What’s Up with the WAM/BRIDGE PIPELINE Partnership?

What’s Up with the WAM/BRIDGE PIPELINE Partnership?
Kristen and Gwendolyn in Boston for the attorney general training earlier this year.

Kristen van Ginhoven, Producing Artistic Director, WAM Theatre and Gwendolyn VanSant, CEO and Founding Director, BRIDGE, have written the following blog to share a bit about our PIPELINE partnership and our process with you. 

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WAM and BRIDGE first collaborated in 2013 on WAM’s production of EMILIE, connecting as two women-run organizations focused on activism and engaging BRIDGE’s Youth Leaders and Women To Women Group in pre- and post- play discussions as well as trips to the show. We then produced FACING OUR TRUTH, along with Berkshire based artist and educator Jamuna Yvette Sirker, in 2016 in commemoration of the 5th anniversary of the murder of Trayvon Martin, to address violence and the negative impact of racism on us all. And now, this year, we are partnering on PIPELINE, unpacking the bias in education that leads to the data-proven, systematically-designed engagement of Black families in the justice system—especially when a young Black male is involved. PIPELINE exposes the interconnectedness of the education and justice systems and the personally devastating sacrifices Black families of all socioeconomic backgrounds must face to survive at the hands of unchecked bias in White educators and school systems.

The WAM/BRIDGE Partnership Team: WAM Associate Producing Director Lia Russell-Self, WAM Associate Artistic Director Talya Kingston, BRIDGE Educator and Facilitator Stephanie Wright, WAM Producing Artistic Director Kristen van Ginhoven, and BRIDGE Founder and CEO Gwendolyn Hampton VanSant. Photo by Gregory Cherin for Berkshire Magazine

As PIPELINE has become one of the most produced plays across the country, playwright Dominique Morisseau continues to use her platform to speak to some of the micro- and macro-aggressions that she has felt as an artist and audience member in American theatres. At the same time, Kristen recognized that, as the Producing Artistic Director of WAM and a proud Berkshire community member, she has to step into her activism and leadership privilege and do things differently (our WAMily would expect no less from her!). As a civic organization that embraces intersectional feminism (a conception and term coined by Kimberlé Crenshaw and rooted in black feminist scholarship that acknowledges how multiple forms of discrimination overlap) WAM understands that to address one piece of systemic discrimination means we have to address them all, including our own privileged dynamics around race, access, and power. Ensuring, for just one example, that our productions do not just feature white, straight women as protagonists or white playwrights as their authors was imperative. And once we step out of that safe comfort zone, we are reminded daily that we as a WAMily accept the accountability and implications of that choice for our multi-racial staff and the greater community.


Last fall, WAM invited Gwendolyn VanSant, BRIDGE’s co-founder and CEO, to the WAM office for a private reading of PIPELINE along with one of her White friends, who is a trusted colleague serving as a BRIDGE volunteer in Accountability and Development. We at WAM wanted to investigate if this production could be of service to BRIDGE’s established cultural competency work in the county among educators and the justice system, among others, and so we asked Gwendolyn directly for her perspective on the play and her interest in a potential partnership. Happily for us, Gwendolyn’s answer was a resounding “yes,” and BRIDGE agreed to come on board as a partner on PIPELINE for a third collaboration with WAM! 


To that point, without BRIDGE’s interest in the play and willingness to work with us, WAM had been prepared to walk away from producing PIPELINE. For over ten years, BRIDGE has been working locally and across the country to create safer, more equitable communities by catalyzing change through collaboration, education, training, dialogue, fellowship, and advocacy. BRIDGE is minority- and women-run, and has a deep-rooted history in advancing racial justice and equity by promoting cultural competence, positive psychology, and mutual understanding and acceptance. WAM, like many other White-led social justice-driven organizations, had just begun developing an awareness of the extractive and harmful impact in the mis-steps that are made by well-intentioned, White-run theatres (including WAM) who program without 1) building relationships with local People of Color or 2) giving due thought to issues that could arise. For example, WAM was called to discover, review, and empathize with how an acting company comprised mostly of people of color would be welcomed into the Berkshires with a predominantly White audience. Often extra unacknowledged, uncompensated emotional labor is requested and expected of these same actors in facilitating predominantly White audience talk-backs, where audiences have been known to, at times, get self-protective and even say (unintentionally and/or defensively) implicitly racist remarks or sometimes make presumptuous privileged gestures towards the actors. Therefore, if WAM were going to produce PIPELINE, we knew that the decision to bring a production into fruition in our community had to sit with Gwendolyn and BRIDGE, and only if it could be of service to their deep work in our community. Thankfully, Gwendolyn said yes and with BRIDGE’s expertise and long history of racial justice work, WAM and BRIDGE decided to collaborate and forge ahead, knowing that our process required thoughtful, intentional action to avoid these and many other potentially harmful mis-steps.  


As WAM’s partner on this production, BRIDGE has been consulted at every turn—from the poster image to the auditions and straight on through to the rehearsals and the design choices. BRIDGE and WAM have also engaged in a series of retreats and trainings together throughout the year. These retreats helped build trust and pride among WAM and BRIDGE staff and volunteer teams, giving us the time and space to get to know each other with authentic intentions and growing radical honesty. To accomplish our goals, we knew we had to build the muscle of interracial exchange on racial justice issues amongst ourselves, and amongst our audiences. Together, we collaboratively designed purpose-driven programming and collaboration around the production, which include: professional development and youth education throughout the county; working with BRIDGE’s Race Task Force; co-developing a creative study guide for students with their peers, parents, and educators; thoughtfully designing a printed program together; jointly choosing beneficiaries; designing supported and facilitated talkbacks with subject matter experts; and defining actionable steps that intersect arts and racial justice.


Social justice is leveraging our resources for positive social impact. WAM and BRIDGE have opened their doors to be in this challenging and often triggering racial justice work together, honoring each other’s gifts and expertise, which far outweigh the learning curves.

We are incredibly grateful to all of the organizations, individuals, and foundations who generously helped make this production possible. WAM also acknowledges that the BRIDGE team has far surpassed any financial compensation and grant support. BRIDGE, in their true spirit, has owned this production by way of their commitment to our shared community in pursuit of equity and justice and to their mission to demonstrate best practices in equity, inclusion and cultural humility for the arts field far and near.


We at BRIDGE and WAM are grateful and humbled to be on this journey with you and hope to see you all at PIPELINE. Equally, we are humbled at the power of collaboration between our two organizations and their respective members. 


Stay tuned for what comes next!

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