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The Flea Theater Announces Transformation of Strategic Direction and Focus on Black, Brown, Queer Artists

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Spring 2022 will mark the return of live, in-person performances with Arden: A Ritual for Love and Liberation.

The Flea Theater Announces Transformation of Strategic Direction and Focus on Black, Brown, Queer Artists

The Flea Theater today announced a major strategic evolution for the performing arts organization, committing to positive and equitable artists relations while prioritizing Black, brown, and queer artistry through partnership and programming. The institution's board, leadership, and staff have resoundingly endorsed a refined mission statement, core values, operating model, a restorative engagement plan, and aesthetic direction for in-house work.

Since its founding, The Flea has sought to champion voices least likely to be at the forefront and art that pushes the limits of theater. A dedicated focus on Black, brown, and queer artists in experimental theater comes at a moment in which a national spotlight is shining widespread- and longstanding-on the inherent value of BIPOC voices.

The Flea engaged CJAM Consulting, LLC to facilitate a comprehensive vision process to determine its new mission and core values. Key internal and external stakeholders were invited to participate in surveys, focus groups, and community conversations to ensure these statements accurately reflected those served.

New Mission Statement and Core Values
The new mission notes that the institution will focus on "supporting and investing in experimental art by Black, brown, and queer artists" and "providing space, financial support, and producing partnership so these artists may develop and share their vision in community with audiences." New core values will support its new mission, shape the culture from within, and reflect what is truly important to The Flea as an organization.

The Flea's new core values are Human-Centered, Anti-Racism & Anti-Oppression,
Collaboration, Innovation, Sustainability, and Transparency.

This new direction will set the organization and its key constituents up for long-term success and reflect the true heterogeneity of its communities. To achieve those goals, The Flea will operate under a new leadership model, continue to restore positive relationships with former artists through a reparative partnership, and in 2022 launch a new artist residency and aesthetic direction for The Flea's in-house work.

"We have been evolving our work over the past several months, digging deep into our identity and listening to community members. And today, we are happy to be unveiling our new direction as a transformational moment in our history," said The Flea Theater Artistic Director Niegel Smith, who also serves on the board of directors. "At The Flea, we believe in the power of the arts to reflect the world around us and facilitate a deeper understanding of the human experience. Now, we urgently ask the question, 'Who specifically is The Flea serving?' We are looking to address historical inequities in the arts. Our mission clearly reflects our values and the core of our artistic approach. And we invite folks in as we look and work towards a revitalized future for The Flea."

New Leadership Model & Board of Directors
In tandem with its vision and core values, today the institution announces five new board members and a new board co-chair who will provide strategic direction for growth around the theater's new mission-centering Black, brown, and queer artists while deepening its focus on experimental art- and new leadership model.

The new leadership model will be collaborative and transparent in nature, with staff invited into decision-making discussions and artists having autonomy over their work and represented at the Board level. The Board has specified seats to be filled by developing artists and resident companies.

New board members include Board Co-Chair Nona Hendryx, Grammy Award-nominated, art- and funk-rock pioneer; Sarah East Johnson, founder and Artistic Director of LAVA; Rick Miramontez, veteran press agent and president of DKC/O&M; Cauvery Patel, Chief Operating Officer & Head of People and Culture at Dropps; and Charles Randolph-Wright, writer, producer, and award-winning director. They join Tony Tramontin (Co-Chair), Frank Lavadera, Melissa Poulos, and Niegel Smith.

"I'm excited to welcome such a strong group of new board members who will bring diverse expertise and insight into our work. It's important that the board looks and feels like the folks served by the organization," said Smith. "I'm also thrilled that Nona Hendryx will lead the next chapter of our work in her new role as board co-chair. As a visionary artist, as a Black woman, Nona's passion for making an impact through the arts makes her an ideal board leader for the Flea at this moment. Nona's experience as an artistic innovator and risk-taker, her vast network, and breadth of perspective will be great assets to the artists we serve, and we're looking forward to her leadership."

"I am thrilled to join the Flea Theater in its new mission to support Black, brown, and queer artists, demonstrating inclusivity and creating groundbreaking work confronting the most important issues of our time," said Nona Hendryx, newly appointed co-chair of the board. "One thing that excites me the most about the Flea's new identity is that it was developed in partnership with our community leading to a fundamental change in our leadership model, including how we view the board at the Flea. We removed the give/get contribution and are rebuilding a board that reflects and includes folks served by the theater. Building a healthy, equitable, and inclusive community is a Board priority, as we work together to reach the widest audience possible and become a more service-oriented institution."

