This week we are holding space for a series on decolonizing theatre practice, which is not an easy thing to do. Instead of asking for single-narrative articles from multiple individuals, we have asked communities to have discussions and share them to keep the conversation around decolonization diverse and complex. Each piece is itself a conversation and we hope you'll join! We couldn't possibly cover everything, so please add your voice and perspective from wherever you sit/stand/breathe in the circle.—Madeline Sayet and Annalisa Dias, series curators.

From coast to coast, there are some organizations in the US theatre ecology that are already intentionally working towards decolonized practices. Ranging from a high profile producing theatre to specialized consulting groups, these organizations have a lot to teach us about the challenges and rewards of consciously building work from decolonized perspectives and processes. Their approaches, values, and ways of working are vastly different, but as I was talking to all of them I was reminded of the old maxim, “Go slow to go fast,” or perhaps a variation: “Listening takes time, but not as much time going back to fix all the problems you create by not listening.” 

The interviewees:

Indigenous Direction (ID), a consulting firm for companies and artists who want to create accurate work about, for, and with Indigenous/Native American/First Nations peoples.

Michael Rohd, Artistic Director, and Rebecca Martinez, Ensemble Member, of Sojourn Theatre, an ensemble-based company comprised of fifteen diverse artists who live around the US, and make performance through a process that demands long periods of investigation, participation, and experimentation.

Michael John Garcés, Artistic Director of Cornerstone Theater Company in Los Angeles, CA, which makes new plays with and about communities.

Sulu LeoNimm, Joker and Program Director at Theatre of the Oppressed NYC (TONYC), which partners with community members at local organizations to form theatre troupes. These troupes devise and perform plays, and after each performance, actors and audiences engage in theatrical brainstorming—called Forum Theatre—with the aim of catalyzing creative change on the individual, community, and political levels.

Maia Directors, founded in October 2017 by four theatre directors (Kareem Fahmy, Evren Odcikin, Pirronne Yousefzadeh, and Megan Sandberg-Zakian, the author of this article), offers consulting services for projects centering stories and artists from the Middle East, North Africa, and South Asia (MENASA).

Megan Sandberg-Zakian: How do you define your ethics when working with or in communities?

ID: One of Indigenous Direction's key work ethics is generosity. We are here to build bridges between our partners and members of the Indigenous community, and we remain open to the needs of the particular individuals/groups we are collaborating with.

Sojourn: Listen first. Interrogate/disrupt whiteness as a centering premise. Demand that those whom the project may impact are at the table early, as co-designers and co-leaders. Disrupt when useful. Iterate. Develop strategies for our own accountability.

Cornerstone: There are the ethics of story—primacy of story, centrality of story, de-centering the story, de-centering the process. There’s the group, and then there are the idiosyncratic individual voices that tend to problematize things in useful ways. We’re always trying to find that balance, so that you can have communal investment and communal ownership over process that also respects individuals’ voices and visions. And trying to find the place of leadership and vision within that—what’s the place of the “director,” which is not too far removed from “dictator”? These are things we are constantly talking about.

TONYC: Our starting point is the work of Paulo Freire, who wrote Pedagogy of the Oppressed and inspired Augusto Boal’s Theatre of The Oppressed. Essentially, Boal’s methods are based in the idea that it’s the people experiencing the problem who need to lead the shift towards change.

Maia: Though we’re experienced directors and are ourselves of Middle Eastern and North African descent, that doesn’t, in our minds, make us cultural ambassadors for all things MENASA, so a critical part of our ethics and core values is to remember that we, too, are always learning, and that our work and community is enriched by the ever-widening of our own individual perspectives.

Urban Rez written by Larissa FastHorse and directed by Michael John Garcés for Cornerstone. L to R standing: Peter Howard, Maxine Napolean, Terri Jay, Ash Nichols. L to R seated: Kenny Ramos, Michael John Garcés, Marcenus Earl, Jenny Marlowe. Photo by James Cheeks III.

Megan: What strategies, methods, or ways of working do you use to decolonize your work?

TONYC: Doing Forum Theatre is an exercise in fighting oppression, which we related to decolonizing—and we “forum-ize” our work and process. We ask: are we upholding any oppressive structures in how we structure rehearsals, in how we make our public presentations? In looking to identify who we partner with, we look for a space where our program is enthusiastically welcomed, where the host understands our ethics—our intent to talk about oppression. And we’re particularly committed to spaces dedicated to urgent problems—spaces that serve individuals who have experienced homelessness, incarceration, discrimination based on race, gender identity, and sexuality.

ID: We do our work from an Indigenous perspective, using Indigenous cultural protocols. When we begin a partnership with an institution or individual, we like to establish clear working agreements with one another—for example, it is imperative that anyone who works with our team include a land and/or watershed acknowledgement in their project. There is a lot of new information our partners learn when working with us, and we ask that they lean into listening. 

Sojourn: Acknowledging the history of the land we are on, and that this history has benefitted some while creating systems of oppression and structural violence for others. Making a place for lived experience to have value alongside formal learning/training. Disrupting patterns that perpetuate and centralize white Western European-centric power, while viewing other cultural practices as inefficient or inferior. Sharing leadership and decision-making. Moving from being allies to being active accomplices in interrupting oppressive patterns and behavior.

