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Pooja Prema and The Ritual Theatre and The Rites of Passage Project

Building Our Own Tables Episode #6

Yura Sapi: Welcome back to the Building Our Own Tables podcast interviewing Black, Native, Asian, and other people of the global majority who have created arts organizations, movements, initiatives, practices, and beyond. We talk about finding new ways of working together that aren't replicating the same white supremacy culture we wanted to get away from. I'm your host Yura Sapi. Building our own tables is produced for HowlRound Theatre Commons, a free and open platform for theatre makers worldwide. And by Advancing Arts Forward, a movement to advance equity, inclusion, and justice through the arts by creating liberated spaces that uplift, heal, and encourage us to change the world.

In this episode, I talk with Pooja Prema, founder of The Ritual Theatre and the Rites of Passage projects. The Ritual Theatre creates original, courageously, raw, multi-disciplinary, and site-specific theatrical experience for intergenerational audiences. Their performances offers spaces for growth of authentic community and seek to restore our much needed connection with the ritual and the inspired potential within each of us. The Ritual Theatre desires to encourage all who collaborate in the work and all who watch to deeply celebrate the cycles of love, loss, and renewal that make us precariously and preciously human.

The Rites of Passage project is a live and virtual house of belonging and remembrance, and a movement celebrating women's lives. Their mission is to empower cis and trans women of all ages and ethnicities to recognize and reclaim rites of passage throughout our lives. Whether it be menstruation, pregnancy, or abortion, divorce, menopause, healing, trauma, immigration, claiming queer identity or any other significant initiatory life experience. The Rites of Passage living museum installation-performances and other iterations in print and film are intended to act as catalysts for introspection, transformation, and connection to inspire us to create new ways to honor the myriad cycles and transitions in their lives.

As a community ritual artist, Pooja Prema experiments with and creates offerings through multiple media, ritual, theatre, dance, storytelling, music, and visual art. It is through a multiplicity of media that she attempts to remember and reconnect herself and others to nature, to each other, and to our deeper longings. Her work has been inspired at a core level by the folk ritual theatre traditions of her homeland, Kerala, India. In each of these traditions, all forms of art making are simultaneously incorporated to produce a whole work of art, which is a once healing, connective, and liberative. In this episode, Pooja shares offerings, including our resilience as people of color and marginalized people about valuing and experiencing group conflict, communication, and about the impacts of globalization and what role we play as people who grew up in the US. Stay tuned for more and enjoy. I always start off with asking folks about your origin story. So tell us your origin story for The Ritual Theatre and Rites of Passage.

ep. 6 Pooja Prema: The Ritual Theatre & Rites of Passage

Pooja Prema: Well, I'm from South India, I'm from Kerala. And I grew up there until I was four and a half, I am 38 years old now, and I live in Western Massachusetts. So I immigrated here to Long Island and proceeded I think like a lot of childhood immigrants to become very assimilated into white American culture. And it was really only when I moved up here in Western Massachusetts for college, I went to Bard College at Simon's Rock that I started having to reckon with my difference that indeed I am a brown woman in white society. I realized actually during a solo hitchhiking trip around the USA when I was 17, I realized just how much I didn't fit in here and what an oddity I was as a brown woman in a largely white America. And I was being constantly asked about my ethnicity, all sorts of pointed questions that I didn't have an answer to, which led me to going back actually to South India to discover how to tell stories.

And basically, I had all these stories from my travels at that time, and I didn't feel like I could do them justice, I didn't know how to tell those stories. But I had this knowing somewhere inside of me that my people knew how to tell stories. And also that I didn't have answers to these questions that I was being asked about India, a lot of stereotypical questions. And I needed to have a little bit more of those answers. So I began this whole odyssey back to India when I was in school, I was a junior. And at that time, I wasn't necessarily into the theatre. But my journey to India is what brought me really into the theatre. And how that happened was not because I was trying to get into theatre or learn about theatre. I was always a dancer, and I had always love movement. I would say I am and I was very shy, but I began that journey, as I said, to learn how to tell stories.

And inevitably learning how to tell stories involves the theatre, involves all the arts in India. And so what happened from one encounter to another just really quite magically, and this was in 2001, I want to say. I met these amazing performers and scholars of the theatre arts, the ritual arts in South India. I got to see dozens of different, ancient, classical and folk forms of storytelling of theatre in South India in Kerala and lived with different families for over the course of maybe nine months. And in that process, I got to really be immersed in the richness of my heritage. And simultaneously, this juxtaposition of, yes, my people really know how to tell stories well. And these days, people don't go out to see live theatre as much as they used to because of globalization, modernization. Especially at that time, the influx television was still new.

And so you would have obviously TVs for the most wealthy. But in terms of working class and village folks, TV was just coming on the scene. But you'd see one TV and multiple households gathered around it or just a few in a village. But that was enough to make an impact in the seasonal life of people so that less and less people were going out to see these live ritual performance events. And that was really heartbreaking for me to see that change. But yet knowing they're watching the TV because there's this human need for stories and storytelling. Ironically in that journey, I found that my own family who didn't go to these folk forms of theatre, by and large, still were master storytellers at home in the domestic ground. Not only, but primarily those were women. And that really showed me the power of storytelling as a craft and mode of empowerment for women, for rural women, for urban women.

