Fall 2016 Travel Grant Recipient
Marina McClure, director of The New Wild (Brooklyn, NY) will conducted a six-day artistic retreat to continue writing a new musical about Afghanistan, Tear a Root from the Earth. The retreat included composers Johnny Walsh (Washington, DC) and Qais Essar (Phoenix, AZ), and book writer John Bair (Brooklyn, NY). They continued to develop their unique fusion of Afghan and American folk music, refine the story of the piece, and make demo recordings.
The team behind Tear a Root from the Earth offers guidance on how to go about creating inter-cultural work, including by conducting research, consciously building a core team, and building connections with non-artists across cultures.
Making Inter-Cultural Work
The team behind Tear a Root from the Earth – a new musical that builds bridges between American and Afghan cultures using folk music traditions – offers some lessons in making inter-cultural work drawn from our experiences. We don’t have all the answers to the complex questions raised by undertaking this kind of work, but we believe that following a few steps will set you up for success in your own process.
Step 1: Research, Research, Research
Research is vitally important whether or not you have personal experience with the cultures you are interacting with in your work. Understanding the history, culture, and artistic tradition of the people you seek to analyze, depict, or engage in your work is absolutely essential. We have also found that it is insufficient to conduct research simply on the issue or theme that your work will cover; more depth and breadth is necessary to put your work in the appropriate context of the culture you are seeking to engage. Additionally, truly mastering the material you want to work with will be invaluable in Steps 2 and 3. You will also want to be familiar with the historical coverage by other artists of the topics, themes, or events explored in your work. Understanding the artistic precedents is crucial, especially if you are working with cultural material that was previously unfamiliar to you or members of your creative team. And finally, you will want to research the work currently being made by artists and cultural groups that are relevant to your work. Engage with these artists and groups and become a part of their community.
Step 2: Assemble the Right Team
As you go about assembling your team, consider not just the art you want to make, but also the institutions you want to engage, the funders you want to court, and the audience you want to build. This is clearly important if you are making inter-cultural work that engages with cultures that you do not personally identify with. For our team, it was clearly important for us to have an American and Afghan composer, as our piece lives at the intersection of these cultures and traditions. But given the diversity of the American music and cultural elements we wanted to include in the piece, we also wanted artists and designers that could offer perspectives commensurate with the diversity of this country. Having a team with many backgrounds has allowed us to make conscious choices about which team members engage in which outreach efforts, whether with media, supporting institutions, or funders. This is especially important in Step 3.
Step 3: Build Relationships
Strong relationships are key to developing work with an eye toward production and distribution. We expect artists know how to build relationships with other artists, but we also encourage you to reach out to non-artists who are part of the cultures you are trying to engage in your work. Consider contacting the Embassies of relevant countries – nearly every Embassy has a cultural attaché whose job it is to help promote inter-cultural dialog and understanding through art. Also reach out to diaspora and expat communities within the United States or around the globe. For example, in addition to building a partnership with the Afghan Embassy, we have forged relationships with the Afghan American Women Association, Afghan-American Chamber of Commerce, and various Afghan student union groups at universities in Washington, DC and New York. These groups have each offered something different to our effort, and help us build our audience. As you make your own connections and build relationships, it is important that you make clear that you are not simply looking to be taught by these people, but rather you are interested in engaging and becoming a part of their communities. Consider what it is that you can offer to them. Make sure that you are seizing every opportunity to give, and not just taking. Additionally, you might find that your outreach efforts are met with hesitance or even suspicion. This is where your research and diverse team are very important. Spend time anticipating the questions and/or possible objections of these groups and develop answers to them. Preparation is essential and also puts you on firmer footing to be able to offer something in exchange for whatever you receive from your outreach efforts.