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Community Engagement through Art and Programs

With Pirronne Yousefzadeh & Lia Fakhouri

Nabra: Salaam alaikum. Welcome to Kunafa and Shay, a podcast produced for HowlRound Theatre Commons. A free and open platform for theatremakers, worldwide. Kunafa and Shay discusses and analyzes contemporary and historical Middle Eastern and North African, or MENA, theatre from across the region.

Marina: I’m Marina.

Nabra: And I’m Nabra.

Marina: We’re your hosts.

Nabra: Our name, Kunafa and Shay invites you into the discussion in the best way we know how. With complex and delicious sweets like kunafa and perfectly warm tea or in Arabic, shay.

Marina: Kunafa and Shay is a place to share experiences, ideas, and sometimes to engage with our differences. In each country in the Arab world, you’ll find kunafa made differently. In that way, we also lean into the diversity, complexity, and robust flavors of MENA theatre. We bring our own perspectives, research, and special guests in order to start a dialogue and encourage further learning and discussion.

Nabra: In our second season, we highlight US MENA theatremakers with an impact nationally and internationally. This season outlines the state of MENA theatre today through the lens of multigenerational and multidisciplinary artists.

Marina: Yalla, grab your tea. The shay is just right.

Nabra: I am so excited for this episode. We are going to be talking about probably my favorite subject, community engagement. As many of you know, I am a community engagement practitioner and run the arts engagement department at Seattle Rep. I’m so excited to be joined by two of my dearest colleagues, Pirronne Yousefzadeh and Lia Fakhouri. These two directors and administrative leaders are community engagement practitioners in everything that they do, including their artmaking and program curation. They work both as independent artists and through organizations. In this episode, we will discuss the nature of community engagement as an artistic practice, how their MENA backgrounds influence their practice and how the theater atmosphere is or should shift to be community engaged in an authentic and equitable way. Before we begin, let’s introduce our guests.

Marina: Lia Sima Fakhouri is a freelance stage director, arts administrator, and community advocate. She is an immigrant and third culture kid originally from Lebanon, born and raised in Dubai, UAE, and currently living in Seattle, Washington. Lia holds the positions of public works manager at Seattle Rep where she has the honor of collaborating with the community of King County, and associate artistic director of Macha Theatre Works, where she produces and advocates for fearless female theatre. Recent directing credits include 17 Minute Stories, The Mask Debate, Aladdin Jr. and Veils. Upcoming projects are Village Theatre’s You're a Good Man, Charlie Brown. Lia holds a BA in theatre with honors in directing from the University of California, Irvine.

Nabra: Pirronne Yousefzadeh is a director, writer, and educator and was recently appointed the producing artistic director at the Colorado Springs Fine Arts Center. Prior to this appointment, she served as Geva Theater Center’s associate artistic director and director of engagement, where her previous directing credits include Vietgone, Queen, The Royale, Heartland, and The Lake Effect. She has a passion for new work that centers and uplifts the stories of global majority communities and has developed and directed work at Playwrights’ Horizon, New York Theater Workshop, the Kennedy Center, OSF, Williamstown Theater Festival, Actors Theater of Louisville, Cleveland Playhouse, and more.

She is currently developing new works with several writers. Pirronne is a usual suspect at New York Theatre Workshop, New Georgia’s Affiliated Artist, member of EST, No More 10 out of 12s, and Wingspace, and an alum of the 2050 Fellowship at NYTW, Sagal Fellowship at Williamstown, SDC Denham Fellowship Lincoln Center Director’s Lab, Soho Rep Writer/Director Lab, New George’s Jam and Drama League Directors’ Project. She was a finalist for the 2020 Zelda Chandler Award from SDC and is a proud member of the union. Pirronne is a co-founder of Maia Directors. Alongside Kimberly Sr., she co-chaired an SDC committee creating a set of anti-racist best practices for directors. Upcoming projects include Yoga Play at PlayMakers Repertory Theatre and Heartland at 59E59. She has an MFA from Columbia University.

Marina: Pirronne and Lia, we are so excited to have you both with us today. I’m going to jump in with our first question, because I anticipate just getting to sit back and listen to you three wonderful artists and practitioners talk about your work. The first question, what is your approach to community engagement in your work?

Lia Sima Fakhouri: I work at Seattle Repertory Theatre, in the department of public works, which is basically community-engaged theatre. It is a program that has started at the public theatre in New York, and it now exists in about eleven partners and affiliates. The goals of the program are to engage with the greater community of the region and bring people together.

