This is not ‘a year off’: Kinship, Communion, & Creating Space
For the 26th National Conference in Washington DC, TCG is highlighting the current recipients of the Fox Foundation Resident Actor Fellowships and the Leadership U[niversity] One-on-One Program, the Rising Leaders of Color, and the four finalists for the Alan Schneider Director Award. These programs are unique to the field, and provide critical support and mentorship for the future leaders of our art form. In honor of our longstanding commitment to professional development across the field, we are excited to continue to host the Spotlight On Series throughout the spring leading up to the conference.
TCG: When was the moment that you decided to take on a leadership role in the field?
Ryan Conarro: I don’t feel as though I decided any such thing. But I can think of key moments when someone listened to me, or trusted me with space and time to make something and to give voice to something. I think these moments have taught me what my capacities are, how I might best participate and contribute, and what sustains me as an artist and a human being.
I’ve also learned that, for me, life and work don’t seem to follow pre-ordained plans. It’s more like an unruly trail blazed by commitment and risk-taking, and marked by a number of surprises and a good measure of serendipity.
I grew up as an Army brat. When I finished my bachelor’s degree in drama and English at NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts, I moved to Nome, Alaska as an AmeriCorps volunteer where I was Public Affairs Director at KNOM Radio. I remember my interview for that position with then News Director Paul Korchin. I mentioned several times that I looked forward to this opportunity to “take a year off.” Paul interjected, “Ryan, you might find that this is not ‘a year off’ at all. This might just be your life’s path.”
As writer and producer of feature news stories at KNOM, I got to engage meaningfully with the community where I lived. I discovered the power of (and my penchant for) deep listening as a creative and healing act. And I committed myself to making interdisciplinary work which I cared about and which, I think, mattered.
I later moved to Juneau for a project at Perseverance Theatre, and over the next eleven years in Alaska, I learned and grew as an independent director, performer, teaching artist, and facilitator in rural communities. I created my own devised performance works. I also continued work in radio journalism, which fed my abiding interest in working with documentary processes and materials in performance.
I believe part of the reason I love making interview-based theatre is that it gives me permission to take the role of the neophyte—which literally means the “newly planted.” Showing up in a new context, a new place, a new community, my first task is to listen and to learn.
So it’s turned out that Paul Korchin was right. This is not “a year off.” Every seeming detour might lead to the next new pathway. KNOM entrusted me with a leadership role, and several other mentors and supporters have done the same, including those at Perseverance; at Alaska’s Department of Education and state arts council; at the galleries and spaces both in and out of Alaska that have presented my performance work; and now, at Ping Chong + Company, where I’m Artistic Collaborator in Residence. I find myself living in New York again—an eventuality I didn’t anticipate—with meaningful projects with PC+C as well as ongoing engagements back in Alaska. The people I meet along this trail continue to help me understand what sustains me and what I can contribute to this field. And I’m grateful for their faith and trust.
TCG: As an arts leader, what is your vision for the future of the theatre field, and what is your role in moving us towards the future that you envision?
RC: I think often about the ideal of communion: a coming together, an intentional commingling of multiple identities. It’s like “community,” but with a quality that feels to me a little more active and with a little more shared investment. The word also carries strains of spiritual practice, too—maybe its draw for me is, in part, left over from my Catholic upbringing.
I’m drawn to theatre and performance that make communion possible. This is the kind of work I want to nurture and be a part of. To do this, I work to keep learning and practicing ways I can support equity, diversity, and inclusion in our field. I make interview-based work bringing artists and non-artists together and creating space for voices that sometimes go unheard. And I continue to imagine models for audience and community engagement. It’s also important for me to continue devising original performance works. These are personal acts of communion, if you will: they give me a means to reflect on my own sense of self and place and history, and then to share those expressions and questions and musings with audiences or participants, in the hope of inspiring juicy dialogue or finding points of connection.
TCG: What was a moment in your career as an arts leader where you felt connected to a larger community, locally, regionally, nationally or internationally?
