The Other Side of the Curtain: How Community-Engaged, Socially Conscious Theater Is Changing the Landscape of Performance in Chicago

2016 Community Actors Program Summer Final Presentation with Gabriel N., Myanna D., Aubrianna B., Markelle C./ Photo: Sara Pooley

I wrote a theater feature for Newcity Magazine’s Stage section on how community-engaged, socially-conscious theater is changing the landscape of performance in Chicago. Click here to read the published version of it.

Below, I’ve posted a longer, “uncut” version of this piece, that featured more voices from the different theater organizations/groups/collectives I had the honor to speak with.

“The Other Side of the Curtain: How Community-Engaged, Socially Conscious Theater Is Changing the Landscape of Performance in Chicago”

By Danielle Levsky

Community-engaged, socially-conscious theater is what Free Street Theater in Pilsen has been striving for since its inception in 1969 . They have focused on what happens in the many communities of Chicago, including those that are not often represented at the mainstream theaters in the Northside.

“The reason Free Street is able to continue is because actual Chicagoans all across Chicago are contributing to the work in some way,” says Youth Program Director of Free Street Theater Katrina Dion.

In every single process, they are focused on getting to those stories.

“Theater requires schedule and presence,” says Artistic Director of Free Street Theater Coya Paz. “Theater does not make social change, but you can use theater to affect social change experts.”

Chicago native artist, activist and academic Ricardo Gamboa thinks that “artists are absolutely crucial to movement building and social justice.” Gamboa is working in collaboration with Free Street Theater on Meet Juanito Doe. This play is written with the stories of Mexican Americans on the Southside of Chicago and will be performed on the Southside by Mexican Americans. Free Street focuses on stories from marginalized or underrepresented communities in Chicago, which include Latinx stories.

Quenna Barrett, the Education Program Manager at University of Chicago’s Arts + Public Life at the Arts Incubator, works with teen performers at the Community Actors Program (CAP), in partnership with After School Matters in six-week apprenticeships to cultivates a short play or collection of scenes that respond to community issues.

“I wish I had space to have these conversations when I was a young person,” says Barrett. “I wanted to provide a space for brown girls to tell their stories so they could see themselves, because growing up, I never saw myself in TV or media.”

In a similar vein, the company members of FEMelanin, a collective of multidisciplinary, self-identified femme artists of color, also wanted to create art that they would have wanted to see as children. Their latest piece, “Epic Tales from the Land of Melanin,” was performed at the Chicago Fringe Festival and was based on histories of real-life women of color and non-Eurocentric fairytales. Though this show was created with young audiences in mind, their work ranges in age demographic targets.

Company member of FEMelanin Deanalís Resto recalled growing up and watching Disney movies, trying to see where she could fit into them.

“We offer a different take on the story of colonization or gentrification that can affect the other stories being brought into the script,” says company member of FEMelanin Mariana Green. “We utilize the idea that a story can be told in a multitude of ways.”

Their stories and characters evolve to fit who is in the production.

“We like to change, evolve, tweak, etc. all of our work,” says company member of FEMelanin Alyssa Vera Ramos. “For instance, if one line never quite sits with our character’s identity, we’ll change it.”

Ramos is also involved with For Youth Inquiry (FYI) in partnership with the Illinois Caucus for Adolescent Health (ICAH) as their Movement Building Coordinator, where she runs the Change, Heal, Act Together (CHAT) Network, a youth-adult partnership program. FYI programs are designed to be participatory theater experiences that engage youth in conversations about sexual health and sexual violence. FYI offers theater-based workshops and “mash up” the theater residency model, according to ICAH’s Cultural Strategies Consultant Nik Zaleski.

These theater companies, small performance troupes and large educational organizations share a commonality: a commitment to social justice activism. With every production and art piece, they are exploring and challenging the history of traditional and mainstream theaters, particularly those institutions in Chicago that have kept marginalized and disenfranchised communities out of the conversation for so long.

Why is theater ‘fancy’?

“We have this notion that theater is ‘fancy,’” says Paz. “There’s a tension around that. We work very hard to explore those ideas and tell people to come as they are.”