Community-engaged theatre is central to my day job, where I’m just an arts administrator, and I run the day-to-day of this program. But I’m also a freelance director. The Public Works program is so deeply rooted in values, and the values that we hold most central are equity, imagination, and joy. Being a part of some of the theatrical productions that have come from the Public Works program, has been really awe inspiring to see how those directors function in the rehearsal room, really making space for everyone and allowing everyone the time and breadth that they need to excel and succeed and understand where they’re at.

That’s just been really inspiring for me as a director myself and just being able to take all that into my own work and re-envision what it is that we’re doing. I’ve gotten on this train of, “Do we need to have a six-week rehearsal period? Can it be longer? Because X, Y, Z people need these accommodations, and I want to be able to meet them where they’re at,” and just pushing, “What are the standards of theatre that we’re currently doing that we currently exist within, the systems that we exist within, and how can we push against them?” That’s how the values of community engagement [have] pushed [their] way in the rest of my work as a freelance director.

Nabra: Yes. I love that. One of the things that I reflect on a lot is that, for me, everything is community engagement. I’m also a multidisciplinary artist; all of us are. Whether I’m writing or I’m directing, or I’ve been dramaturging or on this podcast, I’m looking for a way to build community through the arts in any way. I think it’s such a key to impactful theatre work. There’s this segment of being a specifically community-engagement practitioner that all three of us are in, but this question, it can be so broad. There’s the work that you do that might be the central work, or your full-time work, or with an institution, but I love that you've brought up that there’s an element of community engagement in so many different aspects, especially once you embody that. I wonder, how would you answer this question, Pirronne?

Pirronne Yousefzadeh: Sure. I think I’ll echo a few things that Lia said for sure. My position, which is very new is, as the producing artistic director of the Colorado Springs Fine Arts Center Theatre Company, which formed an alliance with Colorado College in 2017. Prior to that, in its one-hundred-year history, it functioned very much in the way that a lot of our regional theatres functioned, in terms of programming and the intended audience and all of the ways in which the systems of capitalism and the canon co-conspire to maintain a certain aesthetic and a certain audience. The alliance is actually really sort of critical to the change, in a lot of ways, because Colorado College was earlier in its anti-racism commitment than most of the country, which mostly responded about a year and a half ago. That meant that, as an arm of the college now, the Fine Arts Center was held to a different standard. To me, community engagement and anti-racism work very much go hand-in-hand because it’s about decentering whiteness and decolonizing these spaces in order for the idea of... I don’t even like the question, “Who’s our audience?” but to change that to “What communities do we serve in order for that to be the mindset shift?”

The theatre company was already undergoing a bit of a transformation before I arrived. Now that I’m a part of it, I feel very much like we’re building on some really exciting steps they took prior to my arrival where they started actually last summer programming outside of the building, getting out into community organizations. And that literal architectural shift, I think, makes a huge difference. This work, I think similarly to Lia. I feel like it very much informs me, as a freelance director, in terms of thinking about rehearsal as community building and thinking about how we can disrupt some of the traditional practices of theatres that really isolate artists and keep us siloed in the rehearsal room until some people show up for our preview.

I question that. I question the secrecy around what it is we’re doing in preparation for a production, particularly because I think so much of the frustrations that I also hear from folks in advancement or folks who run theatres about audiences, subscribers, donors, et cetera, is that they don’t have an understanding of the theatrical process. I wonder if disrupting that more in the process of making the work and actually changing the model in order to invite more participation, could also answer some of those other challenges that get in the way of coalition building towards properly supporting the art.

Nabra: Oh, my goodness. My brain is exploding with how much I agree, and how much you said. It’s an overload. Because both of you touched on structures of white supremacy and colonialism within our theatres that fight against the basis of community engagement. The connection between anti-racism and social justice work at institutions and the work of community engagement. The integration of community engagement into the art itself, which is a huge part of, I think the next step in community-engaged practice. There’s a need to break the structure of US theatre as it is in order to invite community, both as audiences and participants. It’s just so much; it’s so much.

Lia: Yeah, I’m baffled by the number of... In my freelance work, artistic directors that I run into that they’re like, “Don’t even think about the audience. Audience isn’t important right now.” I’m like, “What do you mean by that? Because… Why then are we telling this story? Who’s this story for?” I think there’s something interesting about, at the smaller theatrical level, particularly in the city of Seattle—that’s where a lot of theatre exists is at the fringe level—that there’s so little cognizant thinking about building long term relationships with the community, just as your audience. Even if you don’t want to use the term community, just your audience, just building a long-term relationship with those folks. I think, it’s mind boggling to me, because I’m like, “What is the point of this story, if there’s not someone to hear it, and who are the people that we want to hear it and how are we actively engaging with them to come hear this story?” Because it’s not enough to say, “Hey, we have a ten dollar ticket, because if they never felt welcomed into the theatre, then they’re never going to come.” It’s mind boggling, truly, that very few people actually think about this in their work.

