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Committing to a Community

Ronee Penoi and Shanta Thake in Conversation

A woman standing under a pink light.

Photo of Ronee Penoi.

Ronee Penoi: I find, and I hear this from any new leader that I’ve worked with, that there’s this sense of being so hungry to hear what the new person wants to do. I know for me, the last thing I want to is to come in and just bring in a sweeping set of “here are all my ideas.” If there’s anything I feel like I’ve learned up until this point, it’s that any good work has to be layered onto what’s already there. And it has to start from listening, and everything is about people. So you need to understand the people. It‘s funny. It‘s like asking folks, “How do you work?” Well, we work five different ways. “And what do you need?” Well, I’m not sure yet. “And also, what kind of agenda are you bringing?” And I’m like, I don’t know, I’m just listening.

Shanta Thake: It’s such a challenge, but you’re right. You come in and, in my own experience, too, they’re so hungry to find out, “What is the plan? Tell me what the plan is.” And it’s like, “Well, isn‘t the reason I‘m here because of collaborative leadership?”

I was telling somebody it will feel like you’re still interviewing yourself for months until you do have a plan that is built on what has been heard and hopefully is nestled in the lifeblood of the organization. It feels a little bit… there is definitely an ongoing tension there, where I’m like, “Okay, every board member, every staff member, I just have to really hold the space for their ideas to still have room.”

Ronee: Exactly. Exactly. And it’s such a tricky balance. It’s even harder over Zoom until you can really get face-to-face with folks. I wanted to ask you—there was this wave of new artistic leadership that just felt like, “Great! There are all these BIPOC leaders that are coming into leadership.” You know, Maria Goyanes and Stephanie Ybarra… and then there’s the COVID crisis, there’s George Floyd, and there’s, in this moment, a real sense of climate crisis. What is the responsibility of what an organization is doing—running the ship and trying to change the entire design of the ship at the same time—to try to address the moment? So I’m just curious how you’re holding all of that with the kind of newness of the role. It’s a huge question.

Shanta: I think it’s one that I’ll be asking for a long time. I’m somebody who really likes stability. I like working in an institution. I think I‘m very aware what the freelance life looks like, and I’m very aware of what an independent producer’s life looks like. And for me, I came to New York to be an actor.

Ronee: I didn’t know that.

Shanta: Yeah. And right away, I was like, “Oh no, no, no, this is not for me.” I want to grow something that is not gig to gig to gig. I know that that’s possible in a freelance life, but for me, I found a lot of safety and freedom in an institution. I think people assume that, by virtue of being an institution, you’re a rigid, huge behemoth and you can’t do anything. And I think that the opposite really can be true. That within the framework of an institution, you have a baseline of support. You have an incredible group of people who are signing up to work for a mission that is bigger than themselves. A group of people that are dedicated to service and their community. That’s such a gift and it allows for really hard conversations to exist. It’s important to make sure that that center is not rotten, and that takes time and work and trust.

I think if the foundation is good, then the institution can hold so many things, become so many things, and change radically. I found it really freeing to work in an institution. And I’ve said it before, but I believe that I have worked in about five different organizations at the Public [Theater]. It changes all the time, and when I leave it will change again. And that’s great. That’s incredible.

Some of these things can only happen in big institutions. It can crush a small company to feel so tied to one person or a set of individuals that you just lose the focus so easily. But at a big institution, I think there’s a lot of space for these things to happen and for magic to be happening in corners all over the place. It’s just about noticing and pulling that closer to what everybody’s focusing on.

A woman speaking with a microphone in front of a blue curtain.

Photo of Shanta Thake.

Ronee: It’s funny, I realize the names I pulled out of a hat, of course, are people that came from the Public. Oh yeah, of course, because great leadership comes from the Public.

Shanta: Maria Goyanes, Stephanie Ybarra, myself, Lear DeBessonet, Meiyin Wang—we all worked there together. That was incredibly magical because we had each other. That had both nothing and everything to do with the institution in some ways. We shared values of the ideals of the institution, but the Public also was a place where we could all do our own thing freely. We weren’t competing with one another, and we were bringing our best to the same general space. We created friendships and a sense of shared purpose so that we constantly have each other’s back.