RC: I feel lucky to say that I can think of many moments like this. One powerful quality of interview-based theatre is the intrinsic sense of connection it can foster. For me, the relationships that grow from this work also come with a sense of responsibility. After working with community members and collaborators who choose to trust me, I feel compelled to make opportunities to loop back, to reinvest, to share time with others in the way it’s been shared with me. A couple of examples spring to mind. I’m a Resident Artist with Theater Mitu, and I was a co-creator and performer in our interview-based piece “Juárez: A Documentary Mythology.” After that process of two-plus years, I returned to Ciudad Juárez to spend more time at some of the schools and community organizations we’d met there. This time, I facilitated a series of arts education and youth engagement workshops. Another example is Deer Isle, Maine, where I got to serve as lead teaching artist for “Dear Fish,” a two-year interview-based educational theatre project between Juneau, Alaska schools and Maine’s Deer Isle-Stonington School District, through the Kennedy Center’s Partners In Education program. The welcoming openness I enjoyed from Deer Isle community members during those two years of visits made me want to go back, and I feel lucky to return to the island, five years running, as a teaching artist, and once as a guest artist presenting my performance installation “this hour forward.” I’m grateful that in both Juárez and Deer Isle, other leaders made space that made it possible for me to return.
Why do I keep going back? I recently read an interview with botanist and Potawatomi Nation Citizen Robin Wall Kimmerer, which crystallized some of these dynamics for me: mutual responsibility, she says, is at the root of all kinship. Artists and citizens in Juárez, Deer Isle, and other communities chose to take responsibility for my sense of inclusion and well-being during my time there; their generosity makes it important and gratifying and easy for me to respond with the same kind of investment.
Kimmerer also calls that kinship “mutual flourishing.” I like that. I can’t know how much “flourishing” my artistic work might bring to communities and audiences where I have the opportunity to spend time, but I do know that those engagements bring all kinds of nourishment to me, as an artist, as a citizen, and as a human being.
Ryan Conarro is a theater maker, teaching artist, and a facilitator of community engagement. He creates interdisciplinary performance with documentary material, a practice sparked by his work as an Alaska radio journalist. Through TCG’s Leadership U: One-on-One Program, he is Artistic Collaborator In Residence at Ping Chong + Company, with whom he co-wrote “Beyond Sacred: Voices of Muslim Identity.” Ryan is a company member with Alaska’s Perseverance Theatre, co-founder of Generator Theater, and Resident Artist with Theater Mitu. He is a teaching artist for the Alaska State Council on the Arts; the Alaska Arts Education Consortium; and Maine’s Stonington Opera House. His work has been seen at the Kennedy Center; the National Museum of the American Indian at the Smithsonian; Lincoln Center’s Clark Theater; Oregon Contemporary Theatre; and numerous Alaskan arts and community venues. BFA, NYU; MFA-Interdisciplinary Arts, Goddard College.
FIRST: Arctic Magic Flute, an Alaska statewide touring adaptation of Mozart's classic featuring opera performers in collaboration with storytellers, Alaska Native artists and dancers, and community members. Written and directed by Ryan Conarro and conceived with Joyce Parry-Moore and Alaska's Opera To Go. 2007.
SECOND: Ping Chong + Company's Beyond Sacred: Voices of Muslim Identity, by Ping Chong & Sara Zatz with Ryan Conarro, at LaGuardia Performing Arts Center 2015. Photo by Adam C. Nadel.
THIRD: Ryan Conarro's solo performance installation this hour forward at University Settlement Performance Project, New York, 2015. Photo by Adam C. Nadel.
FOURTH: Eight Stars of Gold: Alaska Statehood Stories, an interview-based play by Ryan Conarro and Maia K. Nolan, directed by Ryan Conarro, for Perseverance Theatre at the Alaska Territorial Hall, Juneau, 2009.
FIFTH: Dear Fish, an interview-based play about the fisheries of southeast Alaska and coastal Maine, a project of the Kennedy Center Partners in Education Program. Directed by Ryan Conarro. Written by David Hunsaker from interviews by students, led by Ryan Conarro. 2011.
ABOVE: Ryan Conarro.