Randy Reinholz (Choctaw)

Producing Artistic Director and Founder of Native Voices
Headshots of a man.

Photo by Maria Ventura

Music Credit: “Eagle Dreams” composed and performed live by 2016 National Heritage Fellow Bryan Akipa

Randy Reinholz: The aesthetic is reciprocity. If I bring something to the conversation, it’s to share with you. So that’s the reciprocity that marks native theater. The story is alive. It grows. It’s not static, and it will always have some kind of generosity, even if it’s difficult or a tragedy.

Jo Reed: That was Randy Reinholz—he’s Producing Artistic Director and Co-creator of Native Voices at the Autry and this is Art Works, the weekly podcast produced at the National Endowment for the Arts. I’m Josephine Reed.

Native Voices at the Autry is a Los Angeles theater company that produces new work by indigenous playwrights. Begun in 1994, it became the resident theatre company at the Autry Museum in 1999. Native Voices not only puts on equity productions of native work—it also nurtures new and emerging talent, providing workshops and retreats for writers and actors, creating staged readings for new work, and providing a platform established playwrights as well. Randy Reinholz who is a member of the Choctow nation is at the center of all of it … he started his career as an actor and has moved into directing with over seventy-five productions in the United States, Australia and Canada; he’s also playwright whose play Off the Rails—an adaptation of Shakespeare’s measure for measure set in Buffalo Bill's Wild West was produced by the Oregon Shakespeare Festival. With Randy as producing artistic director Native Voices at the Autry has produced 32 plays, including 19 world premieres; 13 Playwrights Retreats; 22 New Play Festivals; 6 Short Play Festivals and more than 200 workshops and public staged readings. Just as significantly, it is deeply respected in both the Native American and theatre communities for its innovative artistry which highlights the unique points of view within the more than 500 Native American nations in North America. Like many successful programs, Native Voices was created to address an absence—not of talent but of opportunity.

Randy Reinholz: It was 1993. I’d just joined the faculty at Illinois State University, and my wife was also on faculty, Jean Bruce Scott, who is the cofounder of Native Voices. And essentially we were looking for a play that we might be able to produce there at Illinois State. It was kind of a homogeneous, mid-western state school, not very diverse, and the question came up, could we find a script that could reflect my culture. I’m an enrolled member of the Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma. Could we find that script, and then what would it look like if our students performed it? I didn’t know of any scripts, but I did know a lot of people in play development, so we started looking at those folks, started calling, seeing who knew what, and nobody really knew any more than I did, which was a little surprising. And one thing led to another. We found some folks. We worked through Native Earth in Toronto, a Canadian company, and then IAIA, Institute of American Indian Arts, and from there we brought some of those playwrights to campus at Illinois State in 1994. They started talking to each other quickly. We had panel discussions and so forth. We read their plays and they were really grateful to have their plays read out loud. One of the things that came up over and over again is in the United States, people hadn’t invited more than one native playwright to anything. And so to get to see each other’s work and start to think about how other people were approaching some of these topics of colonization was really, really good. They were excited. We did have a script that was filled with multicultural characters and one native character, and that’s called Now Look What You Made Me Do by Marie Clements--Marie has gone on to win the Governor General’s Award several times in Canada--and we produced that play the following year. The playwrights were so excited about being able to see each other’s work that we invited another cohort in. So the first year we had five. The second year we produced a play and brought in four more plays to read, and that became Native Voices.

Jo Reed: Well, obviously it’s so important to be able to have the voices and talent of Native American playwrights out there. One would think that you would want many of those parts to be in fact portrayed by Native American actors, so you can't just do one piece of the puzzle.

Randy Reinholz: There you go. That’s exactly right, and we were just looking for a play to produce at a university. Often the universities, we produce plays-- I’m still a professor. I’m at San Diego State now. We often produce plays where the actors aren’t quite age appropriate. Sometimes they’re not ethnic appropriate. But as we move into professional theater, of course we do want those things. And I think the other thing that’s part of that, when there aren’t people in the room who know native culture, so much of the rehearsal time is spent on Indian 101, just ideas, you know, basic ideas about how tribal enrollment works, what are issues on reservations, what are the federal programs, what are the basic history. People in the United States up until very recently were given misinformation about Native American history, and that’s I suspect because we’re very uncomfortable with the stolen lands and the broken treaties.

Jo Reed: Did you find that you really had to spread your wings and make it much more inclusive?

