There’s a new summertime festival happening in Bentonville, Ark. Running June 2-12, Live in America has built its curatorial programming out of homegrown regional performances with 300 artists from eight communities across the United States. These communities are all historically places that sing, dance, cook, flourish, and strut in joy-fueled opposition to the political and artistic status quo. In that sense, Live in America asserts, these communities are the avant-garde.
“Your community is actually quite radical in place,” said Carra Martinez, the festival’s founding director, when describing the festival’s regional bent. “When communities are allowed to craft their own narrative, that narrative is more complex. We are not imposing on or colonizing them with a form of performance that isn’t indigenous or locally grown to their space,” which sets the festival apart from the often elitist way theatre is often thought of as being “brought” to the people. Indeed, in its in interdisciplinary approach, more capital-P Performance than capital-T Theatre, Live in America may be not so much a departure from theatre as, perhaps, the next step in its evolution.
Hosted at The Momentary, an interdisciplinary venue of Alice Walton’s Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art in Bentonville, all of the festival’s 13 events will be free. These include a wide array of offerings: Pop-up Powwow, which will synthesize contemporary and traditional performance, with an emphasis on two-spirit and “Indigiqueer” historical representation. The pop-up part asserts the adaptability and resilience of queer Indigeneity on Turtle Island, i.e., what we now call North America.
Laissez Faire will be a daylong presentation of musicians, folklorists, and dancers representing the cultural flow of a day in New Orleans. More Like a Hot Pot Less Like a Salad is a medley of choreography representing the diversity of the Arkansas Ozarks, and Homecoming is a ritual reunion exploring migrations to and away from Alabama’s Black Belt.
Enter the Night is an interactive Las Vegas performance spectacle using kitsch to upend the mythos of the American West; We Insist! is a “live playlist” of Detroit’s musical soundscape; El Puente is a multidisciplinary collection of border stories from Juárez, Mexico and El Paso, Texas; and More Than Land/Más que un territorio is a queer cabaret by Puerto Rican performance artists.
If this lineup sounds substantively and formally radical—a 2020 festival two-pager celebrated performances that dance, often literally, in the face of the American “cishet white men” status quo—it apparently isn’t too extreme for the festival’s unlikely underwriters: the Waltons of Arkansas, heirs of Walmart. Indeed, from 2018 to 2020, the Walton Family Foundation dedicated $822,494 to Live in America. Their funding since 2020, as the project has gone through a period of COVID delays, is not yet public in their database, but it can be reasonably estimated to be in the millions. And this Walton money is behind the radical Live in America operation, sans censorship.
“With anyone involved with Live in America, we immediately name: Here’s where the funding is coming from,” said Martinez. “It’s an extraordinarily bold gift to offer,” she added, as the project is “an idea of a way of working” as opposed to specific works of art. Indeed, Live in America is proposing nothing less than a new, hyper-localized system of American theatre, and it’s got the money to do it.
Certainly, critics of capitalism will note the role that megachains like Walmart have played in gutting local economies, manipulating workers, and contributing to an American oligarchy. How can Live in America disrupt the capitalistic status quo with one hand and take Walmart money with the other? As much as the festival’s offerings and ethos might seem at odds with the white Arkansan billionaire vibe, it is consistent with Alice Walton’s vision for Crystal Bridges, which has been cost-free and unapologetic in its art-as-social-justice scruples since its opening in 2011.
“The reality of capitalism in the United States is that even our largest, most upheld foundations’ funds come from slave-based agriculture, taking advantage of the labor of immigrants,” said Martinez. “Money is dirty in the United States. So our process is to name for everyone where the money is coming from.”
The Waltons might be billionaires, but at least they’re billionaires with an affinity for Americanist art, right? Or is the Walton funding a ploy to art-wash their store’s exploitative reputation? Perhaps it’s poetic justice for underrepresented artists to be compensated with Walmart’s bounty. Regardless of the hot takes on the purity of the festival’s funding, Live in America demands attention because of its financial scope and philosophical spirit.
“It’s hard to step outside a way of thinking when everybody lives within the same mode of making and doing,” said Martinez. “I’m interested in how we change things operationally. I think that’s the hardest thing that most white institutions are reluctant to do because it means giving up some power.” The festival began with two questions about the artists who would be programmed: “Who do we know that has a deep sense of community and connection to home and places that are not New York or Los Angeles, and are also not assholes?”
