STEP 2a : NOTES from the Community Forum

Thank you for your patience – we decided against a verbatim transcript due to some privacy concerns but have put together a full summary of the meeting and discussion.


STEP TWO: Community Forum

Wednesday, September 6, 2017, 5-7pm at HUGE Theater

This forum was for the community to come and say what’s on their minds, and help HUGE leadership with next steps. The forum was moderated by Levi Weinhagen. Following is a summary of the meeting, which includes some transcribed sections (in italics) from the meeting. Even when there are transcriptions, they are not court-reporter perfect. We ask that you read to get a general understanding of the conversation, rather than to parse specific phrasing. The moderator and speakers are named, but the Forum participants’ names are redacted for purpose of practicality and to foster open, free-flowing conversation.

Moderator Levi Weinhagen kicked off the meeting:

A few things to mention up top, we’re going to talk about stuff that may be heavy and challenging. Top line priority is to take care of yourself – feel free to step out and come back. Keep in mind that everyone here is here to support HUGE. If someone says something that you disagree with, confront that idea, not the person. The goal is to have us all in discussion as a community of folks.

 Executive director of Jewish Community Action, Carin Mrotz, gave a brief statement at the start of the meeting, paraphrased as follows. To get a sense of the expansive work that her org does, please visit http://www.jewishcommunityaction.org.

I’ve been to HUGE. We did a Jewish Storytellers event. I have a bunch of friends who perform at HUGE and I have a lot of experience of being attacked by Nazis. Through social media, email – I’ve found stuff in my mailbox. To lead a Jewish organization in this time is not an easy thing to do, but important in this time.

It is a big deal. This is not just Nazis on Twitter. What we’re seeing is white supremacy being codified and enshrined in the government. People who believe their whiteness is under attack have found legitimacy in the White House and in Congress. All to say: you don’t donate to David Duke campaign not knowing who he is. When he ran for the Louisiana State Senate, the state GOP chair disavowed him. Even Republicans in Louisiana have a bar that David Duke does not meet.

What does it mean to give money to someone who is giving money like him? It’s not sustainable long-term. You have to start the process of movement. Do it in a way that does engage the community.

This is in no way easy, and at no point will be easy. Engage your community about who you’re giving money to, engage in white supremacy. There are landlords all over the city who are not giving to David Duke, but who won’t rent to black families, or evict immigrants without cause because they know their tenants can’t defend themselves.

What does it mean to own property? Grow capacity to address these issues but also bring people into motion to do what is morally right. Try to use this opportunity to do something awesome and powerful, even though this really sucks.

Levi: [Thanks Carin for coming to speak, then forum transitions to group conversation.]  I’ve been doing improv and comedy for 20 years. HUGE is doing what they wanted to do. Deeply committed to comedy as not just a valid art form but a tool for justice. This could not have happened to a better or worse group of people. I don’t know anyone better prepared to deal with this than HUGE. A lot of people who feel that way — who feel this sucks, but it also sucks for the opposition.

The Forum conversation unfolded for a total of two hours. During that time, many ideas were floated, including what’s listed here. These ideas are not all mutually exclusive and no conclusions were drawn. This Forum was a first conversation.

A range of ideas came up

– Moving as soon as the lease is up

– Breaking the lease, paying the penalty, and moving

– Stop paying rent (this is not an option for us as it is illegal)

– Using the space we have as long as we have it to:

— host fundraisers for worthy organizations

— use our walls to express our values

— use our art to express our values; do even more programming that supports people of color, Jewish people, queer and gender nonconforming people, and others.

– I’m a performer and teacher. [After the news about white supremacy] it’s just not the same place. I had never thought about [the landlord] before. I want to reclaim this space as ours. He doesn’t make this space, we do. We have a lot of wall space, gallery space — we can create art, have people talk about it, and work it out the way we know how.

– Levi: I encourage asset mapping – taking time to figuring out what access to money or power you have. You might think I’m just this person – I’m just an improviser, a person – we don’t always think about who we connect with. Important thing to work on. Who do you know who knows someone?

 I perform at HUGE a lot. It may be worth series drop in classes tell stories about issues like this but remaining apolitical. How can we utilize the HUGE stage and tackle sexism and racism.

