Friday Phone Call # 35
J.J. El-Far of Harlem Arts Festival
As part of Harlem Week here on HowlRound I am speaking to a number of producing artists in the neighborhood. Here's a conversation with yet another bundle of bright Harlem energy, J.J. El-Far. J.J. is the Creative Director of the Harlem Arts Festival, which jumps off for the first time this weekend in the Marcus Garvey Park amphitheater with a line-up of music, theater, visual and movement arts celebrating Harlem today. We get a bit into the nuances of producing a new arts festival in the area and the complex relationship to the pressures of gentrification. I also get her talking about her own path to becoming a producer and what is in it for her. I seem to be on a mission of late to encourage more people to jump into this role as a means of creating their own space in the world. J.J. is definitely doing that, not only locally but also globally—as the Executive Director of Hybrid Theatre Works. She's also just completed the Theatre Communications Group's Young Leaders of Color program and has some inspired things to say about that experience.
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David Dower: Hi J.J.
J.J. El-Far: Hi.
David: I'm talking today to J.J. El-Far, who has two titles. She is the creative director of the Harlem Arts Festival, which is actually taking place this weekend that we're speaking. Normally we're not quite so on top of it around here. And she's also the executive director of Hybrid Theatre Works, and recently came off the panel at the TCG conference of ... Were you on the Young Leaders of Color?
J.J: Yup. I was in their program this year.
David: Great. So many different things we can talk about. Let's ... First of all, let me just get a sense of your background and give our listeners a sense of your background. So you are running these two organizations now, or are involved with the running of these two big things. One, as you were saying earlier, focused on Harlem, and then one that is a global organization. Can you talk a little bit about them?
J.J: Sure. So whenever people ask me to explain my work, I usually use the metaphor of comparing them as my children. I say, Hybrid Theatre Works is my first child, lovingly. And Harlem Arts Festival is my second. And it really does feel that way sometimes because, you know, when you start a non-profits art organization you're putting so much of yourself into them and into their creation. So, it is a very, very close relationship that I have with both organizations.
So, yes, as you said, the Harlem Arts Festival won't go up. The Inaugural Festival this weekend, Friday and Saturday, in Marcus Garvey Park, which is located between 120th and 124th streets in Harlem. And we have an outdoor amphitheater that is our main stage featuring local performing artists, as well as a second stage. And then we have a visual arts walk, and vendors, and activities for children. So it's a very diverse and hopefully interactive event for the whole family to take part. Really, continuing the legacy of Harlem's artistic merit and excellence and taking a contemporary look at the art that's being made here now. And on the other side is Hybrid Theatre Works, which is an international collective of theatre artists, and we are actively engaged in cultural diplomacy and international exchange projects working to produce new international work and identify ways that we can work together as a collective and using technology and ... So, that's really been the two motivating factors in my life.
And then I guess if I could just speak little bit about my background, I come to it as a producer and director of theatre. So, with Harlem Arts Festival, our core team makes up, Neil, Chelsea, and myself. Neil has a background in music, Chelsea's is in dance, and mine was in theatre. So we felt strongly that we wanted to have equal representation of those three elements in the festival. And with Hyper Theatre Works, both my producing partner, Tracy Francis, and I are half Middle-Eastern and half Euro mutt, so have what we refer to as a hybrid identity, or a hybrid cultural identity, which infuses itself in a lot of our work and influences the projects that we take on.
David: J.J., where does this stuff come together for you? Do you feel schizophrenic doing this sort of hyper-local global balance, or do you find that they're informing each other? How do you navigate that?
J.J: I reflect on that question daily. At times, I do feel schizophrenic. I think we are capable of doing a lot more than we think we are, and that's something that I tell myself. And I also feel that I love what I do, so working is fun. So, I'm constantly at it. I'm constantly working and when I'm fully committed to Hybrid, I'm fully at Hybrid and when I'm fully at Harlem, I'm there.
