Between the Santa Fe Playhouse on the cover and SNL alum Ana Gasteyer in the 3 Questions section on page 24 for her upcoming singing performance at the Lensic Performing Arts Center, this edition of SFR seems to have inadvertently become an informal theater question. To sweeten the deal, meet Jonah Winn-Lenetsky, the president of the Institute of American Indian Arts’ theater program — a program that has sat mostly in obscurity during the pandemic, but is making a triumphant return to the operations on May 6 and 7 with works by playwright and former IAIA writing professor William Yellow Robe (Assinboine), who died last year. We thought with everything going on in theaters right now, it would be an opportune time to check in with Winn-Lenetsky on what reopening means for students, and even the city itself.
SFR: Who are you, what do you do and why do you do it?
Jonas Winn-Lenetsky: I consider myself primarily a scholar and a director and occasionally an actor. I’m the chair of performing arts at the Institute of American Indian Arts on the outskirts of Santa Fe. This role is brand new to me, I’ve only been chair this semester. Shelia Rocha was the last, but I’ve been a professor since the department started four years ago. In 2018, we launched [performing arts] as a major. We basically have four people on our team. myself and [Rocha] are the only professors in the department, and then we have the Fulbright scholar Sébastien Lange, who is working with us this year and who came to us from France via Mexico – and who led the [one act play], Sly. We also have a technical director, Catherine Owens, and our main focus at the moment is theatre, particularly Indigenous theatre, history and theory of/application and performance; and we put on some music and dancing, but our main focus is theatre.
The theater has been closed during the pandemic, at least for live shows. What makes now a good time to get back into the weeds?
We were gaining momentum and putting on a lot of shows, until the fall of 2019, so we had lasted about a year and a half when, like everything, things stalled. We did little things for the school, but the whole campus was closed for the rest of 2020 and part of 2021. So when the campus reopened, there were all variations and all masks, and we only organized small events for the invited public. This is the first time we have opened our theater space to the public, and it only has 70 seats. Part of the performance will take place outdoors, however, but this is the first time we’ve held a large pop-up.
This is for our students, because we have a cohort of majors who started just before or during the pandemic, and they unfortunately performed in front of small audiences or played recorded stuff. They are very talented and hard working, and they deserve the opportunity to perform in front of an audience and gain more experience as performance specialists. They need this. I think the other point I would make is just that it looks like things are opening up again. It really feels like the theater is starting to happen again and people are starting to come together again. The pandemic is by no means over, but it looks like vaccines are really helping right now. It seems a little less threatening. There is an exchange of energy between the audience and the performers that you only really get with live performances, and many of our students find work in film and television, both professionally and in school movies, and they didn’t have that experience of performing in front of people. You can feel the energy shift [when performing live]transformation, excitement.
Has the long lull aroused the enthusiasm of the students? I imagine everyone is working very hard to produce something memorable for this return to performance.
They are very enthusiastic. They’re excited and maybe a little nervous, because we’re inviting an audience.
As for the first production, why did you choose William Yellow Robe, beyond his obvious links with the school?
He has this connection to the IAIA, but first and foremost I think William passed away after a long illness less than a year ago, so this is really our first opportunity to honor him and celebrate his work. He has contributed a great deal to Aboriginal theatre. He is very prolific. I’m not even sure I know all the plays he wrote, but we teach them often. He’s taught here in the past, but he’s a playwright who’s written very realistically and brutally in many ways about life on the Rez, and I think he’s contributed a lot both to self-perception and to the public’s perception of what Rez life is like. His writing is darkly powerful, insightful and funny. There’s a lot of humor in what we do, but his plays really talk about human struggles, personal battles, relationships within families.
I’ve interviewed native actors who say native culture keeps coming back to Hollywood every year. As someone who works with young people, the next generation of performers and writers, do you think Indigenous storytelling will continue to be more common on stage and on screen?
My future vision is very limited, but if I can predict, I certainly hope so. I think the only upside, and not just for Indigenous people, has been how Hollywood has lost some of its hold on entertainment through the internet, the pandemic, small indie projects, and streaming studios. So yeah, most of the money still comes from Hollywood, but I think even streaming studios are more open to a diversity of voices. There is an interest in hearing different types of stories rather than traditional, white, straight stories. Will it last? One of the biggest changes I’ve seen is that these stories are being told by Indigenous writers, actors, and storytellers, and I think that’s a big change.
What do you think the future holds for the theater program at IAIA now that people can attend again?
Our hope is to continue to present interesting and experimental new works by Indigenous artists, as well as some of the classics, like what we are doing in this case. Hopefully more performances. We are building our technical and performance program, and we hope to use it to host more concerts, dance performances, not just theater. Being able to do more plays would be really amazing for our students and hopefully bring something to the audience.
Sneaky: An Evening of Pieces by William Yellow Robe: 6 p.m. Friday, May 6 and Saturday, May 7. Free Institute of American Indian Arts 83 Avan Nu Po Road, (505) 424-2300