Punching Up

Stephanie Ybarra and Maria Goyanes in Conversation

Stephanie Ybarra: Remember a couple of weeks ago when I sent you that screen shot, right after my announcement? Peter Marks of the Washington Post tweeted: “Stephanie Ybarra of New York’s Public Theater has just been named…” et cetera, et cetera. Shortly after: “Maria Goyanes of Public Theater was named Woolly Mammoth’s artistic director.” And then somebody replied with, “Is the Public Theater the farm team of the American theatre?” Which I thought was hilarious. What do you think?

Maria Goyanes: It makes sense. I think it’s because the Public is a behemoth, right? Where you get a lot of experience, working with so many different people and different opportunities. And different challenges to surmount. It’s definitely a place where you’re cutting your teeth. And certainly, going to Woolly—where I get to work on seven shows as opposed to twenty—it feels like a big difference. Maybe I’ll be able to have a little bit more time and space to think about what I really care about. At the Public, it was so fast and furious that it was hard to have any moments of reflection.

I’m really looking forward to that. Is there something you’re looking forward to?

Stephanie: Lots. I feel pretty psyched to get back to my new-play roots and to hold on to Shakespeare and continue the civic engagement.

The Public is not just a behemoth with a ton of stuff going on. It has a very specific culture and a very specific legacy. I’m curious to know, what are you taking with you?

Maria: One of the biggest things, which also feels true for Woolly Mammoth—and feels like is going to be a kind of mantra for myself as I move—is that the Public isn’t that satisfied with itself at any given moment.

Stephanie: That’s so true.

I think, unfortunately, the monolithic institutions and people who run them, will not change unless they are shamed. Or unless their livelihood is threatened. Or their funding is threatened. And that happens with calling out.

Maria: There’s no moment where you really feel like you’ve accomplished everything you are supposed to accomplish with your particular mission. I think that kind of productive dissatisfaction is something I’m going to be taking with me, because I think that helps us strive. The two big tentpoles for Woolly are boundary-pushing art—that kind of form-busting, virtuosic theatre at its most provocative and challenging—and challenging an audience to meet it.

How about you?

Stephanie: I’m taking something similar. There’s this sort of rigor that you learn. But there’s this other thing that has grown inside of me from my time in the mobile unit. I don’t think I’m ever going to let go of the idea that theatre can and should be at the center of a healthy civic life.

Maria: Amen!

Stephanie: We’ve heard all sorts of people say this over and over again, that artists are essential to a healthy democracy. And I think, even more specific than that, I am looking forward to a community. Going to Baltimore and working with not just the other theatres there, but other kinds of arts and culture organizations. Putting art back in the center of civic life, making it necessary again. I have impulses for how to do that and I’m pretty psyched to let the experience people have already had in Baltimore inform how best to do that.

Maria: I totally agree with that. Both of our organizations have a deep history in our communities and in in engaging with them. Certainly I know that Kwame was doing that and Irene Lewis was before him at Center Stage. But also Woolly in DC, by starting the connectivity department and actually trying to change the experience of an audience.

It’s interesting because the conversations around community and community engagement have changed so much. Really radically. And I’ve noticed them change even more radically since Trump was elected.

It feels more urgent for everybody to not just name and articulate the foot of oppression that is on many people in this country, but also try to name and have some vocabulary about how to find unity together.

Stephanie: I’m pretty grossed out by most of the conversations I’ve had about community engagement. In the American theatre specifically.

Maria: Totally.

Stephanie: I find the well-meaning and problematic impulses of many, many artists and creators and institutions way more dangerous than some of the overt racist rhetoric.

Maria: Sometimes I think the goal is to just go in and make sure you’re not being too harmful and hurtful first, before you can actually change things. I have found that it’s so fraught and so hard to articulate. It brings up so many personal emotions that it’s hard to call people in when maybe what they said is just a tad racist.

Stephanie: I don’t have very much patience anymore for calling in, particularly at an institutional level. My experience, particularly over the last eighteen months in the off-Broadway community, has been that you can have a conversation with some people, saying, “Hey, this is problematic,” and they’ll meet you there. But I think, unfortunately, the monolithic institutions and people who run them, will not change unless they are shamed. Or unless their livelihood is threatened. Or their funding is threatened. And that happens with calling out.

Photobooth photos of Maria and Stephanie making faces and wearing costumes

Maria and Stephanie at the Public's holiday party, 2017.

