MFA dramaturgy alum Gaven Trinidad '18G worked professionally as a child singer in the New York City Opera before discovering theater in high school. As an undergrad, he majored in American Studies and focused on writing and understanding the intersections of race, immigration, gender, and sexuality. To this day, reading, writing, and enacting the teachings of the Queer Manifesto, Audrey Lorde, Judith Butler, W. E. B. DuBois, Michel Foucault, and bell hooks are in everything he does in his work on and off stage. It makes sense, then, that the intersection of community engagement, social justice, and creativity is what drives the theater work he's most passionate about, both in his post as Community Engagement Associate with the prestigious New York Theatre Workshop, as well as in his independent work. This focus that puts him at the leading edge with artists working to reshape theater into a more equitable discipline that respects all voices in the room. We contacted him to find out more about the work he's doing and what drives him, and over email, he kindly shared his thoughts. (Some answers have been condensed or edited.)
Q: How did you come to your post at New York Theatre Workshop?
A: Before I was a graduate student at UMass Amherst, I completed a season-long internship at New York Theatre Workshop as their first Community Engagement Intern. During that time, I had the joy and pleasure of observing and working with artists such as Rachel Chavkin, Ayad Aktar, Dael Orlandersmith, and Ivo van Hove. The company gave me my first-ever theatre job in New York as I was transitioning from a career as a public-school teacher in Memphis, TN! My understanding of artist centered development, community building, and my identity as a brown artist stems from my internship days at NYTW. After UMass Amherst, I went to The Juilliard School’s Drama Department for a year-long apprenticeship. Luckily, when I completed my Juilliard program, NYTW decided to transform the Community Engagement position to a full-time staff member. I saw the job post and applied.
Fun fact: Many talented and nationally-acclaimed artists from the NYTW family have also taught or studied at the UMass Amherst Department of Theater, including Will Power, Nia Witherspoon, Marcus Gardley, Talvin Wilks, and UMass Theater alum Uno Servida '18, who was a recent NYTW 2050 Administrative Fellow!
Q: Can you tell me a little about the sort of work you do there?
A: At the center of my work is social justice, providing tools to the local community and beyond so that people can tell their own stories and be empowered to lead their communities as civically-engaged artists. I work closely with the Artistic, Marketing, and Education Departments, in addition to our artist community. I collaborate with them on how to ethically, conscientiously, and impactfully engage and build relationships among different communities with whom our artists are in conversation. The fun parts of my job are things such as hosting artists networking events, monthly Open Mic Nights with Poetic Theatre Productions, producing our free virtual programming, and creating new free educational programs. In fact, I am building with my colleagues at NYTW and other non-profits two new free playwriting seminars for veterans and another for immigrant artists. I collaborate with my colleagues on Equity, Diversity, Inclusivity, and Belonging (EDIB) initiatives and trainings for all staff, artists, and board – unapologetically scrutinizing White Supremacy Culture and creating a paradigm shift for every facet of the company to being actively anti-racist. Also as a staff member of NYTW, we are encouraged to be civically engaged with our local communities, so much so that we have paid days off for civic engagement.
(I want to also give a shoutout to Uno Servida and his 2050 cohort who started the Open Your Lobby Movement, which offered support to Black Lives Matter protesters over the past summer!)
Q: How has your work changed with the pandemic?
A: Oh, the pandemic hasn’t stopped us from giving artists jobs and creating artistic spaces for communities! We immediately went online and began offering free virtual programs, many of which I also produce, less than two weeks after the lockdown in New York City. Some of our virtual collaborations have been with Safe Harbors New York, the See Foundation, and Black Acting Methods Studios. Our entire season is online this year, encouraging 30+ artists to reimagine story-telling and human connection at this time. The current season has been virtual and eclectic, from a subversive queer Latinx drag drama with poppers and lube, to Chekov’s The Seagull retold on Sims4 via Twitch, and to artists’ musings on the future of our American Democracy by investigating Roman History. Our spring brings more surprises, but I can’t share the awesomeness in store just yet. Work from artists like Hilton Als, Modesto Flako Jimenez, Whitney White, Rachel Chavkin, Jillian Walker, and Martha Redbone and Aaron Whitby will be announced soon.
Q: Can you tell me about your role working with various theatre companies that New York Theatre Workshop fosters?
