Community Engagement During the COVID-19 Crisis

A Conversation with Gaven Trinidad, Community Engagement Associate at New York Theatre Workshop faciliated by Bri Ng Schwartz, Community Programs Coordinator at National Queer Theater.

"How do we engage our community when so much of that happens in a group and as a collective? "

Bri: How are different communities in your life, theatres and elsewhere, responding to the current moment?

Gaven: I think when the pandemic, when W.H.O. named this as a pandemic and immediately things started to change, a lot of my colleagues in different fields were trying to as much as they can find a way to survive and help other people survive. And for those who have the privilege to work at home and be at home in safety and survive in a way day to day. A lot of my family are first responders, they’re in the medical field, and so that’s been a very interesting challenging time for my family. In that sense, I know many of our artists who are out of work have graciously used their time and artistry to create masks for others, in this time where supplies are desperately needed by the medical field but also our local community and our elderly, some of the most vulnerable. I think also in this time when this pandemic has been ravaging and been so revealing of the structural inequalities in our capitalist country. Just how divided we are in our understanding of equity especially now with just the rise of racism toward Asians and Asian-American bodies. And so I know many of us who are POC (People of Color) API (Asian Pacific Islander) in the theatre community have started movements and I applaud them and continue that fight.

Bri: How do you think this pandemic specifically effects the queer community, POC & immigrant communities here in New York?

Gaven: I identify as a queer brown first gen. Well I’m technically 1.5 because I lived both back and forth in the US and in Asia growing up. And it's been distressing. I think about my friends who are HIV+. Think about how they’re getting their medication. I think about how I was a public school teacher and I specialize closely with a lot of first gen students, newly arrived students. So I am thinking a lot about them and their families and how they are. Undocumented folk, how they are getting help and if they can get help because at the end of the day they're the ones who are forced to work. We call them “essential workers” but we don't give them the time of day to help them realize and affirm their humanity. Yeah and so also I will say this to anyone watching and listening it's very interesting the questions, like I was given the questions previously, but I think what’s so difficult especially in a time of great urgency and emergency it's still challenging. As Bri said, none of us have answers that can solve things or fully clarify the situations. so if you hear me struggling I'm just wrestling with my own thoughts and my own feelings so I just wanted to give you that. Thank you for your understanding.

Bri: What role do you think that theatre and arts organizations have in this current moment to serve in these communities?

Gaven: I think I'm going to answer this in multiple parts. I think one, I will preface, I feel artists should not feel so beholden or pressured to create at this time. I think there is an importance of acknowledging that artists are human beings too and there is a point of grieving and loss and I would say self care is so necessary. As one RuPaul would say “how can you love someone else If you can’t love yourself.” And I think that extends in love very generously in many different forms. And so I will just say before anyone says to create, create, create, to just take care of yourself.

I think another part is if you are in a place, in a place of privilege, of opportunity, to do and create work and you feel as an artist, "I believe artists are healers of a community", do it. If it makes you live and it makes other people live, do it. Another part, which is very important, I believe theatre makers are also the historians of a community. I think part of our job right now is to also make sure that the history is recorded. I was in academia and as many of those in academia know, history is written and is created by a larger voice. And so what does it mean for all of us to write down and document this time?

And because you know one of the biggest viruses America has is amnesia. How we easily forget recent history, trauma, and turmoil and I hope this is something that we don’t forget. And so please especially if you have children tell them, give them a pen and pencil, write down in their journal, draw it out. I think everyone has, and us theatre makers affirm, that everyone has a voice and should continue sharing the skills necessary.

And the fourth, I know I’m breaking the rules of three but I think a fourth would be great. Yeah, survive. We are in and I think this is mostly for institutions, it’s a double whammy. We live in a country where arts organizations do not get a lot of federal funding or none at all. Unlike many countries. And because we live in a capitalist society we devalue the arts especially in this pandemic where we are all needing to have money to survive. I don't want to pressure arts institutions to produce something in which they feel they need to keep face. I think at the end of the day when we go through this I would be at a loss and I would be going through another grieving process knowing arts organizations could not, did not survive through this. I think right now in the worst times people are now searching for the arts to fulfill their soul, to heal them, to remind them they too can make believe and be in tune with their own emotions. I just hope people remember that afterwards as well.

Bri: Right absolutely. And so yeah there's this question of what we do in the moment vs. later. And so I guess the question I have for you is that community engagement usually means we are gathering at theatres right, different art spaces. What does engagement mean for a community when you can’t gather?

Gaven: It's been interesting. I can speak for New York Theatre Workshop, as some of you may know we are trying to find ways we can connect with a larger audience and share our artists and their ideas and make it available and it's all for free. And for us I think right now it's so meaningful to hear people who want to keep creating and want to keep learning. To know that there are all of these artists who are also trying to still discover and figure it out how to work and survive and create community through this. It's difficult.

