#FlashbackFriday: A Conversation with Anna Needham (Red Lake Anishinaabe)

By Paulette Beete
Headshot of a woman.

Photo courtesy of Anna Needham

“The reason why I do theater is because I’m so interested in the way humans interact. I am somebody who’s interested in having a conversation with the audience, not at the audience.” 

Anna Needham (Red Lake Anishinaabe) is an emerging theater artist and arts administrator with a passion for and commitment to Native theater. She’s also a former National Endowment for the Arts intern! Needham joined us on the National Endowment for the Arts podcast while she was in Washington, DC to participate in the the first-of-its-kind national convening on Native arts and culture hosted by the Arts Endowment, the National Endowment for the Humanities, and the Foundation on Native Arts and Culture earlier this year. Listen as Needham talks about the opportunities and challenges of working on culturally specific theater, and how she’s learned to become an advocate for the arts and for Native culture and rights.

Music Credit: “NY” written and performed by Kosta, from the album Soul Sand. Used courtesy of the Free Music Archive.

Anna Needham: Arizona has 22 tribal nations, 5% of the population is Native, and there is no Native theater company there. There’s no Native stories being told in those spaces and it’s something that really surprises me every time I really think about it because that space is such a rich area that has so much interest and tourism and just love of Native festivals and there’s so much interest and yet, these stories don’t feel like they’re actually being told in these spaces.

Jo Reed: That’s theater artist, indigenous rights advocate, and arts administrator, Anna Needham and this is Art Works, the weekly podcast produced at the National Endowment for the Arts. I’m Josephine Reed. This past February, the National Endowment for the Arts and the National Endowment for the Humanities, in partnership with Native Arts and Cultures Foundation presented a convening on Native arts, humanities, and cultural heritage. The all-day event was filled with panels, breakout sessions, and performances. It was a busy and historic day with members of over 40 tribal nations and the heads of several federal agencies present. There were over 100 participating Native artists and arts administrators, including Anna Needham. Anna is a young emerging theater artist, which is typically an uneven career path, the performing arts being what they are. Add to the equation that Anna’s passion is Native theater and the road becomes that much more challenging. In truth, Anna’s name was familiar to me. I realized she had been an intern here in Folk and Traditional Arts and I thought her story as a young Native theater director would be an interesting podcast. Anna graciously agreed to talk with me when the convening broke for lunch. So, this podcast is shorter than usual because I wanted to be sure she got something to eat. I began by asking Anna about the morning session of the convening.

Anna Needham: The convening has been really incredible to be witness to Joy Harjo and people who I’ve been aspiring to meet is an incredible experience as somebody who’s an emerging professional. When we have gatherings like this, it’s allowing for information to actually be disseminated, the creation of partnerships, creating connections that wouldn’t be there otherwise.

Jo Reed: Now, I know your background is theater.

Anna Needham: Yes.

Jo Reed: Why theater? What drew you to theater?

Anna Needham: The reason why I do theater is because I’m so interested in the way humans interact. I am somebody who’s interested in having a conversation with the audience, not at the audience. I am interested in how we discuss relationships and that relationship includes relationship to land and so, when I’m doing theater, I’m thinking about how we have conversations and how we integrate ourselves into certain things and be able to activate laughter and empathy and then also have these uncomfortable truths come out and really actually talk about it.

Jo Reed: Now, you’re a citizen of the Red Lake Nation of the Ojibwe.

Anna Needham: Correct.

Jo Reed: I think a lot of people are surprised to hear that many Native Americans actually are dual citizens.

Anna Needham: Yes. It’s a thing that’s really shocking to people how much there is a nation-nation relationship that is in the Constitution, where treaties are the supreme law of the land in Article 6 and having that highlighted and recognizing that these treaties are important and there’s a relationship that’s built in from the beginning is something that I am really interested in highlighting in my work and discussing a contemporary way as people who are representing their nation but maybe don’t live there, just in the same way there are people here who are also citizens across the Atlantic can still be citizens also in America. I have the same thing where my tribe is in Minnesota, but I’m also based on Arizona and I’m still a citizen in the United States along with Red Lake Nation.

Jo Reed: And you were born in Colorado. Is that correct?

Anna Needham: Correct. I was born in Colorado and then raised in Arizona from age 8 to 18 and then went to school on the East Coast.

Jo Reed: Tell me when you first got interested in theater.

Anna Needham: Oh, goodness. When I started theater, it was actually because in second grade in Colorado, they were having our classes combine with third graders and so, they were taking their standardized tests and we were actually developing plays to show them-- doing readers theater, basically, and I was pulled for Mama Bear and I took it really seriously that I was conveying certain motions by having the stirring and making the props really something as part of my character and creating the sets and just having this whole experience of creating something that people would experience and get to enjoy was something that delighted me and then once I came to Arizona, I started becoming shy again and it wasn’t until sixth grade, where I did “The Jungle Book,” where I was able to open up again and actually say “Hey, I have a voice that needs to be sharing my stories and the ideas that I have,” and so, theater was kind of my gateway to that.

