Advocate for Native Theatre

by Vincent P. Scott

in Diversity & Inclusion,National Conference

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(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–Native Theatre series

Jacqueline Lawton: First, tell me about the work you do as a theatre artist or administrator.

Vincent Scott: I work as a director and producer/presenter of Native theatre at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian in Washington, DC.  Due to budget limitations, the museum is now mostly presenting theater and other arts that arrive on our stages already funded.  However, I am able to serve as an advocate for Native artists, not only in theater but in the other performing arts as well.

JL: How do you identify in terms of race, ethnicity, culture, and heritage? How has this identity influenced the work that you do?

VS: I am a non-Native who has been blessed to work in the field of Native theatre for many years, since first teaching at the Fort Peck Community College in the early 90’s.  It has been an honor and blessing to be able to introduce Native storytellers and culture bearers and students to yet another format in which to tell their stories.  Telling stories through theater is a great source of pride for many Native artists and audiences can be receptive to this experience.

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?

VS: My work in relation to the larger American theatre has mostly been that of advocate for Native theater practitioners.  I have been able to write articles for established media, such as The Soul of the American Actor, Baylor Journal of Theatre and Performance, Insights, as well as contribute to a chapter in the book, Performing Worlds Into Being: Native American Women’s Theater, all of which introduce readers to some amazing work that has been going on with Native theater artists either here at the museum or out in Indian country.  I also introduce museum audiences to Native theatre and how it can be valued as a legitimate voice in the larger American theater.  In the past I have been closely associated with the Great Plains Theatre Conference as well as the Last Frontier Theatre Conference and have tried to be an advocate of Native artists at these national forums as well.

Collaborations have become available for presenting Native theatre here at the museum due to the status of the museum in the larger culture.  For example, we have been able to collaborate with such regional theaters as Arena Stage to present important pieces either fully produced or as a reading working towards a fuller production; these collaborations included presenting Mestiza Power from Mexico as well as Up at the Lab, which originated at Z-Space.  Another important collaborating partner has been Native Voices at the Autry, whose mission is to develop and produce new works for the stage by Native American, Alaska Native, and First Nations playwrights.

Partnerships have also included regional theaters or Native nations that are producing important and exciting theater in their own venues.  For example, the museum was able to present Perseverance Theater’s production of Macbeth as well as the Chickasaw Nation’s recent production of JudyLee Oliva’s Te Ata.

The museum has also had entrée into the local Native culture with producing two community-based theater productions where Native peoples who live and work in the metropolitan DC area can tell their stories; these productions included Victoria Kneubuhl’s The Conversion of Ka’ahumanu and Bill Yellow Robe, Jr.’s Grandchildren of the Buffalo Soldiers.

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?

VS: We do need racial and ethnic based theater to have artists tell their own stories in their own words.  Native theater artists have many reasons and goals in telling their stories on stage. Some wish to tell their stories to younger generations in their own cultures to preserve what is sacred and special to the people.  Others want to break into the larger mainstream theater in perhaps the way that August Wilson was once known as an African American playwright who has since become known as a great American playwright.  Why aren’t Native stories being told on Broadway or on many regional stages?  Until that day happens, there is a great need for Native theater artists to tell their stories in ways that are best suited to their needs and desires.

JL: What is the current state of Native Theatre? (This can address recent offences and/or great accomplishments.)

VS:  The state of Native Theater in the United States is one of being hits and misses with fits and starts.  There are some long term steady contributions that continue to do well and train younger generations in uniquely important ways of telling stories, such as Spiderwoman Theater.  Other Native theaters have come and gone.  Some quietly continue to struggle and yet produce important theater for local communities such as Thunder Road Theater in Tulsa, OK.  Some institutions such as the Alaska Native Heritage Center are beginning to produce and present Native theatre in ways that are best suited to their venue and audiences.  Some artists are held in great esteem due to their lifetimes spent producing theater such as Hanay Geiogamah or Pat Melody or Bill Yellow Robe or Bruce King.  Other artists are emerging and studying and working and finding their voice and how they wish their stories to be told; such artists include Thirza Defo, Allan Hayton, Delanna Studi, and many others.

JL: What can theatres do to better serve a larger and more inclusive community?

VS: Theaters can try to create opportunities for Native and other minority voices to be heard on their stages and include outreach for minority voices as well.  Theaters can make serving children and underserved populations a part of their mission, in the way that Timeline Theatre Company of Chicago works in the Chicago Public School system.  American theaters can make a good start by just becoming aware that Native theater even exists and make sincere attempts to get to know Native theater and its practicing artists.

Vincent P. Scott is a Cultural Arts program specialist and a director/producer of Native theatre and performing arts at the Rasmuson Theater of the National Museum of the American Indian in Washington, DC. As a director of Native theatre, his credits include William S. Yellow Robe, Jr.’s Grandchildren of the Buffalo Soldiers, Victoria Kneubuhl’s The Conversion of Ka’ahumanu, and Drew Hayden Taylor’s Someday for Thunder Road Theater of Tulsa, OK. He has also directed readings at the museum and in for other organizations, including Native Voices at the Autry.  Vincent has a BA in Theater and Speech from DeSales University, an MFA in Directing for the Theater from Wayne State University, and an MA in Christianity and Culture from Gonzaga University.

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.