Ashley Marinaccio is an award-winning director, writer, performer, and photographer dedicated to documenting the socio-political issues that define present times. Her interests include utilizing theatre for peace building, healing and empowerment in conflict zones and in marginalized communities both within the United States and abroad. Her theatrical work has been seen off-Broadway, at TED conferences, at The White House, and at the United Nations to international acclaim. She is member of the Lincoln Center Directors Lab and Old Vic/New Voices. Ashley was awarded the Lucille Lortel Women's Visionary Award for her work with GIRL BE HEARD theater group of which she serves as a co-founder and artistic director. Recently, Ashley spoke to AXS about her experiences working in the theater and her hopes for the future:
AXS: How did you start with GIRL BE HEARD, and how has this organization evolved since you co-founded it? Why was that specific name chosen?
A.M.: GIRL BE HEARD was started in 2008 under the name of Project Girl Performance Collective. I was right out of school at the time. It was supposed to be a one-time-only show as part of the Estrogenius Festival – but ended up continuing because of the demand for the work and the space to be creative from the young women who participated in the very first performance. The co-founder Jessica Greer Morris and I met in the 2009 Estrogenius. We started collaborating because she was doing some very exciting international theatre and human rights work, and we both felt that it was important to connect the local stories of young women with the stories of women worldwide. With the help of our company members and board member Mark Fina – who is the Creative Director at Spring Studios and has spearheaded many international brands – we rebranded and renamed ourselves in 2011 to GIRL BE HEARD. The name was chosen because it combines both the performative and activist aspects of what we do. The organization has most definitely evolved since its first days. We now have various departments, including an education and global outreach program. We also have a number of teaching artists in public schools and hire the girls who have been through our company as fellows, feminists-in-residence, and teaching artists.
AXS: Who are your performers, and how do you recruit them? Do GIRL BE HEARD alumnae pursue professional careers in the performing arts?
A.M.: GIRL BE HEARD holds auditions for performers every September for both our main stage shows and weekly Sunday workshops. Each year, we receive a diverse and enthusiastic response. We announce auditions on our website social media, in trade papers, and in schools across the five boroughs. Information about our auditions is also passed on by word of mouth and by participants in our school–based programs (currently, we have after-school programs in 12 schools across the city.) Many alumnae who have been through our programs go on to pursue professional careers in the performing arts. However, those who choose a different path can easily apply the skills they've learned in workshops to their own lives and careers. The benefits of a performing arts education are endless and include a strong work ethic, improved self-esteem, the ability to critically think and engage with the world, empathy for yourself and others, improved reading comprehension and writing skills. These skills are important in every career.
AXS: How is working with GIRL BE HEARD different from other directing experiences of your career?
A.M.: I aim to bring the same skills to all of my directing work, regardless of where it happens: I believe in listening, collaborative creation and working toward a united creative vision. Nurturing artistic collaboration, input and growth is important to me regardless of what genre of theatre I'm working in. I love the openness, curiosity and generosity of spirit that the GIRL BE HEARD company members bring to the creative process. I treat the girls with the same respect as I do with professional actors, in addition to holding them accountable for their work and actions. I have found that the only difference in work outside of GIRL BE HEARD is that there are sometimes male identified bodies in the company.
AXS: The members of GIRL BE HEARD have gathered and written all the material used in “Embodi(ED)”. How was the process like when you worked with them to shape it? Is this how all their shows emerge?
A.M.: “Embodi(ED”) has been generated through movement improvisations, discussions, personal reflection and interviews the company members have done with each other and in their own communities on body image, eating disorders and the diet industry. The creative team including our dramaturg Jen Thatcher, assistant director Tiff Roma and choreographer Ian Stewart, have worked closely with the company in shaping the work. This show is a bit different from our previous productions because it has such a strong dance component. Ian has led the company in movement improvisations that we have included in the show. We have also been working with multimedia and have incorporated clips of interviews that our company members conducted and videos they've created.
AXS: Of all the performed pieces, do you have a favorite? If so, which one and why?
A.M.: Each of the main stage shows that we've created over the years has a special place in my heart. They have come to represent a very specific time of my life (I have come to realize that I measure time by what show I was working on in the particular moment). However, I think “Embodi(ED)” is going to be one of my all-time favorites because dance and movement play such an important part in it: for some time now I have been very interested in including these elements into our documentary theatre storytelling model. It's especially important with a show like “Embodi(ED)” because we are talking about the body, its limitations and the limitations society puts on different bodies – so it's only appropriate that we explore this through movement and utilizing the body.
AXS: How did Brooklyn-based GIRL BE HEARD end up touring worldwide? It is now an organization associated with the UN, can you tell us more about that?
A.M.: Thanks to the hard work of our Executive Director, Jessica Greer Morris, Director of Global Partnerships, Abigail Ramsay and our incredible board members – like Jackie Shapiro, who works with NGOs at the United Nations – we have been able to present work on pressing issues affecting women and girls, like sex trafficking, domestic violence, rape, displacement, homelessness and the refugee crisis on global stages. We have performed at the United Nations, the White House and as invited guests in many countries across the world. Theatre and storytelling puts names and faces on statistics that human rights activists are working tirelessly to change. We have found that representatives of NGOs at the United Nations and those who have seen our work not only have been open and receptive, but also have found it imperative in the global fight for justice. GIRL BE HEARD became an officially recognized NGO with the United Nations in 2015. It's an honor to be making theatre that is recognized as a powerful part of human rights activism. I believe that artists and theatre-makers have always belonged at places like the UN, and hope that in the coming years our country will embrace more artists in both government and non-governmental organizations.
AXS: To date, what has been the most rewarding part of working with this company?
A.M.: For me, the most rewarding work with GIRL BE HEARD happens each week in the rehearsal room – watching company members find themselves as artists, thinkers and activists is endlessly gratifying. Through this work, I have experienced first-hand how theatre changes lives and impacts communities. Another particular moment that comes to mind was when we were on tour in Dallas, Texas, doing “Trafficked”, our show on sex trafficking and the sexual exploitation of women and girls. We always do a talk back after every show to engage the audience with the issues of the play and create communication between them and the actors. During this particular talk back, we had a number of men and women, older adults, stand up and tell everyone in the audience (about 1,200 people) that they had been sexually exploited as youth and the show made them want to share their experiences, heal, and go back to their communities to address the issue of sexual exploitation.
AXS: You are both an artist and an activist. What came first, and how both these roles influence your work both in theater and in the field of human rights?
A.M.: My artist and activist identities have never been mutually exclusive. Theatre has shaped me into a critically thinking person, and the best way for me to contribute to the movement is through making art. I would feel incredibly unbalanced if I lost one or the other in my life and work.
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To learn more about GIRL BE HEARD visit the organization’s official website.