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Values-Led, Commons-Based Creative Producing

A Conversation with Abigail Vega

Ramona Rose King: Hi my friend, thanks so much for sitting down with me today. I wanted to take some time on this, your last day as the creative producer of HowlRound, to reflect on the work you’ve done, what you’ve learned, and what others can learn from it, too. So to start, can you tell me a little bit about your journey with HowlRound and the Latinx Theatre Commons (LTC)? What originally drew you to this work?

Abigail Vega: I started working with HowlRound through what was at the time called the Latina/o Theatre Commons in May 2014. I was hired as the producer shortly after the 2013 LTC National Convening, and left that position in August 2019. The LTC is an incredible movement but it’s demanding work, and I needed a break. I thought 2020 was going to be my year. And then the pandemic happened, and that was pretty devastating for many reasons. I started working again with HowlRound as the creative producer when you were leaving the role in July 2020. And then you came back in May 2022. And now I’m leaving in April 2023. So the theme here is that everybody just comes back to HowlRound.

Ramona: You never work at HowlRound once! Thinking back on both these positions, can you talk about what producing looks like at HowlRound and the LTC, and how the commons-based practices come into play here?

Abigail: For HowlRound and for the LTC, producing is primarily keeping the ball rolling on energy that already exists in the field. It’s about keeping a finger on the pulse of conversations, trends, and energies, and figuring out how to resource those, whether that be financial resources all the way to making sure people have the right connections with the right artists. On any given day, it can look like making sure space is reserved and food is ordered and people have their travel booked—of course, all that’s really important. But it also means designing conversations and designing structures for people to have the conversation they actually want to have.

Ramona: And for you, does the idea of the commons and commons-based practices come from hearing the conversations that are already happening and organizing and supporting folks, rather than it being more of a top-down approach?

Abigail: Yes. We’re definitely harvesters. With both the LTC and HowlRound, when we have tried to plant we have been less successful than when we have tried to harvest, or when we have tried to just water and feed seeds that have already been planted. We’re obviously a very creative field made up of people who have a pull-push of loving being told what to do and hating being told what to do. And the people who hate being told what to do are the people who are wildly inventive and just need the support to make their ideas happen. That’s where HowlRound and the LTC come in.

So it’s very easy to opt into our commons, and then it’s very easy to keep our ear to the ground and say, “Okay, what’s actually happening here? What radical ideas need the support that we offer?” I think one thing we’ve always done well is articulate what our resources are. We can’t produce theatre. We can publish a journal article.

A woman stands and gives a speech on a round stage as the audience watches on.

Abigail speaks at the 2016 LTC Pacific Northwest Regional Convening in the Glenn Hughes Penthouse Theatre at the University of Washington School of Drama in Seattle, Washington. Photo by Michael Brunk.

Ramona: What do you think makes this producing model and way of working so unique? And is it successful?

Abigail: I mean, it’s really hard. Sometimes listening can look like inactivity. In our field especially, and this is shifting, but especially five-plus years ago, for those of us who are lucky enough to receive resources from foundations, there’s a constant need to prove your activity, your output. And when you’re listening, that’s not seen as output.

Now the funny thing about HowlRound and the LTC is that when you listen for enough time, you can run into the challenge of realizing too many ideas at the same time. For the first two years, the LTC produced one event a year. And then there was a period of time where we did four events in a year and a half. That was way too much to ask of a volunteer group of people—the steering and advisory committees of Latinx Theatre Commons are entirely volunteer-based—who are passionate, who care a lot about what we’re doing, who might actually have resources, but who have other jobs.

So it fell to me as the producer to do a lot of that work. And it wasn’t an unfair division of labor. It wasn’t like people were slacking—it was that we had chosen too much programming and I was overworked. I think the LTC fell into a beautiful problem to have; the needs were so deep and we were uniquely positioned to serve as that intervention. But it was too much and we ultimately had to reassess what was possible and sustainable for our model and human resources.

Ramona: Do you see ways that other organizations could adapt aspects of these commons-based producing practices? Or do you think that they’re inherently unique to the organizing structure of HowlRound and/or the LTC? I say “or” there because they are different structures.

Abigail: Right, HowlRound and the LTC have different structures and are implementing the commons in different ways, but I think that their values are similar. I do think some organizations who are relatively new to these conversations could try implementing parts of the commons into their organizing structures, but it’s really the values that are going to make the difference. Concepts like community-curated seasons or festivals bring in aspects of commons-based practices to traditional producing organizations, but if their values aren’t the values of the commons, meaning if they don’t value shared ownership and resources, it’s going to feel hollow.

