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People’s Theatre Project: Art, Immigration, and Social Justice

Equity in the Arts
Six people bowing at the front of a stage, the backdrop of which is covreed in brights, splattered paint and graffitti, and a sign that reads "Somos Mas!"
A performance of Somos Más. Photo credit: Sinny Feliz

This October, I saw a beautiful, multilingual, devised theater piece, Somos Más (We Are More), created and performed by People’s Theatre Project, here at The Lark. Comprised of mostly immigrant theater artists, the company told a moving story about immigration, assimilation, and revolution. 

As someone who shares a similar liminal identity, I was reminded of when I first moved to the U.S., what I had to learn and adopt - the accent, the small talk, and the everyday interaction - in order to convince myself and people around me that I belong. It wasn’t until recently when I started to realize the baggage I have to carry in order to fit in a room with mostly Americans, and the impossibility for me to “unlearn” the baggage in order to embrace my full self.  

Jiawen Hu, a Teaching Artist at People’s Theatre Project and also a Performer from Somos Más, shared with me that the immigrant identity is something beyond a piece of document. It’s a complicated experience that is always in flux. “We live with this uncertainty and vulnerability everyday. But just because we are immigrants, or just because we don’t speak English fluently, it doesn't mean that we are less. We also have values.” 

This month, I sat down with Artistic Director of People’s Theatre Project Zafiria Dimitropoulou to discuss the recent tour of Somos Más by the PTP Ensemble, educational resources for immigrant youths, as well as the incredible values that immigrants bring to this country. 

WENXUAN XUE: How did you start in theater in the first place? And when did you join People’s Theatre Project?

ZAFIRIA DIMITROPOULOU: I've been an immigrant my whole life. I was born in México, and then my parents and I moved to Greece. I was very shocked. I didn't speak the language. The only thing that would give me pleasure was being involved in an acting group in my elementary school. My teacher at that time spoke with my dad afterwards and said "whatever your daughter ends up doing, don't ever block her way in becoming a theater person." Later, I went to college for Political Science and Public Administration, and at the same time, I was also part of a prestigious acting school in Athens.

After working in Central Europe with a physical theater company and then going back to Greece to do acting and directing work, I moved to California to study physical theater, which then led me to move to New York. I almost immediately found People's Theatre Project and worked here as a Teaching Artist. I fell in love with the organization because it aligns with my big three loves: theater, social justice, and teaching. Six months after being a Teaching Artist, I applied for the Artistic and Program Director position. 

As an Artistic Director, I make sure all of our teaching artists, actors, and youths have everything they need to make the magic possible. I ensure the aesthetics of the PTP work is being met in every single classroom and rehearsal room. And I directed
Somos Más this year and also Las Mariposas (The Butterflies) last year, both of which are a part of a trilogy that investigates the immigrant experience. Last year was about the journey, what makes us leave our home countries, and it was also specifically about the family separation that is happening right now in the borders under the "zero tolerance" policy. Year Two was about how immigrants are asked to let go of what they came with and the struggle of trying to be a part of this new reality. Year Three will follow the journey of immigrants who have been here for their lifetime and how they have succeeded and thrived in their communities.

WX: So congratulations on finishing off the tour of Somos Más! How did it go?

ZD: Thank you! It was an amazing experience. We went to many different places, including the Bronx, midtown here at The Lark (Thank you again for hosting us. It is a very special night for us), and Queens Museum, etc. The audience all over these places received the piece very well and we are very happy that we did it.

WX: There's a talkback with the audience at the end of each performance. Could you tell us more about how the audience reacted to the piece? 

ZD: The show first premiered at The Pregones/Puerto Rican Traveling Theater in the Bronx. The audience that we had for the first four shows during the opening weekend was primarily immigrants from the Bronx who can relate with the topic immediately. Also, New York City has been a haven for so many immigrants from all over the world. Even people who call themselves New Yorkers, the majority of them are first-generation immigrants. They're the children of those who decided to move to this country. They came here and probably wanted their children to let go of their past, to be Americanized, to speak English without an accent, so that their children would have all of the perks that come with “the American dream", the whole fantasy that is sold up to these days, not outdated at all.

