Native Theater Profiles

The Project HOOP Website presents the following brief profiles of seven of the 14 Native American theatre companies, projects, and support organizations represented at the 3rd annual national Native performing arts conference held in Los Angeles in December, 2004. The profiles are based on verbal presentations by each project's spokesperson and have been edited by the presenters and the HOOP website.

American Indian Community House, New York , New York
Dawn Gingold, Presenter; e-mail:

Located in New York City , the American Indian Community House (AICH) is a 36 year old organization serving one of the largest urban Native population in the United States. In addition to being a social service agency with job training and health programs, it provides an Art Gallery and a Theater.

The theater department serves as a resource for Native performers and those looking to cast them. AICH keeps a database of Native performers — actors, singers, dancers, musicians, comics, and performance artists. AMERINDA (American Indians in the Arts), another Native organization in New York City , also keeps an extensive database. The Non-Traditional Casting Project in NYC is a third source for Native actors.

AICH hosts an annual month of performances called the Indian Summer series. This program, as well as an annual showcase for agents is funded by the New York State Council on the Arts. In addition, from time to time Native performers are booked into the Circle Theater and Art Gallery . Stories are told, poems are read, plays and screenplays are read, and workshops are given in acting, voice overs, and commercials. For the most part, these activities are the result of volunteers providing their time and expertise.

In collaboration with the Times Square Playwrights, AICH hosts the Second Sunday series, bringing a new developing play or screenplay to the Circle for a full length reading each month. Again, this program is the result of a community member volunteering. Other collaborations have been with City Lore for language development with the New York City American Indian community, as well as other ethnic theater groups. AICH has also worked with ABC on its Diversity Showcase.

Haskell Indian Nations University, Thunderbird Theatre, Lawrence, Kansas
Pat Melody, Presenter; e-mail:

The Thunderbird Theatre Program at Haskell Indian Nations University began in 1974 under the direction of Pat Melody. This theater is intertribal, student-run organization. Thunderbird Theatre is completely supported by student productions, and raises $10,000-$20,000 per year to fund productions. Haskell also offers an Associate of Arts degree with an emphasis in theater. Haskell's theater program offers a full range of courses from an elective in Introduction to Theater, to Acting, Improvisation, American Indian Drama, Dramatization of Native Literature, to Theater History, and Performance. The members of the theater department are also developing a bachelor's degree for accreditation.

Since 1980, the Thunderbird Theatre has been touring throughout America , performing student-produced performances. These productions combine traditional and modern dance, acting, pantomime, singing, etc. The theater has also produced original works, including Kiowa writer N. Scott Momaday's Children of the Sun , and Onieda playwright Bruce King's THREADS: Ethel Nickle's Little Arce at the Lied Center of Kansas. When they are traveling, Thunderbird Theatre also provides community workshops.

Thunderbird Theatre was presented the Will Sampson First Americans in the Arts award for outstanding contributions to Native American theater. Recently, the company was also recognized by the Kennedy Center American College Theater Festival for its production of Weaving the Rain , an original Native play by Kiowa playwright Dianne Yeahquo Reyner at the Lawrence Arts Center in conjunction with the University of Kansas English Alternative Theater (EAT).

Haskell Indian Nations University has been affiliated with Project HOOP for the last three years. During this time Project HOOP subcontracted the theater department to host three Project HOOP Summer Sessions as part of a major FIPSE grant under the supervision of Pat Melody, Director of Theater. These three sessions have been very successful. During each session, students from a range of tribal colleges attended and participated in an intensive five-week summer program, which included three courses: Improvisation for the Theater, Introduction to American Indian Theater Performance, and Performance in Theater Arts. In these course, students studied improvisation, acting, scene study, and writing. At the end of this intensive workshop the participants produced their own original work and performed in the Lawrence and Haskell communities, continuing to build bridges between local Native and non-Native communities.

Over the past three years, students have also had opportunities to work with noted artists-in-residence: Jane Lind, Aleut actress and director; Bruce King, Oneida playwright and director; Marcie Rendon, White Earth Anishinabe playwright; Dianne Yeahquo Reyner, Kiowa playwright, and Paul Stephen Lim, playwriting professor at the University of Kansas.

Institute of American Indian Arts, Santa Fe, New Mexico
Terry Gomez, Presenter; e-mail:

The Institute of American Indian Arts (IAIA) was founded in 1962. The Project HOOP program officially began at IAIA in May of 2003. IAIA's participating administrators are President Della Warrior and Dean Maxx Stevens in the Center for Arts & Cultural Studies. Terry Gomez is the Project HOOP Coordinator, as well as the instructor for the Acting I/II class and Dramatic Writing I class.

