Rising Leaders & theater’s future

Portland-connected artists Rebecca Martinez and Zi Alikhan talk about life, theater, and becoming national Rising Leaders of Color

Theatre Communications Group recently announced its latest cohort of Rising Leaders of Color (RLC), two with connections to Portland:

  • Zi Alikhan is the inaugural Artistic Directing Fellow at Artists Repertory Theatre, where he serves as the first director of DNA: Oxygen, an affinity space and creative hub dedicated to the development and production of new work generated by, led by, and featuring artists of color. He will also be working on the coproduction of “The Great Leap” by Artists Rep and Portland Center Stage.
  • Though she now lives in New York, Rebecca Martinez is an ensemble member of Sojourn Theatre, which is based in Portland and performs nationally and internationally. During her time in Portland, she won two Drammy Awards and also worked with Milagro Theatre. Currently she is the BOLD associate artistic director of Off-Broadway’s WP Theater.

The RLC Program selects early-career Black, Indigenous, and People of Color theater practitioners across many disciplines and works to develop their individual leadership skills, provide training and career development opportunities, and create a cohort of artists who can support each other over the next year. I was selected for the 2017 cohort and it seemed fitting that they be interviewed by a previous grantee. I sat down with the two over Zoom to have them in conversation.

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TJ: Had you two met before the Rising Leaders of Color?

R: We actually met for the first time at a theater festival in Bulgaria a few years ago with the Drama League.

Z: It felt like 100 million events in nine days. Rebecca was the emotional core of that trip. Without you many people would have completely withered away. I’m glad to have met you under those circumstances.

TJ: Tell me a little about yourselves.

Zi Alikhan. Photo courtesy Artists Repertory Theatre.

Z: I grew up in Northern California. My parents are immigrants from India; they told me I could study anything except theater. So I weaseled my way into the most “theatrical” academic pursuit and spent two years studying sociology. I wanted to be an ethnographer. Much to my parents’ chagrin, I was cast in a season of summer stock. It was the first time I was ever paid to be an actor, and I realized I couldn’t do anything else. I transferred to NYU and finished a degree in musical theater. But I wasn’t satisfied with being a commercial musical theater actor and I fell into directing. Like a lot of people do, I started a scrappy theater company and that led me into the fellowship circuit.

TJ: What is the ‘fellowship circuit’?

Z: That’s a nomenclature I’ve made up. Theater company fellowships create community but they’re also kinda bullshit. Most theaters I’ve had fellowships with never hired me. I was part of a large fellowship at a theater with four writers and four directors; we all work widely now, and none of us have ever been hired by that company. It makes me wonder what the point was.

R: I don’t like to stack up on fellowships for the sake of it, but it feels like it’s the only way to get people’s attention. I didn’t go to Ivy League or East Coast school so I didn’t have any connections when I moved to New York. There’s a bit of a love fest for Ivy Leaguers but I think that’s starting to shift.

Z: My whole application for the RLC was about how inside our affinity spaces for people of color supremacy structures take on currencies that aren’t skin color: Ivy League and master’s degrees. Leadership structures are now just correlated to where you went to grad school.

R: I cosign that.

Z: We’re told that theaters are spaces where we can feel safe and validated but you look at the leadership and they all have a very specific kind of education. It doesn’t look like mine. I don’t know how I should see myself in that space or what value my experience holds. How do we tell people it’s OK they took their own path if the leaders in our movements are all the same?

R: I wrote a series of value statements for an exercise we did in the RLC and one was: Lived experience and wisdom has the same value as higher education.

TJ: Interesting. Sorry to get us off track.

Z: Right before COVID I did a regional musical and was feeling down about the way the process worked and was ready to stop making theater. I was debating going to barbers’ school or getting a masters in journalism when lockdown started. Then our industry, and our country, faced a giant reckoning in the beginning of June as to how we investigate the lives of people of color and think about them as part of our work. Right after that my agent sent me the job listing for Artists Repertory. Over the three months of applying for that job I was given a lot of time to think about and articulate how I think theater should be more central to our communities. Theater artists are masters of bringing groups of people in together in spaces, have conversations, and leaving them with a collective understanding of how to move forward. Or at least a more nuanced understanding before they went in. That’s something I’m interested in facilitating.