So the significant majority of the audiences had very strong emotional reactions. We had people crying and saying thank you for that. We've had immigrants who raised their hands and spoke in their native language saying "Thank you. I feel seen, understood, and heard." Usually when we have people in the audience who do not identify either as immigrants themselves, or as people of color, there's also a slight pushback. Someone even said that you shouldn't mix politics with art. I do hear that comment and I appreciate people's bravery for saying it, but at the same time it's fundamentally against who we are as an organization. But overall the majority of the conversations afterwards is very moving and has impacted our lives as artists and as human beings significantly.

WX: That's amazing! That's exactly what theater is about. It's not just putting up a performance or selling tickets. It's really about the conversations between the performers and the audience. 

So in the piece, Somos Más, a group of immigrants arrived at this dystopian nation, which very much resembles the United States. Is there any reason why you don’t name it the U.S. explicitly? 

ZD: When we're having conversations in the devising process, one of the things that came up was the universality of assimilation as a topic around immigration. The whole group represents eight different countries. We brought up questions such as "what about when immigrants go to Greece?", "what about when immigrants going to Dominican Republic from other Latin American countries?" There's usually a pushback from the majority of the people who are from that place towards the minority who have to adopt new ways of living.

It was also an artistic choice. The beauty of theater is that you can use your imagination and put it in a heightened place.  We wanted to come up with a game. For us this was going to be called "The Nation". Of course the audience would think it's the United States because we're in the here and the now. But we were using the beauty of theater to create a universal story. 

WX: Something that I just learned last week, English is not the official language of the U.S. I was in shock because I keep hearing people say "This is America, speak English!". Now I can finally tell them that they have no proof

I really appreciate that Somos Más was multilingual, in English, Spanish, French, Farsi, and Mandarin, without any supertitles or translations. It truly reflects the diversity of languages spoken in New York City. So why this choice? 

ZD: That's a great question. One reason was literally a response to the rhetoric you just mentioned, that "You're in America, Speak English!" We want to celebrate who we are and part of that is the languages that we speak, not only the languages that come from our native country, but some people are just multilingual because they have the gift of learning languages. When you learn a language later in your life, there's that slight gap, no matter how fluent you are, how much you want to get rid of the accent. I say that as a trilingual person, being Mexican, Greek, and now living in the U.S., there's one language that my brain really identifies with, the one that really describes my feelings in my thoughts. We are trying to deliver ideas that cannot be said otherwise. The majority of the actors are fluent in English too, and at the same time, what they are trying to say, about celebrating who they are, won’t have the same meaning in a non-native language.
The reason why we didn't use translations is we are not interested in making art that is convenient or spoon-feeding. The art is not about making people understand it intellectually. It's about shutting down the intellectual that is so much loaded with social media. Instead it's about being present and allowing yourself to feel. We had some audience members saying that they were crying when Vida was speaking in Farsi, when Jiawen was speaking in Mandarin, and Angie in Spanish. Even when you don't speak any of the languages,  if you can stay present, you will have the feeling. You might not understand it word by word, but you see the humanity.

WX: Also, the actors’ physical movement is another language that transcends words or texts. 

ZD: Yes, that's also part of humanizing our stories. Because there is a lot of anger and close-mindedness around immigrants, we want to respond to this rhetoric with love. In the process of doing that, we came up with these physical movements. That's why I love physical theater, because it's a universal language that transcends borders and ethnic identities. It just says that we are all humans.

WX: I also appreciate that there’s no ticket fee for the performance. Do you mind sharing how you sustain this model of accessibility? As an organization, how do you make the performance truly accessible for all, regardless of people’s socio-economic status?  

ZD: Our core values are Equity, Bravery, Creativity, Collaboration, and Joy, and among them, equity is number one. To be honest, there is really no strategy other than prioritizing to build equitable spaces with the money we receive as a non-profit. Equity works in both ways. Equity means it’s free to the public, so more people and more immigrant communities have access to high-quality professional art. At the same time, all actors are getting paid for every single hour of rehearsal and performance at a very competitive rate. We make it work because we have it as our priority.