So I think it's, you know, it's a bit of a juggling act to stay present and focused on whatever project I'm working on at the moment. But I do find that they do inform one another in really interesting and unexpected ways. Particularly really finding commonalities and threads with our international associates and how that relates back to some of the artists I'm working with in the Harlem Arts Festival. So there is a dialogue between them. I think maybe I'm the only one that can hear it, but I'm hoping that in the coming year I can create a little bit more synergy between the two.
David; That's interesting. So, what are you finding as you're working with the Harlem Arts Festival, how is the neighborhood expressing itself through your work, or relating to your work at this point?
J.J: They have really come out in support of this festival, and it's been such a wonderful experience to see that. You know, at first, we encountered a bit of resistance because there is already so much going on in Harlem and there is this rich history. And so I think it's important that you establish yourself when you're a newcomer and say, "These are not just my intentions, but these are my actions to back it up."
We found that in Harlem, which is still very much, not so much a virtual community, but very much still, you know, a show up and be in person kind of a place. So, a lot of the relationships that we've built have been through volunteering for other community events and showing up to other peoples' shows and other peoples' events. And you really have to put the face time in, as we like to say. And you have to be there and listen, and really be receptive to this dialogue that's taking place in Harlem right now, which is a very, very interesting one. Every other conversation I had encounters gentrification and diversity and ... And there is very much this energy, for lack of a better term, there's a very palpable energy here of what we're referring to as the second renaissance. But, it's also in part, because there's a lot of new people moving into the neighborhood.
So, something I've been very engaged in and interested in is making sure that that dialogue has a face to happen, and I think that's partly where my work with Hybrid also crosses over. That it's about creating the safer community to have a dialogue. And the community that we're serving with this festival, more so than any one racial or cultural group, is the artists community. And that's who we're doing this for, and obviously the families and the people that live in the area can benefit from that. But, to establish Harlem as an alternative place where artists can come and afford to live and have their work be produced.
David: It's interesting being new, because I'm sitting here, new to ArtsEmerson and the commons is new to the field, and I ... How long have you been involved with Hybrid?
J.J: Hybrid is just about three years old.
David: So it's still also rather recent. It's interesting to me how often you end up having to speak about your aspirations and then it's really a lot about personal integrity, isn't it? As to whether or not you actually live out the things you've said and done.
J.J: It really is.
David: And over time people can come to trust you, but in the beginning ... Showing up, clearly important, but also, being able to follow through on your own commitments and your own vision is ultimately ... People have to believe you deserve it then.
J.J: Absolutely. And I think a huge part of that is that, at the end of the day, if you're a nice person and you do good work, you let the work speak for yourself. I think, this conversation around race and diversity and Harlem, obviously it's one that needs to be had, but I think not being African American, I do identify as an artist of color, but I'm representing the Habidis, you know, got to hold it down with Arab flavor. So coming into the conversation from a slightly outsider perspective gives me a different angle on it, and I think it's important to be having those conversations with our work, and letting our work really make the case.
David: This being the first year, how are you feeling heading into the weekend, about how the case is being made in this first festival? What are your highlights? Where are you doing it, exactly what you mean?
J.J: I am really proud of the artist selection we've put together for this.
David: Great lineup.
J.J: Yeah, it's an amazing lineup. And it's artists, not just from Harlem, thought mostly they are, but it's also artists that are taking part in that conversation and making work that is directly relevant to the community. So I'm really pleased with the work that we're presenting, and it's been a wonderful cultivation process and getting to know these various artists from all across different events that we've all gone to and found random people and encouraged them to apply, so it's really been a tremendous effort. And I think our commitment from the very, very beginning conception of this festival was, we will do everything the right way, in the sense that ... Not that, obviously, mistakes were made ... But we really have a commitment to taking our time and presenting a quality product that has room to grow organically, so that we're not trying to do too much in the first year, and it's more about quality than quantity. That's really been our commitment, is making sure our visual elements were really tight, making sure our online and virtual presence was in sync, and making sure that we presented a unified voice to the community.
David: Well, you seem to have done that very well. Actually, looking at the website, it doesn't feel like you're skimping on quantity either.
