Episode 3: Theatre and Cultural Producer Claudia Alick

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Theatre and cultural producer Claudia Alick talks about her artistic upbringing and causing justice and poetry to happen all over the country.

52 Sketches episode 3 — Claudia Alick


Rob Head 0:03 52 Sketches

Jennifer Head 0:09 Welcome to 52 Sketches podcast about creativity and creative practices. here’s your host, Rob Head.

Rob Head 0:20 Welcome to the 52 Sketches podcast. I’m your host Rob Head. We are here to talk about creativity and living a creative life practices and habits strategies for making wonderful things. Today we’re going to speak with Claudia Alick. Claudia Alick is a cultural producer, performer and inclusion expert named by American Theatre Magazine as one of 25 theater artists who will shape American Theater in the next 25 years Alick has served as the founding artistic director of smoking word productions is a new york new york futurism alum, published playwright recipient of New York City fresh fruit directing award. TEDx Fargo speaker featured on hbos def poetry jam and former community producer at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival. at OSF for 10 years she produced events such as the every 28 hours plays, the green show, the datalist project, OSF open mics as well as producing directing audio plays with OSF such as the Grammy nominated Hamlet. Her personal projects include her podcast, hold on wait for it. Vlog this week in cultural appropriation, street poetry and one person show fill in the blank exploring disability and the medical industry. Claudia Alick serves as founding executive producer of the transmedia social justice company calling up whose projects include the Justice quilt, we charged genocide TV, co artistic direction of the fury factory festival, and consulting and advising funders and companies around the country. So welcome, Claudia. Hello. It’s quite the it’s quite the bio you have and we’ll touch on probably just a tiny fraction of the things that you’ve done and are involved in. Really excited to have you on the show. We met while you were working at Oregon Shakespeare Festival. Yeah, Mm hmm. You know, you have this, this impressive pedigree and resume of things that you you have done and are doing. But I want to start by backing up and saying, okay, you know, if you’re the hero in your in your graphic novel, you know, how do we write your backstory? What is what is your creative up? What is your creative upbringing? You know, did you grow up? You know, singing, dancing, cooking, drawing, acting? What mediums Were you involved in? Oh, gosh, as a young one.

Claudia Alick 2:47 Well, my father is a writer. He’s a poet, and my mother, she grew up being a sort of multi talented woman who she grew up in Memphis, Tennessee, worked in the civil rights movement on did some acting. And her family was very, very light skinned, and super upper class. And she was rebellious and decided to marry the darkest skinned poet she could find. And then she and he ran away and had a bunch of wonderful children. And we have been causing justice and poetry to happen all over the country ever since.

Rob Head 3:24 So it really goes back generation.

Claudia Alick 3:28 I, I have a family that, that on my father’s side. If you go to a family gathering, there’s always music, there’s always singing, of course, we’re immigrants, we’re black people. So there’s always you have nine jobs, because you have to survive. So everyone’s always an artist, being an artist is the base level of just being a person existing in the world. I’m very lucky that I was able to craft a lifestyle where I’m able to have that be my core practice. My core practice is art and justice making. And that was definitely something I’ve been working on my entire life to manifest.

Rob Head 4:04 Hmm, well, this is beautiful. This is exactly why I think I’m so glad to have you on the podcast because this is sort of the central theme of the podcast is how do we take our interests and turn them into something real that we can sink our teeth into in our life’s work? And so, so there it is, you know, you have this this family of of poets and musicians. How did you develop How did you find your way too? Did you study trained? Did you have important mentors along the way?

