Sean Estelle is a community organizer and theater artist currently working with the climate change prevention organization Power Shift Network. I have seen Sean go from organizing students and working on actions in the morning, to performing at Salonathon at night. While Sean is not the only individual doing work in both political organizing and performance, they have what I have always felt to be an extremely unique experience of both these fields and, importantly, an understanding of how we might move them closer together, reinvigorating the relationship between performance and action.
Check out some ways you can take action at the bottom of the interview!
How did you get interested in organizing?
The way that I define my work right now is primarily in the realm of community organizing and not in traditional bounds of theater and performance, but I came to community organizing through art making. I grew up doing plays at my church and fine arts festival, and when I went to college I fell in love with the theater program at UC San Diego. I very quickly got involved in a company that was run by undergraduates for undergraduates called Company 157. I discovered performance art, while also being involved in the student run film and TV station on campus, and then my junior year of college I started doing some directing, was doing some assistant directing, and was still acting, though a little bit less – I was doing a lot of different things and loving them.
I had come out my freshman year, which was a huge rocking of my world. It flipped everything upside down and my entire life – it felt like I was starting over essentially, and rebuilding everything I thought was real and what the world was, who I was as a person. And my junior year, the Occupy movement happened. I had been a little bit aware of political work on campus, but not super plugged in. But when the Occupy Movement happened, something just clicked. I went downtown, I slept in a tent, someone gave me a copy of The Communist Manifesto, and then that person absorbed me into work that was happening on campus. The UC Board of Regents was trying to pass an 81% tuition hike. We formed this group called The Public Education Coalition, and when all the pepper spray incidents happened at UC Davis and UC Berkeley, we immediately formed a tent encampment in front of our main library. There were these other organizing groups planning on taking over an abandoned library that had been closed because of budget cuts. Long story short, we occupied one of our main libraries for 6 months trying to create a campaign to save it and turn it into a student space and prevent it from being transformed into a massive lecture hall. We then escalated and took over our chancellor’s administrative offices for about two weeks. We lost that campaign; the administration bulldozed the library in secret. As that was happening, someone asked me to run for student government as an Arts and Humanities Senator, because I was the only theater major involved in organizing that they knew.
When I graduated I was super burnt out, I wanted to take a break from organizing. I was outed to my parents about a month after I moved home. I was working at the GAP, and looking for opportunities to do performance art, but also I wasn’t allowed to take the car to go anywhere! I was deeply depressed, and I knew I had to move out to Chicago. My friend provided his couch, someone gave me a one-way plane ticket, and I moved with about $400 in the bank and everything in my suitcase and no job. I was like, “I’m going to make this happen!” Part of the reason I wanted to move to Chicago was the way a friend pitched it to me. He saw all the things I was doing and named that Chicago was a place where you could be a director, and an actor, and a performance artist, and a deejay, and a community organizer and it is much more about the artistic community that is being built. And there is a sense of collaboration that people want to lean into. That is the underlying dynamic that really excited me. And I knew that Chicago was a more politicized city, and that there were organizing structures that I could potentially plug into and be involved in. It was the best decision I ever made.
So the job you have now – what is the work you are doing?
In January of 2015 I took a job at this national non-profit called The Power Shift Network. At the time it was a coalition of about 12 organizations. I got hired as a fossil fuel divestment campaigner, still doing direct leadership development with students. It was about how we take a student base at the University of Chicago, or the folks at Grinnell College in Iowa, or the folks at University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, or whoever, and work to build a base, identify leaders, look at their university’s endowments, and what investments in fossil fuels they might have, and pressure their organizations to divest and take those investments out of fossil fuels.
Divestment is a tactic has been around since at least the 1980’s. A lot of artists and other people used it to boycott and divest from South Africa. And then Palestine solidarity activists have been using it since a call came in 2005 from Palestinian civil society to boycott, divest from, and sanction the Israeli government. And then fossil fuel and climate activists have taken the tactic to apply pressure to the fossil fuel industry and not only put financial pressure on the fossil fuel industry, but a key part of the divestment campaign and tactics in general is about changing the story of the industry you’re targeting. It is about naming them as bad actors, and saying that you should not have your money attached to this toxic industry. A key part of it is about the story you are telling.
Going back to this larger point about how the community organizing that I am doing is building on my training as an artist, and why I think they are really deeply connected: in organizing you work with a person to identify in organizing language what we call, “your story of self.” And then, also, when you’re the organizer organizing people, it is about identifying your story of self and identifying what moves you to be doing the work you are doing, and what your stake in the work is. And being able to connect that – a “story of self” to a “story of us,” us being the public or the community you are organizing, and why people are in collectivity together – and then moving into the “story of now,” and why it is important to be doing what we are doing, whether it is a mass mobilization or escalated directed action, or doing a mass training with 100 people to go and do organizing. A lot of the ways that we tell people to tell their stories end up being very similar to a lot of the techniques and tactics that are used with thinking about getting people to be responsive to other people that they are in relationship with, or making choices and moving towards how to execute those choices. There ends up being a very analogous relationship to the way a director works with actors. I’ve tried to articulate this language, and this is something I want to try to figure out how to do better because there are directors and other creative who come to me and say, “Sean, you’re trained as an activist! What do we do now that the world is falling to shit?” And what I usually tell them is that why I was able to get a national salaried job as an organizer two years out of college was because I was able to leverage the skills I had spent six years training on as an artist.
