UW-Madison graduate student shines spotlight on accessible, sustainable theater

After spending years on the stage, Cyra K. Polizzi is switching roles to create a sustainable, accessible, feminist theater practice — from play programs to accommodating tour locations.

Image By: Max Homstad

UW-Madison graduate student shines spotlight on accessible, sustainable theater

Cyra K. Polizzi is no stranger to the theater. But this is the first time they’re running the show with the creation of a sustainable, accessible, feminist theater practice — a space for creative exploration and activism.

As a first-year graduate student in UW-Madison’s Gender and Women's Studies Department and the Center for Culture, History and Environment, Polizzi took the craft they spent more than 15 years participating in and cultivated it in the walls of academia at the start of the 2018-’19 academic year. 

However, Polizzi’s advocacy began well before they enrolled in college. From their childhood in rural southwest Wisconsin — engulfed by arts and trees — activism became second nature.   

They completed their bachelor’s degree in theatre and drama, along with certificates in environmental studies and gender and women’s studies at UW-Madison. For 15 years, Polizzi collaborated with members of the Indie Boots Theatre in Chicago to feature underrepresented perspectives in their work before returning to Madison. 

Through their years of activism, three words proved most important to the practice’s transdisciplinary development: sustainable, accessible, feminist. 

“I’m putting those words together, because I think that they are incredibly interrelated to each other,” they said. “I can use those different lenses to look at the way that we’re creating work, and I can look at various activisms in order to help build a cohesive practice that takes these things into consideration.” 

This two-part thesis project of their graduate studies features the practice and a handbook drafted for the production of a play. Polizzi sees the parts “growing together” and “informing each other” throughout the process. They said making the theater practice come to fruition is the most integral part, meaning that there is no text currently selected.   

“I am definitely very excited about when I get to morphally engage with a particular text,” they said. “But, that’s coming.” 

However, that doesn’t mean Polizzi doesn’t have a few concrete goals. They are planning to utilize a home space for rehearsals and the first couple weeks of production before moving to an outdoor space. 

Polizzi is set on touring various spaces to allow for more accessibility for individuals to view the production. Being outdoors also puts “actors and audience members in direct contact with aspects of the more-than-human world in ways that would be difficult to achieve inside a conventional theater.” 

Aside from making the practice an inviting and respectful refuge, they also plan to have the play open in Madison by spring 2020. 

Advocacy and theater set the stage

In order for Polizzi to achieve that date, they have been working with departments at UW-Madison, as well as some old collaborators from Chicago. These conversations happen due to their appreciation for partnerships furthering the process of the practice. 

“Theater is highly collaborative, so I’ve spent most of my life doing highly collaborative work and I really love that,” Polizzi said. “Also, there are always things that if you’re working on your own you just aren’t going to think of. Working collaboratively just opens up so many possibilities.” 

One of those collaborators who spent some time working alongside Polizzi at Indie Boots Theatre was theater and film director Richard Paro. Since Paro moved to Madison with Polizzi, they found themself often in deep informal chats about future plans of the practice.

Similar to Polizzi, Paro sees the value of working together — and how it often goes beyond the spectrum of arts. 

“My experience is that collaboration and an exchange of ideas is better for everyone,” he said. “And not just in the arts, but in a myriad of areas.”

Polizzi shares Paro’s view as they progress through planning the practice. The discussions they have had are reflective of how they want the stage culture to be: a collaborative space that features a wide range of perspectives and thoughtful representation.  

“I think that stories and representation have incredible power to shape our world,” Polizzi said. “We need to think about that from many, many different perspectives and really [take] the time to work through the details of the process in multiple ways can open up more possibilities in the types of stories and representations that we have on stage and that contextualize our world.”

When bringing to life characters on a page to the stage, Polizzi is always acknowledging the “shared futures” of humans in the environment -— which is why providing a sustainable, equitable place is essential beyond the creation of their thesis.

They also mentioned the importance of engaging with “individual and community wellness” that will enrich the lives of artists and audiences through “laughter and meaningful conversation.” Like the goals of their practice, Polizzi finds the wellbeing of audiences and actors are “all wrapped up” with one another. 

“All of these things are interconnected and you can’t pull one piece out of the other because we all share these communities together,” they said. “So how we do our work now, how does that impact our shared future?”

At the same time, Polizzi is exploring feminism through a similar lens as they view being environmentally conscious through dismantling and replacing oppressive systems.

Accessibility, feminism and sustainability at center stage

These systems are not foreign to the theater, which encourages Polizzi to start from the bottom and reformulate how a theater space is run to make it more welcoming. From their experience, the theater community is “not immune” to marginalization, exclusion and violence, as the cultural expectations of what women “should be” still run deep.

“To fundamentally make change, we have to start from the ground up, considering the ways oppressive systems are tied up together and the ways we can participate in destabilizing and replacing those systems,” Polizzi said. “It also means taking practical accessibility seriously.”

The act of being sustainable goes beyond environmental advocacy — it’s in the use of handing out eco-friendly programs and actor performance preparation. 

Polizzi ensured the technical factors are always present in their mind to maintain tangible goals. 

“The technical aspects of this are really wide-ranging, so they’re from these seemingly very small material considerations all the way to these kind of more: What does actor training look like? And what can actor pre-performance work look like in this practice?” Polizzi asked.

But that’s not to say the process hasn’t come with challenges, financials being a main one for Polizzi. They said they were “least drawn to thinking about economics,” but that “economic stability is also something that needs to be considered.”

However, that is not Polizzi’s focus with this practice. Making the theater comfortable and creative are some of the motivations they are concentrating on more intently than fiscal concerns. 

Polizzi recognizes there will always be barriers, and that is a large proponent of what they are trying to break down. This is especially true for accessibility and ensuring that all aspects, from the time to location to transportation, are considered to breakdown as many barriers as possible. 

Taking into account script content when casting, Polizzi said it is necessary to understand how power dynamics are present between performers and directors. But the same amount of consideration needs to be put toward the availability of accessible, gender-neutral bathrooms with fragrance-free soaps. 

“There isn’t one design for accessibility that you can just one day decide you’re going to do and be done with it,” they said.

In order to make the practice possible, recognizing obstacles that are present is the first step. And for Polizzi, that comes down to listening and paying attention to the conversations around them.

The impact of stories and representations plays an important role in creating a space that is sustainable, accessible and feminist. While it seems like a lot, Polizzi knows how important their advocacy is in collaboration with others.

They shared how important representation is both on a large scale and as individuals — especially in moments where listening and engaging is lost.  

“The lack of, and stereotypical, representation of marginalized folks, including women, is reflected in everything from nationwide stats on life-and-death health disparities to the frustrating gendered assumptions a new friend made about me just this past Saturday,” they said.

Polizzi also discussed how the dialogues they have been a part of or witnessed — with the minds of academia, hearing the words of event speakers or over sips of coffee with friends — centers their focus. 

“I am very indebted to activists and artists who are working in indigenous activism, disability activism, women of color feminisms, environmental justice. I’m definitely indebted to so many other artists and activists,” they said.

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