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Worldmaking 101: Imagination and Reparation at Double Edge Theatre and Ohketeau Cultural Center

I first learned about Double Edge Theatre on account of the ensemble’s commitment to thorough dramaturgical research. What I mean by this is that they found me. I still have a record of the email I received from Double Edge’s producing executive director and ensemble member Adam Bright back in 2018. He wrote to invite me to the world premiere of their performance Leonora: La Maga y la Maestra at Montclair State University’s Peak Performances series. “It would be an honor to have you in the audience,” the email read. “After the opening night performance, we shall also hold a party with the artists, friends, and Carrington enthusiasts.”

I had recently co-edited a book of essays about the subject of their performance, the English-born Mexican artist and writer Leonora Carrington, and I consider myself very much a Carrington enthusiast. As a white, cishet, settler literature professor by training, I’m not accustomed to receiving invitations from theatre companies. I am, however, interested in how experimental artistic groups function in the world, and I strive to draw concrete lessons from their inventiveness.

As I have come to learn—both from this invitation and from my subsequent encounters with the Okheteau Cultural Center—everything about Adam’s gesture of hospitality is characteristic of Double Edge and its approach to worldmaking. Most immediately, it demonstrated the extent to which their creation of the Leonora: La Maga y la Maestra performance involved knowing a lot about contemporary scholarship, including the people who create it. Double Edge founder and artistic director Stacy Klein developed the performance alongside the ensemble by gathering all of Carrington’s published writings—some of which were long out of print—as well as the available biographies and scholarly books about her work. They reproduced hundreds of her paintings and drawings and contacted scholars and enthusiasts like me.

This research formed the basis of two performances. The first was Leonora: La Maga y la Maestra, a semi-biographical parable-cum-fantasia that synthesizes Carrington’s writing and visual art from the 1930s through the 1980s in dialogue with the Chilean-born filmmaker, dancer, and writer Alejandro Jodorowksy, whom she met in Mexico during the 1950s. The second performance was Leonora’s World, an outdoor, site-specific Summer Spectacle at the company’s Farm Center in Ashfield, Massachusetts. The latter performance featured a rotating series of tableaux vivants that unfolded across the landscape of Double Edge’s hundred-and-five-acre farm. Playing out in streams and on windy hillsides, it commenced in the golden hour of a summer evening and concluded magically in the illuminated waters of a pond after nightfall.

I offer this account of my invitation from Double Edge to underscore the kind of work that defines the Double Edge’s ethos of artistic creation. There’s far more at stake here than a gesture of hospitality alone. Rather, what defines Double Edge Theatre is the organization’s broader ethos of relation and reciprocity, which extends from their self-organization as an artist-run ensemble to their commitment to Indigenous cultural survival. For Double Edge Theatre, there is no proscenium arch. Their art is an art of worldmaking, which I understand as the real-life work of creating environments for imaginative freedom, cultural exchange, and survival during trying contemporary times. The magical, surrealist scenes in Leonora’s World are moments of theatrical inventiveness that beckon toward the otherworldly. Yet they are also rooted in the demands of this world: the artistic, spiritual, bodily, and political needs of the here and now, as well as the historical and bodily traumas of the past.

Eight actors in a space with hardwood floors dancing together.

Double Edge Training. Photo courtesy of David Weiland.

Leading up to their fortieth anniversary celebration this year, the ensemble’s activities indefatigably address the violence and silence of the past and present alike. As Klein notes in a 2018 essay, “To give voice to those unheard or ignored or dismissed” is the starting point for the ensemble’s work of “participating in and creating an art justice.” The term “art justice” describes the ensemble’s commitment to the social justice work necessary for sustaining a living culture. Klein sees this as a condition for the very survival of the human imagination.

One of the most important things to know about Double Edge is that it is a laboratory theatre company situated on a former dairy farm in the rural village of Ashfield, Massachusetts on the traditional homelands of the Nipmuc people. Like other laboratory theatre companies worldwide—many of which Double Edge is affiliated with—Double Edge’s performances are co-created by the artists in the ensemble over a span of months or even years of intensive training. The ensemble’s process of creating a performance derives from this training rather than from a preexisting script or standard repertoire. The highly physical nature of the company’s group training is bolstered by research, writing, singing, musical training, set and costume construction, and even the company’s administrative practices.

Double Edge seeks to do away with theatre world habits (scripts, auditions, industrial repertoires, blockbuster economics) that conspire to form, as Klein puts it in a 2005 essay, “a barrier, or wall, to the imagination, soul, and autonomy of the actor, and therefore to the creation of a living theatre.” The ensemble understands its work as “the creation of a living culture, one which defines its own reality.” Today, the Double Edge mission statement upholds living culture as one of its three core principles, along with art and art justice.

