COVID-19 and the Creative Process(es)

Quenna Lené Barrett

by Evan Carter


New Art Examiner: How are you doing in this current situation?

Quenna Barrett: I've actually just been reading an LA Times article about how some people are like, “This is pretty great.” (laughter) And some days I feel like that, you know. I'm super kind of grateful just for the spaciousness and for this and I wish that it could happen under different circumstances. I’m really trying to sort of center my needs and other community needs in this time and just take stock and not be always on the go in this moment. So, I'm grateful for that. But you know, it does get challenging. It does get lonely at times. So, I sort of go back and forth as many of us probably do.


NAE: Have you had time off from your work at the Goodman Theatre?

QB: I don’t necessarily have time off. I've been working from home. I don't think I spend the same amount of time or that time looks different. I sort of scaffold it differently than I would normally, but we have been consistently working.


NAE: To the best of my knowledge, plays and productions have been stopped because of the orders from the city. How concerned are you about the theater in general as like an art form?

QB: I'll probably answer this question on a number of levels. I'm thinking about specific theaters, but then also thinking about the institution of theater as an art form, and so I do think that some theaters will fare far better than others, you know, sort of older institutions who have been around for some time, who have a kind of resource that the younger, scrappy or more storefront theaters might not have—and that is very concerning because often I think what we see is that in the storefront theaters, that's where a lot of experimentation is happening that's where a lot of young artists of color are actually able to make and produce work and you know, they don't have the same kind of resources that these older predominately whiter institutions [have], so I think those smaller companies and those smaller theaters will have a tough time sort of coming out of this, which is really unfortunate. I've seen lots of different kind of fundraising campaigns though and, you know, hopefully people are able to support, but my instincts or my gut is that a lot of the folks to go to those spaces are artists themselves who are also out of work and won't be able to continue to support those organizations. So, I think it will be really telling. What is kind of exciting is that a lot of those same smaller companies have found a way, pretty quickly, to adapt online, and obviously theater is made to be experienced in person, in the room, and so you know, it's a different kind of form, but they're figuring it out, they’re trying, they’re experimenting, which is exciting and inspiring.


From Santa Fe Art Institute Event where Barrett performed Re-Writing the Declaration Monologue.
Photo courtesy of Quenna Lené Barret.


NAE: What are some examples of work that has shifted online [that] you feel stands out?

QB: Lots of theaters that have archival recordings of different productions that they have put online, and most of those have sort of a paywall, you know, and so for those smaller companies that's really helpful. So, for example, what's the theater, TimeLine—they put up their show “Kill Move Paradise.” That's the title of the play, directed by Wardell Julius Clark, which I had a chance to see before it got shut down, but it did get shut down. It’s a beautiful, beautiful piece, but it did really well online, and it was at an affordable price point. People were able to witness it online, and so lots of folks are doing that. And then you have theaters who are also trying to develop new content for… this sort of new medium, and so that looks like Zoom readings, like readings of plays. Some folks are fully producing plays. So, I'm not necessarily a company member but an associate artist with Free Street Theater, and they have a play that's coming out that was supposed to open in person… It's their youth ensemble show. But they’ve pivoted to sort of make it. They're producing it fully, just making it fully online. And so, you know, they're sending out camera crews or like camera equipment to these young people's homes so that they can do high-quality recordings of themselves for this new platform. And so you're seeing a lot of live content being developed as well as like some blended, and so it's not quite film, you know, but still trying to capture the essence of theater just in these tiny boxes, or, you know, whatever way we can.


NAE: Have you viewed any Zoom content that you found to be exciting or interesting that you want to highlight?

QB: I'm going to try to not be biased. What have I actually tuned into? Most of the stuff…again, I have been enjoying this kind of pause from the theater, and so I have not been engaging because before this, like, 24/7, that's pretty much what I was doing in some form or another… and so I've been trying to sort of limit my engagement in certain ways. So that being said, I did help to coordinate a sort of virtual theater festival, which I thought, you know, really cool and inspiring just to see how people were responding and, you know, we had directors direct these short plays with folks, and I think that was really successful. It had its challenges, but I do think it was cool to see.