A lot of organizers know that we need to be more in touch with our feelings, or have a clearer narrative, and that is the work that artists do: we know that a well crafted story is what is going to move people emotionally, and that there are rules! You don’t just throw something up at a wall and hope it looks good. There is intentionality behind it, which is why my long-term goal is to be organizing and building power with artists. If you look at social movements in the past, especially ACT UP or the Civil Rights Movement, part of what made it really powerful is that there were a lot of artists and creative people at the core of deciding what the strategy was going to be, and coming with interventions, and crafting narratives that really moved people in a deep way. I forget who said it – I was copying and pasting this on someone’s Facebook wall the other day – that “art should comfort the disturbed and disturb the comfortable,” and that kind of sums things up for me. And also the Augusto Boal quote in Theater of the Oppressed about how theater is a rehearsal for the revolution. I think I’ve seen maybe three or four pieces that actually do that.
For me, to set up a binary for the sake of being able to examine it, I think about my organizing work and my artistic work and those parts of myself, but really I want to be able to synthesize them and find ways to move political people who might not think they have an artistic bone in their body and say no, actually everyone is creative. And, let’s think about how to center the voices of people who have been training on this and get artists and people who have a sense of political strategy in deeper relationship with one another, and share skills with each other, and realize they might be closer than they think. Also, agitating artists to say things such as, “there is no such thing as telling an apolitical story,” and, “there’s no such thing as being a part of an artistic institution that will allow you to just use the representation card to say that you’re doing political work.” That doesn’t cut it, at all.
You’ve talked a little bit about your long-term goals. However, what are some practical things that institutions can do now to start to foster an environment that is more connected, to start to have bolder, more engaged discourse, and create a supported space to tell the narratives that need to be centered for the work you mentioned to take place. I mean, if you could do anything with Chicago theater, what would you do?
Word! When I first moved here, shortly after that was when Mike Brown was killed, Eric Garner was killed, and the Ferguson uprising happened. I was added to a Facebook group called Chicago Artists Against Injustice. A few people called a meeting at DePaul and asked if we wanted to form this group to get artists plugged in to mobilizing. So thinking about mobilizing artists to action and also thinking about a support group for people who were involved in traditional productions to get their institutions to leverage resources. So if people had decision making power over what the season would look like, how to use the urgency of the time they were in to make demands. Kristiana Colon and Damon Williams were also very involved in that, and they ended up taking this whole group down to Ferguson and creating the Let Us Breathe Collective. And this Collective did these couple of events at Victory Gardens and Stage 773 where they had these evenings called, I think, “Breathing Room” (which is the name of the space they are building right now on the South Side. If there was one demand I could make of Chicago theater, it would be to donate money to the Breathing Room space, and take a tithe off of all their expensive tickets and send it as reparations to the space!). They did an evening of a variety show type performance with mostly –but not all- Black artists getting up and sharing their talents. At the end of the night, they said, “the night’s not over,” pulled out a megaphone and got the entire audience to walk out into the street and run an unpermitted direct action.
So we went from Victory Gardens to the six point intersection at Halstead, Lincoln, and Fullerton and shut down the intersection for an hour and half and just had a speak out. And Victory Gardens did not try to shut it down. They had Kristiana come back and do readings. They didn’t sever any professional relationship with her because of that (to my knowledge, anyways). So that is a super good example of using an equity theater house as a staging location for an action. That is amazing, and everybody should be doing that. Think about the relationship between art, organization, and mobilizing in that way. How do we have physical space and financial resources as a thing we can provide to organizers, people who are from Chicago and doing the work, instead of trying to paint a picture of these institutions of being these cutting edge socially engaged institutions. Sure, you can do that work, but you have to come in a way that is not only acknowledging past mistakes and past harm, but also doing it in a way that the people that are most directly impacted by the social policies of this city, of gentrification, and of systemic racism want. So when there are artists in city of Chicago who critique institutions for trying to paint themselves with a veneer of social engagement while not acknowledging the historical legacy of not lifting up the voices of playwrights and artists from Chicago and their role in gentrifying the city, I think it’s super important to acknowledge that and sit in that.