I think one of the biggest things I love about theatre and anyone who has seen the shows and knows the shows I direct its very much about dispelling heirarchies and queer community building and queer collaboration thats another interview to talk about. But, it is something that we cannot forget. That yes we can do Zoom readings, we can do these online events. They are not the same thing. They can not replace each other. It does not mean that we can not do it. Or that there are different levels; they're just different languages. One is digital and the other is not.

And, I guess going back to the question what does it mean for community engagement. We are just learning a language, a digital language in which we know we can connect but also very much acknowledge the limitations of it. But it shouldn't stop us from getting together, having brunches, having conversations such as these. And so one of the pilot programs that i was doing last week for the workshop we were trying to do an emerging artist corner like a group of 20 or so and the idea is that it's a lunchtime thing so people can bring in their lunch. We discuss as artists different topics. Last week was what's the role of an artist during the time of Covid and some of the things I said were some of the things we discussed. It is creating spaces for people in which they can wrestle with the now plan for the future and learn from the past and i know that sounds vague but thats whats hitting me right now there is only so much we can do. But I think along with the community I think I'm seeing people you know doing these sewing parties to create masks. I think that's magnificent if that's what moves you, do it. I think we're in a world in which we must take leaps in discovering what that means. Personally for myself I've been doing Netflix parties with my friends. And we're all throughout the US but knowing that we’re there and the acknowledgement that you know we are responding to something together will suffice for now. But I am so hungry to be in a room with people.

Bri: Yeah and that leads me into another question: do you think that Covid-19 and the way we’ve had to adapt will shift the way theatres engage communities in the future?

Gaven: I believe so. In the more immediate future, we will have to take precautions in which knowing in science we will have different waves coming in once we know what this is and we have a vaccine and I think what's so difficult is that creating theatre is very communal you are in a room with the same 30 people or so for an entire month. And then you add another 50, 100, 600, 1000 something and does that mean do we have spaces between the chairs. Does that mean we have very closed rehearsals? Or even a limited time? Or does that mean that some of the rehearsals are via zoom? Which is not unheard of.

One of my friends from India was restaging a play that he directed and they were restaging it in India but he was redirecting them via Skype. And so it's not unheard of. I think it'll just be an understanding that it is another tool but it's not a replacement for the real thing and maybe we will find new forms of theatre. Some of the things I write are very much with technology and so what are the different ways in which we might discover new theatrical forms at this time. I’m very much into VR. I saved my money and got myself an oculus. I am a GAYmer. G A Y M E R. And so I don't know where I'm going with this but I do wonder what are the things that do change immediately. Because I don't believe 60 people are going to just be thrown into a room and just say create. I think there will be a staggering of things. And will we go back to what it was before? Yeah maybe in a different form theatre people adapt we adapt all people adapt we will just have precautions to help us understand what may be the situation for years to come.

Bri: You’re somebody that I’ve looked up to a lot in terms of community engagement and as another Asian person. So if you could offer one piece of advice- if it’s to me that’s fine, if it's to the rest of the theatre community, if it’s to emerging artists, what's the piece of advice you’d want to give right now to people in our field?

Gaven: I think I am going to echo something I said before. Take care of yourself. This is a terribly hard time. And whoever is listening and needs to hear this you know like if you can't create now don't force yourself to. Maybe this is not the time. And for those who do go ahead. Maybe let your wildest dreams just run off and write and create, dance, don't let this stop you. But either way both ways are a form of self care, of self sustainability. Because when we move to the next stage in which we start coming together that's when we need you the most.

We are rebuilding a community and everyone is part of it. If you know other people who need help and you have that privilege to assist I hope in the bottom of your heart you can do something even as the smallest gesture. Getting someone groceries or, you know, making masks, cheering on at 7:00 the essential workers, being kind and being patient as we are all waiting and trying to help each other when we have to go to places in New York.

It's very odd to give advice when basically this is the same advice I'm trying to give myself. Like when this first started, it was very difficult. Two weeks in I had to admit to myself I was depressed. And once I acknowledged that and I let myself grieve for the sudden change. Just to give backtrack at NYTW we had two shows going on we had Endlings by Celine Song and Sanctuary City by Martyna Majok. We closed the shows and we had this last minute celebration of their work and the cast's work and we knew that would be the last time in a long time that we would all see each other in that way. And I think I just remember as we were all dancing and, you know, doing The Cupid Shuffle, there was so much joy in the room and in the excitement of knowing that someone else cares for you and can reach out and touch your hand. I yearned for that. I craved that and it was very helpful when I realized that's why I was so sad. And I was happy I then took time for myself. I started mustering up and doing things. I ran this morning with my dog. 3 miles. Oh my gosh I don't know why I did that. And it's just harder because I wear a mask now when I run.

But you know, mourn. And then find things to make yourself happy as much as you can. Find things to make other people happy. That could be in various ways. I know I'm talking in circles.