WX: I truly think if there are organizations who can do this kind of work - making art for free to the public while paying the artists for their work - then there's no excuse for other organizations. It's just a matter of priority.

So in addition to the amazing PTP Ensemble, I also want to talk about the PTP Academy.

ZD: Yes! That's so exciting. I love it! We just launched this in September. It's very new and fresh. We've been doing public programs for eleven years now, but now we're launching this packet of PTP Academy.

WX: Yeah, do you mind introducing us to what it is?

ZD: So the PTP Academy is a multi-year program that is specifically for middle school and high school students. It's a program for leadership, theater, and activism. In order to enroll, students need to participate in group auditions. Each year we accept 36 unique students, including 24 middle school students and 12 high school students. Anyone who is accepted needs to sign a three-year commitment contract to this scholarship-based program. Students are never asked to pay for a single thing. They come for rehearsals during after school hours, and then, as they grow in the Academy, we provide them with more opportunities such as career advice, resume building, opportunities to do internships at other partnered organizations, trips to see free shows on Broadway, and trips to Albany with our Executive Director for advocacy. Not only it has the theatrical component, it also has the social justice part. 

WX: Do some of the students want to become professional artists in the future? 

ZD: Yes, some of our students do go to college and major in theater. 

This is my personal opinion: I think there is a narrative in this country - which is very different from the country that I grew up in - it's nearly impossible to make a living being an artist. Our youths are very much impacted by this narrative. But the way PTP programs work is like a circle. They start with PTP Partnerships, classes at schools, it's a taste of the PTPs. Then, they can join the Academy if they want to. All of the Academy students need to write a personal manifesto at the last year of the Academy, stating who they are as artists, activists, and human beings. They also get the opportunity to join the
professional company, the Luna Ensemble for alumni of the Academy. They get paid to rehearse and to tour all over the city with the performance they devise. So even a lot of our alumni might go to study Biology and Political Sciences, but they don't leave the Performing Arts because they're part of Luna Ensemble. 

WX: Hopefully with this effort, we can connect more young people with their professional  career, especially those who may not have the resources and money to do unpaid internships.

ZD: I also think this is very specific to the United States. I grew up in Europe. Yes there's the musical, the big production, but there are also so many galleries, corners, underground theater scenes. I feel that in the U.S., people think of Hollywood and Broadway when they think of the art, and everything else is considered as community art. Suddenly community theater has a lesser reputation and value.

I'm glad that the students get to see that it’s possible to make other types of theater. They can get paid for doing it and they can also have an impact within their communities and in the world. We are here to make things that haven't been done before, not to keep doing the same thing over and over again. How are we going to move forward? 

WX: I know I know! There are way too many revivals on Broadway... Urghhhh

ZD: Yes! We saw it! It happened! What’s next? 

(Laughter in the room).

WX: So during this year’s Playwrights' Week, I was delighted to see that some students from People's Theatre Project came to see The Cucuy Will Find You by Jaymes Sanchez. I also learned that there’s an ongoing partnership between The Lark and People's Theatre Project. Could you share a bit about how the partnership started? 

ZD: It all started through Donja R. Love, whom we love. Donja was a Teaching Artist at People's Theatre Project. Then we invited Donja to do a playwriting workshop for LGBTQ+ students and allies three years ago. It was Donja's idea to bring these organizations together and I'm so grateful for that. The Lark offered the space and found professional actors and directors to bring these student-written scenes to life. It's big for our students, especially for a 17-year old seeing their play happen before their eyes on stage. 

The Lark is also one of the places that we come to see staged readings of new plays, especially during Playwrights' Week or other public programs. The Lark is at midtown, and our students are usually at uptown. So it's a trip! It's like we're going to the theater district. Sometimes for immigrants, it's really hard to leave your area of community, even it's just ten stops on the subway. 

And next March, we will collaborate with The Lark again on Donja’s playwriting workshop, with professional actors and directors put our students' plays on stage. 

WX: I’m so excited for this! 

ZD: Yeahhhh I can’t wait! 

The next round of auditions for PTP Academy is on Saturday, June 13th 2020 at PTP Studio, Suite 825, 5030 Broadway, New York NY 10034. Find out more!