Maria: I totally hear that. I think there’s something at the heart of this, though, that is going back to a conversation we’ve had previously, about the difference between your experience and my experience, just walking through the world.

I am half Dominican and half Spanish, so I have both the inferiority and superiority of those experiences. And I completely present as white. Because of my privilege, I feel like I should—like I have to—have more patience with people in terms of trying to help them through an experience. The kind of labor it takes for people of color to teach white people how to be in the world—I take on that responsibility because of how I look. And I don’t feel like that’s wrong. I feel like I should, because I’ve actually been the beneficiary of a lot of that white dominance and white supremacy because of the way I present.

I’m curious about your experience.

Stephanie: I’ve heard you say half-Dominican and half-Spanish so many times, but it never occurred to me to say that Spanish is like—

Maria: European white. Totally European white. I am a person of European descent on my father’s side. And I am a person of Dominican descent on my mother’s side.

Stephanie: And I am a person of European descent on my mother’s side and a person of Mexican descent on my father’s side. Another way to say it: we both have white. But we present super differently. I’m walking around with frizzy, curly, black hair. My café con leche complexion.

Maria: Yeah.

Stephanie: In my experience, whether it was at the Public or with artists, I’ve felt like I could be pretty candid and forthright, and I’ve seen you be really candid and forthright.

Essentially I have been able to—for the last little bit of my career—punch up. And that feels good. And appropriate. That seems like what you want, right? To have people punching up.

Maria: My hope is that it’s not just the women of color—Hana Sharif, we’re talking about you!—who are taking over, but also the other women. Marya at Pittsburgh and Marissa at Portland. Pam at ACT. But this new cohort really has to have some real conversation about how we’re going to handle and talk about racism, patriarchy, #MeToo...

Stephanie: White feminism.

Maria: White feminism, yeah.

Stephanie: Intersectionality.

Maria: Intersectionality, absolutely. We have to have some real conversations about it. This is what I was trying to say before, about trying not to be hurtful or harmful. Ultimately it’s really easy to perpetuate the shit. And it’s not just that it’s easy to do it, it’s easier to do it.

Stephanie: That’s the default setting: racism and white supremacy. Patriarchy and ableism. Colorism.

Maria: To me, punching up is at the heart of what you were talking about: arts at the center of civic life. If we are constantly evaluating and being in real dialogue with what it means to actually have arts at the center of civic life, then civic life is going to lead us to places where we’re uncomfortable and haven’t gone. And we need to try to move the theatre to talk about the things it hasn’t been talking about.

Stephanie: That’s assignment number one. I love the idea that artistic directors are curators. Like, first: do no harm. And by do no harm we don’t mean not in the fragility way. But don’t perpetuate white supremacy or systems of oppression. That is really important.

Maria: The second thing: when you look at your programming, look at who gets input into the various things you’re doing.

This might be a little bit controversial, but I think there’s an old model about being an artistic director, about a sole artist who had a particular aesthetic. Like the Adrian Halls of the world. And the Zelda Fichandlers, and others who were sitting in the center of these community theatres. That’s what the regional theatre was about: elevating the community and creating a theatre that was responsive to them. But it really put that person at the top as the arbiter. It made their lens and experience as the arbiter of what actually happened, not just because they chose the plays but most of the time they also—

Stephanie: Directed.

Maria: Right.

Stephanie: I’m so happy you brought this up. You’re right. It’s a little bit controversial to even invoke that old model. Because it’s not just old. It’s also still very dominant.

Maria: Totally. Although, not really in New York that much.

Stephanie: No.

Maria: But the general sense is that you want a director at the head of it. And in New York you’ve got Andre Bishop, Tim Sanford.

Stephanie: Jim Nicola. Paige Evans.

Maria: It’s not weird actually, because these jobs are so big or have gotten so big—you definitely are making some sacrifices if you’re a director and an artist and you’re running a theatre at the same time. The theatre is making some sacrifices when you’re directing, and you’re making some sacrifices when you’re not directing.

Stephanie: The thing that has perplexed me throughout my entire career—it began really when I was in graduate school, when I started to understand my artistic identity as something that was called creative artistic producer, or just producer. The P word. Producer has become such a bad word. And it wasn’t until I got to New York and I started to meet more and more people like me, including yourself. It was like, oh! We’re not an anomaly. We’re actually growing in number.

Maria: We have so many similarities. Our previous employer, our geographic next stops. Our titles. And our half—

Stephanie: Half whiteness.

