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Restorying Our Past and Present, Imagining Our Future

Osiyo and good morning, everyone. I’m Ronee Penoi, Laguna Pueblo and Cherokee, and like many here, I wear a lot of hats. I’m a presenter, an advocate for Indigenous peoples and decolonization, and a composer. This morning, however, I want to focus on us.

I’ve had a lot of vulnerable conversations with folks in this room about how difficult the past few years have been in our field and in our world. There’ve been a lot of obstacles and necessary systemic change has been slow. But we continue to process, grieve, and heal as individuals and as an industry. We come together in moments like this to celebrate our wins and lift each other up. Any anxiety we’re feeling doesn’t diminish our strength. In fact, I think our courage to be vulnerable, to not know the answers, is just what we need. It might feel like we’ve missed our window after 2020, 2021, and 2022, but as they say, sometimes it can take a long time for conditions to be just right for change.

So while this is a difficult time, when I look at this room, I’m optimistic. All of us are sitting in collective discomfort, questioning our assumptions about presenting live theatre. We’re asking anew what’s working and what’s not—and that’s exactly where we need to be.

My own inquiry of questioning assumptions has led me to think about the impact of live theatre. Live theatre is culture. Culture is a reflection of society—and one cannot exist without the other. No culture, no society. No society, no culture. When we think of societies past, its culture that we remember—from the pyramids to Shakespeare. So what does our culture, our live theatre, say about our society? This, to me, is where we have the most untapped potential as a field. We need to lead in restorying and imagination; restorying for our past and present and imagination for the future.

If we want to live in a world that’s different, we can’t wait for society to make it comfortable for us to do so—we have to imagine it, build a road from here to there, and walk it.

It all comes back to story. As one of my favorite writers Thomas King says, “Stories are wondrous things. And they are dangerous.” I know this being Pueblo and Cherokee. For Indigenous people, stories tell us who we are. They contain roadmaps for life—critical information on food, history, and place. Moreover, Indigenous peoples know how the stories that have been told about us have been a matter of life and death. The story of the savage Indian sent my great-grandfather to Carlisle Indian School. That story is the reason my family walked the Trail of Tears. Stories are tangible, living things.

America has a strong national story—a mythology. It’s rooted in the founding fathers, in Thanksgiving, in gun ownership. We are, in this myth, the saviors of the free world—exceptional, democratic, benevolently capitalist—and we’re taught that American history is white history. We often talk about the fact that the arts are a place where we can share more and different stories than those offered by this American myth—and amplify marginalized voices. However, I propose that what we really need is to rewrite, or restory, our dominant American narrative.

Now I’m not suggesting there is only one history—our past is a complex web, as is our present. But identity, the story we tell ourselves about who we are, is the biggest constraint to change. All we need to see is a few posts on social media or a few minutes on CNN to understand how our stories shape and constrain us. If we want the arts to be part of imagining a better future, we need to start using the arts to restory our past and present. Our national story. Our personal story. Restorying means rewriting the dominant narratives that define us. Until we do, every future we imagine is going to be built on a crumbling foundation.

So, what does restorying look like? It can look like presenting Cherokee artist Delanna Studi or Mohegan artist Madeline Sayet and their works debunking the notion of the “vanishing Indian” and manifest destiny. It can look like Step Afrika’s Drumfolk, elevating the Stono Rebellion to a place of significance equal to that of the Boston Tea Party. It can look like Carolina Performing Arts’ presentation of their “Southern Futures” initiative that excavates their region’s complex and violent past with an eye towards a more just future. This looks like the fieldwide members of the International Presenting Commons uplifting international work and collaborative practices that challenge American exceptionalism and celebrate the porousness of borders and ideas. It can look like interrogating the plaques on our walls and the memorials that stand just outside our doors. It is knowing our watersheds and how environmental racism is affecting our neighbors next door.

Restorying challenges the dominant narratives we live our lives by and that is incredibly powerful. Many folks in this very room are doing this restorying work but might be calling it by another name. However, I believe this is only half the battle. We need restorying and imagination—and imagination is where we really need to be brave.

A woman sits and speaks into a microphone while others look at her.

Ronee Penoi speaking at HowlRound's event International Presenting Now at St. Ann's Warehouse in January 2023. Photo by Shelby Alayne Antel.