This intervention is not dissimilar from the movement that galvanized American theatre as we now know it. When the not-for-profit regional theatre movement asserted its morals in the 1960s, the premise was that every community deserved professional theater in tandem with, yet in opposition to, the commercial theater in major theatre hubs, namely New York.
With massive funding from the Ford Foundation, the movement sought to refine the relationship between perceptions of value and region. “The Great White Way” gave way to the Big Backyard. In a relatively short amount of time, endowed corporate sponsorships, philanthropic giving, and season subscription models led to a system of MFA programs, new-play commissions, and magnificent temples of regional theatre such as the Guthrie in Minneapolis.
Martinez was the inaugural director of community engagement at the Guthrie after completing her University of Minnesota doctorate research on avant-garde community performance in a now-gentrified neighborhood of East Austin. Before arriving in the Twin Cities, Martinez lived in Austin, where she trained in the aesthetics of experimental performance while teaching middle and high school during the daytime.
In the Austin scene, Martinez refined her theatremaking practice with the Refraction Arts Project, which morphed into the Fusebox Festival; its artistic director, Ron Berry, became Martinez’s advocate, advisor, and collaborator. Austin was the place Martinez returned to after spending 2016 to 2018 at the Guthrie, but she came back to her home state with a desire to work differently.
“When success looks like quantity of presentation, a rapidness of presentation, then it is hard to build relationships and trust inside those systems, because they’re moving so quickly and you have particular types of production goals and ticket sales goals and those kind of things,” Martinez said. “When there is less pressure on a community to produce rapidly, I found that those communities move at a different pace and with different purposes.”
It was under Fusebox’s umbrella that Martinez first conceptualized Live in America. Like the regional theatre movement, the festival would reject New York and Los Angeles as the de facto standard-bearers. Also, in Martinez’s vision, the festival would reassert the social justice ethos behind the original regional theatre movement. Further, the festival would rely on funds from a money-laden corporate sector rather than the limited kitty of public funds, just as many regional houses did and do to this day. The difference would be the relationship between programming, place, and process.
“I think every community has a history of cultural practice and performance, and those two things grow from the historical, economic realities of that place,” says Martinez. “They may not look like regional theatre or Western theatre, but they are theatrical, they are real, they have power.”
Trust is critical to bringing performance communities from Albuquerque, Detroit, El Paso/Juárez, Las Vegas, New Orleans, San Juan, and Western Alabama to Northwest Arkansas. To gain good faith, Martinez activated local producers and facilitators—and gave them a budget line. “The art that we bring is a type of street credibility,” said Ty Defoe, co-facilitator of the festival’s Albuquerque offering, and an interdisciplinary artist of the Giizhig, Oneida/Ojibwe Nations. He’s a co-producer of Pop-Up Powwow, alongside Jamelyn Ebelacker of the Santa Clara Pueblo Tribe and Amanda Luke of the Cherokee and Choctaw Nations.
Festival facilitators use their experience and instincts to build the relationship of trust that Martinez has made the modus operandi. “As we are charged with stewarding the land and the environment and our community,” Ebelacker said, “so we are charged with stewarding these relationships with these people and this culture…Fusebox Festival, the Walton Foundation, those are things that would definitely scare a lot of people away, because there is fear that you’re going to be put on a pedestal. A lot of Native people have been put in that position where they’re there for entertainment and not because people want to relate to them or understand their culture or share in that community.”
There was similar distrust to overcome with the New Orleans contingent, especially since the original Live in America dates coincided with the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival, a longstanding marketplace of culture-based compensation that has successfully balanced local engagement and global appeal. “We definitely had to do a site visit to Northwest Arkansas,” says C. Gypsi Lewis, co-facilitator of the New Orleans performance, Laissez Faire. “We know how special our folks in New Orleans are and we did not want to put anyone in harm’s way. We wanted to make sure we had a vision of who would fit the space that we were coming into.”
Getting buy-in from culture-bearers in New Orleans was key to legitimizing the festival’s vision, because among U.S. cities it has long represented an alternative cultural vision. “No one can argue that New Orleans is perhaps the most theatrical, performative city in the United States,” said Martinez, “but you don’t go to New Orleans to see theatre.”
