Editor's Note: This is the first of a new monthly column on TheaterJones, in which Aaron Zilbermann and Tiana Kaye Johnson will chronicle their journey in starting a new theater company, Metamorphosis: a new living theatre, which has a mission of theater for social justice. They will write about administrative and artistic issues as they near the first productions in June and the fall. In this first edition, Zilbermann offers his background and the impetus for starting such an organization.
Dallas — “I’m sorry. I just…I can’t do it anymore. I need something…else. This career is terrible for my mental health and I refuse to underserve my students and my own children due to the overwhelming amount of work that comes with this job. And I refuse to do this job poorly. It’s too important. I refuse to not give my students what they need and what they deserve.”
And that was that. I left; I spoke my piece to my principal and I quit my eight-year-long career as a public-school educator, working in some of the most underserved communities in Oakland, Calif., as well as in Dallas. So much had sparked this somewhat rash decision, and the question, “What am I going to do now?” ran through my mind without cessation. I had just effectively ended a career which I loved, a career I had dedicated myself to for nearly a decade, and all I knew was that I wanted to work in theater.
As a high school teacher, I never stepped away from the theatrical community. I started and taught after-school drama classes, I worked with a group of students to devise a piece entitled Ghetto Stories, which was performed at the Children’s Creativity Museum in San Francisco, and I taught classes on Theatre of the Oppressed and other techniques by Augusto Boal. I used drama in the classroom to teach literacy and analytical dialogue and it worked. I’ve always carried with me the potential and ultimate power of drama.
Ever since I can recall, I have felt a strong connection between the arts, specifically theater, and activism. I felt that to separate the two was to do a disservice to both. Theater has a responsibility to engage in political activism, to make commentary on society, and to mobilize a community to create tangible actions to work toward social justice. Art for art’s sake, or art created simply for the purpose of entertainment has its place, but I tend to fall in line with Brecht, Boal, and so many before me who believe that traditional theater, in some of its various meanings, works to placate the spectator, to pacify the larger community into apathy and complacency.
In my mind, this effect of traditional theater techniques works against the very nature of what theater is. Boal claims that theater is our ability to see ourselves in action, to look inward and to be self-reflective. I don’t see mainstream theater as a manifestation of this definition, but I have seen the impact theater can have on the life of incarcerated youth, homeless youth, and young people facing trauma no person should have to endure. I’ve seen theater spark insightful discussions in the most unexpected places. Art is meant to ask difficult questions and to spark change in society…hopefully for the better. Ultimately, art is an act of resistance against systematic, interpersonal and internalized oppression.
I thought about my philosophy on theater a lot over the next few months and came to the decision that Dallas needs a theater dedicated entirely to social justice. This simply does not exist within our growing city. The task seemed absolutely daunting, but I became determined. I spoke with anyone willing to offer advice. Some I took, some I left politely aside. I developed my ideas into a more tangible concept to pitch to some select people and I learned everything I could about how to start a nonprofit.
I approached an old friend: someone I have known since our first year in college together. Let’s be honest; I’m an artist. I need someone more pragmatic on board immediately. I also knew that if Yoni (Jonathan Sulami) was interested and committed, I could count on him to follow through. I also approached Brent Welch, a friend I have worked previously with who is quite brilliant and has a lot to offer from an educational perspective. He was down immediately. And I approached Selena Aguiano. We ended up taking all of her lunch time to discuss the need for this kind of work in our community. We spoke about art and activism, about Freire and Boal, about the relationship between arts and activism. She immediately came on board.