New Reparative Partnership with Former Resident Artists-The Fled Collective
Beginning in February 2021, the Flea and The Fled engaged in a restorative process inclusive of facilitated conversations, mediated healing circles, and collaborative program design. The Theater and former resident artists have since established a positive path forward for a new partnership structure and mutually beneficial relationship.

The Flea is excited to welcome The Fled Collective as its first Key Resident Company beginning in January 2022, marking the continuation of partnership and further restoration of this relationship with the newly formed collective. The inaugural residency is a reparative grant and partnership offered to a nascent company that centers Black, brown and queer artists. The artist collective will function as an autonomous company and will receive a three-year residency that includes the presentation of work, $10,000 unrestricted cash support each year, $50,000 space rental credits each year, in addition to production and marketing support and resources to develop their new projects.

"This is tremendous news, and we are happy to embark on this new chapter with The Fled Collective. We recognize this is absolutely the work to be doing right now. They are artists we are invested in, who we care deeply about and their artistry impacting the theater," said Smith. "We also recognize that the practices, historically, at The Flea haven't always uplifted these artists and their well-being. So working with The Fled, which is about the artist's autonomy, and then turning out their own direction and interests, and having complete control over their artistic output, is completely aligned with where we want to take The Flea and our investment in these artists."

"The Collective is interested in finding solutions that offer alternatives to cancel culture and instead lean on restorative justice principles that may create lasting change. That is not to say we are ignorant to the fact that all wounds have not been healed. Acknowledging that is what keeps us in the room. Rather than putting our differences aside, we've put them on the table and intend to work through the hurt with empathy as our guide," said actor and community leader of The Fled Collective, Dolores Avery Pereira.

"So much communal labor has gone into building The Fled in the hope that we can transform the American Theater. Transformation and reclamation are possible and we are seeing this in our relationship with the new Flea," said actor and producer Adam Coy, and leading artist of The Fled Collective.

"This partnership represents the culmination of almost 18 months of work on both sides," said stage and screen director Raz Golden, a leading member of The Fled Collective. "It's ultimately an experiment in reparations in real-time and like any experiment."

The Fled identifies as an artist collective with non-hierarchical leadership practices, providing a radically equitable, anti-racist, anti-oppressive platform for theater artists. Their present mission is to build community, expand their artistry, and make theater that is actively engaged in collective liberation and the dismantling of colonialist practices and white ideals. Their inaugural season is being planned using an unconventional process based on experiments in community and democracy pioneered by Detroit Soup (and refined by gallery space Chinatown Soup), as well as methods developed by the Austin-based theater collective Rude Mechanicals. Their upcoming work will fulfill the Collective's three pillars of programming: Artistic Development, Theater Production, and Industry & Community Justice. The Fled will later announce details on its upcoming season.

Resident Company Initiative: Nurturing Experimental Art by Black, Brown and Queer Companies

In addition, the organization will launch a multi-year residency offering itinerant and mission-aligned artistic companies the ability to leverage The Flea's in-house support system-creative, technical, and producing-to further their artistic reach. This program offers dance, music, visual and performance art, and theater companies and collectives, at pivotal stages in their development, assistance, and resources. The first participating company is the renowned modern dance troupe EMERGE125 a Black woman-led organization.

"The Flea has been my artistic home in the city with Niegel [Smith] and his team supporting me, both personally and professionally. When I think of what presenter/artist relationships should look like, The Flea immediately comes to mind," said EMERGE125 Artistic Director, Tiffany Rea-Fisher. "To have the added security to know that we will be a resident company at The Flea for the next three years is an absolute gift. Having another arts organization trust and invest in you in that way, especially now, will definitely change my artistic trajectory for the better, and I am truly grateful."

New Aesthetic Direction and Spring 2022 Programming
Dedicated to commissioning, producing, and presenting new theatrical work, The Flea will return to live in-person performances for its spring 2022 season. The programs reflect the organization's new values and provide commissioned artists with the flexibility to create and present ambitious new work that might not be realized in other spaces. The return of live, in-person performances at The Flea Theater will signal a new aesthetic direction for The Flea's in-house work.

