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Claire: As a Black man working in tech, Chris Rooney said he was used to being the only person of color in professional spaces. And the same was true for his hobby as a circus performer. But in 2020 he began to evaluate why there were so few Black, Indigenous, and other People of Color – BIPOC people – in these spaces.
Chris: It's not just circus, where BIPOC folks are kind of underrepresented, it's actually performing arts as a whole.
And even in cities like Chicago that are that have large BIPOC populations we still under-represent in performing arts.
There's been a lot of places for me in professional spaces and social spaces where I've been one of only, so it wasn't an unfamiliar place. But in the summer of 2020 after the George Floyd murder, there was a lot of movement in the Chicago circus community on creating more diverse spaces, which is great.
But myself and a group of other BIPOC practitioners said, “Well, there's all these circus organizations that wanna create more supportive, inclusive spaces, but they're not really quite sure how to do it. We could help them with that.”
Claire: And with that, Chris helped found the BIPOC Circus Alliance Midwest.
Chris: I think all of us in this space have had the experience of feeling othered, right? Of feeling like even though you may have been part of this community for a while, something gets said or something happens, it lets you kind of know like you're on the outside. Rarely is it something that's intentional. It just kinda makes you feel like, Hmm, I'm not sure this place is for me.
Claire: The group began to organize a show for Black History Month. As he began to get the word out, Chris was thrilled to learn that there were more BIPOC circus artists in Chicago than he thought. And then, the word really began to travel, and Black circus artists from six different Midwest states flew in to be part of this special performance.
Chris: It felt like a big moment and the most kind of biggest thing this group had ever done.
Claire: They rented out a beautiful 100-year old church that had been converted into an iconic circus performance space.
Chris: It's a beautiful venue, stained glass windows.
Claire: And everyone involved in the show – from performers to tech, lighting and photography – was Black.
Chris: I don't know if this has ever been done before, at least not in the circus space.
And I'm proud of like this group coming together and everyone just like getting along and supporting one another and developing this community that is a lasting thing, and that doesn't always happen in the creative space.
And after the rehearsal, I got call from my coach who had been there at rehearsal and he was nearly in tears.
And, and he had said that that was just the first circus space, and he'd been in circus for almost 10 years where he felt like, the freedom to really be himself, and the freedom to just be authentic and natural.
And it made me realize that, that as BIPOC practitioners, we're sometimes not even aware of the weight that we're carrying, you're not even aware of it until it’s not there anymore, until you realize like “whoa, something really special is going to happen.” And that people are going to have the chance to express, and move, and breathe life into their art in a way that they maybe hadn’t had a chance to do before and hadn’t been aware that this weight existed.
Claire: The show was fantastic, and Chris was so proud of everyone’s hard work. But he didn’t fully realize the impact until he saw the photos from the performances.
Chris: I have been to many shows in that venue and seen the pictures of performers and seen how amazing performers look in that space, and have had perhaps an unconscious assumption that the reason those images look so amazing is because those performers are better, higher caliber and there's something subconscious there happening. Cuz the majority of those performers I've seen there are white.
I'm realizing that there was some prebuilt assumption in my head that these predominantly white acts were special and that their pictures represented something to be admired but not realistically achieved.
One of the cool things is that the lighting tech from the show had mentioned before the show that he was really excited to light a show with people from with darker complexions.
And we were like “that sounds cool” but you know, we're all kind of focused on the show and didn't really think about it. But in seeing the pictures afterwards and in seeing the show, like you realize, no, it matters. Darker complexions. It's a different spectrum of lights that make us look good.
But it was just such a wonderful gift to have him have that knowledge and have that passion around bringing a different color spectrum into the performing arts space to help us look really great.
Claire: Chris said that this is the perfect example of why an majority-white institution can’t just add a couple of people of color and call it a day.
Chris: If you wanna have everyone that's on that stage look and feel their best, that means possibly some rethinking everything from from lighting to sound to a whole lot more from the production standpoint.
It's just a, it gives you just a little bit more confidence. The way that you show up. Just a little bit more swag, just a little bit more like self-awareness of the beauty and legitimacy of your art. Even someone like me, that's a hobbyist, right? Like just to know that like almost, that you don't have to try so hard that if you bring your own authentic self to the space, you can be as beautiful and dynamic and inspiring as anyone else on that stage.