And that that kind of a folk art, I would say, goes largely unnoticed and unrecognized, but it is still very much alive in those small ways. Even as the larger cultural we need of ... The integrity of storytelling and culture building was disintegrating because of modernity and globalization. Anyways, that was my introduction into my heritage around storytelling and the performing arts. At that time, I was, as I said, very shy. I didn't think of myself as an actor, I certainly didn't want to be on stage. I didn't even ever think I would direct. But that really planted the seeds for a lifelong journey in the theatre. Because after I got back, I focused my thesis on storytelling and storytelling cultures and how these stories, particularly oral stories, we literally create our reality. We create culture, and we create community or we don't and we have somebody else say the mainstream narrative, whether that's a government narrative or a larger narrative of consumerism and globalization.

We let that control our lives and dictate what our lives become and what our communities become, what our shared reality becomes, and even what our personal mythology is. Myself, an immigrant, a person of color to this country, I learned English by watching television. So I really knew firsthand the power of a box and how it created my inner landscape and whole notion of what reality was. So I was on a mission to reclaim storytelling. And in that journey, I also started getting into theatre. But even then, I got into theatre because of the work that we did as people, as human beings to discover who we really were. And not because I wanted to create something to be on stage, it was really, I would say this deeply personal, transformation, and spiritual work of movement and voice and being in relationship with other people that drew me into the performing arts as well as storytelling.

So over time, I became a performer even though I was really shy to be on stage. I went back to Kerala, it wasn't that much later. I'd say it was maybe four years after I first went back. I went back to Kerala and I got some training in a dance form called Mohiniyattam, which is the classical dance form of Kerala. And I had a vision as I often create things because of visions, I had a vision of me on a bicycle with a whole troop of other people traveling through Kerala performing in villages with the intention to raise consciousness and have one-on-one in community conversations about the disappearance of village culture. And so somehow I did that. This is in the era before really mobile communications was a thing or the internet, which is really great because otherwise this would have all been Instagram. It was just such a different time, we didn't have any of those things, we didn't have Facebook.

So I wrote letters, I wrote a letter, was translated into my language, which is Malayar. That letter was circulated around to people, and they decided to host me. I originally started with a couple other men, but I ended up doing this as a solo bicycle tour. It was called this Kerala Cycle Yathra. I did travel around from village to village. I really wanted this to be a circus troupe of Indian people that were dedicated to this idea of reclaiming the heart of the village. Martin Prechtel who is an artist and teacher, and writer who I discovered only in the last few years who trained, studied, and lived with Maya, peoples in Guatemala. He talks about reclaiming the village heart, and so I just want to honor that languaging that he used. But that was very much what I was doing back then. When was this, 2005 and probably or 2006, maybe even before that. I have to go find the records. But nobody who was a woman bicycles in Kerala.

When you reach puberty, it's a really unsaid forbidden thing, you should not be on a bicycle. You should not do a lot of things. So it was completely taboo for me to do that in the first place. To go on a tour by myself, it was dangerous. Also, I was in a dance sari, I looked like a complete spectacle riding on this bicycle. But it was also really inspiring, I think, especially to young women, it showed them that there was something possible. Of course, I had incredible privilege, a woman that grew up in India in Kerala probably could never pull that off because of family ties. I had all sorts of privilege that let me just do that. However, the reason why there wasn't this like motley crew of cohorts was because it's very hard in India to do that whether you are any gender. You have all these ties and restrictions and expectations of family, of obligations to work for, take care of other family members that can't really get away for like a month, even a week, even a few days.

So for the most part, I did this alone. I had friends here and there. And that was really sad, it was really disappointing because I've always been someone that's created theatre because of my need for community and togetherness and building visions together. Reclaiming the village heart is a community endeavor, but it ended up being a solo bicycle tour through villages and towns. I performed an old lady clown that I had, which drew from some clowning traditions in India as well. And as you know, a clown can get away with a lot of things. So my clown got away with doing all sorts of naughty things. I don't know what it would be like today, I think it would be very different. But at that time really, we were at the edge of before the television and modernity really took over people's lives.

And like I said, everyone didn't have a cell phone, there was no internet. So I would perform to courtyards and village squares and backyards filled with sometimes hundreds of local village people in all ages, grandparents all the way down to little kids and babies. So it was an incredible gift of my lifetime to experience that and to visit some of the ritual performers that I knew when I first went back and performed for them in their families, in their villages. So it was this incredible thing. And it was also really difficult and heartbreaking and complicated because India is complicated and life is complicated. I'm doing this very taboo thing. Anyway, that was sort of my first foray into solo performance on a large scale. And when I came back to the states as I inevitably did, I really did try and live in India, but I found that I needed to come back here at some point.

