On the art of activism and activism as art
Levi Fackrell, artistic director of Cockroach Theatre
Astrid Silva, Dreamer and immigrants’ rights activist
Astrid: With the theater, what exactly is it you do? What is Levi’s day?
Levi: We’re basically an all-volunteer operation, so there’s lots of things to do. When it was five of us just out of college, it all seemed very easy to wrap your head around it. But as we are in our sixth season at Art Square Theatre, trying to become a sort of next-level organization, you start to really see all the organization that needs to go into it. Right now, I’m really trying to plug the holes of what an arts organization needs. It’s exciting because it’s growth, but there are growing pains as well. So it’s trying to find the right people for the right job, trying to keep people engaged and motivated.
Astrid: Engaged ... that’s a big one for everything. How do we keep people engaged? I think that’s for everybody.
Levi: What struggles did you find in keeping people engaged? In my vision, the issues that you’re working through are much higher priority, much more specific and immediate, so there’s probably a little bit more natural engagement.
Astrid: I work a lot with immigration, particularly, and it’s either, you get this letter or you don’t; you’re accepted or you’re not. And a lot of times, it’s easy for people to feel disengaged because they’re being told no, or they’re being told they don’t belong here by the guy in the comments section. Sometimes it’s easier to just pretend it’s not happening. That’s one of the biggest issues we have.
Levi: And also Vegas — I love it; I think it’s an amazing city — but it’s a very distracted city. There’s a lot to break through to get people to show up or become engaged, or to make your issue what they are attached to, because there’s so much they can do.
Astrid: What are some of the social issues you address at Cockroach Theatre?
Levi: It’s funny, I don’t particularly see us as tackling social issues outright. I choose plays that sort of create a dialogue. I don’t — and this runs counter to what I think a lot of people think I would say — particularly like activism in the work itself. The benefits come from the process; bringing people together is where the real value lies.
Astrid: What’s interesting to me, with going to the theater, is that you have to sit there. It’s impolite to take your phone out and start texting. It’s one of the few places where people are in the moment in our over-technology-saturated world. … For me that’s what art really has to offer.
Levi: So when you see an actor or a director putting their opinions out there on issues that you’re so familiar with, how does that make you feel?
Astrid: I think it really depends. Sometimes it’s not helpful. But, especially with social media, it has been helpful to have celebrities talking about different issues. … For so many years we were taught, live in the shadows, be quiet, don’t talk. And now, a couple weeks ago, there was an actor (Bambadjan Bamba) who came out and said he had Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, and people are like, Oh, wow! … This is somebody they’ve seen in their living room.
Levi: I guess my challenge is scale. I’m like, what does this one play do? What’s the effect of it? You see what goes into it, and you understand what people sacrifice to put on a play, and you wonder, is it worth it? And then you see a YouTube video or something that goes viral, and there was very little put into it, but it effects much more change.
Astrid: We have that, too, where it’s like, is this petition actually going to do anything? Am I putting in 12 hours a day of standing outside of a grocery store to get 5,000 signatures, and then the representative leaves it in a box in their storage, like, what does it matter? ... We just did Inside Out a month and a half ago. That was an art project that takes a picture of your face, and then they post it in public to say that you support the Dream Act and preserving Temporary Protected Status. It’s like this giant bus that travels around with a giant printer. For some people, their form of activism is taking that picture. It’s not going to a protest, because they’re undocumented and they’re afraid to get arrested. So this gives them a way to express themselves through art, even if it’s one picture out of 75 pictures on this giant wall.
Levi: It’s a different access point.
Astrid: And that’s something that we need to look into more. What other access points can there be through art for people to really express how they’re feeling?
Levi: To me, the access point is less in the actual work itself, and instead in the creation and the process of it. That’s where community is created, where understanding is created, where trust is created. ... And it’s also being able to put yourself into another person’s shoes. In that way, the work can have a great effect on an individual level.
Astrid: When I was younger, I wanted to be an architect. I did all of the painting and coloring classes. So whenever I’m just done with everything, that’s where I go to. I like to do crafts. I like to wood-burn. That’s my favorite, because you feel there’s something changing. With activism, you’re doing things (whose results) you may never see. But I can take a piece of wood and make it into something beautiful; it really helps me to see something clearly. ... I never said that out loud before. (Laughs)
Levi: That’s so beautiful. ... I try to be at the door after every show, and each face is different, each reaction is different. Some, you can see that you affected them. And to take words on a page and, over the course of six weeks, two months, with the help of lots of other people committed to it, create this thing that can affect someone visibly. To see change happen, it is inspiring for sure.