J.J.: We have about thirty-three artists. You know, I would like to see a little bit more theatre represented, but I think it was tricky because we didn't originally know what kind of slots we could offer folks, so it was hard for theatre artists to think in terms of a half an hour or an hour slot. But I definitely want to give a big shout out to all my theatre artists listening. If you have a piece or an idea for a piece that's relevant to Harlem, please apply next year. I want there to be twice as much theatre as there is this year. But we do have the Harlem Killer Whale project, which I'm very pleased to present, those girls are amazing. And I had the chance to see their piece and actually review it at the National Black Theatre. I review theatre for fun, mostly just to see shows, on Uptown Slater, which is a local blog. So I got to meet those girls and hang out after the show, and I like, "You have to apply, you are exactly who this festival is for, so please, please send in an application." We have Sheila Marie, and we have Kenny Holder, both doing work on the second stage, it's a little bit more intimate, with solo performances. So we're really excited about what we've got going on.
David: What are the challenges that you find in presenting theatre in this format?
J.J: Partly, we don't ... Just on a very technical level, we don't have lighting, so that's on limitation, because the festival is during the day, so we do not have theatrical lighting. I'd say, also, the time frame was a bit of a challenge. But now, having done this, I think next year we can make adjustments to feature certain performances, and really reach out to individuals and companies that we feel are of the second renaissance, and of this movement. I reached out to my colleague, David, of The Movement Theatre Company, who I met at the TGC conference, and we thought there might be a possibility of sneaking them in there at the last possible minute, but we're hoping they'll apply for next year, because I really am a huge fan of the work that they're doing.
David: It's always interesting to me, theatre presents so many challenges to things that are trying to get up and running. Once you figure it all out, then of course it's much easier. Good on you for tackling it in the first year. We'll watch and see how it goes in the future. Are you planning this as an annual festival?
J.J.: Oh yes, most definitely.
David: That's ambitious.
J.J.: It is, but I think, you know, we really did our homework. And in the beginning when we were researching what else was out there, and what else was happening in the community ... Harlem Stage does an unbelievable program, there's Harlem Week, there's the Charlie Parker Jazz Festival that goes up in that space. But nothing we found really was a multi-disciplinary art festival for Harlem, by Harlem, really showcasing the artists that are here now, in that space. If you've ever seen the amphitheater in Marcus Garvey Park, let me just tell you, it is a world-class venue. It is absolutely gorgeous, and it's been recently renovated. The whole point was to use that space to it's full potential, and really claim it for the community and for the artists that are making work here now.
The theatre, I was just going back to your question a second ago, I wanted to add that the theatre that we do have included this year is the stuff that was, like, the most nimble. To sort of go with the flow and fit into our schedule with a lot of poetry-based work and spoken word, and then we also have work by Queen Esther, who's a local vocalist and spoken word and theatre artist, and she's doing a variation on her piece that premiered at The Apollo, called the Billie Holiday Project. So it's been, each arts group had to sort of be a little flexible with what they were gonna present, but I hope that next year we can do more full productions, or one acts, or short works.
David: It seems like part of what's happening in Harlem is that people are reclaiming, or at least claiming, new visibility for these spaces. In some ways they've gone quiet in the mainstream, I'm not sure that they've ever been quiet in the neighborhood. How much programming has been going on in the amphitheater?
J.J.: They do have quite a bit, and it is annual. Charlie Parker's probably the biggest thing that most people know of. But it's like you said, it's really sort of known within the community, and people are like, "Oh yeah, yeah, they always have stuff there." But there's nothing that, if you went and hung out and met somebody in Brooklyn and asked them if they know where Marcus Garvey Park is, chances is they're not gonna know where it is. Whereas, I think across the city, Brooklyn is recognized more so than Harlem as sort of this cultural mecca, and the programming that they have in the parks there in the summer is attended by tons and tons of people from all over the city.
So we're really trying to establish Harlem in that way. Say, you've got two days, take a chance. Come up to Harlem. Well, not a chance, but ... Do something different, break out of your routine a little bit, come see what's going on here, because there's something really amazing taking place, and we want to share it with all of you and really welcome everybody into that conversation, and also showcase the work that's been going on up here. Because, God knows, if you're an artist that lives uptown, ninety percent of your gigs are downtown. So we're trying to sort of put our stake in the ground and say, "No, this is where we live, and it's where we get produced. It's where we make our work, and it informs our work, and it influences our aesthetic." So we want to showcase it for those people that are part of that.
