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On the Urge to Perform – Andrea Assaf

Performative Visions

By Andrea Assaf

This article was first published by The Public Humanist (September 14, 2009).*

Perform: to give form to. To carry out, enact, or fulfill. To give a rendition of; to follow a pattern of behavior; to play. To do in a formal manner according to prescribed ritual; to be in a state of performing. To use language that actualizes what is spoken. To do thoroughly; to complete.

For me, personally, the urge to perform is multi-dimensional: it’s an urge to express; to live in a heightened state; and to enact something meaningful in public space, that shifts perception, has impact, or itself enacts change.

The imperative of the stage is to live fully and truthfully, moment by moment, in the presence of other people. It is to focus all of one’s being and energy on the realization and embodiment of the imagination. For some of us, performance is a spiritual practice as much as it is a creative or critical one. It is giving form to impulse. At its best, it is both being a vessel for pure energy, and carefully building a structure through which that energy can flow. The repetition and perfection of that structure, which we may call the craft of acting or performing, is (as Stravinsky said) the basis of the experience of artistic freedom.

A dear old friend of mine, Shantanand Saraswati, who is a spiritual teacher originally from India, once saw me perform Emily Dickinson in The Belle of Amherst at New York City’s Circle in the Square. I was not even twenty years old at the time. He came back stage to see me after the show, and I was anxious and curious to hear what his reaction might be. He squinted at me for a short while, and then said only, “You live better on stage than you do in your life.” Although I felt a bit devastated, I understood him immediately. He was referring exactly to what I had been training intensively to do as an actor – to be fully present, to express openly and without inhibition, to be keenly aware of and connected to my environment and all beings in the space, to follow impulse truthfully and without judgment – in other words, to surrender myself to what he would call the universal flow of the river of life, leading to the ocean of pure consciousness. Honestly, we always had a funny friendship, because I was a rather argumentative skeptic; but I respected his devotion to philosophical inquiry, and I think he was entertained by my tendency to challenge. I never forgot what he said. I knew that he had pinpointed exactly why I continually return to the stage.

The urge to perform, for me, is an urge to return to the place I feel most at home, and most alive. It’s extremely hard to get there. It’s ever-elusive and risky. The moment you take it for granted, it will disappear. If you lose focus, if you don’t commit yourself fully, if you haven’t trained, rehearsed or memorized enough, if you stop trusting yourself and those you share the stage with, if your ego overshadows the work of the art itself – any of these will take you quickly down a path of, at best mediocrity, or at worst, the emotional torture of knowing when you’re bombing on stage. But if you devote yourself unequivocally to the ritual of your craft, and remain absolutely present moment-by-moment; if you open the channels of your body, voice, and awareness; if you allow yourself to be inspired by the unexpected (because anything can happen on stage); if you stay acutely connected to all other performers; if you commit completely to the world of the imagination and live fully in what you have created – then, only then, might you reach a state of transcendence or euphoria, a rush of life-blood extending beyond the body, a state in which pain disappears, and everything outside the imaginary world temporarily dissolves. When you have lived like this on stage, you are usually both exhausted and exhilarated. Spent, but deeply satisfied. You may not always remember what you did or how it happened, but you know you went to places deep and high. You look forward to returning, and you’re curious about what you might discover, or perfect, the next time.

This is the unique pleasure of performance.

And on the other side, there is the emergency: the need to express. The deep wells of abuse or pain from which many of us draw our most urgent expressions. This is the catharsis of the performer, which may precede the ascendance. This is how we heal ourselves, or at least how we survive. It may be fulfilled, for some, by the process. For others, art requires an audience; the catharsis must be witnessed, heard, and shared by as many people as possible.

The need to express is probably something that all artists and writers share, although not all desire to perform. Some of us both write and perform. When the artist truly has something to say, the urge to say it, to express or make it visible in the public sphere, can drive us to great lengths. We can pursue that articulation, through words or through the body, for our entire lives. Because the urge to perform is also about impact – how what we create, express and embody as performers resonates in the community and the world(s) we inhabit. Performativity is about, not only what we enact, but what that act does in the world. What the art itself performs, what it brings into form or being.

For artists like me, who are inclined toward political analysis and obsessed with the notion of justice, having something to say is what drives the creative process to production. We are not only provoked by what disturbs us in the “real” world, but also by the concept of hope – by belief in possibility, in creating alternative realities, and by our visions of what the world could be. We desire to open spaces of imagination and belief in the public consciousness, so that more and more of society might see, not only the reflection of our ills and injustices, but also these visions of the possible … so that we might envision together, you could say, a new world …

There is an urge that drives me on. Even in the face of what some may say is impossible. It’s the urge to give form to vision. The urge to carry out, to enact, to fulfill. The urge to actualize what has been spoken. And to do so, thoroughly and completely.


*Many thanks to Mass Humanities for publishing this and other blog articles by our Artistic Director!  For more, visit The Public Humanist and search for Andrea Assaf.

