Aliya Griffin on Creating Fearless Political Art and Refusing to be the Conventional Entrepreneur-Artist
This is the fifth in a regular series of blog posts in which I speak with exciting artists, innovators, and entrepreneurs exploring how their creative skills have enabled them to do incredible things in their personal and professional lives.
You can find all of these interviews by searching for the tag #CreativeInnovative.
Aliya Griffin and I first met in 2004. We quickly became friends and spent several years together studying and training at Simon Fraser University. Aliya was studying a joint major in Theatre Performance and Political Science. This was fascinating to me and, in introducing me to the forgotten stories of people and the hidden power structures that underlie things we take for granted around the globe, she challenged a lot of my assumptions about global politics and the role that theatre could play in speaking to the wounds of the world and amplifying voices that often go unheard. Aliya's work is unique, reflecting the influences of her Ukranian heritage and her political conscience. Uncompromising in her vision, Aliya isn't afraid to tackle the biggest of ideas and most challenging of material - true stories, fragments of the historical record, deconstructing our global consciousness.
F: Tell me a little about your experience in the arts.
A: I grew up immersed in the arts. I took piano lessons from age 4 to 12 and participated in Ukrainian Dance from age 4 to 15. Music and singing was always a part of my life, and I sang in choirs, took voice lessons, and eventually started a vocal trio with my step-sister and a friend called Vostok that specializes in (mostly) a cappella music from Eastern Europe and the Balkans. I also have been acting from a young age. I toured the lower mainland with numerous "issued-based" productions through the Vancouver Youth Theatre throughout high school. This along with my parent's political involvement is where the seeds were planted for my political and socially engaged theatre. I then studied theatre performance as SFU while also getting a joint major in Political Science, and now I am currently pursuing my masters in Arts for Social Change also as SFU. I've also created, produced, and directed a number of pieces through my small independent company, the Troika Collective.
F: You are based in Vancouver, BC. Has your theatre taken you to other places?
A: So far, no, but I certainly hope the skills I've learned in facilitating socially engaged theatre creation will take me to new communities across Canada and beyond. My trio Vostok is also hoping to take a trip to Ukraine to immerse ourselves in the culture and train in traditional vocal forms. Inevitably this will also result in some research for potential Troika Collective productions as well.
F: That's an exciting opportunity to deepen your work! You have created some incredible projects, many of which are collaborative and call on your ability to communicate. What are the benefits and challenges of collaboration?
A: Collaboration undoubtedly creates richer and more complex works of art. In the west we have long been caught up in the idea of the "lone genius" as the model of an excellent artist. But I think the most important role of art, especially in this fraught world, is to help understand the "other" and to foster empathy. This exploration of "otherness" inherently requires different voices and perspectives in dialogue with one another. Great art to me is that which is simultaneously deeply personal and universally resonant, and the only way to create this is through deep collaboration with others. That being said, having your values, your ideas, and your aesthetics challenged and interrogated can be incredibly difficult and uncomfortable, but it is, in my opinion, a vital part of collaboration and thus art creation.
F: How did you decide to take your art in this direction?
A: In some ways, it was inevitable. Coming from the deeply political background that I did, I don't think I could have ever been satisfied with "conventional" theatre. In fact, despite my love of theatre, I always struggled with a feeling of the form as being somewhat "self-indulgent". Reading Boal's Theatre of the Oppressed was a big turning point for me. Not that I am a proponent of everything he says, but simply that he offered an alternative to theatre as purely a form of entertainment.
F: Did this require you to take on additional training/learning curves?
A: My masters degree in Arts for Social Change is definitely my way of more fully immersing myself in the questions of why I make art, who it's for, and how it can be used to create, well, social change.
F: What drives you in your work?
A: It is partly selfish for sure, I feel more fully alive, happier, and engaged in the world around me when I make art. But also, it is my way, however small, of trying to impact my community and the world in a positive way. I'm not a politician, nor would I want to be, and I don't have the skills to become a doctor or aid worker, but I can make art. That's what I do to give myself and others who may not have one, a voice.
F: To what extent have you been able to make your creativity work an aspect of all of your jobs?
