This Storytelling Machine

by Deena Selenow

in National Conference

Post image for This Storytelling Machine

(Photo of Deena Selenow at 2014 Fall Forum on Governance by Isaiah Tanenbaum. This post is part of the blog salon curated by Jacqueline E. Lawton for the 2015 TCG National Conference: Game ChangeThe following questions will inform the final plenary session, “Artistic Leadership: How We Change the Game.”)

JACQUELINE LAWTON: What was the most game-changing production you’ve seen or created, and why?

DEENA SELENOW: What To Send Up When It Goes Down: A pageant. A play. A ritual. A homecoming celebration. by Aleshea Harris changed the game for me. Aleshea is on faculty at the CalArts School of Theater, where the piece first got on its feet.

In the program, the piece is described as, “a cleansing ritual to be carried out in observance of the inherent value of black life and experiences. Any day is a good day to send something up, but a community may deem it especially necessary in the wake of a recent loss due to racial profiling. We do not have answers or directives. We have re-enactments, song, dance and a desire to be well and whole despite a culture which continually devalues our bodies, stories and spirits.”

The piece began with the audience standing in a circle with the performers, outside of the playing space, and performing a ritual. The ritual began as, in unison, we spoke the name of Tony Robinson, who was shot and killed by police the day before, 19 times in commemoration of each year of his life. The performance itself was a series of momentsvacillating between poetically devastating and satirically hilariousexpressed through song, movement, words and ritual. Because of the act we had participated in as a group at the top of the experience, we were not simply spectators. We were active participants now, even while seated. The performance was simple, beautiful, meaningful and WELL EXECUTED. Unfortunately too often when I see performance motivated by social action, somewhere along the way the craft itself falls by the wayside. This was just hands-down well acted, well staged, well done.

By the end when the actors exited the space in joyful celebration, the audience was left dumbfounded and in silence. At this point an audience member behind me, a young white guy, let out a bellowalmost a primal scream like I have never heard before. Something straight from his guts, and the entire audience followed suit. As a community, not lead by the performers at all, we all let it out and sent something up together. I have never experienced anything like that before – especially in the theater. I pulled over on the way home to cry, and then I got myself a juice because I didn’t know what else to do. The piece was inclusive in the truest sense of the word, while also bringing attention to this very specific African-American experience.

JL: Who was the most game-changing theatre leader/artist you’ve met, and what do you carry forward from their example?

DS: I recently collaborated with a new theater company in Los Angeles called Ammunition Theatre Company (Ammo), and I think they are on the cusp of changing the game. The company is comprised of a diverse and dynamic group of theater-makers dedicated to creating new work in the spirit of Creative Activism (their term, not mineisn’t it great?). One of the many things that excite me about Ammo is that they are obliterating assumptions of what a predominately POC collective should be producing. They are a diverse group of artists, largely POC, whose work is not about being POC. Ammo is reflective of the changing face of America and they refuse to be put in a box to make others more comfortable. They tell the stories they want to tell. They are creating their own narrative. This is an exciting group of artists who are looking to raise the bar, obliterate assumption and make exciting work that inspires action.

JL: What is the most significant opportunity—or challenge—facing the theatre field, and how can we address it together?

DS: We as theater practitioners need to think more expansively, and with more self- and social-awareness. We need to take a close look at whose stories we are telling, and whose bodies are telling these stories. The America that I live in is something much more interesting, complex, nuanced, and plural than I often see reflected on the stage. Diversity. Inclusion. Equity. These are not just buzzwords or boxes to check off. These are the essential tools that will keep theatre relevant, keep audiences engaged, and keep artists nourished. A Diverse Theater is not synonymous with B-Team Theater. Diversity is creativity. It’s the opportunity to include more voices, more brains, more eyes, more ears, and more creative ideas.

JL: What is the most significant challenge—or opportunity—facing the world, and what difference can theatre make?

DS: There are so many constructed barriers and so much fear associated with difference. It is our duty as human beings to see the humanity in those around us, and it’s just not happening. Theater is a biopsy of life. It has the power to examine, to create platforms for visibility and to bring people together (physically and emotionally). If we can commit to telling relevant stories that are inclusive of more people on our stages, the theater may actually be a place for social change. I wholeheartedly believe that if we can see each other fully, and celebrate our differences, we as a society will move closer towards a more humane way of life. This storytelling machine that is theater is inherently a communication device. Let’s use this platform wisely.

DSelenow_Photo22Deena Selenow is director and curator for new performance. Gravitating toward highly physical and darkly comedic theatrical events, her mission is to inspire human to human connection through creative exchange. 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.

Photo Credit for headshot: Vincent Richards

conf13_jacqueline_lawtonJacqueline 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.