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Press Release: Kaleidoscope 2018

FINAL Kaleidoscope Design (crop)


May 1, 2018

Contact: Eric Cárdenas, Director, Public Information

(813) 253-6232, publicinfo@ut.edu

For Immediate Release

Kaleidoscope:  A Multidisciplinary Exhibit by Military Community Artists at UT Scarfone/Hartley Gallery

May 18 – June 2, 2018

TAMPA — The University of Tampa`s College of Arts and Letters, Scarfone/Hartley Gallery and Department of Art and Design will be presenting Kaleidoscope:  A Multidisciplinary Exhibition by Military Community Artists.  Kaleidoscope is an exhibit featuring the artwork of active military and veterans from all branches of service.  This beautifully broad exhibit embraces art in all forms, including painting, ceramics, blown glass, photography, digital storytelling, and a live performance opening night.

Co-presented and sponsored by the University of Tampa`s Scarfone/Hartley Gallery, the Florida Art Therapy Association (FATA), and Art2Action, Inc., this exhibit aims to bring service members, their families, art, creative therapies, and the local community together to honor, witness, and experience the power of art, its healing capabilities, and the resiliency of the human spirit.  Curated by Saori Murphy, a visual artist and military veteran, the exhibition includes a variety of artists, including work by current UT student veterans.  The exhibition runs from May 18 – June 2, 2018.

On May 18th, the Scarfone/Hartley Gallery, Art2Action and the concurrent FATA Symposium will host a series of opening events.  Starting at 4 p.m., there will be an Artists’ Talk featuring five of the Kaleidoscope visual artists, including the curator, moderated by Art2Action Artistic Director, Andrea Assaf; followed by an Opening Reception at 5:30 p.m. in the lobby.  At 7 p.m., a special performance of CHRYSALIS: A new Play about Veterans, Breaking Through, and the process of Becoming more Human, (an Art2Action production) will be presented in the Gallery, followed by a post-show dialogue with the performers—including professional artists and veteran community participants.  Tickets for the performance will be $10 general admission / $5 for students and veterans/active military, and can be purchased at the gallery the day of the event (starting at 3 p.m.).

Chrysalis FB header

The Scarfone/Hartley gallery is located on campus at the R.K. Bailey Art Studios at 310 N. Blvd. Gallery hours are 10 a.m. to 4 p.m., Tuesday through Friday, and 1 to 4 p.m. Saturday. There is no charge for admission. For more information about these events, contact Jocelyn Boigenzahn, gallery director, at jboigenzahn@ut.edu or (813) 253-6217.

Art2Action’s Veteran Arts Program has been generously supported, in part, by the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation, Florida Department of State, Division of Cultural Affairs, the Florida Council of Arts and Culture and the State of Florida, and the National Endowment for the Arts (Section 286.25, Florida Statutes).  For more information about Art2Action’s work with the military community, please visit:  https://art2action.org/veterans-in-tampa

Florida Art Therapy Association`s mission is to advocate for expansion of access to professional art therapists and lead the state in the advancement of art therapy as a regulated mental health and human services profession.  FATA provides information, resources, and meaningful networking opportunities to its members and the public.

The University of Tampa is a private, residential university located on 110 acres on the riverfront in downtown Tampa. Known for academic excellence, personal attention and real-world experience in its undergraduate and graduate programs, the University serves approximately 9,000 students from 50 states and 140 countries. Approximately 62 percent of full-time students live on campus, and more than half of UT students are from Florida.


The original creators of CHRYSALIS (Photo by James Geiger, December 2017)


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Press Release: R&R Arts Festival 2017

For Immediate Release:  January 17, 2017

Tampa to Host National Summit & Festival

on Arts & Health in the Military

Art2Action Inc., in partnership with the University of South Florida (USF) and Americans for the Arts, presents the R&R Arts Festival: Performances by, for, about and with Veterans

Tampa, FL – In early February 2017, Art2Action, Americans for the Arts, and the University of South Florida (USF) will co-host the National Initiative for Arts & Health in the Military (NIAHM), 4th National Summit, focusing on the Role of the Arts in Recovery, Transition & Transformation. For the first time in the history of NIAHM’s National Summit convenings, the 2017 gathering will be held outside of Washington DC, and will include a festival of original performance works by, for, about and with Veterans, organized and curated by Art2Action. The ground-breaking R&R Arts Festival: From Recovery to Regeneration will place veterans’ stories—and the work of nationally acclaimed artists who create with them—at the center of an extraordinary cross-sector convening, bringing more than 200 military, veteran, and civilian practitioners, researchers, and policy makers together to share best practices, and help inform a nationwide vision for increasing access to the arts and creative arts therapies for all Veterans, as well as families and caregivers. The R&R Arts Festival is made possible by the generous support of the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation’s Fund for National Projects grant program. Art2Action received $95,625 from DDCF to support this unique national event.  Additional partners include The Carpetbag Theatre, and New England Foundation for the Arts (NEFA) “Art in the Service of Understanding: New Perspectives from Artists and the Military Community” program.


