Nafeesa Monroe: ‘I Have a Vision of Inclusive Theatre’

Nafeesa Monroe: ‘I Have a Vision of Inclusive Theatre’

Originally published on The Industry Cosign October 7, 2015

Inclusive Theatre is a concept that should be a given, especially in today’s diverse society. Some may feel we have advanced as far as racial, cultural and even gender equality, but, as most reading this knows, this is untrue. Advanced, maybe, in theory that opportunities are much better than previously, but, not so much that there is STILL a lot of work to do to even the scales.

This is one of the primary reasons a company like Classics In Color exists. To provide the opportunity to include people of color in ALL aspects of the arts, and specifically, theatre. The Industry Cosign had the chance to speak to the founder and artistic director of Classics In Color, Nafeesa Monroe, after a successful run of Proof by David Auburn. She tells us how she got her start, her views on inclusive theatre and why she felt the need to start Classics In Color.

1. Could you tell us who Nafeesa Monroe is and how did you get your start in the arts?

I am a woman of African-American, Haitian, German & Irish descent who grew up in Palo Alto, CA. It was a financial struggle to live there, but the schools, and the city-funded and community-supported children’s theatre made it worth it. When I was about ten years old, my single mom took me to the theatre to ask if I could “help out” with anything because couldn’t afford to pay for the classes that summer. The technical director of the theatre said with a huge smile “Of course!” and in the next year I was taught how to build, paint, and keep a clean shop (including sorting screws…oh goodness, how I hated sorting screws).

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I spent a majority of my formative years at the theatre, building sets, sewing costumes, folding programs, running lights, assistant directing, singing, dancing, and acting onstage. From the ages of ten to twenty I appeared in over 20 stage productions. The theatre was always a place where I belonged, even though no one looked like me, acted like me, or talked like me. We all just belonged. For me, that is what always brings me back to theatre, that there is always a place for everyone.

2. You are the Artistic Director & Founder of Classics In Color, what is the company about and why did you feel the need to start this entity?

Classics in Color (https://www.facebook.com/ClassicsInColor) is a theatre company committed to inclusion, onstage and off, especially in the classics. We choose to demonstrate, and be the model for, ethnic, gender, age, & physically challenged inclusivity. Through our work, we hope to demystify the classics and create accessible theatre to which we all can relate. We want all people to be able to see a version of themselves onstage, to feel included. What I have found more often than not in other theatres, especially on Broadway, is not the intention to leave anyone out, but a LACK OF INTENTION to INCLUDE everyone, a lack of effort to pay attention, to question if one’s productions represent the community they intend to engage.

This lack of intention is the one that truly fuels the flames of the fire within, the fire that decided to give rise to Classics in Color: A Theatre Company. Because there continues to be an incredible number of theatre companies who do not even consider diversifying their casts, I chose to create a theatre company with the intention of INCLUSION at its foundation.

3. You have many titles, if you could only do one thing, what would it be and why?

What a great question. Of all the titles, the most important to me now is Artistic Director. I feel I can affect the most change in that role, and that’s really what I want to do. I see changes I want to make in the landscape of American theatre. I see actors I want to have opportunities to shine, classic tales that need to presented as inclusive pieces of art. This is what holds the largest importance for me.

4. What type of plays does Classics In Color do? Do you lean towards a specific type of genre and do you have anything planned for the immediate future?

We are geared toward classic and classical theatre. Of course, some of that is up for interpretation. For classic plays, right now we’re focusing on what can be considered American classic plays (i.e. Proof, by David Auburn – our inaugural production), usually Pulitzer Prize winning pieces. The classical theatre will include Shakespeare, Moliere, Jacobeans, Greek tragedies, etc.

There are two things happening in the immediate future: 1. Developing our education department (classes and training for youth and adults), and 2. Starting a reading series of plays we’re considering for full production. Both of these will begin at the beginning of November this year.

5. What motivates you to continue working in the arts on a daily basis?

I’ll be the first to admit that it can be challenging. But there is no other way to say it than to say this is my time to be doing this work. I know it, I can feel it at my center, every time I answer an email, write a letter, write a blog post. My work is here, in Classics in Color, and I do my best to honor that and put in the time and effort every day. I have a vision of inclusive theatre, and others are on the journey with me, it may be daunting, but we’re in it together.

6. If you can do anything over again, what would it be and why? How would you do it the second time?

The one thing I would change is how, in the beginning, I played “small.” I often said “I don’t know” to others, even though I had a pretty darn good idea. I often conceded to someone else’s idea(s). None of this benefiting the company, in fact, several times, I ended up having to do twice the work to fix something I knew wasn’t going to work in the first place. The lesson: speak your mind, use what you know, be open to improvements, but have confidence in what you know and play BIG! I am done playing small. Shine as bright as you are, at all times!

7. What is one of your proudest achievements thus far and what would you like to accomplish in the future?

I would say the full co-production of Proof, by David Auburn, with a multi-ethnic cast is thus far our proudest achievement. I say “our” because it is not just me. There’s no way I could do this alone. It takes a village, of company members, donors, volunteers, audience members, artists, believers, willing to put in the time, the money, the sweat.

For the future, I want it ALL! Who doesn’t!? Ultimately, I see a thriving theatre company, producing works that are inclusive across the board, inclusive of all ethnicities, all physical able-ness, and all gender (by birth & choice). I would love to see our community on stage and in the audience. I want the audience to be able to recognize themselves on stage.

8. What advice would you give to anyone who wants to have a long and fulfilling career in the arts?

Here’s the painful, but real truth: have an awesome survival job. The arts will not always pay your bills, but they will always feed your soul. Be sure you have a way to pay your bills too. This job can be IN the arts as well: working in admin for a theatre company, being a teaching artist, or working behind the scenes in the theatre building sets, making costumes, etc. A life in the arts is not easy, but if it’s what you feel is your path, then by all means pursue it. Every artist makes an impact in the world. Every artist can make the world a better place.

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