For HowlRound and for the LTC, producing is primarily keeping the ball rolling on energy that already exists in the field. It’s about keeping a finger on the pulse of conversations, trends, and energies, and figuring out how to resource those.

Ramona: You’ve been part of so many convenings and organizing groups. Do you have a standard metric of success, or do you think it is different for each one? Do you see common threads between the ones you would consider really having met their goals?

Abigail: Metrics of success must be different for every event, and must be specifically defined at the outset of the project, but what gives a convening or a movement a strong foundation is strong championship. Both the LTC and HowlRound have a culture of championship. It can’t be HowlRound or the LTC producer leading the train. It has to be people who are in that community—whether that’s geographic, identity based, role based, whatever—who are passionate about this challenge and this intervention. If we don’t have strong champions, the event will fall apart.

I also go back to a set of shared values. If the community that the event is serving wants the resources and they’re committed to transparency and openness, then it’s going to be more successful. When you are working with a group of people and all of a sudden they start gatekeeping, it’s really disastrous for the event.

I believe in what Priya Parker says about some exclusion being necessary. You need to draw a line so that it’s very clear who the event is for. At the LTC, we always used to say, who is the event for and who can come? And those can be different answers. We could say, “Open invite, anybody can come, but this event is for New Yorkers. If you choose to come and you’re from Seattle, you need to know that your needs are not being centered. We want you there. We’re excited you’re present. We want your voice and your expertise, and we want you to be teaching and learning, but we are not building this event for you.” That was an important difference.

Ramona: I think about it with the LTC Carnavals, which are new play festivals. It always felt to me like they’re specifically for Latinx playwrights and artists. Everyone is welcome to come, and a lot of producers come from predominantly white institutions (PWIs), but where a lot of new play festivals feel like they’re for the people who are looking for the plays, the Carnavals are for the artists.

Abigail: Well, I would say that was a difference over time. We did one in 2015 and one in 2018, and then the LTC focused the work on comedy in 2022. The one in 2015—and I’m not making a controversial statement here—was for two audiences. It was for Latinx artists, and it was also for decision-makers at PWIs. But something that Lisa Portes, who was the champion of both Carnavals in 2015 and 2018, was so clear on, was that this was an economic conversation as well as an artistic one. I feel similarly to this day. I’m done having a conversation about representation if we’re not paying artists equitably. In 2015 specifically, she said, “It’s important for us to get these PWIs in the room because they’re not actually programming Latinx artists. They’ve created a myth that there’s no Latinx artists there who can be produced. Well, that’s not true. So we are going to show them that it’s not true.” And we offered a travel subsidy to many folks from PWIs. I think that was very successful. There was also a heavy subsidy given to decision-makers of Latinx companies.

In 2018, we realized that while the work of the LTC had not been completed, the visibility of Latinx artists had changed so drastically between our founding in 2013 and 2018 that we didn’t need to provide subsidies to the PWIs at the same level anymore, because they wanted to come. What we did was create a structure. We decided that the 2018 Carnaval was going to privilege collaboration. And that PWIs are more than welcome in that conversation, because the LTC has never been in an affinity space. It’s always been a space for people who are here to be around aligned values.

At the 2018 Carnaval, we also did site visits to Latinx theatres in Chicago. I think initially some people were like, “Why are we doing this?” And it was like, because you can’t come to Chicago and “support Latinx work” and not go to Aguijón or UrbanTheater Company or Teatro Vista. Those are legacy companies in Chicago. A lot of their artists were in the Carnaval, whether as playwrights, actors, or directors. Let’s go to their homes. It also served to highlight the classic problem that theatres of color have been facing for years: they’re the ones that develop artists, but the artists have to make economic choices, and they go to the larger theatres or to TV, and then there’s no recognition of these companies that have been doing the work. So it just felt like the smallest version of what we could do to be like, “Hey, get into these spaces.”

A group of people wearing matching lanyards stand and smile outside for a photo.

Attendees at a site visit during the 2018 LTC Carnaval of New Latinx Work. Photo by Joel Maisonet.

Ramona: As you think back over these years, are there specific powerful or particularly joyful moments that stand out to you from the work?