A: I’m fortunate to work at a theatre that fosters artists of different cultures, backgrounds, languages, and artistic aesthetics. We have a close relationship with Safe Harbors New York and are so excited to co-present Reflections of Native Voices Festival with La Mama. We also co-presented Safe Harbor’s festival last year, inviting Indigenous artists from all over the country to perform and to see each other’s work in our spaces. Safe Harbors has moved the festival virtually this year, expanding accessibility and outreach! I was able to produce a wonderful conversation in which they spoke about the necessity for the festival and its impact for the larger community of Indigenous artists in the country. After the festival, I will be working with Safe Harbors New York closely to create more opportunities for Native artists in all disciplines to be engaged with one another. Another company that I would like to give a shoutout to is Dominican Artists Collective, a new collective from Washington Heights, who debuted the company and a new piece called The Cooking Project in our season! As also a member of the Education Team, I have the honor of bringing and hosting conversations and workshops among communities of local leaders, students, and our artists. What I love about my job is that I remove the “professional wall” that our industry sometimes puts between artists who are far along in their career and those who are emerging. I help create the bridges into the industry that are not often afforded to many communities.
Q: I also see from your website that you have a number of projects going that don’t seem to be affiliated with NY Theatre Workshop, and I would love to hear more about these projects.
A: Though I’m busy at NYTW, I also freelance as a dramaturg and director in NYC. With the magic of Zoom, I’ve been working nationally as well and connecting with artists and students internationally. Since leaving UMass, I’ve started directing and playwriting professionally. I’ve so far have had the opportunity to work and play with National Queer Theatre, The Lark, Rattlestick Theatre, Pride Plays, Musical Theatre Factory, and Neighborhood Theatre Project. I also illustrate professionally as a side gig for theatre companies and for special events. In fact, I’ve illustrated and designed the official limited-edition artwork for the 25th Anniversary of Rent. (Fun fact: I got into art school for undergraduate studies. I decided not to go but continued painting into my early twenties and sold my artwork. If you ever worked with me closely at UMass, you know that I make collages, foam statues, etc, as part of the dramaturgical exploration of a piece.) I am still immersed in the dance world, and I am currently writing a commissioned essay for Jacob’s Pillow in regard to contemporary dance dramaturgy. I am also writing a new adaptation of Lysistrata set in the Philippines, which was commissioned by The Sống Collective. I am collaborating with actor and recent Juilliard graduate Regina De Vera, who will be playing Lysistrata. I also have other projects down the line with queer artists of color, such as Kilroy’s List playwright Roger Q. Mason. I am in conversation to direct an audio play and some other projects this year. When I can, I also volunteer to speak with and hold workshops with young BIPOC theatre artists and leaders at organizations such as Americans for the Arts.
Q: Finally, an obligatory UMass Theater question: Do you have an experience from your time at UMass Theater that has influenced your work post-MFA?
At UMass, my mentor Dr. Priscilla Page encouraged me to pursue a graduate certificate in Women, Gender, and Sexuality Studies, which further affirmed for me what was important in my life: fighting for the liberation of those who live in the political, cultural, and social margins through theatremaking. By pursuing this graduate certificate under her mentorship and care, I continued the necessary journey of decolonizing my mind and heart as a brown first generation Filipinx American; as well as immersing myself into deep philosophy, theory, and politics that I learned to articulate not just through the theatre I made, but more importantly in the process of art making. How do I create theatre in which someone enters the process as their whole selves and leaves as their whole selves and more?
The trifecta of Professors Judyie Albilali, Megan Lewis, and Priscilla Page instilled in me the importance of ritual. They helped me learn how to better interrogate artistic choices and ideas in a way that is conscientious of its potential effect in and on a community, making and understanding the distinction between intention and impact. After graduation, I’ve made it a point to find like-minded individuals and companies, as I do not want to work at theatres and collaborate with artists who are so artistically, politically, and culturally narrow-sighted as not to recognize my whole self and the nuances of all my intersecting identities. In this time of WeSeeYouWhiteAmericanTheater, it is important for every artist to take responsibility to do their part to be actively anti-racist and pro-black, be open for personal and collective growth, and to allow themselves to be in uncomfortable conversations with collaborators. There are theatre companies and artists who are actively making these changes in the industry – reach out to them! As a queer artist of color, you have the power to build your own community.