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Where We Go from Here: Reflections on 2021

2021 was a strange year overall and an even stranger year to celebrate a milestone birthday. 26 January 2021 marked the ten year anniversary of a convening called From Scarcity to Abundance that the HowlRound co-founders (Dr. P. Carl, David Dower, Jamie Gahlon, and Vijay Mathew) produced, which was hosted at Arena Stage under the auspices of the American Voices New Play Institute. This convening served as a launch of both the HowlRound Journal and the New Play Map (2011-2016), and as we see it, was the launch of HowlRound—a now global community of theatremakers who believe in sharing knowledge and access through a commons-based framework. Once upon a time, we dreamed of hosting a giant convening in 2021 to mark this birthday. We had hoped to bring people together in Boston both to celebrate the work of the last ten years and to plan for the next twenty. And then 2020 happened.

Recently, we revisited our end of year essay from 2020. This is how it began: “This year has been a challenge of epic proportions… So much broken, so much suffering, so much work to do.” We don’t take back those words; it was a bleak time. But if 2020 was about triage, 2021 was about readjustment, realignment, and reworking our systems. In 2020, many said, “We can never return to how things were.” In 2021, we said, “What if we didn’t have to?”

This year, we’re learning how to slow down. We’re learning more patience. We’re asking for the time we need to do the best work we can. The HowlRound staff returned to our Boston offices in September (though we are still working remotely some of the time). We’re still trying to figure out how to best work together in one physical space,and what kind of work should be done in physical proximity versus what is best done from our homes. (Spoiler: we still haven’t figured this out.) We know we are fortunate to even be having these conversations, and we are committed to sharing our learning to whoever wants to hear it.

We did not leave COVID-19 behind us in 2020, though many in the Global North have reaped the benefits of widespread vaccine rollouts. (Folks: this is not a worldwide rollout, and disparities in both vaccine availability and quality medical information continue to plague many in our global theatre community. Let’s not forget this as we plan theatre seasons, work with artists from outside our communities, or check for proof of vaccination at our theatre doors.)

So, in the midst of all this system change, where do we go from here? Perhaps this question is best answered by revisiting what our global community has shared with us this past year, starting with some wild, dreamy visions of the future.

Devising Our Future

Curating our online journal is always a joy, but this year’s Devising Our Future series was especially cool. All of the essays are accompanied by an incredible original illustration by one of three super-talented artists (Wriply M. Bennet, Silent Fox, or Nguyen Tran) and an audio recording of the essay, performed by actors from around the world. These essays all envision a future theatre field where resources and power are shared equitably in all directions. These essays include a love letter to young actors, a futuristic “celebration of theatremakers’ and cultural workers’ contributions to the downfall of the capitalist state,” a dream of a theatre of that prioritizes care and community, and an affirmation that yes, that “Blk people exist in the future.” What, you haven’t read these essays by Vera Starbard, Daniel Alexander Jones, Mary Kathryn Nagle, Georgina Escobar, and many more? What are you waiting for?

Our Top Curation Priorities

We mentioned this in last year’s end of year essay, but 2021 has further clarified our primary priorities for curation for our journal, TV, and podcast platforms: anti-oppression and the climate emergency. Though not every contribution on HowlRound touches on these topics, we continually seek out content that explores (and offers solutions) to these global issues. We know that any fight for racial justice is tied to the fight for climate justice. Suggested reading focusing on anti-oppression includes Ann James’ essay Putting Out the American Theatre Dumpster Fire Through White Abolition, Kate Freer and Porsche McGovern’s two-part series Design in a Time of Reckoning, and Ilasiea Gray’s essay Why Are There No Great Kids of Color in the Performing Arts? You should also check out the #DeafWoke HowlRound TV series hosted by Mr. Antoine Hunter PurpleFireCrow, The Playwrights Realm’s panel What Does Anti-Racist Producing Look Like?, and the Consortium of Asian American Theaters and Artists ConFest Virtual Series. If you’re looking for a great podcast series in the new year, our whole staff loves Yura Sapi’s second season of Building Our Own Tables; there are so many gems in those conversations, we can’t pick just one episode to recommend!

