Meena Natarajan and Dipankar Mukherjee: Acting with Intention
Where We Go From Here | Episode 13
Meena Natarajan, Executive and Artistic Director and Dipankar Mukherjee, Artistic Director, Pangea World Theater
Standing at the intersection of art and social justice, Pangea World Theater is built on collaborative and democratic practices that center the stories of immigrants, Indigenous people, and people of color. Spiritually driven by a sense of interconnectedness, Meena Natarajan, Executive and Artistic Director, and Dipankar Mukherjee, Artistic Director, bring people from diverse life experiences into community to create and experience art. The COVID-19 crisis and uprisings following George Floyd’s murder have deepened the Minneapolis nonprofit’s intentional work as it supports the local community and serves as a space to connect, share, and heal. Joining them is Jina Paik, Director, Advisory Services at NFF.
Meena Natarajan and Dipankar Mukherjee wish to acknowledge that Pangea World Theater is located in the traditional homeland of the Dakota people.
In this video:
- How Pangea World Theater’s name guides its mission. (0:22)
- How spirituality infuses Pangea’s mission and work. (1:36)
- How COVID-19 and George Floyd’s murder led Meena and Dipankar to be more intentional in their work, as well as their support of staff and community – including giving money to staff to respond to the crises. (3:04)
- What audience members don’t see in the work: collaborative and accessible practices meant to decolonize the work and the artists.(5:13)
- How anyone can cultivate meaningful relationships and a sense of community in their own life: “Just jump in and engage.”(9:38)
DIPANKAR: We were wondering, "How do we prepare?" But then we said, you know, Jina is cool. We'll have a conversation.
JINA: [Laughter] Absolutely.
JINA: When I went out and visited you a few years ago to do work together, I was really struck by just how interconnected your work was with the community and with just who you are as people. And I'd love to just hear a little bit more about your community and about your work in the community.
MEENA: So Pangea is 25 years old. In fact, we spent the entire 25th year in Covid, in the pandemic. And, you know, in these 25 years, one of the things that we created Pangea for was to bring people together from very different backgrounds and ethnicities to create work.
The word "pan" means universal. "Gaia" is a Greek goddess of the earth. And Pangea is that supercontinent that existed before drift happened and the whole world was one landmass. So we really took that very seriously and planned to bring people from different backgrounds together.
The question has always been, how do we stay relevant? How do we do work that's relevant? And how do we do work in a way that really includes everyone in the community?
JINA: You know, when I was talking with my colleagues at NFF, I was trying to give them a background on how amazing you are and just my own personal experience. And I was really struck by how much your work and your art connected with the community and with your lives and your humanity and just like the interconnectedness – your spirituality. Tell me where that comes from.
DIPANKAR: Spirituality, Jina, that's really at the core of our consciousness. You know, we wanted to – like what we – like what we do before we begin any meeting which we have done, even when you came to visit, that we do what we call this "two minutes."
And we all, we always sit in a circle, and we have a lamp in the center, and then we ring the bell and just exhale out the world that is outside. And so that we can – it's a moment of collective breath that we breathe together, and then we begin this journey together.
And we do that in the beginning of our meetings, in the beginning of our rehearsal, because some artists of color, you know, this is their third job, they work as a barista, they work ... And then they come and we are expecting top-level, intentional, physical work when we create work. So this gives everybody a time to just breathe out the world outside and breathe in.
JINA: That's so amazing. And, you know, as someone who has been working with you and seen your work, I think that is so felt in everything that you do. But I think it would be great if you could just walk me through maybe a recent favorite project of yours just to kind of give a sense for, like, what does that look like? What does that feel like? What are you doing when you are doing the work? How does the artist experience it? How does the audience experience it? I just would love to get a sense of that.
DIPANKAR: If you had asked this question, you know, say, two years ago, before the pandemic – before the pandemic of the virus and the pandemic of racism that erupted here, my answer would be very different.
But post brother [George] Floyd's murder, you know, all our work has become so much more intentional. You know, it's with intention we strengthen communities. We take our community less, our friends – whether it's our personal circle or professional colleagues – less for granted.
We were always standing at the intersection of social justice and art. But when Covid hit and all the businesses over here closed and so many of the artists who, Pangea was their second job; they would work in these restaurants and come.