Claire: You’re listening to ARTS. WORK. LIFE., a podcast from The Association of Performing Arts Professionals.
I’m Claire Caulfield.
When you’ve felt like an outsider your entire life, finding a place to belong is powerful. But what’s even more transformational is creating an entirely new space where the outsiders are insiders from day one.
And that’s the theme of today’s show: Outside In.
With stories about outsiders creating their own spaces, and insights from these new insiders that are relevant to the entire performing arts industry.
With a story about a performer’s revelation that she’s not actually the outsider she thought she was
Then, a story about someone who was forced confront their privilege, and the lessons they learned about modernizing classical music
And lastly, one man’s story about embracing his identity and how becoming an insider might have just saved his life.
Claire: Act one: Barred from The Bard
When Farah Merani was studying drama at a university in London, she was cast as Juliet in Romeo and Juliet.
She was thrilled – it’s a dream role for just about every Shakespearean actress. But then the director said that she cast Farah in this student production because once Farah entered professional theater, she would never have the opportunity to play Juliet.
It was the first time Farah realized that audiences expected white actors in most Shakespearan plays, and as a woman of color, she would be barred from some of the most interesting and complex roles.
Farah: I started realizing, or at least internalizing this idea that the only character I would ever realistically play is Cleopatra.
First of all, she's the only woman of color in the entire Shakespeare canon.
Cleopatra is an Egyptian queen, and she's an outsider in the world of the ancient Romans. So in Antony and Cleopatra, she's very much othered and because of her exoticness. She's not a heroine, she's a tragedy.
And not seeing anybody a little bit like me in the canon, never struck me as problematic until I started reckoning with the reality of being in the theater world and what my most likely casting opportunities would be like.
Fast forward, two years ago, I guess, a year and a half ago, I had been thinking a lot about my relationship to Shakespeare. Now that I'm older and I've experienced a lot of things and played a bunch of different characters, what struck me was that I, as an Indian woman, Have fallen in love with the epitome of English literature. English being the colonizer of my people and that was like a tectonic shift and it, this thought hit me of the Stockholm Syndrome.
Like I've fallen in love with my captor, my colonizer, and it made me so uncomfortable. So I knew in that moment I needed to write something. And one of the figures that really piqued my curiosity, is, um, the, the dark lady of the sonnets.
There was a sonnet, forgive me, I can't remember what number it is, but it talks about the Dark lady, and she's got black wires for hair. and her breasts are dun 'd -u- n.'
So her breasts are brown, right? So he's talking about this darker woman. And I just remember thinking black hair, brown skin, that's interesting. So then this name Emilia Bassano Lanier got tossed around as potentially being the dark lady of the sonnets
So I wrote this piece inspired by Emilia's life, which is fascinating.
She was such a badass. Like she ,I mean she was the first female published poet in all of the English language. She comes from a Moorish family, a North African family, Jewish. Raised in Italy to a family of musicians. She was well educated. She fell in love with theater. She would go all the time, which is where she met Shakespeare, obviously.
The fact that she existed alongside Shakespeare, that she did what she did, that she looked the way that she did. That to me means I have space. I exist in some way in that world, which means that I can exist in the canon in a much more significant way, and that is really important to me.
That makes all the difference for me.
I'm a part of this Shakespeare ensemble here in Los Angeles in Pasadena specifically, and we create this monthly show where we string together a series of short four or five minute pieces, but everything has to do with Shakespeare in some way.
And I should also mention I am one of two women of color in this group of about 12. Writing this piece was a huge active vulnerability for me. So I shared my work and one of the ensemble members, they pointed out some of the language that I had used and felt it might be a little accusatory to some of the audience members, and maybe I could find a different way of phrasing the sentiment of belonging.
And I burst into tears.
And I basically said to the group, “You don't know what it's like to walk out into the world and be confronted by the color of your skin. And to feel like you're embraced by a historical figure is like the caress of welcoming that I have wanted my whole life in this business and never got. And then finally I did one day and you're asking me to diminish that by changing my experience? So that somebody in the audience doesn't feel uncomfortable?”
It was a reckoning for all of us. This individual and I had a long conversation after, and they genuinely apologized, didn't realize how I would be affected so deeply, and I, in turn said that I had no idea that I was carrying so much pain around it. And it took us having this conversation for me to really reckon with how deeply seeded that pain lives in me.
