Before and during the COVID-19 pandemic, Stephanie Hickling Beckman has been one of the most active forces in the local theater community. Now, with the proverbial light-at-the-end-of-the-tunnel feeling within reach as live theater plots its return, the founder and managing artistic director of Different Strokes Performing Arts Collective is making moves toward creating post-pandemic work that could be her most impactful yet.
“This has been a year of reevaluating everything I thought I knew about theater and the people who make and produce it,” she says. “Over the last year, theater organizations all over the world have made statements of solidarity with Black Lives Matter and people of color and have begun to revamp their programming to reflect content that responds to the needs and expectations of audiences and artists navigating our ever-changing social landscape.”
Though Hickling Beckman is Black, she says Different Strokes has not been excused from making such statements or acting on this need for change. In turn, she’s been taking diversity, equity and inclusion seminars to advance her own relationship with and response to how white supremacy has infected the theater industry. She’s also allying with other local theater organizations’ administrative leaders to address the systemic racism that she says has thrived in Asheville and hampered the arts community for decades.
The key to confronting that pervasive issue is Different Strokes’ own programming choices. While the company has presented and continues to present digital productions during the pandemic, Hickling Beckman says not having a traditional in-person season has allowed her and her colleagues to examine the nature of the work they’ve chosen during their decade-plus run. As such, they’re recommitting to producing plays that uplift and celebrate people of color rather than narratives that equate being nonwhite with consistent struggle and failure.
“Once we have satisfied the contracts tied to our delayed 2020 season, we will make it a priority to include more contemporary Black playwrights and stories that highlight the joys of being Black rather than the retraumatization we’ve become so familiar with in this country,” she says.
Different Strokes will get the opportunity to put that plan into action in September when it resumes live theater — not in its Tina McGuire Theatre black box space, but in the 500-seat Wortham Theatre. If state-mandated occupancy limits remain in place by that intended reopening date, attendees will be able to spread out and remain within those restrictions while adhering to the Wortham Center for the Performing Arts’ additional health and safety measures, including temperature checks and required mask-wearing.
For more information, visit differentstrokespac.org.