Bri: Not at all! You said Netflix parties with friends, running. Are there any other ways that you’re finding self care right now?

Gaven: Yeah it's interesting. I know I said you don't need to force yourself to create but I'm in a very interesting position. I started playwriting and some of my plays are actually getting noticed. It's a very odd thing because I'm a first time playwright and it's actually moving me up through different processes and recognition. And so I'm going back to my plays for rewriting and this has been in the sense of realization of how I feel when I do.

I think the particular play I was looking back on was like “A-ha it makes more sense”. And so there's a point of clarity and it's just been fun. I'm also a cartoonist and so I've been commissioned by the workshop (New York Theatre Workshop) so you'll see almost every week or every other week a different cartoon. If you get an email right now, like this morning or last night, that image, the New Yorker-esque graphic, that's me. So I’m the one who actually illustrates all of those. So just wait till next week. And that has brought me joy.

Cooking has been great and taking care of my parents. I love my parents. You know it's not a perfect relationship, but it's a great relationship either way. Same with my little brother, my heart goes out to him. He's in his first year in college. So I had to go up and in a very dramatic way get his stuff and was like “we have to come back down.” I called him on the day of all of the Broadway shows cancelling and for like, the past month or so, because a lot of my relatives are medical professionals they were warning us like please wash your hands everywhere. Because I remember I was thinking back to like Valentine's Day and I was eating at a buffet with my childhood friends who are also Asian American first gen and we were talking about my friend who wanted to move to Singapore and she said I think I need to wait. I remember we were discussing it and I think we might need to wait. Before we make that decision. So it's very interesting that it was very much in my family's mind. It’s like how did we get here? But oh dang I miss that buffet. It's fine.

Bri: I miss buffets too. I guess this is a two part question. Are there any queer piecies of media that are really interesting to you right now? Are there any resources that come to mind for queer people but queer artists and immigrant artists as a whole?

Gaven: You know what's really interesting, I'm the worst pop culture queer ever. I'm very much, I've been I think beforehand I was like “go to The Center.” I think now the center has online stuff happening I think for me if its queer stuff ive been rereading queer plays a play that I’ve recently reread was Half Bright Light so please read that. One of the few two hander pieces where if features queer women. And so I was like yeah. I reread A. Rey Pamatmat’s Edith Can Shoot Things especially this idea of young people in isolation in a different way. This self imposed isolation when their parents leave. I've been doing that. Ive just been writing my own queer stuff.

Bri: Yeah we need it.

Gaven: Oh yeah, I remember now. Things that make me happy its not neccessarily queer but queer friendly. I am a big fan of comedian Nicole Beyer.

Bri: I love her so much.

Gaven: I listen to two of Nicole's podcasts and they make me happy every Wednesday and Friday. Wednesday is her and Sasheer’s and that makes me tee hee hee so much. And then something that has actually helped me as someone in my friend group who is constantly single. I am notoriously single all the time not choosing just because which is fine. I laugh at myself for it. I mean going to shows is cheap, just one ticket. I listen on Friday’s Why Won't You Date Me?

Bri: I listen to that religiously every Friday too.

Gaven: If you listen from the first episode to the most recent episode the sense of growth and acknowledgement of one's self worth is so beautiful it's been so life affirming. And so that actually makes me laugh. Especially the earliest episodes in which Nicole Beyer calls her ex’s. Or people with who she's hooked up with to be on the show and asks them questions.

Bri: And they’re really responsive. We will have to connect offilie. I have so many thoughts with that, I love it so much.

Gaven: It makes me so happy. Oh and also call people! The lost art of calling a person. Please call people. That's what I've been doing with my queers. We have just been literally not even zoom just calling each other. I realize throughout this entire thing I haven't been looking at the screen I've been doing this. I think because of my intuition it's just really hard.

Bri: A final question for you is why do we need to keep queer theatre alive?

Gaven: Oh my gosh for many reasons. So when I create theatre, I used to not tell this to people and now I just tell it to everyone. Everytime I write or I direct, or I do anything in theatre, I dramaturg, I make the show as if I am doing it only for my 10 year old self. What that little queer gaybe needed to hear. So i think at this time that's always the thing there will always be new generations. And so they always need that affirmation of knowing what we've gone through and what we’ll do to create better places and it writes down our history especially now. I mean always write down our history but the people whom i'm thinking of and my colleagues are right now especially in this pandemic are my black and brown families, my families who are HIV+, families who are undocumented.

I don't know how, it's just hard when I don't hear from people. But a story that I'm not hearing is how they’re hit and they also happen to be many people who are essential workers and have to live and survive having to navigate that especially a world in which their bodies alone. Please just write. Do something that you feel is good for you. But queer theatre, you know, the work that ive seen thats coming out in the histories and seeing so many different bodies on stage I can not wait. Like lesbian, trans artists, non gender conforming, the queer future in this dystopia. I can not wait until we are back. Keep imaging it. Always reach out for it.

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