Claire: Aruna Kharod has always been a big planner, and that's served her well. She's preparing to graduate with her PhD in ethnomusicology from the University of Austin. Aruna's research focuses on the history of the sitar, which is fitting because she's also a sitar player.
Aruna: Sitar music and Hindustani music in general is an improvisational form. So there are ragas which set out the scale, so specific mood, season, time of day, when that raga should be played. And then everything else beyond that is really up to the performer.
Claire: She first picked up the instrument as an undergraduate in college about 10 years ago.
Aruna: I had mostly been playing fixed compositions. I would, you know, learn improv, but it just never was something I was comfortable doing in performance. Perfectionism and imposter syndrome and all those things really get in the way a lot.
Claire: Last year, her longtime sitar teacher in Texas encouraged her to apply for an opportunity to study with one of the leading sitarists in India.
And after stressing over the audition video for days, recording and re-recording, she finally sent it in.
Aruna: I was very nervous.
Claire: And just a few days later, the teacher called Aruna and invited her to join her in India as soon as possible.
Aruna: And I was freaking out because I am a planner. I didn't book my flights there and my Airbnb until like two days before I left. So it was all very spur of the moment.
Claire: Aruna spent a week fully immersed in the world of sitar, and it was a marked difference from how she was used to practicing all these years.
Aruna: My teacher said, just give everything to music and don't expect anything. And then music will give you everything too. And she just said, you know, focus on the joy. Like, don't take stress. So I never realized how important it is to kind of claim that sense of agency or authority and confidence for myself.
Claire: When Aruna returned to Texas, She wanted to turn that new confidence into action. She decided to perform a 30-minute concert at a temple in San Antonio
Aruna: The deity of the temple is the goddess Saraswati who's the goddess of knowledge and the arts.
Claire: But she wouldn't be performing someone else's work. She was going to improvise.
Aruna: Usually my hands get shaky or sweaty, something like that. And then, you know, I can't think about anything else.
Claire: She really thought that she would be nervous, but as she looked around the candlelit room full of expectant faces, she felt ready.
Aruna: But this time I felt supported by that joy. So it was just a different feeling.
Aruna: There were definitely times that I messed up. And in the past, it would be such a big hiccup, just so much negative self-talk and part of the joy, or maybe the key to joy is just focusing on that moment. If something goes awry, like of course it will, [laughs] but that's okay, just keep moving. [laughs]
Claire: You’re listening to ARTS. WORK. LIFE., a podcast from The Association of Performing Arts Professionals.
I’m Claire Caulfield.
The show must go on. It's a phrase that's famous for a reason. And last minute pivots, that's nothing new for arts workers. But the past few years have presented the industry with some unique disruptions.
So for the first episode of our second season: Improv Everywhere
With stories about improvisation from arts workers around the globe,
starting with a story about how political circumstances transformed a playwright into a producer.
Then a story about stretching yourself and how flexibility only gets easier with practice.
And lastly, we'll have reflections from a longtime improviser on the unexpected benefits of planning.
Claire: Act One: Flipping the Script
In 2020 Audrey Rose Degez visited Ukraine for the first time and fell in love. Over the next few years, she reconnected with her Ukrainian heritage and started learning the language.
She applied for an artistic residency in Kharkiv, and in 2020 she was accepted as the program's first international resident. Her plan was to write a play exploring the theme of Motherland, which turned out to be especially fitting because she found out she was pregnant shortly after accepting the residency.
In her story, Audrey reflects on what it's like to be thrust into a new role with absolutely no roadmap. Her struggles to navigate logistical, creative, and personal challenges. And how some unexpected circumstances have changed her life's course.
Audrey: I was sitting on my couch nursing my newborn daughter, And that's when I learned that Russia had invaded Ukraine, and it was a full scale invasion and they were declaring war. And I just did not know what to do. it felt like the floor, uh, fell out from under me.
I'm almost embarrassed to admit it, but I had these sort of selfish feelings of like, oh man, I'm not gonna get to do my residency now. Because for me this residency was to go and write the play in Kharkiv and then bring it to America. And now this invasion actually just flipped the script, and it was suddenly outside of my control because I could literally no longer go to Kharkiv.
