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Cultivating Artistic Curiosity

As part of the Café Onda soft launch this summer, we asked five authors from different places in the generational map, at different stages of their career, to open their hearts and their minds for us to reflect on their experience at the 2014 TCG National Conference: Crossing Borders. This is the third post in the series.

That wall. The Tijuana border. So brutish. Unyielding in its violence. That wall. The fence beyond it. A third razor-wire fence. Beyond that, the US Border Patrol in jeeps. Stay out!

“Crossing Borders” was the title of the 2014 TCG National Conference. I joined the pre-conference in Tijuana, Mexico. As part of the International Artist Collaboration Forum, I participated in a speed dating session where US theatre artists met Mexican theatre artists in fifteen-minute intervals. I was struck by the ease with which artmakers came to understand one another. Within minutes of viewing work, a US director could ascertain her Mexican counterpart’s use of space, time, bodies, movement, language, and come to an almost immediate appreciation and understanding. Contrast this with that wall; that stark divide created by a nation, or more specifically: an economy.

Sign above the US-Mexico border reading "empathy"
Photo by Lisa Portes.

Cut to the main conference, which took place in San Diego. The themes of the conference—from the opening plenary through the affinity group sessions and the closing—were inclusivity, representation, and equity. In a session titled “All Hands on Deck,” leaders from TCG, LORT, SDC, AEA, USITT, and The Broadway League shared their practice and plans to promote greater equity in the American theater. In another session titled “We Are the Problem,” white artistic directors discussed the challenges and responsibilities of privilege and leadership. The sea change was striking. Having attended numerous TCG conferences in which artists of color carved out time and space for themselves between official sessions and tucked away in corners, it was astonishing to see those conversations take center stage.

Many of us also noted, however, that by the second day, two conferences were taking place: one amongst theatermakers of color, and a second one among white executive leaders. A border.

The reason for the harshness of the US-Mexico border is economic; it’s about jobs and resources. Yes, it’s also about discrimination, but discrimination that arises from a perceived economic threat. The border that cropped up at this year’s TCG conference was also, essentially, about jobs and resources. Who has jobs? Who needs jobs? Those with jobs becoming uncomfortable with those demanding jobs. On the ground, the conversation is about representation and creating a theatre that reflects the diversity of the United States in the twenty-first century. On the other hand, the mechanism by which that transformation will happen is economic. When we speak of equity and representation among organizations like TCG, LORT, SDC, AEA, USITT, and LBT, or between executive leaders and everyone else, the conversation appears to boil down to the distribution of jobs. But something is missing.

View from inside a barred window of a border fence
Photo by Lisa Portes.

I wonder if the creation of a twenty-first century polycultural American theatre might begin more organically with curiosity. What are you making? What am I making? What might we make?

“The least interesting meeting is the meeting in which your primary objective is to get a job and the person with whom you are meeting is deciding whether to give you one,” argued director Gary Griffin when advising a group of MFA directors. He challenged them to focus on the art. That’s the common ground. We are all in this field because we are passionate about the art.

And here I return to the speed-dating session in Tijuana. How quickly and with what ease we came to appreciate and admire one another’s work. With what swiftness my colleague, a white artistic director, began to put into place a structure by which to bring Mexican director, Martín Acosta to his theater for a residency. How rapidly did the false borders of ethnicity and nationality fade in the face of the value of the work itself.

“What are you making?” director Robert Woodruff asks when greeting a fellow artist. Not “What are you doing?” or, “What’s your next gig?” but, “What are you making?” 

Artistic curiosity is an interactive discipline. It requires the deliberate practice of moving beyond the comfort of recognition towards the startling and unforeseen. I wonder if the creation of a twenty-first century polycultural American theatre might begin more organically with curiosity. What are you making? What am I making? What might we make? When we ignite artistic curiosity, we create a natural path towards inclusivity, equity, and representation. Artmaker to artmaker, we explode economic borders and redefine the land.


Para pedir este articulo, traducido al Español, por favor escriba a [email protected]Titulado: Traducción para NOMBRE DEL ARTICULO.

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"What are you making?" is the best conversation starter! I love that. That's a kitchen phrase, and that's where the party always ends up. I often hear diversity conversations that start with the idea that We need to get Them to come to Our theater to see Us. Or, We need to get Them to produce Us, etc. Push/pull. How much more interesting, the idea of entering someone else's creative kitchen and taking the lid off the pot to see what's cooking.