(Photo: Shakespeare in the Streets 2013: Old Hearts Fresh by Nancy Bell photo by ©J. David Levy, 2013. This post is a part of the Diversity & Inclusion blog salon led by Online Curator Jacqueline E. Lawton. Check out further Diversity & Inclusion interviews on Jacqueline’s blog. If you are interested in participating in this or any other Circle blog salon, email Gus Schulenburg.)
From February 27 to March 2, Shakespeare Festival St. Louis (SFSTL) and University of Missouri-St. Louis (UMSL) will co-host an intensive Forum Theatre training for artists, students and activists, led by Katy Rubin of Theatre of the Oppressed NYC (TONYC). This collaboration was born out of a visit to St. Louis by several artists in August 2014, directly following the killing of Michael Brown. (That visit was frequently referred to as the “Ferguson Moment.”) Jacqueline Thompson, Actor, Director and Assistant Professor at UMSL, and Jennifer Wintzer, Director of Community Engagement and Education for SFSTL, both of St. Louis, spoke with Katy Rubin, Executive Director of TONYC, in advance of their upcoming collaboration in St. Louis.
Share one thing you love, and one challenge, about the arts community where you’re based.
JT: I have found the St. Louis arts community to be close-knit and generous in recommending and supporting one another in artistic work. One challenge I’ve experienced has been the lack of diversity/minorities actively working in leadership positions within professional companies in the city. The closeness borders on exclusivity as it relates to who receives awards and recognition in the arts. A broader range of artists needs to be highlighted and ultimately appreciated.
JW: I love the accessibility of the cultural institutions in St. Louis. Creating cultural partnerships in the arts community in St. Louis can happen quickly. Folks are hungry to work with one another and are ready to grab a coffee within a week of first meeting. The challenge can be the limited awareness (outside of the arts and culture circle) of the arts as a force for both economic development and social change.
KR: In New York, I love that you can find both large institutions and tiny theatre companies presenting and training artists in every unique theatre style you can think of (and many that you can’t) – so there’s a lot of interchange of skills and styles. One challenge is the self-referential perspective of NYC arts organizations: we get caught up in believing we’re at the center of it all, and don’t spend enough time watching and learning from innovative arts leaders in the rest of the country. This is an attitude that I want to challenge in my own work.
In what way(s) are you currently working to generate or inspire social change through theatre in your community?
JW: I oversee all community and education programming at Shakespeare Festival St. Louis: we’re the schools, in the streets, and in the park. Our work seeks to better the community, facilitate a diverse conversation, and encourage collaboration across disciplines. Right now, I am focused on building programming around our Shakespeare in the Streets and SHAKE 38 projects. I’ll let Jackie talk about Shakespeare in the Streets. We are super excited to have her as our director this year!
JT: Yes, actually, I’m currently working with Jenny and the SFSTL team as well. In September, I will be directing Shakespeare in the Streets. The project will take place in historical Old North St. Louis. We are interviewing and engaging with residents, businesses and non-profit organizations in order to gather the cultural, social and political essence of the neighborhood and community. These stories and experiences will be intertwined with a Shakespearean play to create a new piece that’s specific and relevant. When we have creative brainstorming sessions, the prevalent questions are: “What can we give to this community? What can we leave them with?” This project goes beyond the final performance – it extends through acts of service to facilitate unity. We are purposeful in finding ways to hear from all voices in the community; from creating story circles with Girl Scouts, to hearing anecdotes from the local barbershop, to preparing food at shelters: we are present.
KR: That project sounds amazing! At TONYC, we create theatre troupes with community members who face pressing human rights issues, through partnerships with social service organizations and city agencies. These troupes create and perform plays based on real-life struggles, engaging diverse audiences in theatrical brainstorming – or Forum Theatre - to creatively challenge systems of oppression. Most exciting to me right now is our annual Legislative Theatre Festival, which brings our actors into the theatre with legislators and advocacy groups to brainstorm policy-level solutions to pressing community issues.
(SFSTL’s Education Tour 2015: Shakespeare’s The Two Gentlemen of Verona, adapted by Shanara Gabrielle photo by ©Sarah Carmody, 2015. Cast includes: Adrianna Jones, Laura Sexauer, Gerrad Alex Taylor, Pete Winfrey and Steve Isom*. *Denotes member, Actors’ Equity Association.)
Why are you interested in sharing the tools of Theatre of the Oppressed with St. Louis-area artists, activists and students? What do you hope to see come out of this?
KR: Over the past 7 years of working with Theatre of the Oppressed, I’ve experienced concrete change emerge from this process – TO being just one of the many ways arts can inspire and effect social transformation. In TO, we say that every “Joker” (as we call the forum theatre facilitator) has the responsibility to multiply, and not simply consume, the work. I want to learn how my colleagues in STL will use the tool and change it to fit their needs; that will help us do our work better back in NYC!
JT: I am passionate about my students receiving this training to empower them to create innovative art that is birthed from the process of exploring our community struggles. Through dissecting historical content and experimenting with new strategies and tactics, we move forward to heal race relations in the city. Augusto Boal stated, “The Theater itself is not revolutionary: it is a rehearsal for the revolution.” These tools facilitate the groundwork for the rehearsal while providing confidence and strength to a new era of artistry and activism.