Cornerstone: Be transparent. You don’t need to trick people into anything. In this medium we’ve all agreed to invest in something that is a lie. Romeo isn’t in love with Juliet—unless they are, I guess—and certainly they don’t die. We’re agreeing to something that is a manipulation. So how transparent can you be in the manipulation? I’m interested in creating something that’s manipulating you in a forthright way, versus trying to trick you.

Maia: One of the biggest challenges that artists of color face in mainstream organizations is that our opinions about representation, especially if they come from an emotional place, are seen as unimportant and dangerous. At Maia Directors, we have made a commitment to each other that we will listen if someone raises their hand to ask a question about something that feels important. It’s not always easy or fast or comfortable, especially with four opinionated directors around the table, but if we’re going advise others to take the time to listen closely and grapple with hard questions, this approach must be honored internally.

Gariyana, Karencia, and Adama address the audience after the YO S.O.S. Theatre Troupe's show 99 Problems. Photo courtesy of TONYC.

Megan: What are the most common challenges you encounter—in collaborators, in community members, in your own mind—in your efforts to work in a decolonized way? What are the most entrenched colonial structures you encounter in your work?

Cornerstone: Theatre is a colonial form. Either we radically rethink what we’re about, or we get rid of it. I’m not anxious to be out of a job or anything, but, even when you’re making theatre in a radically self-questioning and “blow up the form” way, on some level you’re utilizing and reinforcing a colonial structure. How we think of ourselves as individuals, the primacy of voice, etc. It’s really interesting as an artist, right? And it’s really hard in an organizational context. Because if you’re engaging in a process that ultimately leads you to question the form, that makes people in the organization feel destabilized. And these are not friendly times. To be questioning your form in the middle of an unstable economic and political moment… that keeps me up at night.

Sojourn: Institutions (inside and outside the arts) that want to make work “with/for” community but do not have a history, expertise, nor ideological framework through which they can challenge their own assumptions and systemic biases (which influence and shape their internal policies and practices). This can include funders and municipal departments.

Maia: The main reason we founded Maia Directors was that all four of us were consistently providing consulting—casting support, dramaturgical support, production support—without being compensated. One of the biggest colonial structures that we’ve encountered is the assumption that when theatre institutions are interested in MENASA stories, we should be grateful, and rush to offer them support and resources—without compensation for our work, and without having a voice in the process. At the same time, we struggle with the fact we, as Maia Directors, are still operating from a set of assumptions about our work’s value based in capitalist, white supremacist structures. Insisting that we be valued and compensated within these existing structures feels like a partial victory. We’re still figuring out what it means to create our own structures and identify the ideal way to bring our voices and resources to the field.

TONYC: Naming systems of oppression and placing oneself in them can be hard. Sometimes people find it empowering to claim sole responsibility for a problem, and disempowering to say a system is oppressing them, which makes it hard to join in solidarity, build a play, and publicly fight the problem. Another challenge is leadership being perceived in and of itself as oppressive. As our actors and jokers facilitate in rehearsal, there is sometimes push-back that feels disconnected from what’s happening in the room, and related to a need to resist the oppressive forms of leadership in the world. And this can hold back groups who are trying to make change. Are we being strangely held back from taking action because we’re being taught that asking a group of people to do something is “being the colonizer”?

Team members of Indigenous Direction conducting a workshop in Suva, Fiji as a part of Indigenous Direction's grant from TCG's Global Connections: In the Lab. Photo courtesy of Oceania Centre for Arts and Culture at University of South Pacific.

Megan: Do you have any advice for other theatremakers or organizations wishing to center communities in their work?

Sojourn: Develop long-term relationships with individuals and organizations beyond your circle of knowing; Go to events in the community to listen, not just to promote your projects; Collaborate as co-leaders with community members in spaces you want to be more engaged with, on projects that build on their aspirations and serve their needs; Participate in anti-racism education and training as an entire staff, including leadership and those who interface with the public; Recognize that centering communities in your work means you must be willing for your organization and your work to be influenced and impacted by those same communities; Do not expect people of color to educate you; Acknowledge organizations with an established practice of doing this kind of work, share your available resources and abundance with them if you wish to benefit from their experiences.

TONYC: TONYC learns from cultural organizing groups throughout NYC, for example, the Cultural Organizing for Community Change workshop by Arts & Democracy and Naturally Occurring Cultural Districts NY (NOCD-NY). There is great expertise out there on how to organize!

Cornerstone: Wishing to center communities? Stop wishing and do it. The only barriers to doing it are yours. You have to look at the actual structures in your organization that are stopping you from being successful at this, and start to dismantle some of them. It’s not actually painful, it’s just uncomfortable. Being intimate is uncomfortable. Centering communities is becoming intimate with people in a different way, people who are not currently known to you. And they might see you in unflattering ways. And they may talk about that. And you will have to change things. It means being vulnerable. It’s really uncomfortable! But if you want to do it, just do it—and if you can’t, then think about the reasons why you can’t. Grapple with the “can’t.”