Free Street operates under a pay-what-you-can model, which removes the barrier of high-ticket prices.

Collaboraction Theatre Company has cultivated their performances through “empathy, knowledge, dialogue and action for the betterment of society.” Their current season focuses on “The Reality of Racism in Chicago: Envisioning Truth, Racial Healing, and Transformation” to address “the breakdowns ailing us in Chicago,” according to the Managing Director at Collaboraction Theatre Company Marcus Robinson.

At Collaboraction, they engage their mainstream audience members by bringing them in direct contact with issues they address in their shows and allow them to embrace the issues the best they can.

“They may not be the ones participating in marches, protests, etc. but they can support financially, they can write letters of endorsement, they can open doors that were not open as wide before, they can have conversations at this table,” says Robinson. “There’s this thing about power, privilege and influence that’s naturally embedded in mainstream theater. We just need to wake people up to their privilege. They can realize that they’ve got something they can leverage on behalf of other people.”

Gamboa recognizes this privilege as a “social practice” that happens in the art world. He also thinks about what society identifies as “good theater” and also points out how theaters like Free Street have been creating ensemble, devised work since they opened the company.

“It’s tied to arts politics and colonization,” says Gamboa. “That was the ground zero for how people of color and their culture would be viewed. Many institutions think people of color cannot create credible culture. They think people of color are primitive. That’s a concept as old as 1492. But theater and performance exist and have existed within our cultural genealogies too. We have to think about who gets to be considered a credible, cultural creator. White people are allowed to ascend in ways that people of color are not.”

The result of this type of thinking is an overall consciousness in the work these companies and individuals produce. For instance, FEMelanin’s “Epic Tales from the Land of Melanin” has three characters that were pulled from different identities. One character was pulled from a Charmorro folk tale and another was pulled from company member Enid Muñoz’s Mexican ancestry.

FEMelanin believes that specificity is important, so being aware of language, cultural and ethnic differences is important, especially for a performance collective that aims to represent themselves.

“For the audience to associate me with the story about the Charmorro woman is important because people are put into boxes so often,” says Green, who looks like a Charmorro/biracial woman. “We have to acknowledge that we only have the stories that we have because of the way we look, because these social structures exist, because people don’t ask questions about our history.”

A roundtable discussion

Theater artists in social justice oriented theater and performance are thinking about how to better respect each other and invite each other to the table every day. They consider their own and others’ privileges, oppressions and every aspect that fits into multiple identities.

Free Street’s “Meet Juanito Doe” focuses on reaching people within their own community. They rented out a storefront for the show and to collect stories in Back of the Yards so they could reach the audience they wanted. But, Gamboa says it was also a political statement: resisting the idea that they need to be relating at all to the mainstream, normative theater world.

“We’re not going to rent out a theater on the Northside to put on a play about the city’s Mexican-American population when that theater would be inaccessible to that audience,” Gamboa emphasized. “Why should we have the show in a traditional theater space if we’re not trying to reach a traditional audience?”

Mainstream and non-social-justice-oriented theaters in Chicago also have the opportunity to strengthen and give voice to underrepresented communities in Chicago.

“It is my real hope that we will continue to push for theater landscapes that looks like our city,” says Paz. “Right now, the ‘theater community’ is a community, but it also tends to be very white.”

Every story, once you move past the language, ethnicity and skin tone, according to Robinson, shares universal similarities.

“Underneath it all is a desire to laugh, to love, to be loved,” says Robinson. “People need contact with people in a world outside of their own bubble. We stand on the same ground together.”

Others, like Gamboa, think larger changes need to be made to the institutions of mainstream theaters in Chicago.

“Let the old guard die off,” says Gamboa. “So much of the desire of theater artists is inclusion or recognition. They want to be at an exalted, problematic institution. They end up reinforcing these institutions and systems that do harm and compound the oppression poor people, people of color, and whoever else are enduring. And artists of color are so often also orienting their careers toward inclusion in these institutions and industry and gaining mobility within them as opposed to trying to transform them entirely. I don’t want just increased representation in problematic spaces. I want new spaces.”

