Interview with Rhiana Yazzie
I AM (Artist in Motion) is an interview series meant to spotlight indigenous artists and artists of color in the Twin Cities. I had the privilege of working at the Loft as the fall 2019 marketing and communications intern, and when they gave me the chance to work on a project of my choosing, I AM is the first thing I thought of.
The artists in this series were people I found truly inspiring. They incorporate art into their lives in many different ways and expressions, finding time whenever or wherever they can. They show how art can be a form of healing, understanding, and moving forward. I hope you take in their words and feel that for yourself.
Rhiana Yazzie is a Navajo playwright, all-around theatre maker, and filmmaker based in Minnesota. She is a 2018/19 Bush Leadership Fellow, a 2017 Sally Award Winner for Vision, and a 2016/2017 Playwrights’ Center McKnight Fellow, a two-time Playwrights’ Center Jerome Fellow and was a Playwrights’ Center Core Member for three years. She has just finished her new play, QUEEN CLEOPATRE AND PRINCESS POCAHONTAS, for a joint commission from the Oregon Shakespeare Festival and the Public Theater for American Revolutions: the United States History Cycle. She is in post production with her first feature film, A WINTER LOVE (writer/director/starring). She has recently finished a new play, NANCY, about Nancy Reagan and her intersection with Indian Country in the 80s, astrology, and her little known about Native heritage.
Who are you and what modes or mode of storytelling do you use?
My name’s Rhiana Yazzie. I’m a playwright, a theatre maker, and a filmmaker.
How are these art forms unique ways of telling a story?
Well, the thing about writing a play is that everything happens in dialogue. All of the action, the plot points, everything unfolds through the interaction of people speaking to each other. And, of course, the occasional speaking to yourself. I suppose with film, as a screenwriter as well, a lot of the story’s told through imagery and evoking really small moments that tell a big story, like an expression in somebody’s face or dwelling on a metaphor. Those are really great ways of telling a story too.
How does it feel to cross modes of storytelling between theatre, film, and writing?
I think it’s really fun, really great to do that. It’s exciting to not just be stuck in one spot. There are multiple ways to tell a story. I mean, I think it always depends on what it is you want to say. Sometimes, a play is the place where ‘oh this would be the perfect vehicle for this conversation’ or maybe a screenplay is a better place for another kind of conversation, or a short story. I really do like writing short stories as well. When I really want to be a narrator and have the voice of the narrator talk about the world and the details that make up a character, sometimes that makes me want to write a short story. But if I want to show a really specific experience that’s very subtle and takes place in a lot of different locations and times in history or moments in the day, I might think a screenplay is better for that. If I want to go really deep into a philosophical question and really talk about what a character is going through, I might use play for that because they would need to talk. They would need the dialogue to get that story out. That might be why I would choose that.
Do you think that these different forms bounce off each other?
I think so. They’re all inspired by each other. Plays nowadays sometimes incorporate filmic aspects and different kinds of imagery that usually you would only see in film. I think there are some films that are all about the conversation and few locations. So those are some ways I’ve seen them intersect.
What is your process in creating and portraying your art?
I don’t even know where to start with that. I guess it always comes from emotion and an experience I’ve had. Usually, it will come from an emotion that needs to be expressed. Then the story around why that emotion arose. Then I can see, ‘oh is this something suited for a play, a screenplay, or even a short story.’ So I think those initial things start to form. A lot of times it will just happen all at once. I really like to think about things for a while before I write them down. I think an idea will come to you, and then characters will start to be built around that idea. And you’ll start to see situations in your head. And then you’ll start to see a major dramatic question. And once I’ve got that, those pieces, I really feel like I can sit down and write a bunch of pages, get the arc of my story. Sometimes though, it’s just like a line—like I’ll just hear dialogue in my head, and I just want to write that down. And then sometimes those things ultimately combine to creating a world. These thoughts or lines will suddenly start to create something on their own. I do tend to need a lot of time and clarity to write something. I usually like to think about things before I speak, so my writing style is very similar in being able to say what I really want to say not just words for words’ sake or attention for attention’s sake.
What about portraying your art? What does it feel to see what you’ve written come to life, and what does it feel to show others that?
That’s the part that’s the most fun. I love it when the actors get the work—I’m thinking of theatre right now. Actors are just so fun and exciting. Just the different ways they go deep into a character and embody it, how they bring things to characters that were maybe hidden in the text or things they bring to it from their own life. It’s fun watching actors. I always find it fun sitting in the audience when I have a piece because I always realize it’s much funnier than I thought it was. I do write comedy; I think what I write is funny. But I find it way more absurd than I knew. That’s always a fun discovery. Especially because audience is seeing it for the first time. You kind of experience everything fresh for the first time. It’s a neat experience to have other people give you two hours of their time to be in an alternate reality that you’ve created.