Something else that comes to mind is this program at the [Washington Park] Arts Incubator actually, that Arts + Public Life developed. It is a program that they had already got to transition online called the South Side Home Movie Project. What they do is they show these clips of these home movies, like older home movies from folks’ personal records that they've archived, and then they pair DJs with that, so there is this DJ like spinning in the background of these black and white films that are playing and curated. So that's kind of cool just to see because I think it's like not just people like talking right, like there’s a lot of webinars and stuff that I’ve been doing for work, so anything that's like not that I tend to be drawn to.


From a play Barrett directed and lead-devised for Free Street Theatre's 50in50 project, Coming Home. Photo courtesy of Quenna Lené Barrett.


NAE: I'm kind of curious about the sort of like pop culture use of this form. Have you engaged with any of that and do you have any opinions about the sort of larger pop cultural use of the form?

QB: Typically, I'm not like in the pop culture Zeitgeist, most of it just sort of goes over my head. I did have this thought though earlier that sort of the pandemic is a great moment for black culture. And so, I've been tuning into lots of the stuff on Instagram Live. So, like there’s this 24-hour, like today, it's Stevie Wonder’s 70th birthday. And so, this group of DJs is doing like a 24-hour set all of his music… I’ve just been, like, listening and jamming to that like all day while I'm working, or in meetings it’s like on in the background. Last Friday – there is this series called Verzuz—#Verzuz or something. So, they’ve been pitting these artists together, so a couple weeks ago, the big one was Teddy Riley and Babyface, who are two black producers. And this past weekend was Erykah Badu and Jill Scott. And that was really, really kind of, like, lovely to watch just these two beautiful brown women like magic makers uplifting each other, they sort of flipped the battle? (inaudible) on its head and were really we're just, like, vibing out to each other—and that was really, really lovely to see. So that’s the kind of pop culture I’ve been tuning into and all of that is happening on Instagram Live.


NAE: How would you characterize the condition of the cultural moment like on a social level or emotional level? How are you seeing the world right now?

QB: I'm thinking a lot especially in this second half, after the initial, like, shock of it all, about sort of the impacts of this on black and brown communities, pretty much on any marginalized communities, but especially those that have historically had less access to resources. And I feel like that's been exacerbated by this pandemic, and I think that that is sort of coming to the forefront for lots of folks who weren't thinking about that before. And so, you know, my hope is that because more folks are having to engage with these issues that we’ll see a cultural shift [in] how we treat and respond to these communities moving forward. I think that's going to take a lot of work still, right? I think you have to really tune in and like actually do stuff, but I am sort of seeing lots and lots [of] conversations and real work happening around Mutual Aid initiatives, you know, there's a large Mutual Aid project happening in Chicago. It’s kind of broken up neighborhood by neighborhood, and folks are really organizing and trying [to] connect with their neighbors. I think that, you know, people will start to know their neighbors again in, like, real and deep ways. Lots of people are sort of self-organizing things, but folks are also, like, coming together in community. I think also we’ll, you know, even like through art, folks will have to think about community differently, right? They’ll have to start to think more about who is in physical proximity to them and how do they build relationships that way, in ways that I think we've gotten away from in the past decades or so.


From a play Barrett co-wrote and co-directed with FYI, This Boat Called my Body. Photo courtesy of Quenna Lené Barret.


NAE: I think of you as someone who is very much engaged with artistic practice and bringing about social change or somehow helping in cultural preservation and production. How do you see that playing out in the near future? Are you thinking about new forms, new projects, new ways of engaging to continue that both during and after this? What are you thinking about creatively and in regard to that practice?

QB: Yeah. I have two thoughts. I’m on this sort of advisory committee with “Ingenuity.” This project is called the “ArtsEd Response Collective” (ARC). So, they've been doing these listening sessions with different educators, students, and families trying to think about what is the sort of arts education response to this? And something… I keep bringing to the group is, how will we use arts as a healing mechanism post this? Again, because lots of the students in CPS are going to be impacted in very real ways by what's happening. And so I think we have to be thinking about art, you know, not just as… extracurricular but like, you know, how does art making and engaging, how does that become central to this and how we move through this and how we move beyond this? So, I don’t know what forms that takes quite yet but I think we have to be, as collectives, sort of really using that in this moment. Personally. . .I've been working to develop this piece called Rewriting the Declaration, which seeks to center… folks who were left out of the original table, specifically looking at black women, women of color, queer folks, queer folks of color. So, sort of grounding those identities and centering what a new sort of inclusive document might look like or what that might call for; what kinds of systems need to be in place. . .like as a participatory play. And so, I've really been struggling because a lot of that, like the development of that piece requires me to engage with folks. Like it's not me writing this play on my own. It's me having these conversations giving folks prompts and encouraging them to together wrestle with this question.

