Reckoning: The Initiation of Cultivating Safe Spaces in Theater Education

“You’re the best friend type.”

“Sing ‘Breath’ from In the Heights.”

“You’ll be in West Side Story 100 times.”

“Now, more than ever, is the perfect time to be a POC in the theater industry.” 

“You need to change your last name if you’re ever going to make it in this business.”

“Can you make this character more SPICY.” 

“You don’t have a dancer body.”

“You can’t play *insert character here* because you’re not white.”

“This is the most diverse Broadway has ever been. You have sO mAnY oPpOrTuNiTiEs.”

“You’re a bit of a problem child.”

“You’re a diva.”

“You’re difficult to work with.”

“I don’t think you’re understanding the weight of the word ‘barbarian’ when LADY THIANG is describing the King.  Take it from the top and replace ‘Barbarian’ with the N-word.”

*** Do not get me started on the fact that The King and I is:

  1. Problematic to begin with
  2.  I am not an Asian person
  3. Barbarian was used synonymously with the N-word

*** That’s for a whole other blog post, so I digress.

These were statements made to me by people who consider themselves theater educators.  This is the short list. Over the last six months I have had a lot of time to think, to sit with myself, to resurrect trauma. Trauma that I had become so good at compartmentalizing, when it regurgitated back into my memory, I recognized it as “well meant advice” and “truths from the experts.” But as I embraced the reckoning on my industry and this country, for that matter, I was able to regain some clarity.  These statements, these small quips of “advice” were acts of violence.  Full. Stop.

From the inception of the BFA/Institutional audition, we are made to pay them to see us. It is no wonder when we graduate from these programs, we do not know our worth or how to negotiate for a livable wage. For this queer, mixed-race, Latinx, Bronx native, it goes beyond the BFA industrial complex and dives deeper into the tokenism and isolation that comes from institutions wanting to diversify their programs while remaining ill-equipped, uneducated, and upholders of white supremacy.

At the beginning of 2020, I found myself burnt out and lost.  The reckoning only brought on more questions and a deep seeded feeling of purposelessness. How would we push forward? When the smoke and ash clear from burning “it” down, who would be left standing to rebuild.  Why rebuild at all? Why? Such a powerful little word.  I went back to Simon Sinek’s Ted Talk and his Golden Circle framework and asked myself this very question. Why am I here?  

I was 2 years old when I threw myself headfirst into a pool, sans floaties, with the inability to swim.  My mother, flailing with panic, enrolled me in swimming lessons the minute we returned from our trip.  This incident would prove to be the foundation of how I approached my everyday life, throwing myself headfirst into an experience, feeling the fear and doing it anyway

 I knew what I wanted to do: Be a storyteller. I knew how I wanted to tell stories: Collaboratively. But my why was fuzzy and needed grounding. I needed to rebuild from the inside out. At the beginning of my why discovery, I asked myself, “Who has made a positive impact on my growth as an artist? When did I feel  seen, heard, and held by my educators?”  Though the times were few and far between and the list was unsurprisingly short, they each shared a common denominator: Representation

 I grew up in a community that valued the arts, culture, and education and believed that each could not exist without the other.  We were a local Latin dance school in the Bronx, but our motto was always “More than dance.” From the time I was 5 years old, this community invested in my future, met me where I was, saw me as a full human being, and treated me with respect and dignity. I was recognized for the fullness of my potential and encouraged to seek out my dreams. At only 14 years of age, I began teaching in my community. I felt at home in this position of leadership and understood the immense responsibility of being in this posture. Yet, as I grew up, I lost that sense of abandon.  I stopped allowing myself to feel the fear and do it anyway.  Once I moved away from my safe haven and came face to face with the “experts,” I shied away from all positions of leadership. 

Over a decade later, I found myself wrecked with insecurities, broken from violent, oppressive teachings, and limited by the box I had been forced into.  The beginning of my career was daunting, and I felt the need to say yes to every job opportunity, return to unsafe workspaces, and comply with the standards that my industry was, surely, living up to.  But like most times of reckoning, there is a calm before the storm.

I sought out my people, my short list, the change makers in my industry and my life, and became much more selective with the work I would invest in.  Working with directors and educators like Marcos Santana , Jasmin Richardson , Gregory Omar Osborne , Jillian Carucci , Jen Waldman , Billy Bustamante  and Jenn Susi unlocked the door to my why, my purpose as a storyteller. Each of these remarkable human beings encouraged and inspired me to explore the expansive possibilities that this pause would allow. 

So here I am, 6 months into a global pandemic, our country faced with a reckoning that has presented me with a golden opportunity.  I am re-exploring and reexamining what it means to be an educator, using my brand-new toolbox to reimagine how we push our fellow storytellers and artistry forward. I am standing in my power and in my truth ready to ask the hard questions, ready to bridge the gap between student and teacher, ready to be the representation I once wished I had. There is so much to say.  Maybe the book will come one day, but one thing is for certain: I finally understood what it meant to be an artistic citizen.  I recognized my responsibility in my work and that it wasn’t a matter of either/or, but yes/and.

There’s no reason any artist should have to choose between their gifts.”  – Jillian Carucci

 I may not have years of teaching under my belt.  I, certainly, don’t have all the answers.  I am not even abandoning my life as a performer, but rather using those experiences to cultivate safe, equitable, brave, and thriving learning environments for those who will come after me.  I am diving headfirst into this posture and feeling the fear and doing it anyway.  Here comes the storm.