Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Theatre for social change - an interview with Ashley Marinaccio

Contributed by our Guest Blogger of the week, Mariah MacCarthy

Hola, comrades! Mariah here—this week in my blogs I’m going to be mainly focusing on the idea of theatre as an instrument for social change. And I can’t think of a better way to kick things off than to introduce you to one of the top practitioners of activist theatre I know, Ashley Marinaccio. I’ve blogged about Ashley before, she’s blogged about me, and now I get the privilege of interviewing her for all you lovely people!

The day before our interview, I saw Ashley at the opening of her Fringe show and I wish I had snapped a picture: with hot pink skinny jeans, a tank top reading “Project Girl” in hot pink lettering, and enormous/fabulous turquoise heels, you could see from a distance she was a force to be reckoned with. However, I think you’ll be able to pick that up from her answers. Without further ado: Ashley Marinaccio!

I’m going to ask you a question that you ask people on your People Who Want Change blog: who are you?

25 years old. Artist and activist. Observer. Perpetual student of life. Ever evolving, never still.

So, you’re in the middle of Fringe right now. Are you going completely out of your mind?

Not at all. The Project Girl Performance Collective has a phenomenal team assembled, and all the most difficult and time consuming tasks are delegated. The power of delegation is mighty! (It took me awhile but I just learned this… ha-ha) We also have a new executive director on board who has taken PGPC to another level in only weeks. The collective has grown immensely in such a short time and we’re ever evolving, it’s fantastic and truly inspiring!

Fabulous—tell me more about the show, the girls, and your collaborators.

GirlPower: Survival of the Fittest is created by the members of the Project Girl Performance Collective, a group of young women between the ages of 13-21 who devise and perform original work based on their own life experiences and the current political, social and cultural issues that are most important to them. It is under the direction of myself, writer, activist and academic Elizabeth Koke and Jessica Greer Morris who is a playwright, performer and activist (and these women are fierce… let me tell you). We also have the unbelievably talented and organized Katherine Sommer stage managing/assistant directing and Alexa Winston, a former performer with last year’s PGPC Fringe company assistant directing.

PGPC was founded in 2008 after our experience directing GirlPower in the Manhattan Theatre Source’s Estrogenius Festival . We saw the need to continue the work with the young women that was being done in the festival annually, throughout the year.

The girls have been working together on the Fringe show for the past 3 months. We hold weekly meetings where we do writing prompts and acting exercises, read articles and have guest speakers meet with the collective to create dialogue on the issues they feel are most pressing both personally and to their generation as a whole. Our objective is to create a safe space for the young women to express their voices openly, honestly and without fear of judgment or ridicule. We also encourage the girls to come up with solutions to the injustices they face and apply them to their lives and actions.

And what are some of those issues?

The beauty of this project is that each new cast brings a variety of new topics to explore. There are common threads that have been part of every GirlPower performance such as body image, societal pressure to fit a certain mold, family, peer pressure, relationships and sexuality.

This year’s group was particularly interested in exploring the role of women in theatre and questioning the lack of opportunities for women playwrights/directors in addition to looking at racism, gentrification and learning disabilities through the theatrical lens.

You are one of the most definitive examples I know of a theatre artist/activist. Were you always both? Was there a moment or a person or an experience that made you realize that you should combine the two, or that made you realize you were both?

My activism and art existed in completely separate planes for a long time (they were born separately). Truthfully, it was a professor I had in undergrad that made me see that they could be one. She was an anthropology professor who ironically gave me my first off-off Broadway directing gig at the Clemente Soto Velez Cultural Center (the site of our Fringe show last year) while I was still in school. She forced me to see the world of theatre that exists outside my microcosm and the potential it has for sustainable societal change. I am certain that I would not be doing any of this work if it wasn’t for her.

In your perfect world, what would The Theater look like? If you could change any and everything about the theater, what would you change?

