Reflecting the Reality of a New American Theater

by Deena Selenow

in SpotlightOn

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For the 25th National Conference in Cleveland, TCG is highlighting the current recipients of the Fox Foundation Resident Actor Fellowship and the SPARK Leadership Programs. These programs are unique to the field, and provide critical support and mentorship for the future leaders of our art form. In honor of our longstanding commitment to professional development across the field, we feel the time is right to expand the Spotlight On brand beyond the Conference. With this in mind, we are excited to be hosting the Spotlight On Series throughout May and June—all content leading up to the Conference.

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TCG: When was the moment that you decided to take on an executive leadership role in the field?

Deena Selenow: Since the playground, my strong suit has been in leading separate voices toward a common goal. My trajectory has been a relatively organic evolution from the jungle gym to the black box and the think tank.

A year or so after graduating from NYU with degrees in theater, two friends and I decided to throw an art party. We recognized that we had a network of multi-talented friends and wanted to create a platform for these artists to share their hidden skills. We saw plays in dark theaters all of the time. We wanted to host an event during which you didn’t have to whisper, and you could leave whenever you wanted. We solicited submissions through MySpace (yes, MySpace), and emailed our friends. There was no theme, and we accepted every painting, sculpture, and performance art submission we received. Anyone who wanted to be included, would be. After weeks of organizing, we hosted our first event in a far corner of Bushwick. It went alarmingly well and was packed. We knew we were onto something. Strangers and friends alike emailed asking when the next event would be and sent us unsolicited proposals for collaborations. Was the work itself any good? I honestly don’t remember, nor did it really matter at the time. The overall value of the event was not about the paintings on the wall or the woman covered in yarn in the corner. What people were responding to was the energy of the event and the conversation this energy created. We became Ad Nauseam Lyceum, a multi-arts collective dedicated to initiating collaborations between emerging visual, performance and media artists in New York. I had no idea at the time what a huge part of my life this venture would become. Over the course of the next three years, and through a series of generous chashama residencies, we brought together over fifty multi-disciplinary artists in large-scale creative collaboration. Through group shows, performances, and full-room collaborative installations, we enlivened dilapidated storefronts and abandoned buildings with unusual arts experiences all over Manhattan. Taking on a leadership role through these events came naturally, and has since led me to my current path. It was during this time, in these tiny storefronts, that I developed my hunger for working at the intersection of my theater directing and my curatorial leadership. I am relentlessly committed to creating community. Nothing makes me happier than introducing great minds to one another, facilitating focused dialogue, and providing a common ground for creativity to flourish.

TCG: As an executive leader what issues in the field do you hope to address? How would you like to do do so?

Deena: America is shifting. No—America has shifted. The country I live in is a diverse landscape of culture, gender, race, sexuality, and self-identity. I see more and more children who look like me—and National Geographic says these numbers will continue to grow. I want this diverse palette of bodies to be the norm, and not the exception in the American theatre in terms of casting, artists, content, and leadership. If theater is a reflection of a society, as leaders we have a responsibility to pay attention to whose reflection is out of frame. We need to have dialogue. We need to reframe.

Growing up looking nothing like anyone I knew, I craved inclusion. My mother is African-American, from Ohio, and raised Episcopalian (she converted to Judaism when I was twelve). My father is first generation Russian-American, from the Bronx, and Jewish. I am half of each of my parents, raised north of Manhattan, and am Jewish. Mixed families were not “in” in the 80s. Not even in New York City. My parents lost friends, and a spattering of close family members did not attend the wedding.  Strangely, I didn’t notice their absence from the wedding photos until my late twenties, despite having poured over the photo album countless times as a child. I guess I wasn’t looking. Through dialogue (internal and, eventually, with others) I developed an appreciation of the two sides of my family, and the rich cultures I share (and don’t share) with each. Identity is a learning process and a dialogue.

My goals as a leader are to build bridges and relationships through the celebration of that which makes us different. As theater practitioners, we need to work in bold strokes that inspire dialogue between cultures. I don’t know the answers or how exactly to get to the end goal, but I know the importance of results-oriented, constructive dialogue. Theater has a responsibility to have a dialogue with society at large. We are in this together and we need to communicate our needs to each other.

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TCG: Talk about a game changing moment in your career – a “big break” where you felt you could create a lasting legacy through your work as an executive leader of color?

Deena: My participation in TCG’s SPARK Leadership Program has been a huge turning point in my personal and professional trajectory. For the first time in my life I feel wholeheartedly on the inside of something, and not peering in. Through SPARK, I have come to understand the undeniable importance of community. There is a huge diversity of voices within our cohort of ten in terms of background, training, culture, point of view, and approach to theater. This community of vast diversity is empowering. People need community in which they feel welcome. Through SPARK I have learned firsthand that true community comes through the honoring and celebration of difference.

I look forward to the future. I look forward to working in tandem with organizations that value a diversity of voices and experiences, and who appreciate my own distinct and un-categorizeable voice. I know the process for change begins with dialogue, and I am committed to initiating and nurturing a dialogue of equity and inclusion. I have no interest in answers or absolutes. I crave discussion.

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DSelenow_Photo22Deena Selenow is director and curator for new performance. Gravitating toward highly physical and darkly comedic theatrical events, her interests are rooted in the complexities of self-identity. Her work has been presented at REDCAT, Highways Performance Space, Company of Angels, Machine Project, Chalk Rep, Dixon Place, and chashama, among others. Deena was a recipient of the 2006 Baryshnikov Art Center Multi-Disciplinary Artist Fellowship, the 2009/2010 NYTW Emerging Artist of Color Directing Fellowship, and is currently a participant in the SPARK Leadership Program, funded by American Express, The Joyce Foundation, the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, and administered by Theatre Communications Group. BFA: NYU, MFA: CalArts. www.deenaselenow.com

Photo Credit for headshot: Vincent Richards