WE Are the National Aesthetic

Delivered August 14, 2011 for NET’s National Ensemble Summit 2011: Rowdy, Radical, and Relevant!

The Summit was a convening for theater artists, presenters, funders, cultural workers, and radical thinkers to wrestle, construct, and name the actions that will deepen the impact of ensemble theater. The gathering galvanized conversations from NET’s national initiative, Micro-Fest: USA, exploring the creative process from: Beginning (Race, Culture and Aesthetics); Middle (Process: New Work Development); and End (Genre Defying Work). We were inspired by visionary speakers such as Ricardo Levins Morales and Laurie Carlos. We spent time in small groups generating new language for and about ensemble practice. In partnership with the Literary Managers and Dramaturgs of the Americas we worked on a “National Action Plan” for ensembles to do in their own communities. We saw shows that were a part of the Minnesota Fringe Festival. On Sunday we synthesized the weekend’s workshops and conversations with a series of artistic interpretations of the Call to Actions.

As a “catalyst speaker” I was charged with soaking up as much as I could from the three days and reflecting it back at the end. There was a lot of intelligence that came from conversation, speakers, and presentations. One of the biggest threads of the three days was that every room was about art making and included some type of active performance. The process felt very hip-hop. I sampled from the collective wisdom, threw in my own language, and then asked the crowd to improvise musical accompaniment. This is how we got down

a woman looking at the camera
Claudia Akin.
Photo by Oregon  Shakespere Project. 

Thank you for inviting me here at this USA call to action
This network of ensemble theaters
I am deeply honored
To try and synthesize my experience
over these past few days
I don't know what this will be,
but join me
If the spirit moves add rhythm,
add music, add your piece
This speech is a collaboration
with the future of American theater.
Our genesis is in the desire for exchange,
with art at the center.
WE
We embody,
enact the national aesthetic.
An aesthetic of diversity,
collaboration,
contradiction.
A celebration of difference.
A variety of voices.
We want to visit each other.
We're from all over.
We are ready to move.
WE
We are the big dreamers,
deep thinkers,
boundary breakers.
Our performance exceeds possibility.
Our daily practice,
like breathing,
is a necessary function.
WE
We do the work.
We want to help each other.
We are experimenting audaciously.
Digging into our roles as artists
Crowdsourcing our
intelligence and inspiration.
Change comes first in the ensemble.
then the community.
One counter narrative at a time.
One song at a time.
One dance.
One story.
Many stories.
WE
We strengthen the cultural commons.
All that we make and do.
We bring recognition,
revelation,
resurrection.
We are healers releasing nutrients
into communities to strengthen
their immune system through performance.
Shifting the way we all look at the arts.
With empathy we aid civic leaders.
We are civic leaders.
There is a responsibility
and an opportunity
for empowerment when ensembles
create and define new terms around genre.
WE
We need to think critically
and expansively about how
we define new play development
processes
for our audience,
our funders,
and ourselves.
WE
We are doing this together, right now.
We honor our ancestors.
We argue with our parents.
We go deep.
We get raw.
Work it out.
We are struggling,
thriving,
seeking.
We tell our stories,
on paper,
online,
on stage.
Keeping the social
in social networking.
We crave connectivity.
Partnerships, friendships
WE
We live in the third room.
Where we don't know
what we are talking about.
Unprepared for an audience
full of people waiting for answers.
Having the hard conversations.
We lean into the wonkiness
to find clarity.
Breath it in. Now let it go.
WE
We are making art man,
that's what it's called.
trying to explain it to others is silly.
We must own it.
WE
We have to know ourselves
better than others know us,
both strengths and vulnerabilities.
People lose trust in you
when you do not trust yourself.
Leadership is authentic
self-expression that creates
WE
We are leaders.
We are leading the national aesthetic.
Where are we leading?
WE
Ensembles can create
a cross-cultural roadmap
to elevate and deepen dialogue
toward racial healing.
WE
ensembles and audience
tend to conflate the distinctions
of race and culture
and how each influences
aesthetics, process, genre.
WE
race is
race is not
it exists
we made it up
that’s what we do
We take a series of things
we see or hear or feel
and we name them
Like magic
they become
they exist
WE
we interact with them
make choices
make everything
we do or seem or mean
based on things we can’t help
the way we look, or see, or feel
like Genre
race kind of exists
We made it up
the difference between
race and racism
is is
Racism is
An action or active inaction
a behavior
Performance
a thing we do
WE
Race is
We pretend it is
Believe it is
local
geographic
or global human populations
distinguished or defined
as more or less distinct
groups
grouped by genetically
transmitted physical characteristics
Biologically meaningless
gradients of differentiation.
Not discrete units
or more or less distinct
biological boundaries.
Between any human divisions
groups,
populations,
nationalities
there is nothing
But empty space
we feel we must fill
with meaning
We love meaning
WE
Race is largely
circumstantial
Dependent on traits chosen
for emphasis
Group differences is
not encoded
in the human genome
Adenine
Thymine
Cytosine
Guanine
Evolutionary
patterns of divergence
particular random
mixes of genes
make everything
we do or mean
or seem
WE
We
we make our choices
reactions to
related to
genetics
but not genetic
A Performance
things that are not
but might as well be
race is not
Genre is
Culture is
Our process is
Like Schrödinger's cat
Race is not
race is
Culture is
Our national aesthetic is
WE
We
we
Where are we leading?
We are the future.
We are ready to move.
SO GO THERE


We embody,
enact the national aesthetic.
An aesthetic of diversity,
collaboration,
contradiction.
A celebration of difference.
A variety of voices.

Thanks to Mark Valdez, Executive Director; Alisha Tonsic, Managing Director; and  NET Summit Coordinator Ashley Sparks.  A national coalition of ensembles created by and for artists, the Network of Ensemble Theaters (NET) exists to propel ensemble theater practice to the forefront of American culture and society. NET is committed to the advancement of the ensemble form and strives to bring about change in the world beyond ourselves through the transformative power of collaborative theater.http://ensembletheaters.net. Summit 2011 was done in partnership with the Minnesota Theater Alliance, the Southern Theatre, and the Department of Theatre Arts and Dance at the University of Minnesota.

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Go go go, Claudia! So fantastic to hear you so loud and clear and strong still.

- Mia (whom you won't remember but whom you gave a ticket to the Shakes in the Park Seagull starring Meryl Streep so many years ago -- a gift I'll never stop being grateful for)

Yes!!!
This really is speaking to me now. Many of these thoughts are in my head. Its so mind blowing that we can create the art, the world we want to see.
So when we want a shift to occur all we have to do is simply change it. Shift the thought- the practice.

On my mind lately is the notion of code-switching, how we do it, when we do it, why we do it. When do we feel most ourselves, safest? Do we even realize how much we shift? I think I hadn't been aware how much people who seem to be in power also code-switch. I was thinking if you were among the dominant group you code switch less, but then I was thinking, we are all outside our identities even as we are in them--it's related to the awareness of how we identify in a single moment and what traits we express, what traits we hide, what traits reveal something that prompts others to make assumptions about our identity or goals. It is incredibly complex to be human and to navigate murky waters. And, then, as artists, to put ourselves, our work out into the world. There is a feeling of being powerful one moment, lacking power the next. Of being seen one moment, of being misunderstood the next. I salute artists and administrators, audiences who return expectantly--we display a degree of faith and fortitude that is worth celebrating.