The climate emergency remains top of mind for all of us at HowlRound, and we firmly believe that one of the ways we can best step into our role in healing the climate crisis (to quote Madeleine Jubilee Saito) is to proactively publish and amplify voices of theatremakers around the world who are implementing innovative solutions and/or raising awareness of the climate emergency via their art. From this year, Marta Keil and Grzegorz Reske’s essay Letters from Warsaw and HowlRound cultural strategist Vijay Mathew’s essay Streaming in the Just Transition top our list, as does a video series created by the Liverpool Arab Arts Festival and Creative Destruction called ARTISTS / IDEAS / NOW, If you haven’t already, check out Groundwater Arts’ many incredible livestreams over the years on HowlRound, including this conversation about the Green New Theater. (Remember, you can search all of our content by topic tag here.)

What Else Even Happened This Year?

Like we were last year (and every year since our inception), we are firmly committed to our role supporting the global theatre field, whether it's by providing accessible and free livestreaming services to individuals and organizations; spreading best practices around accessibility, ASL interpretation, and captions to our partners; organizing the recently formed International Presenting Commons (IPC); or lessening our website’s carbon footprint and cost while improving performance for many in low bandwidth regions or whose cost to access internet data is expensive relative to income. The pandemic taught us (and is teaching us) that an accessible digital space for theatremakers to ideate, connect, and collaborate across borders is an absolute necessity. The Roma Theatre Retrospective 2021 is just one example of a purely virtual series connecting us across multiple political, geographic, and cultural borders, and we’re proud to hold this container for the collective brilliance of our global theatre community. (This includes you! A reminder that our commons is only as strong as those who contribute to it, and you can submit your idea for an essay, TV event, podcast series, or some other collaborative effort here at any time.) We continued our partnership with the Latinx Theatre Commons (LTC) as they hired a new producer, restarted their organizing, and launched a new program (more on that below!), and we kept up with all of our playwrights and artistic directors in the National Playwright Residency Program. (These playwrights have contributed so many excellent TV events and essays to HowlRound this year—check them out here!) We also published the most recent evaluation of the program completed by Helicon Collaborative earlier this year, which we hope provides valuable insight into the program for the field at large.

Comings, Goings, and Stayings

In March 2020, we launched the latest iteration of our advisory council, members of which serve as strategic advisors and community ambassadors for HowlRound Theatre Commons. While their term was supposed to end in December 2021, we just couldn’t say goodbye! We asked members if they would be willing to stay on until June 2022 to help us close out the tenth anniversary of HowlRound, and they unanimously agreed. This group is so fierce, and we’re lucky to have them in our corner.

Like many of you, our staff saw many transitions this year. In 2021, we bid farewell to our communications manager Shannon Knapp; Latinx Theatre Commons producer, Armando Huipe; fellow, Dillon Yruegas; and content editor, May Antaki. We welcomed our communications consultant, Hannah Fenlon; Latinx Theatre Commons producer, Jacqueline Flores; fellow, Joshua Robinson; and content editors, Ciara Diane and Ashley Malafronte. HowlRound director Jamie Gahlon welcomed a new baby in September and is currently on parental leave, but we’re looking forward to welcoming her back in February. (Hi Jamie! Hope you like this essay!)

So… Where Do We Go From Here?

For real, next year is going to be big in the world of HowlRound. We’re (safely) gathering again with our National Playwright Residency Program (NPRP) playwrights and artistic directors in May 2022 for our first in-person convening in twenty-nine months. We’re restarting our NPRP residences. The International Presenting Commons is continuing to organize, and the Latinx Theatre Commons is returning to their live, in-person programming in Denver, CO for the 2022 LTC Comedy Carnaval, 9-12 June 2022. We’re launching some journal series on human resources in the theatre, commoning in the arts sector, puppet interventions in social issues, solutions for the future of our field, and much more. We’re hosting brand-new seasons of the Daughters of Lorraine and Kunafa and Shay podcasts, as well a new podcast focused on trans theatre, and we’re continuing TV event support internationally. We’re hiring a podcast consultant to bring our podcasting platform to the next level. We’re also publishing a book, which will anthologize the first ten years of HowlRound Journal content. Stay tuned for more info on the physical and e-book versions in the early spring.

As we’ve said in the past, HowlRound would not be here without you—our global community of theatremakers who have written essays, streamed events, produced podcasts, and generated conversations on our platform since 2011. 2022 will soon be upon us, but for now, we wish you a restful, nourishing, and happy new year. Take care of yourselves, your family, and your communities, and rest up for the year ahead.

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