Pirronne: I’m just going to come out and say it. I feel like there are a lot of artistic directors who have contempt for their audiences and wish they were in New York, for which I say, “Don’t run a regional theater.” For me, it manifests in programming, based off of what did well in the New York Times reviews. Often, I think it results in plays happening in places where... There’s so many plays that are just so much about living in New York City, and it’s like, “Why are you doing this?” These people have really large homes and yards. The whole conceit of this play will be taking place in the West Village completely falls apart for this audience, for whom it does not land at all. Instead, why aren’t you commissioning a play about your place, about your city? But also, I’ve seen it also manifest in a contempt for local artists and an assumption that if they’re local, they’re not good. That is just, I think so defeatist and toxic and insulting. In all of my travels and in all of the work I’ve done across the country, I have full confirmation that there are great artists everywhere. Of course, there are particular challenges in particular cities around identifying and developing certain subsets within the artistic community.

But I think it can be one of a theatre’s community engagement responsibilities to help cultivate that pool of people, that group of people, and to give them opportunities so they can learn and grow and build craft. Instead, it just becomes about “Who can we get?” The number of times I’ve heard the sentence, “Who can we get?” as though we’re acquiring a product from New York or LA or Chicago, when folks haven’t even really properly considered or gotten to know the artists in their own community. Again, I just come back to the fact that, if that’s not what you’re interested in doing, then, it would require a lot less airfare for you to just then go be in New York or go be in LA or go be in Chicago. Of course, those cities have incredible communities of artists, but I think part of the responsibility I see myself having is to find those folks in Colorado Springs. If I hear someone say to me, “Well, there just aren’t that many BIPOC actors here.” I question that. My sense is, there aren’t that many BIPOC actors you’ve gotten to know, or you haven’t given them... Again, it’s that catch-22 of, “How do you get really good at what you do?” Through opportunity. “How do you get opportunities?” By proving that you’re really good at what you do. At some point, someone’s just got to take a leap of faith and say, “Hey, I see something in you, and I’m willing to work with you to develop it.”

Lia: What you were saying, I’m like, “This is exactly why Public Works as a program is the future of theatre,” in my mind. Because we believe that anyone and everyone is an artist in their own right. They all have a story to tell, and they are all talented on their own. We just need to meet them where they’re at. Building that relationship with folks and giving them opportunities to develop those skills and develop and push them is so integral to the program. Because the program is part of an institution, the goals of the program then seep out, like little streams into the rest of the organization and pull them along to be more values-oriented and start to think in these ways. I think about, the things that we do in our program to meet community where they’re at, like radical hospitality and just being available to listen to people when they have issues come up and just meeting them where they’re at, in their community spaces, if that is the thing that they need. If transportation is a thing that they need, we’re going to help them figure that out.

I’m like, if that was extended to the “professional” artist pool—and I put professional in air quotes, because another thing that our program does is try to question “What is professional?” But if we were to extend those opportunities to the professional artist pool, I’m like, “How much more access would that give folks to be able to engage with us?” Because childcare is an issue. Transportation is an issue. If they can't afford to quit their day job to do this, it’s an issue. How are we bringing down barriers to really open up our doors and welcome those artists in and engage with them? Because they are. They exist; they’re in town. And if we’re not providing opportunities, if we’re not hiring them, if we keep going out of town, then what’s going to happen? They’re all going to up and leave, which is what is happening in Seattle. Everyone is leaving.

Nabra: You all are touching on so many interesting and exciting facets of the roadblocks that we face as community engagement practitioners. And, as Lia outlined, some of the possibilities of how we should be approaching this work and the models that exist, that we can utilize and replicate in order to make all of theater community engaged. I love Public Works! It’s incredible. I love the program so freaking much. I constantly ask, “Why can’t all theatre be Public Works?” I would have no issue with that. I completely agree that that is the future of theatre. I think about [how] these models exist, and I want to go into, especially the fact that the idea of community-engaged theatre, the integration of community into theatre originated and continues to thrive within grassroots and POC theatres. Larger theatre companies, regional theatres, and theatre institutions really took this idea as this new cool thing.

