Thursday, January 17, 2013

Turning Problems Into Parades, By Nick Slie

This weekend is MicroFest USA: New Orleans: RENEW. The event is a celebration of the renaissance that has taken place in New Orleans' performance and social justice fields since Hurricane Katrina.  Part festival, part think-tank, part community tour, and part dance party, the all-local programming includes workshops, learning exchanges, neighborhood tours, meals featuring locally produced food, and presentations by performance ensembles ArtSpot Productions, Cripple Creek Theatre Company, Goat in the Road Productions, Mondo Bizarro, and NEW NOISE and social justice organizations such as the Louisiana Bucket Brigade, Moving Forward Gulf Coast, New Orleans Workers’ Center for Social Justice.

Howl Round: A Journal of the Theatre Commons is commemorating the festival by hosting several essays by New Orleanians who work on art and social justice. Among the artists featured are Kiyoko McCraeJosé Torres-Tama, Lisa D'Amour, and Nick Slie, whose essay we are reprinting below. We encourage you to check out the festival this weekend.

The costume making skills of the average New Orleanian are astonishing. As I write, thousands of people in our fair city are busy sewing, beading, bedazzling and thrift store hunting. Today is Twelve Night, the official kick-off to carnival season. Since Mardi Gras Day is February 12th, the internal costume making radars of the entire city are now on alert. Thirty-seven days to the show. Thirty-seven days until food-laden neutral grounds, deep belly laughs, hundreds of marching bands, exhaustive dancing, family dinners and parades. Thirty-seven days until the largest collective ensemble performance in America: Mardi Gras. 

New Orleanians treat this season with reverence for so many reasons: (1) You are the show and everyone knows it. (2) It’s free and it takes place on the streets. (3) It is rooted in centuries old traditions. (4) It is the supreme example of how we use food, culture and music to bring people together to build and strengthen community.

In an ever-accelerating world, taking the time to gather people in person is becoming more radical by the minute. New Orleanians specialize in this and we do so with flare. Any chance to get together is a chance to celebrate. We’ll turn the average Saints watching experience at someone’s home into an event featuring enough fried food, pimiento cheese, booze, glitter and touchdown dances to inspire one to become a football fan. The same goes for an average Tuesday or Wednesday. From January to June, there are four days in Southeast Louisiana without a festival. Reflect on that. 

Everyday life is heightened to an art form here. In this city, the ordinary becomes extraordinary in an instant: a casual walk can result with you swept into a second line, surrounded by the chants of Mardi Gras Indians, swooned by wild jasmine or serenaded by the long wails of tug boats as they slug down river. And you can also hear gunshots, sirens, and the chorus of reminders that New Orleans boasts one of the highest per capita murder rates in the country; or the fact that over twenty-five percent of Louisiana residents live below the poverty line. 

The Crescent City is languid and tense, inspiring and downright brutal. Living here, especially since the storm, is a constant experience of life at its most rousing and most cruel. It is this juxtaposition that fascinates us and it is one of the reasons why our cultural traditions boast such a clear social function. After all, people did not become professional celebrators by accident. They learned to do so because life is hard and to dance, sing and eat through it, even if for a day, is one way to approach an explanation about the joys and calamities of daily life here. Our traditions are celebratory, yes, but they also serve the obvious social function of building community and, since the storm, rebuilding one of the most important cities in the world.

New Orleans is a city with no money but resourceful people who, above all, have one thing on their hands: time. People here have a lot of time and they are generous with it. There are few folks in town that would deny you an hour over coffee –fewer that would turn down the same over beer and dancing. People are accessible and down to earth. What we lack in money, we make up for in spare minutes. I imagine this is one of the reasons people have been migrating here for the last three hundred years. 

Think of time here not just as duration but as density of experience, one of the essential ingredients for making good art. Things (and change) move slowly here. Take this and factor in the aforementioned love of gathering people in live, celebratory public environments and you get an idea of why New Orleans is a perfect incubator for ensemble theater practice.

This week, we will play host to Network of Ensemble Theater’s (NET) Micro-Fest USA: Renew, the third installment in a series of festivals that looks at America and the role that art and artists play in creating healthy, vibrant communities. Ensemble has been the big buzz in the theater world over the last few years. In that time, NET has bravely matured into a national service organization that takes risks and innovates ahead of the curve, engendering a vibrant critical dialogue about ensemble theater making on all fronts. At a time when so many people are excited about ensembles, NET has taken the time to remind us that ensemble theater is not a formula, it is a practice. It cannot be applied instantly. It takes time and a willingness to fail in an honest, forthright manner. 