Maria: Half colonizer, half oppressed.

Stephanie: Yeah.

Maria: The other sort of unifying thing here is that we’re both producers. Not directors.

Stephanie: That’s right.

Maria: And that’s huge.

Stephanie and Maria

Stephanie: One thing I’m starting to feel more acutely, the closer I get to my official start date in Baltimore, is the outpouring of love and support for both of us. When I think about us, and our colleagues who are stepping into leadership roles, I’m very aware of the weight we are carrying—the representation—for better and for worse: Latinx, female, new generation. I carry those mantles with pride. And it amplifies the pressure, you know?

Maria: Yeah, there’s no question. It’s not just a new generation of people getting new jobs. It’s also that the boards are opening up to allow women and people of color take the positions. How we do is going affect the generation after us. I feel that pressure. But I’m also acutely aware that, because I present as white, I have a super different experience than my darker brothers and sisters. So I do feel like there’s an opening at the door, but there’s just so much more to go. Who we give opportunities to is going to be really closely looked at.

Stephanie: Yeah. It’s like: How wide are we holding the door open for others? Or how are we kicking it down.

Maria: That’s right.

Stephanie: That’s what wants to happen, a promise from this co-force of newly appointed artistic directors—you, me, Hana, Pam. The pressure that comes with that promise is tremendous.

Maria: No question. And so how do you stay true to it? How do you find your goalposts? For me, it’s about how I can stay true to what I really care about, but also really share my taste in art and work—how we make it and the diversity, not just in terms of people and where they come from but in art-making practices. That’s what I’m most excited about.

Stephanie: What you and I are not doing is writing a play or directing a play. We’re picking plays and curatorial artists. But there is a point when your soul and your heart and your interests are still laid bare.

I still feel like this happens every time I produce a play. Like: Will people like it? Will people like me?

Maria: But also, in terms of power dynamics, the kind of vulnerability that we have compared to the artists is nothing.

Stephanie: No question.

Maria: So there’s part of me that thinks part of our job is: Can we create the room for these artists to reach their most vulnerable places, so they feel like the stuff they really want to say can be said. And I think you and I provide different spaces for people, and that’s what’s exciting about this new generation. It’s just going to look different by virtue of the fact that our experiences are completely different.

Stephanie: And yet there are going to be some similarities. I was just saying to somebody the other day that you and I have very different life experiences and professional experiences, but that we share a ton of experience, not just in public but our shared values—there’s no air between them. We traversed very different paths, professionally, to end up at virtually, geographically, literally the same spot at the same time.

Maria: What are you doing to alleviate the pressure you feel?

Stephanie: According to my dentist I’m grinding my teeth.

Maria: I’ve been doing that now for years; I got a mouth guard. But really, lately I’ve been focusing a lot on my spirit and my heart, trying every which way I can to make it calm. I’ve gone back to the gym. I’m having these conversations, trying to spend time with people who are like-minded and like-hearted. Finding great comfort in being surrounded by not a completely new tribe but an expanded tribe.

Stephanie: I’m the same, having conversations with friends and talking to people about different things. Really feeling so much support. It feels great to be in a community that really wants you to succeed.

Can I ask a real, real question?

Maria: Yes.

Stephanie: Do you think there are people who don’t want us to succeed?

Maria: I imagine so. I’m not going to pay them too much mind. The real test is going to be the moment we have our first failures.

I feel lucky at Woolly. Howard’s such a brilliant founder and a brilliant visionary and such a great artistic director to follow because he cared about—and was so effusive and excited about—the failures as much as the successes. It’s sort of that old mantra of “fail big and fail better.” That’s all great intellectually, but when push comes to shove are we going to really be saying that, or is everybody going to point at me. How are we going to get through those moments? And then, back to the community thing, who’s going to be there to talk through it?

I think it’s just not going to settle. I’ve been working on so many plays for so many years, having so many different experiences, that I feel like I have three lifetimes. I have to keep reminding myself of that, which is not easy, because the anxiety really takes over.

Stephanie: I’m having to remind myself of the same thing. Kwame was kind. He was smart. And I was picked, and that comes with a feeling of great responsibility. But I have a three-year contract, so I feel like I’ve got time to get it all done.

Maria: So many people have said that it takes three years to even feel like you can sit in the seat.

Stephanie: I know.

Maria: That really resonates with me, even in this moment of learning how to walk the walk.

