Annalisa Dias on How Theater Can Change the World
April 1, 2016 by
I have yet to come across a theater artist who dreams bigger than Annalisa Dias. She has facilitated and studied theater on several continents. She has produced, directed, dramaturged, devised, designed and performed in a plethora of productions on DC stages. Not only has she done all of these things, but she has developed and is developing through her work the kind of philosophy that may alter DC’s theatrical landscape and perhaps change the world. So I couldn’t pass up an opportunity to chat with her at Busboys and Poets about social justice, capitalism, how bodies can change the world, and why a pencil may be more than just a pencil.
Alan Katz: What do you do?
Annalisa Dias: I make theater. The other day a friend tried to introduce me to somebody, and he didn’t know how to say what I do. He said, “Well, she’s an actor, but she’s a playwright, but she’s a director, but…” What I say is that I make theater by any means. So, if I need to be a playwright, I’ll be a playwright. If I need to be a director, I’ll be a director. If I need to be a performer in the piece then I’ll be a performer. I’ve done scenic art. Costumes. The only things I haven’t tried to do yet are scene design and sound design. I’ve done most everything else.
AK: What are you focusing on right now?
AD: I would call it devising, but maybe creating is the best way to talk about it. And, in creating new work, I’m taking on a a few different roles: partly as performer, partly as a playwright and partly as a devising artist.
The thing that unifies my work is social justice. Everything that I do has something to say about a social injustice that I perceive in the world.
AK: So you work toward awareness? Solutions?
AD: Both. There’s never an easy solution to any systemic injustice, but I do think that you can instigate productive dialogue by making art. And it’s through dialogue in a shared space that solutions, multiple solutions, can be found.
AK: Why social justice?
AD: What do you mean?
AK: Most theater artists I know, while they might be for social justice – that’s usually not the reason that they do theater. So why social justice?
AD: I see my training in physical theater as integrally linked to the work that I do in the [social justice-oriented] Theater of the Oppressed because the American system of training actors is so reliant on psychological realism and theStanislavski system. So much that I find that actors, broadly, not all of them, but broadly-speaking, don’t know how to use their bodies generally and specifically don’t know how to use their bodies in abstract ways to create art. It becomes all about “psychological intention,” putting the words and the text first.
I find that to be problematic societally. We are so conditioned to sit at a computer, be “productive members of a society” and output, output, output. The meaning of life is all about the things that you’re producing. And we forget that we have bodies. We sit at these computers, in front of these screens, and, although we’re connected virtually in all of these different ways, we forget that our bodies are expressive and our bodies can do things and communicate connectively.
AK: What is the connection between engaging the body and social justice?
AD: Capitalist society benefits from people forgetting their embodiment and their humanity. Capitalist society relies on people becoming parts of the machine and less and less human. And I think that’s destroying the world.
So, for me, a way to combat that at a very grassroots level is to work with the body. When I work with women at N Street Village who have never done actor training before, I get to do this introductory workshop with them where I get to see them accessing the expressiveness of their own bodies at a fundamental level. When we’re young, we play and our bodies are connected to our minds in a way that they’re not now. We forget that as we go through life and become capitalist output machines.
AK: So, for you, the separation of the mind and the body is the fundamental instrument by which social injustice is perpetuated.
AD: Yes, but there’s another layer to it. There is the problem of separation of mind and body but that then functions to allow people to separate themselves from community.
AK: How so?
AD: It allows people to envision themselves as separate from the people—the bodies—that are around them. Like all of these people in this restaurant have no effect on me because I envision myself as not related to them because I can, for example, go on my phone and connect to whatever is virtual and is not part of my embodied space.
A line in One Word More —which I stole from John Donne— is “No man is an island.” That’s fucked up. And I hate that. I hate that we think we’re all these little islands. That we don’t have any effect on each other.
AK: So the way that you can heal or combat social injustice is bringing someone’s self, their mind, and connecting it with their body. Then connecting that now whole organism with other whole organisms. And that’s hope. So, how does that work, practically?
AD: [laughing] Sometimes it doesn’t!
If I’m the primary generative artist in a room where art is being made, I tend to delegate my authority in that room so that we’re all creating a piece of work together. In the United States, we’re very reliant on the playwright and director as authoritative figures in the artistic process. But for me as an artist, it is important to value people’s voices, value their artistic input into my work and allow the other artists to influence them as they’re generating ideas and words. We can’t exist in these little island bubbles of “I only do this one thing.”
