Keynote Conversation: Karen Olivo and Eden Espinosa

The National Women’s Theatre Festival | July 19, 7 p.m. (online)  

It was June 2020, and Broadway actors Karen Olivo and Eden Espinosa—Monday’s keynote speakers at the National Women’s Theatre Festival, whose sixth year in Raleigh will be totally online—were feeling blindsided and betrayed.

Olivo, who originated the lead role of Satine in the musical Moulin Rouge, and Espinosa, her longtime friend who found fame as Elphaba in Wicked, had just learned from Federal Election Commission reports that the heads of the Nederlander Organization had donated $160,000—the most of any candidate they’d contributed to in four presidential campaigns—to elect Donald Trump in 2016.

Nederlander is the second largest owner of Broadway theaters in New York City. As one of the largest theater ownership and operating groups in the country, Nederlander also brings touring Broadway productions to Durham Performing Arts Center.

For Espinosa, the morals and ethics in the shows she’d been a part of “were in direct opposition of everything that presidency stood for,” while Olivo realized that many in her community had been targeted by “the xenophobia and the lack of humanity” under the Trump regime.

Their own unwitting complicity in the donation was even harder to stomach. “We both had brought a sizable amount of money to those houses, and some of it was used to fuel a campaign for someone who was trying to undo our democracy,” Olivo says. “In turn, we felt responsible.”

They took action. In a June 7 Instagram video last year, Olivo publicly vowed to withhold her “artistic force and services from any theater, company or persons who knowingly fund organizations that perpetuate inequality.”

The video closed with Olivo stating, “We work too hard to fund hate. If you want my talent or services, show me your receipts.”

When the pair realized how little they actually knew about the economics and industry structures that circumscribed their working conditions and careers as artists, they “started pulling at the threads,” as Espinosa recalls, and in response, formed AFECT, or, Artists for Economic Transparency, a New York-based organization dedicated to researching and exposing the inequities present in professional theater.

At the National Women’s Theatre Festival, their keynote speech will focus on their findings to date.

“When we look for keynote speakers we ask where the industry’s heading, and who’s leading the field in the direction we want to go,” says NWTF executive director Johannah Maynard Edwards. “Eden and Karen were at the top of the list; in their work with AFECT, Broadway has been called in and called out.”

Their Monday night address takes place among eight keynote conversations with industry leaders on issues ranging from women as producers and playwrights to celebrating transgender artists. A fringe festival featuring 14 plays and intensive how-to workshops on constructing home studios, directing, and devising new works round out this year’s offerings.

It’s odd to think of organized oppression behind the bright lights of 42nd Street. But consider these dynamics that local and professional actors know by rote: cattle call auditions where hundreds try out for a coveted handful of roles—and if you aren’t satisfied with the salary, dozens more will snap up the job in a New York minute. Grueling, pressurized rehearsal room gauntlets where the lucky few work demanding choreography, songs, and blocking eight or more hours per day, and tempers grow shorter as opening night approaches.

And should you get a reputation as being “difficult”—by standing up against abuse or harassment in the workplace—you just don’t get cast again.

These and other factors form an environment ripe for economic abuse—the maltreatment of a systemically disempowered group. “We are groomed to be grateful and silent,” notes Olivo.

The more the two uncovered, the more they had to unlearn. “I trusted these people had my best interests at heart, that we were all in the same boat, and that we believed and wanted the same things for each other. Then you find that [Actors Equity] doesn’t fight for our best interest because they’re interwoven so deeply with the producers and the theater owners,” Espinosa says.

“We take for granted that people are making art, and therefore they’re good people,” Olivo says. But a cold fact lurks behind the façade of theatrical camaraderie: many of the developers and producers who fund, manage, and determine the structures and policies of these production companies “don’t have vision, aren’t artists, are not looking for the greater good of humanity, and are driven mainly toward making a profit.”

As a result, artists’ bodies are routinely “used as vessels to create something for someone to profit off of,” Olivo says. “This last year showed me how disposable we all are to our industry.”

AFECT seeks to educate artists in economic and professional self-defense, and teach best business practices so that creatives can construct sustainable professional careers and advocate for themselves. This fall, AFECT will offer artists online classes in tax strategies and contract literacy.

According to Edwards, the need for such basic skills among professional artists is dire: “You’d think that at a world-class institution like NYU’s Tisch School for the Arts we’d have been educated in getting paid and how to read a contract. We weren’t.”

Espinosa thinks the theater is decades behind other entertainment industries. “In any other industry, there would be an HR department you would go to which we don’t have. Instead we’re supposed to talk to our stage manager, who’s also in our union, which is a conflict of interest.”

Both actors say that audiences can significantly influence change in their industry.

“As an audience member you have the biggest power of all: purchasing power,” Espinosa says.

“When you go to the theater, when you consume media, you have to think about the people who are creating it, and if those people are being treated humanely,” Olivo concludes. 

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