Arden: A Ritual for Love and Liberation

Opens Early 2022
Conceived by Carrie Mae Weems, Diana Oh, Okwui Okpokwasili, Peter Born, and Niegel Smith
Produced by The Flea
Arden: A Ritual for Love and Liberation is a large-scale theatrical experience that centers a plurality of voices and aesthetics by using As You Like It's "Forest of Arden" as a starting point. It aims to create moments of discovery, ritual, and awe around the theme of love and liberation in a place where queers, feminists, and intellectuals dare to create the world that centers their desires.

Thinking about Arden's conception Niegel Smith said, "I wanted to bring together a brilliant group of artists questioning form and content and give them the support to realize what has not yet been experienced in the culture. At the intersection of theater, visual art, dance, and queer ritual, we are making a work that will invite audiences into an active practice of love and liberation. This is not a passive space, this is a ritual to practice an ardent desire for connection."

Renowned choreographer, performer, and writer Okwui Okpokwasili said, "What I hear Niegel [Smith] asking of me, of us, is to imagine what we have been denied from institutions, imagine what we want to build, and what we need to build it and then to do it. What Niegel is proposing is that the Flea be a space for Queer, Black, and brown artists to bring their love and their courage and their imagination so that we can build the art and the future we want and need together. As one of the few theater spaces in New York City headed by a queer, Black man, his vision is one I share, it is necessary and I will not turn away from it."

Multi-hyphenate Generative Artist Diana Oh said, "I am here to be with other artists of Marginalized Identities and to create with integrity, pain, love, embodied truth, and my joyful perversion. As an Artist who intentionally explores the apex of my intersections, I am not here for the institution: I am here for the invitation. I am here to be a part of what we build up after we burn it down and to thank those who have burned it down before us. And I could watch the ashes settle, or I could be a part of building back up what's left of the beating heart that I find to be worth saving and worth investing my time into."

Juneteenth Public Art Commissioned Celebrations

Monday, June 13, 2022- Sunday, June 19, 2022
The Juneteenth Public Art Commissions are four examinations of personal reflections of the holiday that honors the resilience of the African American spirit and the promise of powerful Black futures. The series was piloted in June 2021, and each artist has creative and budget autonomy to present their Juneteenth mediations to the public. The Flea will continue this commission series in 2022, expanding it to a full week of public art.

Jus' Like A Tree Planted By The Water finds vocalist and composer Imani Uzuri on a journey of encounters through Central Park and Harlem as she sings an experimental interpolation of the African American Spiritual "I Shall Not Be Moved;" dance artist and Artistic Director of Urban Bush Women Chanon Judson provides a public meditation on liberation and how to activate the spirit of now in Times Up! A Liberation Ritual; renowned writer James Scruggs is a strolling Juneteenth Historian in Ask Me About Juneteenth; and Bessie Award-winning director Niegel Smith's The Worthy takes participants on an intimate walking contemplation on justice, resilience, worth, and Black men starting at the African Burial Ground Memorial. The works span creative disciplines and were presented simultaneously and in public spaces around New York City.

Chanon Judson said, "In this time when arts organizations are being charged to examine equitable practices, it was such an appreciated narrative shift to receive production support that offered that I shape the scope of my work. I took to heart, the invitation to 'make the art [you] need to make,' creating a performance ritual for myself and community participants. The Flea commissioning support allowed me to assemble a team of support so I could stay absorbed with the artmaking, investigative in the performance practice, and stay authentically in relationship with community participants throughout the engagement."

The Flea will further demonstrate its new values through continuous community and stakeholder outreach, including feedback from surveys and community conversations. Continuing to allow The Flea to reflect on its organizational culture through the lens of equity - examining the structures of oppression (racism, sexism, ableism, xenophobia, ageism, regionalism, and classism)-that shape the experiences and outcomes for artists. The Flea views strategic planning as an ongoing process; development will be assessed annually, and the plan will continue to be updated based on the changing needs of the organization and its stakeholders.

Additional details about the 2022 season will be announced in the coming months. Information about The Flea's new mission, core values, board of directors, and partnerships can be found at theflea.org, along with information about programming plans.


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