Randy Reinholz: Absolutely. And I got a new job, like I said, here at San Diego State, and we had been consulting with The Autry in Los Angeles about their programming and their institution, which they wanted to become more multicultural, and they’ve been incredibly successful.

Jo Reed: And that’s the Autry Museum of the American West.

Randy Reinholz: There we go. Right, right, they’re in Griffith Park. And as we started to talk, we were consulting on one of their major exhibitions called Powerful Images, the plan was it would start at The Autry and then a number of museums that focus on western culture, would take this exhibition. They asked our opinion about does it portray contemporary native people enough? The vision was powerful images of Native American people through American history. And, you know, the overwhelming criticism was it’s just too historicized if it constantly looks at native people in the past, and this is a surprising thing the research revealed. People who attended Western Heritage Museums believed by the factor of 85 percent that Native Americans were extinct, and that was really surprising, that what our informed audience should’ve been thinking. And so we really thought it was imperative, then, to have contemporary stories and contemporary images. If we only had images, it’s fed into that, even if they were contemporary. So a play a play became a way to put native people with native stories in front of an audience on a regular basis. And it was a good strategy, and that led to Native Voices at The Autry, and we’ve been there for 20 years.

Jo Reed: Before we get into some of the specific theater programs that are created and run by Native Voices — let’s hear an excerpt from a production. This is actor Román Zaragoza in They Don”t Talk Back which was written by Tlingit playwright Frank Henry Kaash Katasse and directed by Randy Reinholz…

Film excerpt

Jo Reed: That was an excerpt from the Native Voices production They Don’t Talk Back… I know being an equity company is very important to Native Voices— Randy Reinholz explains why.

Randy Reinholz: My wife and I, Jean Bruce Scott, who founded the company, we started off as actors. We believed actors should be paid. Los Angeles is an interesting town. It’s a feast or famine place for a lot of actors. And so we thought we would work with the union to pay the actors a living wage. There’s a lot of people who pay actors in Los Angeles $20, $30 a performance and little to nothing for the rehearsal, so we really wanted to compensate the actors. The second piece of that was many of the actors would be Native Americans, people who didn’t often get a chance to play leads in plays at all, much less in film, so we thought that that would be equitable. So we’ve been on those equity contracts since 2001, so really proud of that. And, then, as you build a theater company and the actors are paid a working wage, you pretty much have to pay everybody in the room something. Again, a lot of theater in Los Angeles trades on good will, and we thought, well, everybody at least deserves minimum wage. And now we’re to the point where all the creative team gets paid the working wage, whatever the union representation is, whether it’s stage directors and choreographers or United Scenic Artists and so forth.

Jo Reed: And you also do, I have to say, something very near to my heart, which are free stage readings, which as a theatergoer is one of the things I just love.

Randy Reinholz: Thank you. I’m glad that you enjoy that. That makes up a big part of our audience. A lot of people are interested in what’s next or what might be on the margins that’s not quite capable of these productions that cost upwards of a million dollars. So the staged reading is a chance for the actors to show the playwright what the play sounds like, and to some extent, there’s some limited staging so we can see if tricky costume changes and so forth, do we have time for those sorts of things. They tend to take place in front of a music stand with very, very minimal staging, the actors have script in hand, and it really turns into an evening of the imagination, so the audience’s imagination really is deeply engaged. So we do those standalone readings. We do playwright’s retreats. I think we’ve done 15 radio plays through the years. We tour work. We work with youth groups. We have a special curriculum to go in to work in community. Often what’s really fun is when we have very established actors who always come back to Native Voices because they want to give back and they want to give particularly to native communities. And so they’ll go out to community and we’ll work with these young, usually junior high kids. They get so excited when they realize, “Oh, my gosh, my mentor from my play is from blah, blah movie or blah, blah television series.” So that makes it real, and a lot of native youth haven’t had people to look up to in the media. There’s been maybe one, two, three, and now you’re starting to see a lot of people making it in the media, in mainstream media, they’re mostly playing native roles, but sometimes they actually are playing things that aren’t ethnic specific, and it’s just because they’re talented actors.

Jo Reed: And the Festival of New Plays is a really important cornerstone.