As much as I would love to be this radical artist that goes into war zones and creates art, like now I am a mother, and I needed to be responsible for my child.
A few weeks later, my mother called and she said, you know, I know you have a lot of Ukrainian friends. We have a big house in Pittsburgh. It's not, no one's really living there right now. And so I said, well, I could turn it into like an artistic residency, and I could live there with artists and we could create our new performance And um, everything started just rolling from there.
>> music start: driving/expectant
I had selected five Ukrainians, one puppeteer, uh, one from like post-documentary theater, another who came from really classical theater, and one who came more from cinema. And then one, who was a dancer.
And then we started meeting regularly on Zoom. There was Zoom meetings where I could hear air raid sirens in the background. and it was very surreal for me to be sitting on my French balcony uh listening to air raid sirens and talking about, uh, uh, creating art. I remember the day that I was able to announce to everyone that their visa was approved. It was really kind of exciting, but also scary in the sense that we were taking so many risks.
We decided to do a sort of co-writing, co-directing collective, because even though there was a natural hierarchy as I was producer and I was organizing everything and I was paying for everything, I felt uncomfortable taking too much authority over the creative direction, being the only non-Ukranian in the group.
>> music fades out during above clip
And the beginning was, was a little bit difficult. You know, there was like a lot of cultural differences. There was a lot of administrative hold-ups. We had to get social security numbers. We had to make bank accounts. There was a lot of frustration. Everyone was just kind of from the city, and they found themselves in the suburbs in America where you can only go anywhere by a car and nobody had a driver's license. The first two weeks were a lot of like, uh, adjustments I would say.
A turning point would be, after our first performance, because there were a lot of people who came up to us after the first performance and they said, “Wow, you guys are actually really good actors.” [Laughs] They were like, “I didn't expect that. You know, we, we just thought we were gonna like, give money, we're supporting Ukraine. But actually you made something that was really powerful.” And so I think that was a turning point also for us, to have some confidence in ourselves, in our project and also for the people who were supporting us to see like, okay, they mean business.
>> music: tease of reflective/sad
And then, of course, what we haven’t talked about yet is my daughter, Lili Maritchka, who ended up in the piece which was not necessarily a conscious decision at the beginning. One day during improvisation, she just didn't want me to put her down. And so I said, okay, fine. I'm gonna improvise a mother with a child. And I did this improvisation at the piano with her, and the weirdest thing happened, like she was in this really cranky mood, and the minute everyone started watching us, she completely changed and she laughed at the right time and she cried at the right time and she like made my improvisation way better than I ever would've done it by myself.
>> music: tease of reflective/sad
Lili, she was living in this kind of matriarchal commune. She had five moms by the end of this. And we added a new scene towards the end where we literally passed Lili from one person to the next. And it was from historical, and history repeating itself.
>> music start for real : reflective/sad
It was from Holodomor which was the famine in Ukraine during the Stalin era, which was a fabricated famine in the sense that there was food, but, well, the Soviet Union was stealing it from Ukraine, and so everyone was dying and women, parents were passing their children into the trains from the countryside to, to get them to go to the city so that they would survive, And then the same thing happened again during the evacuation. So during the evacuations in February, people were passing children into the trains so they could get out of Ukraine.
And so the scene was based on that historical fact. But if Lili hadn't been so close with all the women, if we hadn't been living together, traveling together, working together, I don't think it would've been possible to pass her.
>> music fades out
And so that was something that was really beautiful was that this intensive living together, working together experience made it possible to work with Lili in such a way that it was so powerful for the audience.
Every single time we performed it, we performed 23 times, every single time except for I think the last time, there was a new scene. [Laughs] Like, and we sometimes wrote that scene like the morning before the performance. So there was always something new, as an actor, as an artist, it keeps you on your toes, But over the course, I would say the last two months, the performance really settled into itself. and by the end we were so synchronized, like we were so in tune with each other we didn't even really need to talk to each other or even agree with each other that day, but somehow our movements were always gonna be synchronized. That was what was amazing.