R&R Festival Series Package (discount for all 3 shows) – $39 general, $24 students/seniors, and $12 active military/veterans:  http://www.ticketmaster.com/Art2Action-RR-Festival-Series-Package-tickets/artist/2325451

  • Thursday, February 2Speed Killed My Cousin, an original play by Linda Parris-Bailey, about an African American woman soldier who returns from Iraq and struggles to understand her Post-traumatic stress, and her family’s history with vehicular suicide. Performed by The Carpetbag Theatre Inc., featuring Tampa’s own Andresia “Real” Moseley. 7:30 PM @ USF Theatre 1 (TAT), 3839 USF Holly Drive, Tampa, FL.
  • Friday, February 3Touch: The Love Concert, featuring special guests “The War & Treaty” led by Iraq war veteran turned singer-songwriter Michael Trotter, Jr., and the Touch iPad Band performing a new music composition based on stories of veterans in the Tampa Bay area, with local professional actors and USF students (directed by Dora Arreola, choreographed by Merry Lynn Morris). Proceeds benefit Military Service Outreach (MSO), helping veterans transition out of homelessness. 7:30 PM @ the USF School of Music Concert Hall (MUS), 3755 USF Holly Drive, Tampa, FL.
  • Saturday, February 4 Re/Generate: Dance! A mixed-ability dance concert featuring excerpts of Healing Wars by MacArthur “genius” Award winner Liz Lerman; Exit 12 Dance, choreographed by veteran Roman Baca; Marine-turned-performance artist Makoto Hirano; wheelchair dancer Dwayne Scheuneman and more!  7:30 PM @ USF Theatre 1 (TAT), 3839 USF Holly Drive.
  • Sunday, February 5Veterans Community Open Mic, featuring special guests, the Miami-based Combat Hippies directed by Teo Castellanos, poet and playwright Maurice Decaul, Veteran Stand-up Comedians, local DJ Cotton, and more! FREE & open to the public. Free coffee/tea for Veterans! 5-8 PM at Tre Amici @ The Bunker, 1907 N 19th St (Ybor City), Tampa, FL.

For more information about individual performances (single tickets $15 general, $10 students/seniors, and $5 military/veterans), and Free events, please visit:  www.art2action.org/RR-Festival

About Art2Action, Inc.

Art2Action Inc. creates, develops, produces and presents original theatre, interdisciplinary performances, performative acts and progressive cultural organizing. We support women artists, artists of color, queer or trans-identified artists, and creative allies. We are dedicated to cultural equity and innovation, artistic quality and community value, performativity and impact. Whether developing new work, collaborating with community partners, touring or presenting, community-based process and meaningful engagement with diverse constituencies is central to all of our work. As a mission-driven, artist-led organization, we increase our capacity, reach and impact through multi-year partnerships with local partners, national networks, institutions of service and higher learning, organizations and activists. Since 2013, Art2Action has been a designated campus presenter at the University of South Florida, housed in the School of Theatre and Dance. As part of our on-going partnership with The Carpetbag Theatre, supporting veteran recovery and reintegration through the arts, Art2Action offers performing arts workshops for veterans at the Veterans Recovery Center (PRRC) of the James A. Haley Veterans Hospital in Tampa, and across the country. For more information, please visit:  https://art2action.org/veterans-in-tampa

About Americans for the Arts

Americans for the Arts is the nation’s leading nonprofit organization for advancing the arts and arts education, dedicated to representing and serving local communities and to creating opportunities for every American to participate in and appreciate all forms of the arts. With offices in Washington, DC, and New York City, it has a record of more than 55 years of service. Since 2011, Americans for the Arts has led the National Initiative for Arts & Health in the Military (NIAHM), a collaborative effort that seeks to advance the policy, practice, and quality use of the arts and creativity as tools for health in the military; raise visibility, understanding, and support of arts and health in the military; and make the arts as tools for health available to active duty military, military families, and veterans. Among NIAHM’s advisors, partners and collaborators include the American Legion Auxiliary, Department of Defense Office of Warrior Care Policy, the U.S. Dept. of Veterans Affairs, U.S. Veterans Health Administration, and NIH’s National Center of Complementary & Integrative Health, in addition to national, state and local arts, humanities, and veterans service nonprofits; state and local cultural agencies; and universities around the country.

