BLUR THE LINES

An interview with dancer Kris Lenzo
Conducted by Producing Intern C. Hano

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CH: What was it like to make the transition from an athlete to a dancer?
KL: It was exciting, it was a big change, and I didn’t really follow dance or watch dance before that. Once I started to perform myself I watched more dance and really enjoyed it.

CH: Can you tell us about the pieces we’ll be seeing at RIPPED?
KL: One piece is called “Passage Hawk,” and it was choreographed by Jim Morrow. We had both been in a piece together the year before, and the choreographer kept referring to “stand up dancers” and “wheelchair dancers.” “Wheelchair dancers over here, and stand up dancers over here.” It kind of bothered him the way he separated us, separated the two groups. So he wanted to make a piece where the lines defining those two types of dancers were blurred. It was really fun making it, we just kind of played around and included the chair as more of an apparatus and less of a chair. We never really use it as a wheelchair in the piece.

CH: How did it feel to have your daughter make a short film about you?
KL: I talked about a lot of things I haven’t talked about in a long time. It was fun to think back and revisit my past and think about how things were at different times and remember the process of getting a disability. I was remembering kind of physically getting used to a disability and psychologically getting used to a disability. I enjoyed it.

CH: How do you begin to choreograph a piece? What’s your process?
KL: It kind of varies, like sometimes I’ll have a song in mind and I’ll want to do something to the song. Sometimes I’ll do contact improv dancing and I’ll just get ideas of different movement from that. I’ll start moving in ways that I haven’t thought of and decide that I want to incorporate that into a dance.

CH: How did you come to work with fellow dancers, Anita Fillmore Kenney and Linda Mastandrea? What are they like to work with?
KL: Well I was dancing with Momenta, and Anita has been a part of Momenta for a long time. The first year I was with them she was dancing and then she went away to grad school for the next two years. When she came back, we wanted to do a duet together and we did Tango #4 by Sarah Najera. We did that in the Fall of ’06 and I really enjoyed working with her so we decided to collaborate and make a piece together the next year. We’ve been dancing together since then pretty regularly. And Linda, she had come to a concert at Counter Balance at Access Living, a dance series that Ginger Lane puts on. Linda was thinking about getting into dance and Ginger encouraged her. We did a duet that Ginger choreographed and we’ve been dancing together since then.

CH: What inspired your piece where you dismantle your wheelchair?
KL: I guess the moment of inspiration was to draw the line between the so called “wheelchair dancer,” and so called “stand up dancer.” The other [piece of inspiration] was to kind of look at things from different perspectives. That might be more my motivation and my storyline. I’m not sure if that was part of Ginger’s thinking. She’s really the choreographer and I had a lot of influence on the collaboration process.

CH: Do you feel like your art, your dancing, has changed over time?
KL: Yeah, I think I’ve just been exposed to more dances, to different types of choreographers, and I keep pulling ideas from them. Or I’ll work with someone who’s asking me to move in a way I haven’t moved before and I haven’t thought of moving that way before, I might incorporate that style. I guess what I’ve changed over the years, I’ve stolen from them.

CH: Do you have any advice for performing artists with limited mobility?
KL: I guess it would be keep trying new things, new ways of performing, and ask for feedback from artists who’s work to enjoy. Sometimes you could really be on the verge of something, but you just need somebody else to show you where you’re going. And just put the time in, stay healthy. Try to develop strength and mobility so you have more options. If that’s an option, if mobility can be developed.

CH: Thank you so much. I can’t wait to see your performance.
KL: Thank you.

Kris Lenzo performs at Victory Gardens Theater on January 17th. Click here for more information.

Introducing VG’s New Community Engagement Managers

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Happy Holidays!

Before we get into filling our stockings and singing cheesy holidays songs, we wanted to take a moment to introduce ourselves.

Hello. We are Jaclyn Tidwell and Nikki Patin, Victory Gardens Theater’s new Community Engagement Managers. We started at the beginning of November, so some of you may already know us. Hi again.

As Community Engagement Managers, our goal is to connect all of the vibrant communities in Chicago with our work here at Victory Gardens Theater. However, that doesn’t just mean getting people here to check out our productions. It also means us showing up to support what’s happening outside of Victory Gardens. To that end, you might see us taking meetings at your favorite cafe or getting some planning done at your local library or applauding a performance of teen poets at a community event.

Connecting with communities is more than what we do here at Victory Gardens Theater. It’s been a way of life for both of us for a very long time.