JW: Boal’s techniques really speak to developing skills of active listening and problem solving. The St. Louis arts community is at a crossroads for serving as a national leader for deepening our collective understanding of the social impact of community-focused art. A movement has been born literally in our streets, and I would like to offer as many tools as possible to empower our students, artists and activists for the work that lies ahead.
We all met in the weeks following Michael Brown’s killing, in August 2014, at a gathering of artists (mostly local, but organized by visitors) that some called the “Ferguson Moment.” What did you take away from that event/what was your response?
JT: This was the first moment I observed artists in motion in response to Ferguson; we were on our feet actively engaging – connecting with each other to express a myriad of emotions from the incident. Prior to this night, many meetings were held, but filled with lengthy dialogue in which emotions often became hostile and combative. This night, expression was creatively conveyed in ways that are most conducive to artistry: through song, poetry and forum theatre exercises. I was able to release some of the anger and pain that I had been harboring since all of this began. I felt connected, supported and renewed, and I believe that sentiment was shared by many; but the questions remains, “What now? Where do we go from here?” More experiences and efforts like these are necessary to impact permanent change within our community.
JW: As a recent NYC transplant with former ties to the St. Louis arts community, I think my experience at the artist’s gathering was unique. In summer of 2014, I was just beginning to get to know so many of the amazing St. Louis artists that had been investing their hearts and talents in the community. And even as a new member of the St. Louis arts community, I definitely considered how it might feel invasive for the event to be organized by visitors from out-of-state. Timing and sensitivity play a very important role in the process of community and artistic collaborations. Many of the conversations that came out of the event have enabled me to seek ways for evaluating my own organization’s community engagement practices.
KR: For one thing, I’m grateful to have met Jenny and Jackie then! I joined the call for artists to convene in Ferguson last year because our troupes here in NYC are often making plays about their own experiences of police brutality and profiling, and because the problem of police killings is pervasive throughout the whole country. I wanted to learn from artists and activists in the STL area: how did they so effectively start a movement of resistance? How could these tactics support the efforts of our own communities in New York? And, could the tools of Theatre of the Oppressed be useful to this movement? When I arrived, it was clear that out-of-state artists could not touch down in a place riveted by an urgent problem and declare that this was the “moment.” Instead, I am interested in sustained collaboration among artists from across the country facing similar challenges in very different contexts. This intensive weekend will be an opportunity to truly learn from each other.
What kinds of collaborations would you wish to see among artists and arts organizations to respond to these issues?
JW: Short-term, St. Louis University has initiated a national poetry slam call for student submissions on the themes of Justice and Equality. SLU’s project will premiere as a short film as part of our annual SHAKE 38 Festival in April. Current submissions include New York’s MCC Theater Youth Company and additional local and national partners. Long-term, I am interested in building sustainable program models that authentically engage our community for our Shakespeare in the Streets and SHAKE 38 projects, deepening our impact both locally and nationally.
JT: This is a pivotal time to present art to the masses that speaks to these injustices. The Michael Brown and Eric Gardner tragedies started a movement. I am interested and anxious to partner NYC playwrights/artists with STL playwrights/artists to create powerful, visceral work that documents this moment in history and its impact on our future.
KR: I agree, Jackie! We can’t let the movement fizzle. It’s cliché, but it feels urgently true: the time for collaboration and cooperation is now.
Katy Rubin, Executive Director of Theatre of the Oppressed NYC, is a Joker, actor and circus artist. She has facilitated and directed Forum and Legislative Theater workshops and performances in partnership with various communities including homeless adults and youth; LGBT homeless teens; people living with HIV/AIDS; recent immigrants; and court-involved youth and adults. Katy trained with Augusto Boal at the Center for Theatre of the Oppressed—Rio de Janeiro, and later with Jana Sanskriti in India, Mind the Gap in Yorkshire and Cardboard Citizens in London. She has trained facilitators in Nicaragua, the Netherlands, Norway and New Orleans as well as NYC. She holds a BFA in Acting from the Boston University School of Theater, and is a TCG Global Connections grantee.
Jacqueline Thompson received her B.A. in Speech Communications from Clark Atlanta University. She holds a Master in Fine Arts in Acting from the University of Louisville as well as a graduate certificate in African American Theatre. This actor, singer, director has utilized her collective experiences to work as a teaching artist for regional theatres such as Actors Theatre of Louisville. Ms. Thompson is currently the Assistant Professor of Acting and Directing at the University of Missouri-St. Louis.
Jennifer Wintzer is the Director of Community Engagement and Education at Shakespeare Festival St. Louis, overseeing all programs In the Schools and In the Streets. Previously, Wintzer served as Education Projects Manager for the Learning English and Drama (LEAD) Project at Lincoln Center Theater and Education Coordinator at Second Stage. She is a member of the Actor’s Equity Association and served on the New York City Arts in Education Roundtable’s Development Committee. Wintzer has contributed to Floyd Rumohr’s StageIt! Shakespeare; Theatre Communications Group’s TCG Circle: Diversity and Inclusion Series; NYC DOE Partnership Institute; and most recently presented at the Shakespeare Theatre Association’s 2015 conference. She holds a BFA from The Conservatory of Theatre Arts at Webster University and an Advanced Training Certificate in Arts Education from Marymount Manhattan College.
Audience (R)Evolution is a four-stage program to study, promote and support successful audience engagement and community development models across the country. The Audience (R)Evolution grant program was designed by TCG and is funded by Doris Duke.