The Ecology (and maybe The Future) of Theater: My Summer with SITI

Oct 18, 2018

In May of this year, I began my Fellowship at SITI Company, a position created as part of the Management Incubator program. The Incubator aims to give creative entrepreneurs of color the opportunity to develop their skills in a high-intensity, real-world environment. In this industry, the barriers to entry for administrative staff, management staff and of course, performers, are all the same, as many entry-level positions require significant (frequently unpaid) experience, which often comes at a high cost to young graduates.  

I grew up in Singapore, and graduated with an undergrad degree from NYU Tisch with double majors in Acting and Political Science and a minor in Physics. For a borderline dilettante like me with keen interests in multiple, seemingly-disconnected areas, a space to think, learn and train with an intellectually and artistically-driven international organization came at just the right time — I had been out of school long enough and worked independently on enough projects that it felt apt to call an established theater company like SITI home for a short while. I had not trained directly with SITI before, though while at NYU, I had the privilege of working with Company Member Kelly Maurer, who provided me with my first taste of SITI’s work. Needless to say, it changed the course of my acting training, as it often does with many artists. And when I was selected for this Fellowship, the fond memories I had of Kelly’s classes were more than enough to convince me to dive deeper into SITI Company and its ethos and intricacies. As an actor and artist myself, I wanted to know what made a successful, ensemble-based, experimental theater company like SITI tick. I wanted to learn how its artists worked and trained, and what it was that continued to keep SITI active many years after its conception.

What ensued was a journey that led to many smaller, unexpected journeys. I set out to work on strategic planning for SITI, using my own experiences and skills to investigate and understand what SITI’s past meant for it’s future: a daunting task, no doubt. I began with perhaps the most obvious place — fundraising. I had many insightful discussions with the SITI staff to learn more about SITI’s fundraising initiatives, budget landscape, and Board activities, and was astounded at how much more I needed to know in order to grasp the Company’s most basic functions, let alone its position in the New York theater environment. The world of nonprofit arts funding and SITI’s financial plans, while extremely complex and nuanced, were only one part of a more holistic idea for what SITI’s future looked like.

I got to travel with SITI to Saratoga Springs, where the Company’s flagship annual month-long workshop and residency is held at Skidmore College, and to St Louis, MO, for the annual TCG Conference, an organization of which SITI is a long-time member. In Saratoga, I met with training artists and Company Members in various informal settings — in between training sessions, over a meal, or through group gatherings late into the evenings on the porches outside college apartments. Some artists had been training with SITI for years, while others had only just heard of SITI a few months ago; some fell immediately in love with the Suzuki and Viewpoints trainings, while others were still finding their way into the SITI frameworks. In St Louis, I had a very different experience — I got to see firsthand the progress and innovations that regional theater organizations from around the country were making artistically, socially, financially and politically. For the first time in my career, I experienced the true magnitude of the impact that theater has on American society. And I learned that as this very society changes at a rapid pace, so must theater.  

My challenge, only a month and a half into my Fellowship, was trying to understand and reconcile how this extremely unique organization with a self-perpetuating artist and audience base, fits into the American Theater at large — what SITI’s place is. I was curious to know what it was that was keeping SITI relevant and on the frontlines of theatrical progress, and again, how its past was going to inform its future. I decided to focus on two things: the quantitative and the qualitative. I looked at years and years’ worth of data on artists who have trained with SITI and the programs they were a part of, trying to find trends and patterns in SITI’s artist base. I read and wrote reports, analyzed spreadsheets and developed informed opinions. On the other hand, I conducted amazing interviews with any Company Member I could grab over lunch, in a car, or in the studio to learn more about their careers, their personal lives, their strong relationships to SITI, and most importantly, their hopes, dreams and fears. It was important to me to know the extremely personal narratives behind the SITI story.  

SITI, like any great organization, is by no means perfect. In the SITI office, and over countless conversations with Company Members and Artistic Leadership, we ideated and conceived of many initiatives working towards Equity, Diversity and Inclusion and taking SITI’s training and work to a wider range of artists and audiences. My hope is that some of these ideas become realised, and that SITI Company continues to grow and change. My amazing discussions with Michelle, Deadria, Clare, Lani, Leon, Ellen, JJ, Akiko, GM, J.Ed, Kelly, Stephen, Neil, Megan and many, many others have taught me so much about SITI’s history, work and challenges. We spent many hours talking about art, culture and the future, and I am extremely grateful to each of them.

Through my Fellowship, perhaps the takeaway that resonated most with me was that as an artist, particularly as a theatre practitioner, one cannot exist and work in a vacuum. An artist working in the theater can only succeed if they understand and fully engage with the entire ecology of the theater — from everyday administrative tasks to training younger artists to performing the most gripping stories on stage for audiences all over the world. And the ecology of theater exists not only inside a Company, but outside it as well; it is perhaps closely intertwined with the ecology of the world. The ability of every one of SITI’s members to do not just one, but all of these things exceedingly well, to engage with these ecologies, has been this ensemble’s secret ingredient. And it’s what I got a small taste of this summer, and am already a much better theatre practitioner for it.

One thing’s for sure: it’s not easy practicing art these days. It is competitive, it is expensive, and more and more, it is seen as less valuable to society. SITI Company is a living, breathing entity. Its place in the American theater, especially in these politically charged times, is constantly evolving — and should, and will, continue to do so for the foreseeable future. But I have never before seen an organization comprised so thoroughly and uniformly of artists who believe in what they do more than in anything else. Throughout my time at SITI, I found myself consistently struck by the sheer amounts of passion, dedication and drive that SITI Company Members bring to the American theater. And as SITI and the world around it continue to develop and evolve, it is this very drive that will keep it going. The truth is, I still don’t know for sure what SITI’s place is in the American theater, or what its future will look like. I have done research, listened to many thoughts and opinions, and conceived of some ideas myself, but most of the big questions I started out with remain unanswered. That’s alright, though, because theater has always been far better at asking questions than answering them.