A: In some ways, I am incredibly lucky that my "day jobs" are at least peripherally in the arts. I work as an administrator for a company that creates issue-based shows and tours them to children and youth across BC, Canada, the US, and sometimes even farther abroad. Though the work is not strictly creative, it is in aid of others people's creativity and I believe in the work they are doing to foster empathy and understanding in young people through theatre. I have never enjoyed the neoliberal "gig" economy and think that all humans (including artists) should have stability, benefits, and a pension, but until that becomes a reality across the board, I will have to have "day jobs".
F: How do you use your performance skills in undertaking “day jobs?"
A: My other work is as a front of house manager for some major theatres where I live. This work has definitely involved my skills as a performer. In the ways you'd imagine (ability to lead a group, projecting my voice to be heard over a crowd, being confident in the world of the arts). But also in other ways. Collaboration and empathy, which I learned through the arts, is incredibly useful for collect resolution between staff, between patrons, and between patrons and staff. I also happen to be the shop steward at my workplace, which definitely involves a great deal of collaboration and empathy.
F: How do you create? From where do you draw your inspiration?
A: I usually go through phases of creation. When you have to work other jobs along with creating art, you burn out quickly. Usually after a period of not making art, I will get that itch and need to create something. Since my work is theatre, and inherently involves other people, it is a big undertaking. Self-producing can also be challenging. So unlike, say, a visual artist who may have a small personal practice that they do daily, if I want to create and/or direct a piece, it usually involves a great deal of time and energy. Generally, I find myself inspired by political and historical events. I've also become VERY interested in verbatim or documentary style theatre, so I am often inspired by non-fiction books, journalist memoirs, podcasts, and documentaries.
F: Aliya, you have a remarkable biography as the founder of a theatre company, director of a myriad of theatre pieces, and a singer. For you, what are your proudest accomplishments?
F: Hmm, that's a hard one. Voices from Chernobyl (formerly Chernobyl: The Opera) was a very successful production. We managed to get critical feedback, sell out our run, and get some buzz in the community. It was also an example of the success of collaboration - being co-created with composer Elliot Vaughan. It was also my first foray into Verbatim theatre - with the text being taken from interviews in Svetlana Alexievich's book by the same name. But, I'm also quite proud of our production of "Nordost" by Torstein Buchsteiner and translated by David Tushingham. We presented the North American premiere, It's a three-woman show about the hostage-taking of a Moscow theatre in 2002 by Chechen rebels/terrorists. I was proud of the fact that we were able to offer three amazing actresses strong, complex characters to play. It told the story from the perspective of a hostage, a rebel, and a paramedic, and I felt like it was an important piece to do in these polarizing times. It truly tried to investigate and understand what drives people to do the things they do, and encourages empathy even in the most extreme circumstances. Labeling people as EVIL does not help us solve the issues of war and terrorism, we have to understand what motivates people and realize that in the correct circumstances we might be capable of terrible things ourselves. Strangely enough though, despite studying theatre and starting a theatre company, my side music project Vostok, is turning out to be quite successful. We now sing in 10 different languages and dialects from Eastern Europe and the Balkans, and we've been singing all over town at festivals and concerts.
F: How incredible that you are bringing an array of language and music to Vancouver. Isn't it amazing when a project unexpectedly takes off! In a city as full of creative work as Vancouver is, one often has to go, "What's happening here? What have we tapped into that this city is yearning for?"
What role does communication, performance, and using your voice and body have in your life? Why is it important?
A: I think, as a performer, we take for granted how powerful being comfortable in your body and being able to properly use your voice is to all sorts of things in our life. At work, at school, speaking to a crowd of colleagues, presenting in front of a room of classmates, being able to present yourself clearly and assertively is not a skill that everyone has. I've also found it incredibly useful as a shop steward. Having the ability to empathize with the people you are speaking to and on behalf of and being able to express yourself with clarity and diplomacy. It's not just the technical side of how you learn to use your body or voice as a tool, but also the practice in walking in someone else's shoes, in empathy, that makes the performing arts so invaluable. Sometimes I get upset when we talk about how kids should be put in the arts because it give them skills to be better students, or business people, etc. The performing arts are not just important as a means to a successful end, they are an end in themselves. There is inherent value in the arts because it makes us better humans.
