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Undoing Post-colonial Structures in Theatre, Starting With Zoom Convenings

This article is co-authored by three people: Karishma Bhagani, Adam Ashraf Elsayigh, and Taiwo Afolabi. Each person identifies themselves when speaking from their first-person perspective.

Georgetown University’s Laboratory for Global Performance and Politics brings together artists, thought leaders, activists, and policy makers from around the world who harness the power of performance to humanize global politics. Part of the Lab’s diverse programming is an eighteen-month-long fellowship program that gathers ten emerging artists who work at the intersection of performance and politics. The aim is to foster intercultural artistic and dialogue exchange and bridge ideological divides.

The second cohort of the Lab—which we are a part of—is composed of people from a variety of professional backgrounds, including cultural policy workers, academics, and practitioners such as playwrights, directors, and actors, and included fellows from Russia, Mexico, Egypt, Kenya, Vietnam, and beyond. Our fellowship was scheduled from January 2020 to June 2021, but it has now been extended to accommodate for the time we lost out on due to the virus. Since the beginning, we’ve been holding monthly meetings through Zoom to discuss different subjects that are relevant to our experiences and our artistic and professional trajectories across geographies; each month, a different one of us will lead. The discussions and conversations were then meant to be further deepened and nuanced in our two in-person convenings, the first at La MaMa Umbria in June 2020 and the second at the Gathering at Georgetown in May 2021. The monthly virtual meetings also allowed us to form a community and share our unique perspectives before meeting in person.

Because the fellowship does not have specific goals, we were able to collectively select subjects that we identified as relevant to our artistic trajectories across our different locations.

Adam: When I was first offered the opportunity to be part of the second cohort of the fellowship, I remember being most excited to meet other artists from all over the world. As our cohort met each month over Zoom, we looked forward with increasing anticipation to our first in-person convening at La MaMa Umbria. Of course, as this year unfolded the way it did, it became clear early in the spring that our convening would have to be replaced with a virtual one.

We began to organize. For this weeklong summit, we decided that all ten of us would convene online for ninety minutes each day, and two of us would lead each session on a subject of our choosing that we believed would be relevant to the cohort. These subjects ranged from ensemble-building exercises to ethics in performance-making, from “global” pedagogies to nomadic artistic practices. Because the fellowship does not have specific goals, we were able to collectively select subjects that we identified as relevant to our artistic trajectories across our different locations. The convening, with a new theme or subject each day, provided a space for us to share personal and professional challenges and to create a cohesive common vocabulary and understanding of them. As a result, we were able to brainstorm solutions for these problems.

zoom video chat of several people

All ten fellows dressed up and ready to play some games during our virtual convening. Photo by Asif Majid.

I worried the virtual convening would be another set of Zoom meetings that would feel draining and ultimately unfulfilling, just like some of the virtual conferences, virtual rehearsals, and virtual productions I had experienced between March and June. To my delight, I could not have been more wrong. I remember leaving every day after a lively chat with my peers invigorated, yet I couldn’t quite place my finger on why.

Why was this so much more exciting than other Zoom calls I had to do each day? A couple of the other fellows and I have attempted to understand and answer that question. In the process, we have figured out a model that allows virtual engagements for artists today to work, helping us discover new facets of our artistry rather than diminishing our creativity.

The time of day did not interfere with our creative connections, largely because there was a collective commitment to hold each other up in the same space.

Karishma: I was most struck by the collective leadership approach we employed to structure our virtual convening. We had a Google document where we shared our ideas and desires for the event, after which we developed the thematic structures of each day and assigned fellows to lead each session based on the themes we wanted to discuss. Not only did I feel empowered as an individual artist, but the leadership structure was a true example of ensemble building and collective empowerment within a virtual space. Many fellowship programs often have a set of prescriptive tasks to achieve, and ours did not. I appreciated the fact that my colleagues and I had the agency to shape the kind of experience and learning we wanted. In doing so, we got to learn about each other’s strengths and leadership styles, as well as enact a decolonized leadership structure in the shared space.

Being able to decide our own structure gave us agency and increased our collective investment in the convening’s success. We made the space open and free of judgement and were forgiving of each other when we had internet connection challenges or when certain messages were not conveyed appropriately.

Given that we were in different cities, the virtual convening meant we were connecting across space and time zones, so when we spoke, some of us had just started our days and others were ready to go to bed. In that sense, we reimagined our understanding of time and stopped for a moment each day, no matter what we were doing, to connect and share energy. I noted that the time of day did not interfere with our creative connections, largely because there was a collective commitment to hold each other up in the same space.

Not being able to meet in person further emphasized the need for us to connect with each other on a deeper level—many of us had our travel plans cancelled and found ourselves to be more isolated as artists in our own geographical spaces. But knowing that we had a virtual space where we could convene with other like-minded artists was reassuring and reminded us that, in the modern world, we are only ever an inch away from making theatre and connecting with one another.