We talk about community engagement as a relatively new field at PWIs, but it’s just because PWIs started to commit to this in a real way in the past several years in conjunction with, I believe, this swell in interest in equity, diversity, and inclusion work. It’s a bit ironic and frustrating, in my opinion, given that many POC theatres formed specifically due to being excluded from these larger institutions and needing to create theatre for and by communities. Since their inception, they have been fully community-engaged theatres. How do you, as practitioners working at these theatre institutions, reconcile the past and present of community engagement in these institutions, and how do we approach this work without poaching resources or claiming credit? And how can we perhaps learn from the structures and the practices that already exist, instead of feeling like we need to invent the wheel that is often the white savior mentality, the kind of manifest destiny mentality that large institutions often bring to the new, cool thing, whatever that might be, and I feel like is with community engagement at the present moment. Many different questions here, but what are your reflections on all that?

Pirronne: First, I got to poke at the notion that they’re making a serious effort because I’m just going to go ahead and say that PWIs are not making a serious effort. It is tokenizing and half-hearted at best in most cases with a few exceptions that break that rule. For me, that’s item number one. When I think about these smaller BIPOC-run organizations who have built themselves with and for community, dedicated themselves to the work of connecting with and uplifting their community, it was the encoding of their DNA as an organization. It’s the heartbeat of how they work. Then, all these PWI are just adding on an appendage. They’re like, “You know what? I could live with or without this appendix. I could live with or without this gallbladder, but let’s try it.” It is, in my experience, the least funded, the least supported, in terms of staff, and also the least integrated. Because the very notion that there is a marketing department, and then there’s an engagement department is broken. Because what that means is that, and I’ve had this experience, is that it’s my job as the director of engagement to find the melanated people to come see the show, while marketing continues to do their work business as usual.

No one is interrogating the fact that the traditional audience is actually a very limited niche audience. It is white. It is older, probably 60 plus, 55 plus. They’re wealthy. Largely suburban. Did I mention that they’re white? They’re white. Most of the theatre’s operations, staff, resources, strategies, processes, procedures, are all being dedicated to this incredibly niche group of people while then one person or two people are supposed to then account for and connect with and forge relationships with everybody else, which also includes young white people and younger and older Black and brown folks, right? The way I reconcile it, sometimes I just think like, “We should all just go away and then just give all of the money to the BIPOC-run organizations and just disappear.” If a PWI wants to do engagement work, then they have to look at that as the dramatic restructuring of their entire organization, and a complete reevaluation of mission, vision, and values, and a complete reevaluation of job descriptions from top to tail. Because if it’s going to be the heartbeat, then everyone’s got to be invested. But if they just want to hire a brown person to go around telling people about the one Black show they’re doing in February, they can keep doing that, and they’ll keep burning people out. And that person will keep leaving after a couple of years, and they’re not going to actually get anywhere. Then, as their audiences die, they will become irrelevant.

Nabra: Yes, yes, 100 percent. You’ve articulated the uphill battle I feel like I’ve been fighting my entire career. To add to that, that’s the way, that tokenizing way of doing community engagement, that’s fully based on audience development that’s tokenizing, that has nothing to do with structural change, has also done lasting harm. What I feel like most of my first few years at an organization is undoing the harm of past attempts at community engagement, which have fostered distrust. We are not dumb. POC communities, we are not dumb! We know when you’re trying to get our money and trying to take advantage of us and when you’re not going to invest in a relationship with us.

These PWIs have done that. Not to mention, the history of racism and exclusion that many, most, all, are coming from in their artwork and the way that they’ve structured their entire existence. But in the attempt to do community engagement, they’ve done it irresponsibly that has caused lasting harm to, I think, this new wave of practitioners that I consider us all a part, which I think we’re shifting the mission of community engagement. We’re centering relationship. We’re centering partnership, and we’re centering culture change and structural change at these institutions and demanding structural change, anti-racism, and equity work. Or else this cannot continue. But you’re completely right, Pirronne; it is an uphill battle, if not, sometimes it feels like an impossible barrier. I do think that for some institutions, it is an impossible barrier, or we ain’t going to see it anytime in our lifetimes. I think that’s something super important to recognize. It’s such a huge approach to approach responsibly.

Pirronne: Yeah. I also just want to add real quick, those engagement leaders at these PWIs are completely set up to fail. In my previous position, I was completely set up to fail. I had no staff; it was just me. I had the least resources of any department, and the position it put me in was, yes, upon my arrival, I could immediately see that there was a lot of harm done prior to my arrival to the BIPOC community. I went on basically a listening tour and was trying to understand the trauma that already existed and then also try to start to build trust, start to forge relationships with folks in a meaningful way. But then what inevitably happened was that anytime the institution failed on the fronts of equity, diversity, inclusion, justice, anti-racism, I got all the feedback. I got all the anger.

