National Performance Network > What We Do > Funded Projects > MLI Profiles > Claiming and Naming Your Practice:
A Conversation about Mentoring and Change

Claiming and Naming Your Practice:
A Conversation about Mentoring and Change

NPN Partner Junebug Productions has entered a new phase in its long history. In the summer of 2012, Junebug received a Mentorship and Leadership Initiative subsidy, which gave Stephanie McKee and Kyoko McCrae, the newly appointed artistic and managing directors, the opportunity to look to the leadership of two other performing arts organizations for guidance and support, both of which have experienced similar challenges in times of transition.  NPN staffer Will Bowling sat down with Stephanie and Kyoko to inquire about their discussions with Jawole Willa Jo Zollar from Urban Bush Women (UBW) and Linda Parris-Bailey from Carpetbag Theatre. This is a small portion of their conversation, edited by Kathie deNobriga and Steve Bailey.

Stephanie McKee and Kiyoko McCrae

Stephanie McKee and Kiyoko McCrae of Junebug Productions, Inc. (photo by Melissa Cardona)

Will: Give us a little bit of background on how you first started working with Junebug Productions.

Stephanie: Junebug invited me to be a part of their Celebration of Women in the Arts in 1995, and subsequently the subject of Urban Bush Women’s Institute came up. Junebug wrote me a beautiful letter of recommendation, and that was how I was able to get a scholarship to the very first Institute. That also started my relationship with Jawole (Willa Jo Zollar, director of Urban Bush Women).

Next, between the Institute and the Festival, Junebug presented Moving Stories. At the time, it was just a theme for a dance – stories and movement that move you – but after we did it, it turned into a showcase of young choreographers. That was the first time ever that someone came to me and said, ”we want to make sure that you can just do your work, so we’re going to provide a theater space, the tech, the marketing, and we want you to just concentrate on doing your work.“ Because of that, it’s always been very important to me to provide artists the space they need to be artists, which actually leads to one of the challenges in the transition. Kiyoko and I both are creative beings, and balancing the amount of administrative work is a challenge. That laid out some questions we wanted to explore with Jawole and Linda: “How do you balance those things and still keep your creativity? How do you keep creativity intact with integrity to the work?”

Junebug has had a few near-death experiences – we were in the middle of one – and they had too. So we wanted to ask them what that was like. They actually talked very honestly about that experience and what they learned in that process.

Kiyoko: It’s important to remember that your (Stephanie’s) first interaction was being presented by Junebug, I think that’s really key; I remember your talking about their intention, with having one of the 10-person staff specifically dedicated to presenting.

Stephanie: And being committed to supporting local artists – we’re really clear about that. That was a point of learning, through Jawole – what she always drove home, from my first interaction with her – the importance of place and the work that happens in place. So if Katrina happens in New Orleans and that’s where you hang your hat, we know that we were affected by all of the things that happen surrounding that, including the Recovery. That makes the work that we do even more important.

Will: Kiyoko, you’ve been with Junebug since 2007, shortly after Katrina.

Kiyoko: I came in 2007 and I had just met John O’Neal, founder and former artistic director of Junebug. I had learned about the Free Southern Theater and Junebug with Jan Cohen-Cruz (at NYU), studying community-based theater. I was volunteering with the Douglass Community Coalition that Junebug had been part of, prior to the storm, and that’s how I met John. John came in to teach about story circles. He was literally rebuilding the organization and needed help with the administration. Junebug has seen several transitions since Katrina – looking at different ways of staffing and structuring the organization. So when I heard Stephanie was reporting back, I thought I’d back her.

Stephanie: I can very honestly say that I wouldn’t have done it if Kiyoko hadn’t agreed to work with me. You need somebody who, first and foremost, deeply understands the work of Junebug, the history and the values attached to that. I needed someone I could trust, someone who is a creative being and who holds some institutional memory – she was here for all of the different transitions.

Will: Can you talk a little bit about your relationship with Jawole and Linda as mentors and the conversations that you all are engaged in.

Kiyoko: One thing that we talked about with both of them was, “What is your practice?” Linda talked about the importance of naming your practice, and not just naming it, but being able to replicate it, having a very clear process that can be passed on.