I think this time, too, in the midst of all these various big movements, is about collaboration to me. What has arisen from so many of these conversations is, “Oh we just have to work together differently, and more. All the time. Why are we trying to do this on our own? That’s so ridiculous. So let’s figure this out together.” So, I’m excited.

How about you? What does it feel like coming from this independent, "okay let’s change this, now let’s change that” thing?

If the foundation is good, then the institution can hold so many things, become so many things, and change radically.

Ronee: The great thing about the independent producer life is how quickly and nimbly you can work. It feels like 95% work and 5% talking about the work. Of course, the more people you bring in, you’re spending a lot more time in the how of the making of the work, as well as just doing the work. But I had collaborated with all the amazing folks that are Arts Emerson, and I kind of knew there are amazing humans here. I see the vision, and I see the mission. I think—and this is kind of reflecting something you said—that there’s commitment to a community over time.

The world of the independent producer was such a dream universe for me to be in. The one thing that wasn’t there that I realized was something that I knew was going to really feed me was the long-term connection to a community. Getting to see the impact of the work. So often I was working with artists, and they would be touring and having these amazing lives working from seed to tour. But besides sitting in the audience for one particular performance, I wasn’t in relationship with that community in a long-term way.

I’m new to Boston, so there’s going to be a lot of layers of relationship to build, but that’s where—in terms of the opportunity of the institution—I’m most excited. And yeah, there’s a lot that I resonate with about what you said. There is this sense of institutions being these behemoths that are inflexible, but the great thing about a large group of people with history coming together to do something is that it ideally becomes such a beautiful place, a resource for the community. This is a public entity. This is something that has a potential to do what the community needs it to do.

And it becomes so much easier to see that we’re all here not because of a person’s vision, but because of a shared sense of purpose. Then the organization can kind of shift to whatever that “what we want to do” is. That’s what I get really excited about, and it’s not without its challenges. Something, Mark Bamuthi Joseph has said is, “what is the role of the arts presenter right now? Our hospitals are for public health. Arts centers should be for public healing.” His work at the Kennedy Center kind of exemplifies this sense that what the arts presenter is for the community might have to shift. And I can certainly see that at the Public in the programs that were happening that were being responsive to what the need is. I’m thinking about that and the drive for climate justice that’s happening in Boston right now. And it’s like, okay, how does an arts organization take on that mantle not in just talking about it through the art, but in how we make the art and model that in some way?

There’s a lot of possibility with the institutional lens that it’s harder to get in smaller entities. It’s fun. I feel like I started my career in these big regional theatre organizations and then fell in love with the interdisciplinary theatre artists and the independent producer side. And now I’m swinging back to the institution.

Shanta: They’re coming back for you.

Ronee: Coming back! Yeah. But I’m ready.

Shanta: Oh, you definitely are. I’ve read so much of your writing, specifically around climate change—and it feels really exciting to have that opportunity to say, “Okay, I’ve thought about this. I’ve talked about it, I’ve done it in my individual practice. Now here’s how I think all of us are going to work." As somebody who is so rooted in this practice and thinking about it, what would that look like at an institution? And yeah, this is absolutely with climate crisis notwithstanding.

I give my staff all a copy of Braiding Sweetgrass for the holidays here.

There is this sense of institutions being these behemoths that are inflexible, but the great thing about a large group of people with history coming together to do something is that it ideally becomes such a beautiful place, a resource for the community.

Ronee: Yes!

Shanta: Just thinking about that book as, like, we’re in a time of regeneration. This is the moment to think about. There’s been a fire that’s swept through. What is going to grow? What have we held on to? What are the seeds that we have? What is the way that we’re building something, and how do we think about that in conversation with Earth? Not just in conversation with ourselves or these buildings. What are we learning; how are we growing something new? What are we taking with us? And I think there’s so much to be learned. Obviously, my dad is a forester also, so I have—

Ronee: Oh my gosh!