David: There's this piece about, it comes up in every conversation, the current pressure of gentrification in Harlem. What's the neighborhood sense of this sort of artistic revival, this flowering that seems to be underway and how it relates to the efforts to maintain a space for this community and these artists in the face of gentrification? Is it seen as an ally? Is it seen as a danger? What's your sense of that?
J.J: I think it depends who you ask. There's definitely an established sort of an old guard of Harlem, and I don't mean to say that in any kind of patronizing way. These are the folks that have been here, that have put in the time, that have built up what Harlem is today. And so, as Artis Wilson says, we stand on their shoulders. And we're very much drawing from their inspiration, and also grateful to them for pioneering, in many, many ways. People like Rosa Rivers, and the folks that have really taken a stand to make continuously excellent work in Harlem, we just want to pick up the torch and keep it going. But also, I think it's our job as artists to make sure that we're giving the space for the community to have this conversation. The artists that you see on our stage are not all one aesthetic or one culture, they're representative of the diversity that's here now. And if that sparks somebody talking to somebody else that they would not have otherwise had a conversation with, we've done our job.
I really think this is about producing excellent artistic work, and allowing the community to have a space to come together and talk about it, and let that conversation lead into the other things that need to be talked about.
David: You were just on the ... You went through the Young Leaders of Color program for the last year.
David: Was it a year long? Talk a little bit about that program and the panel, as well. I've had some great programs with TCG, and really enjoyed, especially ... I was a mentor with the NewGens program, and we do a lot of sort of cross gathering with that program.
J.J.: Yeah, that's right. We probably were in the same room a couple of times.
David: Could have been, yeah.
J.J.: I have never felt more encouraged or more support given to my professional career than I have in the Young Leaders of Color program, so I encourage anybody and everybody that identifies as an artist of color to apply for that program. Well, they should find somebody that's done it, because you have to be nominated, excuse me. It's not actually an application process. But to find out more about it.
David: But now they know you've done it, so you're gonna get some phone calls.
J.J: Yeah, find me, I'll nominate you. It was such, such, such a wonderful experience. The impression I got from the entire conference, which really surprised me, was that the conversation about sustainability was directly connected to the conversation about increasing accessibility and diversity in the theatre. I thought this conversation about sustainability was gonna be like, "Oh, we need to find a better economic model, or market differently." No, no, no, it was everybody in the TCG conference turning to the young leaders of color and saying, "What do you have to say, what are your ideas? Because we want to hear from you." That completely shocked me, in a great way, and I was really, really honored to be part of that. They really gave us some excellent leadership training as far as identifying the values that we bring with us into our work, and how we identify leaders.
The people that I met there that are making really excellent contributions to diversifying their audiences and the artists on their stage, folks at Oregon Shakespeare Festival and a lot of the regional theatres are really trying to push themselves, and it's really evident when you have those conversations, that they're looking for the next great Asian American playwrights, and Arab American playwrights, and African American playwrights, and that's wonderful to see, it really is.
David: How did you wind up coming into producing?
J.J: I think like most people, by way of acting. You know, you start acting and then you realize that you need more creative control. So you're like, "Oh, well I guess I'll start directing." And then you start directing and you're like, "Oh, well, no one's gonna produce my plays if I don't." So then you start producing.
David: That's exactly ... Wait, wait, wait, that's exactly the path I went.
J.J: Yeah, I think that's a lot of people, and I don't think I'm alone with that. But I have found that I really, really love the role of producing, because I love building relationships with artists, I love finding folks that are just on the cusp of breaking out into something amazing, and having real conversations with them and building friendships with them that, as their career takes off and you guys have an ongoing relationship, and that's really been a real blessing in my career. But I think producing is, as I like to say, just makes the show go, do whatever you need to do, show up, pick up the programs, do the heavy labor when it's needed, pick up the extra thing. I mean, it's pulling all the little elements together that you never think is gonna be your job, and it's always your job, all those little things are always your job. It's really a rewarding experience when get it up there and you see people coming to experience and enjoy the work that you've put on. It's just so cool.