So the piece that I created is called “Emilia's Take”. I've done it a few times now. Consistently after every single show, women of color have come up to me afterwards and said, A, “I had no idea that woman existed. I'm gonna go look her up.” And B, “thank you for saying and sharing your experience because it makes me feel like I'm not alone in mine.”
The most poignant moment was when a mother messaged me on social media to tell me that her daughter saw somebody who looked like her on stage doing Shakespeare for the first time in her life. That was incredible because I never had that. And the fact that I can be that representation for this young girl is everything, truly everything.
The only way that Shakespeare will survive is if new audiences take an interest in it. which means it's really important that the expansion continues. The decision makers in this industry, the creatives that lead, the purse string holders, so it's not just on stage, it's also in the content that's being created. It's in the funding of that content. And then at a grassroots level, it's the training,
Greater diversity in the education system, the training system,… the number of students who have said to me that I am their first teacher of color is shameful.
The fact that I never had one in my entire training it's part of the reason why I feel that I have a responsibility to continue as an educator as well, because the lens through which I educate is very different than somebody who doesn't look like me,
It would be amazing to me to go back. and to tell the little girl in me that the world includes you. No matter what anybody says or how media has been portrayed in the last centuries, we do belong.
Claire: Farah Merani is an actor, writer and arts educator in Los Angeles, California.
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Claire: Act two: Into the Fold
Mari Lee doesn’t remember a time before she played violin. Her entire childhood was dedicated to perfecting her technique. At the age of 11, she left Japan and enrolled in an elite music school in the United Kingdom. At 18 years old, she moved to Boston to study at the New England Conservatory of Music.
But then in her second year, Mari’s father became very ill and she had to move back to Japan..
She realized she was an outsider in Japan, but an insider in the world of classical music.
It forced Mari to ask herself: Does anyone outside of my elite buble even care about classical music? And that one question took her on quite a journey.
Mari: I was 11 years old and I went to a specialist music school in the uk. and so ever since I've been, part of this very, elitist and a very small bubble of, classical music industry.
And it's like anyone who starts playing an instrument at a young age, you don't really know if it's even your calling or your dream. Like
it wasn't until much later on that, I really questioned myself, why am I doing this? why should I be playing classical music today?
How is it relevant in this world?
When I graduated at 18, I moved to Boston to study at the New England Conservatory Music.
In my second year at NEC, I went back to Japan for a semester and took the semester off because my father became very sick.
I left Japan when I was 11 and I was there as a 20 year old, for the first time. discovering what Japanese society's like as an adult. I come from this marginalized community in Japan called Zainichi Koreans. We are not recognized as Japanese people, so I actually have Korean passport, but I'm not registered in Korea, so I'm a stateless person and so, I mean, that was like, one of the biggest reasons why my parents sent me and I, I have a brother, sent us away at a young age, because they thought we had a better future outside of Japan.
But then I was suddenly in Japan trying to do something to help my family financially.
But, I didn't have a degree.
I ended up working at a restaurant. This was so different, like night and day from like practicing eight, nine hours a day to perform in some of the most prestigious halls in the world, like Wigmore Hall and Southbank Center and all that, to like washing wine glasses all day, cleaning the toilet and the floor.
And the hours were really long and. the employees that, worked there, knew nothing about classical music. And so it was my first time facing my privilege of having gone through this very elite path And, what I faced there was like a lot of hostility. These people thought, okay, she, she goes to some fancy school and you know, classical music is like for the elites. And I wanted to somehow change that, because it's not some like luxury commodity, but it's something that gave me a voice, a meaning.
But I realized that I never asked myself this, these questions about what music means to us, how it can serve the people that live in this world today.
So what I did was I created a playlist. And next to each piece I wrote down, like, why that piece meant so much to me. Or something about the composer that was funny.
The people I was working with who had no, who never heard classical music before, started listening, and they really enjoyed it.
And seeing that transformation of “Oh, I hate classical music,” to “Wow, this is something that I can actually enjoy and I wanna continue listening to.” That transformation was something I never really experienced at firsthand, even though I'd been in touch with music my entire life.
I worked there just for one semester. I was very lucky that my father recovered and I was able to go back to Boston.
And I just realized all I'd been doing was trying to develop my skill as a violinist … really perfect a shift or like a passage, you know, that nobody really cared about, was very much similar to what I was doing at the restaurant.
