Monthly Archives: December 2016

Learning How to Leverage Leadership at #LTCNewYorkCity

On the second day of the Latina/o Theatre Commons New York City Regional Convening (#LTCNewYorkCity), attendees chose between three tracks: aesthetics, identity, and leadership. While I recognized the value in each track, I chose leadership. I wanted to learn more about how to become a stronger leader and hear more about other arts leaders’ experiences in their respective communities. In recent years, I’ve come into more leadership roles, but, as expected, I’m not always sure how to best position myself and negotiate my privileges in different spaces. So what did I learn on the leadership track at #LTCNewYorkCity?

The leadership track took place in Teatro SEA’s intimate theatre space at The Clemente in the Lower East Side. The panel consisted of Jacob Padrón (Artistic Director of The Sol Project), Stephanie Ybarra (Director of Special Artistic Projects at The Public Theater), Nikko Kimzin (NYC-based actor and arts entrepreneur), and Sharifa Johka (FAIR Experience Manager at Oregon Shakespeare Festival).

After everyone in the theatre introduced themselves, Padrón led us in a popcorn brainstorming session centered on the word “leadership.”

Inspirational, visionary, authenticity, risk taker, driven, political, listener, innovator, strategist, accountable, colleague, conviction, impact, empathy, shared, ingenuity, learner, fearless, courageous, inclusive, not crazy, wholesome/whole, communicator, flexible, all-embracing, curiosity, charismatic, aware, reflective, honest, respectful, passionate.

While our group popcorn session certainly tested Padrón and Kimzin’s quick spelling (and we learned that Noe Montez placed 19th in the National Spelling Bee), it was generative to hear what other theatre artists associate with leadership.

Next, Padrón asked panelists Ybarra and Johka what being an agent of change means to them. How do they use leadership to tell the types of stories they want to tell? How do they leverage leadership to affect change?

Ybarra encouraged us to ask ourselves the following questions:

  • What kind of leader do you want to be?
  • What kind of producer do you want to be?
  • Which decision most aligns with my values?

Essentially, each leader needs their own personal mission, vision, and values that drive forward their work. In addition, Ybarra prioritizes hiring people who share her values and can take care of the people in the room.

Johka doesn’t think about the word “leadership.” In the beginning, she thought that everyone wanted to be a leader and then realized that it is a politic. As a person of color in a primarily White institution, her leadership style is to hold the door open and help situate people in the organization who can become allies later on.

Both Ybarra and Johka stressed the importance of cultivating relationships with allies, finding peer groups, and identifying collaborators within and outside of your institution.

The next portion of the leadership track was spent in small groups discussing what leadership means to us. Each group was tasked with creating a mission statement, finishing the following prompt: “An agent of change in the American theatre is _____________.”

  • Group 1: An agent of change in the American theatre understands their power and privilege and uses that purpose to build resources, opportunity, and equity to dismantle white supremacy, isolation, and ignorance by actively organizing and building alliances that come together around core values.
  • Group 2: As agents of change, our mission is to identify the strengths and areas of growth needed in myself in order to actively inspire and challenge the American Theatre to grow and take active responsibility in changing the landscape. Let’s make sure there’s room at the table for those need to be heard and bandwidth to support it.
  • Group 3: An agent of change in the Theatre of the Americas mindfully creates a home with the community where everyone is welcome and able to define their own agency and to make art that reflects, challenges, and helps shape the values and narratives of their community.
  • Group 4: Being an agent of change in the American theatre means localizing, sharing leadership (past, present and future), and being the resource.

The conversation then shifted to mentorship. While it was beneficial to hear others comment on their relationships as mentees and mentors, perhaps the most productive portion of the session was the one-on-one mentorship speed-dating. In pairs, we discussed our specific mentorship style. Since my partner was also a professor, we discussed the balance between teaching and mentoring and how those lines can become blurred based on the types of courses we teach.

While the leadership track certainly offered its fair share of constructive takeaways, I find that LTC events are best understood by looking at the whole. Leadership was on display throughout the weekend. In addition to Jacob Padrón, Rebecca Martínez and David Mendizábal flexed their leadership muscles time and time again, leading by example and showing attendees what dynamic leadership looks like in real time. The artistic collective of The Sol Project was launching their ambitious initiative the same weekend (congrats to Hilary Bettis and the creative team of Alligator!). LTC Producer Abigail Vega continues to amaze and inspire me to become a better leader.

To conclude, there is no conclusion. Becoming a stronger leader is a never-ending process. I still have much to learn and am thankful for events such as #LTCNewYorkCity that give me a crash-course into different ways to become a more effective arts leader.

leadership-2

From PARTY PEOPLE to INTO THE WOODS

Last weekend I had the opportunity to see the ambitious and necessary Party People by UNIVERSES at The Public Theater in New York City. Weaving oral histories of members of the Black Panthers Party and the Young Lords Party with the contemporary sociopolitical climate, Party People is an incredibly powerful multi-sensory and genre-bending performance that left me inspired (Clips here, here, and here). Come to find out, my day was teeming with inspiration, at times from the unlikeliest of places. When I left the theatre, I met with playwright Maria Alexandria Beech on Lafayette St. She had just seen The Best Worst Thing That Ever Could Have Happened, the new documentary about Stephen Sondheim’s Merrily We Roll Along, the 1981 musical that closed after only 16 performances and has since become an iconic Broadway musical. While I was jacked up about Party People, our conversation quickly went to Sondheim (as can happen with two musical theatre nerds). “I love Sondheim. I do,” I confessed to Alex. This shouldn’t have been news, but I felt the need to tell my Twitter bestie (who I was just meeting in person for the first time!)… Sondheim inspires me (and so does Alex).