Are you usually involved in the process of creating what you’ve written? Do you usually have a say?
Yes! Recently, I’ve also been running a theatre company, New Native Theatre. I’ve been running that for ten years and had a hand in everything. And when I’ve had plays produced in other venues, I’ve always been there. I mean, I’ve had a few plays that were produced in different cities that I wasn’t able to attend, so that’s also exciting to know that those things are happening. And then with filmmaking, the screenplay I wrote recently, I made that myself. I directed that, so I was really deeply involved in it. It’s interesting to be focusing on the details of writing the story. And then when you’re a director and a producer and you have the script, sometimes that’s the thing that takes over. Just the logistics of the day, the logistics of the project. Sometimes the little subtle things that you really spend a lot of time on writing, in reality, when you produce it, those things can not seem as important. Then you can see, ‘oh well this is what the larger story is,’ and it doesn’t need to get lost in the weeds.
How do your stories connect to your identity?
I always write stories that would be experiences I could have. Being a Native person, my protagonists, my characters, are usually always Native. Not every single character is Native because not every single person I experience in my life is Native. But yeah, always my protagonists are because that’s the way I see the world, I see the world through that lens, that worldview. I do feel that there are not enough stories told from that perspective, so if I have the ability to write something or make something, I think it’s important to write from that perspective. Inevitably then, the characters will have a worldview, like a Native worldview, you know different characters will have variations on those experiences. But it’s a big piece of my identity. It’s a big piece of who I am and how I walk in the world, so my art follows that.
Does your artwork help you connect to your community?
Oh yeah, it really does. My theatre company is very specifically community-oriented; I see it as a professional pathway for Native folks to be in the performing arts. There are a lot of different opportunities for Native artists and community members to work in the company, to be actors, or directors, or writers, or even just to come be in a class, a playwriting class, an acting class. It’s really intricately connected to Native community because that’s its mission, that’s my mission. I really believe that stories can change the world. I think that stories can change the status of Native people, and there are powerful stories that can change a person’s trajectory in life. When we see ourselves depicted in stories on stage or on the screen, it has a really strong psychological effect. It helps to combat how the rest of the world tells us we’re invisible; it completely is the opposite of that. A lot of research has been done that talks about the way it validates who you are, raises your self esteem, and anyone who's been in the arts knows that. It has so many different positive effects. That’s another side effect of making work in Native community. Just being an audience member, you get to see that, and it’s really powerful as well.
Can you tell me about New Native Theatre and what you see for the future of New Native Theatre?
New Native Theatre is ten years old. We just celebrated our tenth anniversary season. The theatre started in an environment where there was not a full-time Native theatre company that existed to put full-length plays and one-act plays on stage. There was not a Native theatre company that was doing that full time. So it helped to fill a void that was very very much needed. In Minneapolis, there are quite a few Native novelists, or short story writers, or tons of wonderful Native visual artists. But there just wasn’t anybody who was like, 'I am a theatre artist, that is my identity’ in the Native community. I had been studying theatre, I had worked in regional theatres across the country, I had my work done in Native theatre companies and non-Native theatre companies, so I was coming to creating a nonprofit organization in a really unique way with a bunch of different skills that a lot of Native folks, artists, never had.
Really what New Native Theatre did was create a really strong anchor and ecosystem for Native performing arts and theatre to happen. So we’ve produced so many different plays, whether they are community-created devised work, or plays that are in the Native canon, or brand new play development. We also brought touring plays down, and we offer quite a bit of training—acting classes and playwriting classes. Then, we have an annual festival of ten-minute plays, where we develop writers and plays. We have collaborations across the country; we work with different theatres and different kinds of organizations.
My vision for what is going to continue happening with New Native Theatre: I see us continuing to produce new plays, continuing to produce plays that are in the canon, and bringing more tours to town. I see us having our own space, our own theatre space, and offering a lot more classes and training opportunity for Native artists. We actually are among the few theatres in the Twin Cities that pays non-union artists fairly well, we’re like one of the highest, paying a good rate. So I see all of that happening and just being able to do that more at a stronger, thriving level, having a really strong, functioning structure of the organization. But definitely having our own space is gonna be a big piece of that. We do a lot of advocacy in racial equity work, so that we’ll continue to do. We’ll probably do more publishing with articles and things like that.
Why do you do what you do?
I love what I do. I really enjoy it. That’s why I keep doing it. It’s not always fun, but I really love the craft of writing a play, of putting a really great script together. I love the challenge of putting together characters and situations. I’d say that, at the end of the day, I really love writing. I love love my community. So the fact that I can bring those two things together is really fantastic. I love being an artist. I love that this is the focus of my life. For all the other sorts of advocacy that I do, everything just pales in comparison to what it feels like when you sit down and you’re writing something that you love.