Multihyphenate Artists | HowlRound Theatre Commons


Then I’m fitting my art, my creative flow or my artistic process within that frame. Then the pandemic happened, and all the rules were broken. I think one of the things I walked away from that was, the creative processes that will survive are the ones where the artist is actually put first, not the institution. That shift became very clear to me because suddenly, it wasn’t about creating work for a proscenium stage. It was suddenly theatre itself had to be redefined. Even this is really interesting, the children’s book was a really good example. That was actually originally a commission for a fifty-minute musical that would tour to elementary schools. Then when the live component died, I pitched this idea of an audio immersive, one kid at a time.

We created a score, and we hired composers. And there was a whole Foley art to this story that was told. It was so beautiful that the producers found the publisher and also created a book. That was a great example of the artist led a process, and then the producer slash organization slash commissioners found all the ways that that art could be translated. To me, I feel like this is really, I hope, is going to become really clear as we move forward in the US, is that we really lean on following our artists and not so much on these brick and mortar institutions with these hundred-year-old legacies of how things are supposed to be.

Sarah: Yes, a hundred percent to that. For me, Denmo, I really appreciated you mentioning, “Who are you actually serving, and where is this going? And what does the future of theatre look like?” For me, it’s very similar in that it all comes out of representation and what kind of representation are we having, but also who are we inviting into the theatrical space and who is able to actually explore their creative voice. A lot of my artwork has focused on being participant led and pre pandemic—and it helps with Applied Theatre. I can only go in with so much of my own ego as an artist and as a creative person because then it gets knocked down, and you realize that in order to actually create something that’s meaningful, that serves the community, it can’t just be my own voice in the space. And it can’t just be my own artistic vision, no matter how wonderful it is.

That has been the most exciting thing and the most challenging thing of how have I been learning to adapt and letting go of certain things that I wish I could keep on within my theatrical practice. I think with the pandemic, especially teaching at the university level during the pandemic and seeing how my students were adapting and with mental health and their needs, and some students weren’t even getting basic needs met.

It became an issue of “What are we actually teaching and what performances are we putting forward? And how do we then best serve the students in having theatre as an outlet for their voices, but also for a creative vision that is being suppressed in so many different ways?” And going in and just allowing them to be like, “We can make mistakes and this doesn’t have to be perfect.” That is great. There is such a beautiful part of theatre; that’s the messy process that I’ve been trying to reengage with. It doesn’t have to be perfect because it doesn’t have to be on this brilliant stage that everyone’s going to watch, and no mistakes ever. How do we just embrace these tiny little moments that make theatre what it is?

Denmo: One of the things I’ve always held onto for myself, one of the reasons why I love theatre and that I continue again and again to come back to theatre, is because there is a quality sometimes where the performance becomes a culmination of a process. Sometimes that changes, especially when it becomes professional theatre, and you’re not working with the same ensemble. And you don’t have shorthand. That rehearsal and process is only to get prepared so that we can do the performance because the performance is the thing that we’re really marketing and putting in front of an audience. But the best kinds of shows, I think, are a culmination of a process. That’s what the performance is. What is the process other than a collaboration?

It’s so funny, artists, generative, we may think we may define that as someone who has a vision and can put their idea all the way through, but Sarah, as you were pointing out, the artist oftentimes is really the conduit in which all these different ideas can come through. Then, suddenly… It reminds me of Greek theatre. It’s like our actors, our dancers, our performers, we held them in a particular esteem for people, for audience, for humanity, to be able to see parts of themselves in a new way. That I think still excites me about the live experience of a theatrical space.

Marina: Definitely. You’re both talking so much about collaboration and how the collaboration informs the process and the product. Theatre is necessarily collaborative in many ways, although sometimes I’m surprised at the ways that institutions try to take away some of the collaborative elements. But I would love to just hear about some of your most successful collaborations or collaborations that you’ve been really proud of or that have enriched you in different ways.

Sarah: One of the most exciting collaborations, for me, has come out of working with young people. In 2018, I started this projects that is partially research, but also part community outreach in Egypt. I worked with teenage girls. There’s about a hundred of them that have now participated from 2018 all the way till 2020, participating in month-long programs of theatre-based vocal empowerment and how can we use performance specifically to support young Egyptian women author and then embody their decolonial feminist identities? It’s been a very fascinating longitudinal study, and it’s collaborative in different ways. There’s the collaboration from the research aspect where I’ve worked with speech and language hearing science pathologists and researchers to create very specific pre- and post-program measures of looking at linguistic data, looking at voice data, and looking at how participating in theatre actually impacts these young women’s voices and how they speak about themselves and their self-authorship. But also looking at their language, assessing them in both English and Arabic and how does that change over the course, participating in this program?

