How can the tools of theater artists be applied outside the rehearsal room? That was the question driving Cal Shakes’ 2015-16 Artist-Investigator Program. We invited five artists to pair with three nonprofits and collaboratively design participatory art-making projects to advance each group’s mission.
Filipino-American poet, playwright, and performer Aimee Suzara teamed up with AYPAL, a youth development organization whose mission is to empower Oakland’s low-income Asian & Pacific Islander immigrant and refugee families to be leaders for neighborhood change. In preparation for AYPAL’s 18th Annual May Arts Festival, a day of cultural resistance against gentrification, racism, and young people’s oppression, Suzara worked with youth to build and perform guerilla theater addressing the issues most important to them.
Preparing for the May Arts Festival
On a typical afternoon at AYPAL, youth leaders opened the day with a group check-in, including names, gender pronouns, group agreement affirmations, and workshops addressing social justice. Suzara would then offer a warm-up using breathing, vocal exercises, and gestures led by her and other youth.
Next, the youth split into breakout groups preparing different styles of performance for the festival, and the theater group moved into a separate space to focus on the theme of the day: body awareness, character, or another performance fundamental. Suzara led this group in additional theater and movement-derived warm-ups, scaffolded to build collaboration, sensitivity, and acting skills between partners and within the ensemble. Following this, she engaged the youth in writing exercises, focusing on character, observation, or another skill, and then a more formal drama lesson, like what constitutes a scene or the possibilities of guerilla theater. The day would close with writing assignments given to the youth, who were divided into lead and supporting writers, a recap of the day, and a formal closing.
“Unity and Community” through Southeast Asian Youth Performance
This Artist-Investigator Project culminated with the youth’s performance of their original guerilla theater pieces at the May Arts Festival, themed “Reclaiming Our Roots” and held for the first time that year in a public space at San Antonio Park in East Oakland. The pieces explored LGBT identity, labor, being the children and grandchildren of refugees, and other issues impacting Southeast Asian (largely Laotian, Vietnamese, Cambodian, and Hmong) families. They also offered visions for change, transformation, and youth leadership.
Video by United Roots.
As one of the AYPAL youth theatermakers remarked about the project:
“While writing it, the script, it was like a lot of healing . . . and then just sharing it out with everyone, it’s just like–like you feel that unity and community, and it’s just, it’s really great.”
Curious about Cal Shakes’ previous Artist-Investigator projects? Find a recap of the 2014-2015 collaborations here.