David: There's nothing quite like it as, watching the audience come when you're a producer is the real thrill. Especially when it's been, like in your case, these people who are gonna show up this weekend. It's as much about community organizing and, you know ...
J.J.: Oh my God.
David: ... community making, and they're gonna wander into this space and they're gonna experience something that you made for them.
J.J.: It's so true, and exactly like you said, it is totally about community organizing on the most grass roots level, especially with this festival. I've spent the last two days going around on my little bicycle around Harlem, and plastering the bejeesus out of Harlem, with every poster that we had. It's like I said, you always think that you're gonna have volunteers or someone else to help you. No, no, no. It's you, on your bike, with a roll of masking tape, going up to bodega and asking them, "Can in hang a flier in your window?" That is grass roots, that is commitment, and I think it's such a rewarding experience, I wouldn't have done it any other way. I think doing that, just today, just this afternoon, I met three new artists. I met a reggae singer, he gave me his CD, I saw folks in the park that didn't realize that the amphitheater was ever used.
I met people a little bit farther uptown, we're talking about a total of fifteen blocks, it's not even that far, that were like, "Oh, where is that again?" They had no idea that the park was there, and they've lived there their whole lives. This, just to me is like, nothing is ever as effective. No email campaign, no website, is ever going to be as effective as going out into the community, putting in face time, being nice, doing good work, and talking to people about what you're doing.
David: Are you dealing in some ways with old stories there? I know you're dealing with history and ancestors in the best possible way, because of the strong, wonderful tradition there. But is there also a sense of dealing with the perception of Harlem that's like a generation old, or a decade old, in terms of the changes in the neighborhood are dramatic, and they're very recent?
J.J.: Oh yeah.
David: I would imagine that for a lot of people, even fifteen blocks away, they don't have a current sense of what you're even talking about.
J.J: It's true. I mean, even just the conversation that I had with my friends and family when I said I'm moving to Harlem. They're like, "Are you kidding me? Really? Why?" It's great. Harlem is great, you have no idea. And then eventually I convinced them all to come and visit me and they were all like, "Oh wow, you're right." Of course I'm right. This is great, you all need to come see what's happening up here, because this is really something special. And I keep telling everybody I know that lives downtown and they're like, "Oh, we never go above 14th Street," or, "We never go that far," or, "It's too far for us to go." You know what? Take a little step outside your comfort zone and come see what's happening here, because you're gonna be surprised at how really exciting it is. So that's what I would say to the non believers that have yet to cross uptown.
David: Yeah, but then there's that double-edged sword. The more you convince people, the harder it's gonna be to hang onto it.
J.J: Yes and no. I see new places popping up all the time, and I think there is folks that have stakeholders in the quote unquote "authenticity" of Harlem, the people that want to maintain what it's been, and there's definitely value to that. But I'm really also excited by the folks that are opening up new boutiques and new restaurants, and they're appealing to this new generation of Harlemites that is interested in being part of Manhattan, and part of the larger conversation, and establishing Harlem as a place that people could come, spend an afternoon, spend a weekend. Not just come for one drink at Red Rooster and go home, but come, hang out a little bit, and see what's going on.
David: Let me switch topics on you for a little bit, because we could go on all day there, and I just find it fascinating. I lived in Greenpoint in Brooklyn a generation ago and was a community organizer there just as all this was happening. Me and my artist friends moved in there, and we ended up being both the leading edge of a thing, and also the kind of first defenders of the old thing.
J.J.: Yeah, that's good.
David: It was really a complicated place to stand. Now when you're working on the Hybrid, is that also located in Harlem? Are you working out of Harlem when you do that, or does that take you out of the neighborhood?
J.J: No, really the only thing that the two organizations have to do with one another is me. Hybrid is an organization with artists that live all over the place, all over the city, and so our work is mostly site specific, and we've done work in bars, on rooftops, in the streets, just really trying to do interesting site specific work that comes out to meet the people. We've used smaller venues as well, and we're hoping to have our first full production next spring, so we're looking for co-producers and space for a couple of new plays that we have our eyes on.
