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Ashland arts institutions further equity values

Anyania Muse is the Director of Inclusion, Diversity, Equity and Access for the Oregon Shakespeare Festival.

Two Ashland arts organizations have hired people to spearhead equity work, and both individuals place a premium on accessibility in theater.

The Oregon Shakespeare Festival recently hired Anyania Muse to staff a newly formed position called the director of inclusion, diversity, equity and access.

Play On Shakespeare hired Amrita Ramanan as senior cultural strategist and dramaturg, a role aimed at empowering storytellers to reshape organizational culture through the lens of social justice, Ramanan said.

Muse previously worked as director of equity for Marin County in California, where she led the construction of anti-racist frameworks for thousands of employees. She holds a master’s degree in educational leadership, nonprofit, public and organizational management, and is a candidate for a Doctor of Education degree from Mills College.

“In our work at the county [Marin], we have managed to shift perspectives and, more importantly, help people directly address the barriers of fear, guilt and shame that normally stymie change efforts,” said Shakti Butler, founder of World Trust, which works to build social justice and racial equity.

“None of the work that World Trust has offered in our attempt to change peoples’ meaning schemes — specific beliefs, attitudes and emotional reactions — would have been possible without Ms. Muse’s input, guidance and clarity.”

Muse said she was initially apprehensive about assuming a leadership role in the arts, but determined the work that is her life’s passion has applicability in all fields — human- and “heart-centered” work.

“For me, there’s a difference in the cadence of the way people speak about equity work when they know it, when they’re serious about it and when they are fledglings in the work,” Muse said. “My decision to come here was because I knew that it would actually be a team effort and that this would not be me just coming to try and Band-Aid something or fix it myself.”

Within the scope of inclusion, diversity, equity and access, Muse said she sees an opportunity for OSF to become a leader in accessibility by addressing older infrastructure and shifting away from a tendency within equity work to “segregate” access for people with unique needs.

Her vision for accessibility includes gender-neutral or trans-friendly bathrooms — commodities that offer a sense of safety and security while people visit the theater, Muse said, adding that access often requires excessive forethought for a theater-goer with a disability or other unique circumstance.

“We want to be operating in such a way where somebody decides they want to buy tickets on a Friday at 8 a.m., they can come and access the theater at 12, without us having to scramble to accommodate them,” Muse said. “That’s what accessibility should look like, and that’s what equity should look like.”

As the first to hold this position, Muse said she hopes her legacy will be to see the work live on through others — leaving behind an “indelible imprint” that can survive after her tenure, and a solid bridge between the institution and community.

According to former OSF communications director CJ Martinez, the director of inclusion, diversity, equity and access position came out of a framework organized by consultant Carmen Morgan, founder of artEquity, who directed OSF to adopt “social justice as a core institutional value and aspiration,” which led to the hiring of Sharifa Johka in 2011 as the interim director of equity.

Muse’s role builds upon Johka’s vision for an anti-racist, radically inclusive and social justice-focused community, according to Martinez.

“Anyania’s presence in a role created for someone with her breadth of experience and expertise further acknowledges the importance and prioritization of respect and transparency for artists and theater-makers in their workplaces,” said Nataki Garrett, OSF artistic director. “[The position] is yet another critical step toward ensuring all of our artist-centric spaces are truly transformed.”

Accessibility as a focal point is a mission the two new directors share, as Ramanan seeks to advance Play On’s mission to connect more people to William Shakespeare’s original and co-authored works in a contemporary environment.

“What we were really asking playwrights to do was a process where they translated the language in collaboration with Shakespeare’s story of words to make it the most vibrant and accessible, as if we were in a place that Shakespeare’s audience was 400 years ago, where there was this point of access to how we engage with the language and story,” Ramanan said of Play On, which worked with 36 playwrights to translate 39 Shakespeare plays into modern English by December 2018.

Ramanan joined OSF in 2016 as the director of literary development and dramaturgy when Play On, an independent nonprofit since 2019, had just begun its journey evolving Shakespeare into new art via contemporary writer translation.

Ramanan has her eye on educational models, podcasting, alternative artistic forms of sharing Shakespeare and plans for live theater post-pandemic as avenues for deploying her focus.

“I’m investigating the journey that Play On is taking around the strategy of all of those different elements and also how the culture is held accountable to our mission and values,” Ramanan said. “I operate from a values-based perspective, and my values are very much aligned with anti-racism, anti-colonialism, equity, diversity, inclusion and access.”

With her current project, “Coriolanus,” in workshop, Ramanan said she has uncovered a new understanding of the economic and social crises that compose the story’s setting, which parallel today’s struggles with government and citizen relationships, consumption of political power, politicking of language and themes of class warfare.

As a dramaturg, Ramanan rears a story from inception to completion, considering how it has been told before, asking questions about the world and characters, researching and working with writers to help them accomplish their intention with the narrative, she said.

“Amrita has been a huge advocate of our work since its inception and inspired wonderful conversations about how best to broadly share our work,” said Play On board President Ken Hitz. “From the outset she pushed for producing our work internationally, and her thoughtful enthusiasm and aspiring vision will help Play On to expand our mission to enhance the understanding of Shakespeare with an ever wider audience.”