When I came back, I moved back up to Western Massachusetts, which was never intended, it's just what happened as I still knew some people here. It wasn't too far from my parents who live in New York. I eventually found myself wanting to make theatre again. But what I found is that I was in a totally white in every way. This was fifteen years ago here, thirteen years ago. White culture of art making, of theatre making, of culture making in every way. There were very few people of color here back then. And pretty much I feel like no one doing anything in the performing arts. And even now, it's just beginning. Some critical thought around that in the last year, I would say.

So I felt really isolated and without a whole lot of analysis even on my part about the white supremacy of American art and theatre culture. I felt like, all right, I'm not included in this club, I don't have the entry card. No one ever gave it to me. Even though I studied theatre in the West, even though I grew up here primarily. I grew up as a middle-class immigrant brown woman. I didn't have the card to the club, nobody asked me to be a part. It was mostly older white men running everything, and also was completely uninteresting to me. So I'll just do my own thing. And that's why in 2011 I started making site-specific work. And then in 2012, I made my first play here. That was a site-specific ritual ensemble, collaborative work called Isis-Chernobyl and started The Ritual Theatre. At that time, it was called Rogue Angel.

Really my intentions is what I want to share, that I was really inspired by what I got to experience in Kerala, in South India, which was that art was not something secondary. It wasn't an ad-on, it wasn't entertainment for the rich. It wasn't something you did just because it was trendy. It was something that was woven into village life, was seasonal. It was directly related to people's relationship with their community and with the places they lived in, with the actual ecology. And it was intrinsic to life, it was spiritual. It was how people made meaning. It was really a necessary part of life even though that had been eroding. By the time that I got to go back in college, it had already been eroding, but I still got to see and experience that firsthand. I wanted to create a theatre that was all of that for a modern world, a modern place, and people who were displaced from any sense of place and community. And that art had a moon beyond entertainment.

So I just really wanted to begin to create that in a fresh way here. I feel like I was given these ancestral heirloom seeds of what ritual theatre was and could be. And that I had and continue to have a responsibility and a privilege to tend those seeds for the future generations. Knowing that now, I went back to Kerala three years ago now, and these things have eroded a lot more in the course of time so that even the traditions that exist in Kerala, they are so hyper-modernized now. We have a lot more influx of even things like fluorescent lights and stereo loudspeaker music. And the whole feel of village life has changed. We can hardly call it a village, it's more like a urbanized sprawl. The arts too feel less alive, they feel less authentic in themselves than they did twenty years ago. I'm sure fifty years ago, it was different even than that. I know that like so much in the world, the beauty of my heritage is dying fast, and I don't know that they will continue.

Of course, some threads of it will continue and be revived, and I always have faith in that. But I also know that the pace of life and globalization is much faster than these forms. It was a slow culture, everything like Slow Food movement, slow culture, and that's dying there. So I don't see myself living in Kerala. At least now and then your future, I see myself probably living in the West. But I still feel a responsibility to tend those seeds for the future generations, for my people, for all people. And to create a culture, a legacy of what theatre and the arts and ritual theatre can be where everything is not compartmentalized so that dance is over here and music is over here, and quote, the theatre is over here and visual art is over there. How do we weave all these things back into a wholeness such as they once were in all of our cultures that were once connected to a place, to the earth, to community?

How do we begin to build that again at a time when we don't even remember what that was like anymore? That's what I'm trying to do with The Ritual Theatre. Even though the work looks modern in a lot of ways, it looks like site-specific theatre in the West, there is an intention of really depth and tenderness in community, taking care of each other. And values rooted deeply in a soil that is not colonized and not, say, Western, not even commodified in the ways that we're used to theatre being in this country in this time. So that is my whole long slightly abbreviated story of how I came to start doing what I do.

Yura Sapi: Chapter 20, ridge walking and globalization. When you were talking about your education, the most valuable education was not in university, but rather actually in cultural community. And I also have experienced that in terms of these university degrees and titles not teaching me what I value the most that I've learned. But using them to try to get the card, like you were saying, the card in to get into these spaces and these positions of power ultimately to be able to actually do things.

Pooja: I know for me; my university is a tiny college. My graduating class was one hundred people or less, fifty people, I think. Sorry, fifty people. That was the most at that time. So it was a really small liberal arts college, but really white. I may have been the only person of color in my graduating class. Therefore, I was steeped in whiteness so much I didn't even see it. I really didn't see it until in the last few years honestly. I really loved my college education. I found, especially at that point, there was a real emphasis on critical thinking. And my theatre classes were awesome. However, they were totally Western and white. And the only way that I was going to get anything other than that was to literally go back to India or go to another country. And that was true for most of the fields.

Luckily, I was in a college that let me do that, that let me do graduate level work as an undergrad. And let me do basically whatever I want because they knew if she's going to stay in this college and she's one of our only non-white people in this college, we better let her do whatever she wants basically. And they did. And it's good for them that they did, and it's good that they were awake enough to do that. These were really smart people, but the college was incredibly limited, right. So yes, I did appreciate my theatre education here. And yes, the deep values of why I make theatre don't come from here, they come from India. And they came because I made my way there not because they were ever like, "Maybe you should go back to India," or, "maybe you should learn forms that are not Western."