Over 70% of public arts funding goes to Northside-based Chicago theaters.

“Part of what the problem is, isn’t just systemic, but it’s also individuals who celebrate these spaces and the hierarchy that allows them to exist,” Gamboa concluded.

However, there are also mainstream theaters that are taking risks and doing good work to support underrepresented or marginalized communities in Chicago. For instance, the Goodman Theatre’s community and education programs open doors and make opportunities available for people who may not have the same access or privilege.

“There is a forcing a level of creativity among theater folk that is developing and burgeoning,” says Zaleski.

Infiltrating: an examination

Each artist has to think about what their boundaries are, how they’re willing to show up, and to which spaces they want to apply their time. By putting themselves in places where marginalized communities are not well represented, it can be a form of infiltration. That can take many forms, and more often than not, it’s uncomfortable and exhausting.

“Academia can be a violent place,” says Gamboa, who is pursuing a doctorate degree at NYU’s American Studies program and is a Critical Collaborations Fellow (2016-2018) at the Tisch School of the Arts where he also received his M.A. in Arts Politics (2013). “If you’re a queer scholar from a working class community of color, the knowledge from that background and the knowledge you bring to the table in general is undervalued.”

Gamboa got to a point where he felt he had taken himself as far as he could go on his own. He felt that he needed an intervention if he wanted to stay true to his commitment to use his art to make change. He applied to the program at NYU to work with people that he looked up to and considered smarter than him. He has applied everything he learned in grad school in his work.

“My plays and web series are a matter of life and death for me,” says Gamboa. “I want to be rigorous with the work that I make. It’s important for me generalize the knowledge that I’ve had access to and to put it in my work and in conversation with audiences of real people.”

However, he at once feels like he can finally celebrate his work but also struggles with being a radically politicized voice.

“Coming from brown working-class roots, growing up queer, growing up a person of color has become a target for standing up for others and means you are always fighting for your life,” says Gamboa. “For me, artistic spaces become safe space. Art and art-making allows you to create wormholes from oppression and embody different ways of being, model alternative ways of making and relating, and where you can rehearse the struggle.”

Barrett, who also studied at NYU, received received her BFA from the Tisch School of the Arts in Drama in 2011 and her MA in Applied Theatre from the University of Southern California in 2013.

Her focus shifted to community-based theater classes and she was introduced to theater of the oppressed.

“I got my MA to get specific tools, then came back to Chicago to use them,” says Barrett. “I always found that the main issue was I didn’t have a space to tell my story.”

Barrett’s performances with CAP are collaborative because the performers work together to create the scenes that ultimately make up the play.

“We’re going to tell the stories we think are important,” says Barrett. “And no, we don’t have a traditional theater space, but somehow that works. We get to be more creative in terms of our storytelling. It’s gritty, a little bit more real. We are right there. There’s no separation. There’s no fourth wall.”

Infiltration can look a bit different. Where Free Street, Gamboa and Barrett are focused on elevating voices within their communities, the company members of FEMelanin are bringing young people, people of color and communities that you would not see otherwise into mainstream theater spaces.

“We’re pushing our work to the front,” says company member of FEMelanin Brandi Lee. “We’re open about this with young people and students, thinking about who is controlling the spaces and how much space people of color can occupy within it.”

The actual act of putting bodies into different kinds of spaces is just one example of infiltration in mainstream spaces.

“Writing a play as a person of color and having it be a in festival that is primarily full of white playwrights is also infiltration,” Ramos added. “What’s not okay is for people to tell us how to show up, if we’re choosing to show up in the first place. It’s not okay for people to police the ways in which we decide to protest or infiltrate.”

The theater community in Chicago has a long way to go before it is rounded out. The community is immense and wants to support each other.

“Some larger, mid-sized institutions are putting their money where their mouth is by recognizing themselves as institutions, giving their space to marginalized or underrepresented communities and hiring from those communities,” says Ramos.

All these theater artists are working in the service of social justice efforts and work within the systems that are for and against them.

“The one thing the arts do so well is create spaces of joy and community,” says Paz.



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