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The River in the Room

When AeJay Mitchell was hired as a “creative culture consultant” on the production of Star Finch’s play Josephine’s Feast at the Magic Theatre in San Francisco, it was the first time Finch had ever heard of the role. She sat down with Mitchell to discuss the deep intention that fuels this sort of consultant work, how it differs in practice from the theoretical language of Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion (EDI), and why caring for artists shouldn’t feel like an impossible task.

Star Finch: First off—congrats on the Marin Shakespeare Company Artistic Associate residency!

AeJay Mitchell: Thank you. Yes, it’s exciting. I've been working with Jon Tracy as a collaborator and thought partner for some time, and one of the conversations we had years ago was about the intersection of theatrical gatekeeping and the positioning of Shakespeare as a theatrical deity. We discussed how there are at least as many, if not more, Shakespeare festivals as there are states in the so-called “United” States as well as productions and adaptations in hundreds of season announcements yearly.

So in this residency, I am invited to challenge how US theatre positions Shakespearean dogma. I am able to ask how we might usurp the “Great White Bard’s” power, as so labeled by the brilliant Farah Karim-Cooper, in order to present work that speaks to contemporary themes and deeply diverse voices. How could a thicc, queer, Black, enby person like myself and others be seen within a lens of a radical Shakespearean legacy? It's not upholding this one person's voice, but maybe upholding what he might have aspired to, which is this continuation of innovation. We want the playwrights of now to take charge and drive us forward, as Shakespeare and his contemporaries did in his time.

Star: Word–I’m all about a forward drive! I want us to dig into what exactly a cultural consultant does in a room, but first I'd love to know a little more about how you landed in this role. You've worked as an actor, a choreographer, a director, a teacher… Did those paths assist you in holding the role of a creative culture consultant? Or is it its own thing altogether?

We started to dream about ways in which artists can shout their dreams—dreams of community, dreams of comfort, dreams of liberation, and dreams of brave artistry—into their rehearsal processes.

AeJay: Yes, I believe my work in education has definitely equipped me for the role of consultant. As an educator, you are often thrown into rooms with a wide range of student backgrounds and experiences—from students who have access to generational wealth to students who question daily from where their next meal might come. From this divergence of access, you also have students who come in with personal training under their belt, and some students whose first access point to theatre was in my classroom. So my continued challenge was to consider how to bring pedagogical styles and practices that I really loved—that I found meaningful and helpful—and dissect them to serve a population with variant needs.

I was always working to make sure that my acting studio and dramaturgical labs left a lot of room for each individual’s creative journey while attempting to decrease focus on product-based assessment of what “must be” and “should be” to a process-based assessment on what “could be.” This approach helped me to avoid the harmful trappings of product-based, capitalist, white supremacist urgency culture that is in conflict with creative liberation. I think a rehearsal room can operate in this way as well, even within the realities of an opening night and fiscal responsibilities.

And so, yeah, I was having a version of this conversation over dinner and drinks with Sean San Jose, the new artistic director at Magic Theatre in San Francisco, centering on how I look to hold and be held within an artistic space. As we were challenging terms such as safe space and community agreements based on “don’ts,” we started to dream about ways in which artists can shout their dreams—dreams of community, dreams of comfort, dreams of liberation, and dreams of brave artistry—into their rehearsal processes. As educators often hold, carve pathways, and provide tangible resources for the big dreams of their students, I work to do the same for artists in process of birthing a new work. That's the connection’s trajectory, I would say.

Star: Magic Theatre initially described the role to me as a different approach to EDI. And EDI is one of those terms that makes me automatically roll my eyes into the back of my head. Because—

AeJay: Mm-hmm. Yep. Yep. Yep.

Star: It tends to mean: diversity and inclusion within a white supremacy framework, or basically adding ethnic garnish to the existing slop. But I experienced you as more like a river in the room. You were a fluid space held for the actors—a river where they could cleanse themselves through conversation or cross from one bank to the other with you, which was a beautiful thing to both witness and have connected to the production of Josephine’s Feast. I'm curious to know how you define the role for yourself and what your own experience was like during production.

Three actors sit at a table having a conversation.

Brittany Frazier, Tierra Allen, and Jasmine Milan Williams in Josephine’s Feast by Star Finch at Magic Theatre. Directed by Ellen Sebastian Chang. Scenic Design by Tanya Orellana. Lighting Design by Russell Champa. Video Design by Joan Osato. Sound Design by Lana Palmer. Costume Design by Kyo Yohena. Props Design by Brittany White. Stage Management by Christina Hogan. Photo by Jay Yamada.

AeJay: Aww, I love that river imagery! Thank you. Absolutely. Yeah. I think for an artist to be able to do their best and most brave work, they need to have full access to all of themselves and not feel a necessity to break themselves into pieces—to negotiate what parts of themselves they must leave outside.

Something that I crave when I'm working as an actor is a place where I can freely be in dialogue with all the creative members of the team, a place that is basking in the fountains of knowledge and geysers of experience in the room—to continue your water theme—that can lead to collaborative and dynamic works of art.

