Thursday, January 9, 2003

Diversity university - Idea: Alliance for Cultural Theater

Published in the Portland Phoenix

Maine’s thriving theater community lacks one element: ethnic diversity. In addition to Native Americans, Maine has a growing community of non-whites, including Somalis, Sudanese, Cambodians and other Africans and Asians, as well as a fair few Hispanics.

The problem: There is no forum to learn more. I go to Center for Cultural Exchange events and feel like a spectator: Amazingly talented artists and community members show up, do their thing and then — we all go home. Unless you’re a student in the city’s schools, there is no opportunity to really understand the context in which our immigrant neighbors view performance, and the role it plays in their lives.

And while performing arts are different things to different cultures, I still think there is a way to provide context and storytelling around the traditional performing arts of a culture.

An ongoing, working theater company could explore the experience of being a member of a minority group in Maine and in the US, and handle challenging topics of life, work, and politics, much in the way Mbongeni Ngema’s South African story Sarafina! did (and does).

Name: Alliance for Cultural Theater. (Not only concise, it makes a good acronym.)

Funding: ACT would have to be a registered nonprofit organization to take maximum advantage of funding options. A quick Internet search using the terms “Maine theater arts funding” turns up a large number of potential funding sources.

Taking only donors targeting both arts and ethnic diversity, and with recent donations to ethnic and theater projects in Maine, results in a short list of likely candidates: Maine Arts Commission, Libra Foundation, Stephen and Tabitha King Foundation, LL Bean’s charitable foundation (limited to projects in Portland, Freeport, Brunswick, and Lewiston), and FleetBoston Financial Foundation. Other possible donors could be the Maine Community Foundation and the Morton-Kelly Charitable Trust.

Location: There are two professional-grade stages ripe for this exact type of project: the St. Lawrence Arts and Community Center on Munjoy Hill and the Portland Performing Arts Center on Forest Avenue, owned and managed by the Portland Stage Company.

“It would be totally possible, not even in a hypothetical sense,” says Deirdre Nice of the St. Lawrence. “It would be nice if something like that did happen. Certainly the St. Lawrence would be very welcoming to this sort of group.”

PSC Artistic Director Anita Stewart is welcoming, but concerned about the authenticity of the project. “I’d be very leery of getting involved . . . if I felt we were colonizing,” Stewart says. She suggests assembling a group of artists of different ethnicities and cultural backgrounds, and seeing what sprung from that gathering.

Building connections between people and between communities, she said, would be very valuable. “There are not relationships” right now, Stewart says. Maine’s professional theater community has a lot to learn as well. “I should know who the Somali artists in our community are, and I don’t,” she says.

Leadership: Finding a project organizer was the big challenge identified by most people interviewed about the idea of ACT. Several names came up as possible leads, but none of the people could be contacted by deadline time. Portland High School’s theater program was mentioned specifically as a possible location to begin looking for potential leaders.

“I think whoever it is wouldn’t necessarily need to have a lot of experience in diversity issues to begin with, because there are a lot of resources they could tap into,” says Stacy Begin, managing director of the Children’s Theatre of Maine, which has launched a well-received Diversity Series exploring issues of race and ethnicity in Maine.

Value: This part was the easiest to come by. Not only is multiculturalism something of a buzzword these days, but everyone I spoke to shared some measure of desire to learn more about the immigrant experience in Maine.

Attendance: Most attendees at the CTM Diversity Series are white, Begin says, but others are, she said, “coming to see if we got it right.” The series also puts on matinees for local schools. Students from Reiche came and watched The Diary of Anne Frank not long ago, with results that surprised and pleased Begin: “The kids who are immigrants could really, really relate.” It is that sort of cross-cultural dynamic that ACT could build on.

Overall possibility: “It can be done. You just have to be — as we found out — willing to go the extra mile,” Begin says. Promotional materials and casting-call notices must be translated into different languages and posted in gathering spots for different ethnic communities.

Credibility is also an issue. “It’s going to take a while, because you’re going to have to win the trust of the immigrant community,” Begin says. The Center for Cultural Exchange has a lot of connections and resources that could be very useful in that effort, she says.

If such a theater company did grow from within the immigrant communities in Maine, Begin says, she would be especially fascinated to see what they made of their group. “What an education for all of us.”