No, the whole canon, the literary canon, the theatre canon, the visual art canon, everything was white of course. But I find that is completely unacceptable. I also wanted to say that back in India was and has been the case because of colonization that the traditional ways of passing down these art forms through what we call in India the guru–shishya relationship, guru–shishya tradition has been dying because of the same forces that everything else is dying. And those long-term relationships, we're talking about a fifteen, twenty-year relationship between a student and teacher sometimes within a family. That's the way these forms were passed on. But as the whole structure of the society changed and capitalism, colonials then took over the country.

What we started to see is that performers were unable to make a livelihood the way they used to in the feudal system. And that they were thinking, "How are we going to continue this? We need to be part of the system." The state started making universities to preserve some of these forms. But basically, they have been in a process of institutionalizing ancient theatre and various art forms in order to preserve them and in order to literally give them legitimacy in a colonial paradigm. It's a very dangerous thing to do. And what I observe happening is that on the one hand, there is some preservation that has truly happened because of institutionalization. You've had certain teachers in certain forms that have managed to transmit and preserve their transmission for many, many students, whereas before it would have been hard to find them. Students that are able to go through a four-year program, get a degree and continue in this art form perhaps. At the same time, you have the arts structured in ...

The same things that you and I are struggling with in the West, those things have been super imposed in India, and that is never good for anybody. It also leads to a narrowing of the forms and diluting, and at worst, really missing the mark, really losing the transmission, the heart of the transmission and making something that's standardized but not alive. So it's really tricky in India this whole university thing, I think is worth saying. And that the guru–shishya tradition is dying out. I will say that my teacher in Mohiniyattam and her husband have done a lot of work to try and preserve and offer other models of what guru–shishya based education for preserving art forms can be. They've done an incredible job, and I just want to name that. Their names are Nirmala Panicker and Venuji, they started an Institute called Natanakairali based in Kerala for the preservation of Koodiyattam, which is one of the oldest performance forms in the world. It's Sanskrit based, it's from Kerala as well as Mohiniyattam.

And it continues in the guru–shishya tradition and continues to pass down the traditions with the highest level of artistic and cultural integrity. So I'm really grateful that folks like that are continuing to do that work in India. But it's always a struggle because in order to feel legitimate, you feel like you need to play the masters game. The master of being the white colonial master who created institutions and grants, and blah, blah, blah. There is a hierarchy that never used to be there before that artists are having to contend with now, and not everyone can. And particularly these folk forms, they're not meant to be institutionalized, they're really grassroots. So I wanted to mention that dichotomy, it's really important even though we're mainly talking about the West. For those listeners who are people of color from other countries or who have lineages from other countries, we need to know that this whiteness is not something that just affects us in the US or in the West. It's something that affects everybody everywhere through the history of colonization, and it affects the arts everywhere.

Yura Sapi: Absolutely. I'm finding myself in this space where I want to be able to go to Quechua communities, Runa, and specifically Ecuador Indigenous communities. That's where my heritage descendancy comes from on my mom's side. And be able to, one, get immersed in my own culture and also using my US privilege in an ancestral purpose. Sensing and seeing how I'm valuing the university and the academia to be able to get me there and do that in terms of funding and grants and all these things. And I think that's something that I need to reconsider and say it's not the only way that I can do this. And perhaps for a lot of us too, thinking about what are the other ways that we do this that aren't giving into white supremacy, institutionalizing our culture, and giving it away basically is what I'm thinking too. One grant is good, but it's not enough. And we're putting a price on something that's priceless.

Pooja: Yeah. I found that back then almost twenty years ago, eighteen years ago when I went back and then when I moved there, again, I didn't have a language that used the words white supremacy culture. But I even then very much was passionately against grants. And I would go around telling everybody I met, I would say, "Look, I'm not here from a grant. I'm not here from a US institution. I'm here because I worked and I'm here now." And it made an impact on folks because they just assume that everyone from the West is here on a Fulbright here in India or wherever else. And that there on that academic paradigm as voyeurs that are there to take essentially. I wanted to disrupt that very consciously. Now, though, I think, well, maybe grants aren't so bad, maybe there is a way. Obviously, it helps you get there, it helps you do some of the work, but it's a double-edged sword situation.

I totally feel that you're saying. I don't want to reinforce these structures and yet we're caught in them. So I'm really curious about how we can create ways that are not within those structures, especially connect with our own heritage. I also found that I can't say that I'm supporting the thriving of performing arts in Kerala, I'm not right now. I really wonder what can I do for my homeland? Maybe that's a longer term exploration for me and a very complex answer. But I found when I was young and I was there, I would meet these amazing performing artists. But the majority, whether it was spoken sometimes or whether it was held inside, they were really hoping that I was their ticket to the US, that I would bring them here to do a tour.

That was a really awkward position to be in because I didn't even want to do that in the sense of I didn't think it would be beneficial. I think it would have been in a lot of cases detrimental because you are just reinforcing this colonial paradigm where the top of the hierarchy, the best that you can ever do as a performing artist in India is make it to the US or make it to Europe and do a tour. And you make a bunch of money and you come back and you can build a bigger concrete house. Then everybody thinks, "Wow, they've really made it." I mean, this is happening not just in the performing arts in Kerala, it's a thing in the arts in India. I didn't want to reinforce that idea that that's how you make it or that that's what success is if you're an artist in India. And yet, I didn't know how to say that, how to communicate that with people. It was such a bigger discussion than I could even get into in a lot of cases.