>> music start: same as beginning: brief
We've actually decided to take what we were able to do last year and to globalize. So take it outside of the context of Ukraine. Talk about oppressed cultures generally around the world, and use theater as a means to protect, preserve, and promote cultures that are suffering from systematic cultural oppression. And we are working with a Kurdish actress from the Kurdistan region of Turkey. So this fall will be a four-month workshop, writing residency of the new piece. And then our plan is try and take it on tour. So we're gonna see where it takes us, as every creative person knows, we just follow the stream and, Hope that we don't hit a dam, you know?
>> music starts in earnest: same as beginning
I recently had this experience again where I called someone about this new performance, and they said to me, “I don't think we are the appropriate venue for you.” I can be a pushy person. I pried a little bit into their logic and what they meant was is that we don't have an agent, we don't have, uh, a big following.
I specifically chose actors who were not famous, and I am a producer who is not famous, and I put this group together and we worked really hard, and we created something of value that touched the audience. And so I think that for promoters and presenters, it should be that we never get stuck in a bias. And that we always remain open to something new because there's a lot of very talented people who just don't have an agent or don't know the right people, but I think that we should follow our instincts and always be willing to give that, the little guy a chance.
>> music comes back up
A year ago I didn't plan on being a producer, I just wanted to go to an artistic residency and write a play. But, uh, I think sometimes when we realize that we have certain talents and certain gifts and certain resources and certain opportunities, we have to stand up. And think, “Okay, what if I just do one thing today?” and see what happens.
Claire: Audrey Rose Degez lives in Pittsburgh and Paris, where she runs CP4P International Productions.
>> music ends
Act Two: On The Road Again
Claire: In 2021, Gracie Meier thought she had put the worst of the uncertainty behind her. The previous pandemic year, Gracie moved from Chicago to New Mexico, joining a group of artists that came from all over the country. Since so many artists were out of work, the group rented a house together and pooled unemployment benefits and food stamps, so they could focus on their art.
It was a big risk. In 2020, Gracie had no idea when she would ever be able to perform for an audience again, but slowly and carefully, her friends began to host immersive theater experiences in their shared home.
They founded a company, called it Exodus Ensemble, and were soon a fixture in the Santa Fe artistic community.
It was her first time in a leadership position like this. And as she shares in this story, she soon learned that her improv skills are just as valuable on stage as behind the scenes.
Gracie: The projects that we make are incredibly site-specific because we don't have sets, because the space is a character, the space reflects a huge quality of the show, and what we're able to do at the show.
Bathsheba was our second project that we started in early 2021,and then we rehearsed it and developed it out in our house in La Sieneca. And then eventually opened it up to very small audiences in what we call our first look previews.
So the show's content is drastically changing between each performance. And then we get this email that is like, “Hello, we are the HOA, and this is a cease and desist you need to stop right now.” which was a bit of a blindside. We tried to, at least engage in, start a conversation like, “Okay, can we have a meeting?”
And they were like, “no”. We were like, “Okay, we have three more shows on our calendar, can we please just do those?” And they were like, “no”. And we're like, “For sure. Thank you for your flexibility.” [Laughs]
So, we have no way of getting money because, we're on a 100% donation model. So if we don't have the shows that give folks the opportunity to donate and to see our work, that money just doesn't come in. So it was a big financial stressor, a location stressor. And sweet April Cleveland, our artistic director, immediately took a meeting with Jordan Young, who was the president of the Acequia Madre House house which is a historic estate that's in this cool neighborhood right off Canyon Road in Santa Fe.
And so Jordan had seen a show probably a year ago and, you know, expressed a year ago that she was willing to support us like in any way she could. And so suddenly we'd come to her and we're like, “Hey, this is the moment. We have an absolute massive ask. We just lost our performance space” and without missing a beat, she said, “You can come here and perform full-time.”
It was just this like unabashed commitment to the arts and to really bringing this cultural vibrancy into Santa Fe.