I also met with the person who would soon become the Director of Education at our organization, Tiana Kaye Johnson. I remember meeting Tiana quite clearly. My wife’s elementary school math teacher, Mark Olateju, was also a teacher to Tiana in middle school. I told him about our organization, and he ran my idea by her. When I asked him about Tiana he said, “If Tiana says she’s going to do something, she does it. You can certainly depend on her.” Something he said to her sparked an interest, and she agreed to meet with me. I pitched my idea, she paused for a moment and said something along the lines of (I won’t quote her because my memory is not precise): Aaron, I think you and I are on the same page. So, I read to her the mission of The Living Theatre, written in verse by Julian Beck:
To call into question
who we are to each other in the social environment of the theatre,
to undo the knots that lead to misery,
to spread ourselves
across the public's table
like platters at a banquet,
to set ourselves in motion
like a vortex that pulls the
spectator into action,
to fire the body's secret engines,
to pass through the prism
and come out a rainbow,
to insist that what happens in the jails matters,
to cry "Not in my name!"
at the hour of execution,
to move from the theater to the street and from the street to the theater.
This is what The Living Theatre does today.
It is what it has always done.
I explained how this mission is written in such an eloquent way to me. It’s needed. It’s true. And she agreed. We talked for quite a while about our ideas, about theater and social justice, about life. This would be the first of many extremely significant conversations between us that have helped to shape our philosophy and our theater. I told Tiana to take some time, process things, think things over, and to let me know if this is something she might be interested in. She said that she would, but that she already knows this is something she is definitely interested in. And she joined us. A brilliant growth.
As an 18-year-old freshman at the University of Texas at Austin, a time when I was just beginning to understand my own theories of the arts and activism, I found that the theater department only offered one course that connected these two tightly intertwined concepts: Theatre and Society. It opened my eyes to an entirely new concept of theater, right down to its very purpose. It was in this class that I first learned about The Living Theatre. This anarchist theater was established to revolutionize the structure of power in our society: hierarchical to collaborative and communal.
Over the years, the concept of The Living Theatre stayed with me, and when it came time to name our organization, this innovative and radical theater obviously came up. I reread something I hadn’t read in years. Judith Molina, a co-founder of The Living Theatre, writes that, “we called it The Living Theatre because we wanted it to change with time.” Immediately “a new living theatre” jumped into my mind and I marinated on the idea for quite some time. Our theater would embody Molina’s intent and we would create a new theater that is collectively our own, yet honors many of the purposes of The Living Theatre. But A New Living Theater didn’t sit quite right and we needed a name. Names and titles; I have a hard time with them. I always go to my wife, who simply oozes with creativity. I asked her opinion and she says, “You’re trying to change shit. Metamorphosis. That’s perfect.” And it was. Metamorphosis: a new living theatre. Everyone loved it! And so it became.
We tackled the first step of starting a successful nonprofit: a solid and dedicated group of individuals to act as a board of directors. Our first task as a board was much more difficult than I had envisioned. We spent countless meetings framing our mission to please the IRS in determining our tax-exempt status and to please ourselves to deeply believe in the statement. This is what we came up with:
The Mission of Metamorphosis: a new living theatre is to use theater as a tool to battle systemic oppression and effectuate social change by producing and developing innovative and thought-provoking plays for our diverse community and by offering accessible arts education to local youth.
It’s not perfect. It might not be what I would write without a filter, but it’s a mission that I’m seriously down with, that I can put my full effort behind without a dime to start with.
When Mark Lowry asked me to write about the process of starting a new theater company for TheaterJones, it turned into this monthly column. Over the coming months Tiana and I will chronicle our development as a theater company as we seek funding and work on our upcoming projects: a production of Leroi Jones’s (a.k.a. Amiri Baraka) Dutchman at Teatro Dallas in June; and an original performance in the fall in South Dallas. We named the column “Living Theatre” because, aside from taking a cue from the organization that is our inspiration, we also think of “living” as an active word. We hope to be living theatre.
» Aaron Zilbermann, executive artistic director of Metamorphosis: a new living theatre, has worked with Big Thought and other local teaching institutions. Tiana Kaye Johnson, the theater's director of education, is a Dallas native and Southern Methodist University graduate, and a member of the Dallas Theater Center’s Diane and Hal Brierley Resident Acting Company. She will next appear in Cara Mía Theatre Company’s production of Quiara Alegria Hudes’ Yemaya’s Belly, followed by DTC’s Electra.
» Living Theatre will run on the second Friday of the month on TheaterJones.com