Claudia Alick 4:35 Well, and I want to make sure I’m not giving a false impression, because it’s not like I grew up in some idyllic arts family. That where art was around, it was a it was it was a life of Yes, there were books around all the time. And the expectation of Oh, yes, you read poetry and you don’t think poetry is a weird thing. But but it was a lot of it was a lot of hard work. I think that the things that aided me the most as a child was not knowing that I wasn’t allowed to be in charge of things. So in high school, I was part of a theater troupe at the YWCA or the YMCA. It was a Youth Theatre troupe, but we created our own place. So it was ensemble devised work. And of course, that social justice themes, because isn’t that kind of theater always about the kids being like, I’m going to do a play that’s about the environment. And I’m going to do play that’s about racism. We were adorable. And we wrote our plays that were about our identity and how we were coming into ourselves as people. Well, we aged out of the program, and I and arrogance and naivete said to my fellow aged out members, well, we were doing all the work, why don’t we just keep doing it. Like we were paying them money to give us permission to write our own plays, let’s get to our own plays. And I convinced the YMCA, I never recognized that I was just a very competent, young, little, little cute black person. And they were totally willing to invest in me learning a lesson. And they were like you want you want a space. Okay, here’s a space and I negotiated a contract a full $150, we got paid for our first gig. And the lesson I learned was audience development is the key. You can have the space, you can have all the actors, you can do everything right. But if you don’t have an audience to enjoy your work, it feels like an empty exercise.

Rob Head 6:30 So I I’m hearing that there’s a there’s an empty audience in that history.

Claudia Alick 6:35 Yes, we our first production was quite successful, it was full of parents. But the second run at the park had an audience of 16. And the lesson learned was you have to invest as much time in making the art. You have to invest as much time and making sure there are going to be people there to experience with you. The entire point of this is not in selfishly creating something special that you think is nice. The point is being in collaborative meaning making with other people in the world.

Rob Head 7:01 Right. So there’s a collaboration.

Claudia Alick 7:03 Yeah, that’s the point of my art practice.

Rob Head 7:06 Okay, yeah. Well, I mean, art, it’s difficult to find meaning in, in creative expression, if there’s if there’s no receiver, right on the end of that. Yeah. Okay. So this is where this is in,

Claudia Alick 7:18 oh, this was in Missoula, Montana. So I’m a black woman growing up in Missoula, Montana, in the 19th. So it’s not racially friendly. It’s very, very racist. So there were moments where there were, I recall, like hate newspapers being left on the front step. So So I grew up being incredibly aware of the country I live in, and being very aware of the racial dynamics of the United States, because I had the gift of having a family in Memphis, Tennessee, and that history of civil rights, and that history of black community and majority black community. And then I also had the family members who were immigrants from the island of Grenada, and being in Florida and that community. But growing up in Montana, that’s where I lived all the time, I could visit that other community, but I got to learn what America was growing up in Montana,

Rob Head 8:13 touched on a couple of things that I want to circle back to one is that there’s this precious age, you know, the sort of pubescent years where the idea of fairness and justice and making a better world seems inherent in the experience of that transition of our lives, was the early teens, you know, where you start feeling like, things are messed up, and I’m discovering this, and I want to make it better. And it sounds like you took that, and you were able to fully explore that through, you know, the program at the YWCA. And somehow you hung on to your Audacity. And that’s, that’s, that’s an interesting…

Claudia Alick 8:49 I have to give a lot of credit to my mother, for for most of the things that were happening in my childhood at that time, because I would have an experience at my school where I would perform excellence, and then I’d come home, and then let my mother know, well, this is how my my teachers reflected on my excellence. And then my mother would have to tell me a story about how well actually what you said was correct. And that was your teacher, feeling insecure, and needing to perform that they knew better than you, even though that your teacher was wrong in that moment. And we need to make sure that we’re re emphasizing what the actual accurate knowledge is. So that was a very useful skill set. So my mother taught me that when Majora terian or dominant culture is not serving you, you just make something to serve yourself. That’s what it is to survive as a black person in America, you understand that the thing that was designed to serve everybody is generally not designed to serve you. But if you’re smart and you want to survive, you make it serve you. That’s what my mother did

Rob Head 9:46 in reality and I substitute my own

Claudia Alick 9:50 less less than I reject your reality more I reject your power constructs. Right, right. So so so you know the world tells me you can’t have a Theatre Company. And if I had listened to the world, I wouldn’t have started one. But I started one, I started one without knowing better. And also having a mother who said, Oh, you should definitely do that.

