Ryan Conarro first came to Juneau in 2003 to work on a production at Perseverance Theatre. Before this, he lived in Nome as an AmeriCorps volunteer right out of university in New York. Since his arrival in Juneau, Ryan’s community-engagement work as an interdisciplinary artist, performer, and facilitator has brought him between New York and Alaska to work on projects like ALAXSXA | ALASKA and Saints of Failure.
RAINCHECK: What role does place play in the work you create?
RYAN: A lot of the work that I do is about creating experiences for other people, whether that be directing or performing or facilitating or teaching. Those are all about making opportunities for others to go on a journey. But in order to sustain myself in this work, I need to be on a journey as well. Maybe why I found my way into so many place-based projects over the years is that I find a lot of nourishment doing work that reminds me to notice the place that I’m in. And noticing is not passive for me; it’s active engagement with place: seeing, sensing, learning about history (which includes research), and being in relationship with other people, about their histories and their lived experiences. I love this place so much. This kind of work gives me an excuse to be with the place and also to deepen that relationship with the place.
RAINCHECK: When you’re looking to collaborate on a project, what are you looking for at the start, either in the collaboration itself or in your collaborators?
RYAN: On a sort of elemental level, performance-making is so much about collaboration and working together. I’ve attempted to make some things that were solo projects, but even with those, I find that I need and want other people to be involved. It’s relational work. The projects that I like dig into questions like How do we be together? How do we be in the world? How do we understand each other? How do we understand this place? When I think about what makes a collaboration positive for me, I think it’s often with someone who brings skills that can complement mine and who also brings a sense of lived experience and perspective that’s different from mine. Internally, I want to learn and grow and make new friends. But also, if we’re thinking about the end game, we’re inviting people into an experience; how, then, do we create a team that creates a warmer, stronger, safer invitation for more people? I’m a white cisgender gay man, not from Alaska. Some aspects of that identity might make it more challenging to create an experience that others would feel safe entering or connected to. While others will come because that is closer to their experience or that does feel exciting to them. And also, I have skills and training that I can bring to the table. So given all this: how do we intentionally build a collaborative team that brings many lived experiences and identities?
RAINCHECK: Could you talk about some of your most meaningful collaborative experiences?
RYAN: Over the years, I have found it to be a real honor to be invited into collaboration with Alaska Native communities around the state. I come to those, I hope, as a learner and as a listener, and I’ve learned that my practice, over the years, is the practice of listening in a lot of ways. I’ve been in some really positive and growing collaborative moments, and some very challenging collaborative moments, because of the dynamics of Native/non-Native collaboration. I’m interested in heading into those sometimes vulnerable, really complex places by asking big questions together: How do we be together? What is my place here? How can I contribute to decolonizing practices in a way that is supporting the big picture? I can think of certain projects where it felt like those questions were alive and happening. That’s what makes it worth it to me.
RAINCHECK: How does the exploration of decolonization manifest in your work?
RYAN: I find that I’m more and more interested in creating structures that acknowledge that the conversation [around decolonization] is always happening, and to help create situations where it can continue to be process-oriented work for us as opposed to a product. I like creating opportunities for people to engage in the work of dialogue and listening, instead of just leaving it to chance. For example, with ALAXSXA | ALASKA, the production I did with Ping Chong and Company, we had interviews that were part of the making of the show, and some of that interview audio is in the piece. And then in addition to that process, we offered post-show interviews and community discussions with audience members, and we posted some of those on the website for the project. That piece was about examining cross-cultural encounter in Alaska, and the ongoing dialogues and the website share made for extended ways to do that examining. We were touring the production in Alaska communities, so veryone was actually implicated in the the themes of this show.
RAINCHECK: What is the most challenging aspect of creating work for you?
RYAN: In recent years, I’ve been aiming to stay with projects longer and not be like, “Okay, did it, had an audience, done.” Some of the work that I’ve been doing of late has several iterations and hopefully gets deeper and better over time. I think I partly take inspiration from other artists. You look at dancers and at visual artists or writers and how they practice: they are practicing all the time. And I think it has helped me to get away from some of the language around theater-making; to say, I’m not in rehearsal, I’m going to be in the studio. I’m not trying to always get it right every day, I’m just trying something today. Let’s see what happens.
RAINCHECK: What have been some of the big questions that have emerged in your life and in your projects?
RYAN: This makes me think of Ann Hamilton, an installation artist who has said something that really stayed with me, which is that we circle around the same questions over the course of our artistic lives and creative lives. I’ve thought a lot about that lately in relation to this project Saints of Failure that I got to present here in Juneau and also in New York last year.
It’s now the third piece that I’ve made that kind of deals directly with questions about marriage and marriage equality.But underneath marriage, we’re talking about these bigger themes of like, how do we live in relationship with each other? What is family? What does it mean to commit to something or to someone? I was making work about marriage before I got married. And now I’m making more work about it because I’ve gotten divorced.
I think another deep question that I keep coming back to is, what is my relationship to place and to the land? I come from a family where I was an army brat, my dad was in the military. And we’re a settler family. I’m descended from European lineage. So what does it mean for me to be in a place, to choose a place, to have the privilege to say I choose this place–and then how do I move through the world in a responsible way and listen and learn as I go?
Sometimes I think this work is just a container for us to be with these questions.
RAINCHECK: What advice would you offer other artists pursuing a similar path?
RYAN: It’s really worth diving headlong toward things that feel right and through the doors that are opening, while also not attaching yourself to a grand vision of how everything’s gonna play out in a linear way. It’s that paradox, right? It takes effort and work to get somewhere and to arrive at the next stage, but at the same time, when you arrive there, you might find: oh, this aspect of the journey was useful, but that’s not where I’m headed–but I needed it to get where I’m ultimately going. So, staying open; professionally, art-making is not a hierarchical field that unfolds in a conventional path.
RAINCHECK: And one last question! If Juneau were a person, what would they look like?
RYAN: If Juneau were a person what would they look like? [thinks] I don’t think this is a very fair question because I think my experience of Juneau is about so many different people, such a diversity of people, which makes it a place that’s unique. I think I would see this person as what the land looks like: it would be the forest and the sea and the earth and the stone and the waterways–that’s what it would be wearing. And that’s what would draw all these other people to it.