We’re wired to look at our problematic world and reflect on how broken it is; to revel in stories of apocalypse, to examine the villain. It’s a lot harder to really imagine that better world we want to live in. We all have negativity bias. What does it look like to wake up and walk out the door in a climate just, peaceful world? How do you get to work? What are you eating? What does it smell like? Who are you accountable to? This is a challenge of imagination. Many artists are already creating artistic work in this way: Ebony Noelle Golden, Theater Mitu, Toshi Reagon. But I suggest that we need a wholesale commitment to imagination in our field, meaning on and off the stage, we need to be brave in activating the better world we want to live in. If we want to live in a world that’s different, we can’t wait for society to make it comfortable for us to do so—we have to imagine it, build a road from here to there, and walk it.

So here’s my thesis: (restorying + imagination) * (challenging assumptions/new practices) = the impactful theatre we dream about.

So, we got restorying and imagination. Okay. But while they’re actions in themselves, we need a catalyst. That’s where challenging assumptions and new practices come in. We need to sit in the discomfort: discomfort with the new, with the unknown, with stepping back, and with vulnerability. Some suggestions:

Begin somewhere. Change is imperfect. Don’t let the fear of hypocrisy paralyze you, whether it’s shifting internal policies to support climate justice, being critical about what donations to accept given ethical concerns, thinking through how to support land back for Indigenous peoples, or working with an artist who challenges your ingrained processes. Make mistakes graciously, mitigate harm, keep going. And support your peers and colleagues who you see doing it. Activating an imagined world that doesn’t exist yet is hard. Individuals from over fifteen major arts institutions joined First Nations Performing Arts in our first ever Decolonization Track, an eight-month cohort experience in action-based learning and assessment around decolonization. Now that was vulnerable, messy work—and folks have said it was some of the most rewarding experiences of their lives.

We—and our organizations—are not the center of the universe. Each of us is one star in a constellation of people and institutions that are looking to support a vibrant society. How are we leveraging our resources to shine a light on the work of others? How can our work support someone else? How is our work contributing to civic discourse? When our work—and the members of our team—are part of the fabric of our community, audience-building becomes a different calculation.

An example: ArtsEmerson is about to launch its eighth year of the Play Reading Book Club (PRBC), introduced by my colleague Akiba Abaka. We work with the Boston Public Library system and other organizations like Boston While Black, to host “book clubs” around the artistic work we present on our stages. These are free, multiweek events approaching twenty hours where individuals across race, religion, and geography, come together with a teaching artist to read the play or source material, dig into the context, see the play, and meet with the artist. This program has transformed who comes to the theatre, and moreover, inspired friendships spanning years. Attendees would come to multiple book clubs just to hear how the conversation shifted from Allston to Roxbury. Folks showed up not because of ArtsEmerson but because they wanted to engage each other across difference, and the library was a trusted intermediary. To me, the PRBC began with an exercise in imagination: What if our audiences knew how to be together across difference? What if they felt the theatre space was theirs?

Culture matters more than you think. As the ArtsEmerson staff likes to say: culture eats strategy for breakfast. (We can thank the wise Peter Drucker for the actual quote.) In your organization’s work culture, are folks respected? Are operations folks consulted in major decisions? Are decisions made in a values-based, transparent way? How does leadership respond to criticism? How is shared leadership and collaboration embodied and encouraged (and compensated)? How is just as important as what. We all know that a difficult situation can be all the more bearable when you have folks around us, who have our back. Do you have your team’s back? Restorying who we’ve been and asking a community to move with you away from the status quo takes a culture of trust. Without it, everything comes to a halt.

Lead by listening. Building community and building audiences are two-way endeavors. If you want to matter to others, you might have to say yes, or adapt to something that isn’t in the neat and tidy plan you had. If we want to matter, we need to let our communities know that they matter to us and show up. Share your space. Welcome a community curator. Be visible as a supportive community member and not just an arts leader. Live in the discomfort of being receptive rather than prescriptive.

Podium on a stage with a screen behind that reads "How we make is as important as what we make."

Joe's Pub during the Under The Radar Symposium.

Now, this is a lot. People and organizations are imperfect, and many of us are in the weeds of getting donors; selling tickets; dealing with board members, trustees, and budgets; and accounting for critical operational needs. But just like drinking water and eating your Wheaties, practicing restorying and imagination needs to be a habit. The work can’t live in a strategic plan or retreat ideating session. It’s sweaty, messy, work. Restorying and imagination are a muscle, an activation of that better world we want to see. They reinforce one another and need each other. Imagination without restorying is a fairytale, and restorying without imagination traps us in the status quo. These are not big, aspirational ideas. They are everyday actions with high stakes and even higher transformative impacts.

In live theatre, we are in the business of reaffirming or challenging people’s core sense of self through both what we put on stage and how we treat each other. That is powerful. The more we take on that mantle, and the more we collectively embrace the discomfort of change, the more transformative our field can be. Thank you.

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