Rebecca Martinez. Photo: Beto O’Byrne, via rebeccamartinez.org

R: Similar to Zi, my parents also told me not to study theater because I needed to get a “good job.” I actually went to school for accounting. I hated it. I ran away to Portland because a friend of mine asked me to come. I had an inkling that it was a place I could start doing theater so I went to Milagro, I didn’t even know that Latino theater existed before; I figured they would hire me and they did! Basically, I went to the university of Milagro. They let me direct and write. I also started working with Sojourn Theatre. Both those organizations taught me a lot about ensemble creation and how to think about partnership and community. I had a brief stint as Artists Rep as well, as the director of Education and Outreach there.

Z: We need to sit down together; I want to hear about that time.

R: Yes! In New York I did a lot of work with the Latinx Theatre Commons on looking at the visibility of Latinx theater in the U.S. and figuring out ways to boost it, to think of ourselves as a commons and use organizing principles of our elders. And I realized I need to do this for myself. Those spaces that the Latinx Theatre Commons believe we should be in, I should be in those spaces too. I was an SDCF Observer* and it showed me what’s happening in bigger spaces is the same as smaller spaces. That led me to the Drama League, and the WP Theatre Lab. I had a bunch of New York shows lined up and then they all evaporated with COVID. How do I rebuild? How do I not focus on lost time? What do I need in this moment as an artist and as a parent? The RLC cohort has been really helpful in thinking about these questions. Do I need my whole life to be swallowed up in theater anymore? No. I’ve done 90-hour weeks. I don’t want to do that anymore. On the sunnier side, I’ve gotten to do work in new areas I’ve always been interested in, mediums that aren’t considered “theater,” like directing my first sound walk. With WP I was able to create a virtual live performance with actors all over the country. It was meant to see virtual platforms as soul-nourishing rather than soul-sucking. Now, I’m seeing lots of site-specific, devised, participatory theater all over the place. I love theater in theaters but I really love theater outside of theater.

  • *The SDCF Observership Program provides early to mid-career directors and choreographers paid opportunities to observe the work of master directors and choreographers as they create productions on Broadway, Off-Broadway and at leading regional theaters across the country.

Z: Theater that has a multiplicity and texture it didn’t have before. People who never thought of themselves as theater makers before now see themselves as part of our work, and we are part of their work. No one could imagine this a year and a half ago. In the TCG cohort we talk a lot about what we are carrying forward and what we are carrying behind and I hope that theater outside of a theater comes forward.

R: Yes, allow the medium to shift, and grow, and expand. It’s not just one thing. I’ve seen so much more openness and understanding when I talk about theater.

Zi Alikhan directed Andrew Lippa’s “The Wild Party” at Yale University Theatre in 2016. Photo: Andrew Schmidt, via zialikhan.com

Z: It’s cool to think about what theater is at its core… (laughs) OK, maybe it’s not, but I think it’s transformational experiences. And I think for so many people of color in this country we experience transformational experiences outside of theater. I think about going to mosque growing up as a transformational experience. Not speaking the language at my family reunion was a transformational experience. My boyfriend took me to my first drum corps show last year and watching a drum and bugle corps perform a 12-minute set was a transformational experience. If anyone has ever watched a trial, that’s a transformational experience. Theatrical events can be unexpected. And it’s cool to imagine what a theatrical landscape looks like if all of the nthings like going grocery shopping or going to a restaurant are theater. To be able to think expansively like that isn’t dirty anymore. I’m excited to see what that means looking forward.

R: It’s like when we were in Bulgaria! We were putting on headset and walking backwards out of theaters, seeing people jump out of dumpsters around town, and when we did sit down and watch something it was two men literally chopping up furniture. And that’s it. People loved it. (laughs) Sure, OK Europe.

Z: I think because we had that experience, I was able to go into this year and be like, it’s not all gonna be Hello, Dolly! at the Schubert.

TJ: What was it like starting the RLC Program?

Z: It’s nice to spend concentrated time with other theater artists that’s not about creating something. Just spending time together. I feel so close to them already. Even if I don’t know a lot about their personal lives, I know a lot about their ideas and how they are leaders. The RLC program has been a way for me to clarify my values as an artist. And being in conversation with seven other people about where we were and where we’re going has given me ideas about how to walk into the future.

R: I’ve spent a lot of time in directors’ circles. But these are folks who are actors, and teachers, and casting directors. We don’t come in with the hierarchy of our titles, which happens so often when theater people come together, even if we don’t mean it. We can redefine leadership and values that are actually embedded in practices of patriarchy and white supremacy. We learn to use each other as a way to interrogate that. The other thing that’s been useful is thinking about why leadership calls to me. Is it an expectation I’m hoping to fill? Or am I fulfilled already and this is the next step? And what it is I bring into a space as a leader?