Rob Head 10:12 Awesome. So yeah, so let’s Yeah, let’s talk about how did you develop as so you so you had a theatre company and where did you go? Next? Did you get? Did you study somewhere?

Claudia Alick 10:22 Yes. Wanted to escape Missoula, Montana, as soon as possible. And of course, at that time, the, the easiest and fastest way to get out felt like a university pack. I had planned to go to Howard, and interviewed there. And that was, I still think about that interview, because it was a big dream. But while I was there, my mother forced me to also interview at a bunch of other colleges in Washington, DC, and the George Washington University gave me the most gorgeous package, it was very, very impressive. I now recognize that part of their deal was finding the best candidates. So I was in the same class as like Kerry Washington and I were the presidential art scholarship students that year. And, and our experience at George Washington University was my experiences in most dominant white dominant Institute institutions, we pay a lot of money to go there. Well, I didn’t pay a lot of money to go there. I had no money. I took out a lot of loans to go there and had a lot of scholarships. But the it didn’t serve us. And so we had to make things just serve ourselves. So we created a project called, that was called chitlins. And cornbread, no kosher, kosher was called kosher and corn bread, kosher corn bread was an event that we produced, that brought the Jewish community and the black community on campus together, because we recognize some weird white supremacy, politics that were happening, that were interrupting our ability to organize. And I growing up in Montana, had been organizing, because we were all in such a minority position. We collaborated together. So my Unity Church was also the synagogue and the head of my black student, I was only allowed to start a Black Student Union because one teacher, the Jewish teacher, promised to to help me to put it together and was the person who was my my sponsor. And the rest of the school leadership resisted it. Actually, it was it was a fight.

Rob Head 12:22 Going back to your parents generation, there’s a there’s a long standing coalition between the Jewish community and the black community in the social justice work that was done, you know, in the 60s and 70s. So so it’s fascinating that that was the coalition that that coalesced again, in your collegiate experience.

Claudia Alick 12:41 Well, I’ll say that that coalition was real for me in high school, when I discovered at the George Washington University, it was that that type of community was not was not there. And we had to actually do an artistic event to talk about the division in our community to talk about how these white supremacy, cultural politics were sort of infecting an embedding. And they were making it difficult for us to collaborate artistically to collaborate in ways to dismantle social injustice. Now, I of course, this is 20 years later, so I have so much more vocabulary and things to talk about it at the time. It was just you know, us being naive and trying to do some stuff. Carrie and I also ended up producing the colored museum so we did a lot of projects on and I while I was at the George Washington University, I also accidentally ended up running an arts program for a year I I’m very poor so I had to have a several day jobs while I was in college right and they’re always there was a the the one that was connected to the school. What do you call that? When the school is paying you to pay to work for work setting like an E at work, study or always had to work, Jenny? Well, here’s the deal. internships, internships are for the lucky internships are for those with wealth privilege, you have to have money to do an internship, I had two jobs. So but those work studies were as close to an internship as I could get. So I would make sure I got a work study in some arts theater practice at the university. And the work study, I got the woman who was running the program, she, she was ill, and had to drop out at the last minute. So I showed up at school and they informed me that the arts program that ran my entire dorm was just going to go dormant for a year. I said, Why would you do that? I’ll run it. And they said, What? And I said, Give me two weeks. I said give it two weeks, you know, what are you gonna what you have to lose? Give me two weeks. Let me do the programming. Let me set it up. And then you know, if you don’t like it, you can stop it and you can stop paying me and I’ll go work in the cafeteria or something. And so I ran an arts program at the George Washington University for a year had a full theater. We produced five plays, several magazines, poetry, magazines, a whole bunch of stuff. That’s great program. Then I left and I was like, oh

Rob Head 14:58 psychic. What’s the lesson? finalize? But I only took about five you did five productions and and several publications in one year.

