Sunday, March 7, 2021

A Conversation with Chanel Bragg, Co-Founder of UNITED COLOURS OF ARIZONA THEATRE

Chanel Bragg

by Gil Benbrook

Having performed at numerous theatres in town, including The Phoenix Theatre Company, Arizona Theatre Company, Childsplay, Arizona Broadway Theatre and Stray Cat Theatre, and having been the recipient of multiple ariZoni Award nominations and awards, Chanel Bragg is incredibly well known within the Phoenix theatre community. Outside of performing, Bragg co founded with her brother Mitchell Vantrease the independent performance troupe, "The Soul of Broadway." and also recently directed The Wolves at Spotlight Youth Theatre.

Along with her immense dedication to the local arts community, Bragg is a passionate advocate for equity, diversity and inclusion and lately Bragg's focus has been on two roles that aren't on stage but are leadership positions within the Arizona theatre community. Last year Bragg was hired as the Associate Artistic Director of Arizona Theatre Company and in 2016, Bragg and Jacqueline Castillo co founded The United Colours of Arizona Theatre, which started out as a Facebook group in an attempt to create a safe space for BIPOC individuals within the Arizona fine arts community.

After the BLM protests of last summer and the conversation around the need for appropriate BIPOC representation in films, TV and theatre, UCAT has been heavily involved the last year in moving this conversation forward, both on and off stage, to ensure the local arts community increases access and opportunities for BIPOC artists. 

As part of their initiative, UCAT, in collaboration with Seth Tucker, the Artistic Producer of Acting Up Series, is producing NOW, a virtual showcase of poetry, musical selections, dramatic scenes, and more performed and written by National and local  BIPOC Artists tomorrow, March 8th. 

In between her day job at ATC and working on the final plans for NOW, Bragg sat down to answer some questions about UCAT and this upcoming fundraising event.

UCAT is a relatively young organization. What was behind its inception? 

Chanel Bragg: "The United Colours of Arizona Theatre was first conceived during a funny conversation. My partner Jacqueline Castillo  and I were often solicited to help theatres look for Black talent. I wanted to provide a resource for Theatres to take the responsibility of their own commitment to inclusivity and representation as well as implement conscious casting practices.  Lamenting over being tired of being the unofficial 'black' rolodex of AZ, I joked we should create a casting database and call it the blacklist. (I am a sucker for a double entendre). Jacqui and I did not have the financial resources at the time to create the casting database we dreamt of. We wanted something intricate that could sort headshots, resumes, reels etc. Jacqui decided to create a Facebook page. A month later after reflection, I decided to take what started out as a joke in frustration, to actualize a safe space committed to eradicating tokenism within our community and a commitment to fight for ALL marginalized cultures within our local fine arts community. We discerned that not only was it our social responsibility, but our calling. Over the course of the last 5 years, we have grown to nearly 400 members and remain both a brave and safe space for BIPOC Creatives.  

BTW, we finally got our database! We are upgrading from our excel spreadsheet ya’ll. Stay tuned, it will be in electronic form next month in a collaborative partnership with Bryan Falcon and Scoundrel and Scamp Theatre of Tucson Arizona who will house the Southern AZ chapter of United Colours of Arizona Theatre."

What do you believe sets UCAT apart from other organizations that are seeking change? 

"We are honored to stand beside our socially conscious peers and uplift some of our favorites!  Shout out to Rising Youth Theatre, Stray Cat, Laughing Pig, Childsplay, Brelby, and Teatro Bravo, who are proof that there are theatres locally that stand on an anti-racist platform. However, we need that commitment from the rest of our community! What is also noteworthy, is that many of the theatres mentioned previously are proud UCAT Friends and Family members. What makes The United Colours of AZ Theatre different, is that we represent a conglomerate in which all of the spaces above exist and support the efforts of one another. I also want to give a well-deserved shout to the newly appointed UCAT Advisory board. Both Jacqui and I are BLESSED to have a dedicated team as passionate about the vision as we are. We truly could not evolve into this next chapter without them."

You recently were hired as the Associate Artistic Director of Arizona Theatre Company. What has that experience been like? 

"It has been an incredible experience thus far. I am grateful to work at a theatre that understands who I am at my core, my connection to the local community as a native Arizonan, and my commitment to serve my home state. I have a supportive partner in Sean Daniels as he champions my efforts and encourages me to, 'go change the world.' (That’s an exact quote). Although I was hired during a pandemic, with quite the career shift, I feel that I have stepped fully into my purpose and that has certainly helped me be a more effective leader within my own organization. "

How has that position, in working for the only member of the League of Resident Theaters (LORT) in Arizona, helped the work you're doing with UCAT?