Though Jaclyn was born and raised in central Illinois, she called Nashville, TN home for 10 years prior to moving to Chicago this past summer. During her time in Nashville, Jaclyn connected to the community in many ways. In the Nashville theat​er​ community, Jaclyn worked as an actor, writer, and organizer with Actors Bridge Ensemble, Nashville Children’s Theatre, and Nashville Repertory Theatre. Jaclyn also served weekly as an art studio mentor at the Oasis Center, a youth intervention program for teenage men caught in the juvenile justice system. In her past role at the Arts & Business Council Nashville, Jaclyn developed three year-round projects that connected business and community volunteers with low-income residents of Nashville to provide education, mentorship, and support. A highlight was designing Periscope, a small business incubation program to create business training and economic opportunity for artists. Jaclyn also managed partner relationships working with a range of community organizations including the Mayor’s Office of Economic and Community Development, Nashville Entrepreneur Center, Metro Nashville Arts Commission, The Land Trust for Tennessee, and the Center for Nonprofit Management. As a professional theat​er​ artist, Jaclyn produces high-level theat​er​ and contemporary arts exhibitions, creates community events, and co-founded the inaugural Sideshow Fringe Festival, a progressive four-day performing arts event. Jaclyn holds a B.A. in Political Science and Theatre Performance from Belmont University.

A native Chicagoan, Nikki first began to connect with communities in Chicago as a spoken word artist and educator. Nikki has performed, taught and spoken at elementary schools, high schools, colleges, universities and community events such as the University of Chicago, Adler School of Psychology, Northwestern University, Nancy B. Jefferson High School (located within the Cook County Temporary Juvenile Detention Center), Francis Parker High School, DePaul University, Chicago Humanities Festival, Beastwomen, The Black Women’s Expo and many others. Nikki is also an outspoken advocate for survivors of sexual and domestic violence. She has worked closely with Rape Victim Advocates and Center on Halsted as an educator and case manager. Nikki has also supported numerous arts education organizations in their efforts to connect young people with arts, including Urban Gateways, the Chicago Park District and Free Write Jail Arts. In 2014, Nikki was part of a historic delegation of Black women who traveled to Geneva, Switzerland to speak on behalf of Black women sexual violence survivors before the United Nations. Nikki holds an MFA in Creative Non-Fiction from the University of Southern Maine and is the Executive Director/Founder of Surviving the Mic, an organization dedicated to creating safe and affirming creative space for survivors of trauma of all kinds.

With our experience and passion for engaging and supporting communities as well as a wealth of dynamic experience, we make an excellent team and we’re grateful for the opportunity that Victory Gardens has given us to collaborate with each other and with YOU, the beautiful people who make up the communities of Chicago.

So, keep an eye out for us. If you see us out and about, feel free to introduce yourselves or even snap a selfie with us!

We look forward to engaging and connecting with you.

Happy Holidays!

Nikki and Jaclyn

Afterwords Afterthoughts: One Inspires Many

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Written by Samantha Mueller, Literary & Public Programs Intern

Following our Friday night show of SUCKER PUNCH, Victory Gardens was fortunate enough to be joined by members of Dare2tri paratriathalon club to celebrate the accomplishment of athletes with disabilities. Moderated by Dare2tri’s executive director Keri Serota, the panel was also translated into American Sign Language.

One thing that emerged very quickly, while the athletes were introducing themselves, was the serendipity of meeting Keri Serota. Andrea Walton commented “it seems like everyone has their Keri story” before going on to explain she happened to be at a gym telling a stranger that she wanted to do a triathlon when Keri turned around and introduced herself.

Serota explained that Dare2tri strives to take away any excuse that someone might have to avoid doing a triathlon. Not an athlete? Dare2tri welcomes anyone, novices to elite athletes. With athletes as young as 6 years old, Dare2tri provides coaching staff equipped to train athletes with a wide range of disabilities. They also provide the special adaptive equipment needed. This includes racing chairs for the running portion and hand cycles for the bicycling section. And yes – that means for some athletes, they do the entire triathlon on upper body strength alone. Alberto Guzman explained that for athletes with visual impairment like him, this means they complete the triathlon with a guide who is trained by the Dare2tri staff.

But beyond the staff and equipment, Dare2tri provides community.

“You know who your true friends are when they’re there to support you at the beginning of the race at 6am.”

The slogan for Dare2tri reflects this community atmosphere. It’s easy to see how “one inspires many” can branch out into a community all inspiring each other. Athlete Biz Gauthier said that her proudest moments are at the finish line when the Dare2tri community is present and cheering her on.

Dare2tri seems to more than simply achieving their mission “to positively impact the lives of athletes with physical disabilities and visual impairments by developing their skills in paratriathlon.” They seem to be pioneering the field.

An audience member talked briefly about how the sporting in Sucker Punch seemed to have negative impact on Leon and Troy, the athletes in the play. However, the athletes from Dare2tri said that across the board, none of their relationships had been negatively impacted since they decided to join the Dare2tri community. In fact, the experience of the panel was opposite to the experience of Leon and Troy. Guzman and Gauthier both spoke to strengthened relationships with their sisters. “She was at a party, bragging about me to all of her friends,” Guzman said. He is looking forward to seeing his family in Puerto Rico and completing a triathlon with them cheering him on.

He also spoke to the confidence that Dare2tri has given him due to his newfound level of fitness. Competing in triathlons is how he is fighting against his family history of heart issues. “I am the healthiest I have ever been in my life,” he said. “I am working out six days a week. Every week. I am quite proud of that. Keeping that goal.”

Athletes feel truly supported by the organization. Andrea Walton commented that she felt the proudest when she received a road bike, made to fit her. She was humbled that so many people came together to fundraise a piece of equipment made specifically for her to use. “Having the right bike shaved 15 minutes off of my time. Immediately,” Walton said.