Jo Reed: You went to the Tisch School of the Arts at NYU, which is a fabulous place for theater, I must say.

Anna Needham: Yes, incredibly.

Jo Reed: So, yay for that. Tell me what was some of the significant things that you got from Tisch that you’re just going to carry with you?

Anna Needham: So, when I was at Tisch, I went through the Playwrights Horizons theater school, which is a theater studio that I consider kind of the overachievers’ club. They have you focus your first year on doing everything design, directing, all these aspects of theater and being able to know how each of the things work and even if you’re not necessarily somebody who eventually does everything, although I still enjoy doing that, you can at least understand the different languages and terminologies that make up theater and so, what I got out of that was in my directing class, working with Mikhael Tara Garver. She really inspired me to understand the way in which context affects the story that you’re telling and that’s something that I take into my directing now, especially context of land and the histories that are there.

Jo Reed: Which, of course, is so central to Native Americans. I mean, it should be to all of us, but it is certainly central to Native Americans. Were there other Native voices at Tisch or were you a bit of the lone voice in the wilderness?

Anna Needham: It was lone voice, definitely. What was interesting is that I found out after I left New York that there was a Native theater community there, that Amerinda was like right near my freshmen dorm, but I felt so alone and didn’t feel like I could really share my voice in that space. I didn’t have Native actors that I could call on to be like “Oh, I can direct this Native play.” There wasn’t really anything about that. So, it became more of discussions of race and gender and these more expansive things about-- for example, I did “We’re Proud to Present a Presentation,” which deals with the genocide in Namibia but also deals with the histories right here in America, and so, that’s how I was able to integrate my indigeneity, but it was something that I had even mentioned when I lost my wallet in New York City and they found it and the police had, at that point, had to take out all my cards and had noticed my tribal ID and was asking me if I was Native and I said yes and the police officer was like “Oh, we don’t have really that many Natives in New York.” So, that idea of invisibility was something that I kind of had always in the back of my mind when I was in New York City.

Jo Reed: So, there was a way in which there were universal ideas that you could discuss in theater about race and about sex, etc. but the specificity of being Native American was something that was lacking.

Anna Needham: Correct. Yeah. It was something that I kind of always felt like when I was young because I was in suburbia. I was in a very white neighborhood and so, it was always kind of like a fun fact for me to share, rather than something that I brought constantly into my life and that’s something that changed once I came here to DC.

Jo Reed: You came here to DC because you were at GW and you were in the Native American Political Program.

Anna Needham: Yes. Their leadership program comes out of their AT&T Center for Indigenous Politics and Policy and so, I got a full scholarship to come here to DC and they have internships and that’s how I interned at the NEA and so, I was able to meet Native youth my own age for the first time and constantly be in conversation with them and at the same time, also meet with Native theater makers, like Mary Kathryn Nagle and Larissa FastHorse and really get to see what was possible beyond what I had just known in New York City.

Jo Reed: What led you to apply to that program? Were you feeling that discomfort in New York? Is that really what guided you to say “You know what? I have to own this.”

Anna Needham: A hundred percent. It was that and the kind of buildup in anxieties that were happening, where it was Standing Rock was happening and there was a lot of discussion about what it means to be Native, what does it look like to have Natives on screen, and so, I became kind of the point person to have these discussions once I was like “I am Native. I am Ojibwe. I am here to share that voice.” It was something where I wanted to be able to have the best information to share about tribal sovereignty and all these other issues that are part of being Native.

Jo Reed: Also, here at the NEA, you were with Folk and Traditional Arts, which is probably the agency’s strongest connection to Native communities.

Anna Needham: Right.

Jo Reed: Was that helpful as well? I’m sure it was helpful for us, but was it helpful for you?

Anna Needham: Yeah. It totally was. Cliff Murphy has been a fantastic mentor for me.

Jo Reed: And Cliff Murphy is the Director of Folk and Traditional Arts.

Anna Needham: Yes. He is somebody who made sure that it wasn’t solely a focus on traditional as in waves like it’s solely in the past, but traditional as “Here, we’re using these traditional elements, but there’s also a contemporary thing,” and then also recognizing that there’s contemporary artists that are doing work that has nothing to do-- you can be a native artist and not necessarily be traditional.

Jo Reed: I wonder if these two programs in some ways affected the way you’re looking at your art now.

