Guthrie production chief takes on backstage color barrier

David Stewart
Production Director David Stewart watches tech rehearsal for "Disgraced" at the Guthrie Theater.
Courtney Perry for MPR News

A play opening at the Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis Friday night deals with racial politics. The story revolves around a Pakistani-American lawyer, and most of the cast members are people of color.

Backstage, though, the people helping to stage the show are white.

The Guthrie is working to stage more diverse stories, with more diverse casts. This play, "Disgraced," reflects that effort. Yet the theater's production team — 71 full-time employees, including stage managers, carpenters, electricians and others — is white, with one exception: the guy in charge.

David Stewart is the Guthrie's director of production. Artistic Director Joe Haj hired him shortly after taking the helm of the Guthrie last summer. Stewart says the Guthrie's lack of diversity backstage is not unusual — it's a common situation in theaters across the country.

"Onstage is sexy," he explained. "The focus is on audience cultivation and diversification, board diversification, diversification of the canon — the works that are done on stage — as well as the actors that are on stage. Because all those things are seen.

"We're not seen. We're not supposed to be seen. If we're seen, something's really, really wrong."

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David Stewart
Right to left, Alice Fredrickson (Costume Design Assistant), Ana Kuzmanic (Costume Designer), and Jason Clusman (Stage Manager) work during tech rehearsal.
Courtney Perry for MPR News

Stewart is an engaging, charismatic figure. Sporting a shaved head and small hoop earrings, he's equally at home in a suit or a kilt. His friends and colleagues call him D-Stew. Although people often guess his racial background inaccurately, Stewart identifies as black or mixed race. His father is black; his mother was white.

"And sometimes my mom would take issue with my identity as black-mixed, and she's like, 'Why don't you ever identify as white?' I was like, 'I can never walk into a room and be a white person. I can walk into a room and be racially ambiguous, but I can never walk into a room and be white.' The default is usually Puerto Rican," he said with a laugh.

Stewart is an active member of the United States Institute for Theater Technology, or USITT, which provides education and training for approximately 20,000 people in entertainment technology and production nationwide.

Executive Director David Grindle remembers when he first started really thinking about diversity in theater production. It was at a USITT conference in Minneapolis in 2003.

"And Lou Bellamy of Penumbra Theatre stood in front of everyone and said, 'How is it that I have a theater that's known as an African-American theater, but I walk backstage and there are no African-Americans?'"

David Stewart
David Stewart, left, talks with actor Bhavesh Patel.
Courtney Perry for MPR News

Four years ago, Stewart and Grindle created the Gateway mentorship program, pairing diverse young talent with professionals who can help them navigate the industry as they build their careers.

When it comes to diversifying theater staff, Stewart said, it's a long game.

"I'm not here to sit there and go, 'Hey, look, I have a hundred production staff members, and we're not diverse, and we're not reflective of the diversity of the Twin Cities. Therefore, 30 percent of you have to go and I have to bring in 30 percent people of color.' I'm not looking to do that whatsoever," he said. "What I'm looking to do — what we're looking to do at the Guthrie — is, when opportunity arises, when there's a retirement or someone moves on to another job, that we open up our blinders a little bit. That we open up our vision so that we are more inclusive of who gets to get in the room, so they get an opportunity at the table to show us their wares."

Stewart said one of the biggest barriers is that people simply don't know the jobs exist. For those who might be interested, Stewart's pitch is simple.

David Stewart
David Stewart, center, conducts a meeting with staff members Sara L'Heureux, right, and Trevor Long.
Courtney Perry for MPR News

"We work," he said. "If you're a good technician, you're working all the time. If you're a great technician you're turning down work. It's stable work, it's great work."

At a time when diversity and inclusion are gradually becoming the norm in professional theater, Stewart said, the Guthrie has the potential to be an example to other theaters nationwide.

"To show that diversity does not speak against the bottom line but can enhance the bottom line ... I really want to do that," he said. "To be an example and to blaze new trails."