(Photo by Chris Emerick, courtesy of the Segerstrom Center. This post is a part of the Diversity & Inclusion blog salon led by Online Curator Jacqueline E. Lawton for the 2013 TCG National Conference: Learn Do Teach in Dallas. Check out further Diversity & Inclusion interviews on Jacqueline’s blog.)
TCG Online Conference Salon: Diversity and Inclusion Program Arc–South Asian American Theatre series
Jacqueline Lawton: First, tell me about the work you do as a theatre artist or administrator.
Shyamala Moorty: I am an interdisciplinary performer, choreographer and director. I create original solo and devised ensemble-based work with TeAda Productions; and I participate in a long-distance, web-based, collaborative process with the Post Natyam Collective.
JL: How do you identify in terms of race, ethnicity, culture, and heritage? How has this identity influenced the work that you do?
SM: I identify as a South Asian American of mixed heritage. My father is Indian and my mother is Cuban, Dutch and possibly Welsh (her father was adopted so we don’t know for sure). I spent a lot of time investigating my identity in my earlier work but now find it important to make work that grapples with contemporary issues. Much of my work with the Post Natyam Collective does relate to my South Asian heritage through the use of Indian dance aesthetics; on the other hand, my work with TeAda involves bringing to light stories from diverse communities.
JL: How has this identity impacted your ability to work in the American Theatre? Have certain opportunities been made available to you owing to “who” you are? Have certain doors been closed to you?
SM: Much of my work in theater is owed to my ethnicity and my training in Indian dances. While this does limit me, I also feel it gives me a specific niche.
JL: Do we need racial, ethnic and gender based culturally specific theaters? What is gained by having stories of a certain community told by artists of that community?
SM: Until mainstream theaters are prioritizing these stories, I feel cultural and gender specific theaters do a huge service to their communities and beyond. Performances created and shared by the community from which they come gives us all a deeper understanding of that community and helps us to find points of similarity and of empathy. When most effective, cultural and gender specific theaters can provide their identifying constituents a place to struggle intelligently with the issues they face, while sharing with others the diversity and complexity within the group. The downside is the isolation that can sometimes happen when audiences only go to see their own kind represented and have no interest in crossover with other groups. However, these days I am witnessing many useful coalitions across communities that continually draw and re-draw alliances, breaking tendencies toward isolation.
JL: What is the current state of South Asian American Theatre? (This can address recent offences and/or great accomplishments.)
SM: I feel it’s small but growing rapidly. The South Asian Theater Arts Movement (SATAM) has helped some of us to find a national awareness of the growing number of South Asian theater professionals and a platform to be in conversation with each other (facebook me if you are someone who wishes to join this group). In the mainstream, exotification and fear still shadow over our work; but, as our numbers grow, we can only add to the expanding awareness and understanding of South Asian-ness in American theater. I believe there are some really high quality South-Asian artists emerging and gaining visibility both in the mainstream and in culturally specific theaters. Silk Road Rising, for example, has a wonderful website featuring South Asian playwrights.
JL: What can theatres do to better serve a larger and more inclusive community?
SM: If a play doesn’t specify someone’s ethnicity, try casting a person of color more often. Tell more stories by and about people of color and people from diverse communities, genders and sexual preferences. If you are “representing” a particular group, make sure to consult with people from that group so you are not just representing a stereotype. If a play does specify a character’s ethnicity, do your best to find an actor from that community. Try creating training programs to mentor diverse youth into the next generation of theater professionals. The talent is there, it just needs to be nurtured!
Shyamala Moorty is a director, choreographer, performer, and educator dedicated to inspiring and healing individuals and communities. She is a co-founder of the Post Natyam Collective, www.postnatyam.net, and has toured in their collaborative shows in Canada, the Czech Republic, Germany, India, the U.K. and the U.S. She currently is company manager with TeAda Productions, www.teada.org, with whom she has created two solo shows: RISE, acclaimed as a “tour de force” by the LA Times (1/17/04), and “Carrie’s Web” described as having “that special kind of healing that art can accomplish” by Ketu Katrak in her book Contemporary Indian Dance (2011). Shyamala has directed and mentored several solo artists through TeAda Works, an annual festival of new works, as well as Saria Idana’s “Homeless in Homeland” which has toured colleges and festivals across the U.S. She has also performed as an ensemble member with Great Leap, the Rangoli Foundation, and as a soloist and principal dancer for the Aman International Folk Ensemble. Shyamala holds an MFA in choreography from UCLA’s Department of World Arts and Cultures, and teaches at West La College in Los Angeles. She is currently a Professional Artist Fellow for the City of Long Beach.
Jacqueline E. Lawton received her MFA in Playwriting from the University of Texas at Austin, where she was a James A. Michener fellow. Her plays include Anna K; Blood-bound and Tongue-tied; Deep Belly Beautiful; The Devil’s Sweet Water; The Hampton Years; Ira Aldridge: Love Brothers Serenade, Mad Breed and Our Man Beverly Snow. She has received commissions from Active Cultures Theater, Discovery Theater, National Portrait Gallery, National Museum of American History, Round House Theatre and Theater J. A 2012 TCG Young Leaders of Color, she has been nominated for the Wendy Wasserstein Prize and a PONY Fellowship from the Lark New Play Development Center. She resides in Washington DC and is a member of Arena Stage’s Playwrights’ Arena. jacquelinelawton.com