WAM Theatre brings UMass alums and students into its activism
By Natasha Hawkins | Monday, January 3, 2022
By Natasha Hawkins
Monday, January 3, 2022
Where Arts and Activism Meet: This is the abbreviation and mission of WAM Theatre in Lenox, MA.
WAM Theatre aims to create more inclusive and ethical theatre. For the last couple of seasons this has included putting BIPOC artists at the forefront of their theater-making.
Among of the company’s outreach programs are paid internships, devising workshops, and other opportunities for students of color. Several UMass students, including WAM’s current company dramaturg, Tatiana Godfrey ‘21G, entered WAM through these programs.
It is difficult to create ethical theater in a regional theater system that includes practices we consider unethical today. But in an industry that often does not pay its artists or interns, WAM’s efforts are a hopeful step in the right direction.
“We’re trying, but you shouldn’t applaud us just yet.” said Talya Kingston ' 09G, who graduated with an MFA in Dramaturgy from UMass Theater and now serves as Associate Artistic Director of WAM Theatre.
A need to do better
Using the money raised from shows to not only pay actors, but to give to grassroots organizations, has always been central to WAM's mission. (Since 2010 over $80,000 has gone to 22 global and local organizations taking action for women and girls.)
However, WAM has not always been as inclusive in their theatre practice as they are working to be now, explained Kingston, and has shifted in response to both local and industry-wide events. In 2018 the company produced Dominique Morisseau's play Pipeline in collaboration with a local anti-racism social justice organization called MultiCultural BRIDGE. This year-long collaboration changed WAM's perspective from unintentionally white-centric feminism to an understanding of how important active anti-racism was in making its feminism intersectional and welcoming to all. Then, in 2020, in the wake of the We See You White American Theatre petitions, theaters were asked to take a hard look at what they considered ‘inclusive’.
A mere land acknowledgment to the Indigenous community at the opening of a performance, for example, was nice but insufficient.
“We’re thinking a lot more about what kind of plays are we putting on and whose voices are we centering specifically,” Kingston said. “Who are we giving work to? How are we championing the organizations we are supporting with money? How else can we help them? How can we continue that relationship beyond just giving them a check?”
During WAM’s run of Kamloopa, a comedy by Kim Senklip Harvey following the transformation of three Indigenous women, the theater partnered with the Family Services Center of the Stockbridge-Munsee Community.
Kingston notes the importance of partnering with those who are already experts in anti-racism work.
“Everyone is grateful for money, but it’s more meaningful if people can be actively involved and connected,” Kingston said. “If we allow these practices to crack open our organization, it can enrich us in ways we can’t even measure right now.”
But WAM’s anti-racism work has often been difficult.
“All these journeys are painful, and we stumble, and we’ve done things wrong that we’ve had to apologize and make amends for,” Kingston said.
Godfrey cited her involvement with Kamloopa, creating Indigenous theatre as the company dramaturg, as a place where her work became complicated.
Godfrey felt strongly that WAM was aiming to decolonize and applauded that work, noting that the entire design team for Kamloopa consisted of women or nonbinary BIPOC artists and had several Indigenous artists on the production team. Kingston added that WAM also consulted Maynard McRae Jr, from the n'sylixcen community in which the play is set, and Heather Breugl from the Mohican Nation on whose ancestral lands it was performed. During the run of Kamloopa, WAM also offered a Zoom presentation by Amanda Nita Luke (Choctaw Nation) on "Presenting Indigenous Theater in non-Indigenous spaces".
However, Godfrey explained that she is of Black and Puerto Rican descent. The director of Kamloopa also was not indigenous.
The perspective of an Indigenous dramaturg would have been valuable for the production, Kingston explained. But there would not have been a dramaturg at all otherwise if Godfrey hadn’t taken on the role.
“It was an awkward position to be placed in,” Godfrey said. “There were moments I felt that we were inadvertently causing harm. I caused harm. I did all the due diligence and I still caused harm not being a part of the community,” she noted.
Kingston believes that these uncomfortable situations are part of the larger change. Those doing the work need to fix their mistakes but should not be sainted for doing the necessary work.
“The work we are doing and the plays we are putting on," she said. "It’s very uncomfortable, but it’s uncomfortable in ways that activism should be… and hopefully more meaningful.”