Shanta: yeah, actually I was born in northern Wisconsin, and my dad worked for the Nicolet National Forest up there. But my dad has always been connected, moved by, inspired by, the Native American community, and specifically, up there, a huge Native American population. So we grew up going to pow-wows and spending all our time in those communities, which has been part of my ongoing inspiration and thinking.

So yeah, I’m excited. We’re waiting, Ronee, to see what you do. No pressure.

Ronee: Speaking of the indigeneity of it all, one of the things I’m grappling with is that I do feel like there’s been a lot of love and a lot of "Yeah! Bring it!"—You know, bring it to the institution, bring in that narrative. My new kick I’m on is really thinking about representation not in terms of adding narratives, but in terms of re-storying the dominant narrative. There can be a "we are the melting pot" way of looking at it. But there’s still kind of an othering that takes place, right?

So how can we actually look at what it means to make Indigenous history our American history? How to make Black history American history. You know, to reshape what that main narrative is, right? That kind of narrative shifting, it really shakes people to their core. Their core storytelling, whether it’s the story of Thanksgiving or the story of their family, connects with American history. That’s at the core of personal identity.

There’s a lot of seed planting you need to do to ready the ground for new narratives before any of that can happen. And it’s so important for it to happen, and I’m so excited, and I’m also wanting to hold that space with so much care along that journey.

Shanta: Yeah, absolutely.

A man and woman speaking to an audience on stage.

Photo of David Howse (left) and Ronee Penoi (right).

Ronee: Switching gears: I love the history you have, especially with globalFEST, which I am so blown away by. Watching the virtual programming this last year, I just was in my kitchen with a glass of wine. It feels not enough to say it was so well produced. I mean, it just felt like I was just in the room, in an intimate living room.

Shanta: The community that surrounds globalFEST is so vibrant, and it’s just a beautiful community of people that are so interested and curious about the world and its traditions and what they say to us.

Ronee: And that’s a question—you have that universe, you have everything you’ve done at the Public universe. And bringing that all to the lens of Lincoln Center is super exciting. I’m curious to just hear what you’re looking forward to about bringing the lens of that into your new role and what your thinking is.

Shanta: Well, to our earlier point, I’m excited to go and listen and learn, to understand about how Lincoln Center actually moves and works. I’m so in awe of the work that they’ve done over the pandemic. Restart Stages, the blood drives, the vaccination bus. They’re doing the work. They’re showing up in all of these ways and centering some of the work they’ve always done. Their education programs, their community programs, have always been a huge part of Lincoln Center. I think it’s been a little to-the-side of what is the dominant presence in how they show up in marketing and ticket sales.

It’s just been really incredible to watch this sort of new center emerge, and I really feel like I can see myself in this. The colleagues that I have that work there, Jordana Leigh, Jon Nakagawa, are people that I have known and respected for decades also. So I’m so excited to go in and to have the ability, the enormous resource that is Lincoln Center. The enormous resource that is the constituent organizations around it. That we’re a part of. To be in conversation with the Met[ropolitan Opera], and Lincoln Center Theater, and the [New York] Philharmonic is such an incredible gift. These are people that are also grappling with these same questions of how do we pivot? How do we serve our audience? How do we serve New York City? And to be able to be in that conversation at that scale and to say like okay, we can really shift some things here. What Lincoln Center does matters to the life of New York City.

And New York City is in deep pain right now, you know? Has an enormous amount of work to do on itself in terms of healing and regeneration and understanding what it means to be in community with one another. So I’m thrilled. I think somebody said, I forget who, but it’s there’s somebody being born in Nairobi right now who could be American in any number of days. That’s what an American narrative is; we’re one of the few countries that anyone can say that. You can be anywhere right now, born anywhere, and become American. And you would be just as American as somebody who was born and raised here. Had generations of family here. That’s the gift. That’s what we are responsible for representing and being able to be a part of.

There’s a lot of seed planting you need to do to ready the ground for new narratives.

