It has been about a month since LaNeshe Miller-White took her post as executive director of Theatre Philadelphia. It’s an odd time to lead efforts “that grow audiences and promote the public participation in theatrical work,” but within this lull lies opportunity. According to Miller-White, so far things have been going well. She has been serving Theatre Philadelphia for the past few years, first as a member of the marketing committee, and then as a member of the Barrymore Awards Oversight Committee. Just before taking the position, she was doing freelance marketing management and Theatre Philadelphia was a client.
In crisis there is opportunity
How exactly does one promote live theater in the time of COVID-19, and what might be the new normal once it’s safer to gather again? “We have a lot of virtual events and productions coming out and I think we’re going to see more of that as theaters realize this isn’t a short-term situation,” she says.
COVID is not the only dire circumstance changing the face of theater, however. Miller-White posits that the ongoing nationwide civil uprisings will have a long-term impact on theater culture. “Everybody has time on their hands to deal with things they’ve had problems with," she says. "I think we’re seeing that people want some improvements to diversity when this is all over. That’s going to be good.”
To that end, Miller-White has been working with her staff to increase inclusion in the administering of Philadelphia’s prestigious Barrymore Awards. The goal is to have the demographics of eligible shows, both onstage and behind the scenes, reflect the demographics of Philadelphia within three years, hitting incremental benchmarks each year. "It’s necessary and a long-time coming," Miller-White says.
Miller-White has confronted this before. In 2013, she cofounded Theatre In the X with Carlo Campbell and Walter DeShields. “We wanted to bring good theater to the community in an accessible way," she says. "You can’t get much more accessible than in the neighborhood park! We wanted to have some agency in the characters we were portraying and the stories we were telling.”
The necessary pivot
While planning for an optimistic and equitable future is satisfying work, the theater community has some more immediate concerns. “People can’t create if they can’t feed themselves or pay their rent," Miller-White says. The company's shift was made possible in part with funding from the Emergency Relief Program, which provided funds directly to artists whose livelihoods were affected by COVID.
“There’s still a lot of money left that we’d love to give away.” Miller-White says. “Tell people to apply!”
An eye to the future
Miller-White seeks to broaden Theatre Philadelphia’s reach and sees the organization as a resource for Philadelphia's millions of tourists in the COVID-less future. “My ultimate goal is for Theatre Philadelphia to become the Visit Philly of theater," she says. "Philly puts on amazing productions from small independent artists to our mainstream theaters. Philly’s theater scene is awesome! I want to bring new people here.” Right now, she’s particularly energized by the work of Erlina Ortiz, resident writer and co-artistic director of Power Street Theater and artist, Malika Oyetimein.