Joy, Risk, and Change: An Interview with Marc Bamuthi Joseph

By Maureen Walsh


When any high-profile institution changes leadership, it begs the question of changes in topography. Earlier this year, Yerba Buena Center for the Arts proudly announced Marc Bamuthi Joseph as their new Director of Performing Arts. A Bay Area performing arts mainstay, based in Oakland, Joseph’s artistic accolades are many: he is a spoken word artist, dancer, actor, director, writer, and much more; he has written and produced many plays (more recently performing at the new 5M space in SOMA, San Francisco, and touring across the U.S., to the Walker Art Center and beyond); he also founded the Youth Speaks Living Word Project. To each project he brings a grounded intelligence, creative openness, and activist spark—his new leadership position at YBCA proves no different. I had the great pleasure to chat with Joseph and glean some of his charisma, witty creative intellect, his ideas on the Bay Area performing arts sector, and his projections for the future at YBCA. What follows is a candid snapshot of Joseph as an artist, father, and arts administrator.

Congrats on the position! I’m excited to see what kind of change shakes down…
MB: It’s so funny, people keep talking about change. I think it’s really cool and I’m really honored that people think of me that way, as a changemaker. I like the language.

What excites you most about the Bay Area performing arts?
MB: There’s pro and con. An overwhelming pro is that it’s really provincial, in the sense that it’s not market driven. There’s a greater liberty to take creative risk and also to acknowledge and confirm community that advocates for that risk. For me that’s the most exciting thing, to risk as an arts maker. I wouldn’t choose to live in LA, I wouldn’t choose to live in NY, I wouldn’t choose to live in a market driven environment that tempers ultimately what you make. My personal success as an artist has been the ability to create work in this special place and then take it out to the market. That excites me, the impact and the positivity and the support for risk that’s present here.

How does your artistic process inform your administrative life?
MB: My creative default mechanism is collaboration. [To some people collaboration is] “I have an idea, will you help me do it?” I pull toward a rubric, and understanding of collaboration where there really is a sense of democracy in terms of idea sharing, and a premium on the ability to transfer credit for those ideas. So it’s not so much about who’s the writer, who’s the director, who’s the actor, but it’s more about who’s the team.

In terms of administration and curation, we’re going to be a catalyst and announce a program called YBCA Away. The purpose of the program is for us to give micro grants to 20 different artists across the Bay Area, some musicians, but mostly dancers and the folks we’ll give these grants to will be suggested by the staff of YBCA. Everyone from folks who work in Community Engagement and folks who work in the IT department can tell me about artists they’re really into and we’re able to give full cash allotments to 20 different groups. That’s collaboration and the curatorial vision—that’s not only how I make art but how I want to administer this position, through this sense of collaboration and equitable access.

What are some components to a successful collaboration?
MB: Trust is the biggest one. And also inspiration. I want to be around people who inspire me. And I think that kind of inspiration deepens cohesive faith. The biggest thing is that we trust and are inspired by our collaborators.

What inspires you?
MB: Fortunately my Executive Director is Ken Foster, who not only is a long time advocate and has incredible chops in the field, but he’s also someone who’s personally understood my creative intellect, my creative output, and has been really significant in my personal growth. At YBCA I’m inspired by the entire staff and feel very privileged to work with such an experience and visionary Executive Director.

Then in my waking life I’m inspired by my family. I’m motivated by struggle and injustice. And the kind of socio-political calculus it takes to navigate this world.

What excites you about this position?
MB: So much. So much! … I think what’s most exciting is the geography—the cultural and spatial geography of the building itself. Because for 12-14 years we never had a building so our programming was everywhere. For almost that long I’ve been performing more around the country and around the planet than I have been in the Bay Area. So the sense of YBCA as grounding, really locating a broad set of ideas in one central place in a more finite radius is exciting to me. At the same time, I’ve been a little bit transient, in terms of where my creative outputs land, I’m motivated to extend/expand the YBCA brand outside the institutional walls; to promote and advocate for arts to take place all over the ecology not just in the building itself. Both things are about faith, the power to leverage our position at 3rd and Mission, close to the SF Moma, the Convention Center, down the street from Union Square, and really locate ourselves as central to the cultural life of the city. And to use that position to have influence and extend our influence that art is for anybody and can happen anywhere.

If money was no object, what would you gift the Bay Area performing arts community?
MB: A medium sized rehearsal studio. [laughs] Mostly what we need is affordable, accessible spaces to develop work of scale. By and large, our collective creativity is hemmed in by the buildings that are at our disposal to execute our ideas. I just directed a piece for Intersection for the Arts, called Tree City Legends. We set the play in the SF Chronicle Building. It was an awesome play, amazing characters, brilliant play, and we had to develop the play basically in an office space. There’s a lot to be said for repurposing space and re-contextualizing materials. I think about how different the work would have been if we would have had some materials and the capacity to develop it in a proscenium way without interruption, etc.

