On a warm spring afternoon, I met Marcy Arlin at a restaurant in Brooklyn to talk about her work as a writer and artistic director of the Immigrant’s Theater Project (ITP).
Nicole: While reading your bio and visiting the website for ITP I was amazed by how much you have done within the theater community and I’m curious as to how your involvement in theater began. At what age did you become involved and what about theater engrossed you?
Marcy: Our parents took us to theatre all the time, and there was something called “Storybook Theatre” that toured the elementary schools. And I remember seeing The Tempest at Stratford, CT and the Caucasian Chalk Circle at Lincoln Center. I used to make my poor sister act out scenes from Romeo and Juliet, and ultimately went to an arts camp for middle and high school. I helped create a children’s theatre club in high school, acted in school plays and was an apprentice at summer stock in Massachusetts. I had the bug, the ability to create a whole new persona, to be funny and crazy and creative. And the magic of the costumes and lights…
Nicole: Could you give a brief explanation about the Immigrant’s Theater Project (ITP) and how its vision manifested? What challenges have you faced to establish and operate ITP?
Marcy: When my company got started there was a lot of backlash against immigrants similar as to what’s going on now with the DREAM Act. It upset me because the people who were unsupportive of immigrants wouldn’t be here if someone in their family had not gotten on a boat! An important goal for me is for people not to base their outlook through an “us and them” lens, which unfortunately is inevitable because as social animals we do that. However, I want to make the “us” a bigger group using theater. Theater is live; it’s one of the good ways to bring people together. The biggest challenge was, like everyone’s, financial and doing a lot of work for little money. With ITP it was, at an early stage, convincing audiences that the immigrant plays were great theatre.
Nicole: Looking back at the productions you’ve been involved with over the years what are things that you believe create a successful performance supporting a social/cultural movement?
Marcy: One thing is that I don’t believe artists should work for free, so I don’t do a project unless there’s some money to support it. I somehow managed to have a lot of influence and do a lot without a lot of money. If you have a vision, the question to ask yourself is, “How much time are you willing to put into making that happen?” The key is to look for the untold stories and making them relevant and universal.
Nicole: As I was reading your bio, Theatre Without Borders caught my eye and I looked up the group’s website. It’s fascinating; could you tell me more about your work with Theatre Without Borders and how has that experience influenced your work as an artist?
Marcy: It’s a virtual (online) place where people can discuss what they’re doing internationally. It’s exclusively online because most people only have access to other people’s project in other countries via the Internet. It’s a free exchange of information. For example if you wanted to know what is going on in Indonesia you can find people who have done stuff in Indonesia. That’s the main function of it. It’s not an organization so it doesn’t have any big funding and that’s one of the big challenges of the group because if someone wants to do a project they have to find a way to fund it. It’s a place for artists who are interested in working in other countries or meeting other people from various countries. It’s social networking for international theatre arts. It has expanded my contact list and I’ve written about them a couple of times. My advice to artists interested in working in other countries is that when you do work internationally or outside of your own comfort of community you have to think of your relationship to the community as an outsider, as a person, as an artist. What do we have to teach each other? How do you work within the communities you work with?
Nicole: In your community-based theatre workshops what do you want to convey to students and what do you hope people to take away from those workshops?
Marcy: When I teach theater there’s always a social agenda. I hope students start thinking a little more about things and they usually do. That’s my bottom line. If they decide they love theater that’s great; if it helps give them a voice to some of the issues in their lives that’s great. I did an exercise on Brecht’s Three Penny Opera and it’s all about how poorer societies can be as materialistic and capitalistic…exploitation creates nothing but exploitation. I took Three Penny Opera and put it into the context of the Bronx community, asking students to give the characters names. By naming the characters with contemporary “Bronx names” (their term), the students then had a discussion about how ethnicity and power influence society, as indicated by their naming. They came up with names they recognize as stereotypical names. Hopefully they are starting to realize that theater is about real life even if it doesn’t take place in your neighborhood.
It is also important that facilitators understand the social context in which they work, the power structures and their involvement in the power structure, their position as outsider and/or insider in the community, and the understanding that there is reciprocity of learning that goes on during the theatre creation process.
Nicole: What groups or organizations would you recommend readers who would like to learn more about the DREAM Act or other immigrant issues?
Marcy: They can look at the American Civil Liberties Union, which has an immigration division. There’s the New York Immigration Coalition, I used to work with them. I spent years trying to convince social service organizations to use theater! They didn’t believe me but now they are starting to look at things differently. It’s great. The United Nations, International Theatre Institute, and local social service organization in New York City, and I am sure many many more, especially in communities where there is a growing immigrant population. I would also check out the various ethnic newspapers.