A sort of mentor of mine [who] has been helping me develop this project, Coya Paz, said to me yesterday that those questions are, like, even more perhaps important in this moment. And so… how does it shift sort of to serve this moment, you know, do we engage people sort of via the web and some kind of interactive way? What might that look like?... And so you're not already thinking, you know, trying to experiment with this form of participatory theater now. What does that even look like? And so, we're just at the beginning of a kind of, like, thinking that through.

But it in terms of  the form, you know, I think what feels new or different. What feels outside of the norm still feels like… it still requires other people's involvement, you know, and I think that that is not a way that lots of artists make. You know some folks they need to be siloed, and I fundamentally believe that we need a different kind of process if we're making art sort of for or about communities. They need to be centered in that it. And so that for me feels like the experimentation is to truly center folks and their needs.


From Santa Fe Art Institute Event where Barrett performed Re-Writing the Declaration Monologue.
Photo courtesy of Quenna Lené Barret.


NAE: There are people who are clearly struggling, dealing with this big change in their lives. Do you have any advice for folks or anything that you want to share that you think might help people to cope and deal with the situation?

QB: Yeah, I don't know that I would frame it as advice just because… you know, I think we all have really different needs right now. And… I think that that's okay. That is the advice, is that to just be where we are in this moment is okay, and that there are sort of different resources, you know, in different ways to plug in no matter what it is that you need. People are out here thinking about you and, like, what your needs might be. For me, even the days when I struggle, it's really just about reminding myself that it's okay to feel what I feel, it's okay to be where I am. It's okay to, like, not be productive or to not, you know, to shift my thinking around productivity because this is… new for all of us, and I think we are going to have to develop new tools in some ways to deal with it even on personal levels. So that the thing I've been trying to share, you know, with folks in my circle, is that wherever you are, it's okay, and it's okay to reach out if you need support.


NAE: You have already touched upon this, but what else do you think is being revealed in this situation that was previously overlooked or under-considered?

QB: Yeah, I think my answer to that would be the circumstances around marginalized poor communities. And also, actually… the lie of capitalist productivity, right? Like, we don't need to show up to a workspace 40 hours a week. We don't need to burnout in order to create great things. And I think that is sort of being exposed; the myth… of the American mode of operating. I think that is just kind of being torn to pieces. That’s one of my hopes, is that we recognize that we don't have to move at that speed, that we can sort of prioritize ourselves and each other more beyond this moment… I think that we have to examine fully re-examine all of our systems that feed into all of those things. Clearly, they don't serve us. They didn’t protect us in this moment… and I think had we had healthy ways of being in community that… we would have better been able to shift to this.


NAE: I do find it troubling that the goal of the government and of the so-called “economic experts” is to return to that level of productivity and there does not seem to be a lot of consideration on an Institutional level for like how we reshape things and rethink things and how we turn the moment into something productive. I do find that frustrating. What would you say? What would you tell these people? I mean you really already kind of put it into words and articulated it in a really thoughtful way, but I don't know, how could you reach these people? Can they be reached?

QB: I don't know that I'm interested in engaging with those people. I think they have to go. I think we need new people in their place. I think that artists in particular have an enormous capacity to. . .do the leadership work that's not happening at the national level. You know, I've always thought that if there were artists in those rooms while decisions were being made that lots of decisions would be made differently. And so—I don't even know what that question was. What would I say to those people? Step aside. Let somebody else figure it out because we can you know, and I think we truly have the capacity to imagine a different thing. That’s what we do as artists every day. We build worlds… I think we can practice that in real life.




SUBSCRIBE to the print version of the New Art Examiner via PayPal