Claudia Alick 15:07 Yeah. Oh, yeah. Well, here’s this is the lesson I learned. The lesson I learned was you can do anything if you have access and resources. I graduated and I left being like, Oh, I can be an artistic director, I was just the artistic director of a multimedia project, I can do this. And then I quickly discovered a wait, no one will let you be in charge of anything. It doesn’t matter that you have two companies under your belt already that you’ve dealt with budgets at this size, none of that matters. You’re a young black woman in that body, and no one will let you be in charge of anything unless you build it yourself. So I started. So I’ve started many a theatre company in my lifetime.

Rob Head 15:45 Right, which expands your bio.

Claudia Alick 15:48 Exactly, exactly. Yeah, no, I left DC I went to New York City started doing a lot of poetry slams at this. At that time, I tried to always if I had a day job, it was a day job that was working in a in a place where I felt like the outcomes were good outcomes for the world. So generally, all of my jobs have been around access for disabled communities or access for communities of color. So I was working for the foundation for the American Foundation for the Blind, doing a lot of recording of their, their audio books. And I started at the hip hop Theatre Company smoking board productions in New York City that was known. And eventually ended up I shutting that all down and getting this gig at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, mostly took that because I wanted to see or all of these experiments in justice making and cultural producing and finding ways to escape the financial and economic traps that seemed to want to cut us out of even being able to be a part of the industry. I wanted to see if that worked outside of the urban area that I was in New York, I wanted to see if I was working with reality. And I felt like I needed to test it in a predominantly white community. And I was like, let me go back to where I grew up. And Ashland Oregon town? Yeah. Much like Missoula,

Rob Head 17:10 Montana. Mm hmm. even smaller. Yeah. Wow. Okay. So this, this drive you have is is obvious, I think on every level from your your resume to just the the, the way that you’re able to describe your, your experience, I want to ask, you know, how do you stay at that level of, of intensity? How do you stay at that level of assertion of your, you know, just indomitable will? What do you have daily practices that help you stay centered that help you keep going to help you keep your momentum? How do you care for your instrument, you know, your body, yourself, your your craft?

Claudia Alick 17:54 Well, I will name practices I have, I’m not going to name them as daily because I don’t think well,

Rob Head 18:00 but okay.

Claudia Alick 18:02 So I was raised on neutron shochu Buddhist and while I let go of a lot of neutron show, shoo, I do still have a Buddhist practice. So I do a lot of meditation. And I think that meditation is a very important practice to have, being able to listen to your body, and, and calm your body. So I rise in the morning, and I always rise and do stretches. And I always make sure that I have some kind of connection with nature, I have a little garden. So there’s always a little bit of weeding something that takes place when I’m not at home. And well, now I’m home all the time because of this covid 19 crisis. But before when I was traveling two to three weeks out of the month, I would still maintain that practice. These were practices I put into my life to help me feel consistent, regardless of the location I was at. So I arrived, I stretch and you do like traveling? Yeah, I did. Yes. Yeah, a huge amount of traveling because I was traveling the country looking at the intersection of cultural producing and justice making and trying to determine why are some efforts failing over and over and over again, what are the techniques or the strategies that are just not a good use of time? Because when I left the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, I felt like I had a decision to make about oh, what’s what’s the next step going to be right? And I decided to do an incredibly audacious thing where I, I asked myself, do you want to run an organization? And I was like, No, I don’t want to help an organization. I was like, okay, man, I saw you

Rob Head 19:43 10 years in a large theatre organization. Yeah,

Claudia Alick 19:46 yes. And then I said, Do you want to help a town? And I was like, No, I don’t want to just help a town. I was like, okay, Claudia, you want to help a state? And I was like, No, I don’t want to just help a state. I was like, Oh, well, then quality Do you want to help the entire country? Is that the deal I was like, well, that that seems to be What I want to do, then it’s like, excellent. Then Then the question was you want to work for the FDA because they’ve got this job that they’re offering. And and then I was like, No, I do not. I do not want to work for the federal government. I want to make something different. Can I serve all the people in this country without working in the pre formed, institutionalized pathways, different design? Can I design new pathways? That’s the work I’m engaged in and still

Rob Head 20:25 eat and have a place? Yeah,

Claudia Alick 20:27 yeah. Yeah. So So part of this practice is, I learned something new every single day. So every day almost every single day, I am either part of a think tank. So like, right now, I left I left the orchard likeness labs early to join you in this podcast. Thank you, but I, I might, my intern is in there right now. And afterwards, we’re gonna, like, what did you learn? But yeah, if I’m not actually in one of my think tanks, sharing ideas, getting ideas, sharing challenges, I will be listening to a podcast or watching a video. Excellent.