About the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation

The mission of the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation is to improve the quality of people’s lives through grants supporting the performing arts, environmental conservation, medical research and child well-being, and through preservation of the cultural and environmental legacy of Doris Duke’s properties. The Arts Program of DDCF focuses its support on contemporary dance, jazz and theater artists, and the organizations that nurture, present and produce them. For more information, visit:  http://www.ddcf.org


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CAATA Reflections: Pre-conference of West & Central Asian American Artists 2016

By Shruti Purkayastha

Re-posted with permission from the TeAda Productions newsletter, November 2016

Editor’s Note:  In October 2016, Art2Action co-organized the pre-conference to the National Asian American Theatre Festival, produced by the Consortium of Asian American Theaters & Artists (CAATA), hosted for the first time by Oregon Shakespeare Festival (OSF).  The pre-conference convened Middle Eastern, West & Central Asian American artists and allies for long weekend of dialogue and creative exchange, including a reading at the Portland Library, a panel at the University of Oregon organized by Dr. Michael Malek Najjar, a keynote address by Zeyba Rahman (archived on HowlRound), an OSF Green Show concert by Art2Action artists, an Open Mic at Hearsay Bar & Lounge, and a community workshop with Iraqi refugees beautifully faciliated by TeAda Productions.  The pre-conference was made possible by the generous support of the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation and the Doris Duke Foundation for Islamic Art.  We are grateful for this wonderful reflection by TeAda’s Shruti Purkayastha, below.

TeAda Productions has become such a home space for me.  This was my first time entering the CAATA CONFEST space this year hosted by Oregon Shakespeare Festival.  This was also my first time North of San Francisco, first time “touring” with Leilani and Ova, first time truly engaging with a national Asian-American Theater landscape, first time seeing performances on the famous OSF stages.

My first weekend, I supported the West Asian pre-conference, sharing with artists who identify with the working identities of “Middle Eastern/West & Central Asian American.” I met Andrea Assaf, of Art2Action and pre-conference coordinator briefly Friday night, and geared up to be open to whatever might come up for our weekend’s work with artists and community.  In an effort to support vital conversations, I was honored to witness stories and visioning. What a gift to support a space for this group of people that is not centering a white European lens.  Questions that struck me: What does it mean to approach our work around intersecting stories and issues? When is identity a tool for this, for raising our voices prouder and stronger, building the resilience of ourselves and our communities? How do we support each other cross-culturally, holding the broad national, gender, religious, artistic experiences and backgrounds.
Pre-conference participants experiencing TeAda’s Refugee Nation workshop

I learned how many people do not always immediately identify as Middle Eastern– a term assigned to the region by the British Empire in the 1850s. To this day, the information we receive from news and media outlets in the US are terribly skewed, often depending on centuries old racism as shorthand in stories. Through the day-long sessions, and the evening open mic I had the honor of hosting, I learned about the amazingly diverse religions and spiritualities of the region.  I learned about the risks Palestinian artists take to perform their truths, to the silencing sound of death threats at times. I heard stories of highly militarized regions, where it was normal to learn how to shoot a gun in elementary school, where resilience and art is grown in the midst of hearing about loved ones lost in bombings. I heard love stories and lullabies from grandmothers that reminded me of my own Bengali musical heritage.  I witnessed the magic of bringing people with common experience together, some of whom had never had a space centering this identity. So much was shared, and when you are gifted stories, you offer something in return. I offered a Bengali folk song, honoring the Ganges river, a reminder of how water and land connect all of us.
shruti-open-micShruti Purkayastha hosting open mic and performing a Bengali folk song

On Sunday, we had the opportunity to connect with community members, recent Iraqi refugee-status immigrant families, bringing together people ages 10 months to senior with the magic of theater games and storytelling. We played together, celebrated over 12 languages in the room, shared in embodied images, and witnessed stories. A huge thanks to the several artists that stepped up to offer Arabic translation in solidarity, a first for a couple folks. The families left appreciating the sense of play, openness and new friendship. Mahalo and gratitude for the healing and rich storytelling work possible, and the listening deeper solidarity requires.
caata-pre-conf-workshop-groupTheatre artists and recent refugee participants of the TeAda Refugee Nation workshop

The rest of the trip is a blur– performing a song in another open mic, seeing 5 different shows of all Asian casts, attending breakout sessions, an action taking over a street to say no to White Supremacy, leading our own TeAda workshop sharing Masters of the Current and CreAtive Self-Care, supporting a post-show discussion for Eleven Reflections on September (remembering the high stakes and profound loss for refugee artists in the process), making new and deepening older ones.  My last night was witnessing all generations of CAATA get down on the dance floor.  Trust, nothing like this has ever happened in Ashland, Oregon before.