Not only have their relationships to their friends and family been strengthened, their ability to know their own self has also gotten stronger. Biz Gauthier commented “every athlete, like Leon in this play, has an interior voice… knowing yourself is a really important part of any athletic venture.”

Across the board, the athletes spoke to a better understanding of themselves.

Their advice for other athletes, whether able-bodied or disabled?

“It’s not one ninety-minute race; it’s ninety one-minute races,” Kendall Gretsch said of her time in triathlons. While you might have a bad minute, or several bad minutes, it shouldn’t dictate the entire race. “You have to feed off of [your adrenaline]” whether you’re completing the triathlon to get on the podium or just to have a personal accomplishment. Other athletes spoke to the idea of feeding off of the energy and adrenaline present during a race.

“Sometimes we think of triathletes as Greek gods,” Gauthier commented. “But triathlons are really so doable.”

And now that they’ve completed their first triathlons? One athlete seemed to sum up the feelings of the entire panel.

“I’m excited to see what I can do. I’m not sure what that is yet, but I am excited!”

 

Afterwords Afterthoughts: Systems at Play

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Written by Samantha Mueller, Literary & Public Programs Intern

Yesterday evening following the Sunday matinee performance of Sucker Punch, Victory Gardens was fortunate enough to create a space to discuss the intersection of race and sports. We were fortunate enough to be joined by Dr. Tanya Prewitt-White, a sports psychologist and professor at Adler University, and Shannon Ryan, a sports reporter at the Chicago Tribune.

Isaac Gomez, the moderator for the evening and also the Victory Gardens Literary Manager, began the discussion the way he begins most post-show discussions.

Say you receive a phone call from a friend on the way out of the theater and the friend asks you what Sucker Punch was about. In a few words, what do you say?

The audience – including our panelists who joined us for the performance – quickly found themselves on the same page about the themes of the play.

Fighting. Family. Competition. Race.

Racism.

It’s a common answer in these post-show discussions, one with which Roy Williams, the playwright, would agree. Sucker Punch is set against the 1980’s Brixton Riots in London, a time when racial tensions were high and racial inequity was not only socially accepted, but legislatively enforced. That answer also brought us to the main focus of our talk.

Our panelists spoke about the research they have been involved in or written about on the topic. Ryan explained a study carried out by Ithaca College’s James Rada*, in which he found NFL sportscasters to speak about physical qualities in black athletes, but tended to speak of intellect in white athletes. In Rada’s follow up study in 2005, he found that comments of intellect in black athletes were negative comments. “Again, these are real scientific studies,” Ryan said.

Prewitt-White spoke to this sentiment as well. “Minority athletes – they’re having to prove their intelligence,” she said, speaking also to her own personal experience while counseling athletes of color.

At that point in the conversation, only a few minutes in, was there a question from the audience. “I’m not sure why we have to talk about these athletes in terms of race,” the patron began. He continued on to wonder why we couldn’t treat people as individuals in these cases. “I feel like the way we began this post-show is not fair. The fact that this conversation was focused solely on black athletes was, in my opinion, racist.”

In that moment, the ability to use a play as a catalyst to talk about the world we live in, was exemplified. What started as a panel discussion became a true conversation among our rather diverse talk-back attendees, ranging in age and race.

A second audience member pointed out several moments in the play that displayed overt racism. We were reminded again of the race-based legislature during the Margaret Thatcher era that provides the backdrop for the play. “It’s not about water fountains anymore, it’s about systems.”

Another audience member touched upon the media’s response to America’s black president. “When we have a white president, that’s just normal. He’s just called the president. Yes, we have a black president, but we are reminded of that every day.”

Between the original two audience members to speak:

“Maybe I just don’t see it, but I am trying to learn”

“I know you are, and I’m going to try to explain it to you.”

Our panelists gave us more insight into the systems at play. “For anyone interested in learning more about this topic, I would recommend Forty Million Dollar Slaves, a book by William Rhoden,” Prewitt-White said. The book breaks down the framework that black athletes find themselves fighting against.

Ryan brought her own research into the conversation. She spoke to the declining number of African-American coaches, even the number of African-American assistant coaches that are denied the ability to move up in the ranks, with teams hiring new head coaches instead of promoting. She commented on the methodology used by teams when decisions like this are made: “they say [the black assistant coaches] are really good at recruiting, they’re incredible at their jobs, but they might not have field experience” thus becoming a new kind of racism.

Isaac Gomez referenced Viola Davis’s 2015 Emmy Speech. “The only thing that separates women of color from anyone else is opportunity.” The dangerous thing about the lack of opportunity is that depending on your place in society, you may not even notice the inequity.

For Prewitt-White, it is important then to try to look outside of the space you occupy. “If I don’t acknowledge my white privilege, then I am not acknowledging other people’s struggles,” she said. And for the small amount of time we had following the show to discuss this topic, we carved out the space to talk about athletes of color where there usually isn’t the space.