Z: Leadership can be a horizontal structure. It can come from a community where everyone gets to lead regardless of their title or (what their) contribution to the project is. Theater is a strange space that has traditionally been structured to funnel up to one person all the time. So, it’s thrilling to be in a space where we all have the drive to lead holding hands. And as we are in this great reset for our industry, everything should be a chance to experiment. Every system, structure, institution is a chance to experiment with finding new forms. We should actively be trying to prove that new models work. DNA Oxygen is, to me, an experiment with a regional theater trying to be a truly ant-racist institution that produces anti-racist work.

While she was living in Portland, Rebecca Martinez write the book for the musical “Óye Oyá,” based on a treatment by composer Rodolfo Ortega. The Spanish-language musical had its world premiere at Portland’s Milagro Theatre in 2017. Photo: Russell J Young, via milagro.org

R: The last time I was in Portland was three years ago. I’m excited to see what you’re gonna do, Zi, and what DNA Oxygen could offer you. I know Portland has shifted a lot since I was an actor there, only getting certain roles, and I’m excited to see what happens when artists of color get to explore and do the work they want to do without whiteness dictating that.

Z: It’s been so bolstering to see how many artists of color, especially younger ones, reach out to learn about what our work is. It makes me think the community is hungry for this. I’m an outsider, and I know I have a lot to learn from this community that has a unique theatrical and political history. I’m really excited about that. So often, we find ourselves in places where we are told consciously or unconsciously that we don’t belong. I’m invested in creating a space that makes people feel that they belong and that they want to be there and do their best work. Or their worst work and grow from that.

R: Opportunities are so limited. We need a safe space, a soft spot to fall. To grow and learn. Without demand for expertise. There needs to be a space for folks to fail and succeed. Milagro was that for me. I failed all over the place and I had some successes.

Z: Every time we walk into a primarily white institution there’s so much pressure put on artists of color. When I go into those spaces I’m acutely aware that I’m the youngest director they’ve ever hired that season, one of the few directors of color they’ve hired, probably the only Asian American director they’ve hired, and the amount of “don’t fuck it up” that comes with that is incredible. Because if you do fuck it up you’ve essentially screwed the chances for your culture to come back into that space until there’s a reset. Just to be able to allow someone the softness is what I want to do at Artists Rep.

R: I’m not sure how I’ve gotten through all that pressure in my life. It comes from all sides. It’s not fair but it’s how things are. How can you do your best work like that?

Z: It burns us out.

R: And for every big thing you get you have like 10 little things you have to produce at the same time.

TJ: Rebecca, what was your experience here in Portland?

R: I have some thoughts … but the thing I really loved about Portland was that there were so many companies. It felt like a city where if you wanted to make work you could do it. There are a million people in New York. The ease of making work in Portland was something I didn’t appreciate until I left. The city was so hospitable to making work. I knew everyone. I loved that closeness, that comes along with … other stuff, but certain circles felt so generous and playful. I love that there are artists in Portland who did New York and were like, “New York is stupid, I’m going back to where there’s quality of life.” But I was in a space where I didn’t have to take a lot of risks to find work. It made me very comfortable (I like comfort), but I didn’t have to push myself.

TJ: Any advice for Zi?

R: Show up places and meet people. I don’t know what it’s like post-pandemic, but when I was there last there was so much energy and new folks.

Z: I’m still virtual ’til October. I’m going to be splitting my time in Portland and New York through my fellowship.

R: Is Portland still a happy hour town?

TJ: I think Portland has always been a happy hour town, and that will return.

Z: Is that more advice, Rebecca?

R: Yes. Cheap drinks and cheap food. Good food. Oh, and get outside into nature. Smell the air.

About the author

TJ Acena is a writer living in Portland, Oregon. He studied creative writing at Western Washington University. His prose has been published most recently in Somnambulist, Pacifica Literary Journal, and Hello Mr. He fell into arts journalism by accident in 2015, becoming the theatre reviewer for PQ Monthly. In 2017 he was selected as a Rising Leader of Color in the field of arts journalism by Theatre Communications Group. He currently writes for American Theatre Magazine and The Oregonian in addition to his work here. You can find out more at his website. He also sporadically updates a burger-review blog for Portland as well. Twitter: @ihavequalities

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