This is a hard question as my idea of perfection is relative only to my own experiences, as is everyone else’s. In the perfect world, or at least in mine, all of the theatre that exists today (commercial, independent, community, guerrilla, etc.) exists but without the labels I just gave it and it’s accessible to all regardless of age, gender, finances and geographic location. The arts are globally respected and seen as vital to the continuation of the human race so there is never a lack of opportunity for playwrights, directors, performers or any artists. Small theatre collectives are generously funded, and making a living through membership in one of these companies is not only common but also well respected.

I don’t think any of these dreams are impossible or unattainable at all. It’s just going to take an organized movement and everybody’s participation to make it happen. Director Lev Dodin told the members of the Lincoln Center Directors Lab last year, “What we do is not just a job or profession – it’s a calling. The highest calling. Treat it as such.” As artists, we need to embody and remember this. We get so caught up in just trying to survive that we forget why it is we do what we do. We must always strive to stay connected to our community of fellow theatre artists through supporting each other’s work and offering/accepting valuable feedback and criticism. We also must know our history and be willing to learn from the past.

Now speaking more broadly, what kind of change do you want to see in the World At Large?

Justice and Peace. To accomplish this everyone must work together. It sounds Utopian but it’s possible. Artists give people hope and a vision of what is possible. We as a community of socially engaged artists need to both continue and amp up this work so that people see change is not only attainable but something everyone can take part in despite the social constructs that exist to limit the potential of many people.

What suggestions would you offer other theatre artists who are interested in collaborating with nonprofits on socially relevant theatre, or just doing activist theatre in general?

Do it! The best advice we got from our professors at Tisch when asked how to get COTE off the ground was to go out and make it happen. Also, don’t be afraid to reach out to both artists you admire and organizations you want to work with and introduce yourself. You’d be surprised how many people are not only willing, but genuinely excited to talk about their own experiences and mentor like minded artists. The theatre community is unbelievably generous. You must be willing to put yourself out there and ask for help.

You’re clearly a very nice person. But, it seems clear to me from your work that you have a lot of anger toward the injustices of the world. How do you balance your warm fuzziness and your anger? What keeps you going?

Faith, hope, the belief that everyone is connected and we’re all part of something so much bigger than this and a strong sense of community and support is what keeps me going. Right before opening GirlPower I was telling the girls that there is going to be a lot of industry and press coming to see the show. You know, giving them a rundown of what to expect, who may talk to them after and getting them hyped. And you know what? The majority of them didn’t care about that sort of thing. It was such a beautiful moment because there they were, all 14 of them sitting in a clump eating lunch, braiding hair and enjoying each other’s company. They were so empowered. They knew what they had created was special and that it would touch people and they didn’t need anyone’s official opinion to say so. Don’t get me wrong, they were thrilled when they saw their first glowing review and love having the support of industry and the press, but their confidence as artists, in their work and in themselves has taken precedence over everything else. It’s moments like that where I’m like, “Yes! We’re headed in the right direction!” and I know we can empower more people this way. We can continue the cycle, you know.

What makes Co-Op Theatre East different from other Off-Off Broadway theatre companies out there?

All theatre is socially relevant and there are a lot of theatre companies with similar missions popping up all over the place which is fantastic. There needs to be even more of this! I think that what we’re trying to do with COTE, which sets us apart from other companies is that our mission is to use theatre as a tool for social activism and we’re actively seeking out new and innovative ways to bring both theatre to the people and the people to the theater.

We have an exciting season planned for 2010-2011 that includes a series of new radio plays (staged live and podcasted), a new adaptation of Euripides’ The Trojan Women by COTE’s literary director Casey Cleverly which is addressing the issue of sex trafficking and the global slave trade, and in the spring we’re starting a series called the COTE Home and Garden tour where we’ll be performing in people’s homes and apartments, bringing the dialogue home. We have a phenomenal ensemble of actors and artists who will be working with us this year. I strongly encourage everyone to become a fan of COTE on facebook and twitter and visit our website www.cooptheatreeast.org to keep up with the latest news.

