To Replicate, or to Challenge?

Dr. Coya Paz Brownrigg began pursuing theatre for social change when she realized that as an actor, generally, she had very little power. “You’re always in service to other people’s vision,” she shared with me. She said that, as a woman, you most likely will be asked to play sexist roles and as a woman of color, you will most likely be asked to play roles that are both sexist and racist. “I can’t say I stand for justice and then participate, or perpetuate roles that marginalize people of color,” she stated. Knowing very early on that she had her own vision, one that incorporated values of social justice and amplifying the voices of her fellow community members of color, she took the route of theatre for action and change rather than theatre simply for entertainment purposes. She wanted to disrupt the institution of theatre as she knew it. I wanted to speak to Dr. Brownrigg for many reasons—in addition to being a powerful researcher of arts economy, a professor at DePaul University in Chicago, and a thoughtful director and actor at the Free Street Theater in the city, she is a woman of color who is passionate about making sure her community is represented and respected through her favorite art form: theatre.

In this blog post, I want to further reflect on the ways that women of color experience the culture of the industry. Right before Dr. Brownrigg co-founded Teatro Luna in Chicago in 2000, there was not a single role for Latina women in the city’s theatre scene. Meanwhile, Latinx communities made up 25% of the Chicago population! Not only did she make her personal mission to create roles for these women in her community, but also to have her theatre projects reflect the diverse set of perspectives within the Latinx community, creating roles for these women that were complex, honest, and authentic.

One of my favorite parts of our conversation was Dr. Brownrigg’s sincere belief in the power of theatre: “theatre gives an opportunity to immediately intervene… you don’t need any equipment, and anyone can do it.” Her greatest goal is always to mobilize the people in front of her: the audience members. “How can we make them care?” she asks herself. Now, as the artistic director of the Free Street Theater in Chicago, her company’s mission is to challenge racial and economic segregation and asses theatre as a tool to ally oneself with social justice movements. Her company specializes in devised theatre, which is “is a method of theatre-making in which the script or (if it is a predominantly physical work) performance score originates from collaborative, often improvisatory work by a performing ensemble” (Wikipedia). What is interesting about devised theatre is its flexibility. With devising, you can follow any rules that your team agrees to… you don’t have to follow the “normal rules” of theatre. The ensemble, together, decides what issues to tackle, what feels healthy and do-able, and from the very beginning of their process, the ensemble spends considerable time establishing trust and communication amongst each other. The same type of hierarchy that traditional theatre subscribes to does not exist within devised theatre. While there is often a named artistic director and choreographer, all members of the cast have equal say in the piece, and they all trust that one another has the group’s best interest in mind.

Dr. Brownrigg believes that good leaders in her field have a vision. Additionally, they have a choice: either replicate existing structures within the theatre or challenge them. In her experience, she believes generally, theatre replicates white supremacy more than any other art form, and therefore, has taken the stance that she must challenge it where she sees it. “When you look at white supremacy not just as an ideology but as a data point—who works, who gets paid, who has decision-making power—it is overwhelmingly white,” she shares.

For this reason, her theatre company pays very little attention to what other theatres are doing. They have created their own systems for internal operations that are based on the established trust and communication noted above. For example, throughout most of her training and early career, if she was late to a rehearsal, the stage manager would take a note of it and she would be reprimanded if she was late many times, even if it was just by a few minutes. Of course, theatre requires that people be in the same space at the same time and this relies on people’s ability to be prompt or where they were are “supposed to be” when they are asked to be there. That being said, Dr. Brownrigg’s company asks that person who is late, “Are you okay? How can we help you to not be late? Is it a childcare problem? Do you not have enough time to get food before you come here every day? Is it a system problem and is this time just inconvenient for you and others? Should we change our rehearsal time?” Questions like these are asked out of respect for each company member’s life and experiences and center around the fact that their actors are many other things besides just actors. They are humans above all. That kind of flexibility is important to theatre for social change in particular. Dr. Brownrigg continued being sharing that, “If people are talented, they bring good ideas to the table, and they are accomplishing things that we want them to accomplish, why are we following rules that may or may not even serve what we are trying to get done, rather than designing the systems and creating systems of accountability that we all agree to?” She poses a fantastic question that I recognize not all organizations can follow, as some responsibilities are more structured than others. That being said, it seems to me that the quality of work that would be produced in an environment/organizational culture such as this one would be much stronger and more sustainable.