David: What are the challenges you're finding in approaching the global performance world?
J.J: You know, it's a really interesting place to be because we meet a lot of international artists that are doing really excellent work and we want to collaborate with them, so we started this program called the Artist Response Forum, where we identify a global issue or a concern that we feel is in the buzz, as we say, or people are talking about it or need to talk about it, and we put out a call for artists to create short form work. That can be live, it can be videoed, it can be recorded or live stream, it can be visual, poetry, dance, theatre, sort of anything that falls within the broadest definition of what theatre is. These short form pieces are presented then in site specific locations.
One, I think, really good example of how we do collaborations internationally is, last May we had this artist response forum, and the subject was, the Arab spring. So we called it, the revolution will be live stream. We had artists from all over New York, but also Arab American artists, and artists that were living in the Middle East. We ended up live streaming the entire event, and so we had an audience in about thirteen countries. It was really an exciting thing for us. We had a live Twitter feed that people were commenting on the piece, you know, the specific pieces as they happened. So there really was this global dialogue taking place, and that's something that we'd like to continue doing. So we are starting a new project now, called the Global Spotlight Series, which we're collaborating with CultureHub. CultureHub is a really unique facility, they're part of La Mama, so they have a space on Great Jones Street. It's essentially a large workshop space with really high tech capability for teleconference and video conferencing. So they're like a big room with a big Skype, but it's great because it doesn't reduce the theatricality of the experience when you're having a teleconference with somebody in another country.
It's not you on your laptop with your Skype, it's a large screen monitor with somebody projected in life size. So you really still preserve the theatrical experience, and it's not TV. So we're focusing on East Africa, and we've identified a few playwrights in East African countries, Uganda and Kenya, that we will be developing their plays and pairing them with American directors, and then presenting those works in CultureHub, which will then be live streamed as well. It's a combination of using technology, but also trying to put out concepts and teams that aren't global in nature and involve direct collaboration. That's something that we're constantly trying to experiment with and push the envelope.
David: Have you spoken with the folks at Sundance about the African writers that you're working with, and the East African focus?
J.J: Yes we have, actually, that's where we were able to find quite a few of our writers. Deborah Singway is one of our featured playwrights.
David: Oh great.
J.J.: Yeah, she's one of the people that, she was in the NewGen program at the TCG conference, and runs their East African program. So yeah.
David: Great, I'm glad to know, that's a good match of energies and visions.
J.J.: Most definitely. Deborah is wonderful.
David: Terrific. Well, this is so much, I can't ... I mean, even just imagining you back and forth between the two communities, La Mama is its own big world, and then you're trying to reach to the global world from La Mama, and into the Marcus Garvey Park, and through the festival, it must be a lot of fun.
J.J.: It is a lot of fun, and it's constantly stimulating, and as much as I am committed to both of these organizations and I really want to see them expand and continue their programming, I'm still constantly thinking about ways for them to improve and other opportunities that might be joined with what's going on with Hybrid and Harlem Arts Festival.
David: All right. Anybody you want to do specific shout outs to? I mean, obviously the TCG program was a pretty big, important one to you. Anybody else been important thus far in what you're doing?
J.J: Yeah, I was talking about the artists that are interested in making more international relationships and collaborations to check out Theatres Without Borders. I've been a core team member with them for a few years, and I'm really seeing what they've developed over the last few have been really exciting. They rolled out a new website a couple days ago and it's gorgeous, and it's a great starting place if you just want to meet people from other countries that are doing international theatrical exchange, it's sort of just like a network of volunteer artists, and it's a really wonderful resource. So I would encourage people to check that out.
David: Great. All right, well thank you for spending time and really, good luck this weekend. I look forward to hearing how it goes.
J.J.: Thank you so much.
David: Sorry I won't be there
J.J: Yes, thank you. That's all right. We're gonna have so many photographers and videographers all over that thing, it's gonna be crazy.
David: Well, I'll feel like I was there. Well, I'll look forward to hearing more about it. Thank you J.J.
J.J: All right, thanks so much David. Take care.
David: Okay, bye bye.