What’s one of your dream projects?

This is going to sound crazy and perhaps unexpected, being that most of my work thus far has been new plays, but my dream project is to direct a re-imagining of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Jesus Christ Superstar, a grandiose budget musical, complete with singing, dancing, puppetry, costumes… the whole nine yards. I actually think about it all the time and how I want to approach it (which changes daily, usually when I’m out jogging or driving in the car). I am obsessed with religion, patriotism, fundamentalism and how these things coincide in American politics. I want to explore the question of WWJD: What Would Jesus Do if he was here on earth, right now in 2010? Who would be his disciples? Where would he “hang out”? What messages would he preach and to who? How would he feel about the people who are using his name for personal and/or political gain? I have strong opinions on this topic. I was raised in the church and have had a very rocky relationship with organized religion (not spirituality… religiosity) over the years. I have a lot of questions, specifically dealing with Christianity, that I think many people share and I would like to address them through a theatrical lens. I would really encourage the political churches in addition to outspoken members of the religious right to weigh in on a production like this. I think it would be fascinating on many levels.

What’s next for you?

Acting. My soul is aching to be on stage again and that’s going to be my focus for the next few months. I’ve been auditioning and at the moment finishing up a one-woman show I’ve been writing sporadically for the past few years called What to do In case you miss the Rapture… based on interviews I’ve been conducting with people who believe the end of the world is upon us.

I’m in the beginning stages of a collaborative piece between PGPC and COTE which will debut in September 2011 that I’m tentatively calling 10 Years Later: Voices from the Post 9/11 Generation. It’s going to be a collection of written words - songs, poetry, scenes and monologues by young people, ages 10 to 21 specifically, focusing on the aftermath of 9/11 and the “post 9/11 generation”. Many of these kids were babies on September 11th, 2001. We need to hear their stories and see what we’ve created, how terrorism, war, media, religious fundamentalism has had an impact on these kids. Throughout most of their lives, the US has been engaged in war. What kind of impact does this have on their psyche? How do they view the future? Where do they see their place in the world? We’re going to explore this.

Finally, I want to work on devising an episodic theatre piece with a group of playwrights and actors that deals with the prison system, particularly incarcerated women. I would like to work in collaboration with a women’s correctional institution, perhaps doing workshops and having the artists involved become personally involved. I have always been interested in prison reform and the justice system. I’m going to be fleshing this idea out a bit more within the next few months but it’s definitely something close to my heart.

Continuing work with and developing Co-Op Theatre East and Project Girl Performance Collective is my priority. We’re always looking for collaborators and likeminded artists so please reach out, by contacting either cooptheatreeast@gmail.com (COTE) or projectgirlperformancecollective@gmail.com (PGPC).


  1. Hi, there,

    I'm really intrigued by the "What Would Jesus Do?" question. I have been immersed in the works of Emmanuel Levinas (a Jewish philosopher) and Jean-Luc Marion (a Christian philosopher who builds on the work of Levinas), using them to guide the questions "how can the theatre create a space where we may witness the Other, and live in fidelity to that event? Can this move us toward (social) justice? What are the necessary ruptures or moments of violence that can create the need for a new awareness or [God help me] subjectivity?"

    If you all get the chance, read Theatre and Ethics by Nicholas Ridout, who looks at epistemes in theatre, and how they revolve around the question "How Shall I Act?", and how that questions changes meaning as the surrounding social conditions change(religious, political, etc.)

    [....and from there, check out Postdramatic Theatre by Hans Thies-Lehmann; Ridout spends some time with this work toward the end of the book].

    Anyway, thank you for this interview.

    All the best,
    John Patrick Bray
    ABD, Theatre Studies, Louisiana State University
    MFA, Playwriting, The New School (Actors Studio Drama School)

  2. Thanks JpB for reading! Would love to bandy those questions about a bit more...