Social-Justice Theater: Two-Cents From A $1 Theater

by Aug 28, 2019Arts, Interviews, Queer Arts

Performance art is sacred in Seattle. Comedy, music, spoken word, and theater – shining spotlight on heart is venerated in Seattle and maybe more so in this politically-charged time. Performance is a vulnerable medium for performers and attendees, and theaters have been increasingly called out in the Me-Too era, making Seattle an exemplary study. There are as many approaches to progress as there are Seattle theaters. This is the first in a series of profiles about doing this work.

The Pocket Theater in Seattle’s Greenwood neighborhood is celebrating its five-year anniversary this fall and has attracted many performers from veteran theaters. I interviewed the Pocket’s owner and manager Sarah, in a conversation at Kaladi Brothers Coffee, about their approach.

What’s your background as an artist?

Middle school, high school theater nerd – ohhhh, god, ughh! I went to college, auditioned for some plays, and didn’t get cast. So, I tried out for the improv and sketch teams, and I got in. I fell into comedy as a fluke and then realized I liked it more than anything else.

Also, something I love about creating my own work, as opposed to acting in plays, is that I don’t have to ask permission, and I can write the things I want to see in the world, and I can write roles for myself that fit me and are in line with my values.

So, theater nerd turned comedian in college. Now my focus is sketch comedy and improv.

How did you get involved with the Pocket?

Honestly, I feel like a lot of wonderful things that have happened to me I’ve failed into. Like, in college, I didn’t get cast in a play, that felt like a failure, but then I found comedy. I still studied theater all through college, and I thought I wanted to direct plays for a living, because I thought it was selfish for me to want to be an actor. I don’t know why. I didn’t think it was selfish for anybody else, just for me. I applied to a bunch of directing internships all over the country, and I didn’t get a single one. Thank goddess, that would’ve been a nightmare! I would’ve been miserable.

I followed a friend up to Seattle in summer 2014 after I graduated from college. Then I [figured], comedy made me really happy in college – why don’t I do more of that? I started going to improv shows, and I ran into Clayton [the Pocket’s founder and former owner] at the Ballard Underground. He was running tech, and I said, “Oh, I know who you are. You’re someone who does comedy.” At the time, he had just gotten the physical space for the Pocket. I asked, “So, sketch comedy – how do you do that?” He invited me to his weekly writers’ room. I started hanging out at the Pocket and volunteering to host shows and run the bar, thinking “wow, this place is really cool.”

The whole thing [at the Pocket] is that people don’t have to pay to perform. And it’s really welcoming – that’s what the culture felt like. At the time I was working barista jobs. But I was looking for other work. I told Clayton, “Hey, I’m looking for other work, like if you know people who write for a living – I’m just trying to figure out what I wanna do. I just know it’s not coffee anymore.”

Then he called me one day, in February 2016, and said, “I need some help with administrative stuff. Would you want to take on some administrative tasks?” That turned into me becoming assistant manager. Then, summer 2016, I became the manager. Then, in late summer 2017, he decided to move to Denver with his longtime partner. And he told me, “I can’t run the business while I’m in Denver. Do you want to buy it from me for a dollar?”

So I bought the business from him for a dollar, and that’s how that happened. Which is just an unbelievable opportunity. I basically got Willie Wonka-ed a business. It’s, it’s unreal. And, since then, my mission has been to continue doing the work of knocking down barriers to entry and expanding that.

Where does the Pocket fit among arts venues?

The way we got started was based on Clayton interviewing a bunch of artists, a bunch of performers, and asking them what they need. They said things like, “Rental fees are really high at theaters, and we need a place we can perform without paying an upfront rental fee. We need videos of our sets. We need someone who can help us run tech. We want there to be a bar, ’cause that’s fun.” All kinds of things like that. “And we need somewhere with a projector.” Clayton had no intention of starting a theater. He just asked people what they needed and then created that. So, the Pocket started out as a place addressing “what are people’s needs?”

When I look at the world, and I look at “what do people need?” and “who gets to participate, and who doesn’t get to participate?” I try to see who faces oppression and violence, and how can I, as a person in a position of leadership and as a gatekeeper, knock down those barriers to entry and dismantle white supremacy?

It’s sort of funny because people have solved these problems. There are organizations who have solved these problems and are doing it.”

Why do you think it’s important for arts organizations to focus on social justice?

Arts organizations run by queer people, by people of color, run by people from marginalized identities, don’t ask themselves this question in the same way because they know what it’s like to exist in the world, and they don’t get to opt in or out. But white-led organizations get to opt in or out of addressing the reality of white supremacy, just like white people in the world get to opt in or out. And when you don’t address it, you are upholding white supremacy and violence. I would say that it is violent for organizations to not address the truth of white supremacy within their organizations, and ableism and queer phobia and classism and xenophobia and misogyny.

