VNPAC: Identity Politics at Theatre Communications Group Conference

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Steppenwolf theatre photo on their outside wall

The morning sessions on Friday, June 18, began at Steppenwolf Theatre, one of the major innovators in the theatre scene, not only in Chicago, but in the entire USA. Steppenwolf opened its five performance and rehearsal spaces to the 900 attendees for the Morning Manifestos, presented on Thursday and Friday. The idea behind the manifestos was to present short descriptions of projects that would deal with contemporary situations, such as producing theatre during a bad economy, new opportunities, and the one I chose, “Making the Invisible Visible”. I was unable to get there for the first part, which contained the actual presentations, but luckily the notes of the session were being recorded “live” on a screen. When I got there the room, holding at least 300 people, was filled with breakout groups leaning forward in intense conversations.

The session was moderated by consultant and community organizer, Caron Atlas: “Art, culture and democracy are closely intertwined…who gets to be on a [culture] map? Who is left off?”

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The breakout sessions at Steppenwolf for “Making the Invisible Visible”

The Invisible was about performance groups that didn’t have recognition beyond their immediate communities, and some of the neighborhoods discussed were in Brooklyn and Harlem. Atlas talked about a piece created by Danny Hoch, Taking Over, about gentrification, and how the Public Theater in New York hosted a hugely successful forum with audiences for the show; this led to a discussion about gentrification with City Council members.

Some comments I heard from the breakout sessions or saw onscreen:

  • “Branding—does theatre need to be coded as ‘American’ or ‘Continental’?

  • Re: kids and theatre—”there’s less reading these days…”

  • Re: cultural literacy—”can we promote this without providing it?”

  • “We don’t have a free market economy…someone is making decisions on what is subsidized.”

  • “In the UK it [theatre] is an entitlement—it’s fundamental to our engagement as citizens…In America it’s something separate, not an essence or entitlement.”
  • I had an interesting conversation with MK Wegmann, a resident of New Orleans and President and CEO of the National Performance Network, about the connection between hiphop, dance, and theatre. She sees the hiphop culture as a new source for American theatre. Although I recorded this, there was too much noise surrounding us, so here is an excerpt of what she told me:

    “The group Universes which is based in the Bronx, started out as poets, reading their poetry publicly. They now are a theatre company: they tour their work, and they’re making plays with music. They knew they needed to learn about the conventions of theatre. Yes, they use narrative. Their most recent production is called Ameriville, a fabulous piece, and it builds on the hurricane Katrina experience. They went to New Orleans and collected stories and made a play that is touring: Southern Rep, which is one of the major theatres in New Orleans, performed it.”

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    Raelle Myrick-Hodges, Artistic Director of Brava Theatre in San Francisco

    In the afternoon I went to the “Race in the 21st Century” session, hosted by Asian American playwright Philip Gotanda. The discussion centered around efforts to promote plays of African American, Latino, and Asian playwrights to create a theatre scene that more accurately describes the US. Kristopher Diaz, a young Latino playwright stressed the rising economic power of all these groups, and said white audiences could learn more about the different kind of Latino populations groups through theatre. There was a long discussion, initiated by Adam Thurman, Marketing Director of Court Theatre in Chicago, about bringing in audiences of color. “And if you have your ‘black play’ one year and it fails, the next year you’ve got to have two, and give it a chance. And it shouldn’t always have to be a play by August Wilson—there are so many others!”

    Raelle Myrick-Hodges, Artistic Director of Brava Theatre in San Francisco talked about how your board and staff should reflect the audience you want to bring in. She also supported the idea of community theatre, storytime studios run by playwrights, and getting out into the community to meet the people you want to bring in—going to their restaurants, places of entertainment.

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    Arab-American Feminist Monologue by Fawzia Mirza (pictured) and Ky Dickens: The Sixth Pillar

    There was a complex discussion of whether identity politics was the best way to go, or if color blind casting was more successful in getting minority actors onto the stage. Directors of smaller theatres talked about how a lot of grant money goes to larger theatres for outreach, while the smaller theatres in the minority neighborhoods get very little. This was a wonderful, lively session, with the room jammed with people of many backgrounds and a wide ranges of ages and experience.

    Here is an interview with Reena Dutt, an Indian actor in Los Angeles, about color and casting.

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