I personally thought back to when director Dexter Bullard joined playwright Roy Williams after a performance for a conversation. Williams made a comment that has resonated with me ever since.

“Do plays have the ability to change the world?

Of course not.

But they can change people.”

Even if that means providing a space for audience members to be exposed to viewpoints different from their own and making it safe to be wrong in conversation. Yesterday, our audience left the theater having not only witnessed but also discussed. They also left with recommendations of books and studies to find. They left armed with the ability to learn and extend the conversation beyond the four walls of the theater.

Right before leaving the space, an audience member who had otherwise been silently listening through the discussion raised his hand. “Can I just say one last thing before we leave?” he asked.

He explained that he is Native American, and with his final two words, he exemplified how mainstream society can accept something deeply racist, how when we hold privilege we may not even notice the systems at play against a minority group.

“Washington Redskins.”

 

*For anyone interested, the original Rada study is titled Color Blind-sided: Racial Bias in Network Television’s Coverage of Professional Football Games, the follow up study is titled Color Coded: Racial Descriptors in Television Coverage of Intercollegiate Sports.

 

Afterwords Afterthoughts: Black Lives Matter; One Year Later

 

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Written by Ana Martinez, Literary and Public Programs Intern

After our show of Sucker Punch on September 30th, we had a stirring conversation about where we are as a society as we looked back on the last year of extroverted racial tension in this country. We were joined by panelist Nikki Patin and moderator Ashley Roberson who had great insight on this topic. The other two panelists were Maurice Demus and Denzel Love, who play Leon and Troy in the show, respectively.

This was an extremely successful conversation about important topics, where patrons from all backgrounds stayed after the show and felt comfortable speaking up about their opinions and experiences. This led us to think back to a term that we hold dearly in this theater: Civic Dramaturgy. As defined by our Literary Manager here, Isaac Gomez, Civic Dramaturgy is, “a community’s response to the work as it relates to their everyday lives, inspired and buoyed by the art they experienced as a collective.”

It was incredible to see how safe people felt during this conversation, to feel free to say what they felt and express their concerns and ideas. This cross-racial, cross-generational crowd spilled out enough thoughts to stretch this conversation to over an hour! With other talk-back experiences I’ve had, when it comes to the topic of race and discrimination it seems to be that if you’re white you feel yourself to be in this uncomfortable position where you think, “I’m not black… so what am I allowed to say? Is my input even worth sharing? I have no idea how to interject into the conversation without feeling like I’m overstepping some sort of boundary.”

This discussion was nothing like that. This play took the place of a buffer, or even a catalyst for the conversation, if you will. Instead of having to share from personal experience, the audience found themselves being able to use the characters and situations in the play as a tool to talk about real-life issues. The fact that two of the panelists were leads in the show, I think, was also a huge reason as to why patrons felt so comfortable having this discussion. Here they are, having sat down at this theater for the past 2 hours of their lives, and now they get this opportunity to talk about what they just experienced with the people that took them on this journey.

You could tell this was the case by the way they would talk to Maurice or Denzel, and say things like, “Your character could’ve run off with the love of his life and avoided all this grief!” These laid-back comments then lead to deeper conversations. “Why Didn’t he stay with the love of his life? What if she would’ve left him? What if she got bored with him? What would he have done then? Would you give up your chance at success knowing that you might not get another chance because of your skin color?”

The conversation started with people immediately making the connection that the world that Leon and Troy lived in, which takes place in 1980’s London, was painfully similar to the world we live in now. One of the first comments came from a young, white male in the audience that commented how he was made aware of his white privilege in a very specific spot in this play. Troy says the words “I was scared without you,” after Leon leaves him to fend for himself in the middle of a riot with white cops. This young white man shared how that line resonated with him, because he’s never had to feel scared when met with police. He has never felt alone in that way. And to know that other people have felt that solitude really opened his eyes to what’s happening out there.

The conversation then led to how differently Leon and Troy handled the same situation they were in. Denzel compared their characters to Malcom X and Martin Luther King Jr.

“He’s fighting, but his way of fighting is to be successful.”

Denzel shares his views as to how Leon passively “fights” by making a name for himself.

“I’m not in the papers for busting up some cop, I’m in it because I’m successful at what I’m doing,” Maurice adds on, explaining how his character is trying to help out his community by painting himself in a better light, and in turn, painting his community under that light as well.

Nikki added that this MLK and Malcom X reference correlates with the Flight vs. Fight mentalities. Are you going to avoid the cops and go about your day, or are you going to aggressively fight back and push them out of your way? Another young white man in the audience then pointed out that both characters ended up choosing the “flight” option- Leon stays out of trouble and works to make a name for himself, while Troy flees to America to get away from it.

When Troy gets to America, he still ends up dealing with police brutality. When Leon becomes a famous Boxing Champion, he still gets criticized by the black community and deals with daily racism from everyone, including his trainer Charlie. The same audience member noted that they were back where they started, they didn’t escape anything. One played nice and it got him nothing. The other fought back, fled, and also got nothing.

