As Katie Beck, Neema Bal, Tessa Gaffney and Josy Jones sit in the administrative office just outside Balch Street Theater, their energy and excitement is palpable.
The four performance artists have big visions for Center for Applied Theatre and Active Culture, a nonprofit organization that supports the alternative theater scene in Akron. The quartet took the administrative reins of the organization on July 1, and with the passage of leadership comes an expanded vision and new season, titled “Uncover, Discover, Recover,” after most live theater was forced to a halt for more than a year during the pandemic.
CATAC was founded in 2004 to serve as the umbrella nonprofit organization for New World Performance Lab, James Slowiak and Jairo Cuesta’s theater troupe based at Balch Street Theater. After nearly 30 years of performing in Akron, the couple moved New World Performance Lab to Paris, France, where Cuesta’s daughter and grandson live.
The pair tapped Beck and Bal of Gum-Dip Theatre and Jones and Gaffney of Chameleon Village Theater Collective to take their place, knighting both organizations as new residents of Balch Street Theater. The mission of CATAC is to serve as a home base for emerging local artists, creatively nurturing and financially supporting their experimental work.
“We’ve really landed on the value of collectivism and being able to welcome smaller alternative theater companies to develop their work, build their audience within our space and help to navigate business acumen and financial support,” Beck said.
Beck, who also serves as the executive director of North Hill Community Development Corporation, and Bal, a Bhutanese refugee born in Nepal and living in North Hill, root Gum-Dip performances in their home neighborhood. Many of their performances deal with topics of identity and culture pulled from story circles and interviews of residents living in the neighborhood, which has a large community of immigrants and refugees.
The company received a 2019 Knights Art Challenge grant to produce “Three Countries, One Mother,” a play inspired by Bal’s family that chronicles the life of three brothers spread across different countries: his father in the United States and his uncles in Nepal and Bhutan. The production is scheduled for July 2022.
“With Gum-Dip, there’s a lot of experimental work and mostly we have been working with immigrant communities in North Hill with how we can focus or uplift or represent stories there in bigger platforms,” Bal said. “I’ve always been a lover of theater. I did theater back at the refugee camp (in Nepal). When I came here, I started working with Katie at Gum-Dip. With the future work and expanding the company, I see us going to different communities and listening to their stories like ours. How can we bring these individual voices so people can see themselves on stage?”
Chameleon Village, founded by Jones in 2015, focuses on site-specific theater aimed to connect residents to public spaces through art. Jones’s upcoming production of “HOME,” a production inspired by recent efforts of West Hill neighbors organization to expand the residential and commercial zoning in the neighborhood, will take place September 10-12 at a home within the neighborhood. It will be accompanied by a pop-up business voted on by neighbors in the area through interviews and collecting feedback. Much of Jones’s work is informed by this process of interviewing and collaborating with the people living in the areas she is producing work about.
“When I was living in Macon, (Georgia,) I recognized there was a disconnect between people and public space and businesses,” Jones said. “Just the way people engaged in space was very strange to me and wasn’t happening in a way I thought it could. I didn’t have any money to have a theater space, so I was like, ‘I can make site-specific theater that really connects people to the places around them.’”
Both companies experiment in storytelling through their artwork, straying from traditional theater performances hosted in spaces like the Akron Civic, which tends to stage touring shows, or Weathervane Playhouse that hosts live performances of established dramas, comedies and musicals.
Though their companies are separate entities with distinct identities, all four note the importance of collaboration and support within Akron’s robust alternative theater scene. The artists have worked together on projects previously, such as a site-specific performance rooted in Firestone Park titled “Into the Mold” about how the rubber industry shaped the physical infrastructure of the neighborhood and the social effects following its collapse, performed at Firestone Park’s community center.
Prior to their companies’ residencies at Balch Street Theater, Gum-Dip was mainly performing at NACDC’s Exchange House and Backyard in North Hill, and Chameleon Village was performing at locations around the city relevant to the subject matter. While they still plan to have a presence in their usual spaces and perform outside the theater, a physical space will be useful for certain performances and rehearsals.
“One of the things I realized early on is that if you’re going to do things outside, it is hard on the actors. Sunburn and exhaustion is a thing,” Jones said. “It’s going to be great to actually have a physical space because one of the hardest things about rehearsal is rehearsal takes a lot longer. I don’t know if it’ll change the work a lot, but it will be nice to have a home base.”
Beyond their desire to foster experimental art, the four administrators want to tinker with what it means to lead an organization non hierarchically.
“A lot of times boards of directors are pay-to-play and have major influence or power over how the organization runs,” Beck says. “For CATAC, our board is more of a sounding board, and our administrative leadership positions operate like horizontal leadership. What I’m excited about with CATAC and our work is embracing the idea of a solidarity economy in terms of not distributing wealth or money or power because of someone’s position, but instead coming together to build each other up. The more each of us succeeds, we all succeed.”
CATAC’s upcoming season, “Uncover, Discover, Recover” will feature 10 productions and events. Season tickets can be purchased at www.catac-akron.com.
Sept. 10-12, 2021: “HOME” by Chameleon Village Theatre Collective
October 9, 2021: CATAC Fundraiser
Nov 12-21, 2021: Brokers Without Borders by Gum-Dip Theatre
January 21-22: Work-In-Progress Three Countries, One Mother by Gum-Dip Theatre
February 21-March 13, 2022: Residency and Performance with Workcenter of Jerzy Grotowski and Thomas Richards
March 5, 2022: Tedx Balch Street
Apr 21-May 1, 2022: Obnoxiously Unconstitutional by Akoben, Inc and Gum-Dip Theatre
Summer 2022: Untitled Community-Inspired Performance by QuTheatr
June 2022 – Untitled Show by former members of New World Performance Lab
July 22 – August 14, 2022: Three Countries, One Mother by Gum-Dip Theatre
Abbey Marshall covers economic development for The Devil Strip via Report for America. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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