Contributed by Guest Blogger of the Week, Kelley Nicole Girod.
Three years ago when I started The Fire This Time festival at Horse Trade Theater I did not consider myself a producer. The truth is that I also didn't consider myself a playwright even though I had just graduated from Columbia's MFA playwriting program. When people asked me what I did for a living my response was something lengthy and slightly apologetic, "Well, I nanny right now to pay the bills and I do some writing. I just graduated from Columbia's MFA playwriting program so, you know...." Yes, answering that question had become more cringe-worthy than answering the question of my ethnic background. That one, I have gotten down pat- "Cajun/Creole French, mix of French, Italian, Native American and Nigerian." No further questions needed. But it took me a while to get that explanation down, to articulate my ethnic background without a question mark on my face or a tinge of apology for not being able to say it in a way that didn't confuse people further. For years I just accepted what I was told I was without questioning. I still remember my confusion when my father told me that his father was white. "Wait a second," I thought, "for sixteen years I thought my grandfather was black. Ok, so what does that make me now?"
I never thought that my journey as a playwright and now producer would mirror my journey of actually knowing and understanding my ethnic background. I know what you're thinking "Uh duh, isn't that what artists do?" Yes, but it didn't turn out to be that simple. Just as racial identification on a birth certificate doesn't automatically make you who you are, neither does an MFA automatically make you an artist (no matter how much money you paid, ouch!) This was the hard truth I had to face and why at the end of the day when people asked me what I did for living I was just as confused about saying I was a playwright as they were about what it is that a playwright actually does (Oh, so you write films? Yeah, I have some great ideas for a novel but I haven't started writing it yet.)
So when did everything change? I can honestly say it was right after graduation when I started to intern with Horse Trade Theater. I was not familiar with the world of indie theater, but I knew right away that I loved the genuine community and support of the people around me. Everyday in the little office on E. 4th St was exactly what I imagined theatre to be - young, hip theatre companies squeezing around each other prepping for meetings or rehearsals. Interns huddling around the heater while they read script submissions. People climbing up and down ladders from the tech booth to the office. Jokes and stories being shared over cups of coffee. Loud music from a rehearsal in the Kraine drifting into the desk space where I counted the box office cash and entered in the numbers from the previous night's shows into spreadsheets. It was glorious! And probably the only time I'll ever love walking into a space at nine in the morning to drunken conversations still being had in the KGB that have being going since the night before.
But the best part of being a part of this theatre scene was the freedom to do the work you wanted to do without explanation or apology. In my mind, this is what made Horse Trade such a wonderful and supportive place. They support young theatre companies that put up incredibly unique and original work. They actually want to see new things on stage and I remember Erez Ziv, managing director, say "How would we have the standards that we have now if no one had given those artists a chance?"
It was this freedom that I needed to explore myself as a theatre artist, just as I had needed the freedom from my childhood home to explore my own identity. And it wasn't long after beginning my internship with Horse Trade that I began to ask myself questions about black theatre, my role in it, what it meant and where my stories fit in. Up until that moment I had accepted that there were things expected of me as an artist of color. But just like my ethnic background, it got harder for me to simply accept it without questioning. I figured that if I had questions about my place as an artist of color there must be others who have them as well. I brought this up to Horse Trade's artistic director, Heidi Grumelot, and she and Erez were more than happy to give me a space for a week to put up a group of plays by artists of color in which to explore this. And that was the birth of The Fire This Time festival which has just completed it's third and most successful year.
So now when people ask me what I do for a living I say "I'm a playwright and producer." Period. No further questions except the occasional requests from a family member to have me right them a cameo in my next play. Asking questions is a great thing. Finding the answers is even better. But having the space and security to do it is priceless and this is why I love indie theatre.