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Indigenous Artists Gathering 2015

“Indigenous Artists Gathering 2015 — Minneapolis, Minnesota”

By Ashley Minner, Lumbee Tribe of North Carolina

First Published by Alternate ROOTS

Way back in deepest, darkest winter – on February 24th, to be exact – a message from ROOTS member Andrea Assaf appeared in my inbox and brightened my day. It was a special invitation to attend an Indigenous Artists Gathering in Minneapolis, MN as a representative of ROOTS. The invitation, from Pangea World Theater and Art2Action Inc., in partnership with the First Peoples Fund and New England Foundation for the Arts (NEFA) read: “During the pilot phase of developing the National Institute for Directing and Ensemble Creation … it was glaringly obvious that many of the existing theater networks did not include any Native-identified, First Peoples or Indigenous artists …”

Present at this historic, unprecedented convening were representatives of Native communities from Alaska all the way to Panama. This is not to say that all Native communities were represented, nor that everyone who should have been there was there. But it was a good start, with space and time to discuss who was absent from the conversation and how to get us all together in the future.

[Quoting Mr. William S. Yellow Robe Jr.:] “…Part of this reconciliation is that we have to identify our pasts. Everyone in the theater wants to move forward and I agree that has to happen, but let’s not forget our past. Let’s not forget those that broke ground that made it possible for all of these other groups to exist.”

…In the legacy of settler colonialism — which, by definition, never really ends — Native people have to disappear. They are a “‘present absence’ in the U.S. colonial imagination, an ‘absence’ that reinforces, at every turn, the conviction that Native peoples are indeed vanishing and the conquest of Native land is justified.”[ii] Being that blood was shed on the land upon which we stand…We should acknowledge Native communities wherever we live and work on this land.


Follow on Social Media: #IAG2015 #insteadofredface #idlenomore

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FEN Magazine on “Eleven Reflections”

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BUILDING a Directing & Ensemble Creation INSTITUTE by Nobuko Miyamoto

BUILDING A Directing & Ensemble Creation INSTITUTE

Minneapolis, December 1-8, 2012

By Nobuko Miyamoto, Artistic Director, Great Leap

When Andrea Assaf sent me an invitation to participate in the development of a “National Directing and Ensemble Creation Institute,” I was a bit surprised and honored.  I thought it a great opportunity to learn and share with others and see what I could bring back to my organization.  At Great Leap, we started our mentorship program, Collaboratory, to share our values and methodology around our 30th year.  I thought this could help us.  It was a challenge taking off full week from Great Leap, but it was worth it.  Every day and every hour was packed full and there was no way to imagine how profoundly the deep exchange and thoughtful discourse with these incredible, artists/thinkers/directors would affect me.

Organizing the Week

On December 1, Saturday evening, our first gathering was a dinner at the home of Dipankar Mukerjee and Meena Natarajan.  This warm welcoming of old friends and strangers with tasty Indian food set the tone for the days to come.  We were in the well-organized hands and loving hearts of the Pangea World Theater and Art2Action.

We worked daily from 9am to 9pm, with breaks for lunch (often provided on site) and dinner, which were also filled with meetings discussions, and evening sessions.  The main facility was Intermedia arts, which was nice because it allowed us to have stage space, plus meeting and lunch spaces.  The hip artistic atmosphere and their branding phrase, “ART CHANGES EVERYTHING” was so fitting.  A valuable part of our experience was working in Pangea’s studio in the evenings.  It was filled with the vibration of their history, creative and spiritual energy.

I liked the balance between working on our feet and sit-down discussions.  Most of the week was devoted to sharing of creative methodologies and discussions of values, history and curriculum development.  There was also some Open Space time for us to share, collaborate or rehearse.  On Thursday and Friday, a few hours were used to prepare a presentation.  Ordinarily this could be chaos and pressure, but the expertise of the organizers and the artists in the room made it flow quite easily.  We had much more material to share than we imagined.  I think we filled 2 ½ hours, and the audience, which was mostly local artists, easily slipped into many of the exercises we shared.

The planning by Meena Natarajan, Dipankar Mukherjee and Andrea Assaf was excellent.  Andrea did an amazing job facilitating and managing the agenda, plus herding us “mountain lions” (as Sharon Bridgforth lovingly called us).  I believe we benefited from her experience researching other training institutes such as the Urban Bush Women Summer Leadership Institute and LaMama Umbria’s International Directors Symposium. She was firm, timely, but able to creatively accommodate, like my volunteering to lead the morning warm-ups so I could at least get in a little of my morning practice.  This led to others sharing their warm-ups, giving us another opportunity to experience each other’s techniques.  Pangea’s on-the-ground staff, starring Katie Herron-Robb handled logistics and details with amazing efficiency, enthusiasm and loving care. Their work was a reflection of the spirit, work ethic and principles that guide Pangea on a daily basis.  You could feel this through Meena’s and Dipankar’s caring presence.  Throughout the week, Dipankar’s humor, humility and brilliance, was our gentle anchor.

No time or space was wasted.  I only wish that there had been an opportunity to see a little of what is going on in the Twin Cities.  But the seven days of twelve hours  was barely ample time to cover what we needed and wanted to share.  This was compounded by the desire to get know each of the incredible artists/directors.  Linda Parris-Bailey added an extra event with her  Thursday evening potluck party, filled with food, spirits and videos of those who wanted to show their work.   All of it was a rich and rare bonding experience for us.


