A 54-ton memorial quilt, a food forest, the colorful revitalization of dilapidated neighborhoods, mural prompts contemplating mortality, an all-out Artolution… these are just a few examples of how art brings people together to enrich lives and strengthen society. A new initiative spearheaded by The University of New Mexico (UNM) Department of Theatre and Dance, Performance in the Peripheries, embraces that work by cultivating encounters between students, artists, and the greater New Mexico community.

Dominika Laster, head of Theatre and assistant professor in the Department of Theatre and Dance, says the initiative builds on performance work combined with community outreach and engagement. Laster is collaborating with another theatre faculty member, Juli Hendren, to recruit visiting artists and help develop the work they do while here in Albuquerque.

“With Revolutions (International Theatre Festival) being so centrally attached to the Department of Theatre and Dance,” Hendren says, “Dominika and I connected pretty early on and wondered how we could formalize something outside the festival. Something more ongoing, more about residencies and artist exchanges – artists being here, working with the community, working with students, and creating a space in Albuquerque for that work.”

Born out of these conversations, Performance in the Peripheries began hosting artists in residency during the 2018 spring semester at UNM, and will continue on with new and returning resident artists through 2019 and beyond.

"...the idea is, for lack of a better word, to reach underserved or marginalized young people who are potentially dealing with some of this stuff, or even have history of it within their culture and community… and tackling that through theater." - Juli Hendren, Dept. of Theatre and Dance

Engine is a musical group comprised of Alejandro Tomás Rodriguez (Argentina), Robin Gentien (France) and Pierre Lauth-Karson (France/U.S.), whose collaborations could be called theatrical concerts. During Engine’s initial residency this past spring, Rodriguez was a visiting faculty member in the Department of Theatre and Dance, and as a group they did community engagement through performances and workshops, in Albuquerque, Peñasco, Santa Fe and Taos.

“One of the great things that happened,” Laster says, “is that Neil Copperman (executive director, AMP Concerts) created a concert series for Engine at Dialogue Brewing, so they had weekly performances there, building a community around their work. The first concert was maybe half full, and then it was sold out for months. They would also invite artists to join them for each concert. Mostly musicians, sometimes spoken word artists…”

“Like Ebony Isis Booth,” Hendren interjects, “and it was amazing. She sang, rapped, did spoken word… all her own work, but merging with them (Engine) and their music. It was pretty phenomenal.”

According to Laster, Rodriguez also started working with refugees, particularly African refugees, in Albuquerque, bringing them into his practical workshops and collaborating with them in that context.

Through the residency of Engine, Performance in the Peripheries has already contributed a great deal to UNM and greater New Mexico communities, and they’re just getting started.

“Everything for next year (aside from Engine) is in process,” Hendren says, “but it looks like (multifaceted artist) Inua Ellams will be coming in March to do some spoken word and have discussions about his work. Also FellSwoop Theatre, from the UK, they’re bringing a piece about Syria. And while these artists will participate in and perform during Revolutions, they’ll also be stretching out their stay and doing a deeper sort of residency through UNM with students and the community."

Laster says the Performance in the Peripheries initiative received a small grant from New Mexico Arts and a College of Fine Arts Seed Grant. Building on that funding will be essential to continuing this work.

“We’d like to develop a project with Italian director Chiara Guidi, who is part of the Socìetas Raffaello Sanzio (SRS),” Laster says. “She makes radical art with and for children, and what that means is she is not afraid of exploring the darker aspects of children’s plays and stories."

Guidi is a founding member of SRS, and believes that children should both be exposed to and create the highest quality art and theatre. In 1995, she created The Children’s Experimental Theatre School at the Comandini Theatre in Cesena, Italy. She’s also often commissioned to travel abroad and create a performance with children.

“Like the one that she did in Japan,” Laster says, “working with Japanese fairytales. Guidi created a built environment for the children, so it was like a sleepaway camp with bunk beds. The kids entered the space and got into the bunk beds, curling up underneath blankets. And there was an actor there reading stories in a really animated way. In subsequent sections of the piece, the children would also perform. That is the kind of work we would like to invite her here to do.”

In an era where arts programs in schools are increasingly underfunded and even eradicated, this work is of particular importance to Laster and Hendren.

“One of our interests with Performance in the Peripheries,” Laster says, “is to create opportunities for – in this particular case – for young people who might not usually have access to this kind of experience. So we will be finding places in the community for Guidi to work with kids and develop a performance out of these workshops.”

Guidi, Japanese Fairy Tales
Guidi, Japanese Fairy Tales

With the spotlight on immigrants in the U.S., the reality of what a lot of immigrant children are facing comes into extra sharp relief here in New Mexico, since we are a border state.

“Looking at the refugee community here, the indigenous community, first-generation kids,” says Hendren, “the idea is, for lack of a better word, to reach underserved or marginalized young people who are potentially dealing with some of this stuff, or even have history of it within their culture and community… and tackling that through theater, with Guidi creating a piece about it.”

Another key component of this work would be connecting UNM students with Guidi, to engage directly with her and New Mexico communities on the project. Laster and Hendren hope the Performance in the Peripheries initiative as a whole will build upon and expand existing curricular offerings at UNM. As playwright and poet Bertolt Brecht once said, “Art is not a mirror held up to reality but a hammer with which to shape it.” It’s a trend that American theatres are starting to embrace, and they believe UNM students deserve to have training that lends itself to developing community-focused work.

“A primary intention of these new short-term residencies is for students to be exposed to global work, allowing them to work very directly with international artists.” - Dominika Laster, Dept. of Theatre and Dance

“It’s really critical for college students who are studying theatre to have access to creating work like that,” Hendren says. “It’s a huge way American theatre is developing. It’s slow going – I think something like 85% of American theatre is still pretty traditional – but there definitely is a focus on the impact theatre has around social justice, on reaching out and how that affects education, marginalized voices, and creating platforms for people of color.”

Laster emphasizes that students in the Department of Theatre and Dance currently have very little access to international theatrical work, the main exception being Revolutions.

“A primary intention of these new short-term residencies is for students to be exposed to global work, allowing them to work very directly with international artists,” Laster says.

She and Hendren see the Performance in the Peripheries initiative as having a lot of potential to bring UNM departments together, in spaces where artistic expression and other fields of learning overlap. Hendren cites Georgetown’s Lab for Global Performance and Politics as a model, and says the vision she and Laster share is for “an ongoing, funded project” that is broad and inclusive.

“We are struggling, as a nation, with diplomacy, so perhaps it’s actually the job of artists right now to enact diplomacy,” Hendren says, “I think artists are meant to be diplomats. Especially right now, in a time of crisis. And I think that’s a big part of what Performance in the Peripheries is about.”