Of course, because they trusted me, and they felt safe with me. But what I ultimately realized was this institution did not care that I was taking the bullet. In fact, benefited from the fact that I was on the front lines, hearing all of this feedback and then communicating it back to leadership until I finally got to the point where I said, “You need to be having these conversations. I know that y’all messed that up because I was fighting you on the decision. I was trying to prevent the very thing that is now getting backlash. Y’all need to sit down.” That was one of the turning points where I realized just how impossible my task was because of how isolated I was and how uninvested the rest of the organization was.

Lia: I think y’all have touched on literally everything. There’s very little I can add. The only thing I can uplift is…reconciliation, probably not going to happen in our lifetime. I think what you said: they’re going to crash and burn. Their audience is going to die in the next forty years. They’re all going to die, and then, who’s going to be funding this theatre? Who’s going to be running this theatre because all the old white guys who are running the theatres are going to be dead.

The institution of theatre, as we know it, is dying until there is something that comes from it that fundamentally shifts how we create theatre, why we create theatre, and for who we create theatre. Because even the way in which we create theatre—and we’re seeing this right now—it’s not sustainable. Why do we do 10 out of 12s? I don’t understand. Why are we trying to kill ourselves creating a story? It makes no sense. It’s all rooted in colonialism. It needs to all crash and burn for something new to come, and a phoenix to be born. And for the next generation and BIPOC artists to come take over and do something better with it because that is not rooted in racism and colonialism. Yea, it’s got to crash and burn.

Nabra: Honestly, Lia, sometimes I really, really feel that way. You brought it back to the heart of it, which is, “Why are we telling these stories? How is storytelling not community engaged? How did it get to this point?” We literally, if you go back to the origins of why theatre exists, is to engage and connect with community and to tell the stories of your community. That is why humanity started to tell stories, and how theatre started. To look at the current structure of theatre in the United States and in most of the Western world, how did we get to this point? Capitalism has totally taken us away from the roots of theatre. There is this element of, “We need to start over.” Starting over honestly, would be easier, in my opinion. It ain’t going to happen. Maybe, probably. We work within these institutions because they have resources, and in my opinion, it’s like, “Well, we might as well work with what we can and fight for change where we can, instead of abandoning it all.” But it would be easier to go back to our roots, to start from nothing, because community engaged storytelling is inherent to us as people. Our history—and I don’t know what has become of humanity—has strayed from that. That’s what I constantly go back to and have faith in but also ironically also gives me no faith at the same time.

Lia: Yeah. Because I’m just thinking about the fact that there have been conversations on a board level that theatre is not political, and it should not be political. That theatre should not be political. I’m like, “What is the point then if we’re not being political and not talking about things that people, that our community, needs to talk about right now? If we’re not supporting our community as an institution, then what are we doing?”

Pirronne: That goes back to the people on the board are the people who don’t have to engage in politics because their lives are very comfortable. They’re not thinking about our immigration policy is still an inhumane garbage fire. They’re not thinking about book bans in public schools. They can probably afford to send their kids wherever they know that they’re going to get the education they want them to have. The donor class speak from a position of privilege to then dictate what we should program and what we should be doing. I’m like, “Have you heard of ancient Greek theatre? What do you think, Sophocles and Euripides were—What do you think Antigone is?” It is a critique of extremism. I hear this all the time where it’s like, “You’re polluting this. You’re polluting what theatre should be,” or whatever. Or “You’re not sticking with tradition.” I’m like, “Well, if you actually knew your theatre—” Also, me talking about the ancient Greeks, that’s through a hella Western white gaze of my graduate education, which I totally acknowledge. But even through that, the proof is there that theatre from its supposed inception was political and was in response to what was happening in that day and age.

I don't know. Then the other thing that it just gets me thinking about is like, well, boards, and then political candidates and how they raise money. And how Bernie Sanders and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez didn’t have PACs, didn’t accept corporate dollars, and did it all with people giving them like 10 bucks, 25 bucks, 40 bucks. I’m like, “Okay, there’s proof out there that there’s a different model for sustainable, successful political fundraising,” right? And how can we in the theatre, perhaps, find our way of, instead of taking the easy $50,000 check that comes with a quid pro quo and comes with limitations on what you can program and what you can say and what you can say you’re about, how do we find X many people who are like-minded, justice-oriented, and politically driven to write those smaller checks that can allow us the freedom to say what we want to say and engage a community, who’s actually down to be part of that conversation?

