” I just try to keep learning and relieve myself of that pressure and keep pushing those boundaries by staying curious, staying investigative, staying in the process of inquiry. And it's, it seems to be very fulfilled. It's been very fulfilling for me. So, I wish that for others.

Erik Gensler: That's wonderful and so important. Robert, thank you so much.

Robert Barry Fleming: Thank you, Erik.