Recently I was at a show at CounterPULSE, which I thought was awesome, and I found myself thinking that they made this work for this space. There’s an inability on our part to fully stretch. There are these places, and not many others, where people can figure out the relationship to video and media and tech. If I had a billion dollars I’d build a complex of sound stages where artists could fully develop the technical aspects of their vision.

Truth be told, we need that all over America.

What kind of community do you want to see at YBCA?
MB: I wouldn’t characterize it by demographic. I would say multiple cyclographic reality in play and in conversation. My fiancé is a Kindergarten teacher; she talks about her lesson plans, where she has to have different stations so as to appeal to multiple intelligences. There’s a station that’s geared for fine motor skills, one station is about kinesthetic learning, one of the stations is about auditory learning, and so on and so forth. Ultimately we never get past that. Collectively we all absorb material in different ways. So community is a certain level of being and thinking with the diversity and consumption of stimulus. I would like Yerba Buena Center to be like that.

Also I want YBCA to not be so impressed with its own institutionality—but really hold audience as sacred as the object of observation.

Projections for years to come… 1, 5, 10?
MB: I get married soon. I get married in August. For the next 5 years I just think of joy. That’s what I see. When I’m thinking about the next 5 years, I’m thinking about my immediate, my family, and household, more than anything else.

In terms of Yerba Buena, there’s an elegant marine layer of high art, cutting edge, avant-garde art from all over the world that Yerba Buena has stewardship over. There’s no other place in the city that’s going to present Shen Wei, or David Dorfman, or Bebe Miller. There’s no one else in the city that’s going to present Eiko & Koma. So ¾ of what we’ve done is what we’ll continue to do.

And in terms of presentation, I just think that if anything shifts it’s the relationship to community and to risk. Which Yerba Buena has really been good at, at being a place that presents risk-takers. What I would like to do is be more of the site of the risk. For instance there’s these kids from Paris, twins, and they are coming in December—[for] a program called Classic Hip Hop. There are these post-hip hop dancers, that are masters of regional styles. Lil Bub, from Memphis, the Footwork from Chicago. The purpose of this mini festival is to insert hip-hop movement vocabulary with jazz intellect inside of the contiuum of contemporary movement vocabulary—but to have them do it with the Kronos Quartet. I think more about Yerba Buena being the site of the risk—right now, for instance, we did Eiko & Koma, which the performance was part of a 2-year-long retrospective and I think that similar shows happened in Minneapolis and Chicago. I want to do stuff that doesn’t happen anywhere else, and that won’t happen anywhere else. So that’s where I want to take a significant portion of the programming, to be a little bit more activist. There’s one thing when you commission, and provide resources for artists to develop and present work which we will continue to do that as well. But my pedagogy has more of an activist bent, and also there’s a way that because I’m an artist I get away, and have a little bit more credibility in asking questions, that I want answered by certain artists. I call Daniel Bernard Romaine, and say “I’ve been thinking about King Kong” and we can just talk about King Kong, and then there he goes. There are critical questions and relationships with artists that I can give it. And that will be part of the programming as well.

My projections are for joy in my marriage, risk at YBCA, and activism in terms of pedagogy and curation.

Pop Questionnaire
Your favorite virtue: Forgiveness
Your secret spot in town: The redwoods above the skyline in Oakland. And the weekly pick-up soccer game with local writers, that’s my secret joy.
Your favorite quality in a friend: Laughter
Your main fault: Not paying close attention to small things when the wider world has much more to offer.
I look at my phone too much—like when my son is sitting in the back seat of the car, I look at my phone instead of turning around.
Your idea of heaven: A dance floor with amazing music and space. Basically a loft party in the early ’90s with house music, where I know everybody there, but no one’s tripping on anyone else—where you have to bring an extra pair of clothes because you’re sweatin’ them out.
Your muse: My son
Someone you idolize: Harriet Tubman
A natural talent you’d like to be gifted with: The ability to breathe underwater
First performance memory: Doing a commercial for Crest when I was 5
Your favorite motto: Scared money don’t make none
If money’s no object, what’s the next place you might travel: Shanghai
What events/places might we see you at this spring/summer: I have the most awesome gig ever happening in early May. It’s the 40th anniversary of the Marvin Gaye performance—and John Legend is performing the What’s Going On album, with the National Orchestra, at the Kennedy Center—I’m doing the writing and performing. Also I’m getting married this summer, that’s really the big performance event.
What question do you wish we’d ask: I don’t have an answer to that. This is why I didn’t read your questions beforehand. I try to hold a healthy respect for hindsight. There are no other questions. That’s the truth, I don’t think there’s anything that happens that wasn’t supposed to happen.

Maureen Walsh is Communications Director at Dancers’ Group. She is a avid music consumer, word nerd, aesthete, major league baseball watcher, seamstress, casual foodie, and San Francisco lover.

This article appeared in the May 2012 issue of In Dance.

Maureen Walsh lives in San Francisco and enjoys the city’s craziness and wonder. She spends her time dancing, playing, finding funny things on the internet, giggling, baking, working as a Social Media Strategist, learning to play the bass guitar, surfing, and adventuring.