Randy Reinholz: Correct. What we noticed early is that sometime-- most of the scripts that we receive-- we evaluate scripts once or twice a year. We have an open call. Everything’s on the web, Native Voices at The Autry. We have these calls, and a lot of times people would send us a script--and they’d been working on it two, four, five years--they were so close to it that it was really difficult for them to make any kinds of changes. And of course what happens when developing theater, there’s the thing I think I’ve written when I’m in my room reading it to myself, and then when other people read it back to me you hear so much. And, of course, the big thing, are there questions. What questions do the other artists ask, and that becomes really crucial. And of course, that’s the great story feedback that all writers need, and that’s what the retreat gives us, is a little bit of time. We read the script early. We have this company of actors. Usually we have 30 to 40 actors involved with this process. They’ve been involved-- I think we’re 25 years into this, yes, so they’ve done this kind of work a lot. Often they’ve seen the playwright’s work in other places, sometimes at Native Voices. Sometimes they have a relationship, so that becomes really integral artmaking, and I think it’s the way theater has been made for a long time, and we’re really grateful to be able to do that. It gives us about a week to be together, ask questions. The writers are not from Los Angeles, so there’s also a little camaraderie or community that starts to build. We make sure we have a number of community meals and so forth. We always have representatives from the local tribal government, so Gabrielino-Tongva is the land, the traditional lands of where The Autry sits, so we often start off with blessings and recognition of the land, and then really great conversations about, “Well, where are you from?” “How do you do this?” “How do your people--” “Really? We do-- we don’t do it like that. We do it like this.”

Jo Reed: You’ve been doing this for a generation, which is extraordinary, so I wonder if there were issues that native writers perhaps were focusing on when you first began and what they were, and whether you’ve seen a shift over time.

Randy Reinholz: Sure. We really do feel that we kind of have an insight into what are the issues in Indian country. Often when a group gets their voice back, the conversation is about oppression, what that feels like, all the forms it takes. That was with the early days in the early plays that we looked at. Then it was about oppression and how abuse was central to that, whether it was being abused, having been abused, learning to become an abuser, and then all the forms abuse takes: alcohol, sex, drugs, and so forth, violence. Then as tribal gaming comes into play, the question of, well, who’s really native and what does it mean? And, of course, the big insult you can throw at someone when you’re in a community of color is to say, “But you’re not really,” and then fill in the thing that we all say we are, and we pick someone out to beat them up for not being that. So that becomes a question of who’s what. A question we’re seeing right now, there’s tremendous violence against native women that’s rampant in the country. Native women, four out of five experience sexual violence. A native woman is 10 times more likely to be murdered than the regular population. The suicide rate in communities waffles between five times the national average up to ten times the national average. What’s causing that, and how do we start to pull apart this epidemic of murdered and missing women? How do we start writing plays that start to hold the law enforcement agencies accountable? The population that’s most likely to be killed by a law enforcement officer is a native person. So bringing those kinds of issues to the floor are part of the plots of the different stories we’re looking at. That’s a big deal right now.

Jo Reed: And let me just ask you, what’s the gender balance like with the participants in Native Voices?

Randy Reinholz: We probably have a few more women than men as actors. We’ve been pretty balanced in the number of plays we’ve produced. We tend to produce plays by women as often as by men, which is not in line with the professional theater. The professional theater has not been particularly good at that historically. We have gender balance both by playwrights, directors, and actors and also the rest of the creative staff becomes important. And we’ve also become a center for people particularly here in the southwest but on the west coast not only for casting, which makes a lot of sense that people would come to us, particularly large resourced institutions looking for casting, but people are asking us about, “Hey, we have an entry level position for a stage manager,” you know, that sort of thing, and so people are proactively seeking our talent out to engage them to round out the whole field.

Jo Reed: Of course, that allows, as you mentioned earlier, Native American kids who can then look and say, “Oh, it’s possible to have a career in theater.”

Randy Reinholz: Absolutely. And we don’t get out into community as much as we like because it’s really expensive, and native communities don’t have a lot of resources to host us, so that is something we’ve been looking at. You know, how do we rebalance? Ever since the Great Recession that’s been a real problem. But we do bring youth in, and last year I had a play called Off the Rails, which was at Oregon Shakespeare Festival, and it’s an adaptation of a Shakespeare, Measure for Measure. But it’s set in the old west, the 1880s, and the backdrop is the American Indian boarding school system, which is a very difficult piece of American history that a lot of Americans don’t know. But since it was set against the boarding school, it has a lot of youthful characters in it. We knew a lot of students would come see the play. And I think a lot of young people-- they saw themselves in those characters. It was a really interesting way for young people to view Shakespeare and the old west. And we did get a lot of native kids to the show. But, of course, the kids, what they recognized, the native kids, were the dances. One of the characters is written so that it’s always played by a culture bearer from the region, and so that character, informs the end of the play with dances that are recognizable to people from the region. And so when those young native kids saw all those dances on stage, some of them would hop up and dance at the seat. Bill Rouche, the director, he’s so smart. He just invites the audience to come on stage. And the kids would rush down to be part of that dance, because they were taking stage in a power arena, and their culture was being celebrated.