Because we created an open space, I found myself becoming more trusting of each Lab fellow—without having met most of them in person. Every day, we crossed a hurdle of vulnerability with each other, offering insights into our creative-thinking processes. I shared some of my personal challenges understanding the global impact of the work I do locally and was also able to learn from my colleagues about their own challenges with contracting, equal pay, and artist exploitation. For example, I noted that some of the producing challenges we have in Kenya in terms of network connectivity are not the same as those the other Lab fellows have. However, a common challenge we all face within our respective contexts is making sure actors are rightly compensated for their work.

a colorful written diagram titled "Glocal Pedagogy"

A diagram explaining a glocal approach towards international collaborations and theatremaking. Photo by Karishma Bhagani.

Not only did this trigger intense discussions about how we, as young leaders, ought to shift the theatrical landscape within our respective communities, I also felt a strong sense of camaraderie. Despite the diversity of our experiences and cultural backgrounds, I was not alone in asking some of the questions I was asking, and I was encouraged to think more deeply and intentionally about the best next steps for the collective growth of our global theatre community. By the end of the convening, it felt like I had a family member in every continent around the world.

The convening focused less on generating any new content, instead offering the space for us to sit with our ideas and enjoy the process of developing new ways of thinking. For instance, at the end of one of the sessions about nomadic artistic practices, I was stretched to think about how some of my own understandings of the Eastern African theatre landscape could change and accommodate multiple voices, including those of nomadic artists.

The process through which we developed the structure of the convening ultimately shaped how the convening allowed us to learn from each other. We believe it also offered lessons about how to curate virtual spaces that can be applied in other contexts. What made it work was abiding by a set of principles:

  1. We chose a software, in our case Zoom, that would allow collaborations despite our geographic and artistic differences. It also worked well for fellows in countries with low connectivity and network issues.
  2. We opted for a collective leadership structure and made shared decisions on how to spend the time.
  3. We made it about process, not product or solution.
  4. We allowed all attendees to share experiences they had within their local contexts, which gave us a pluralistic understanding to approaches of theatremaking around the world.
  5. We organized a variety of different theatre-based ensemble-building games. It was not mandatory for everyone to participate in every activity, and individuals had the option to just observe. We gave each other space to breathe.
  6. We chose discussion topics that lent themselves to our situations and emphasized intercultural communication and dialogue. For instance, in one session, fellow cohort member Lloyd Nyikadzino and I led a conversation on intercultural development and learning opportunities between Western and post-colonial artists and groups.

With these principles in mind, as we spent more time together, people felt comfortable exposing some real challenges and questions within their work. For example, we spoke about experiences of exploitation as artists and collectively developed strategies to stand up for ourselves and insist on the professional treatment we deserve.

Our convening was designed without any preset agenda other than that we wanted to connect and meet with one another over an intense period of time. This opened the door to endless possibilities.

Taiwo: These principles worked for me because they allowed for the collaborative space I needed to engage. The process and the fellows were as flexible as could be. We openly talked about practical—and at times personal—issues, and everyone responded kindly; for example, when one fellow spoke about the exploitation they experienced at a grassroots organization in the United States, others offered useful insights on ways to approach it. I discovered that the Lab is so much more than just “humanizing global politics.” The model of our convening allowed me to establish meaningful connections across the globe, share my vulnerable experiences, and learn from my colleagues, each of whom is a thought leader in their respective fields and countries.

Our convening was designed without any preset agenda other than that we wanted to connect and meet with one another over an intense period of time. This opened the door to endless possibilities, from individual connections to group collaborations. For example, we had a Zoom room “kitchen” outside the scheduled meetings dedicated to ad hoc conversations among the fellows to talk about different subjects or even continue conversations from the group meetings. We also created artistic initiatives to continue the dialogue that sparked out of our convening, such as a video collection of community-building games from diverse cultures for artists, facilitators, and pedagogues, which have been carefully selected and adapted to accommodate both virtual and in-person use. When we played the games during our retreat, they created an atmosphere of fun and provided opportunities to share our experiences and craft. We have also chosen to release one game we developed to the Lab’s YouTube channel every week.

The intentional open structure of the summit’s leadership model, the collective emergent design of the retreat, and the playfulness that inspired trust-building can be useful to anyone’s creative practices—producers, directors, designers, facilitators, administrators, and actors. Our focus on process rather than product helped us explore topics of mutual concern as related to our practices, such as ethics, sustainability, and globalization. We offered each other the care and grace needed to thrive as artists in and beyond the global pandemic and, most importantly, the friends I have made will influence my craft in meaningful ways moving forward.

Livestreaming a conversation: Talkin’ Theater and Justice: Global Theater Makers, Thinkers and Their Practice

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What an absolutely amazing process your cohort has developed! I was apart of a devised theatre project through my university this year, and we had a decentralized process, too that aligns a lot with your practices! Having collective leadership really makes such a difference in terms of the quality of the virtual meetings. Great work! I definitely want to check out your theatre game videos, I've been discovering ones that work on Zoom, too!

Beautiful conversation and especially appreciated the ways you made Zoom work for everyone with shared leadership. And the Kitchen Zoom Room is brilliant! Thanks for sharing this with us as we all continue to move beyond Zoom's limitations in pursuit of community and art-making.