What makes theater such a powerful way to address social issues?
I believe that theater is primarily an affective art form, meaning it deals with feelings above all else. That’s what theater does really well as an avenue for social justice. It helps develop a feeling of empathy around a social justice issue.
For example, I think a lot of us know that plastic is choking the seas. I know this issue on an intellectual level, and yet I still buy strawberries in a plastic container. Intellectually I understand, but I haven’t made the emotional connection yet. That may sound like a callous thing to say, but it’s true. I am interested in asking how we build an emotional relationship to issues like these that matter, and how we get people to connect to them in real and honest ways.
What inspires you to create and write?
I love making work. I think that there’s something really beautiful about being in a room with people and exploring ideas. My parents are activists and organizers, and I grew up with this real sense of obligation to the wide world. I didn’t grow up Catholic though I did grow up in primarily Catholic countries, but the Vincentian mission resonates a lot with me, asking the question, “What must be done?” I also like to ask, “What can we do?” It’s important to know what must be done, but also who’s going to do it? My social change efforts are informed by the way I grew up, but they’re also informed by the desire to be an artist my whole life.
What are some of your favorite aspects of working at DePaul?
When I was in grad school, one of my professors had us make a list of places we would want to work, and DePaul was on that list even then. I was excited about a university that so clearly said it wanted to use the city as a classroom and connect people to education in ways that are frankly pretty radical. How wonderful that it worked out! Here I am.
I teach a Discover class, and I love it so much. I think it’s extraordinary that we invite students to get to know the city in very deep and specific ways. I teach Discover Chicago Theater, but I’m also jealous of the people who get to take all of the great Discover classes. What a beautiful invitation to learning.
The new Theatre School building has allowed us to showcase the work that is happening here more effectively, and I think the natural effect of that is that you see a strong program become even stronger because it becomes more visible to a broader population.
I love that DePaul recognizes the value of the Arts as a part of its Vincentian mission. I love the whole Arts corridor that the university has committed to with the School of Music, the DePaul Art Museum, and the Theatre School. It sends a really strong message about what matters in a changing society.
What issues are your students addressing in their work?
I see our students very concerned with issues of racial equity and what that means, especially because the Theatre School attracts a little bit of a different population than the broader university. In terms of first-generation college students, it’s less likely that the first person to ever go to college in their family is going to choose an Arts degree. Usually, you see this change generationally. The Theatre School’s student body is a little less diverse than the overall university, but the Theatre school works very hard to maintain a diverse student body.
I see my students tackling what it means to be in the business of representation at a time when we’re talking about race, and how race matters. I see students addressing those kinds of questions in deep and complicated ways.
For example, the students are way ahead of the faculty and staff when thinking about gender. They don’t bat an eyelash when it comes to things like stating pronouns. I think a lot of older people—myself included—are still struggling with these things. No matter how much we may be onboard psychologically, the actual practice is new to us. It’s not new for this generation of students. They invented it. I see them kind of ahead of the curve talking about what gender means.
This is one of the joys of being a teacher and working in a university environment is that we have a real front-line exposure to the ways in which subsequent generations are re-inventing culture, and we get to see it change before other people see it change. I think that’s one of the things universities get critiqued for a lot that somehow we are indoctrinating young minds, but I think in a lot of ways it’s quite the opposite that every new generation pushes against the existing structures.
What are some of your other projects right now?
A lot of my research at the moment is on the arts economy, economic inequity in Chicago, and how that affects the arts. In Chicago in particular, we are the third largest arts economy in the country, which means we generate the third largest amount of money in the arts. But 78% of everyone who makes money in Chicago theater is white, and that doesn’t reflect our demographics at all. Why is that the case? 70% of all foundation dollars go into majority-white institutions. How does money and the flow of funds through the city replicate inequity or foster it?
I spend a lot of time on panels talking to people about following the dollars. There’s been a real push toward community engagement. In order to address racial inequity, funders usually funnel money into more traditional institutions, often majority-white run with a traditionally white audience to diversify audiences. You see well-intentioned community engagement efforts that actually don’t circulate any money to the communities that they are trying to reach. I ask what one dollar can generate in terms of dollars into the local economy.
Take the Goodman Theatre in the Loop as an example. When patrons come to the Goodman, they are spending money to get to the theater, spending money at the bars and restaurants around the theater, and even shopping. The Goodman is generating a lot of money for the businesses around it. When we invite audiences to leave their neighborhoods to come to the Goodman, we’re also inviting audiences to take their money out of their neighborhood and bring it to the Loop.
The work that my theater company does and the research that I do asks what happens when we take the whole theater to a community that’s underserved and then start to circulate resources there. What kinds of businesses could start to build around the theater? There’s really interesting work being done on that in the city.
What are some of the benefits of teaching at a theater school located in Chicago?
Chicago is an amazing theater town. Despite some of the challenges that I have mentioned, it’s also an affordable theater town. We have over 300 theater companies working in the city. Chicago is really unique in how it fosters smaller, startup theater companies. I love welcoming students into that ecology too. The Theatre School is connected to this vast array of theaters, and the network is extraordinary. Isn’t this what DePaul does so well? The university connects students to a vast professional network. I think this is one of the strengths of the university at large, and the Theatre School is no different.
I’ve lived in twenty-seven different cities in eight countries. Of all of the places I have ever lived, I love Chicago the most. It has a lot of problems, but it also has a lot of grit and a do-it-yourself ethos that I appreciate. Chicagoans make me feel like we could do anything!