Abigail: Yeah, a lot. I regret not keeping more of a diary or journal because I think there were so many lessons. Also, it’s important to note I was hired— A lady never gives away her age, but I was hired as the LTC producer when I had just turned twenty-five. My brain was fully developed, but I was such a young producer, and I grew up as a producer in this world. During the 2016 LTC Pacific Northwest Regional Convening in Seattle, I met so many people who were like, “I don’t know about this LTC thing, but I know Rose Cano and she told me to be here, so I’m here.” And it was a real moment of like, one person can have such an impact.

I think winning the Zeisler award at TCG in 2017 was impactful because it showed that a collective could be responsible for something like this.

There was real beauty in the 2019 LTC TYA Sin Fronteras Festival and Convening in Austin. The co-champions, Emi Aguilar and Roxanne Schroeder-Arce, felt passionately about not only providing quality Latinx and Latin American TYA shows to the public and charter-school students of Austin, but wanting adults to see these kids being impacted.

It was wild to see people from both PWIs and Latinx companies who, frankly, had opted out of the TYA conversation, get to see what happens when young people are given opportunities to see high-quality work and respond to that work. We did talkbacks where the kids were the only ones who could talk. The adults had to be quiet and sit behind them, and trust in the young peoples’ capacity to understand this work. And they did!

Ramona: Those talkbacks were my favorite part of that convening—so sweet. As we start to wrap up, do you have any advice for aspiring creative producers?

Abigail: One is to develop friendships, relationships, and hobbies that are not in the theatre. You’re just going to be a much more interesting person if you do that. You will have multiple points of view. Now, if I was twenty-two again and heard that advice, I would discount it. I would say, “Well, you don’t know me and my artistry.” Impossible advice to hear, but I just have to really push it.

The second piece of advice is to develop your intuition and trust it. When something makes you uncomfortable, you don’t necessarily need to rail against it, but you need to notice it. You may be wrong; it’s okay to be wrong. But you need to recognize that something makes you feel uncomfortable. We are going through a culture shift right now, but we still are working in a field that is rife with abuse. So when you get paid late, notice that discomfort, and that’s a strike. Maybe you don’t lose trust after just one strike! Maybe there won’t be another, and you’re able to look past and forgive that one strike. But when you are not given a contract for work, there’s another strike. When you are asked to lend money, that’s a strike. When you are disrespected, or not paid, or lied to, those are all strikes. And while you’re developing your intuition, you need to decide how many strikes mean you’re out. I believe it needs to be more than one; we all deserve a second chance. But we talk a lot about the unspoken feeling in our field that there’s always someone there to replace you. Well, sometimes it’s worth being replaced.

Next, trust that the idea you are coming up with is not brand new, seek the wisdom of people who are more experienced, and listen to them. That doesn’t mean their ideas are better than yours. It might mean that they tried something and it didn’t work thirty years ago, but it will work now. They can help you think through why it didn’t work. But please—and I did this—don’t fall for the fallacy that by being the youngest person in the room, you are the smartest person in the room. There’s a lot of wisdom, especially if you’re in the room with women of color, especially if you’re in the room with people who’ve been in the field for forty-plus years. Are there some old ideas? Sure. Is there some baggage that you don’t have, some bad energy? Of course. But there’s also a lot of experience that needs to be listened to.

Lastly, don’t believe the lie that great art comes from unhealed trauma. Get some therapy.

We talk a lot about the unspoken feeling in our field that there’s always someone there to replace you. Well, sometimes it’s worth being replaced.

Ramona: Yes, that! Finally, do you think you’re going to carry forward some of the practices and values from this work in your own work or life?

Abigail: My brother doesn’t work in the theatre, so when I told him about this new job that I have as the director of programing with the Jar in Boston, he instantly was like, “Oh, you’re just going to be doing what you did for theatre people with HowlRound for regular people with the Jar.” And that’s actually a great way of looking at it.

So yes, these practices of listening, of finding where the conversation is, will be really important to my future work. Producing and creating a space where people feel at home, where people feel comfortable, where people feel like they can have complicated conversations and be their full human selves, especially in a city that has such a history of segregation and general cliquishness. So many lessons from HowlRound and the LTC will find their way into that. And believing that everybody has something to learn and everybody has something to teach, and figuring out ways to create spaces where that can happen.

Ramona: Beautiful. Thank you for this time and for all your years of work, Abigail! You are already missed!

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