Then the other aspect of it is contributing or collaborating with a university partner in Egypt and doing this long-distance work, navigating different research prompters and identifying the importance of holding this type of workshop. Then the third and most important aspects of it is actually with the young women themselves. The Applied performance work that I facilitate is rooted in participatory action research and community-based methods. The young women—and by young women I’m meaning these are teenage girls between the ages of 13 to 19—and they were engaged in every aspect of the design, the facilitating, and the analysis of the data that they generated. A lot of the young women who participated in 2018 came back in 2020, and they either participated in the program, or I set up meetings with them over Zoom to try and navigate “How do we, A, facilitate this potential workshop over Zoom or in person? What do travel logistics look like during the pandemic?” I ended up traveling twice to Egypt between 2018 and 2020, going to Alexandria and then Aswan, and working with girls there.

The most recent work…so they did a public performance after this month-long program in Aswan. It had girls from very different schools. It was also outreach to schools. It was a free program, but there were teenage girls from all these different public schools in Aswan, and they ended up creating a trilingual song that represented their heritage. A trilingual song in Arabic, in Coptic, and then in Kenzi, which is one of the Nubian languages spoken in the region. That was really important, because many of these girls came in saying that they didn’t really care about any of these languages, Arabic included. Having a very important conversation about language as a carrier of culture and what does that mean as young women moving forward? They also produced a site-specific piece at the Philae Temple in Aswan and recreating the story of [the] goddess Isis and what does that look like specifically for young women carrying forward their feminist legacies from ancient Egypt.

Then they also devised a shadow puppetry play about women across the different time periods, looking specifically at Egyptian feminists and women from a diverse range of ethnicities and religions who are all Egyptian and looking at how they can draw upon them in order to author their own identities. It was really wonderful, and they came out of it, performing all these pieces for their parents. But a lot of it was also that they wrote in their journals about their own reflections. Then what resulted with that is that the Egyptian minister of expatriate affairs found out about the program and recognized many of these girls, so they performed for the governor of Aswan as well. It was really, really fruitful.

It was hard work. Working with fifty-five teenage girls, in June, in Aswan, which is really, really hot, is not easy, but it was incredible. It was humbling, and it was eye-opening. I continue being in touch with all these young women, and it’s very inspiring of what can happen when youth are just given that ability to produce work in their own natural environments and engaging with heritage in different ways and what that looks like. I would say that’s my most exciting collaboration.

Nabra: It also sounds like it’s something that brought together a lot of the different skills that you would really need to put on a piece of art like that, or pieces of art like that. The research element, the educator element, I’m sure directing and acting, and all of those art skills came out as well. You should have seen our faces, all of us listeners, all of us, just so excited about this project.

Sarah: I’ve got loads of photos to share, so if anyone ever wants to see photos, happy to do that.

Marina: If you want to send one to be included in the episode, we can post it on the HowlRound site with the transcript.

Nabra: Yes!

Marina: When you said 55 also, I was already impressed and amazed, but then 55 is like, it’s just such a massive amount of people. That’s really amazing.

Sarah: Yeah, there was 50 in the 2018 one and then 55 in the 2020 [one], not including those who couldn’t participate because of exams and whatnot. But yeah.

Marina: Wow. Thank you for sharing that with us.

Denmo: That’s amazing.

Marina: Denmo, we would love to hear from you. Just thinking about what some of the successful collaborations, however you define successful, maybe even just most enriching collaborations you’ve had, just to share more about your work and some of the things that you really look for or love, or that resonate with you in those collaborations.

Denmo: Yeah, it’s so beautiful. The question is beautiful. It’s pointing to the places where I think at least in my creative process, where the challenges really live. Of course, they’re scattered all the way throughout, but the beginning is hard. It’s hard when you’re writing a new play or working on a new piece, and you don’t know where it is or where it’s going, especially if it’s close to home. It almost feels like the source material is me. I’ve had a few pieces. My very first solo piece called Baba. That was the first piece I had written as a challenge to myself because I had spent eight years in ensemble theatre. I interviewed my family and other first-generation immigrants and that became the beginning of this piece, but it also became the beginning of my process of finding a theme or a question that I was excavating and then beginning to go out into the community and start to gather documentation and research and material from true stories to begin to infiltrate the text.

Oftentimes what I find is in the beginning, if I’m working with a dramaturg, it can be really powerful. In Brilliant Mind, that piece was inspired by my own family dynamic. I was working with this brilliant dramaturg slash professor in Canada, and I was delivering pages. And it was the most subtle, gentle process that really opened up all these doors within me. She would just gently point to the space between two lines and write a question mark. I realized, in those little things, that there was a whole conversation I was having in my head, but it wasn’t really on the page. And in this very gentle way, her own curiosity was pointing to parts in the script that I was like, “Oh! Go here more; go pull out this.”