On Sunday Morning, 9am, we jumped into our first working day.  Openings are important.  We started in a circle with an offering of song, sage and prayer by Sharon Day, of the Indigenous People’s Task Force.  She is part of the Ojibwe nation from Minnesota.  The ritual of asking for a blessing from those who came before gave us a sense of ‘place.’  It created the sacred space for the circle we were part of.

Who’s in the Room

Our circle included a diverse group of artist/leaders, mostly women and people of color, who came from theater towns like Los Angeles, San Francisco, Manhattan and Minneapolis, but also from Anchorage, Vancouver, New Orleans, Knoxville, San Antonio, Tijuana, the Bronx and more.  There were about 30 of us, including Pangea’s local artists and special guests.  This number allowed us to sit in a circle and see and hear each other intimately.  The wise choice of artists gave a taste of the breadth and depth of ethnic, cultural and regional distinctions that represented the Americas, as well as world cultures.  We also came from different generations and genres, from roots in Civil Rights struggles to today’s Hip Hop generation.  Each of us briefly told our story in the large story circle on that first day.  I was touched by everyone’s personal journey and how their life profoundly changed when they found their voice as an artist.   It was not just the story of a complex and changing America we were hearing. I felt the whole world was in this circle.

There were many subjects that we discussed in our seven days:  Aesthetics, Rigor, Elements of Directing, Lineage, “Collaborator vs. Dictator” in the role of the director, to name a few.  We also had wonderful directors/guests that brought different experiences of their work to us, including Laurie Carlos, Rick Shiomi, Marty Pottenger, Harry Waters and Sharon Bridgforth.  We looked at different models of Institutes, comparing Urban Bush Woman, LaMama, Cornerstone and more.  And of course, we discussed Curriculum Development.  The emphasis in my report, is on the following areas:  the exchange methodology process, where this work came from…and where it can go.

What is my work?  What do I do?  How can I serve your purpose too?

One of the exercises Linda Parris-Bailey of The Carpetbag Theatre brought into the circle was this repetitive chorus, chanted by the group, over which we each gave our responses to the questions.  This simple form, which came through the Civil Rights Movement, illustrates so well how the art of song can lift the spirit and set the intention of serving the community in the midst of their struggle.  It still rings in my head, not only because that’s what a catchy melody and rhyme can do, but because it captures the spirit of the kind of art making we are engaged in.

“What is our work?” Our work creates theater to give voice to stories and struggles that are often omitted, ignored, self-silenced and detoured by America’s mainstream culture-makers.  As artists, writers, directors, actors, we facilitate the creative process in non-traditional, non-hierarchal ways.  For instance, without a script, material for a play can emerge directly from workshops with communities like Somali or Cambodian immigrants, Native American or transgender youth, who might also end up on-stage as performers.  The power one feels in telling a story that needs to be told, and told well, is electric–not only from the point of view of the storyteller, but for the audience, who may be fellow community members.  It dissolves the mystique and division between artist and audience:  we become two halves of the same circle.

“What do we do?” and how we do it was a major focus of our days together.  It was a rare opportunity and great fun to participate, exchange, play and observe the techniques of other artists.

Each day, an hour of Morning Movement was shared by different artist/leaders.  My warm-up, which uses breath to unite body/mind/spirit, led into a slow motion group dance that physically connected individuals with others in the group, like a moving mobile.  This developed into a movement improvisation, with intermittent  freezes to allow each individual to express his/her name in creative ways.  I thought it a good way to introduce ourselves to each other.   I was amazed, when later in the week, Kathy Randels’ warm-up felt almost like an extension of mine.  She guided us in groups of 7 or 8 to move silently through the space without a leader, yet each could be a leader, deciding when to move or stop, to walk slowly or quickly.  We were learning to move and think as one, as a unit.  We were making instant and instinctive decisions to change rhythms, directions and interact with other groups.  It was so simple, so basic, almost like the movement of cells…yet becoming more complex.  Other warmups given by Alejandra Tobar-Alatriz went even deeper into personal cellular sensitivity; Suzy Messerole emphasized flow yoga; Charlotte Braithwaite’s warm up led to an exercise that had us swing our body, twisting right and left with strong rhythmical music (Public Enemy’s “Fight the Power”) for a lengthy period of time, almost leading us into trance.  It reminded me of Sufi circular spinning, except we were repeating half circles.

Throughout the week there were several sessions to share approaches to mining stories, sharing our feelings…whether in a word, a sentence, a poem, a movement.

Steven Sapp of UNIVERSES, had each of us list of 20 significant life events, then chose one and create a Haiku about it.  He put us into groups of 3 or 4 and we collaborated to create a piece connecting our individual Haiku.  Some pieces were connected through movement, some transformed more musically.  It was a wonderful way to compress and connect with other stories, which grew new meanings.