That was Monday when that all happened and then Wednesday we packed up our trucks. And we, our trucks, our singular truck and just made lots of trips, over to our new venue. And Bathsheba was the only show where we've created anything that even resembles a set piece. The show deals a lot with surveillance and like strange technology. So we have this huge wall of all of these like weird 18-inch TV monitors from, you know, the early 2000s. It's gotta be like 10 feet by 12 feet. We fitted it custom for our home because we thought we would be performing there for a significantly longer period of time.
So we had to like wiggle this whole frame, like out of our house load into the back of this car, so we're in this big truck just navigating the absolute tiniest, cutest little curvy roads. All while this big flopping piece is just like hanging out in the back. And I'm sort of, I'm standing, I'm crouching. I'm not really sure. I'm just trying to use any part of my body to stabilize this big frame as we go down these, very cute, but very, bumpy, I call 'em Mario Kart roads. All the roads in Santa Fe are too damn small, and the cars are big. And it's just, it's a nightmare, but we were able to load into the space Friday night we invited audiences in and said, “Hey, we just moved into the space two days ago. We're considering this a tech run. But we didn't want you to miss out on your chance on seeing the show.”
And they all showed up.
It was just such a testament to the community of Santa Fe and to the ways that people use their resources to help other people.
Being in the Exodus Ensemble is just one multi-year durational piece of improv, just always, always pulling stuff outta your head, just making everything up.
I think people often are like, “Well, are you like, are you gonna keep going as a company? Like, is this it for you guys?” And people have said that about a number of different scenarios that we've been in, and clearly the answer is no. Our flexibility is our strength and to remain flexible I think allows me to have a much better peace of mind.
Yeah, I think this situation empowered me to face change or to face challenge with abandon and joy and curiosity.
Claire: Gracie Meyer is the creative director of Exodus Ensemble in Santa Fe, New Mexico.
Act Three: Stooping to New Heights
Claire: Bedford-Stuyvesant is a neighborhood in Brooklyn, New York. Locals call it Bed Stuy, and when Kendra J. Ross moved to Bed Stuy in 2009, she found herself in the middle of a heated conversation about gentrification.
Kendra is a dancer and a choreographer, and she soon noticed that although there were a lot of artists living in Bed Stuy, there weren’t many opportunities to perform locally.
So Kendra started brainstorming a way for new residents like herself to integrate with the existing community while supporting artists and local businesses. In 2013, she founded a unique art crawl where local artists collaborate with residents to present performances right on their front stoops.
And she called the art crawl STooPS.
Every July for years, she produced the event with an all-volunteer crew.
And while arts workers are always able to improv, all that uncertainty can grind you down. And in her story, Kendra shares how a bit of planning and good timing lifted her spirits.
Kendra: If you came to STooPS, you would see all different types of artists. dance, music, theater. We have visual artists. We've had hair design, fashion, sewing. “I like to say, like, if you consider it art, we consider it art.”
So when I first started STooPS, we really had like $5 and a dream. [laughs] So I had a strong team of like six folks, and we rocked it out, I would say until about 2017 is when folks started to teeter off because all of these folks, including myself, were doing STooPS on a volunteer basis. And I'm so eternally grateful for all of the volunteers but, there's only so much you can ask of folks who are volunteering, and so then in 2018, I ended up with a team of just three of us.
And as you can imagine with this smaller team, all the work that I had to do, AND at the same time, I was still working another full-time job AND had my own thriving artistic practice, AND I was dancing for other people's companies.
Um, like two days before STooPS that year, I like noticed this like burning sensation on my back and, the day after STooPS it, it had just gotten really bad.
So I ended up going to the doctor, and they were like, “Yeah, we think you have stress-induced shingles.” And I'm like, “What? Why am I getting shingles? I'm only in my thirties. Oh my God.” I just, I decided that in 2019 that I would at minimum take a break, but to be perfectly honest, I didn't know if I was going to do STooPS again.
In 2019, what was I doing? I was, I was actually enjoying my life. I met my, I met my, um, my now husband in 2019, we were actually able to enjoy a summer with each other and able to cultivate our relationship because normally, summers for me, I was always working. It was just like that was grind time. It's like, okay, it's time to get STooPS together. Um, but that year I actually got to enjoy life and was like, “Oh wow, this is really kind of nice”, when I don't have the stress of this huge event that,is really beautiful and impactful, but also a lot, a lot of work, especially doing it potentially by myself.