"I am fortunate because it has allowed me access into conferences with other theatres throughout the league. As a west coast girl, my scope on the American Theatre system was limited. I have been fortunate to connect nationally with so many of my esteemed colleagues. I enjoy sitting on panels, leading within affinity spaces, and rolling up my sleeves next to iconic theatre makers dedicated to changing the deeply systemic and racist practices that have held the American theatre back. I just facilitated a WSYWAT panel for KCACTF Region 8 last week. I am both humbled and grateful for the seat at the table. "

Your upcoming "FRIENDraiser" event on March 8th is very different from what people are used to as typical fundraisers go. What can you tell us about this event and what do you hope the outcome of it will be? 

" 'NOW' is a virtual showcase of poetry, musical selections, and dramatic scenes, performed and written by National and local BIPOC Artists. What better way to show up for your community than to DONATE your TIME?  Money is appreciated, but expertise is PRICELESS.  As UCAT ventures into the world of producing, we want to establish a solid foundation, but like the song says, we get by with a little help from our friends. On our subsidiary page, 'Friends of UCAT', our allies hold space with intent to bring awareness to opportunities within their theatres. We’re asking the community to take one step further and provide specific services needed to get a budding theater started.  We are looking for community heroes to step up. If you are a lawyer willing to donate time to look over important legal documents, sign up.  If you are a graphic designer with 25 hours to donate toward creating artwork, sign up. If you are a choreographer that would want to donate a dance class for our members to skill build, THAT is who we are looking for!  Areas such as education, accounting, litigation, marketing, etc. that are willing to lend their expertise over dollars are available for grabs in our virtual “marketplace”. UCAT will officially produce our first show Summer of 2021 in a new partnership with Scottsdale Center for the Arts. For those interested in donating the old fashion way, we will gladly accept your dollars toward royalties, sets, and payment of our actors.  Links will be provided to Venmo and fractured atlas (fiscal sponsor) on our website. All proceeds will go directly to producing for Summer 2021."

What are some specific ways that you see how UCAT will help change and improve the landscape of theatre in Arizona, and beyond? 

"In the 5 years that we have been an institution, we have provoked a HUGE cultural shift. We did this by providing access into theatres where relationships were undeveloped. We created opportunities to practice and hone our craft with curated audition prep workshops and dance clinics. We regularly post job offers within our theatre community and beyond as a commitment to help staff the other 'side of the table.' We formed partnerships with various organizations like The Phoenix Theatre Company and Arizona Theatre Company and that collaboration led to the generosity of both theatres stepping up to aid the community. We received the Kyle Lawson Outstanding Contribution Award at the Zoni’s this past year. We partnered with the Arizoni committee and Board president last August and held a local town hall to address the issues regarding systemic racism within our local community and state. One of our professional houses relayed there was a 60% uptick in hiring diversely…. The formula is working.

YET, there is still so much work to do. We want to expand our educational outreach as our current database also allows an area in which our members can indicate what additional skills they wish to cultivate and can be paired with mentors or gain apprenticeships. We want to establish a youth-based curriculum to help train our young theatre makers of color. Hold regular workshops to help our playwrights strengthen their craft, we also want to focus on philanthropy, and what is our commitment to our local neighborhoods and our exploration of what radical hospitality is?

This pandemic gave the UCAT admin team perspective. It reinforced our mission and allowed us to think about the importance of legacy and the next step in our evolution. I believe that step is to create it by launching a full-fledged summer stock by 2022.  (Don’t worry, you’ll get a teaser this summer!)"

What do you hope for the future of UCAT? 

"We hope that our local theatres do the work and recognize areas of opportunity to grow. My hope is that the hard work extends beyond canned EDI statements. My hope is that the telling of Brown and Black stories becomes normalized. That we tear down elitist theatre practices that makes the marginalized feel unwelcome in these sacred spaces. My hope is to expose the untruth that BIPOC people 'don’t show up' to audition.  My hope is that we pave the way for young BIPOC children interested in theatre to learn and bridge the gap of skill disparity for marginalized groups.

Simply put, our hope for the future is that our organization would no longer be needed.  THAT is the goal."

For more information on UCAT's upcoming event NOW, which streams live on Monday, March 8, visit unitedcoloursaz.org

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