So their source of income got completely taken away. So what we did was as much as we can, you know, get money into the hands of the artists so that ... You know, basic survival was in conversation. And even within Pangea staff, we provided seed money to everyone, all our 12-member staff, and we said, "You respond." To the street. You respond to George Floyd. You respond to ... So what we realized is that it just gave us a breakthrough of democratizing the process. And each one, when somebody was doing something, the rest of the staff were supporting. Another person did something, the rest of staff ... So it built a tremendous amount of, you know, strength.
JINA: You know, you're absolutely right. I can really hear such a shift that's happened in how you're thinking about your work. Could you speak a little bit about what are the things that people don't see? If you're an audience member at Pangea, what are the things that you think are so important that people don't see in the work – that you would love them to know about?
MEENA: I think that we would really love the audience to know about our process. We would love them to know – because I feel like for us the process is as important, if not more than what gets presented. Our process is very much about community. It's very much – like Dipankar said – sitting in a circle. It's also thinking deeply about the politics of space. It's like where people are on stage. Who comes first? Who enters the room first? Those things are very, very important. And so I think that what people will see is the thought that goes behind the work that we do and how we hold other artists as well. And how we hold artists – playwrights, performers, dancers – in a way that deeply respects their contribution to the process.
I think they would see how our work is truly collaborative, though that might show up in the final performance as well. And they would also see the fact that we sit in a circle and that the space itself is really open to everyone. I mean, of course we have a director, we have writers, we have all of that. And at the same time, there is an openness in the room that is born of, you know, making the space accessible to the people who are in the room. And everyone's ideas is heard, everyone's idea is listened to.
These are all practices that are to decolonize ourselves. And for us, I mean, both of us come from a country that has been colonized by the British. So much of our education as we were growing up was, you know, in English. And it was also mostly – English and American – mostly male dead white playwrights. So part of our work has been in the last 25 to 26 years is, how do we decolonize ourselves from this background that we come from? How do we respect the tremendous contributions of immigrants to this country? How do we respect the tremendous contributions of Indigenous people, who actually are the first peoples in this land? And also, how do we respect the contributions of those people who didn't choose to come here, who were brought here in chains?
And so that's been part of – some of our focus as we've done our work. And we work very, very closely with Somali, Latinx, Indigenous people in our street. We live on a street called Lake Street. And Lake Street has been really affected by the violence this last year. And so we worked very closely with artists and community members from these communities as well. I would say that's some of the ... Right, Dipankar? Is there anything you would add to that?
DIPANKAR: Yes. The way we hold our community, the way we... You know, the whole person comes to engage with us. I really believe that the work gets done. And after 25, 30 years of experience, you know, the work will get done. But in the process, who are we working with? Are we relevant? How relevant are we? We are talking on ... all the philosophy that we are spouting: Is it being practiced? You know, my teacher would always say that, in South Africa, that apartheid is not happening between de Klerk and Mandela. Apartheid is – the presence or absence of apartheid is – the distance between you and me right now, this six inches. We all have been made to feel in some form or the other that we are dispensable and we don't count. And what Pangea is about is just the opposite, that those are the consciousness with which we approach our work.
JINA: That's amazing. Oh, and such a wonderful breath of fresh air – just to hear that no matter what, that you matter. Right?
JINA: That you are being seen. You know, I guess I would love to just hear... because everything that you're doing is so vibrant, is so meaningful. And, you know, just your ability to hold everybody and to acknowledge everyone, to really recognize that relationship matters and that, you know, that people matter. I would love to just hear like, what do you what would you tell somebody – what kind of advice would you give people who want to cultivate that in their own lives, who want to really increase or to have more of that sense of the healing power and that sense of community in their lives?
MEENA: Just jump in and engage. I don't know. You know, yesterday, it was interesting. I was listening to Ken Burns yesterday on CNN or something, but something that he said really struck me. And he said that there is no time for cynicism right now.
You know, I think it's very easy for us to become cynical because of what's happening. I mean, climate change is real. We're seeing that everywhere. We're seeing fascism rise everywhere. This is a time for us to wake up and actually make a change. And I say that having often... getting up in the morning and feeling like, oh, my God, this is too overwhelming, I can't deal with the number of things that are happening in my own life. And all I want to do is to go and crawl, either crawl inside my bed or go out and plant something new in my garden, which, by the way, I've done for the last two years. I'm just saying that... I just also think that we can't afford to be cynical. And so how do we actually rise up and engage with people in the community?
And often it means then that more encounters are going to happen that are difficult. But, yeah, I think as human beings, how can we just keep cultivating our own self-awareness and keep moving forward in the world as gracefully as we can?
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