A young black woman in the audience then added, “They’re forever in a system of exploitation, reinforcing stereotypes within an established system [boxing]. It’s all in this circle. I didn’t see any moment of breaking out.”

A young black man commented about Leon and said something along the lines of, “All you are is a body. Becky [Leon’s love interest] wanted sex, the boxing industry and Charlie were using you to make money, the police were only looking for another black boy to beat up. They were never a person, they were just a body.”

To which then Nikki replied with, “Sometimes there is no transcendence. Sometimes there is no way out.”

Another white audience member said, “The play ends with a defeat. The play still ends with a loss.”

Denzel laughs and retorts, “And I like that! Like you said, it stays in this system. We’re still living in this system.” It ends realistically; the problems of the world don’t get solved in an hour and forty-five minutes. The characters grew and progressed, but society didn’t miraculously get fixed out of nowhere.

Ashley wrapped up the conversation with one last question, “History is constantly repeating itself […] how can we put our history in writing to hopefully end this cycle?”

Denny had a cheerful answer, “I just put the team on my back. I know a lot of people can’t do what I do [i.e. have the opportunity to graduate from college], and I’m gonna represent them […] I’m gonna stay as black as I can! […] I’m gonna be me. If you don’t like my blackness… bye!”

Maurice said, “Being able to talk about this, have these discussions, it’s a start.” He added that it doesn’t matter how big or small the audience may be, what matters is that these discussions keep happening.

Nikki shared a story of how when she first started writing poetry, it was not well-received. The establishment did not want her there but, “I just kept showing up, and that’s how you succeed. I can sit home and cry (which I did sometimes), or I can keep writing. Show up even when they don’t want you to show up.”

But what resonated with me the most out of this entire conversation was what Nikki said about the Malcom X vs. Martin Luther King Jr. argument. She didn’t believe either one was the “right” answer. Physically fighting back will tear you apart, and playing nice and backing down will keep you silent.

“You have to be true to yourself, and that self-respect is really all you have.”

And that is a statement that you could tell hit every single person in that room, no matter the racial background.

Afterwords Afterthoughts: Of Race & Riots

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Written by Ana Martinez, Literary and Public Programs Intern

On Saturday September 26th, we had the wonderful opportunity to hear first-hand about Victory Gardens Theater’s production of Sucker Punch from Roy Williams (the playwright) and Dexter Bullard (the director). They provided insight about the process; from creation, to prior productions, to what they hope their work will accomplish.

Together, Roy and Dexter enlightened Saturday night’s audience with insider information on what their journeys have been like, not only as artists but as people in society.

“No blacks.

No Irish.

No dogs.”

 

Roy explains that this was a common saying he would hear while growing up in 1980’s London. He talked about how he was the child of two immigrant parents, who were both a part of the “Windrush Generation” that migrated after World War II.

“I was born in this country, but I was being treated like shit.”

When you hear of his background, there is no doubt why he thought it necessary to write Sucker Punch. The play (having the same backdrop as his adolescence), follows the story of a young, black boxer trying to climb his way to the top. In a time where violent riots sprouted constantly and Margaret Thatcher reigned for eleven years straight, it was difficult to be a black man.

“I recently saw Straight Outta Compton and I thought to myself, ‘I know what that’s       about.’”

Roy recalls what it was like walking down the street and being stopped by police for no reason, and even having those encounters turn violent every once in a while. He remembers feeling a lot of anger and frustration, which was the fuel for the writing process of his play.

He compared himself to the characters in his own creation,

“Sometimes I was Leon, I just wanted to fit in. Sometimes I was Troy and [there was] a   lot of anger [and] lashing out.”

Williams went on to talk about American Culture and compared it to London,

“There seems to be a lot of strong similarities. [They] Seem to be almost sort of parallel.”

He was comparing our tragedies and setting them next to each other. Trayvon Martin to us is Mark Duggan to them. The riots in Ferguson here were the 2011 England Riots over in London. He found these interchangeable devastations between countries and began to explore that.

Roy admitted fearing whether American audiences would understand this play and be able to look past the cultural differences. But when he thought about how tragically similar our worlds have become, he knew this story had the power to cut through any cultural clash.

“There were three big challenges that came with this play:

It’s culturally not American,

the boxing,

and the accents.”

Dexter laughed as he shared his own insecurities with the audience. But he went on to narrate his thought process on shaping this show,

“The audience is not stupid […] we’re gonna do it as is, and we’re gonna make them get   it.”

He expanded, he had an attack plan on how to tackle this play,

“Details is my favorite weapon as an artist.”

For example, there is a scene in the play that takes place on the same night as the Broadwater Farm Riots. Dexter explained that he, along with the VGT dramaturgy team, looked up details about that date; everything down to what the weather was like that night, as that information then educated the costume designs, sound designs, etc., and painted an accurate depiction of that night to the audience.

An audience member asked Roy how he felt about a white man directing his play. Roy expressed his indifference towards the topic,

“That’s not an issue to me, but do you [the director] get it [police brutality,           discrimination, etc.]?”

All Roy hopes for is to have artists who understand the gravity of this reality when his show is being worked on. If the story is being told with respect and with care; the director’s skin tone is an irrelevant piece to the puzzle.