Yura Sapi: In part, it's something that I have thought about as that's what I can do in my role. Not necessarily as much bringing artists to the US because, especially when I started Balistikal, the LGBTQ+ arts space here in Bogotá, Columbia where I'm at now, I had this idea that visas are super complicated. And I even did a workshop on the O1 artist visa and just found out that it's a lot more complicated. So I was thinking more about getting funds to artists from the US. That's still part of what I'm interested in in terms of getting resources from the US to Latin America. But on a broader scale, it is still one illegitimate state to another. There is even another layer of colonization there in terms of the Indigenous/Native people in both, in Turtle Island and Avayela, all of the Western hemisphere. And as we're talking about too, the Eastern.

So yeah, I think there's a lot that I consider. Because even when I say American, I don't like saying American because there's a lot of America. But then also America is simply a European name that was given to this land. This idea of living in this colonized state, how do we survive it? Living in capitalism, we can't be totally outside of it.

Pooja: How do we move beyond even just our mental, and especially our mental configuration of reality around capitalism? How do we move beyond that our worth has to be monetized? We are indeed living within this capitalist structure, so we need to make money. But how do we not define our worth and our goodness and our work, our artistic work or our communities or dreams based on money? To think critically of modernity and the process of globalization and modernization is part of my privilege because I feel that I have I moved here, learned English watching television, grew up eating fast food, all of it, fast culture.

Really lived the lifestyle that so many people in India want to live and are aspiring, and oftentimes successfully living out right now. I know that that dream, call it the American dream or the dream of modernity is a one-way ticket to hell. It means the erasure of spirit, of culture, and of ecology. And they don't know that because just like me, I'm not talking to everyone, but the majority of people think things are better overall in the West. And, yes, there is a greater abundance of material wealth, but at what cost to people's health and wellbeing, community, and the soil? As a bridge walker, I like to say, you're a bridge walker, I'm a bridge walker. It's a lot to see everything from the bridge, to see what's being lost. One half is running to this other side and there's nothing there. But you can't say to people, "No, you shouldn't want that." Why should they not want that? Of course, they want to live like me. I'm terribly privileged living here in the US.

Yura Sapi: I think about that in terms of my family, a line of people who assimilate. And yeah, it is the US American dream. But yeah, it does feel like at the cost of what? And then wanting to be that change in the cycle. Chapter 21, time is not linear. The vision that you had about you on the bike touring. Having that vision before it happening and then basically manifesting it, because I definitely have these moments. And this is why I think about time as not linear because there are moments in my life where moments of the 'past' are influencing my present and are also influencing my future. And my future is influencing me now.

I think a couple of nights ago, I was really stressed out and overwhelmed by living. I guess it's like living in this modern world like you're talking about. And, yeah, de-connection with the earth, all of the pandemics, globalization. I asked my past and future selves for help. My future self, what will you say to me in this present moment? And my past self, child or younger person, what would you say to me in that moment? Not even say, it's like, yeah, these visions sometimes are just feelings, different senses that might help get through.

Pooja: I like this idea of the future informing our present because I find that actually really liberating. I think a lot about my past, but I feel haunted by my future sometimes in a way that is full of haunting because I'm like, "How's that going to happen?" But yeah, in the Cycle Yathra, it was really a vision of me feeling free. Me feeling free looked like riding a bicycle wearing a dance sari. Also, dance sari is not something that you're supposed to wear in public. So against, highly taboo and strange of me. But it's what I felt like in a liberated moment of selfness, this expanding from their community around me who was also liberated, who wanted to experience life beyond the confines of what was socially acceptable in India. I had no idea how I would do that or pull that off, but the desire was so strong that I just went for it.

And I just put all my heart into what it meant to me to want to somehow honor and celebrate and just really serve the idea of the village and the village heart. And I just wondered for it. Then, yeah, it came true, but it wasn't ... There's still all these moments of flash whenever I talk about this, I see all these moments of time when I traveled there. There are really beautiful, precious moments I feel very blessed to have experienced in this lifetime. There was also a lot of really difficult things that I put myself through that I was completely unprepared to be in a position like that at such a young age. Had a lot of eyes on me, and it wasn't always good eyes. It was eyes of patriarchy, eyes of conditioned male body supremacy and fear.

A lot of people's projections of fear onto me and my body and what would happen. So I didn't foresee that. I foresaw the liberating parts. I don't know, maybe it was a lot more difficult than I ever could have imagined it was going to be actually. It was probably one of the most difficult things I've ever done in my life. Even though now I think about it fondly, I don't recall those hard things as much. It's interesting. When you talk about past and present and future, it's like, oh yeah, the portions of how we feel and see those spaces is shifting over time as well.

