Kathie deNobriga, editor of the NPN/VAN E-Newsletter, interviews Board Chair Abe Rybeck about his long-term relationship with the National Performance Network.
Kathie deNobriga: Let’s start by finding out more about your early involvement in NPN. How did you learn about NPN?
: In the early ‘90s, when The Theater Offensive (TTO) was doing a massive amount of programming, we featured Brian Freeman and the Pomo Afro Homos. He told me a little about NPN, and then I heard a little bit more when we presented Paul Bonin-Rodriguez. He and his director Steve Bailey [now Chief Operating Officer of NPN] thought we would be a ‘good fit’ with NPN. I wasn’t really sure what they were talking about, but we were invited to the 1999 Annual Meeting in Providence, Rhode Island, and I went anyway.
Kathie: And what did you think when you finally attended?
: I was really impressed by the amazing array of presenters, but I think we weren’t quite ready to join, plus NPN wasn’t taking new Partners at that time. But three years later, we were invited to apply, and we attended the meeting in Chicago as a full-fledged Partner in 2003.
Kathie: Give us a little context about your presenting work during that time.
: We are the only NPN Partner that is specifically devoted to showing queer work, particularly by people of color. A journalist did some research lately and reported that in 25 years, TTO had presented 200 works by queer (gay/lesbian/transgender) artists, of which 126 were people of color. I’m really proud of that record!
Kathie: Talk a little about how your experience within NPN has changed over time — TTO has been an NPN Partner now for 11 years. Has anything shifted for you?
: Yes, in a couple of ways. First of all, Eve Alpern started coming to the meetings with me, and she also attended the Mid-Year Meetings, which move around the regions. As she became more active – she eventually served as the Regional Desk for a couple of years – she served as another voice and viewpoint about the importance of NPN. It wasn’t just me raving to the staff, her enthusiasm helped spread the vision within TTO itself. Now Evelyn Francis, Nick Bazo and others at TTO have stepped up.
I also noticed some changes within NPN. The Providence Annual Meeting was right after NPN became an independent organization, cutting the apron strings from Dance Theatre Workshop. Over time I began to notice more collaboration and less competition. There was more widespread, genuine respect. It was less about ‘being in the club,’ and more about filling our role in the cultural ecology.
Kathie: Why do you think this transition occurred?
: I think maybe it was the measured, reasonable expansion, with great attention to geographic mix and diversity. There was more a sense of not fighting over crumbs, but sticking together to get a seat at the table, where we could fight for more equity in the field. I think the diversity had a lot to do with that – hearing from rural presenters or ones facing urban challenges or organizations of color struggling for recognition – everyone’s struggles became more of a tapestry than separate threads, and we could see how we were connected.
Also, I believe that intention over years becomes character. I’ve seen NPN display an attentive intention around equity issues – not just race, but rural/urban, geography, gender. It’s become more “built-in” and is manifested by the respect for artists in their role in creating AND presenting work. I think NPN’s deep commitment to equity issues is for the long haul – it’s not just the flavor of the month, desiring a certain demographic or trying to build an audience. Equity is clearly mission-driven at NPN.
Kathie: TTO’s commitment to equity is pretty apparent in your programming, I’d say. But has being in NPN impacted TTO in other ways?
: The artists we saw at the meetings were right up our alley. It was great to be in community with people around the country facing challenges and sharing their solutions. We learned ways of doing residency work that really resonated with us – I mean, we were already doing intense residency work, especially in the four neighborhoods where we now focus most of our work, but the exposure to other models really amplified our ingenuity and capacity. The Performance Residency contract turned out to be a powerful tool that really benefited artists. Through the Community Fund we were able to expand the work that we’d already been doing for years.
But I guess the greatest impact was being able to bring serious resources to commissioning new work. We had been doing some local commissioning, really on a shoestring, but the Creation Fund really allowed us to step up our commissioning activity. Also, although we haven’t participated yet, I’m enormously inspired by the International program.
Kathie: What else would you like to say about your and TTO’s relationship to NPN?
: I have an absolute passion to see how this network breaks that old pattern of “them that’s got shall have,” of shaking up the status quo. We can really leverage the network for equity by paying attention to structural support. The first time I saw Rhodessa Jones, one of my heroes, decked out to the nines, dancing at a closing party, I felt so lucky to be part of it. How she welcomed me to the dance floor and we shook our “thangs” together, well that’ll live with me forever. When I’m an old codger, sitting in my rocking chair, I’ll really treasure the heart-to-heart and cultural connections we’ve made. We love the culture of NPN and we’ve had a lot of fun together.