As part of current programming for Project HOOP, IAIA staff have invited several professional actors to present workshops for the Acting I/II classes. From January 23 until February 12, 2005, Jane Lind was in residence and directed a show in which the students performed entitled “Bits of Life”. It included scenes from Hanay Geiogamah's 49 , Euripides' Medea , Shakespeare's The Taming of the Shrew , Terry Gomez's Inter-Tribal and original monologues by students. Ms. Lind also worked with students in Dramatic Writing I classes. Recently, two other visiting artists worked with AIAI students. Scott Harrison, who directed Fool for Love by Sam Shepard at a local theater, gave a workshop and worked with IAIA students on scenes from that play. Dr. Luke Dixon, Artistic Director for the International Play Festival, London , England , gave a three-day workshop on personal stories and creation stories from around the world.

Since May 2003, IAIA students executed a number of successful productions, including “Dirt Roads” and “Half-Wise.” Most notably, in Spring 2004, IAIA theater students from a range of tribal backgrounds put on a full-scale production of Annette Arkeketa 's Ghost Dance directed by Terry Gomez. This play, which investigates issues of repatriation, was followed by a community panel discussion on April 30 with distinguished repatriation activists Ms. Arkeketa, Otoe-Missoura/Muscogee; Suzan Shown Harjo, Cheyenne/Muscogee; and Jimmy Arterberry, Comanche. IAIA is also looking forward to the Spring 2005 production. The IAIA theater program has become a known presence in Santa Fe and surrounding communities and is making connections with the University of New Mexico , local theaters, directors, and actors. More students are becoming involved with theater and performing arts at IAIA.

Future plans include a spring production here on the IAIA campus. The dates are April 28 and 29, 2005. We're invited to University of New Mexico in April for a Tech/Design extravaganza. The University has also invited us to a production of A Midsummer Night's Dream . IAIA is hosting the 2005 American Indian Higher Education Consortium (AIHEC) this year in Albuquerque . This means that we are responsible for the One-Act Play Competition. Our students will also compete in this event. The judges will have no affiliation with a college. This year we have asked Wes Studi and Michael Horse to be our judges. There will be another judge added. Wes Studi, Michael Horse and Alan Arkin will also work with the students here during the semester. Finally, Terry Gomez and 2-3 students will be traveling to London this coming November to attend the International Play Festival. Increased funding to support student work on campus and to provide performing arts outreach in local communities is an important need.

Red Earth Performing Arts, Seattle , Washington
Frieda Kirk, Presenter; e-mail:

Red Earth Performing Arts, established in 1974, is one of the first Native American theater groups. The company disbanded in the late 1980s. After the company was disbanded, Ms. Kirk continued to receive phone calls asking for the company to perform and give workshops. As a result, in late 2003 Red Earth began the process of reestablishing the organization. Currently, Red Earth recently completed developing a board of directors to guide the course of the organization.

Red Earth has long focused on community outreach through theater. The organization tours, giving performances in Native communities. While on tour, they provide community workshops. In addition, Red Earth works with the school districts, doing classroom workshops with a performance at the end. Red Earth also conducts teacher education workshops that specialize in curriculum development, for example, by using local legends as a tool to teach geography, astronomy, etc.

The new Red Earth aims to develop a professional theater. The new organization plans to collaborate with universities to provide technical training and workshops. They are now in the process of developing a short- and long-term fundraising campaign.

Red Eagle Soaring, Seattle , Washington Martha Brice, Presenter; e-mail:

Red Eagle Soaring Native American Theater Group (RES) was founded in 1990 in Seattle Washington by a group of Native theater artists as a tribute to Nez Perce theater artist John Kauffman. RES has presented a variety of work over the years, including touring productions of plays for youth; a number of variety shows, “Celebrations of the First People”; and in 2002 a major theater work, a dramatization of contemporary Native poetry entitled, “Cedars,” which we hope will tour nationally in 2006. In addition, RES acts as an informal talent referral service for Native actors and other performance artists and groups.

From the beginning, however, Red Eagle Soaring's highest priority has been to serve the Native youth of our local urban community in the greater Seattle area, and in recent years we have become almost exclusively a Youth Theater group. In this urban multicultural setting, our youth participants, teaching artists, volunteers and staff represent tribes from all of North America . We work with 10-20 youth at any one time, up to a total of about 40 youth (ages 11 -19) over the course of a year. Each year we offer drama workshops and at least three opportunities for youth to perform their work, with one annual touring production.

In the summer, RES conducts an all day two-week intensive drama workshop for beginners and advanced students together, culminating in a performance for the public. In the fall, RES runs two 12-week series of weekly acting workshops, one in beginning acting and storytelling and one advanced scene study class. The advanced class is working with a video artist to create a series of scenes they are hoping to send to the Sundance Film Festival.

In the spring, RES does a major production, with students chosen by audition. The play is usually written by the students and their teaching artists, and is often based on a traditional Native story. In early summer the play tours to reservation communities in Washington State and beyond as well as to schools, special tribal and cultural events, and colleges.

We are committed to teaching our youth as much Native tradition as we can, given the diversity of tribes and bands and their ancestry. For example, in 2003 we held a hand drum-making workshop. The drums will stay with Red Eagle Soaring for future generations of students. The drums and several songs we have been gifted are incorporated into all the work we do. Winter 2005 we plan to hold a painting workshop for the drums.