What does it mean for a group of artists to define their own reality? Klein’s statements about the ensemble’s working methods speak to something more than the production of individual works of art. Rather, her understanding of living theatre means that the creation of art extends to collective participation in a living culture: the care for and cultivation of real life. A visit to the Farm Center on any given day will demonstrate the hive-like multiplicity of Double Edge’s activities, which extend from construction and maintenance to scheduled trainings, group singing, office work, archiving, farming, and work with students and interns.

Moreover, a visitor to the Farm Center will also note the presence of a second organization: the Okheteau Cultural Center, a Native-run arts and cultural organization that is the first of its kind in the region. Ohketeau came formally into existence in 2017 when Double Edge gifted a renovated nineteenth-century barn facility to the nascent organization. Currently, Ohketeau has a land share agreement with Double Edge for the entire 105 acres of the farm property, which includes full access to the land, the waters, and the woods there. Double Edge also provides space in its design center for a wampum workshop created by Ohketeau artist-in-residence André Strongbearheart Gaines and shares the ensemble’s tool shop for Indigenous paddle-making. To lightly paraphrase Double Edge’s formal land agreement: The foundation of Okheteau is an act of reparation, a gesture of solidarity and reciprocity. It stems from a shared recognition of the living presence of Indigenous people in these lands long before, during, and long after the arrival of Double Edge Theatre in Ashfield.

A room with hardwood floors, furniture along the walls and several windows.

The Ohketeau Cultural Center. Photo courtesy of David Weiland.

Art cannot exist in a vacuum. Yet, as Klein has insisted, the exclusion of minoritized communities from the art world dangerously creates such a vacuum. For Double Edge, the de facto exclusion of BIPOC, queer, working-class, disabled, elderly, and youth populations from the arts is both a social problem and an artistic problem. So too is it a social and artistic problem merely to pay lip service to diversity and inclusion initiatives rather than wrestling with the profound and difficult work of structural change. According to their mission statement, the ensemble’s commitment to working “authentically and earnestly with artists, collaborators, and partners” necessarily extends to “rooting out appropriation, exclusion, invisibility, [and] marginalization.” As Klein wrote in her 2018 essay, “Living Culture is impossible to achieve unless it includes everyone. It cannot be that part of a community, or even part of a society, are excluded from participation.”

Since 1982, Double Edge’s performance cycles have grappled with historical trauma and the scars of genocide and cultural erasure. Over the past four decades, its performances have championed glorious imagination in the face of usurpation and death. But the work of reparation and art justice must also happen on the ground. Literally. And not only in the bodies, faces, and experiences of the artists who make up their ensemble but in the ownership and stewardship of the lands on which the theatre company trains and performs.

Perhaps closest to home for Double Edge was the realization of how fully the Indigenous inhabitants of Western Massachusetts have been subject to appropriation, exclusion, invisibility, and marginalization—and have been all but disappeared from contemporary cultural life in the United States. Researching the history of their community in Ashfield, Double Edge reached out to Indigenous artists and culture workers whose people still inhabit the region despite their presence having been rendered all but invisible. Through this research, two local artists, Rhonda Anderson and Larry Spotted Crow Mann, became aware of Double Edge Theatre in turn and began collaborating with and through the ensemble.

Anderson is an Iñupiaq-Athabascan curator, silversmith, herbalist, and activist who was born in Alaska and raised in Western Massachusetts. Mann, a citizen of the Nipmuc tribe of Western Massachusetts, is an award-winning writer, poet, cultural educator, traditional storyteller, tribal drummer/dancer, and motivational speaker. Together with Double Edge, they founded the Ohketeau Cultural Center, an organization that has grown to include two artists-in-residence, a program associate, and a youth-in-residence. Ohketeau now regularly produces workshops and performances, including a major, ongoing colloquium series: The Living Presence of Our History, which features Indigenous scholars, artists, activists, and intellectuals from across the Northeast and, increasingly, the Americas.

Ohketeau is a Nipmuc word for “a place to grow,” and this describes the organization’s mission as well: to provide a space for interdisciplinary education and a safe, rewarding, and enriching experience for the Indigenous community of the region.

I recently had the privilege of speaking with Rhonda Anderson and Larry Spotted Crow Mann about their encounter with Double Edge and the intense amount of cultural work they have committed themselves to in the interest of making it possible for Native people in the region to survive culturally and imaginatively. Like me, Anderson and Mann learned about Double Edge as a by-product of the ensemble’s research, as well as their own. Their encounter was, in many ways, a happy accident. What emerged from this meeting, however, was something far more intentional—and far more substantive—than any happy accident could ever be. As Anderson tells it:

It was early 2017, and I was supporting Larry by attending his talk about being a Nipmuc Water Protector, as Nipmuc means “people of the freshwater.” This was at the UMass Native Center, and I happened to sit next to Carlos [Uriona, Double Edge co-artistic director and lead actor], who was looking for Indigenous people to talk with about Double Edge Theatre’s town-wide Spectacle, which would take place that May. Stacy, Carlos, and the Double Edge team had tried to find information about Indigenous peoples in the area and wanted to highlight this history in their Spectacle. They were told, “No, there were no Indigenous people here; there’s no one here now.” Essentially, the local historical society invisibilized entire communities.