Institutions are predominantly founded by white men because those are people who have money, and it takes money to make an institution. I feel that this question is getting asked more and more because these institutions are led by white, cis, abled dudes a lot of the time. With that, if you are a person who cares about other people, then it’s your responsibility to address this in your life. And when you are a person who is at the head of an organization or is part of an organization, you are in a position to dismantle issues of white supremacy and ableism and misogyny and queerphobia in your community. And why wouldn’t you do that? I think why a lot of people don’t do it is they feel guilty. I have seen this at organizations before when someone has received a piece of feedback saying that they are doing something that is harmful. I think there’s a lot of fragility that comes into play there where people get feedback that they’re doing something harmful, and they make that mean that about them as a person. They think it means someone’s calling them a bad person. They don’t see themselves as a bad person, so they don’t believe they’re causing harm, and they continue to do what they’re doing because it challenges their perception of themselves, rather than taking the note, taking the feedback.

It’s sort of funny because people have solved these problems. There are organizations who have solved these problems and are doing it. I think a lot of white-led organizations will sort of meander around like they’re chickens with their heads cut off because, uh – I actually am not sure why. I don’t know if it’s a lack of – I think it might be [about] getting caught up in white guilt and feeling like “Oh, I’m bad person” when that’s not the answer. The answer is to do your research. I guess I can’t necessarily answer – hmm, I guess it might not be a priority for arts organizations. For white-led arts organizations it means giving up a privilege and power afforded to you because of white supremacy, and you don’t have to think about it in your day-to-day life. So you choose not to because you have the choice. And I think that’s wrong. I don’t want to be an organization that doesn’t address the reality of white supremacy because it hurts and kills people.

What specific efforts are happening at the Pocket to aid this?

I guess I’ll go through what my process has been. I would say, if you’re serious about focusing on dismantling systems of oppression and dismantling white supremacy and ableism and misogyny and queer phobia in your organization, first you have to realize that it is a problem in the world. I’ve seen organizations say that they value diversity, equity, and inclusion, but I don’t really know what that means. And it typically centers whiteness. It centers white feelings about all those things rather than dismantling the power structures.

So, first, I think everyone in the organization has to be on board with the reality that this does exist, that racism exists, and that it exists in your organization and that all white people uphold white supremacy, and that’s the reality of it, and benefit from white supremacy, so you have to dismantle it.

People say you can’t know what you don’t know. It’s OK to not know, but it’s not OK to know you don’t know and do nothing. Something I did when I first took over the Pocket was I consulted with someone who has experience in dismantling white supremacy in arts organizations, and I paid them for their time.

There’s all kinds of resources that I think people don’t know about, and they feel overwhelmed and feel white guilt, and they shut down. So, get on board, do your research. You have to be aware of what problems are going on out in the world and see how those are reflected in your institution and go through and look at facets of your institution where those things come into play.

Like my own vantage point – I sort of believed that, uh, dude-led organizations are not going to look out for my interests and that I have to look out for my own interests. Being a queer non-binary femme, I know about shitty things that happen to queer non-binary femmes. It was easier for me to identify [those] problems. One problem was I would constantly get misgendered in classroom settings, so I made it mandatory that instructors have students share pronouns and respect those pronouns.

So, I was looking at other things that exist in the world. And, one example would be police violence, racialized police violence, specifically police killing black folks. I decided “in what can I do with this in my institution?” that we’ll choose not to involve the police. If you’re not going to involve the police, then you need to be able to handle situations in a different way. I started researching conflict de-escalation, and I took my staff to a conflict de-escalation class and paid them for their time. And these de-escalation classes are free. There are great organizations that do them. You just have to do the work of finding them. From there, I worked with my staff, and we developed policies that we teach to people who come through the space of what to do when you encounter an escalated situation and how to avoid calling the police. And if you do end up calling the police, you have to tell everyone in the venue that the police have been called to give everyone a chance to exit to keep themselves safe.

Something the Pocket does, and that I think is necessary for growth of an organization, is making sure there’s a way to give anonymous feedback. We have a form you can fill out on our website and all our ticketing pages, and it’s in my email signature, and it goes to my inbox – and our staff, if people have an experience and don’t feel comfortable sharing that with me personally because I am a leader. I’m in a position of power, and it would be completely absurd for me to act like I’m completely approachable if someone doesn’t know me, or even if someone does know me.

And we have a sign in the bathroom that says, “If you’re having an experience of feeling unsafe or harassed, you can talk to someone at the bar, and we’ll take care of you and prioritize your safety.” At the top of every show, we say, “Anything can happen in a show, but your personal boundaries will not be crossed. The performers will not touch you without your permission. Please also don’t touch the performers unless you’ve been invited to.” Simple as that.

Like I said, I’ve seen organizations get feedback or be afraid to get feedback because they’re afraid of what people will say. You have to get over or process your feelings that you failed. I think sometimes in social justice circles, people talk about guilt as if it’s a bad thing, like “dude guilt” or “straight guilt” or “white guilt.” I don’t think those feelings are bad, and you get to feel them. But, you don’t get to center them in your decision making.

I look at the things in place and how I can leverage my resources toward dismantling white supremacy. My resources are space, money – if we have a good month – stuff like that. Because not only am I a white person at the head of an organization, and I have benefited from white privilege throughout my whole life, and I’ve benefited from white supremacy as a white person, I have this organization where I can leverage that. Also, I think it’s important to give directly because I have benefited from my white privilege my entire life, and reparations are not happening in this country. I think you have to take it into your own hands and give directly to people. Yeah. Yup!

Disclosure: This article’s author, Lee Nacozy, is a Pocket supporter and participant.