Top: Joyce Torres and Joey Datuin work on “Breaking,” part of Breaking the Wave Theatre's “Unspoken” series, and Sunni Patterson in Junebug Productions' “Gomela.” Bottom: A screenshot from San Francisco Bay Area Theatre Company's “Live With Rod & Marce,” and Vernon Medearis, Marissa Ampon, and Chuck Lacsona perform “Prelude” as part of Bindlestiff Studios' “Stories High” audio series.
Editor’s Note: In partnership with the Doris Duke Foundation and the Sheri and Les Biller Family Foundation, TCG’s THRIVE! Uplifting Theatres of Color initiative offered $1,140,000, equaling 46 grants in 3 categories, to U.S.-based (including Tribal lands and Territories) Black Theatres, Indigenous Theatres, and Theatres of Color (BITOC). In addition to the funds, 21 BITOC receiving RECOGNIZE category grants also participated in REBUILD, a learning cohort working with BIPOC consultants to strengthen their effectiveness in specific areas. The initiative was created with an advisory committee of 14 BIPOC theatre leaders and artists. To further uplift these companies, American Theatre magazine approached myself (Regina Victor, editor of Rescripted) and fellow cultural critic Jose Solís to curate and edit six articles highlighting the RECOGNIZE companies, with each of us guiding three pieces. It was our work to divide and then re-thread these companies together into articles with common themes, source writers and assign them, and edit their drafts, with American Theatre seeing to the final copy edit. These stories are examined through the lens of this year’s critically focused Rising Leaders of Color cohort (Amanda L. Andrei, Citlali Pizarro, and afrikah selah), as well as three Chicago-based writers (Dillon Chitto, Madie Doppelt, and Tina El Gamal). This six-part essay series showcases 21 examples of people doing the work, championing their culture, and finding creative solutions to generational problems. Thank you to Jose for being a wonderful thought partner in this project, and to Emilya Cachapero and Raksak Kongseng for your invitation and support.
After entering an era of hybrid and digital programming, how have our stories expanded, and even become untethered to the stage? And how can we sustain this work in the American theatre?
Spreading across 2,549 miles on land and 6,949 miles by sea, THRIVE! recipient theatres Junebug Productions, Last Call, Su Teatro, Bindlestiff Studio, San Francisco Bay Area Theatre Company, and Breaking Wave Theatre Company have embraced new digital mediums and made them part of their programming by setting clear intentions that prioritize relationships, safety, and community-building. In doing so, each theatre has presented programming they would have not been able to do before, and continue to bring forth digital programs as a means to stay connected with their communities and missions.
At the height of the pandemic, each theatre focused on a medium that allowed them to reimagine storytelling unbound by the proscenium stage. From film and livestreams to podcasts, and even on-demand viewing, these theatres found new modes of expression that blur the lines between the outreach of small and regional theatres.
In New Orleans, Junebug Productions incorporated Junebug Films to expand the reach of their New Orleans-based John O’Neal Cultural Artist Fellows, who are storytellers in their own traditions. With the success of two productions, Gomela and The Here Woman, Junebug looks forward to expanding to include the Story Circle tradition. Hailing from the same city, Last Call—a brilliant collective of queer and trans global-majority artists, oral historians, and archivists—have embraced podcasting to amplify QTBIPOC voices and stories of the South. In employing this medium, Last Call has produced more than three seasons of oral history interviews, transmuting personal narratives into collective performances.
Meanwhile out West, Colorado’s Su Teatro has made local and national impact in the larger theatre ecology. After moving their XicanIndie Film Fest and The Wordfest to virtual platforms, the cultural and performing arts center discovered new artists on a nationwide scale that was not achievable before, as well as creating unexpected opportunities with local videographers and local TV stations.