S.T. Shimi, of Jump Start Performance Company, gave us text to inspire a simple gesture, then develop it into a series of movements.  She then had us collaborate in small groups to juxtapose our movements with others, growing the meanings of our assigned text.

Dipankar, early in the week, introduced Pangea’s practice of 2 minutes of silence with deep breathing.  They do this in their office as well as in rehearsals.  We adopted it and wove it through our days, and it was a valuable addition.  Each time we came together for a new session, it brought us away from our chatter and into the present moment, to zero mind, to empty page, to empty stage…where we began anew.

Dora Arreola, of Mujeres en Ritual Danza-Teatro, beautifully expressed her philosophy and method of using objects to help people ‘see’ ways into story and build a movement vocabulary.  This process has grown from her work with women in Tijuana, México.

Dan Kwong of Great Leap shared his very fun and physical approach to exploring  gender  identity.  He used the Asian game of Jan Ken Po (paper/scissors/rock) and an aggressive race to the finish line to get us out of our heads.  We then sat back to back in dyads with eyes closed for a few minutes and thought about the first time we realized we were a girl, boy or whatever our gender identification.  We shared our stories with our partners and some with the whole group.  (He usually has a writing exercise after.)

Kathy Randels, of ArtSpot Productions, led us in a couples dancing exercise, to the accompaniment of a song we sang.  This was a dip into New Orleans culture, and a fun lesson in following and leading.  Breaking tradition in male and female roles was both provocative and hilarious.

Ed Bourgeois, of the Alaska Native Heritage Center, showed his Native style of theater/storytelling with a scripted story that still makes me laugh.  Donning the voice and attire of an elder Native woman, he engaged volunteers that he then  appointed as characters in his short play–a trickster bird, a tree, etc.  It was clever and comical while sharing aspects of Native Alaskan people’s cultures…with the addition Ed’s humorous and sarcastic personality, which we enjoyed throughout the gathering.

These are some of the exercises and practices that we shared, and probably some I can’t remember (sorry, senior moments).  As I reflect on the week in general, I was moved by so many things.  First, working in the room with these artists made me realize this is a powerful and distinctive field of work.  Though we have many different approaches and cultural uniqueness, there are great similarities in ‘what we do.’

Commonalities in our work

– The Circle:  Starting work in a circle is both symbolic and practical.  It creates a sense of oneness, sacredness.  Everyone has equal access. The circle is inclusive and can open to include more.  For our purposes, as a practical learning circle, 30 was a good size.

– Creating Safe Space:  The process of arriving at Agreements is an important part of creating a safe space.  Some of ours were:  be on time, active listening, no assumptions, speak honestly, all feelings are valid, step up/step back, respect yourself and others, it’s okay to have fun, take care of self, be generous, honor the process, share aspirations, it’s okay to disagree, mistakes are okay, oneness does not mean sameness, democracy is messy, acknowledge peoples of the land, and all ancestors are here.   Non-judgment is one of the most important agreements.

– Inclusiveness:  The beauty of these exercises is that they can engage and work with anyone.  I’ve used similar techniques with youth and elders, with actors and community members.  A few years ago, I was doing interfaith workshops at my Buddhist Temple using many similar techniques with people of different faiths.  An older Japanese man, a temple member, wandered in and began watching.  Somehow he was drawn into the group, began moving with us and shared his story with the others.  After a while his wife came looking for him, and he slipped out of the group as easily as he slipped in.  Amazing! These kinds of exercises allow a rare place for people to ‘play’ and explore their creativity while enjoying themselves.

– Encouraging Equal Voice:  It’s easy for people who are more verbal to dominate conversations.  Here is an opportunity to practice restraint.  Methodologies that are more physical allow people who are less verbal, or don’t speak English or the dominant language well, to participate more equally.  Sharing among peers can bring ghosts into the room or be a deeply revealing and healing process.  Sharing across cultures can be bonding and grow respect, helping us see ourselves and the world differently.

– Developing Leadership:  Built into many of the exercises is stepping into leadership.  Movement with others, such as Kathy’s exercise, is a great way of practicing leadership in a physical, yet non-threatening way.  We also learned to follow, or yield leadership–making choices that are artistically interesting or necessary to make things work for the group.  This also demonstrates the relationship between individual and group.  Our Western upbringing emphasizes the power and importance of the individual.  Eastern culture emphasizes doing what’s best for one’s family, the group, the society.  Both are necessary depending on the situation.  Perhaps these practices expand the meaning of leadership into a non-dualistic way of being.

– Valuing Each Story:  These techniques provide a safe place to tell our stories, share our feelings…whether in a word, a sentence, a poem, in movement or dialogue.  To let our stories be heard, witnessed in a circle of compassion and non-judgment is powerful medicine.  But hearing our stories in relation with others helps us see the bigger story we are part of.