Because it was like a high end restaurant. If there is like a little stain on, cutlery or glasses or whatever, like you had to redo the whole thing until it was perfect.
And I just found this attitude and process so similar to the way I approach violin playing.
Y’know, people like me at the restaurant who were washing wine glasses or whatever, we were trying to perfect our own thing, but collectively we were not thinking about the experience.
How people felt walking into the space. And that got me thinking about, do I ever think about what people feel when they walk into the concert hall? Doesn’t the experience start there already?
The first thing I did was really to study music rather than study violin. I took a lot of music history courses, um, and, all of this really helped me think about the larger picture.
My younger brother, was studying philosophy at college at the time, and he was also like studying history. So I decided to collaborate with him. That was like a moment we reconnected as siblings as well, because we went to different schools in U.K. We both went to boarding schools so we couldn't see each other. I feel like we reconnected through the arts, right?
And so that was like a very meaningful thing for both of us, so it was just like experimenting with different ideas, and we realized that actually the experience of listening or deep listening is a lot like meditation, but we never prepare the audience to get to that state.
Like you walk into the concert hall from your day-to-day life, and then you sit and you're supposed to be quiet for two hours to somehow get to that state on your own. But how can we create an experience that actually helps people transition from like our daily lives to this really deep reflective state?
So you know, we use the ritual of sounds to create that, that transition. And that journey combines this ritualistic element, as well as storytelling. And the stories are told by the performers in the room.
What's been interesting also is that 80% of our audiences are under the age of 45.
So we started in 2015 and we've done, I think about five different programs. And yeah, in the beginning it was, Very much like a program like we had piece of music with some commentary about the context, the historical context, and then now it's very much like more of an experience.
So in our most recent production, the production itself is centered around a piece written by Olivier Messiaen called “For the end of time”, which was written inside the prisoner war camp during World War II, so it carries an incredible story.
And then we paired that with origami, specifically origami cranes. So the cranes are when they're folded and are threaded together it represents world peace and hope.
We started the experience with an origami workshop with every audience member folding their own crane.
And then we asked the audience members to come and place the cranes on the stage, whenever they are inspired to do so while the music is playing.
So we end the experience with a very unique set of cranes, representing something unique that we create that, in that time.
It's not about perfection anymore. It's like, how can I give the most, in the moment and really connect with, the intention and the energy that's in the music, and how can I, the other people in the room, feel that with me.
Music and the arts are essential to human well-being, especially emotional well-being.
And you know, my, I feel that my mission as an artist and interpreter who is living in this world today is to really think about how we can, through the arts, serve people's lives.
Claire: Mari Lee is the CEO and artistic director of Salon Séance. She lives in New York, New York.
Claire: Act three: Walking Between Worlds
Leland Faulkner is an actor, writer, comedian and director and over the past 30 years, he’s worked in just about every media format out there. He writes a lot of his own material, but even though he’s a member of the Bad River Band of Chippewa, he never performed Native American stories or wrote about his identity.
But then in 2020, everything in his life fell apart. And when he was at his lowest, it was his Native identity that provided the creative spark he needed to keep going.
Leland starts his story with the day that changed everything: the day his wife had a stroke.
Leland: We were just having dinner, and she literally just slid out of her chair onto the floor. I couldn't rouse her. I tried, called 9-1-1. Life flighted her to a bigger hospital in a bigger city.
And our whole life flipped upside down.
She had been my right hand person. She'd been my manager. She made everything work and tick, and she was my performing partner as well.
I'll always be indebted to her for that.
Now all of a sudden I had to rethink everything. I had to be the one doing all the finances, doing all the bookkeeping. All the things that she had done now, suddenly were on my shoulders and I realized, “oh my God, look at all this that she had been doing.” [Laughs] It’s been very difficult to learn all the skills that she had, as well as learning how to deal with their medications, how to deal with dressing someone and undressing them because she was now paralyzed.
She had to relearn how to speak, she was on a feeding tube for some time and eventually she learned how to eat and swallow again.
That was a big day when she could eat a meal by herself.[Laughs and then sighs]
Went out and got lobster. I'll remember that [Laughs] cuz it was her favorite food.
She's still heavily paralyzed. On the left side is in a wheelchair, but she can speak clearly. Her mind is incredible. Her sense of humor is incredible, and I think that that sense of humor is one of the few things that has allowed us to get through all of this.