As a presenter, as a producer, to be able to work in these arts organizations and be part of these stories and see ‘”and this is part of my story, also” is incredible. So I think globalFEST is certainly one set of experiences that I hope to bring to Lincoln Center. But I think that those things are already part of Lincoln Center. I think it’s just about how we make sure… there’s so much opportunity and so much to build on.

I think of Arts Emerson being one of my favorite places to visit, to talk about, to point to as this cauldron of what is possible. The artists actually feel that they are connected to a long-term investment in that city in a way that most don’t when they’re popping in to a place for a few shows. I think people that play at Arts Emerson actually feel like, “Oh, now I know this city. Now I know the neighborhood church. I have this restaurant I go to.” And that’s incredible. What a place to grow from.

Ronee: Well, it also feels like such a gift going in. You know there are a lot of places where you would feel a little bit like you were starting from kind of a low baseline. The exciting thing about everything that David Dower and David Howse did [at Arts Emerson] is it’s already in progress. The connection to local community. Really understanding why this artist is in Boston and why Boston should be engaging with this artist.

I mean, that is already the conversation. The world on the stage is already visible. Going to see Detroit Red last year… it wasn’t just the diversity in the audience, but the energy in the audience, and the way that folks who had just met each other were talking. The kind of culture around seeing a work there. It’s what success looks like for so many institutions, and that’s what I’m walking into. That really feels like such a gift to collaborate with this amazing group of humans to say, “What’s next?”

We don’t have to have a conversation around why Black people, Black bodies are so critical and important and valued and matter. That’s a baseline. So we can go beyond diversity to justice. And that feels really exciting.

Shanta: Oh I love that. That’s a great, beyond diversity to justice. I think what’s going to be fun for you is becoming a part of that community. What I think is important for any arts workers is to be a part—you can’t just show up and start doing the work. And I feel very fortunate that I’m moving to a job that is still in my city. Being a part of globalFEST, being a part of my church community, being a parent, having a school community, those things are all really vital to how I have to show up as a presenter, producer, human. To show up as a whole human in a space and not just show up as like, okay, we’re here to do a thing.

And I think it’s important, and especially because theatre is, perhaps strangely, an incredibly high pressure environment that gets these shows done as if it’s a car on an assembly line. And just reminding people to really make sure that they’re not just, “Oh I have my family on the side,” or “I have my thing that I can do, Like my Dungeons and Dragons club that I sometimes go to but really don’t have time for when we’re in production.” No, you have make time for those things. Those things matter to how you create work and show up as a whole person. Because otherwise, other people are not going to feel whole coming to your arts organization.

Ronee: Exactly.

Shanta: So I think that’s part of it. And when I started at the Public, I knew almost not the first thing about world music. I knew so little about the type of work that I now fully invest in and am interested in. What I know now, I‘ll look back on and think, “Wow, I was just interested in this square of things and now I have whole new sets of…” My opera knowledge is now—

Ronee: On point.

Shanta: On point. Yeah. Opera is really blowing up in an exciting way, so you know. There is a lot to learn. I’ve got a lot of work.

Ronee: I love what you said about bringing the whole person, because it’s not just about you. It also models for everyone around you that they can also be a whole person as well. When one person does it, and you see it, and you feel it, it just creates that beautiful, positive culture ripple effect.

Shanta: How are you going to become part of Boston? What’s your first step?

Ronee: Well, I know that I really want to get all of the history and talk to everyone and anyone. A little listening tour. In the meantime, until I get there, I’m just starting by watching hilarious YouTube puppet videos about the molasses flood of 1919. I keep telling everyone I’m open to the ways to get the real history of Boston. I’m hoping that my lovely dog, Penny, will help ingratiate me to the people.

Shanta: Oh yeah, for sure.

Ronee: I’m glad that you don’t have a move and that you’re in your same community. I’m excited for us to swap notes on how we learn what we don’t know.

Shanta: I’m sure we will need each other in all of this. In this world of collaboration, I can see this being a good start.

Thoughts from the curators

The US and Canada are in the middle of an unprecedented turnover of artistic leadership in the nonprofit theatre. This series aims to put a range of voices, issues, and ideas in play that can inform and reflect this historic changeover. 

The Changeover

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