– Everyone is Creative:  Our work creates frames to tell our stories in creative ways.  We are born of creativity, yet for most of us, conformity (not creativity) is encouraged.  To be given a space to explore and experience our creativity changes how we walk, how we see, how we act in the world.  Creativity is a practice that can be developed, no matter what our age.

–  Process-oriented:  Creating a ‘devised theater’ piece with each member part of its creation puts the emphasis on process, and may utilize multiple facilitators with different skills.  This community-based practice, like democracy, is often a messy and chaotic.  The roles of script writer and director are also being redefined by this kind of theater making.  Devised process especially requires special skills, sensitivities and non-traditional approaches.

“How does it serve your purpose too?”  The activist/philosopher Grace Lee Boggs often talks about the need to “grow our souls.”  I believe that’s what we are doing in this work.  Through our artistic practices, we are changing ourselves and building a sense of community in a way that Broadway and Hollywood cannot.  This work grows despite meager funding because of the caring and dedication of its practitioners, and because we see its effectiveness.  It is time to recognize this distinctive and democratic way of art creation as a ‘field’ just as important and maybe more essential than Broadway or Hollywood.  We do it not only through content of our stories and the creativity of our presentation, but as a process, a practice, a way of working with people.  We are creating a space for artists and communities to ‘be what we believe.’

Making the Road by Walking

When I came into the Asian American movement in 1969, I stopped working in films and on Broadway as a ‘professional artist’ to become a ‘community artist.’  I was learning everything from scratch.  When I sang with Chris Iijima as a troubadour for the Asian American Movement, he pushed me to write songs.  In Los Angeles, when community members asked me to teach a dance class, I figured out how to teach and create dances with folks who weren’t necessarily dancers.  When the Vietnamese students of Club O’Noodles asked me to do theater workshops, I stumbled my way into techniques to help these non-actors tell their stories on stage.  Eventually my arts organization, GREAT LEAP, grew from these stumblings.  We’ve been around now for 34 years.  Being a community artist has made my life richer, and it has taken me many places…

At the Institute, I wondered how this way of art-making popped up in so many places, in culturally unique yet similar ways.  Somehow we’ve all been ‘making the road by walking.’  Our paths have been crossing, converging and merging and the road is getting wider, more substantial, yet elastic and alive, as artists are always dynamic and changing.

This art has roots.  Whether old enough to be part of ‘the movement’ or not, these artists have been touched by the ideas of Civil Rights, Black Liberation, Chicano, Puerto Rican, Native, Asian American, and women’s LGBT movements.  We’ve been influenced by Theater of the Oppressed, Grotowski and Athol Fugard; absorbed the sounds and cadences of Imamu Baraka, Sekou Sundiata and Tupac Shakur; breathed in the melodies and improvisations Miles Davis and Ravi Shankar; experienced the movements of Urban Bush Women, Butoh and Bharatanatyam.   The philosophies and practices of yoga, Tai Chi, meditation and indigenous rituals using drum, fire, chanting and smoke are healing the colonized mind/body/spirit, returning us to the circle.  We are dissolving the wall between artist and audience, exploring new ways of telling our stories…together.  We have the ability to create community, villages within cities.

We are also part of a theater legacy that has helped birth theater of color in America. To name a few:  In the mid-sixties in Los Angeles, C. Bernard Jackson’s Inner City Cultural Center, and in New York, Ellen Stewart’s LaMama, both created spaces that nurtured the work of Black artists as well as artists of color.  In 1963 John O’Neal established The Free Southern Theater, as a cultural arm of the Civil Rights Movement, later founding Junebug Productions.  Roberta Uno, in 1979, inspired as a teenager by Inner City Cultural Center, created New World Theater at University of Massachusetts in Amherst, to present and become an intersection for artists of color, as well as international artists.  Since New World’s closure, perhaps the intersection has been shifted with Pangea World Theater in Minneapolis, the almost-center of North America, shouldering that role.

Why We Need an Institute

The idea of an Institute comes at a timely moment to share the values, philosophy and an expanding toolbox of methodologies with peers and younger artists. I hope it will inspire and train an army of artists to walk, dance, and find their way into more communities.  An Institute will help our work be recognized as a distinctive ‘field’ vital to our changing society.  As people of color become the majority in our country, we need to share our stories beyond our cultural boundaries to help overcome ignorance and fear of ‘the other.’  We need a way to go beyond ‘us and them,’ ‘win or lose’ dualistic thinking.  We need to help instill new values and practice new ways of being within ourselves and with each other.  As temperatures rise and the earth’s resources shrink, we need to engage communities in creative processes so we can experience our connectedness with each other and the Earth.  And we need to dream…dream the kind of world we want to live in, realizing we are all part of the same circle.

Nobuko Miyamoto at the Pilot Intensive (photo by Luminous Concepts, 2012).

Nobuko Miyamoto at the Pilot Intensive (photo by Luminous Concepts, 2012).