Lia: I was just going to say I’m here for the version where theatre becomes a public good and is fully funded and so easily accessible, and it’s available to everyone. That’s what I’m here for, the day when that happens. There was something you said about education, and I think that is where a lot of it stems from. Our theatrical education system and the way that we train artists is rooted in the same values that these PWIs have. It’s all colonialist. It’s all backwards and really taking the values of community engagement and instilling that in the educational process would actually allow the future generation of artists to actually come into the world and make better change. Because I feel like as soon as you graduate from whatever degree you have, you come out and you’re like, “That’s actually not helpful at all to anything I need to do. Now, I need to unlearn everything I’ve learned and relearn everything in another system that is also trying to push me down and keep me from getting to where I need to go.” It stems from education as well.

Nabra: Y’all are both starting to talk about, “So what do we do?” We’ve identified so many barriers, as well as... I feel, given this history of community engagement, which I will also, to de-center the white lens and to connect it also to this MENA podcast. If we’re looking at MENA theatre, SWANASA theatre, all of it is rooted in politics, in some type of community connection, community engagement, social responsiveness. I’m thinking even of the most, silly, ridiculous puppet comedy that happens in Egypt, that is a community need. It’s a response to what the people and what the culture needs at that moment. Not to mention the incredibly huge movements of political theatre happening across the Middle East, North Africa, Southwest Asia. But I want to talk and get into this question of: how do we approach community engagement work responsibly? How do we approach partnership responsibly, and what do you see as a structure that can support this work without draining it?

Lia: Public Works, it’s part of an institution, but the goal of the program is to build long-term sustainable, mutually beneficial relationships with community organizations in the city. Really, it’s about maintaining those relationships. It’s all about relationship building. We have these partners. We meet with them every quarter, and we’re like, “Hey, how’s it going? How can we help you? What are things that we’re not providing you right now that we can continue to do? Is this still mutually beneficial? Are you getting what you need from us? In addition, too, are we getting what we need from you?” Which is access to community.

Just bring people; come see shows. I think, fundamentally, if you are engaging with a community on a show, because the show is Asian and you’re like, “It’s a Vietnamese show, and we’re going to go find the Vietnamese center. And we’re going to invite them to come see the show,” and that is the end of that relationship. You’ve done something terribly wrong and go back and engage with them again! Because, look, if they like the Vietnamese show, they’re going to like other shows too. Keep inviting them to come see shows. It's about building those long term, mutually beneficial relationships, which is exhausting. Yes, I’m not going to knock it down and say, “It should be easy for everyone to do.” It is exhausting. It takes time. Just like our development department spends their entire time fostering and building relationships with those people who are going to give us money, and it just happens that all of those people are white, old, rich people. But it’s the same thing. You need a team to continuously be engaging with those folks.

Pirronne: Yeah. I think that first and foremost, PWIs have to, well, A) completely reexamine their institutional structure and how they’ve put their community engagement person in a place of harm and fix it. That’s item number one. I don’t think the work can begin until the structure’s right within the house. Because, otherwise, you’re just going to end up showing your ass. I think that it’s important to maintain always an awareness that in cultivating these relationships, building them, sustaining them, we’re always working for harm prevention, harm repair, and healing. That one should never assume, just because you’ve showed up with a great idea, you automatically have trust. Trust is earned, and it takes time. Just like Lia said, you have to be willing to invest. It can’t just be like, “Oh, we did Vietgone, we talked to this Vietnamese organization. Look at us, we did it! Bye!” Rather, to put in the work, which is why I think the restructuring of institutions is so important, because the people who work in marketing should be doing that work. The people who work in advancement should be doing that work as well in different capacities. It’s not like people of color don’t have money. I could write a check. I just haven’t found an institution that’s deserved it. Not a PWI, I’ve given my money to plenty of other organizations, but I just want to be clear.

It comes back to this thing of, are you just going to hope that this dinky little department you set off to the side is going to take care of it all for you, or are you actually going to allow the possibility for your own institution’s transformation by transforming your practices and your assumptions and your job descriptions in order to actually approach the work as a team, as opposed to dumping it on one person who probably doesn’t have enough to show to a community to earn their trust? That’s where I’m trying to start. Having learned from my prior experience, really just trying to disrupt any notion that we’re just going to hire one person, and our community will be engaged. Because I was that person, and it’s an impossible responsibility. It doesn’t actually yield meaningful results. At this point, I still have those relationships; the institution doesn’t.