Yura Sapi: Thinking about time in a different way, we often think about it as the start and the end. And I personally have learned that that's not true. It makes it a little complicated because sometimes I'm not living in the present moment enough. But yeah, thinking about this time as cyclical and a journey and different moments influencing other moments. I think about the moment where I got my Colombian and Ecuadorian citizenship, I think I was thirteen. My parents took my siblings and I to the consulates in New York, and we got those citizenships because of each of my parents. And I didn't realize what that would mean, but now it means that I can live in Ecuador and Colombia, and the US because I'm a citizen, and I have the rights and responsibilities of that. Thinking about moments in the future that are affecting me now are influencing me now. And also knowing that the future is something that we don't necessarily see, the past and the present in front of us because we see can in the future because we can't. Chapter 22, resilience. Tell us about 2020 Vision.

Pooja: 2020 Vision is part of the Rites of Passage project, which is a theatre work that I began in 2013. Rites of Passage, it was called then. It's a project about initiation. What is initiation for modern people, for modern women and feminine beings specifically right now in America in the context of peoples who have been colonized and displaced, removed from community? How do we begin to think about our lives in the context of rites of passage or initiation? How do we begin to create a culture that honors that for ourselves, for our friends and our family. That is the larger intention for this project. And it uses all the kinds of art making, performance storytelling, visual art, film, photography and music to communicate this whole concept of rites of passage.

So we took over a house of twenty one rooms. And each room represented an archetypal stage or a theme in women's lives from birth to death. I did that in 2013 here in Western Massachusetts in a historical mansion that used to be a women's club. Those staying in the US, there were these women's club buildings that were primarily for middle class to upper middle class white women, eventually working women. And it was clubs that supported them basically and gave them spaces to exist outside of the domestic sphere, outside of home. There were actually revolutionary spaces even though they were for white women.

Anyway, this happened in this building, and it was incredible. It was with sixty five women age three to eighty nine. And since that time, I started making a book, a large format photo book of essays of this to spread this idea of rites of passage for women using the arts. In seven years, oh, so much has happened. I really needed to do the performance again, the whole production, the whole creation again because as a brown woman immigrant here, I knew that it didn't represent the diversity of voices in America. There is a Latinx population here that are cut off from 'the arts'. There is African-American population, which again are not part of those, the art world. And even my art has not been inclusive of those populations because of where I'm situated geographically, and just my lack of connection in the past with Latinx and Black folks. Where I'm living is not where those folks are or just don't have an entry point.

Black Lives Matter, #MeToo, climate change, the dissolution of fascist state, at least in people's minds that there's a problem. Dissolution of the reification of America being this great country that we have to make great again. All of this stuff has been happening in the last seven years in the consciousness here. I really wanted to speak to all of that as part of the rights of passages that we experienced. So I wanted to do a whole new one, which is where 2020 Vision came into my mind. 2020 Vision is, of course, clear sight, the capacity to see clearly reality before us, behind us, and all around us. I started seeing this all new house that would center women of color with all new rooms that would address things like immigration and queer identity and abortion, miscarriage, healing, physical, emotional, intergenerational healing and legacy, ancestral reclamation, reconnection to the earth.

All these things that the first Rites of Passage didn't quite touch into, it did in some ways. But it really didn't talk about initiation from the perspective of people of color, Black folks, Indigenous folks. It wasn't the focus. I couldn't possibly stand with this work, Rites Of Passage, as a body of work to share in the world without doing that. So for the last two and a half years, I've been working on 2020 Vision. And it was supposed to happen this last summer, but we moved it because of COVID, which is a good thing. Now, we are planning it for this August of 2021, and we're back at the same house, which is really exciting. But it's ironically something that is happening because of COVID. The women's club became an art center, and they generally have programming most of the time.

In 2013, we were the first thing to ever happen in the building after it became an art center. So it really worked. But this time, they wouldn't have been able to rent it to us for the amount of time that we needed, just about a month. So ironically, COVID made it so that we could do it back at the women's club. We have this beautiful house to take over and really live it out as a visionary world of people of color, women of color. What would the world look like if it was dreamed up and created and lived by liberated women of color? Because Rites of Passage: 2020 Vision is a space for healing and remembrance. Being able to tell the stories of what our lineages have endured and seeing the commonalities of what colonization and displacement have done to us as people with bodies that are actually living out the inheritance of oppression. It's as much of a space to be honest about those legacies as it is to reclaim the sovereignty and integrity and resilience of our legacies that we are more than our oppression.

Who are we beyond colonization, beyond white supremacy? I think it's really a tricky moment in time whether you're a woman or a queer person or a person of color to not get caught in the trap of believing that we are our oppression. adrienne maree brown talks really beautifully in Pleasure Activism and Emergent Strategy. Both of those books are really big inspirations for 2020 Vision. It's so important that especially as organizers and culture makers, visionary artists, we source ourselves from a deeper place than our oppression. And our tendency to operate around our oppression, around what's wrong.

Yura Sapi: Centering whiteness. Centering the 'dominance', centering of other instead of ourselves.