Stephanie: I’ve found myself preemptively saying, “You’re gonna have to be patient.” With myself, with getting to know the job, the people, and the community, and with finding how I show up in this context.

Maria: I think that we’re different types of leaders because we’re talking about and thinking about that deep colonialization, right? Coming in and cleaning house were useful and good and helpful for some people to do. But I think there’s now a different lens because our culture is moving into a place where we’re starting to articulate deeply what’s been invisible to white people—what’s certainly been clear to people of color for a very long time. Their privilege and their fragility. These things are so personal and tricky to talk about with people when you’re starting to get to know them because they’re really triggering, you know? Unless we’re all on the same page that we live in a society that oppresses people.

Stephanie: And those societal norms are baked into our institutions.

Maria: Correct. If you’re not on the same page with those two statements, we’re going to have a very difficult conversation.

Stephanie: Do you think there are people who don’t want us to succeed?
Maria: I imagine so. I’m not going to pay them too much mind.

Stephanie: I feel like I have so many conversations with folks who agree with the first statement. But overwhelmingly I feel like I hit brick walls when I ask or want to interrogate not just the things that we know are going wrong but the things that we think are going right. That’s where the interrogation stops.

Maria: That goes back to the idea of productive dissatisfaction. To be really good at these jobs you have to constantly be in the seat of interrogation. I actually don’t know if it’s a good idea to get to a place of, “Oh yeah, I know I can do this job already.”

Stephanie: Couldn’t part of the confidence in knowing how to do the job be knowing that it means constantly questioning and interrogating, pushing forward?

Maria: Absolutely. I always marvel at how in the UK how people stay in jobs for ten years. They don’t stay in jobs for thirty or forty like they do here in the United States. I think that kind of churn is good actually—even thinking about the vocabulary we’re using to talk about racism. Huge difference from five years ago, even two to three years ago. So I think about what will happen in ten years. We’ve got our work cut out for us, Stephanie.

Stephanie: I know.

Maria: But I’m happy. I feel very lucky to be walking arm in arm with this cohort. We have a band of... I was going to say brothers but it feels like brothers, sisters, and everything in between. That’s exciting.

Stephanie: So exciting. And there’s more to do.

Maria: We gotta get better.

Stephanie: Yeah we gotta get better. That’s right.

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Thoughts from the curator

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

The Changeover

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This whole series has some choice out takes that we just couldn't include in the main essays. But Stephanie and Maria got into this conversation about Stephanie's coffee that was too wonderful to not include in the conversation. They recorded their conversation on a train to Boston together to see a performance.

Stephanie: Do you think that the,

Maria: can I have this? Are you not going to have it?

Stephanie: Yeah, go for it.

Maria: I totally want your coffee. Thank you.

Stephanie: It's got a ton of sugar in it.

Maria: Oh.

Stephanie: It's got a ton of sugar.

Maria: Like splenda?

Stephanie: Like splenda. Like, it's bad.

Maria: I'm going to try it.

Stephanie: It's horrid, don't judge me.

Maria: Oh my God Stephanie! This is like caffecito. So caffecito is like when you have espresso and you put a ton of sugar in the espresso. Maybe that's not caffecito, but my mother always called it, have a little caffecito after...but this is like crazy.

Stephanie: It's because I don't actually like the taste of coffee.

Maria: I could have gotten you tea.

Stephanie: I know, but I mean I like what it is now. And you can't...

Maria: Let the record show. Stephanie drinks coffee with splenda.

Stephanie: And a shit ton of cream. Like when I order my coffee I would like it to look like my complexion.

Maria: Speaking of complexions? Can we talk about racism?

Stephanie: Can we? Can we talk about racism?

Maria: Now we're actually having our conversation. Before we were actually doing something else. I don't know. But now we're actually having it.

Stephanie: I was about to ask, I was about to say this language around....

Maria: Maybe we can cut the other part.

Stephanie: Yeah, I think so. I think that what I was going to ask you, or provoke, in the realm of community. I'll just say this...

Maria: You can answer the question.

Stephanie: Okay 

Maria: Or. This is awful, by the way.

Stephanie: Sorry I can't help it. I find...

Maria: I'm still drinking it.

Stephanie: Okay. Let the record show, you're still drinking the coffee you're complaining about.

[laughing]

Maria: Totally.

Stephanie: You are complicit.

Maria: Yeah. Caffecito complicit.