Lia: Because you built those relationships.

Pirronne: Yeah, and they built them with me more as an individual than they did with me on behalf of the organization because they knew what was up.

Nabra: Totally something that I have faced and something I’m constantly trying to ensure does not happen. It’s all about de-centering myself as an individual and creating these sustainable relationships that have more than one touchpoint. That means, because my department’s a tiny, tiny, little, tiny itty-bitty department of two people, like most community engagement departments, like you all talked about; small budget, small team, but what makes it a little bit more set up for success is that there is a cross-departmental and institutional commitment. I’m making sure that every connection that I have, every partnership that I begin to really establish, touches at least somebody else in a different department, that they’re connected with someone in the marketing department, in the development department, in the rest of senior leadership, in the public works department. There are so many different best practices that we have to decentralize and breakdown hierarchy at the organizations to even set them up to be prepared to take on those relationships.

Not to mention the people that I am connecting these community members with, these community leaders and organizations with, have to be ready to welcome said folks, often that are from POC communities. They have to have an anti-racism and racial equity lens. That is one of the ways in which this EDI work is integral to community engagement, because once they’re in our door, I need to trust the organization and all of my colleagues to not do harm and to build on that relationship. It’s incredibly important. We can’t do this work. The other thing that I’ll say is the first thing that a lot of PWIs are doing to start their community engagement work is hire a person or start a department, and that is a huge red flag to me. That means that it will be fully, all of the burden will be placed on this person. All the things that you outlined, Pirronne, will happen, and it will be a siloed and dispensable department. I have seen that at places I’ve worked and at my colleague theatres.

What made me be okay with entering Seattle Rep, specifically, was that they had a cross-departmental community engagement work group. They were doing this work for a few years, without a department and a person from almost every, if not every single department was involved actively in doing community engagement, and they brought me on to organize it and to make it sustainable. I was like, “Okay, all right, I can come in here. It’s indispensable to your work right now. Every department understands how they are doing community engagement and they have to do community engagement. I can be like a little addition that can help you out in that.” But if there is not already some type of supportive structure, it will absolutely fizzle away and die, eventually.

Pirronne: Yea, it has to be in the ethos of the organization. That’s the thing. The fact that they were doing that work prior to your arrival, which is so... Oh my God, I just swooned a little bit when you said that. It healed my trauma just a little bit. Actually allowing it to infuse their lens and their approach. I guess that’s the thing for me is that community engagement is more an ethos than it is a department. When we think about it, “Oh, well, we’ll just put this desk over here and hire this person.” It’s like, “Well, what’s the artistic director’s investment in it?” Because I actually think artistic direction is community engagement. That’s the job. Where is the executive director in that conversation? Also, how are you creating opportunities for people from all over the organization, like you were saying, to develop a brain trust?

Everyone at that theatre has lives and hobbies and places they go when they’re not working. They have ideas. When you put it out there, like, “Hey, we’re thinking about the organizations we might want to engage for such and such production.” If you’re just one person working by yourself, it’s just you and Google, right? If everyone can participate in that conversation in some way, from the master carpenter all the way to the assistant company manager, suddenly you have just this much richer dialogue because you’re invariably including more people of different backgrounds, from different age groups, with different interests, ideally also of different racial demographics if the PWI has done some work on that front. Then, that department can proceed. But there have to be collaborators, and those collaborators should be at every level of the organization.

Lia: I’m also thinking about is PWIs, “predominantly white institutions,” and that people in those positions that you listed, Pirronne, are often white people. And if you’re thinking, “Oh, how can I possibly engage with the community? I’m a white person,” then probably you should not be in that role. Because if you’re hiring someone who is BIPOC to run the community engagement department that you are now creating, then you clearly don’t have enough people of color on your staff.

Nabra: Preach. Yes. All absolutely 100%, yes.

Pirronne: I just want to abolish the division between marketing and—

Lia: It makes no sense.

Pirronne: —and community engagement and just create a new department called “community development,” or whatever. I don’t know what to call it. But just put all those people in a room together so that there isn’t the one person who’s like, “All I do is send subscribers emails,” while this other person over here is trying to get all the melanated people to come to the theatre. Just break down these stupid arbitrary lines. They’re not a law of nature. God did not create the marketing department on the sixth day. Let’s just put it away. I’m just like, “Why are we acting as though it’s like gravity or the law of how these theatres are structured? It’s not. It’s flexible. We made it up! And some of it’s stupid, so let’s make up something else.”

