“Solidarity is the warp & weft from which our theater is constructed”: In Conversation with Meena Natarajan

Call & Response talked with Pangea World Theater’s Artistic & Executive Director about ensemble, truth, and community during these dark times.

Meena Natarajan is a playwright and director and Artistic & Executive Director of Pangea World Theater, a progressive, international ensemble space that creates at the intersection of art, equity and social justice. She has led the theater’s growth since it’s founding in 1995. Meena has co-curated and designed many of Pangea World Theater’s professional and community based programs. She has written at least ten full-length works for Pangea, ranging from adaptations of poetry and mythology to original works dealing with war, spirituality, personal and collective memory.  Her performance text, Etchings in the Sand co-created with dancer Ananya Chattterjeahas been published by Routledge in a volume called Contemporary Plays by Women of Color: The Second EditionMeena leads ensemble-based processes in Pangea that lead to works produced for the stage. She has also directed and dramaturged several original theater and performance art pieces. She is currently on the board of the Consortium of Asian American Theaters and Artists and is on the advisory committee for the Community Arts Program at the University of Minnesota. Until recently, she was a National Theater Project Advisor at New England Foundation for the Arts.  She was on the Advisory Committee of the Community Arts Network, was on the founding board of the Network of Ensemble Theaters and was the president of Women’s Playwrights International. She was awarded the Visionary Award for mid-career leaders from the Minnesota Council of Nonprofits in 2013 and has been awarded grants from the Theatre Communications Group, Playwrights Center and the Minnesota State Arts Board.

C&R: Is there an object or a practice (sacred or mundane) that gives you solace in these dark times? 

MN: Several. We begin staff meetings, board meetings, many of our zoom meetings with two minutes of silence. Especially as we move from one zoom meeting to the next, it is a grounding practice that helps us cross that threshold between one meeting to the next. The sound of the bell beginning and ending the meeting. Especially at a time when its hard to feel the energy through a square on the computer screen, these little practices help connect and ground. Also, our daily practice of yoga and pranayama. The deep breathing allows me to arrive into the present and look forward to the day. Cooking healthy and delicious meals every day with love that seeps its way into the food. My mother has a phrase for it – “kai manam” which means hand fragrance/aroma roughly translated – that the food cooked in this way is flavorful. Speaking to my mother in India at the end of the day in a mixture of Tamil and English showing her my culinary creations on my phone. To me, these are all sacred moments. Priorities become so clear at a time like this.

C&R: Albert Camus, in his novel The Plague, writes: “At the beginning of a pestilence and when it ends, there’s always a propensity for rhetoric. In the first case, habits have not yet been lost; in the second, they’re returning. It is in the thick of a calamity that one gets hardened to the truth–in other words, to silence.” Where is your head, and your heart, in relation to the rhetoric, to our habits, and to the silence that falls when the hard truths of calamity come into focus?

MN: As soon as our show Sueño shut down, we went into action. Meetings, figuring out how to deal with the crisis, postponing, canceling, responding, asking for advice. It feels like it is important to take a deep pause at this time. Understanding that we are not in control all the time. Understanding that the universe is teaching us patience. It feels like an opportunity for that life-long journey to understand myself and my responses to those who are in my life. To understand that I am not separate from the world, I am of it. As an important teacher in my life, Jiddu Krishnamurti said, “Is it that we are so caught up in our own network of problems, our own desires, our own urges of pleasure and pain that we never look around, never watch the moon? Watch it. Watch with all your eyes and ears, your sense of smell. Watch. Look as though you are looking for the first time. If you can do that, that tree, that bush, that blade of grass you are seeing for the first time. Then you can see your teacher, your mother and father, your brother and sister, for the first time. There is an extraordinary feeling about that: the wonder, the strangeness, the miracle of a fresh morning that has never been before, never will be.” 

C&R: What does solidarity mean to you? In your work?

MN: Solidarity is the warp and weft from which Pangea is constructed. I believe deeply in the intercultural and intracultural work we do. To be in solidarity is to honor my roots and ancestry and to honor the same in others. To embody the pluriverse that we envision and that was the fabric of my childhood requires a steadfast discipline to rise above my own identity and stand with justice every day to be in solidarity with the communities around us locally, nationally, globally. 

C&R: What/who have you read, seen or listened to recently that really blew you away?

 “Pluriverse: A PostDevelopment Dictionary” by Ashish Kothari (Editor), Ariel Salleh (Editor), Arturo Escobar (Editor), Federico Demaria (Editor), Alberto Acosta (Editor). This book contains a bunch of essays from writers across the world that offer transformative solutions to the challenges in our world today. What I love about the book is that it consists of stories and ideas that have been practiced and continue to be practiced across the globe to create an ecologically and socially just world. I read it last year and continue to dip into its lessons in this moment of change.

C&R: Does truth still matter in a “post-truth” age? What role does art play in relation to the truth?

Truth matters more than ever. The fact is, there has always been misinformation and distortion of truth. But it’s at an unprecedented scale right now and seems insurmountable. Our principle artform is theater and telling stories on stage. We recognize that our stories are all we have. We have a right to tell our stories authentically in our own voices and to make those stories visible. All our stories are important. Our stories are true. The challenge is when we see our stories appropriated, distorted and stolen. Art can help us take those narratives back and tell them in the ways we want to and the languages we want to, whatever they happen to be. 

C&R: What/who gives you hope right now? 

The commitment of our staff, our board and the depth of our relationship with the beautiful community around us that we encounter on our screens. It is sustaining and enriching. The love and concern present in all our meetings, the genuine caring of the people around us. My family here and in India with all their beautiful eccentricities.

C&R: There is no shortage of apocalyptic thinking these days. But what if we could fill the future with visions of light instead? There is a Sikh prayer that asks, “what if this darkness is not the darkness of the tomb, but the darkness of the womb?” Seeing this dark moment instead as the prelude to a rebirth of sorts, what would the world look like in 50 years if you could imagine and bring that future into being?

This moment allows us the chance to reconstruct our world from the inequitable racist (including caste in India), patriarchal and capitalist systems we seem to be caught in that are environmentally and socially destructive to a saner alternative. This is why solidarity is more important than ever. If we can figure out how to learn from our grassroots moments or grand experiments locally, nationally and globally and seek solutions locally.  How can we learn to function in a way that is collaborative and builds together? When I experience Indigenous practices with my friends and mentors from the Dakota and Ojibwe community here as well as the web of deep relationships that we build in India, I see that building a world with relationality is the way forward. 

Mural on the Plaza Centenario from Pangea’s Lake Street Arts! Program. Mural created by Goodspace Murals. Photo by Meena Natarajan.

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