As to my experience with Josephine’s Feast, in particular, I was able to enter as a contractor, not beholden to the board or the company in a way that prioritizes hierarchical chains of command. I am not there to make sure that the company comes out on top—in ways that Human Resources (HR) can be at times. I am there as a visual reminder of a room’s commitment to each individual artist’s dreams, skills, and humanity.

Yeah, so a lot of my work is sitting with and listening to an artist’s verbal and non-verbal needs in space. There would be times, during a lunch break, where a team member would come to me and ask, "Can we just talk for a second or take a walk?" During those moments, more often than not, we did not talk about what was happening in the rehearsal room, but things that are weighing on them personally, or joys in which they were currently experiencing. At times, they wanted me to be a sounding board for an idea they were trying to work out for the project or to join them in nervous system regulation exercises.

I would often say that I am the person in the room whose job is to focus on everyone's needs as humans first. I hold no expectations or asks of one's artistry. I don’t need you to learn lines or have a concept. I don’t need you to write cues or set props backstage. I don’t need a budget update or a front of house report. I simply need to know that everyone has access to creating from a mindset of abundance—that whispering voice in the room asking have you eaten, are you hydrated, are you good, have you had fresh air, are you thriving in this room, do you need a walk and talk, are we in need of a non-scheduled breath break as humans, are you, the individual, okay? There is no glory in worn down artists.

Star: I recall you bringing food on multiple occasions, or offering the invitation: "Does anybody want to go outside with me?" And it was just... I guess you reminded me how rare it is to have someone show up for you as another human being outside of a friendship or a romantic relationship. Gentle attentiveness is hard to come by once you age out of childhood. And it's extremely unlikely for adults to engage from that angle within a pressured work environment; to say, "I'm here to center your humanity with my humanity" is a beautiful thing.

We are exhausted because conversations around EDI often position the caring of artists as this impossible task, a series of slow changes that will take as long as species evolution itself—thousands of years! What a bore. 

AeJay: Thank you. Yeah, I agree. I have been in artistic situations where everyone's in isolation and everyone's choking and drowning and being smothered by the expectations of whatever that work was. And no one was coming in just to say, "Do you need to take a break? Do you need something? Can I get you something? Here is something." We are just expected to know how to regulate because we are adults, as though we are not water, flesh, bones, and blood—easily broken.

To go back to our agreed upon feelings of “ick” when we hear the phrase EDI initiative for a moment—I believe folks of historically and intentionally excluded voices and identities are exhausted by the think tanks and the statements of baseless solidarity and the twelve-point policies towards the future in which one day we shall all be free, hallelujah! We are exhausted because conversations around EDI often position the caring of artists as this impossible task, a series of slow changes that will take as long as species evolution itself—thousands of years! What a bore. I feel, and perhaps you agree, there are really clear, accessible routes to making people feel at home and seen in a space, and that first route is mostly asking what they need, while providing examples of what can be offered.

It seems so intuitive. Yeah, just ask people what they need, but there's so many moments when folks are talking about EDI and it's so full of verbose language—“we are committed wholeheartedly to blah, blah, blah.” However, the question becomes how are these intentions being held in this space right now?

My voice in the room is an active and open challenge to “business as usual” practices that do not serve the voiced needs in a space. And if someone's not feeling great, how do I help get the resources they need to move forward?

We are trying to drag EDI out of the theoretical. I believe the theatre can be a model for a world in which everyone's needs are met.

Star: We both half joke/half dream about a fully funded theatre world where there could be a team of therapists on staff to provide mental health services for audiences and actors who might be in crisis. I’m curious about what other visions you hold around the possible functions for theatre spaces within community—specifically in a new world that we desperately want to manifest?

A group of actors stand around a dimly lit table.

Brittany Frazier, Tierra Allen, Jasmine Milan Williams, Margo Hall, Tre'Vonne Bell, and Donald E. Lacy Jr in Josephine’s Feast by Star Finch at Magic Theatre. Directed by Ellen Sebastian Chang. Scenic Design by Tanya Orellana. Lighting Design by Russell Champa. Video Design by Joan Osato. Sound Design by Lana Palmer. Costume Design by Kyo Yohena. Props Design by Brittany White. Stage Management by Christina Hogan. Photo by Jay Yamada. 

AeJay: Historically, the theatre has been a place in which folks came to receive both literal and metaphorical medicine. As such, I do believe the theatre should be finding ways to work with community partners to provide mental health, non-western healing practices, food services, and educational support.

If a theatre organization is going to say, "We are a nonprofit doing a community service making space and serving this community," I want to see that beyond the season announcements. I want to see theatres deeply involved in their communities. I do see this happening in some Bay Area companies already, and I dream of more.

I think we must open our doors to our community in a way that allows them to come and get healed in all the ways that healed means.

Star: Ashé. Amen.

AeJay: And the church says, “Yes!”

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