Nabra: I’ve been trying to come up with this perfect ideal community-engaged theatre landscape image for myself. What would happen, if we burned it all down, what would I build up? It’s still a work in progress, but at this present moment, what I would say is: there would be no gigantic theatres that are eating all of the resources. It would be all small to midsize theatres that share resources, that identify what is needed in the community. Each have specializations or communities that they speak to specifically, and collectively work to create and tell the stories that the community wants and needs. Share resources, share audiences, and share space, share artists, share pipeline. There never needs to be anything that is not local. That we can create these local stories, local theatre, together. If one person doesn’t have what they need, you have every other theatre everywhere to draw from to work with. That’s what I want to see, and it is a total burn down and build back up utopian society. But that is my ideal community engaged landscape at this present moment.

Pirronne: I love that. It’s like where a bunch of theatres can be like, “Hey, do you have a cup of sugar?”

Lia: Yes.

Nabra: Exactly. Exactly.

Pirronne: Then it’s like, “Yeah, no problem.” Then next week I might ask you for some flour. But that’s collaborative, not competitive. And that’s the other thing we have to root out of the culture is that everything has to be done competitively because capitalism.

Lia: I think every story is worth being told, because I think there’s so much in that competitiveness that’s like, “Well, we can’t tell this story because we need to only do this many stories.” There are so many stories that are not being told, and that is how we came to many, many years of just white theatre.

Nabra: And that these big institutions dictate what the trends are around stories. We talk so much in this podcast about how MENA theatre practitioners were constantly responding to PWIs and white people telling our stories. Especially as writers, we feel as though we need to write a certain story to correct perception, instead of just telling the story we need to tell, or we want to tell, or that our community should hear. Because so much power and so much audience lives within these PWIs and large theatre institutions, smaller POC theatres, MENA theatres are constantly responding. We’re telling whatever story they’re not telling, or we’re telling the other side of the story, instead of doing something that is truly community engaged, which is saying “What story needs to be told?” and telling that story, and telling it well, and being supported in that. That’s the utopia I want to see, and it just doesn’t make any sense to me that it doesn’t exist right now. But we all know why it doesn’t exist. I get it. I get it. But it’s very frustrating to fight against that history.

Pirronne: And yet, we persist.

Nabra: Yes, Pirronne, bringing it home with exactly what we need. Thank you so, so much. You two are some of my favorite people in the entire world. I love you both. We’re all together. We’re getting through. We are persisting in this together. We will change this theatre landscape through this work. It’s an uphill battle. It is so draining. I want to name and acknowledge the heart, the energy, the pieces of yourself that you have put into this work, that you have offered to community, that you have not offered that has been stolen from you in service of this very important work. We just need to acknowledge that. I don’t know what to do with that acknowledgement, but it needs to be out there. I’m so thankful for both of you.

Lia: Thank you. Thank you.

Pirronne: Thank you.

Marina: Thank you so much for having tea with us. This has been another episode of Kunafa and Shay. We’re your hosts Marina and Nabra. This podcast is produced as a contribution to HowlRound Theatre Commons. You can find more episodes of this series and other HowlRound podcasts in our feed on iTunes, Google Podcasts, Spotify, or wherever you find podcasts.

Nabra: Be sure to search HowlRound Theatre Commons podcasts and subscribe to receive new episodes. If you loved this podcast, post a rating and write a review on those platforms. This helps other people find us. You can also find a transcript for this episode, along with a lot of progressive and disruptive content on howlround.com

Marina: Have an idea for an exciting podcast, essay or TV event the theatre community needs to hear? Visit howlround.com and submit your ideas to the commons.

Nabra: We hope you tune in next time. Thank you for joining us on Kunafa and Shay.

Marina and Nabra: Yalla, bye!

Thoughts from the curators

Season 1 of Kunafa and Shay will focus on MENA theatre post-9/11 to today, highlighting contemporary MENA plays and playwrights, spotlighting international community-engaged work in the Arab world, and pondering the present and future of MENA theatre in the United States. Theatre artist Nabra Nelson and MENA theatre scholar Marina J. Bergenstock bring their own perspectives, research, and special guests in order to start a dialogue and encourage further learning and discussion.

The name, Kunafa and Shay, invites you into the discussion in the best way we know how: with complex and delicious sweets like kunafa and perfectly warm tea (or, in Arabic, shay!). Kunafa and Shay is a place to share experiences, ideas, and, sometimes, to engage with our differences.

Kunafa and Shay

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