Pooja: Instead of ourselves and instead of the resilience and the beauty of ourselves, which is what has been stolen from us and really everyone is our true nature and our true inheritance, which is strength and power and remembrance and goodness. And the ability to remember that, whether you are from Asia or the African diaspora or the Americas, or wherever. It's like, who are you deeper than the last hundred or several hundred years? Who are you deeper than that? That which can never be erased or taken away because of white supremacy or colonization. It's still a part of us. And until we source ourselves in that resilience, we won't be able to create a liberated world. So 2020 Vision envisions and lives out, actually we want to embody these rooms, fill them with art and objects that make this liberation tangible.

And we want to live in bodies in 2020 Vision that are free. We're not saying we're perfect or we're 100% healed because that's never the point of being alive. But that we are whole, we are intrinsically whole, there's nothing missing. There's nothing broken just because we are in a process of healing and remembering ourselves in our lineages. And that it is the time to put people of color in the center, in the position that we are shaping the story, shaping the narrative of the way forward. Not only the way forward, we're talking about the past, the present in order to move forward. And that we're not asking permission. We're not asking permission from white folks or from institutions or from 'the art world or the grant making hierarchy or any of this in order to do this. We're just taking up the space out of our own volition.

And rights of passages for everyone, it's not just for women, it's not just for people of color. It's really for our whole human family and non-human family, but we're centering people of color and women of color. All the projects that are happening now, whether it's podcasts or books or other works of art, exhibitions, online projects, it's really beautiful to see this wave of consciousness that's centering of color. And I want to be a presence within that wave of visioning the future and calling for the future that invites us to move beyond duality and oppositionariness because that just ends up replicating the same systems of oppression that we're grappling with right now. We're all grappling with our pain. For me on a personal level, Pooja Prema, every day, I have to sit with my pain, my emotional, physical, spiritual pain. Much of which, if not all, is due to the inheritance of a colonial and patriarchal legacy that's older than colonialism.

How do I be present for that pain and know that I'm not that pain, I'm much more vast and deeper beyond that pain? Which is not to spiritually bypass pain or oppression or patriarchy or white supremacy at all, it's to be present with all of it and to source ourselves yet deeper into our true nature, which is freedom. How to be all of this without it being abstract. I'm not talking about concepts, I'm talking about something rooted in the body as Resmaa Menakem talks about in his beautiful groundbreaking book, My Grandmother's Hand. Until we live out freedom in the body, it's just a concept. For me, theatre, the arts, it's about living whole freedom in the body. It's about showing people that come through this house next August a living example of embodied liberation with women of color.

I'm really excited about it, especially when I talk about it. Right now, there's about fifty five people involved from all different diasporas all across the country, mostly East Coast. The vision is to, yes, create this book and to create an online video version. But moreover for this someday to become grassroots movement that's like the vagina monologues where people anywhere can create their own versions of Rites Of Passage. Because whether you have two or three rooms or dozens of rooms, the heart of it is what is a rite of passage, what is initiation to you in your community? What are the things that you're grappling with, and how can you use the arts to create empowerment for your community? How can you create resilience?

I think we're really well timed in 2020 Vision happening in 2021 with everything else that's happening in the country right now, in the globe right now. With the global pandemic, we are facing multiple pandemics. It's not just the COVID-19, we have been for a long time dealing with the pandemic of patriarchy and white supremacy culture, capitalism. And until we start to see that all of these issues have the same basic sources of disconnection from the earth and community, we won't be able to solve them either. So I literally love that we're bringing all of these themes under one roof in 2020 Vision.

Yura Sapi: Chapter 23, valuing and experiencing group conflict.

Pooja: Rites of Passage and Ritual Theatre are organizations, but I wouldn't say they're organizations in the traditional sense of being an organization because we're not that big and formal. But how are we creating this project, 2020 Vision, in an alternate way that is beyond the white supremacy, patriarchal, capitalist paradigms? So I think that's really the journey that we're on. I don't think that I have answers to say, yes, we've done it. We're on the journey to find out. I'm a person that's used to working on the ground with human beings face-to-face. So creating 2020 Vision on a longer timeline, a lot of it online is definitely a challenge for me. But I think where I have started is through the course of time gotten really clear on what my values are around, why do this? And who's it for?

So I got really clear on the values, and you can find the values on the website. At the heart of it are things like self-care. And I mean caring for the self on all levels, physically, emotionally, mentally, spiritually. I am in the process of learning, how do I care for myself as a prerequisite to caring for others, to creating community, to creating art, to being of service, to humanity? How do I see that I am that microcosm of the macrocosm? And if I don't care for my own needs, I can't possibly be of service. I think that is the complete opposite of white supremacy, patriarchy, and capitalism, which is all about constant output, constant production running around with our heads inflated but our bodies not very grounded, not very present in our bodies.

Along with that is a desire to have a community structure that is circle based and non-hierarchical. I think at the same time it's important to say there is a hierarchy of responsibility and a vision keeping. So we're not beyond the hierarchy. And I don't think that, at least at this stage, we will be beyond all hierarchy. I think there is hierarchy in nature, it's just not the man-made hierarchy that creates so much pain and separation and oppression. I'm talking about a natural hierarchy. But within that, can we be in circle leadership with each other? Is the experiment that we're running ... Can we really value every person regardless of their age, amount of experience or gender orientation or ethnicity, any of these factors as equals in the journey of creating this project, of dreaming this dream and making it come true? I think that's really, really core, and again, completely 180 degrees from where the world that we've grown up in and the world that we want to change.