As the night’s discussion was coming to an end, a patron asked Roy what his hopes were, regarding what his play could do to change things in our society. Roy’s reply will stick with me for a very long time:

“It [the play] plants a seed in their head and that’s all I can hope for. Can plays change     the world? Of course they can’t. But they can change people.”

That is why we all are attracted to this art form, is it not? There is no sense in over-romanticizing our powers and saying we can stop hate overnight. But when you know you have impacted a person through your art, that is when your heart is fulfilled. And vice versa: when you share work that fills your heart, that is when you captivate the hearts of others.

 

 

 

Evening the Playing Field at Access Night 2015

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From left to right:
Liz Tregger (ASL interpreter), Mike Ervin (Access Project Coordinator),
Monty Cole (Artistic Programs Manager) kick off the evening.

 

Written by Braden Cleary, Producing Intern

More than 1 in every 10 people in Illinois has some kind of disability. That means that with every sold-out performance at Victory Gardens, there could be up to 29 people in the audience who identify as having a disability. From an intern’s perspective, it was hugely inspiring to see 64 Audience Services professionals from 21 institutions from across the city come together for a common cause.  That is why it is so important for cultural institutions to understand accessibility services in order to create equitable and enjoyable experiences for all patrons, no matter what obstacles they may face.

The first annual Access Night at Victory Gardens aimed to do just that – bridge the gap between patrons who identify as having a disability and the front of house staffs at cultural institutions across Chicago. By interacting with hands-on workshops about American Sign Language translation, audio description, physical accessibility, touch tours, and live open captioning, audience services professionals came together to learn how to make their organizations more accessible as well as learn the language necessary to communicate about accessibility. The event ended in a question and answer session with a panel of disability advocates and audience services professionals who were able to provide honest insight from the perspective of patrons with disabilities. It acted as a great reminder that even though Chicago is huge, the arts and cultural community isn’t! If we all work together to educate ourselves about disabilities, we can “even the playing field” not only for patrons, but for artists too.

Here are the five most important lessons I learned at Access Night 2015:

1. Person first! When interacting with a patron with a disability, remember that they are a person too – “a man who is deaf or hard of hearing” instead of, “a deaf man.”

2. Always introduce yourself as an employe when offering assistance. “Hello ma’am, my name is Braden Cleary and I am an intern here at Victory Gardens. Can I help you with anything tonight?

3. If a patron or artist with a disability declines your assistance, accept it. Never respond, “are you sure?” Yes. They are sure.

4. When communicating with someone who is deaf or hard of hearing, never pretend to understand what he or she said if you really didn’t. Simply ask them to repeat themselves until you understand.

5. Accessibility assistance doesn’t stop at getting patrons into the building. Patrons with disabilities typically appreciate someone checking in with them at intermission and when the production is over.

But how can you make your institution more accessible? Access Night taught me that there are many ways to navigate this conundrum, but perhaps the most cost-effective way to introduce accessibility services (with theaters in mind) is through touch tours. Having a house manager lead a touch tour of the set and props before a performance is a great way to supply and accessible service with little financial investment. Those wishing to take further steps towards accessibility can think about accommodating restrooms, providing ramps as an alternative to stairs, hiring ASL interpreters and audio describers, and accommodating heavy doors. Even installing a doorbell could be a great alternative if your budget doesn’t allow for fully automated doors!

I encourage you to keep up with Victory Garden’s Access Project here in order to stay up-to-date on future accessible performances and events.

Afterwords Afterthoughts: The Intersection of Art & Religion

From left to right: Isaac Gomez (Literary Manager), Dr. Seema Imam (panelist) and Rohina Malik (panelist) explore the complexities around women and Islam.

From left to right:
Isaac Gomez (Literary Manager), Dr. Seema Imam (panelist) and Rohina Malik (panelist) explore the complexities around women and Islam.

Written by Talia Weingarten, Literary and Public Programs Intern

Following our Sunday matinee of “The Who and The What,”  Victory Gardens was fortunate enough to be joined by Rohina Malik and Dr. Seema Imam for “The Eyes Have It,” a town hall that explored the challenges and empowerment that stem from the wearing the veil by Muslim women, particularly in the context of Western society.

Ayad Akhtar’s “The Who and The What” paints a complicated portrait of what it means to be a woman in Islam. He grants the audience access into this commonly foreign conversation through universally accessible themes of family, loyalty, and religious exploration. Throughout main character Zarina’s journey to reconcile her religious devotion with her female empowerment, the veil is oftentimes portrayed as an oppressive garment rather than an empowering one. While the portrait Akhtar, along with director Ron OJ Parson and the incredible cast, renders is an exceedingly beautiful one, it is by no means the whole picture.  

Ms. Malik and Dr. Imam helped to expand the conversation by bringing their experiences with the veil and with being Muslim women that were not represented in the play into the space.

