The Sustainable Theater Workshop 2014 at The UN

Scared Shitless

Every now and then you meet someone who really believes in you, lucky for me I ran into one of those people, Malick, who heard about the work I did in Haiti and Jamaica and believed in what I could do as an artist and educator. Next thing I knew I was at a meeting with some officials at The UN negotiating fees and logistics to organize a version of The Sustainable Theater Workshop. I was terrified. Before every meeting I would have lengthy meditation sessions and would be practicing my three-part breathing on the train ride there -- most likely looking crazy as hell. We get tied to our identities, and I was tied to my identity as an "artist-who-is-not-so-good-with-money," and I definitely wouldn't be caught dead negotiating fees from REAL business people. So there I was in one of the final meetings, battling my inner identity crisis, feeling all unworthy and silly for being there and wanting to crawl out of skin because I was so anxious. I even cried. In a REAL PEOPLE BUSINESS MEETING. And not like a little tear -- healthy, heavy tears streamed down my face as I tried to continue talking normally and act like I wasn't fucking crying in the middle of a meeting.

Words just kept circling around in my head like they would in a cartoon: artist -- blah, blah, blah -- money -- blah, blah, blah -- free -- blah, blah -- services, Haiti, kids, not sustainable, free, free, how much -- I couldn't even think straight. The original plan was to bring three of my students from Haiti to work with three students from Jamaica and six other students of African decent here in New York. In my usual Shelah fashion of doing too much all at the same time, I fantasized about seeing my students at the airport and hugging them, and fancy UN delegates giving them standing ovations, and subsequently offering them scholarships to study in the US and -- voila -- happily ever after. So in this meeting, when I learned that it wasn't a possibility, and I had already told my students from Haiti (under other advice. I'll never do that again), I was consumed with disappointment and guilt.

You ruin everything. The inner dialogue was ugly.

The Show Must Go On

The good thing was that the program was still going to happen, just not how I had originally imagined. That would be the big personal lesson for the project overall: to let go of my attachment to a certain result. I had to let go of my rigid expectations and get comfortable with not having control and things not being perfect.

Thanks to The RuJohn Foundation I was able to have three students come from Jamaica, who were joined by four other African girls (from Guinea and Senegal) to participate on the workshop. From March 20-25th the students worked together to write and perform their own theater performance on March 25th to celebrate The International Day of Remembrance for the Victims of Slavery and the Transatlantic Slave Trade. It was very challenging because not only did I have the students from Jamaica in my custody 24/7 for the entire week, but I had to juggle different student schedules, not having space to rehearse, and funding a large part of the workshop out of my own pocket.

The Payoff

Khadija Sall, confidently teaching the crowd Wolof.

I realized very explicitly that I do not like  the administrative work around these projects, but I have to deal with it because I want to produce my own work. What I really love is creating micro-communities for focused amounts of time who get together to create something artistically. I love being that facilitator, that guide to create new experiences and find new parts of ourselves. It was pretty amazing to witness so many things, like Khadija, 17, who recently moved to The US from Senegal, perform for her first time ever on a stage. She's into coding and has participated in Girls Who Code, she told me she wants to study web design in college, so it was lovely to be able to cultivate her qualities as a natural performer and see her proudly teach Wolof to a crowd of almost 700 students.

It was also pretty cool to connect my students with professional actors in person, like Stephen Hill or virtually, when my students got to hear some encouraging words from Raven Symone.

What an amazing journey. Now on to the next one!

Love, Shelah