The Arts Administrator Job of Wearing Many Hats
I know we all wear a lot of hats, whether we do administrative work, or maybe as an educator and artist, or even in our daily lives as parents or partners. Managing those hats is the trick to our daily balancing act. So to see if I could improve my balancing act, I signed up for the Arts Administrators Essentials class offered through Americans for the Arts’ ArtsU platform. It was really informative, and the best part is that it was free!
Have I learned anything? Yes, there are lots of great examples of work being done across the field and in different disciplines. My company, Teatro Milagro, is more than a theatre—in our cultural center we also have visual arts displays—and yet as theatre people, do we do our best to accommodate the needs of the visual artists? I failed the first unit of the class, focused on visual artists, so maybe this is a hat that needs a little more attention! Sometimes maybe we try to be bigger than we are, which is why collaboration is so vital to the success of a nonprofit. We fostered a group of LatinX visual artists, and they formed their own small coalition under our nonprofit called LaxIdeal, and they manage many of the visual arts exhibitions and workshops that happen in our center and in other spaces around the city.
Aside from the rough start, the class has been very affirming for the work that Milagro does in the field with bilingual arts education for schools and communities. Our efforts to collaborate with social service agencies and provide authentic arts experiences that highlight LatinX artists and performers is not just “a thing” that we do, but makes us a model of best practices.
But even a bilingual company like Milagro can have its challenges when striving to be authentic. When delving into indigenous or Native American issues, we need to find ways to share these stories with the community in a manner that is culturally appropriate. Currently we just opened our new middle school show called ¡Corre! Corre! which focuses on the lives of the Raramuri people in northern Mexico. While the performers themselves have indigenous roots, they are not the roots of the Raramuri, so the story is shared through a LatinX perspective of the Mexican coach who helped the Raramuri runners to become Olympic competitors. As audience members we learn about their traditions and see a young girl caught in a struggle between maintaining her traditions and helping her village—themes that affect many students of color who have migrated to the US.
Students in summer school programs for English language learners were able to experience the play in its first few previews, performing for a little over 800 students. The teachers and students were captivated, and the playwright, Ajai Terrazas Tripathi, did a fantastic job of illustrating their cultural beliefs of death as a revolution to a higher level in an age appropriate way. After the brother is killed by the drug cartel he turns into a moth and returns to visit his sister, and the story moves on to see her running to the finish line. The original music numbers bring the audience to a beautiful ending that leaves the students cheering. No one questions his death, but these young students in communities of color often relate to the issues of living in poverty and striving to rise above the challenges in their lives.
Hopefully the rest of the season will go as smoothly as we navigate the cultural waters of our other new programs. In addition to my administrative work, working with new and emerging playwrights is an important role when wearing my Artistic Director’s hat. In addition to Ajai, this season I am also collaborating with a playwright from Tucson, AZ, by way of Salvador, to create a play about Judge Xiomara Torres. When Xiomara was nine, she left Salvador with her mom and siblings, only to be later sexually abused in California. After a life in foster care, she went on to become the first Latina Judge in Multnomah County, Oregon. Judge Torres is super excited to share her story of being what she refers to as a “Me Too Dreamer” and is involved in the development of the script by Milta Ortiz. Wearing my producer’s hat, I also need to find the right staff to bring the production together and find ways for my predominately Mexican American actors to believably portray Salvadorians.
In our desire as theater makers and performers to share these stories, where does reality separate from fiction, and what is the goal of authenticity? One year we produced a play about Santeria (Alma de Cuba, Malan, 2003), and the performers learned some of the rituals of Santeria from a Babalow. It was exciting and scary when he came to our performance and the altar for Yemaya caught on fire, but he was very happy that we had created a very authentic experience, and so we were given his blessing and on the road we went, with no mishaps on the rest of our journey.
In a more recent play about the Tohono O’odham, I traveled to Tucson and met with tribal elders. After explaining the educational work we do, the education director shared a coyote myth of his people with me, and I was gifted the opportunity to include the story in my play. This kind of methodical research can be very time consuming, but also extremely rewarding when the final result is something that the community embraces with enthusiasm and pride. To me, that is what makes it worth getting up in the morning to do my job all the more worthwhile.