Maybe we do 24-hours of I’m Black and I’m Proud show; I’m Jewish and I’m proud.

–  I come here because I take the Women-Trans-Femme non-binary class. Comedy and entertainment has always been that comedy needs to have a social justice purpose behind it. Entertainment affects our self-worth and how we respect. Humor entertainment art, should mean something to the person taking it in. Isn’t always how we think of improv, think of art. Tackling things through humor and improv, as more than just trying to be funny. Who are we trying to bring joy to, consider what we’re trying to bring humor more deeply than I want spotlight. Changing whole rhetoric for building or changing inwards.

– I don’t want us to stop doing this conversation regularly. We need to chip away it, we are what it does as a group. As the Diversity and Inclusion director, I want to make sure people don’t forget about the work, and just go back to routine. Steadfast and keep this work what is routine, as routine as possible.

What can HUGE can do? HUGE can continue creating this community of diverse backgrounds and people. HUGE can do something. But I can’t be like HUGE do this work for me, I gotta do this work, too.

Feelings and concerns raised

– Some expressed anger at the current situation

– Some said they felt safer inside HUGE’s walls than outside of them — but that they fear HUGE will become a target

– Some noted an increase in fascist propaganda in the area in the last 3-4 months

– One participant said:  I really appreciate that you’re taking this head on. Right now, in the community [that I am a part of] a lot of people are hiding from racism and sexism, which I find inherently disappointing.

One participant said: Levi, you asked for ideas and feelings. We haven’t really addressed the anger. I just want to verbalize. I get pissed, gets me heated. The idea about safety is I want to fight back. That’s just my initial impulse.

– Spread love, don’t fight with hate. Don’t be negative about it. Embrace that scene.

There’s space for all these ideas in some way or form. Heavy on your heart, set aside time, there’s room for all these things. Take the passion we have and figure it out together.

Conversation about white supremacy

Participant: The more we talk about this, I wonder what Nazi means to a lot of people. It’s white supremacy. What it means in your own home, when you walk out of here. For me [as a person of color] just stepping outside I’m already everything they hate.

Participant: Saying Nazi is a way of distancing ourselves from white supremacy. There’s a level of privilege to even say what should we do. Many don’t even get to ask the question. Keeping that in mind is really important. Deciding we can’t stay here for 7 years, even though it means we may be destroyed, is a privilege.

Levi: I also want to clarify that this is not the work of people of color, this is the responsibility of white folks. We benefit from white supremacy, we’re the ones who need to destroy it.

Participant: My first reaction was I know HUGE isn’t affiliated. It’s no big deal, they stand for community, proud of the organization. I feel like it’s my privilege [as a white male]. No one is trying to legislate my ability to marry and no one is trying to exterminate my race or religion. I think of myself as progressive. I want to be engaged. I gotta know it. I want to see that kind of programming.

Participant: There are people that want to be aware. I perform here, work here, love here. Let’s drown them in love. How do we bring them? Double down our efforts and reach out to more groups. You have a karmic debt to pay the universe, but we’re here for you.

Participant: What are folks going to do when you go home? How do we tell the story? How do we get folks culturally understanding each other? I can talk to some things that are culturally relevant to me, but there’s an automatic wall when there’s a white person. Many times I’m one of two black folks in the room, period. That wall is a level is discomfort – I’m uncomfortable and I can ignore/put up a wall. I can code switch, which is different with people of color. Your everyday interactions with human beings – white supremacy, that’s what this is. Not just about Nazis. We need to engage with each other, we’ve got a lot of stuff to work on ourselves.

Participant (white male): Is there a way to hold a workshop? Trainings and workshops around intercultural development, understanding white supremacy. White supremacy is important to acknowledge. This training that we’re talking about is for white people.

Participant:  The throughline is we pay white supremacists every day. A lot of businesses support these [white supremacy] ideals. As far as I know, paying rent doesn’t change that.

Participant:  I give money to white supremacists all day every day. Sometimes they’re standing right in front of me. We can remember with the seriousness of it, comedy gets that work done. If it’s new to you, someone said Nazi and now you’re like: now this is my problem.

