Getting new voices on stage

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Katie Vang performs “Hmong Bollywood”

Photo by Nancy Wong

The majority of playwrights working today, while their creativity and styles may vary drastically, tend to represent a very common point of view: predominantly white, male, educated, middle-aged and middle-class. And while there’s a lot of talk about the desire to diversify mainstream theater, it’s often difficult for a young playwright or a playwright of color to get their stories off the page and onto the stage.

That’s why Pangea World Theater put together its Alternate Visions Festival. Unlike many play development programs, Pangea partners with playwrights from the germination of the idea, through draft after draft, until finally a work is ready for a full, professional staging.

Starting this weekend and running through July 25, Pangea is presenting five works in various stages of their development process, from staged readings all the way up to a fully realized theater piece.

Pangea co-founder Meena Natarajan, says some of these works have been in development for as along as two years.

It’s really about supporting playwrights, and particularly playwrights of color. And we’re exploring different ways of making work. It’s really important to give creators a space in which they can take risks and feel what that’s like, and see the results. So much today is geared on the finished product – this festival is focused on the process.

For Katie Vang that process has meant digging deep into her own relationships, and looking at how belonging to a displaced culture has affected herself, her family and friends.

I’m working on a one woman show called Hmong Bollywood. There’s this phenomenon of adopting other cultural media because we don’t have our own traditions. When I was a kid I was a huge Bollywood fan, and we commented on Bollywood film as a way of indirectly commenting on our own culture.

Vang says her work with Pangea has forced her to plunge even deeper in her exploration of love and relationships than she initially imagined. It’s often been painful, but she says it’s worth it.

Art is really an exploration of living consciously – and I think if anything I’m exploring myself as a human being and the relationships around me. And being able to speak about myself from an honest place – in the hopes that will contribute to a larger social movement.

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Aviator Jean Batten

For Katie Herron Robb working with Pangea on her piece “Solo Flight” has also meant confronting her fears. Herron prefers to develop work instinctively and visually, using movement and improvisation. For her, writing doesn’t come easily. But her piece, based on female aviators in the 1930s,required both intense research and the courage to fill in the gaps in these women’s stories.

So many people know the feats of these women, but going back into their biographies and autobiographies, we’re finding out about who they were as people. They were doing this in a man’s world; female pilots would get the rotten planes, they weren’t treated well. So they took on these male personas, and they had these strange relationships with men, using them to finance their planes or trips. I’m exploring the consequences of fame for these women, and whether things have changed for women aviators today.

Herron Robb’s character is an amalgam of women like Jean Batten, Beryl Markham, Amy Johnsona and Amelia Earhart.

The festival will also include performance pieces by poets Heid Erdrich and Bao Phi, as well as a world premiere of the play “Ady” by Rhiana Yazzie.

Meena Natarajan says the festival will help all of the artists determine where they want to go next with these works, informed in part by feedback sessions with the audience. Herron Robb says she’s looking forward to the sessions, but she’s not counting on everyone liking her work.

I don’t need them to be nice, necessarily. I want them to ask questions, to let me know what stood out for them, what spoke to them, and what they did or didn’t understand. Liking or not liking isn’t necessarily useful at this point. You can’t please everybody.

The Alternate Visions Festival runs June 10 – July 25 at the Pangea World Theater’s studio in Minneapolis.

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