Con Edison Immigrant Artist Program Newsletter, Issue No. 48

Con Edison Immigrant Artist Program Newsletter, Issue No. 48

Featured Organization: Hybrid Theatre Works

This month’s featured organization, Hybrid Theatre Works, is an international collective of artists that focuses on breaking artistic and cultural boundaries through the creation of work that is a hybrid of disciplines, cultures, and fields of study. Hybrid Theatre Works creates interdisciplinary devised work, develops new international plays, and community based projects. IAP and NYFA Program Associate Michon Ashmore interviewed co-founder of Hybrid Theatre Works  — and NYFA Space Rental Coordinator — Tracy Cameron Francis. 

Tell us about your background as an artist and how you, with your co-founder, were motivated to start your organization, Hybrid Theatre Works.

I have a degree in both international relations and theatre, as does my co-founder. After college I chose to pursue theatre directing as a career as opposed to going into government because I strongly believe that the arts, and particularly live performance, are one of the best forums for building cultural understanding, investigating conflicts, and engaging with each other and the issues of our world. Additionally, both I and my co-founder were raised by immigrant parents so we felt ourselves split between two cultures and two worlds. That was where the name of our company initially came from – this hybrid sense of identity and culture – though it has also come to represent our artistic aesthetic of mixing disciplines in our work. We wanted to create a place where artists who grew up in different cultures, or those who had newly arrived to the U.S., could find an artistic family that would embrace and celebrate these differences.

Was there a key moment or event that triggered your passion to use your organization to not only support international artists, but also to see the organization as a way to be a peace-building entity? Are any of the plays you produce centered on this theme?

From the beginning our mission in starting the company was to utilize the arts for cultural diplomacy and peace-building. All of our work, whether script based or devised, either investigates social or political issues or helps to build bridges between cultures by having people from different countries and backgrounds collaborate together to create the work. The first project we did was as resident teaching artists at The International Center in New York, where twice a week for several months we met with a group of recent immigrants of diverse countries and ages with varying English-speaking skills. This project showed us the power of theatre to connect people from around the world despite linguistic and cultural differences. The project culminated in an original show created with the participants based on their own experiences and stories focused on the theme of “home.”One of our ongoing programs is the Artist Response Forum, where we ask artists from different cultural backgrounds to create a short performative response to a recent world event or relevant social issue. The aim is to shorten the response time between world events and artistic response and to present diverse perspectives on the issue through the performances. Some past performances examined the Gulf oil spill on a Brooklyn rooftop, green card marriage at the W hotel, and hunger, which was a walking tour through the East Village that doubled as a food drive.We believe that one of best forms of cultural diplomacy is through a person-to-person connection and artistic collaboration. While we are always happy when we can facilitate this type of connection in person, it isn’t always logistically possible so we often turn to technology. One of my favorite events that we have done was called “Global Spotlight: East Africa,” where we paired East African playwrights with U.S.-based directors to develop new plays over Skype. These were then presented at LaMama’s Culture Hub simultaneously to the live audience in New York and to the video conferenced audiences in Kenya and Uganda. My favorite moment of this event was a call and response that occurred between the U.S. and Ugandan audience showing the power of theatre to connect cultures, even between continents.

What types of international collaboration have you done and what challenges have you encountered along the way?

As I mentioned before, when travel isn’t possible we often turn to technology to enable international collaboration. We use several platforms – Skype in order to develop projects and relationships and live-streaming to extend the geographical reach of our audience. We have done this in simple ways with a camera and a laptop and also with the much more sophisticated equipment at LaMama using multiple cameras and higher level programs. One of the trickiest parts about this type of multi-country collaboration is actually the time difference. When we developed the East African plays, my playwright and I would take turns waking up at odd hours of the night to rehearse with one another over Skype, and for our final event we had to do a “brunch” for the New York audience in order to have it in the evening for the African audience.One thing that could be seen as a challenge in international artistic collaboration is the varying artistic aesthetics and traditions of different cultures. However this is one of my favorite parts about collaborating with international artists – learning new approaches to the work and discovering something new and representative of our understanding of and connection to each other through our collaboration.

You have produced an impressive number of events since your founding in 2009. Can you describe how you have been able to manage this? Any advice for artists thinking about starting a production company? Any new initiatives or upcoming projects you are excited about?

We were able to do so many events in such a short amount of time because we are passionate and felt the work needed to get done. Rather than wait for permission or funding we just took action and found ways to create work. (Even if that meant sometimes leading audiences of 50 people through the streets to watch unpermitted performances). My advice to people just starting an organization would be to regularly take big actions and make sure that these actions are grounded in your values as a person and as an artist. One thing I wish we were better at was the administrative and fundraising side of the organization. Having an organization run by artists, all we really want to do is create the art, and we sometimes forget that focusing on the administrative support of these projects is integral to the work.I am very excited about a show we have opening up next week that will run from August 21 – 25 at HERE Art Center in New York. It is a new play from Egypt that was one of the first responses to the 2011 revolution. Most people in the U.S. are either disengaged or uninformed about the events happening in Egypt right now and I am hoping that through the experience of seeing this play they will be able to connect on a more personal level to a country and issues that may feel far removed from their daily lives. The play’s story of overcoming oppression and uncertain hope are also extremely universal and I believe will resonate beyond the Egyptian experience.

You’re a core member of Theatre Without Borders (TWB). Tell us more about this organization and how it could be a resource for our immigrant artists.

Theatre Without Borders is an all-volunteer organization that helps to connect artists globally. I have been part of the core group of organizers for several years now. My first project with them was helping to organize a conference on Theatre In Conflict Zones, which brought inspiring artists together from around the world to share best practices and experiences in utilizing theatre for peace-building efforts in conflict zones. TWB is very much a personal grass roots organization and I would say one of the best ways it can be utilized by immigrant artists is through using the network to find personal connections in their new homes. For those artists living in places where they are in danger for doing their art, we have a button on the site, in partnership with Free Dimensional, that can help get artists in peril to safe locations. Some other great theatre based organizations that support immigrant artists areImmigrant Theatre Project, which presents plays by and about immigrant artists, as well as No Passport, which is devoted to cross-cultural, Pan-American performance, theory, action, advocacy, and publication.

How can our artists get involved with your organization? Is there a way for artists to submit proposals?

The best way for an artist to get involved is to send us an email introducing themselves, and then we will do our best to meet for coffee and say hello. We also welcome proposals for collaborations from artists, however as a small company we are usually more interested in collaborating on new projects than presenting ready-made work. The best way to get involved is to come to one of our events and say hello!

Image: Top, Artists Respond to the Gulf Oil Spill. Short devised performances on a Brooklyn rooftop created in response to the Gulf Oil Spill. Credit: Yunlu Shen
Amy Aronoff
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