They spoke to the different Islamic origins for veil wearing that were not depicted in the play and reminded us that practitioners of many faiths that cover their hair (nuns, orthodox Jewish men and women, etc.). Ms. Malik stated that “the obsession with Muslim women wearing a veil is deeply offensive” and suggested that the persistent interrogation of veil-wearing by Muslim women is a racist act that perpetuates the demonization of Islam and oftentimes carries undertones of Western Savior complexes.

One thing that became quite clear very early on in the discussion is that it’s impossible to talk about or experience art in a vacuum. As Ms. Malik reminded us, “Islamophobia is very real in the world.” We live in a world where Islamophobia still courses through the blood of our nation, tormenting and terminating the lives of many innocent people. Ms. Malik and Dr. Imam both expressed concern over the portrayal of the veil as well as other aspects of Islam and Muslim identity in the production. Audience members who oftentimes enter the space with limited knowledge of the veil and the religion leave the theatre having experienced a very specific point of view, and now, perhaps, feel qualified to form their own opinions without ever seeking out further knowledge and first hand experiences.  Isaac Gomez, Literary Manager, reminded us that if you’re not careful, “when you engage in a conversation, about a religion that’s already attacked, you’re providing the ammunition.”

Multiple audience members chimed in to express that while the play might not showcase every relevant perspective, it peaked their curiosity, rather than condemnation, regarding the Islamic faith. One participant expressed his gratitude for the story and for those who share their religious beliefs: “When I see a radical southern baptist preaching on the corner, I may think to myself that’s not accurate biblically, but to him I say thank you.”

Minita Gandhi, the actress who plays Mahwish, posed the question: so where, then, does the responsibility of the playwright lie? Is the artist socially liable to tell the most politically correct or wholistic story if it is not the point of view they are interested in exploring or by which they stand?

What I took away from this viscerally alive dialogue was that art is a facilitator of richer dialogue and deeper communities, not the end of a conversation. We live in a world still battling intense intersectional oppression that tends to foster separation and condemnation (subconscious or not) between people who are different from one another. Art counteracts this habitualized isolation and suspicion by capitalizing on something so human that it transcends these internalized false barriers: empathy. It does not, and cannot, tell the full picture, and that is why public programs are mandated – to maximize the personal stakes that the art conjures and to propel the conversation forward through additional knowledge and perspectives.

Ms. Malik and Dr. Imam closed the program by urging the attendees to research and pursue further knowledge about the incredibly “beautiful, peaceful, logical, and simple” religion of Islam as well as how cultural influences color both various iterations and our own understandings about the faith. After all, knowledge is the best defense against hatred or apathy. Our inherent connectivity as humans is only deepened when we explore it through different lenses and with open hearts.

Rohina Malik’s critically acclaimed one Woman play,UNVEILED, explores the complexities of Islam through the perspective of five Muslim women in a post-9/11 world. UNVEILED has been performed by Malik nationwide, including at: Yale, NYU, Princeton, University of Chicago, and regional theaters such as Silk Road Rising & 16th Street Theater. We are excited to have Rohina’s one woman show at Victory Gardens Theater presented as a one-time-only performance throughout the run of The Who & The What on Wednesday, July 1st at 7:00 p.m.

Afterwords Afterthoughts: Against Expectations

written by Juli Del Prete, Literary and Public Programs Assistant

From left: Isaac Gomez (Literary Manager), Jim Doelling and Scott Takacs (Gay Fathers of Greater Chicago) as they discuss family and expectations at Wednesday Night Out.

From left: Isaac Gomez (Literary Manager), Jim Doelling and Scott Takacs (Gay Fathers of Greater Chicago) as they discuss family and expectations at Wednesday Night Out.

What happens when familial desires clash with societal expectations?

Our Wednesday Night Out event last night saw two guest panelists join our literary manager, Isaac Gomez. They were Jim Doelling and Scott Takacs of the Center on Halsted’s Gay Fathers of Greater Chicago support group, and in the thirty-plus minutes that they shared the Samsara stage, they expressed dreams and anxieties not unfamiliar to the characters in the play itself.

Unlike Craig and Katie, the American child-seeking couple at the center of Samsara, neither Jim nor Scott used a surrogate to build their families. Rather, both of them have children from previous marriages – to women. When they were asked about the “trials and triumphs of same-sex parenting,” they shared their stories candidly – of divorce, of coming out as gay, of building lives with their children and new partners, of the tension they often experienced between the personal and the political.

Then a patron asked, “How could you do that to [your wives]?”

There was a pause as the panelists considered how to respond. Then Scott described the role that traditional expectations had played as he struggled with his own identity. “There was an assumption, growing up, that I would marry a woman and raise a family with her,” he said. “But life got in the way.” Scott went on to relate his own journey to Craig and Katie’s. Their expectation? A baby of their own. Their reality? Having to pack up their “biological material” and send it to India – then wait nine months to meet their very non-American surrogate. Life got in the way for them, too.

“Sometimes I feel that my kids have been punished,” Jim said at one point throughout the discussion, “but I also feel that we’re a wonderful family.”