Anna Needham: Yes. I would say it really made me realize that my voice is important to share, but also as a way that can be utilized to create a platform that can share other things and so, I’m able to create stories that can then have other Native actors and find people who are interested in engaging as techs and other things so that their stories can actually be shared and empower them to share their own stories and have the ability to by having these connections.

Jo Reed: It’s like creating an ecosystem.

Anna Needham: Completely. Yeah.

Jo Reed: Because Native playwrights, I’m assuming-- I shouldn’t assume. But do you think that Native actors should portray Native characters written by Native playwrights?

Anna Needham: I think so. It’s really a thing of these are the stories that we know. So, when I participated in the collaboration that happened between ASU Gammage and Cornerstone Theater Company with Larissa FastHorse’s “Native Nation,” that was a huge key thing, where it was the first time for many of these people being able to actually act as somebody who was in the contemporary moment able to talk about issues that were affecting them directly, where there was discussion of blood quantum and ICWA, where it’s the Indian Child Welfare Act, where we had somebody who was a lawyer as well as a playwright and was able to say “Oh, yeah, these are things that are directly affecting it and being able to help then shape the play to correctly portray that issue.”

Jo Reed: I would think one challenge-- and it’s certainly something that comes up when I speak to Native artists or arts administrators is the percentage of other Americans who really are not aware Native Americans literally exist. It is shocking.

Anna Needham: It is. It really is something that I’m interested in in focusing on contemporary moments versus anything else and making sure that there’s an understanding of how these issues affect us, but there’s also a joy in our community. There is different ways in which we’re interacting with technology and conversations on the internet and there’s this joy that lives in our spaces that I think also should be palpable within spaces that are not Native-centric or if they’re Native-centric, there should be a Native-led feeling to it and mission to it versus just the aesthetic of it, which is something that I think I’ve been witnessing a lot in my time in Arizona after my time here in DC and New York City.

Jo Reed: That you’ve been more aware of a Native aesthetic?

Anna Needham: Yes, the way in which there are certain elements that fit the Southwest Native aesthetic, but not necessarily an actual embedment of the leadership of those communities whose lands they’re on.

Jo Reed: Got it. It would seem to me that there’s kind of this dual track because on one hand, because so much of Native culture was attempted to be eradicated, there’s a reclamation of that and at the same time, there’s also speaking about the contemporary moment and I know these two things can certainly work together, but sometimes they’re a little antithetical too.

Anna Needham: Yeah. That’s a big thing I think that this convening is also trying to have a conversation about. What does it mean to be traditional? And the understanding that tradition can evolve and that’s what it should be doing-- that is not something that’s static and so, having the conversation of what it means and having that conversation in front of those who aren’t necessarily witnessing this conversation constantly, where it’s curators understanding that it shouldn’t just be an exhibit in the corner that’s native but there can be native artists embedded in the conversations that are happening, for example, at the Whitney or MoMA, where it’s embedded in the conversation versus being its own little corner.

Jo Reed: Got it. In other words, you don’t want to just enter the conversation in November when suddenly it’s Native American Heritage Month and you’re invited to come in.

Anna Needham: Yeah.

Jo Reed: You started off acting but you moved to directing. Why that switch?

Anna Needham: That was a time which I had witnessed in one of my-- when I was in school, where it was the continued mistreatment of actors as something that kind of felt like chess pieces more than collaborators and so, as being one of the actors in that process as well, I didn’t think it was right and I felt like there was something that I could do and I had an interest in directing already, but it was that moment where I felt the need to step up and say “If I’m a leader in the room, I’m going to make sure to center the humanity of these artists and center their mental health, their physical health, instead of a focus on a product that’s ephemeral.” So, that’s what led me to directing is the ability to be a real collaborator for these people.

Jo Reed: And I know you’re just starting out, but you’ve directed a couple of plays and I’m just wondering what that collaboration is like with you as the director with the playwright, with the actors, and with the audience.

Anna Needham: Yeah. I actually haven’t done a play where the playwright is in the room, but in terms of the cast, it’s really fun for me to witness what they come up with and then kind of find ways to refine it or see that they’re really somebody who’s an actor who lives constantly in their brain. So, how do I get them to physicalize it? How do I turn it on its head is something that I really enjoy as a doctor, kind of seeing how to get them out of their comfort zone but keep them safe. So, playing with that idea has been a real delight for me as a director and something that I’m interested in doing now in my time in Arizona with this new community that I found.

Jo Reed: Now, it’s very hard to get a directing job for anybody starting out. It’s hard. So, you’re a production assistant and you do lots of things, which not only builds your resume and your skillset and your network.