Stephanie: That was also one of the things Jawole brought up – naming and framing our practice and not having it named or framed by someone else. Naming and framing happens all the time, but we typically are not the ones to do it. For example, story circles themselves are out of the oral tradition. In the African tradition, it’s nothing for someone to have the story of somebody’s father’s father’s father’s father passed on – there’s always a griot in the family. I don’t augment that story when I pass it on to somebody else, and I always say my grandfather told me, so there is an honoring in where I got the story. There is a value to the oral tradition; there is great honoring in just being fully present and listening and taking it in.

Kiyoko: It was interesting talking with Linda and John about how to name things, what values are embedded in how you name things, and how to document it, recognizing that we live in a society that honors the written word more than the oral word. Linda said it’s been a challenge for them too, how to name their practice. They made a mistake in the past, bringing new people into the ensemble without fully training them; people can mimic the process, but don’t really get it.

There is a theme here, a smaller organization, especially an organization of color, tends to struggle with how it assert itself in line with its values.

Will: It’s interesting to me, especially when you talk of naming things, how you identified these two arts leaders as possible mentors, and then you describe more of a collective learning space without a hierarchy.

Kiyoko:  Talking about breaking hierarchy, I was reminded about the similarities among the organizations. I don’t have statistics here, but we talked about the dwindling number of black theater companies and black arts organizations in the U.S. All three organizations (Carpetbag, UBW and Junebug) are struggling.  So, we just started brainstorming:  what would it look like to actually apply ideas to the three organizations together, trying to think outside of the box in terms of, for example, fundraising. For so long, Junebug relied on John’s touring income. We’re not touring now, so we have to really look at how to increase Junebug’s income in creative ways.

We have the 50th anniversary of the Free Southern Theater in the fall (2013), so we are inviting both companies to be here, and hopefully we’re going to continue to have more rich conversations about that. More than just learning from each other, we are talking about how women of color and organizations actually support one another.

Stephanie: And, how do we identify ourselves? How do people see us? For a really long time, people said, “So I heard of Junebug, what does Junebug do?” Part of it was John’s strong identity, but it’s also the challenge of laying out an identity of what we actually do. What is really clear to us is that facilitation is something we do really well, and that the skill was heightened because of our work with Junebug.

Will: Where do you see the organization within the next year or so? This is an interesting time for transition – you spoke of a time where Junebug was a 10-member staff and had a constant revenue stream through John’s touring, and here you have a staff of, essentially, you two.

Stephanie: It’s exciting, and it is scary as hell too. Through all of the transitions that Junebug has had, they’ve never had a transition happen when the economy was just so damn bad, which has impacted philanthropy tremendously. Back in 2006, people were telling us, “it’s bad, but you haven’t seen the worst of it.” We knew that it was coming, so it does require thinking outside the box. There is something in the idea of building your base and the idea that people will sign on for what they believe in. I do know there are a lot of people who believe in what Junebug has done and what it is doing; our job is to figure out how to capitalize on that and then do some kick-ass work with great integrity.

Kiyoko: If I had to sum up a major focus with the Free Southern Theater Institute, it’s to be more locally-based and focused on New Orleans, and to nurture artists and folks who are interested in music. We just really want to build our base and our audience.

Will: That’s awesome. Thanks – mostly because I get to hear all this conversation, other people will just get to read some of it.

Kiyoko: Thank you. It goes without saying, NPN really is awesome, and having the time and space, specifically the Mentorship and Leadership Initiative, to sit down and have two full days of face-to-face conversations, and then checking-in on the phone, it’s been great.

Stephanie: You remember what I said about the creativity?  I found I was so alive and wanting to immediately do things after having those conversations. It was nice to have quiet time and space to be able to do that and not feel rushed, to be able to just sit there and have conversations with each other that were not about “what do we have to do next?” but more like “suppose this happened?”

July 2013

The Mentorship and Leadership Initiative, as part of the Community Fund, is made possible by the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation, the Ford Foundation, the National Endowment for the Arts (a federal agency), the MetLife Foundation, the Nathan Cummings Foundation and American Express.

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