Jo Reed: There are so many ways I want to go with this, but let me just ask you this first. Is there an aesthetic, do you think, that’s distinctly native that’s being brought on the stage through the work that you’re doing at Native Voices?

Randy Reinholz: The aesthetic is reciprocity. If I bring something to the conversation, it’s to share with you. And then as I share that story, you start to share your story, which all the sudden causes Collin over here behind the desk to say, “Huh, that reminds me of my story,” and then he tells his story. And after I’ve heard those stories, I understand my story in a deeper, more meaningful way that I wouldn’t have had if I hadn’t shared it with you in the beginning. So that’s the reciprocity that marks native theater. The story is alive. It grows. It’s not static, and it will always have some kind of generosity, even if it’s difficult or a tragedy.

Jo Reed: And do you see the plays over the years kind of in dialog with each other, in conversation with each other?

Randy Reinholz: Absolutely. To some extent, having a stage, a dedicated stage, a time of year when these stories happen and a place, has been super empowering. And of course what’s happened is, is it sort of exploded in a very good way, native theater that is. So like last year we had three plays in major venues by native women at the same time, whereas five years before you wouldn’t have had a show by a native woman in a major venue the entire year. So people want these stories. It’s not to commercial theater yet. I would like to see a native play on Broadway, but I’m not saying I think there’s gonna be one next week. But rather I think the major not-for-profit theater companies are starting to realize if they’re in dialog, not only do native communities want to see native plays, but theatergoers want to see native plays. I think theatergoers have an appetite for the country where we live, and we want to see all of these important ideas on stage, not only the entertainment or the great craft.

Jo Reed: I want to get back to The Autry for just one second. Do you work with the curatorial staff at all at The Autry so that the plays and the exhibits, there can be a kind of symmetry?

Randy Reinholz: Yeah, they’re in dialogue, absolutely. As you said, the plays are in dialogue with each other, and whether we plan it or not, our patrons come see our plays. And if things go well, they’re curious and want to go inside the building, the museum. There are lot of rotating exhibitions. And about 12 years ago I guess now, The Autry merged with the Southwest Museum, which was the first museum in Los Angeles. I think there are 300,000 or 400,000 Native American objects in the Southwest collection that has been merged together and preserved with The Autry collection. And then the ARC is about to open, which is the Autry Research which will be a really large facility in some ways based on the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indians’ Maryland Complex. So you can go arrange a trip out to Maryland, and you can look at specific objects based on geography or time. And you have to be a researcher and you have to be pretty clear about what you want. One time I was doing a play there, so they offered this to me, so I was shocked when I went out there. My favorite story from that memory is, is when I went there they said, “Well, there’s a room to pray if you want to pray before you see the objects, and of course you might need it after you leave.” And I thought, pray, huh? Well, that’s really thoughtful. “I won't need that. I really appreciate you. Thank you.” So then I get in there. I get on the Genie lift. I pull out the drawer, and I start looking at these objects, and I realize I’m crying, and I can't control myself. And I was shocked. Like, I’m just not this kind of person. It doesn’t happen very often. And I was like, I’d better lower the Genie lift and go find that prayer room <laughs> and calm down.

Jo Reed: Wow.

Randy Reinholz: So it’s amazing that when people with these backgrounds connect with things from their culture, often objects that were taken -- many objects in museums were intended to be grave, burial, funeral objects. And of course, The Autry is incredibly vigorous about NAGPRA and repatriation and holding onto objects and preserving them until the culture bearers for the places that they belong are in a position to make sure that they’re gonna last for generations. And it’s a fascinating piece of American history to be part of. So, yes, we are involved with curatorial and we do hear these conversations. We often are thinking about how does the play we’re planning on doing next connect with things?

Jo Reed: Funding is never easy, and I know you’ve gotten grants over the years from a number of organizations, including the National Endowment for the Arts.