F: That seems to be a major theme in your work, experiencing "the other," taking them from the dark periphery to the center. As the motor behind such huge undertakings, how do you manage burnout?
A: This is an ongoing question/challenge for me. The truth is, I don't make as much art as I would like, and I don't spend as much time as I would like on the pure art part even when I am working on a project. I have to balance my desire to create, with all the other responsibilities of living, and as I've mentioned before, I crave more stability than some other artists I know, so I'm limited to one to two projects a year. Singing with Vostok has been a way to fill the gaps. It doesn't require as much effort as producing a show. We just show up and sing, which is pretty much just pure joy.
F: I think people find ways to keep creating, I certainly found that when I was doing my masters - doing smaller performances and solos as simply giving it up wasn't an option.
Vibrance has the philosophy that training in voice, movement, and performance gives individuals concrete and adaptable skills. Would you agree with this argument?
A: As I touched on before, while I acknowledge that there are clear skills gained from performance training, far too often that is all it is marketed as the, "Put your kids in the arts because it will make them better at something else" mentality. The important other half is what you've mentioned, that the arts have inherent value to make the world better. We shouldn't have to constantly be proving the "marketable skills" aspect. The larger scale, harder to quantify value of the arts must not be forgotten.
F: Yes! I find that it's very difficult to evolve the wider conversation because we are still 'selling' the basic ideas behind an arts education. Some people truly get it, but it often feels like we cannot get past the step one, especially in North America. Some other countries have very different relationships to the arts.
How do you set boundaries with regards to managing your personal from your creative spaces?
A: I'm not sure I fully understand this question. I function in life with a lot of compartmentalization. This time is allotted for work, this for school, this for art, this for resting. But that being said, the creative and personal gets much more conflated than the personal and work, for example. My home is a meeting place and rehearsal space often. It is in my "free" time that I have to use to create my art. I think this speaks to a society that undervalues the arts. I have to treat my art as a "hobby" rather than my life's work even if I don't think of it that way.
F: What roles do intuition and aesthetic play in your personal life?
A: I'm not sure that I've thought of this before. I think that working collaboratively with people in the arts makes you more attuned to the subtleties of human interactions. Perhaps this makes artists more intuitive, and often more empathetic. I have a very strong aesthetic in my theatre work, but I'm not sure how that translates into my personal life. If anything, I think the opposite direction of translation might be the case. I'm not a hugely emotionally expressive person in real life, so in my art, I appreciate subtlety and abstraction, as opposed to psychological and emotional realism. I am drawn to verbatim theatre because I see more power and authenticity in the actor as a vessel for another's story than trying to pretend the story is theirs. We need to understand and empathize with the other, but in doing so, we do not become the other. The power is in that play between the real and the representation, the storyteller and the story, not in trying to perfectly replicate something.
F: Do you have to behave “differently” or be different people depending on the environment you are interacting with? What skills served you in these different places?
A: I think we probably all do. But the thing that is useful in all spaces, I think is empathy. Also, an ability to express yourself clearly and with confidence. Empathy, clarity, and the ability to make those around you comfortable in that you know what you're doing at any given moment, are all pretty universally appreciated skills.
F: What do you say to people who claim to “not be creative”?
A: Creative has become a bit of a buzzword that doesn't always mean the same things to everyone. A lot of people think because they can't draw a realistic looking person, or sing in key, that they are not creative. But to me, creativity is the ability to think in abstractions. To represent an idea or concept with something other than words. We all have the capability to think in non-linear, non-representational ways, we just don't all get a lot of practice at it. Or we've been encouraged by society that it's pretentious or indulgent, or silly.
F: How can creative training benefit someone who doesn’t wish to be a performer?
A: The obvious ways - confidence, public speaking skills, all those tools that are a means to an end. But also, in ways that are an end in themselves. Creating, and I believe specifically co-creating something as a community, has a profound effect on levels of happiness, on the ability to resolve conflicts within a community, and to create a sense of agency for participants. We underestimate in our society, the importance of giving people (all people, not just artists) a platform and medium to tell their stories on their own terms. I think being heard and seen is something that all people crave on some level in some form.