People are so trained not to step on each others’ toes by the American theater system. We’re trained to be dictators over our own little worlds. We don’t want to trespass in the yard of another artist. People just want to do their thing and then go home. And that’s the end of that. So it’s difficult sometimes if people aren’t used to a co-creative process to, like, break out of the training. That’s the work I do in Theater of the Oppressed.
Theater of the Oppressed aims to flip traditional power structures on their heads. In a traditional power structure in a theater space, you would have the director or the playwright who dictates what happens, then the actors follow what they say when they present a piece of work to an audience. The audience sits there and receives information from the artist. Then they go home and that’s the end of the relationship. With Theater of the Oppressed, you ask for input from both the actors and from the audience, then the director/playwright puts that into the piece of art. So it’s more about a communal process of art-making.
AK: You have a couple of different projects coming up; let’s talk about how you try to invert power structures in them.
AD: Right now, I am working at the N Street Village and doing a series of movement workshops, beginning theater workshops with women who are experiencing homelessness. In those workshops, we’re doing a combination of Theater of the Oppressed games.
AK: Give me an example of one.
AD: My favorite Theater of the Oppressed game is a game called “Homage to Magritte.” You know the painting “The Treachery of Images?”. It’s a painting of a pipe that has “This is not a pipe” written on it in French. You get to talk about the questions of, “What is reality?” “Are things what they appear to be?” and “Can they have other meanings?” Then you take an object and put it in the center of a circle where all the participants are sitting around. You ask people to pick up that object and use it in a way that shows it as something that it is not.
So, put a pencil in the middle of the room. Maybe pick up the pencil and use it as a rolling pin. You could make it into a baseball bat, or whatever your idea is. You can’t use any words or sounds. It’s just about picking up an object and using your body to show it as something other than it is.
And it’s pretty stunning to see people who aren’t asked to use the muscle of their imagination on a daily basis struggle, at the beginning, with play. Then people get the hang of it. They open up, and it’s amazing to watch people access that space of creative play. The best part is having a dialogue at the end about why is it so difficult to imagine, to really see an object as having functions other than what we were taught they had. The conversation usually turns on this: if we can’t imagine the world other than it is, then who is going to?
If I can’t imagine a world in which homelessness is not a problem, then who’s going to do that? Who is going to create that world? You have to be able to imagine the change and then enact it. Imagination is a thing that capitalist society, to go back to my apparent loathing for capitalism, teaches us not to have. We’re conditioned not to use our imagination. We’re conditioned to be part cogs of this machine. Do our thing. Go home. Watch TV. Go to bed. That’s that’s what we do. We don’t imagine the world as different. For the most part.
AK: The next thing after your N Street village classes is a play called One Word More. What is that?
AD: Briefly, it’s a reimagining of Shakespeare’s The Tempest from the perspective of Sycorax, who is the erased female voice. She never appears in The Tempest, but she’s referred to by Prospero and Caliban. We never see her body. So this piece is really an interrogation of the historical erasure of women’s voices and bodies from both society and history.
AK: How is that process?
AD: The group of folks that I’m working with are incredible. In December 2014, we did a draft workshop at Shakespeare Theatre Company’s Happenings at the Harman. That draft is about 30 minutes long and I haven’t really touched it since then.
That is our common starting place for how are we going to evolve together as artists. It’s difficult for me in a surprising way to relinquish authority over this piece because it’s so personal for me. This piece, in its previous iteration, meant a lot to me as an artist. It was the first time that I gave myself permission to be a performer as a professional. It means a lot to me. So it has been surprisingly difficult to relinquish my authority over what the piece is, but, if we’re going to have an authentically co-creative experience, I need to be okay with allowing other artists to influence the product.
It’s scary. But at the same time, it’s exciting to me to create art that is built on relationships with people. Rather than like relationships with ideas.
AK: You create your own community, and that’s a model for how you want the rest of society to look. These are two pretty neat and pretty different projects you’ve got running.
AD: Oh, they’re not separate at all. The work that I’m doing at N Street Village is directly connected to One Word Morein that I’m hoping for two things: that some of the women who I work with will come and be part of the audience forOne Word More. And I’ve invited a couple of them to lead post-show dialogues about the erasure of women’s voices and what that means in the DC community specifically. There’s a very important and symbiotic relationship between the actual art that I’m producing and the work that I’m doing in the community, and with the Welders.
AK: Why is it important to you that they not be separate?
AD: It goes back to that idea that no man is an island. Like people, Art doesn’t exist in a vacuum. It should exist in the community. Art should be made for the community. Art needs to be part of the community. No art should be an island.
One Word More now through April 30 at CulturalDC’s Mead Theatre Lab at Flashpoint.
[The interviewer thanks Meghan Tucker-Carafano for her help in transcribing this interview.]