Randy Reinholz: Yeah, I mean because you and I are talking, it’s gonna sound like I’m sucking up to you. It was super important that we were recognized by the NEA because in the field of theater when we started presenting plays by Native Americans, the professional theater really treated us as if we were cute children in that of course they should be applauded for what they’re doing, but it’s not real theater because we do real theater and none of them are ever in our theaters. That’s a hard Catch-22 to overcome. Again, that was why we started working with union contracts, so we could get working professionals that the professional theater companies recognized working with us, and then they could go out in the community and talk about our professionalism. It was because of the funding of the NEA that we could make those bold choices and commitments. And, again, in Los Angeles, when we said we’re paying a working wage based on union minimums, they were shocked, because many of the people who denigrated our work weren’t paying people. And the NEA gave us the faith to say we’re gonna do this and we’re gonna do it for a period of time -- it’s the backbone. It’s the gold standard in American art, particularly for startup companies. We’d only been I think producing five years when we first got our first NEA grant. Well, then the city and the county came on. Well, then we had the NEA, the city, the county, and then corporate funders started to come on, and then in the Great Recession, we started having individual donors come on. And of course, that’s the mix that any not-for-profit needs to be sustainable. And the NEA has been through there for us the whole time. Sometimes the NEA had more capacity than others and sometimes maybe our work merited it more than others, but it was exciting to say that we are funded by the NEA. And then because we were funded by the NEA, I started being invited to serve on NEA panels, and then from serving on NEA panels, I started serving on panels for granting organizations all over the country, which has helped keep native voices aware of best practices, to be deeply involved in community, to bring the best artistic practices they can to those projects, and then to make art that is breathtaking. It’s not just, “oh, it’s good because of those poor people getting a chance to do something.” It actually ends up being the innovative art that changes the way things get done.

Jo Reed: You have supported a generation, which is-- congratulations.

Randy Reinholz: Thank you.

Jo Reed: That is a wonderful thing. What has surprised you doing this work?

Randy Reinholz: I guess, you know, I had faith that the talent was there. I had faith that the talent would be deep and important beyond just the culture. And watching these artists whose personas and whose work is grounded in these ancient ways of working find ways to adapt to become innovators in the field, I think that’s the thing that’s the most exciting. I think we’ve often thought that the way people succeed is to make compromises, and I think what happens is real culture that’s important actually informs what the emerging culture of the country wants to be. And, of course, we’re at this crossroads of, what will our culture be as a country? And it’s great to see that people who have had resiliency for hundreds and hundreds of years are actually being looked to to model what are some next steps. That’s exciting.

Jo Reed: And what do you want to see for the generation to come?

Randy Reinholz: We’re always thinking about the past and what needs to happen next. One of our goals is to have a very successful succession process. So my wife and I are cofounders. Next year is the 25th anniversary, and we’re hoping to announce the new leadership of Native Voices as that season rolls out. I’m not quite sure when and how that’s gonna happen, but we are starting to engage in conversations with people. So looking for that succession, looking to have this next generation of artists define what they want the role of the senior elders in the process to be, like myself. So looking for that next generation to take over the leadership, the visioning, building on what’s worked in the past but also defining what really needs to happen next, that’s what’s exciting. That’s what I want to continue to see. I want to see these artists that are going off and working in these professional venues and being paid well to keep coming back to Native Voices to find ways to plug in and give back to this company of artists, the new generation of artists, and that’s been happening. I want to see that happen more.

Jo Reed: Fair enough. Well, Randy, thank you. Thank you for giving me your time, and thank you for your extraordinary work over the past 24 years.

Randy Reinholz: And thank you for bringing the attention of the NEA to people across the country. It’s so vital, this work, and I know it’s not a lot of money in the world of billionaires, but it’s so crucial because the process is so rigorous. But year in and year out, the NEA has picked a lot of winners, and that’s exciting to be part of that legacy.

Jo Reed: Yes, indeed. It is on this end, too.Thank you.

That was Randy Reinholz—he’s Producing Artistic Director and co-creator of Native Voices at the Autry —You’ve been listening to Art Works produced at the National Endowment for the Arts. You can subscribe to Art Works where ever you get your podcasts. So please do and leave us a rating on Apple—it helps people to find us. For the National Endowment for the Arts, I’m Josephine Reed. Thanks for listening.

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For almost 25 years, Native Voices at the Autry has been providing opportunities and support to Native American playwrights…and by extension Native actors, designers, musicians and other theater artists. It is the country’s only Equity theatre company dedicated exclusively to producing new works by Native American, Alaska Native, and First Nations playwrights. Deeply committed to developing as well as producing new work, Native Voices also provides a venue for new plays with festivals and public staged readings as well as retreats and workshops for emerging and established Native playwrights. Randy Reinholz is a founder of Native Voices and has been its producing artistic director since its inception. In this podcast, Randy talks about the unique and changing points of view Native artists bring to the table, the issues facing Indian Country, and the place theater has in telling Native stories.