I ended up talking with Carlos, who invited me to visit Double Edge, tour the facilities, and see if I could suggest other Native peoples, communities, and tribal leaders who might assist with their Spectacle. Eventually, Stacy said, “Hey, we're renovating this barn,” and she threw out some ideas: “Maybe we could have a library, where people could come and read about Natives.” And I thought maybe instead of a library, we could create a community center where Native people could come and just be.

Ohketeau is a Nipmuc word for “a place to grow,” and this describes the organization’s mission as well: to provide a space for interdisciplinary education and a safe, rewarding, and enriching experience for the Indigenous community of the region. Like Double Edge, Ohketeau is committed to serving the needs of its community, understood here as fostering Indigenous cultural survival and supporting the careers and lives of individual artists. For Ohketeau, the work of artistic survival means attending to not only the minutiae of organizing, fundraising, administration, and the stewardship of artistic labor, but it also means reckoning with the cultural demands of land access and cultural survival in the wake of centuries of genocidal settler colonialism. Contemporary cultural institutions and funding agencies don't meet these needs, Mann explains, “and they never have. Those needs need to be met, and the questions folks have been asking need to be answered.”

A woman in a long orange shirt playing the guitar under a spotlight.

Tomantha Sylvester in Something Else. Photo courtesy of Travis Coe.

At Ohketeau, as at Double Edge, the work of worldmaking is tireless, extending well beyond the production of individual artworks, performances, and events into the ongoing practice of individual and cultural life. Worldmaking, by this logic, is co-extensive with reparation and cultural survival. Anderson provides a concrete example of this continuity each time she makes a land acknowledgement which, unlike most of the land acknowledgements I’ve read and heard, includes three action items—for example, one action item is writing to legislators automatically through the Massachusetts Indigenous Agenda organization. As Anderson explains:

I make a point of including three action items in every land acknowledgment I make. This is all tied into making changes. You don't want a land acknowledgment to be performative, to tick a box. Don’t break your arm patting yourself on the back! You have to do the research. All the tribes in Massachusetts are easily researchable. In the age of internet access, there’s no excuse to be ignorant. Contact somebody, a tribal representative, an elected tribal representative, and ask them what is needed. Do you have needs, anything you would like allies to help you with? Of course there are needs. This is part of creating a relationship and making it reciprocal: not mining cultural nuggets but asking, “What can I do to help you?” That is the start of a relationship; the beginning of acknowledging that there are Indigenous people here and they are still struggling.

The Ohketeau Cultural Center came into existence through precisely the kind of relationship-building Anderson describes. Indeed, Anderson’s action items speak to the lessons of worldmaking more broadly insofar as the creation of a living culture—like the project of cultural survival—both demands and enables this culture to define its own reality. The land Okheteau shares with Double Edge is now being used to plant and collect sacred and medicinal plants and trees. Recently, one of Okheteau’s artists-in-residence, André Strongbearheart Gaines, led a traditional dugout canoe burning on the farm, the first Nipmuc mishoon in Nipmuc territory in at least a century. “People came from all over Massachusetts to experience community the way it should be,” Gaines noted.

Meanwhile, another Okheteau artist-in-residence Tomantha Sylvester, who also co-directs the Michigan-based Anishinaabe Theater Exchange, has been developing her play Something Else in collaboration with Double Edge and as a Miranda Fellow at the National Theater Institute. Something Else is a grippingly comic solo performance told from the perspective of an incarcerated Indigenous woman, which unfolds progressively as both a testimony to and ritual expunging of toxic structural violence. Sylvester’s Something Else figures into Okheteau’s and Double Edge Theatre’s fall performance calendars.

For the Indigenous community of Western Massachusetts, the work of worldmaking—of reparation and imagination alike—extends into the future as well as affects ways of living in the present. According to their agreement, Ohketeau and Double Edge will work together on long-term plans to transfer the barn and outbuilding property to the Ohketeau community, as their growth befits their name. Other Ohketeau plans involve housing Native youth and further rematriating the Western Massachusetts area. The center’s immediate desire is to build a one-fire and two-fire housing village on the land so they can bring more of the Nipmuc and others in the Ohketeau community to hold ceremonies, learn, and live in traditional ways not possible in cities.

Reflecting on the ongoing cultural work made possible by and through Okheteau, Mann sums up the significance of this reparative project of worldmaking: “What we're doing now is going to shape the lives of those who are not even born yet, and it creates a model for other allies and Native communities to follow.”

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