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Groundbreaking Broadway Scholarship Expands Access For Students Of Color

After a year of seismic shifts, one of Broadway’s biggest backstage stars is deepening his commitment to changing the $15 billion industry.

Last winter, stage manager and producer Cody Renard Richard founded a scholarship for students of color interested in careers beyond the footlights. The goal was to build a cohort of young professionals, providing access to industry mentors and a support network in each other as they crack the tough nut of professional theatre. The program also provided direct financial support, distributing $60,000 to its fifteen participants. It was the first of its kind, and helped pave the way for other organizations now expanding showbiz’s notoriously choked talent pipeline.

This year, Richard is pushing further. Applications are now open for the revamped program, including a 20% increase in distributed funds, additional workshops, and greater depth of connection for students, as they prepare for what can be an insular and exclusionary industry – especially if you’re not white.

“Working with them, it became clear how necessary this program is,” Renard says of his inaugural group. “Each student expressed how they’ve never had a space like this, how they’ve never been able to be in community with folks who look like them, where they can speak freely.”

“It often feels isolating being the only person of color in the room,” agreed recipient Brillian Qi Bell. “For the first time in my life, I had access to mentors of color and a cohort of friends in the backstage industry.”

When last year’s racial reckoning reached the theatre, it forced the professedly liberal industry to address its own inequity: every Broadway landlord is white, every artistic director is white, and 90% of its trade organization’s governing board is white. Studies found similar disparities across the labor force, particularly in offstage positions like management, design, and construction.

One year later those statistics remain accurate, but cries for change rang loud enough to shake the rafters. Renard’s program is one of several advocacy ventures to receive major funding and buy-in from powerbrokers, looking to eschew tokenism and enact long-term, systemic change. One is the Broadway Advocacy Coalition, which recently received a special Tony Award for their work, and partnered with Richard to launch the scholarship.

“Providing spaces that celebrate and nurture our industry’s future is integral in envisioning what leadership means and what it looks like,” says Dria Brown, BAC’s  Program and Partnership Producer.

The Theatre Leadership Project is also supporting the scholarship, providing the financial heft to bring all participants to New York for an in-person weekend summit.

“We’ll put them up, we’ll fly them in, we’ll pay for their food,” says Renard, with clear joy. “That’s not something we couldn’t do last year. My hope is to give them access, to be a gateway and pipeline for them to step into another program, or a show, or just to put a name to a face.”

Renard’s focus on accessible connections is vital on Broadway, where one’s résumé frequently matters less than social power and proximity. Musicians, for example, are not hired through a formal audition process but by external contractors known as “music coordinators,” who offer orchestra slots directly to players they know or those who come pre-vouched.

“We talk about networking all the time,” Renard says, “but without a point of connection…how can you network?”

It’s the kind of support he’d have liked, coming up as one of only a handful of Black stage managers. “I wish I’d had this when I was in school!” he laughs. “I’d never had a mentor who looks like me. And I used to compromise myself when I was in spaces that didn’t value me. I called it ‘playing small.’”

The past year changed that for him. After an impassioned CNN interview, he became the face of a certain kind of hope – a challenge to which he rose, and one he says helped him find a new version of himself.

“I had a moment to where I realized: I don’t need to be in spaces that don’t value me. If I don’t align with the people, if there’s not something fueling my soul, I don’t need to be in these spaces anymore.”

A year later, he is thriving. He has already managed two Broadway productions – and made his producing debut above the title on a third – since venues reopened this summer. That’s all the more impressive given that the Rialto is still deep in its recovery, with just over half its houses occupied, and yawing gulfs between the haves and have-nots.

Yet the work continues on all fronts, even as theaters fill up and previously excluded people are invited to new tables.

“There’s always room to grow,” he says with a rueful laugh. “It’s beautiful that people are getting into these rooms, but we have to make sure that when they’re there, they are safe and are given their proper tools to succeed.”

Simply returning to a rehearsal room after 18 months risks revisiting self-diminishing habits, he says, recounting moments where he caught himself “playing small” again, even in spaces where he felt supported. The difference now is his self-awareness, and his ability to clock those moments, and to work on them rather than letting them work on him. And that’s something he hopes to pass on to the students in his scholarship.

“When you see someone who’s able to exist as themselves, that then empowers you to exist as yourself. And once we can all do that, that’s when we’re able to create our best work.”

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