Questions and Answers

Q: What expression is legally allowable on stage?

A: Most expression on stage is legally allowable. You cannot endorse or disparage a current candidate in an election (this includes Trump who declared his candidacy for 2020 soon after taking office). More generally, HUGE considers improv to be an artform that is deeply personal and responsive to social change. We typically let our art do the expression through honesty and humor, rather than, for example, making a speech from the stage.  Blackout is one example of groups tackling tough issues through this artform, there are many more.

Q: Have there have been any threats to HUGE?

A: The only threat so far has been someone wanting to target our landlord with administrative hurdles, which we discouraged as it would only marginally harm our landlord but would likely force us to close until the issue was resolved.

A participant added: I volunteer at the front desk at HUGE and want to make sure people know that HUGE is great about always being available to walk people to their car. Please speak up if you would like someone to accompany you, we can do it if we know.

Q: If something were to happen, what’s best way to let us know?

A: If something happens while you’re in the building, please speak to a house manager or a teacher right away. They can assist you, file report and/or help you call 911. If the situation is less urgent, there are a lot of channels to contact us: HUGE’s Facebook page/direct message, Twitter, Email info@hugetheater.com), call and leave a message (voicemails are emailed to the operations team right away). We are responsive and want to know right away.

Q: If HUGE did move, what  would a capital campaign be like — in cost and how long would it take?

A: A capital campaign would generally take 3-7 years and would need to raise $1-3M. These often involve individual donors contributing hundreds of thousands of dollars. Theres also the cost of changing locations, which many theaters take a long time to recover or never recover. There’s a theater in Atlanta that is a great example. They knew ahead of time that they would have to move, it went wonderfully, and it still took $2.2million dollars and 3 years, with a small delay and a $40k overage.  

Q: Have you checked our covenants about what it would state? Is there any kind of statement in the bylaws of the building that say that nobody can own or lease from him that he can discriminate? Is there anything pertaining to this building.

A: The only document we have is our lease, and it does not include any language like that. We can certainly look into that, though.

Q: Has HUGE reached out to your landlord’s other tenants?

A: We’ve only talked to a couple other businesses affected by the news.

Q: Has anyone reached out to a real estate attorney to see what the options are?

A: Yes, we are finding out what our options are.

Q: Will the full board be meeting?

A: Yes. We’ve been talking and we’ll be meeting in some way, even if it’s not formal and probably won’t be publicly announced, it’ll just be part of how we’re dealing with this situation.

Concluding Thoughts

– Participant: I understand and support reasons want to move to another spot, also understand that it would be a lot of work to make that happen. I find it really important to add on to distinction. We have an opportunity now. One way to look at it is we’re giving money. Another is that we are taking their property and turning it into an anti-mission to their statement. We get to take one, and this is the one that we’ve got. We’re going to fight and use his property to do it.  If we moved, there could be a KKK operation in HUGE’s place. Important to keep this place as long as we can. Moving is flight. We have to stay and fight.

Participant: It’s like almost like a sit-in. I’m going to do everything in my power to oppose what you represent. Within these walls we develop a new culture. That’s a really important thing.

– Jill:  Butch, Molly, Nels and I aren’t the owners of HUGE. HUGE is a nonprofit and is beholden to the public. YOU are the owners.

– Levi: So you heard Jill. You are all the owners of this space. I am available to anyone who wants to have an uncomfortable conversation. Being really uncomfortable has become my jam. I will spend some time with you. This is an open offer. I’m going to ask Butch to give some closing thoughts.

– Butch: A couple things. Thank you everyone for being here. Weird times ahead. This is not a normal problem that anyone could have foreseen. We’re trying to take great care. That’s the most important thing. We have already gotten a note that worried [our public statement] might be inviting danger or conflict. So, know that HUGE is aware of that and as an org may not be incredibly vocal — but nobody’s waiting for this to go away. We’ll be posting notes from this meeting.  I don’t know when we’ll have hard and fast decisions to announce. There’s no simple answer.

– Levi: I want to reiterate: do self-work to be ready to do this work. Also, relax a bit, let everything out or in. Thank you all for participating in this.