If there was a point driven home last night, it was that there’s no right or wrong way to build a family. The play and panelists echoed a universal parental desire: to make sure their children feel whole and loved. Craig has several awkward (and hilariously political incorrect) encounters with his Indian surrogate, Suraiya. But in one particularly sweet moment, he takes a picture of Suraiya in front of an Indian mosque, telling her, “We won’t let [our son] forget where he comes from.”

Scott closed out the panel by saying, “This is modern family. Family isn’t defined by a man and a woman. Things can be different and still be good.” It’s hard to disagree. After all – some traditions are made to be broken.

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Samsara runs through March 8th. To buy tickets, please click here. To check out our Public Programs for the run of the show, please click here.

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Afterwords Afterthoughts: Let the Dates Fall

written by Lucas Baisch, Literary and Public Programs Intern

“And the pains of childbirth drove her to the trunk of a palm tree. She said, ‘Oh, I wish I had died before this and was in oblivion, forgotten.’ But he called her from below her, “Do not grieve; your Lord has provided beneath you a stream.” – “Surat Maryam” from The Holy Qu’ran, 19:23-24

Tahera Ahmad recites versus from the Quran that feature Mary in the panel discussion Mary in Islam

Tahera Ahmad (Associate Chaplain at Northwestern University) recites verses from the Qu’ran that feature Mary in the panel discussion Mary in Islam

Wednesday evening, Victory Gardens hosted a special Afterwords discussion titled “Mary in Islam,” gathering a panel of experts to reflect on the representation of Mary in Islamic tradition. These panelists included, Tahera Ahmad, Muslim scholar and Associate Chaplain at Northwestern University, K. Rizwan Kadir, senior financial consultant and speaker on behalf of geo-political and interfaith topics, and Rohina Malik, playwright and performer.

It is no secret that after events such as the 1979 Iran hostage crisis and 9/11 that a global war on terror has antagonized practitioners of Islam in America.  As a non-practitioner of any specific faith, I am always intrigued by the history of and happenings within various spiritual cultures, but going into this panel discussion I felt wary about having very little knowledge of Islamic tradition. For instance, I did not know that Mary is mentioned more times in the Qu’ran than in the Bible, or that Muslims believe in the prophets, or that Muslims believe Mary was immaculate, a perfect woman, that there was a virginal pregnancy. What I did know was that the audience’s perceived themes of loneliness, anger, regret, and sorrow living within the text of Colm Toibin’s play call into question the revered image of Mary in both realms of Christianity and Islam.

The above excerpt from the Qu’ran was brought up twice during conversation. Once, when Tahera beautifully sung the 19th sura, or chapter, of the religious text, and a second time when Rohina reflected on the agency of Mary in Islamic culture. As the story goes, God told Mary to shake the trunk of a palm tree (a very difficult task, especially when in labor) and reap from it fallen dates. In all her physical pain she mustered the strength to release the sweet fruit from the fronds, a similar power that charges the Mary seen in Testament.

Rohina articulated to the audience that, “many Muslim women feel a connection to Mary. We see her in our iconography.” The playwright aptly continued, “Until it comes to a nun or Mary, the veil is made controversial.” Considering the anecdote of the dates and the empowerment that Muslim women feel by Mary, I found myself trying to appreciate this interpretation while simultaneously checking myself for any kind of othering of the icon or culture.

The thing is, I have a way of managing my public appearance that others may not in order to feel some semblance of security walking down the street. Although I am of Latino heritage, my skin is pale and I went to college – I can spew academic verbiage in order to reinforce that I am educated. Although I identify as queer, I can lower the register of my voice, I can curl my painted fingernails while on public transit in order to avoid instances of homophobia. Identity comes as a performance to some, a physical marker to others. This isn’t to say I actively strive to hide portions of my identity, nor should anyone aspire to that, but it is important to note what is out of one’s individual control.

I contemplate recent events of physical violence on Michael Brown, Eric Garner, on Mutahir Rauf, the 23 year-old Loyola student shot and killed last week, and I feel a sort of guilt for being able to activate and deactivate facets of my personal identity depending upon my environment. People do not choose the societal interpretations of the color of their skin, or the dress they may wear.

While Tahera recited the sura, I was astonished by two patrons in the back of the audience loudly whispering and actually calling out during the sacred chants, “Do we even know what she’s doing?”  While these were only two of a largely invested group of listeners, I felt genuinely surprised that this was how some people listen. I try to go to the theatre for my beliefs to be challenged. It isn’t very often that this actually happens. Even though I may have felt ignorant Wednesday night, it is important that I have opportunities such as this panel to be educated.

“America is an on-going social experiment,” Kadir reminds me; a country built upon the intercultural exchange of beliefs. Though Islam and Christianity have many common threads between them, Kadir paints the picture of the United States as an amorphous blob still trying to figure out what it is. Today, I think about gathering dates from palm frond; I try to contemplate the ways in which art, religion, and politics give or take the ability to shake tree trunk. As I aid Victory Gardens in moving forward with public programming for upcoming shows Samsara and The Who and The What, I am grateful for last night’s panel challenging my ideas of what life outside my peripheral truly looks like.

The Testament of Mary runs through December 14th. To buy tickets, please click here. To check out our Public Programs for the run of the show, please click here.