So while my brain has been in theatre overload this week, still living in the powerful performances of Party People and Vietgone, I was also looking forward to seeing Sondheim’s Into the Woods at Houston’s Theatre Under the Stars (TUTS). I was looking to be inspired in a different way.

Full disclosure: I’m an Into the Woods junkie. It’s not my favorite Sondheim show; I’m not even sure it would be in my top 5, but I love it. Whether it’s both cast recordings, the filmed Broadway version, the movie, or Fiasco Theater’s masterfully stripped-down Off-Broadway revival, I’ve enjoyed every iteration of the show that I’ve come across. So when TUTS announced their season with Into the Woods filling the slot usually reserved for holiday-themed shows, I marked it on my calendar as a must-see in the Houston theatre season.

While I’ve never been one to formally review theatre, I do want to give some takeaways from TUTS’s top-notch production of Into the Woods.

  • Nearly 30 years after it first opened, there are no surprises with Into the Woods. The first act gives us the happily-ever-after of our famed fairytale characters and our lead duo—The Baker and The Baker’s Wife. Act two shows us what happens after the happily-ever-after. In short, happily-ever-after doesn’t exist. At least not as we know it. I must confess: my interest in the show begins to peak once Sondheim begins maiming and killing off characters. I’ve always enjoyed a dark musical and act two is indeed dark.
  • The Baker’s Wife’s Shoes. Confession. Anytime the superb Stephanie Gibson was on stage, I simply could not take my eyes away from her shoes. I couldn’t. When she tried to give Cinderella those blue and yellow shoes, I was a little jealous that she wasn’t gifting them to me. Not that I had a gold slipper or anything, but I digress. All of this is to say that the design team knocked it out of the park. Not only were Ann Hould-Ward’s costumes well-realized across the board, but Kevin Depinet’s scenic design was lush, filling Sarofim Hall in ways I’ve seldom seen. Even so, I had a hard time paying attention to the show whenever the actors were near the lip of the stage because I was afraid they would slide right into the orchestra pit. While the design choice to have the set extend into the pit was visually appealing, it took me out of the show more often than not.
  • Emily Skinner as the Witch. I’ll be honest, it took me some time to warm up to Skinner. And this isn’t entirely Skinner’s fault. One of the issues with iconic characters is that audiences inevitably will associate them with the actor who created the role. In this case, I find it impossible to think of Into the Woods and not think of Bernadette Peters. Once I forgot about Peters, I was able to live in Skinner’s world. In many ways, Skinner breaks the mold for the Witch and the opening of “Last Midnight” is just what I needed last night.
  • By this point Into the Woods has surely been produced every conceivable way, but Robert Longbottom’s direction took the show to new places at times (for me, at least). The show began with a bare stage, save for a costume rack and actors dressed in simple black clothes. They ran to the rack, grabbed their costumes, and the show began. Interesting. Unfortunately, except for a few moments (such as when Cinderella gets her ball gown), this concept wasn’t revisited until the show’s finale. After killing the giant, The Baker, Cinderella, Jack, and Little Red come out in contemporary black clothes. They now seem to be reflecting on not only the story they are in, but the story they have just told. During “Children Will Listen,” the adult actors enter dressed in black while child actors accompany them dressed in miniature versions of the iconic adult costumes. At first, I questioned this choice, but by the end of the song, it put a smile on my face. If anything, I thought it was a beautiful touch to give these kids an opportunity to perform in a professional production of Into the Woods.
Mildred Ruiz-Sapp in "Party People" by UNIVERSES

Mildred Ruiz-Sapp in “Party People” by UNIVERSES

Scholars: Up for Multiple Roles in the Movement

Though the United States is quickly approaching a Latinx majority (2044 is the projected year), Latinx theatre remains largely invisible despite the presence of some high-profile artists—Lin-Manuel Miranda, Quiara Alegría Hudes, Karen Zacarías, Melinda Lopez—and a robust national movement spearheaded by the Latina/o Theatre Commons (LTC). One place it’s increasingly visible, though, is among scholars, who have been welcomed and woven into the fabric of the LTC. Why are scholars suddenly being so thoroughly taken into the fold now? Where have they been all these years? And might they have a role in increasing the wider visibility of a movement that’s gained increased coherence and purpose in recent years?

Scholarship around Latino theatre—or teatro, as it’s commonly known in the movement—traces its origins to Jorge Huerta, who received his doctorate in 1974, becoming not only the first Chicano with a Ph.D in theatre but also the first person to formally study Latino theatre. By the turn of the 21st century, enough scholars had done graduate work in Latino theatre and performance that Irma Mayorga, assistant professor of theatre at Dartmouth College, and Ramón Rivera-Servera, associate professor of performance studies at Northwestern University, were able to found the Latina/o Focus Group of the Association for Theatre in Higher Education.

Still, there haven’t been many scholars studying teatro. That began to change in 2013, when the LTC emerged with a national convening at Emerson College in Boston. The newly formed LTC steering committee met with Latino theatremakers from a diverse array of artistic disciplines, regions, career stages, genders, and sexual orientations. In partnership with HowlRound, the LTC formed to create, in its official words, a “national movement that uses a commons-based approach to transform the narrative of the American theatre, to amplify the visibility of Latina/o performance making, and to champion equity through advocacy, art making, convening, and scholarship.”

Continue reading at American Theatre Magazine.