So those are some of the, I think, really key points of how we're trying to hold our values at the core. And it's not to say we don't make mistakes, I've definitely made mistakes, there will continue to be mistakes. The other thing I've learned through the course of making theatre and doing community organizing and making this project is that how we bring up resolve and work through conflict is really important. So I've placed more emphasis in the last few months especially on valuing conflict and the willingness to engage in processes of vulnerability and accountability communication around triggers that come up. Because as much as we have this great intention to embody this visionary world beyond our oppressions, we are still people that come from oppression. We carry it around in our hearts, in our bodies. We'd be diluting ourselves if we didn't acknowledge that not only do we experience oppression in relationships with others, but we replicate oppressions as well unknowingly.

Victor perpetrator paradigms are rampant in our world and in interpersonal relationships. So it's going to come up. Tensions come up, but can we use the conflict as an opportunity to go deeper into that healing in our own selves and with each other? That's really where I think we stand to make a viable future and a visionary world beyond white supremacy and patriarchy is doing that work in relationship, in community. Without that, it's just a bunch of talk as well. That's definitely the challenge always for me of doing theatre and community work, but that is the whole thing. We don't exist in a vacuum any one of us, we're all part of this extended family. And can we be in right relationship with each other? Can we be authentic with each other? Can we be real?

And the place where we're really getting to do that right now is in the core team that's starting to form for Rites Of Passage, but also in something that we started in August online through our Patreon, it's called the Resilience Collective. And that is nine self-identified women of color who every month on either the new or full moons are offering their own medicine for resilience to our members into the Rites of Passage community. So that could be written, it could be video work, it could be visual art, could be sound classes like yoga or dance. So there's nine of us, and we have a guest artist as well every month. But we started out with thirteen people, and there were conflicts that happened early on, some miscommunication, and folks left. But what we learned from that is the importance of the willingness to communicate. It was a challenging learning patch for us, but the group that remains in nine of us I feel like we really became stronger and more resilient together.

adrienne maree brown also talks about in Emergent Strategy on focusing on critical relationships over critical math. So we really are trying to strengthen our bonds as a group of nine people. We are the energetic heart of Rites Of Passage 2020 Vision, because everybody in the Resilience Collective is also in Rites Of Passage 2020 Vision. I feel like we're getting to try out a lot of what I've talked about within the Resilience Collective because it's the most active part of the project right now. We have a monthly call every month, and we also produce work every month. So we're learning as are going how to build this world of our dreams.

Yura Sapi: Incredible, amazing. It's one thing to talk about these ideas and theories, and it's another to be actively putting them into practice. Thank you so much for all you've shared and for being on the podcast. Thank you for all that you do.

Pooja: Thanks for having me on the podcast. It's always fun to think about these things and talk about these things. And I'm really excited that you're doing this podcast too because I even just the other day had this realization of, "Wow, I've always been an outsider." I mean, we know that, but I still am realizing, "Oh right, I'm not white. And therefore I have never felt included here in the arts world." In this moment still now that there is more of a consciousness around, oh, people of color, we should pay attention to them. Maybe people will get it more, but it's been a really sad reality of me living in New England honestly. I'm doing this as much for my own survival as a human being as to be of service because I cannot continue in this world as it is. I need to have other creators of color around me and a community of makers of color that are rooted deeper than whiteness. I'm excited to see what comes out of all of the networks that you're weaving and this podcast.

Yura Sapi: This has been another episode of the Building Our Own Tables podcast. I'm your host editor and producer, Yura Sapi. Original music is by Julian Vargas, you can find and follow them on SoundCloud. 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, and wherever you find podcasts. Be sure to search HowlRound Theatre Commons' Podcasts and subscribe to receive new episodes. If you love this podcast, donate to support future episodes at advancingartsforward.org. You can also post a rating and write a review on those platforms to help other people find us. There is a transcript for this episode along with a lot of other progressive and disruptive content available on howlround.com. 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. Thanks so much everyone! Check in with you next time for our last episode of season one of the Building Our Own Tables podcast. Bye.

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Thoughts from the curator

I hear talk about wanting for racially diverse populations to “get a seat at the table” or “bringing chairs to the table for POC,” meaning that we want our people to have a position at existing organizations and institutions with decision making power. For me, a few years ago, I decided to not focus on infiltrating existing organizations, but rather start my own. I know I’m not alone. With the blessing that we all have a role in the revolution, this podcast checks in and learns from BIPOC founders of various organizations in and related to the theatre industry changing the game, making new things happen within, and expanding beyond white and euro-centric experiences. We will learn from these incredible visionaries who have created their own tables of arts institutions, movements, collectives, initiatives, and more. We learn about their processes, pathways to success, and challenges they've overcome. This is an outside-the-classroom leadership learning from folks who are doing the things.

Building Our Own Tables


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