Rob Head 21:07 Do you have other projects you’re working on? It sounds like you’re just moving at a breakneck pace. Dude, sir,

Claudia Alick 21:14 you’re catching me in like one of the most fundamentally active times of my career, which is saying a lot on you know, because because I traveled to Ferguson and ended up you know, producing the every 20 hours plays with hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of artists all over the country.

Rob Head 21:32 Right. I want to hear about that. Can you talk a little bit about that particular project and how it went and what the learnings were?

Claudia Alick 21:38 Well, gosh, well, um,

Rob Head 21:40 I would summarize 10 years of your life.

Claudia Alick 21:43 Yeah, yeah. Well, what I love about that project is it’s still going right. So I am on Instagram posting about the we charge genocide TV project, and I see that somebody is about to do the ever 20 hours plays, because I put them I wrote to all of the playwrights when George Floyd was shot, I wrote all the playwrights and I asked them, are you okay with me just putting these on the website and saying anybody wants to download these plays? download them, Go produce them, right this minute. All the playwrights said yes, in an incredibly amazing act of generosity. And so, that meant that I let go of my knowledge of when the plays are being produced. So I found out because there was a tag I was tagged on on Instagram saw there was a production happening. So a digital production just took place like a week ago. Those plays were written by about 90 different playwrights over 90 playwrights, they were developed with in a stone soup model, so I had no money. And I just knew that there was a problem, we had to solve it. And I asked theatre companies, Hey, could you give a theatre person, any theatre person, it could be actor, it could be an admin person could be a director, anybody to come to Ferguson with us, because we recognize we need to have we develop these in the community for this to be not extractive not exploitative. There needs to be something that’s based in in the protest community and what’s really happening. So we all traveled there. And and then the plays, the plays are still being produced. So that’s, that’s deeply exciting. Let me let me actually, you’d asked me to tell you about what my latest project was like. Yeah, like I was about to and then I pivoted and gave you three and a half minutes on every 20 hours plays, which was loved.

Rob Head 23:27 So yeah, please go ahead. Well, what are you working on and what’s inspiring you, you know, this during during the pandemic, you know, how are you working now,

Claudia Alick 23:36 when the pandemic hit, one of the first things I ended up doing was I started producing large scale conversations. So I collaborated with the freelancers with howlround and spoke to the country. In that way. I collaborated with disabled organizations and unsettling dramaturgy and spoke that way. I just did a disabled justice and anti police violence digital workshop, I’ve been doing a weekly producing an age of pandemic peer exchange session, hour and a half for free every single week, every Monday. So that piece of my practice has expanded in terms of outward facing public speaking, connecting to folks developing new practices, developing new work. I have been working with the network of ensemble theaters, we took the connector app, which was an app that was created specifically to help people to tour physically. And we did some some hard pivots and created ways for people to tour digitally and virtually so that connector app was some some passion work that’s that’s been taking place over the last few months. But the biggest project I’m involved in right now is building calling up justice studios, which A quarantined studio, it’s fully podcast capable, fully film video capable, and has a guestroom. Because I will have to live in the conditions of quarantine to be a healthy living artist on this planet until there’s a vaccine, I thought that I feel confident there are other artists who are going to need that as well. And so I will be launching the calling of justice residencies in about three months to open up this opportunity to other artists, so they can have the ability to produce their work everywhere, like I have been. It’s real weird that it’s a horrible, horrible time right now. But I’m super grateful to be so connected. Um, and my voice is being heard in more spaces than it ever has been. So

Rob Head 25:52 every shift in every historical shift, has these new doors that open? It’s just the nature of, of change, I guess. So are you talking about bringing people for, you know, a period of time, like a few days, or weeks or months? Or how, what is the reticent presidency looks like,

Claudia Alick 26:14 I’m completely non prescriptive in my design modalities. So I designed it, so people can stay for up to three weeks. And if it’s only a couple of days, that’s fine. Excellent. The idea is that it’s a safe space where you have access to a lot of equipment,

Rob Head 26:30 right? Where your, your, your physically distant, say is safe, but you’ve got all the access to create whatever you need to create in that space.