Then I think through that process, I started to excavate what this source material within myself was and that was really powerful. Similarly, when I was performing, I was actually performing Heather Raffo’s Noura, and I was working with Kate Bergstrom, who was directing that piece. Noura has a lot of text in that play, and she has quite the journey. One of the things that was really amazing about that is I think Kate, as a director, didn’t let anyone off the hook. Even if the performance was at a certain place, really, she kept pushing and pushing and pushing, and I just thought, I always want to be in rooms. I always want to be in rooms where I never know everything, where I never have reached my limit, where I’m always going to be challenged.

The sense of—Sarah, as you were saying—the sense of messiness is genuine. It’s not just the beginning, but it’s actually, hopefully, a culmination. That the culmination is messy. My most successful collaborations have really, I think, taught me that if I don’t feel changed as an artist by the end of the process, or rather to be changed as an artist by the end of the process, I think, is a good sign that that relationship was very fruitful. I think it also changes my desire. When I was younger in my early twenties, I was really hungry in the sense of, “I just want to be in all these creative processes,” and saying yes to a lot of projects. Now I feel really clear that who I’m playing with is as important to what I’m creating.

Nabra: That is so poetically said, Denmo. My goodness. I completely agree, and both of you have, I think, illustrated very, very different forms of collaboration that embrace that beautiful messiness, if you may, and create something perfect out of that. If I may call it perfect because perfect in its messiness as well. To talk a little bit about MENA/SWANA theatre as well, I really think that MENA theatre is naturally multidisciplinary. We’re always integrating music, dance, storytelling, multimedia into both traditional and contemporary performances. Do you think that your identity as a MENA or SWANA artist informs how you approach your work, and do you think that MENA art has some type of element of that natural multidisciplinary or also multi-art-form quality to it in some way?

Denmo: I want to address, since I haven’t said it yet, but I think I’m going to now. I’d like to address even the term of multihyphenated or multidisciplinary because it’s from the perspective of being outside, you know what I mean? It’s from the perspective of the medium, but the internal experience is not multihyphenated, actually. I don’t feel multihyphenated although I’ve written a screenplay. I published a children’s book. I’m performing on the main stage. I’m leading a workshop in Kuwait. Although you could look at all these “fragments” of my life and the different disciplines, I think the internal experience is actually just being an artist in the world. Then to go a little further, Nabra, with your point of “Where does MENA intersect with that?”

I think that’s a really powerful question. I will say that I think the answer for me, I’m realizing, is perhaps that’s why there is such a multilayer, multihyphenated quality to MENA artists. For me being, an Egyptian American—my parents immigrated to the States in the seventies; my brother and I were born here—so much of my life has been this question around identity and home. No matter how far I try and run away from that, no matter how much I try and be inventive and clever and write something that doesn’t have to do with those two themes of identity and home, I am always led back to that. I think because I feel this very strong tether to this question of identity, of not really fitting in, in any one place, there is a natural inclination to want to be able to create, devise, design in multiple mediums. Because I’m not sure I really fit in any one place anyway.

I’m saying it now very articulate and very fully formed, but I don’t think I’ve always felt that way. I think I just had a response to the world. I did undergraduate in a conservatory for acting at a 4-year college in Boston that had a cut program halfway through. We started with 60; we ended with 11. And we were doing the plays of Ibsen and Chekhov and maybe some John Guare and David Ives. They don’t have Egyptian characters, so I was usually being cast as the mistress or the servant. I learned early on that, if I am going to have a place in the creative world, I’ll probably have to create that myself. It felt very intentional, and now I’m understanding it wasn’t because I wasn’t invited to those other spaces. But that perhaps, where I felt most comfortable was always going to be my own definition of home anyway, because that I think is ultimately my question of home and identity.

Marina: Denmo, thank you for saying all of that. I really resonate with that. I’ve always found I use the term multihyphenate to describe myself, but only because I’ve gotten reactions to, “Oh, you do this too?” It’s always felt like, “I need then something so that you don’t say that thing to me because it feels really reductive.” I loved your, just so articulate. I will cite you when I say these things now back to people, but thank you for saying that. It resonates deeply. I’m feeling a lot of things. Thank you. Sarah, I would love to hear also from you about Nabra’s question around your identity and how that really influences your work as well.

Sarah: It’s at the core of everything I do and no matter how I try, as Denmo very wonderfully stated in that statement—it sent goose pimples down my arm because it was like, “Yep, this is a hundred percent where it is and the constant frustration of why are we not including Middle Eastern North African performances or theatre or whatever it is, within theatre anthologies? Why are we consistently showing up to spaces and having to fight for our place on the table? Why are we consistently running up against this issue of lack of representation or rather misrepresentation?” For me, the biggest driving force behind my work and everything that continues to lead back to it, is this issue of reclamation and reigniting lost or suppressed histories in the ability to actually talk about performance and then talk about it and to do it in a way that’s like, “Well, this is something that has been in the region for centuries.”

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