Further west, nestled in the SoMa neighborhood of the San Francisco Bay Area, Bindlestiff Studio has embraced livestreaming and on-demand viewing to uplift Page to Stage (a new-play development company), premiere new plays, and present live music. Through programs like Queer AF, concerts, and other live-streamed performances, Bindlestiff has continued to be a lifeline in creating community and dialogue in both the States and the Philippines in the face of displacement, gentrification, and navigating post-pandemic safety. Down the road from Bindlestiff, San Francisco Bay Area Theater Company has created hybrid and on-demand programming, providing opportunities to create new pathways for artists and new models of new play development.
SImilarly, Breaking Wave Theatre Company has broken down barriers in Guam and among a newfound international community through Unspoken, Hita Mane’estoria: We Are Storytellers, and Legends of Guåhan. By embracing this new medium, combined with in-person elements, BWTCO has been able to deepen their nontraditional leadership model with support from their board and a growing, inclusive, intergenerational community dialogue, to destigmatize issues such as mental health, addiction, and seeking community support.
After the pivot to digital programs during the pandemic, these theatres continue to witness the impact hybrid programming has had on their audiences and their process. Last Call co-director indee mitchell summed it up beautifully: “I feel like we’re at this place where people are really calling to not just tell stories of different identities, but also to have those stories be told by those people and created by those people, which I think takes time and intention and like opportunities.” With a rise in intergenerational, youth, and elder-centered spaces, created and cultivated through this medium, there is more room to grow for new opportunities to be planted.
When asked how she envisions this program’s impact on the American theatre landscape, Breaking Wave executive director CJ Ochoco said, “I hope that the rest of American theatre can show that collaboration and connection is possible. I hope that our impact, wherever we impact and whoever we impact, shows folks that it is possible to take our culture, take the things that matter to us, and put that into our art, family, community, doing things that matter. We hope to continue to open up our doors for collaboration, not just with folks who have connections to Guam, but also just folks who are aligned with us. I think that through hybrid formats we can continue to connect in many ways as theatres of color, but also theatres in general and artists for all of us to bridge these gaps.”
Clearly there is more conversation to be had around funding, capacity, and quality for hybrid theatre. In addition to benefits, being online has surfaced new challenges for these theatres, especially as theatres have transitioned to or restarted in-person programming. While these new mediums have created new ways to stay engaged and find community miles apart from their audiences, all six theatres acknowledged that the visceral experience of theatre will never be replaced by digital programming.
Said Tony Garcia, artistic director of Su Teatro, “At the core of what I want to do is engage our community in conversation. If that’s the primary thing, there has to be a tactile piece. I think what the artists will do, in terms of our leadership, is we will find ways of utilizing technology to unleash those feelings and those senses that are not part and parcel of technology .That’s what I hope our kids and our future generations does, because I trust them that they will say, ‘Okay, that’s the technology’—that the technology only leads you to a path of humanity, of humanness. It’s about being human, and technology is our tool, it is not a goal.”
Similarly, Junebug Productions’ interim executive artistic director Mariana Shepard noted how we can hold space for community through this new medium. “Community can exist,” she said. “A new way that we’re organizing can create room for both online and in-person—and I think there is room. This is just a different type of community. We still rely on people to show up, we still rely on people to come to things like story circles and share, and offer and, you know, be amongst one another.”
As the prevalence of technology expands, our everyday social media creates competition for our attention and challenges us to stay both relevant and accessible in the realm of the internet. Echoing this, rising expectations of quality in regards to on-demand theatre create new challenges around funding, staffing, and production process. Said Bindlestiff Studio artistic director Aureen Almario, “I think for us, as a small little black box theatre, it would be great to have more funding to be able to really imagine a quality experience for audiences, and for us to be able to pay for videographers and editors that will make our online presence a lot more stronger.”
In the end, Junebug Productions, Last Call, Su Teatro, Bindlestiff Studio, San Francisco Bay Area Theatre Company, and Breaking Wave Theater Company have shared that when it comes to hybrid programming, there’s no going back any time soon. On the contrary: They’re just getting started.
afrikah selah (they/them) is a Boston-based multihyphenate cultural worker specializing in producorial dramaturgy, new-play development, and arts journalism.
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