Claudia Alick 26:39 Yes, and of course, there are, there will, there’s going to have to be a lot of flow in between people coming in and out of the space, because we’re going to be doing some some hardcore quarantine protocols. And the outcomes of the work that’s being produced here will be justice based outcomes for disabled community. For, for my VIP OC community, from an LGBTQ plus community, we’re going to be producing some not only artistic work, but in real life performance of just performances of justice. That’s the goal.

Rob Head 27:12 So I want to connect this. This, obviously, it’s so integrated, it’s impossible to tease apart in your case. But this idea of, we have this creative impulse in our lives. And we can use it to try to evoke some sort of change in the society that we live in, we can we can use it to serve people, you’re creating a space where it’s serving creative people who are serving the community, sort of a meta service. Is that how you look at it?

Claudia Alick 27:45 My philosophy is that my fate is tied to yours. So if I design to serve myself, and you, then I’m serving us all, so that’s that, like, my, my goal is to design things that are serving as many people as possible. Hmm.

Rob Head 28:03 It really resonates that what you said earlier about reflecting on what’s effective and what’s not. And so is this the outcome of of those meditations? Or is it a new experiment? Or how does that connect in?

Claudia Alick 28:18 Well, you know, I feel like all of the design choices I was making in the last two years, were prepping me for this moment. So I had been creating the scaffolding for digital practice. And I had been creating all of the practices that you need to be able to create if you are in a quarantine conditions. So my first instinct was to share that knowledge. Right? And then I just kept doing it.

Rob Head 28:52 And he kept doing it. so fantastic. I’m so excited to see how that that plays out and what what’s able to be created in there and and how would somebody help contribute towards that that goal?

Claudia Alick 29:07 Oh, gosh, um, that’s a lovely question. I figured I’ll be honest, I’m not sure yet. But you know what they could do? They could just kind of go to my pitches, how slow I am. I’m like, how can someone I just had this conversation with my staff. I’m anti capitalist and my designs are all anti capitalist designs. I believe. If you design with creating monetary profit centered, you will end up with designs that make that happen first, and everything happens second, which means you get less potent, actual justice outcomes. However, yeah, all of the work that we need to do is so valuable, and sign interpreters cost money, so you can donate to support, calling up Justice studios@paypal.me slash Ash calling up.

Rob Head 30:02 Beautiful thanks for for sharing that. I appreciate the reframing of how you you create these, these projects in these organizations. One of the things that one of my learnings in an earlier business was that profitability is, is this sort of cosmic thing if you’re chasing it, but nothing is sustainable, unless it’s paying its own expenses. And so the way that I like to look at is that profitability is just one of the subjects of sustainability and nothing, you know, nothing can be long term effective unless it’s able to support itself. And so that’s the way I try to look at it. And I don’t know if that resonates with, with your experience.

Claudia Alick 30:53 Yes, definitely. No sustainability design is is a is a wonderful way to frame that. Hmm.

Rob Head 31:03 Excellent. Well, Claudia, it is such a delight to to talk to you on the podcast. And I’m so glad that you were able to take take the time to speak with us. And do you have any parting thoughts you want to share to other creatives who are trying to find their way in the world?

Claudia Alick 31:19 teach someone give something away for free. Mm hmm.

Rob Head 31:25 Excellent. Thank you so much. I really appreciate your your contributions and everything that you’re doing in your work and as a human being Thank you so much.

Claudia Alick 31:36 Thank you.

Damien Burke 31:51 The 52 Sketches podcast is a product of 52 Sketches, makers of earlywords.io, daily, private, stream-of-consciousness writing, to clear your mind and unlock your creativity.