Later I tried to do a performance. It was so hard to be so distraught and yet have to go out and do comedy while you're suffering[Laughs] It's such a cliche trope in a way, you know, the suffering artist, the tears of a clown, it’s so true.
It took me a long time. I think maybe that's another reason why the Native American stories came to light is because it was hard to do comedy for me after that.
I had attempted in the past to, to put together a Native American program and. The weight, the cultural weight of representing that is very heavy, much heavier than anything else I've ever experienced. And so my attempts, my first few attempts failed. And when the pandemic hit, I was struggling to find something I could perform and make a little income from because I had some, some savings. Not, not really enough, but it was enough to get me through the pandemic, Thank God, with the help of this performance that I put together.
At that time it was called “Walker Between Worlds”, and I chose the name “Walker Between Worlds” because I wanted to share my experience as a Native American, which was a little bit more complex than the average Native American’s.
I was, uh, the son of a Shoshone Bannock man from the Fort Hall Indian Reservation, and a woman from the Bad River Band of Chippewa.
My father was the first native American of his tribe to get his degree and work in foreign service overseas. He was first in India and then in Afghanistan. And that's where I happened to be born.
This was kind of a very strange upbringing for a Native American kid.
When I was about seven years old, I think I was living in East Africa.
So every few years, we'd come back to the U.S., we'd go to Idaho, we'd go to the big powwow on the reservation, I'd see all the dancers connect with the culture and the relatives.
Then we'd go back to our life overseas. So when I, the time came for me to put this program together, I felt very much that I was a walker between worlds. Many worlds, not just the white world and the Native American world, but the American world and the Afghan world and the Iranian world and the African world. It was a very international sort of, uh, thing.
I had told a few stories, native American traditional stories in the past, but I never felt strongly that I was the one who should be doing it.
It felt like a lot of weight, a lot of cultural weight that I should have grown up on the reservation, that I should have known all the traditions more, that I shouldn't have had more real Native American experience. Well, my parents are Native Americans. I had Native American experience.
So, I put this show together, performed it, and I was really happy with the way it evolved and is evolving.
Knowing that I can do that has sort of empowered me to take, to just say yes to almost everything that comes along. It’s a real blessing to get to these stories after such a long period where we had no opportunities at all.
I love seeing people laugh. We've all been suffering for such a long time. We need release and we need light, and we need life, and we need joy. We need laughter,
Art and especially theater calls for you to create with your whole being and your whole self.
It's a very healing event on a very personal, deep conscious and unconscious level.
It can heal you after you've gone through tremendous suffering. When things are decaying all around you and you make the effort to create something new, that engages and entertains other people, that engages their imagination, that let’s them see things from a different perspective.
You feel somehow that you've gotten past that black hole of despair, depression, darkness, and, and all that negativity.
It's easy to get caught up in despair and, and depression when things are hard. It's very easy. So I know what, what, what the struggle is like, and so all the dark things I’d been going through, that really impelled me to survive somehow, and that probably from the depths of my unconscious, you know, that spark refused to die and wanted to be heard. So I'm glad I was listening. I'm glad I was able to like, [blows air] make the fire happen a little bit.
I think one of the lessons that I've got from all of this journey that I've been through is that the ability to reinvent and remake yourself as a creative person is doable, that you can do it and you can survive, even though the industry may change, even though the method of what you do might change. if you remember the reason why you did it in the first place as an artist, you'll find your way. You'll find your path.
Claire: Leland Faulkner is a performing artist and arts educator. He lives in Maine on Maliseet, Mi'kmaq?, Penobscot?, Passamaquoddy?, and Abenaki? tribal land.
Thank you so much for listening.
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.
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 really hope you did, please leave us a review. It helps other people find the show.
Carolyn: Arts, Work, Life. that’s real *laugh*
Claire: And next time on ARTS. WORK. LIFE….
Lexis: It kind of made me take a step back and second guess everything that I do with artists, managers, tour managers cause I'm like, I don't want that to happen again and I don't want that to happen to anyone else.
Josh: What do you do when everything you do you know to be true and you aren't given a platform or a runway by the person that came before you?
Shenea: The corporatization of circus arts happened long ago, and has really, really, I feel exploited a vast amount of the industry.
DJ: I was in so much pain. But I am having the opportunity to have the dream job that I've, I've always wanted. All that time I'm smiling, I'm having fun. No one knows that I'm experiencing this pain.
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