F: Did you have any teachers who were pivotal to your learning? What qualities/actions made them so influential?
A: I think one teacher in particular introduced me to a number of concepts that have stayed with me and influenced my work. Because I often make theatre that is political in nature, it is important to be aware that your art doesn't become didactic. The idea is to open space to talk about an issue, not to push a particular agenda. I am not seeking to make agit prop. This teacher was the first one to really hold me accountable to that idea. He also introduced me to the notion of play (and maybe a little friendly, no stakes competition). Play, like creativity is often encouraged out of us as we become adults, but it can be a powerful way to open up the body and mind to new ideas and new ways of working. It shakes things up and leads to new discoveries.
F: Exactly. I find that audiences have often become used to accepting moralizing, which becomes propaganda, instead of having the room to have their own experience and draw their own conclusions. It can be difficult as an artist with something so compelling to say, but there has to be a room for the audience to be conscious and reflective as opposed to passive witnesses who can leave the experience behind as they exit the performance space.
Tell me about your business?
A: I don't have a business. I don't sell anything, nor do I have the skills, or desire to be a business person - perhaps that's part of my problem, or perhaps that's societies problem for forcing artists to also have to be business people. I think the stories that I tell are important. I think I take universally resonant themes and filter them through a unique cultural, historical, and political lens that is close to my heart (Eastern Europe), but to "market" that is not where my skills lie.
F: How did you start your own theatre company The Troika Collective?
A: I started my theatre company because I wanted to make a certain type of theatre. Because there were stories that I wanted to tell, that no one else was going to. Because I needed to create, and no one else would give me the platform (or I couldn't handle the hustle to make someone give me the platform) to do so. This was not a dream. In fact, it is something that I find scary and daunting, and which I only do because the need to create is more powerful than my dislike of self-producing.
F: What was the toughest learning curve that you experienced?
A: Honestly, I have realized that without a partner, my company will likely not grow beyond what it is now, a vehicle for me to create work when I feel the creative need to do so. I do not have the skills, nor the desire to be an artistic entrepreneur. I need to find a partner who is good at networking and promoting.
I don't consider myself [an entrepreneur], and I'm deeply resentful of the fact that the "creative industries" have been co-opted by the idea that all too often artists must be contractors or entrepreneurs. My company was born of necessity and I'm proud of the art we create and hopefully will continue to create, but my skills are not in running a company and I have no plans to grow The Troika Collective on my own. If I were to find a partner with the skills and interest to grow the company, that might be a different story, but I think my long-term path will not be as the founder and director of a theatre company.
F: What are the most useful strategies/tools/devices/programs that support your business and work?
A: Collaboration and knowing your strengths. If I self-produce again, I will hire someone for marketing and promotion. I simply can not pretend that I am any good at it, or that it isn't soul destroying to me.
F: Through your creative work, you are connected with some very interesting communities around you. How does this inform the theatre you create? What drives you to do this?
A: Honestly, my goal is to do more community-based work, and that is partly why I am pursuing this masters in Arts for Social Change, but I haven't done a lot of truly community engaged art. Most of what would qualify would be work I've done with high school students. This is a particularly interesting group to me, because they are at an age when values are being shaped, when young people are asserting themselves outside of the views of their parents and teachers. I think it's an important time to be offering opportunities for critical thinking, for investigating "otherness", for fostering empathy, and for giving youth the tools to tell their own stories in their own ways. To empower them that those stories matter and that they have value. I think I appreciate high school students because, like me, they have a low tolerance for b******t and condescension. To not speak down to youth, to hold them to high expectations, and to give them the reigns to engage with and create art around the important issues that affect their lives is massively important for all of our futures, and the sort of citizens these young people become.
F: How has your community activism evolved? What lessons have you learned along the way?
A: I think in a lot of ways my activism has quieted somewhat. I'm more careful and less quick to jump on slogans or ideas. The older I get, the more grey area I see in the world. Part of it is also a conscious effort to try harder to understand the other. The world seems more vitriolic and polarized than ever before, so I think some empathy and diplomacy goes a long way. That being said, there are some issues that are black and white for me, and I will stand up for those to the best of my ability.
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