As all of us here at the third annual Project HOOP conference have experienced, theater as a powerful medium for changing lives. In our case over 90% of our students report improvement (measured by end-of-project questionnaires) not only in drama skills, but in the more important personal qualities of self-confidence, ease with strangers, motivation to be successful, pride in self, interest in school, and positive outlook on the future.

In the last 15 years, RES's budget has grown from $5,000-$50,000 annually. Right now we are in a state of flux and growth. We are raising funds to move our office from my (Martha Brice's) donated home-office space to an office-classroom facility where we can have a real home. This year we hired our first employee, a part-time administrative assistant, and plan soon to have more employees and offer more programs. Other goals include touring with our plays to other parts of the country, making a manual for our culturally based teaching methods, and expanding our programs. Many wonderful people in the Seattle area are stepping forward to volunteer to help expand and achieve these goals and to expand our funding base to support them so that RES will continue long into the future. We are seeking more funding, more administrative help, and most important, more Native actors, artists, performers, and teachers as we work to benefit our most precious natural resource — our Native youth.

Sinte Gleska University and Project HOOP, Rosebud, South Dakota
Jeff Kellogg, Presenter; e-mail:

The Sinte Gleska University Native theater program is the first Project HOOP sponsored program held in Indian Country. Since its inception in 1997 at Sinte Gleska University as part of the W.K. Kellogg Foundations's “Capturing the Dream”: Native American Higher Education Initiative, this program has grown to offer 10 theater classes for 30 credit hours, and it is now close to offering an AA in theater.

The Rosebud Theater has produced two performances that are “100% American Indian Theater,” and two that have significant American Indian content. Two major community-based projects were Woniya – Breath of the World , which was developed and presented on the Rosebud Reservation and Wakinyan agle na ohakab wiconi: After the Storm - Breath of Life , developed and performed at Oglala Tribal College on the Pine Ridge Reservation. Currently, the Rosebud Theater is working on increasing pedagogy and building a Native American acting method based on the seven sacred directions. Mr. Kellogg is working on classes in creative drama for the theater, an arts management class, and state teachers accreditation for a drama endorsement in theater. He is also core testing for literacy.

So far, the Rosebud Theater has performed six productions, five of which were written outside the community. Interest in the theater program is growing on the Rosebud Reservation. Their recent production was written by an elder, a grandmother, and another woman is also currently developing a theater piece. The Rosebud Theater is also collaborating with the Wednesday night dance group, to create dance/drama in tandem with cultural revitalization. This is an exciting project, as this collaboration includes revitalizing a dance that has not been performed for years.

As in other tribal colleges, one drawback to this program is that the numbers of enrolled students are low and resources are very limited. In order to increase enrollment, Jeff is working to cross list theater classes with arts and humanities classes. The implementation of an after school bus has been done to help those in the theater department stay after school for projects. At this point, because of scarce resources in tribal colleges, this is a one person theater department. More staff is needed.

Tulsa Indian Actor's Workshop (TIAW), Tulsa, Oklahoma Julie Little Thunder, Janna Rhoads, and JR Mathews, Presenters e-mail:,,

This history of the Tulsa Indian Actor's Workshop (TIAW) takes place in a multi-tribal urban setting. This organization is 10 years old, but it has roots in the American Indian Theater of Oklahoma. The three speakers at the HOOP Conference were involved with that original group.

In 1992-93 Julie and Jana made a list of theater objectives, with the main goal to produce quality, contemporary Native theater and provide training to other Native people in theater. From this early meeting, the TIAW was formed. Their early space was a warehouse. Later they moved their plays to the performing arts center in Tulsa . Funding sources that have supported the TIAW include the Oklahoma State Arts Council and local businesses. TIAW has also received support from a number of tribes in the region.

Over the last 10 years, TIAW has been involved with community theater and arts festivals, collaborating with many different kinds of people, including Native artists of multiple genres. For example, Joy Harjo has composed music for TIAW. When writing or performing plays, the TIAW consults Native community elders on protocol and language. They also have a long-standing guest artist program and have won awards for set design and acting in regional community theater competitions.

In 2004, TIAW changed their organizational strategy. They assembled a new board of directors, and are still in the process of a name change to Thunder Road Theater Company, honoring two of the founders Julie Little Thunder and Janna Rhoads . TIAW hope to complete this process this year. One of the TIAW's primary goals, past and present, is community outreach. In 2003 the TIAW made a motion to take theater pieces to Native communities. Instead of expecting Native communities and audiences to come to them, they perform in their communities.

TIAW shared some of its fundraising strategies with the Project HOOP conference participations. One strategy was to sell tickets to performances that double as a ticket for a cash drawing. On the back of the tickets are a number for a $500 drawing at a casino to be drawn later. In order to be eligible for the drawing, ticket holders must attend the performance. At the show, ticket purchasers must write down their contact information, which is then used to create a mailing list for the theater company. Those who see the performance increase word of mouth about the theater company, which, in turn, boosts attendance at later performances. Another fundraising idea in process is creating marketing items for the theater company such as such as T-shirts, web sites that sell products, etc.