But then the pandemic hit. My partner, who's my partner at the time, my husband now was like, “You have the perfect setup for what the art scene needs right now. Like your event is already outside. You can encourage people to socially distance. You don't have to take lots of expensive precautions, so you can do this event in a safe way and people need it.”
And so I did it and people loved it because for many artists, they weren't able for a long time to perform live. And for many of our attendees, they hadn't been able to experience live art in months and months.
I had one of my neighbors, like my next door neighbor afterwards, he just stopped and was like, “You know, you really did that. That was so beautiful. That was so special for me.” And he actually ended up passing later that year from COVID. And so, sorry, so 2020 for me was a way for me to really, give to my neighborhood in a super special way, sorry.
But I did things out of pocket in 2020, but because a lot of the emergency funds for artists and things of that nature, I was actually able to recoup what I ended up spending that year.
So that was like, okay. All right. This is great. Let, all right, let's keep it, keep STooPS going for 2021. So in 2022, you know, I was feeling myself a little bit more. Because I have to say that, all the while I was doing this thing and it was really big and it was really beautiful, I never really considered myself like, an executive director or, you know, even though my title was founder/director, I was still like, “What am I doing? I don't know what I'm doing. Like I'm just an artist. Like I don't know.” But in 2022, I really started to take that title of founder and director a little more serious in a sense of, like I've been doing this for a while, like I survived a pandemic, I think I kind of know what I'm doing at this point.
And so I started reaching out to foundations and someone from the Mellon Foundation actually came. They reached out to me, the program officer and said, “Oh, you know, I was at STooPS. It was really wonderful, and we want you to apply for grant that we have” and I got this really substantial grant that enabled me to pay myself full-time and also hire part-time staff. So now in 2023, it's just a whole ‘nother experience.
Our 10th anniversary celebration of our annual art crawl is happening on July 29th this year and so I'm super excited especially because I have help. I have an amazing lineup, I can pay my staff and the artists more equitable wages and stipends. I don't have to worry about asking my mom to cook meals for 60 people. I can actually hire catering. [laughs]
Yeah, I'm just very excited. There's so much underneath the surface that's so different and so much more impactful for me that I'm grateful.
>> music ends
However, there is a caveat to this. So I only received this funding for 2023. So I still don't know what is gonna happen with STooPS in 2024. Now instead of $5, I maybe have like a hundred dollars and a dream. [Laughs] Um, but we'll see what happens.
Claire: Kendra J. Ross is a dancer and founder of STooPs. She’s based in Brooklyn, New York.
Claire: Thank you for listening to the first episode of Season 2.
ARTS. WORK. LIFE. is a production from APAP – the Association of Performing Arts Professionals.
APAP is the national service organization for the performing arts presenting, booking and touring industry. You can join APAP at APAP365.org.
I’m Claire Caulfield, your host and producer.
Jenny Thomas is our Executive Producer.
And music today from Blue Dot Sessions and Aruna Kharod.
This podcast wouldn’t be possible without the generous support of The Wallace Foundation. So thank you.
Other thank yous to Shanice Mason,
The APAP staff and board of directors, our storytellers today, and the hundreds of thousands of arts workers across the world.
Your stories matter, and arts workers ARE essential.
Speaking of stories, if you work in the performing arts and want to submit your own story to this podcast, visit APAP365.org/podcast.
And if you enjoyed this episode, which I hope you did, please leave us a review. It helps others find the show.
Carolyn: Arts, Work, Life. [laugh] that’s real [laugh]
And next time on ARTS. WORK. LIFE….
Malou: We have a tendency to think that it's too late. that has not been my experience at all. And the past 10 years have been the most fruitful of my life
Heena: When I started doing this work, of advancing South Asian performing arts, I didn't see it as a burden. I saw it as this is what I do.
Dominic: Legacy is something I think a lot about. how do you leave a lasting legacy that's not centered around you?
>> music sting