While New Orleans has a vibrant, ragtag theatre community (one this magazine’s founding editor, the late Jim O’Quinn wrote about often), Martinez’s point is well-taken by this New Orleans native. As co-facilitator Jay Pennington (a.k.a. The DJ Rusty Lazer) reflected on life in the city: “I feel like I’m living in a constant Tennessee Williams play. I don’t feel like the drama ever stops—which is good and bad, but always interesting.” In New Orleans, porches are stages and culture is the plotline, the given circumstances.
Bringing the porch to Bentonville required time—which Live in America had a lot of, thanks to the pandemic. Indeed, the COVID-19 shutdowns may have made Martinez’s proposition of slowing down project timelines more palatable and less revolutionary. After a painful hiatus, the theatre industry has begun to reexamine its perspective on time management and to redefine the industry-wide relationship with “the show must go on.”
Live in America was scheduled to open in late 2020, then rescheduled to October 2021, but variants surged. Unintentionally, the festival has taken as long as it would traditionally take someone to finish an undergraduate degree, and I’ve been in conversation with Martinez for two years, waiting to report the festival’s story.
“I don’t know if we could have pulled off what we were attempting to pull off on the initial timeline,” Martinez reflects. “We did not give ourselves enough time, because we initially understood production in terms of the standard landscape of the way you do things. What exploded over time is that we have to let all of that go.”
Letting go wasn’t always easy. Sometimes it was people that had to be let go: Those who refused vaccination against the virus (which, at the time of this writing, has caused roughly 11,500 Arkansan deaths) were barred from participation. “You think that conversations around vaccinations would be very clear-cut because we’re all good, progressive liberals in this project,” said Martinez. “They’re just not.” Joy-filled programming is not devoid of pain.
The relationship between joy and pain is obvious to the folks represented by Live in America. For them, joy is a culturally collected tool to fight pain, as distinct from the trauma-lust of the American theatre. This performance festival aims to strike a new balance and tell different stories about American people and places.
“Rural communities, Southern communities, communities of color are often discussed through the lens of scarcity and deficit—what’s missing, weak, not good,” said Gary James, co-facilitator of Sumter County, Ala.’s offering. “We’ll be sharing what’s strong, present, and right about those communities.” James is facilitating the Alabama offering, Homecoming, with his mother, Glenda and community arts organizer Shana Berger. A bus of Alabamians will be en route to Arkansas soon enough.
Cynthia Post Hunt is a programmer at The Momentary and is a co-facilitator of the Northwest Arkansas offering in the festival, More Like a Hot Pot Less Like a Salad. Hunt estimates that somewhere between 5,000 and 8,000 visitors will be coming to Bentonville for Live in America.
The town is getting used to this sort of influx; since 2010, its population has doubled due to the Walton’s well-regarded museum. “There’s an urgency right now from many perspectives that art is important and valuable,” Hunt noted as she prepared the final touches for hosting the fest.
It’s a tough time for theatre festivals. It was recently announced that the Humana Festival of New American Plays at the Actors Theatre of Louisville, a trusty workhorse of the U.S. theatre, named for its health insurance sponsor, will not happen in 2022, and possibly not ever again. Could Live in America represent a new way—a new wave?
“There’s no way in hell we can produce this thing every year,” said Martinez. “Our pace is probably every three years.”
Martinez shared that after the festival is over, Live in America will establish a residency program in nearby Springdale, Ark., the state’s fourth-largest city. There, locals could be compensated to train in production skills, festival artists could be looped back into the Arkansas ecosystem, and local seasonal productions will be produced in the winter and summer. “We’re not interested in wiping the slate clean and starting over,” said Martinez when describing the festival’s future. “We’re interested in continuing these relationships.”
So how does place matter? Live in America argues that place is what matters most, and not in a nationalistic or isolationist way, but rather in humanistic terms. “The value of art is determined by the impact it has on people,” said Gary James. “In Sumter County, Ala., the work has had a positive impact on us.”
Given James’s assertion that art is not simply place-based but people-in-place-based, it’s apt that The Momentary has a message emblazoned in neon pink outside the venue: “You Belong Here” by Tavares Strachen. “You’re goddamn right I do,” Jamelyn Ebelacker of the Pop-Up Powwow said in response to the sign. “We belong here. We’re coming back.”
Alex Ates is a theatre artist from New Orleans and is the director of the arts at Westtown School outside of Philadelphia. He is the former industry news reporter at Backstage, where he still contributes, and studied theatre in Boston, Alabama, and New York.
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