Anna Needham: A hundred percent. I mean, it’s interesting in Phoenix, where I don’t feel like I know quite yet the landscape of that theater community, but there was something with Michael John Garcés, who is the director of “Native Nation,” where he at least had acknowledged and was like “Oh, would you be interested in assistant directing with this play that was happening in Tucson?” But I think I’m interested also as a director in moving outside the typical structures that happen with directing, where it’s like “Oh, you have to get this job and then have this presenter do this thing,” and what happens when you’re also your own producer, I think, has been something I’ve been interested in and finding those partnerships in different ways outside of just traditional stage settings.

Jo Reed: Yeah and there’s a lot going on now. I mean, it’s a really, really interesting time in theater, I think.

Anna Needham: Yeah. I think theater is beginning again to see itself as something outside of a black box space, outside of a proscenium and being able to really recognize that experience and the place itself are important to the story, not just necessarily the words written down or the people telling it.

Jo Reed: Now, you’re also-- and I want to make sure I get the title correct-- you are also the Artist Program Coordinator for the Arizona Commission on the Arts. Did your time at the-- and be honest about this. I’m just curious. Did your time at the NEA sort of open up your eyes to the world of arts administration? Because God knows, it did for me.

Anna Needham: Yes. I say I always think that arts administration is a thing you kind of fall into. It’s not necessarily a thing where you’re like “Oh, I know what I’m going to do. I’m going to be an arts administrator,” because my thing was that I really loved office clothes, kind of like that whole environment, but then I was also an artist and so, I was like “I don’t think these can ever join together.” So, when I was in New York, I did an internship in more of a commercial theater space and that made me realize that that was not my calling whatsoever. It was not-- profit-driven arts experience isn’t something that I was interested in. So, when I came to the NEA and was able to witness being on the grant making side, it was eye-opening that I could have these experiences where I’m building relationships and then give artists money and so, that’s what I get to do now, where it’s like I’m helping artists tell people about their work and figure out how grant writing can actually function and then get funding for that and make sure that they can not just get these fellowships that are for mid-career, but actually helping emerging artists craft what they want to become.

Jo Reed: How do your two careers in arts administration and in theater, how do they support one another?

Anna Needham: They’re extremely supportive, especially in relationship to the connections that I’ve made in both portions of it. So, at the Commission, we’re actually very-- I think everyone is a practicing artist. So, it’s constantly expected that you’re kind of doing both and that’s encouraged that you’re still continuing to practice as a way in which you can connect with the community and not just necessarily be a separate entity from it and so, I’ve found that it’s super helpful that I can do outreach because I’m just giving a card to somebody who’s like “Oh, my mom is an artist who does this,” and I’m like “Oh, perfect, she should apply for this grant. This is great,” or “I have a connection because of Native Nation,” “Oh, okay, I have a connection with Salt River. Let’s talk to them so that we can actually figure out how we can help fund them.” It’s these constant relationships that I get to build in both spaces that then cross over.

Jo Reed: And you’ve talked about you want theater that is presented in a context and have that context be geographical and I wonder as you see yourself in Arizona, how you place yourself there.

Anna Needham: Yeah. I have had a weird experience with growing up in Arizona. I think it’s always an interesting thing where you go back to where you were raised. But I’ve been becoming more confident in actually finding myself actively wanting to learn more about that space and see what happens when we have theater in that space because what’s actually happening in Minneapolis right now is there’s New Native Theater, who’s run by somebody who is Navajo. So, she’s working with my community up in Red Lake and doing work at the college there. So, it doesn’t feel wrong to me for working with the Natives that are in Arizona and that I’m able to have this dialogue happening, not just in my area but across the States.

Jo Reed: Okay and the hard question-- where do you want to see yourself in five years?

Anna Needham: Five years-- having already started an indigenous-led theater company in Arizona. It is a space that has 22 tribal nations, 5% of the population is Native, and there is no theater company there. There’s no Native stories being told in those spaces and it’s something that really surprises me every time I really think about it because that space is such a rich area that has so much interest and tourism and just love of Native festivals and there’s so much interest and yet, these stories don’t feel like they’re actually being told in these spaces. I think the last time there was a Native theater piece, I think it was a while ago where it was at least five years and so, having that be a constant rather than just a blip in the theater seasons is something that I’m really interested in actually seeing and bringing forth with others.

Jo Reed: Oh, I look forward to it when you do, Anna. Thank you so much for giving me your time. I appreciate it.

Anna Needham: Thank you. Miigwech. Thank you.

Jo Reed: Thank you. That’s theater artist and indigenous rights advocate Anna Needham. You’ve been listening to Art Works, produced at the National Endowment for the Arts. You can subscribe to Art Works wherever you get your podcasts. So, please do and then leave us a rating on Apple because it helps people to find us. For the National Endowment for the Arts, I’m Josephine Reed. Thanks for listening.

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