And going back to the physical infrastructure – remember when all the shit hit the fan with Pass Over review, and Hedy Weiss’ terrible comments, and this whole ChiTAC coalition came together to pressure institutions to not offer her free tickets? That is good, that is a good thing and really important work to be doing. And – looking at the critiques that Ricardo Gamboa and other folks raised (that I think are really worth not only naming who said these critiques and where I’m seeing them from, but then also my agreement with certain parts of it), which said t we also have to talk about the deeper structures of institutional power. If we are just targeting individual racist theater critics instead of talking about the way that these large institutions have multi-million dollar endowments that are invested in the oil companies that were brutalizing Native Americans in North Dakota last fall, then we still have work to do.
I’ve never seen a power analysis of the endowments of Steppenwolf, or the Goodman, or Victory Gardens, but I imagine that if they’re invested in fossil fuels they are also invested in private prisons, in the military industrial complex, and a lot of the capital that Rahm Emmanuel has tried to attract to Chicago. Rahm Emmanuel is on this whole mission of privatizing all the institutions of the city, and then slashing public goods -closing 50 schools, closing 12 mental health clinics – and then saying there is no money for anything, while also pulling 95 million dollars out of nowhere to fund a new police academy down on the West Side in Garfield Park. He wants to use a new police academy with an Olympic sized swimming pool – I think – as an anchor for “economic development” in Garfield Park, whatever the fuck that means. To go back to this question of what artists can be doing, Chance the Rapper showed up at this City Council vote on Wednesday, and outlets like Complex and hip hop magazines picked it up and NoCopAcademy got this national spike, which was amazing. So that is a really good example of a very high profile artist being able to leverage his power. And he was able to do that because he is in relation with the black and brown folks that are running community organizations and cultural organizing spaces that did this NoCopAcademy campaign.
So he was able to speak from a place of being informed and involved?
This is so interesting. The issue of where these institutions’ money is coming from is so complicated. Their politics extend so far beyond what is in the season.
Or who is onstage. There are a lot of white folks, men, straight people, and cis folks in positions of power that are speaking the language of solidarity, but are not necessarily walking the path of solidarity. They are walking the path of charity, of doing favors for people. But if you want to change structures of power, you have to move it beyond the interpersonal relationships and have to think about the structural dynamics. And the only way to visibilize those structures is to a) be in relationship with more folks that are experiencing the negative effects of those structures and b) looking at it from a theoretical view and doing that political education work, reading books, doing study discussions, and being involved in organizations who are working to change those structural dynamics.
I look at what Arts Access is doing, where they’re building relationships with institutions and then moving money to be able to provide theater tickets for free to people who need it. And that is changing structural dynamics, where it is giving resources to people who may not be able to access these gated institutions. That is the work of opening the doors wider. A crucialpiece of the work.
I think about what it would mean to form relationships and create a network of people who have positions of power at institutions who can all think about a strategy to demand that 10% of every ticket for every show for a year goes towards a reparations fund that is being given to local black and brown artists in the city of Chicago. That would need to be led by brown and black artists, and I would only want to move on that if they were dictating the strategy. But that is a thought.
Another thought is if there was a network of artists who were doing political education about the climate crisis and we thought about how to replicate the tactics of ACT UP and do a day without art, and having essentially a strike for a day. We could start in Chicago and then get other cities. What would it mean for every theater in America for a Friday night to refuse to put on their show and instead go to an action that was being hosted by a local organization fighting climate change. And you could partner with national organizations to make that happen. And also, thinking about how do you give the ability to plug into an organization into the hands of every single audience member. Joe Varisco does such an amazing job with this at QUEER, ILL + OKAY and at the Alphawood Gallery with all the performance programs there. Salonathon does this too, having people at the back of the performance space with information and providing space for co-curation and amplification. What are ways to move audiences to action beyond the talk back? If we think about this in terms of network dynamics, if we think about the audiences, actors, producers, etc. as parts, and the institution as the whole, then many of these strategies for diversity that exist are only addressing the part. And we have to be thinking about transforming the whole.
Thank you Sean! Now let’s do some work:
Let Us Breathe Collective:
Learn about the Let Us Breathe collective, their space The Breathing Room, ways to support them and get involved here: https://www.letusbreathecollective.com/
The collective is hosting a Black Market Chicago event and a Black Magic Kickback on FRIDAY 11/24!! Information here, attend if you can!
Information about Alphawood Gallery programs and ways to take action here: http://www.alphawoodgallery.org/take-action/
The Power Shift Network:
Become a member through your student group or non-profit:
No Cop Academy:
Sign up for emails, contact your Alderperson, and other ways to get involved!: https://nocopacademy.wordpress.com/get-involved/
Also, check out this event that artist Molly Brennan is facilitating at American Theater Company this December to start a dialogue about building community spaces in the wake of Salonathon’s Monday night performance series ending this coming February:
And, learn about the corporate sponsors of some of our major regional theaters (all of this information is totally public on their websites!):
Chicago Shakespeare Theatre: https://www.chicagoshakes.com/donate/corporate_partners