In this regard, NET is clearly steering the most interesting, nuanced conversation about ensemble theater practice in America. And here NET is again, using these Micro-Fests to get out in front of the conversation about ensemble theater practice by encouraging us to expand the very notion of what ensemble means and how it is applied in one of the most embattled places in the country. The Micro-Fest programming accomplishes this by magnifying how ensembles are using art and advocacy within cross-sector partnerships to create experiences that are as impactful as they are exciting.

The exciting evolution of NET over the last seven years parallels the rapid growth of the New Orleans theater community during the same time. Before the storm, there were many who laid the foundation for what is happening now. Companies and institutions like The Free Southern Theater, Le Petit Theatre Vieux Carre, Junebug Productions,Southern Rep, Le Chat Noir, Anthony Bean Community Theater, Chakula Cha Jua Theater, Dog and Pony, Arte Futuro Productions, ArtSpot Productions, Kumbuka African Drum & Dance Collective, Running With Scissors, Evangeline Oaks, Tsunami Dance, Mondo Bizarro, Inside Out Productions, Sidearm Gallery, CAC and Ashe Cultural Art Center steady the broad (and often unacknowledged) shoulders upon which we stand. 

Since Katrina, we have seen an in-flux of talent and energy into the city, the likes of which has transformed New Orleans into a theater ecology that is swiftly asserting itself as a scene to be watched. This has occurred through a combination of risk, fearlessness and an unprecedented spirit of cooperation and resource sharing between individuals and companies alike. Such new companies and institutions include: Allways Lounge and Marigny Theater, Goat in the Road, Cripple Creek Theater Company, The NOLA Project, NEW NOISE, Skin Horse Theater, The Shadowbox Theater, The Neutral Ground Ensemble, Theater 13, Elm Theater, St Francisville Transitory Theater and the New Orleans Fringe Festival, Dancing Grounds, Night Light Collective, Mudlark Public Theater, and the Black Forest Fancies, to name a few. All of this begs the question: how and why has this happened so fast?

With regards to NET and the New Orleans Community, there are too many factors to name but the truth is, people have been doing this type of work for years. NET was smart enough to capitalize on this movement, recognizing the need for ensembles to frame their own experiences and practices: to define ourselves. In New Orleans, the impulse was similar but heightened by the reality that one of the nation’s most unique cultures was visibly threatened, on the verge of extinction. Like the plants that immediately bloomed after the storm as a means of survival, our job was to flower into action immediately. 

This charge continues today. Many point to ensembles fulfilling a need that larger institutions like regional theaters no longer serve. I hear that, but it only scratches the surface; there is something deeper. The recognition of ensemble practice—flourishing via NET and New Orleans—exemplifies a longing in people for experiences that are meaningful in the face of an increasingly over-simplified, instantaneous reality. The notion that we can have everything we want right now has asserted itself as a cliché that in the modern age has become cunning and directionless, as it does nothing to address the chronic nature of so many of the problems our communities are experiencing. In the face of this, ensembles root into places, using their craft to create experiences and relationships that, by responding to the timescale of the place where they live, enhance their role as stakeholders and amplify the stakes in that community. When stakes are high, we are compelled to go even closer, to approach and approach and approach.

In an era when we mistake mimicry for mastery, information for explanation, there is something downright enlivening about a group of people who craft experiences that engage the community where they live, ask questions of which they do not know the answers, and labor with one another for decades. This is what ensembles do and in the process they bravely approach the eradication of the instant results cliché. Ensembles allow time for their social function to become more apparent, often resulting in a body of work that is interesting and important. There is nothing new about this approach, though it may feel novel due to its proximity to the current times.

As the sage Ricardo Levins Morales reminds us, every ecosystem needs its poisons in order to create functioning antibodies. The theater community in New Orleans (and across the country) has some big poisons that need addressing. We are not in a sustained dialogue about the reality of race and racism and because of this we are not as unified as we should be. We do not have a healthy critical dialogue about the quality of the work (bar chatter is only part of it) we are creating and its impact on our home. We rarely, if ever, discuss who in our community is making a living. And we have not done a good enough job of acknowledging our ancestors and the labor they have contributed (how many New Orleanians can speak with passion about The Free Southern Theater, one of the most significant theater movements of the 20th Century?). 

These poisons left unchecked will eat us from the inside out. We need to develop the necessary antibodies to function with more communal health. That is, if we want this scene to blossom into a movement where theater has a pronounced social function beyond vanity alone. Considering the current state of New Orleans, all we’ve come through together, all the jitterbug nights and the complexity we have seen over the last seven years, wouldn’t it be remarkable? If not us, who? I mean, who knows better how to turn problems into parades?

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