In this interview, Shaina Lynn Simmons discusses the challenges and rewards of experimenting with your artistry.
You and I both went to Marymount Manhattan College (MMC); I got my BA in photography and you got your BFA in acting—is that right?
I received a BA in Theater Performance. I pretty much started acting my senior year of high school, when I found out what a monologue was for the first time. I always had a passion for acting through movies but wasn't exposed to a lot of other resources, partially because the school systems in NOLA were so bad they barely had teachers sometimes, let alone a theater teacher. And also because of the lack of knowledge my family had of how to nurture an interest in acting.
So I ended up taking one year at Virginia State University (VSU). That's where I built my resume as an actor, traveled with a troupe, and stayed in the library reading as many books as I could on acting in between studies. I transferred to Marymount's prestigious BFA program and then was let go and graduated on time with a BA in Acting.
It wasn't the best environment for me as a dark-skinned black girl. I was getting great feedback from auditions but never cast in shows. I received a damn good foundation for my acting training, though. Although MMC was a liberal arts program, it sometimes operated like a conservatory with a strict and rigorous curriculum for actors. It was a little devastating at the time to think I wouldn't receive a BFA and there were all these people who didn't believe in me.
But it all worked out in my favor. My Master of Fine Arts will be completed in May, so—still winning.
OK, I like to open these interviews by asking where everyone sees themselves. So, what stage in your career do you consider yourself?
I see myself as an early career artist. I’m just getting started. Grad school really presented an opportunity for me to explore my ideas as an artist. I didn’t have these resources before. Now that I do, I’ve done the best to create work.
So, let’s just be clear that you’re a black woman. Over the years of knowing you it’s evident how much your racial identity navigates your career in the projects that you develop or contribute to. But, I wonder, how long has race been your compass and what has that done for your career to be racially focused?
Growing up as a black woman in the South, race has always been a major factor in my life. Using race in my work as an artist gives me an outlet to express a lifetime of experience. It makes me feel purpose filled like I’m doing my part in creating a better space for black girls to be powerful and free.
Right, I can respect that. But how has being a racially-focused artist navigated your career path, whether that be in the opportunities you seek out, that have been opened to you, or those denied to you?
When I graduated from undergrad, the theater scene in NYC was dry. There wasn’t room for me to enter. I was told before that NYC wasn’t the best place for actors of color to break into the industry and that was true. Why? Because the industry is not diverse, regardless of its initiatives to be that.
I began creating my own work because I had something to say and I couldn’t stand silently in line waiting for someone to give me a chance to speak. Acting is a field where you are expected to fit into a box. I am a dark-skinned black woman with natural hair and a New Orleans twang in my voice--I don’t fit into the box. People “don’t know where to place” me. Once I started creating my own work, it gave me visibility and allowed me to spark interest from others.
I once heard Andrew Rannells on NPR’s Fresh Air talk about dropping out of Marymount because he didn’t see what he could do with a degree in acting. Did you ever feel that way, that getting that degree was fruitless?
Yes, I’m asking myself that now, graduating with an MFA in Acting this spring. Although I’ve accomplished many of my goals, there is still that uncertainty as to how I will maintain after the safety net of grad school is gone: how am I going to eat and pay the rent?
What was that for you obtain your undergrad from that school and in that city?
Going to school in NYC for acting was a goal, once I realized you could go to college and study acting. The process, however, was a struggle. I was confronted with being one of few black people, and more specifically black women, in the program. I realized that, regardless of my talents and skill, white institutions “didn’t know where to place me.” I was never cast in a show during that time, despite the fact that I was told several times that I had one of the best auditions of the night. If only it was all about talent and ability...
Would you say this has still been the case in grad school? I know you’ve gone to Scotland, Cuba, and Miami because of connections through CalArts.
The difference between me now and then is I know where my place is. I belong in spaces that have yet to be discovered. CalArts understands and creates the space for me to be an artist. There was only room for me to be an actress at MMC. When I started at MMC all I wanted to be was an actress. I had yet to uncover my artistry.
Being in a major city like New York is something that artists may feel is a necessity for their careers. Was being in New York, or Los Angeles now, imperative for you as an actor and performance artist?
L.A. still is the place to be for commercial work. Yes, smaller industries are generating business as well, but the main market is L.A. I’ve spent three years of grad school building a network here. It’s also a great place for artists to do experimental work. Every time I look, my artist friends are updating their status to “just moved to L.A.” There’s some interesting and brave work being made out here. This is the place for me to be right now.
The microcosm of Marymount, in that as a black woman you weren’t represented in the program and were overlooked in casting, is a reflection of the industry as a whole. Did those struggles in undergrad prepare you as a professional?
The industry by nature is limiting. It's all about what “type” you fit into. So I guess in that way my time at MMC did reflect the industry. If I was paying all that money for a real life experience, then great. But I was investing in building my skills.
Eventually, you went back to D.C. and moved back home. What was that time like for you?
Moving back home was the worst experience of my life. I spent six years expanding my horizons and in one move back my world shrunk again. But as an artist, it was the best decision I could have made at that time in my life.
In D.C. I debuted my one-woman show, Bayou Blues. I was also able to participate in a monologue slam that got me in the door for the area's major agents and theaters. Once that happened, I was starting to book commercial work. I started making money as an actress, but I was still creating my own work.
I actually don’t know anything about D.C.’s art scene, except that you once explained to me that it was really small.
D.C. had, and still has, a great art scene. Especially for black creatives, you can really connect with a lot of dope artists and venues that live for art. Because the scene is smaller, you’re able to connect more and actually build personal relationships.
You were still in D.C. when you decided to apply to grad school. Did you apply to a few different programs or were you set on CalArts?
I applied, and was accepted, into an MPS Cultural Arts Management program in NYC (which is pretty much an MBA for the arts). Last minute, I applied and auditioned for CalArts. It was the only school I applied to for acting.
Oh, I didn’t realize that. Can you explain wanting to pursue an MPS in Cultural Arts Management and why you were looking to go back to New York?
While I was at MMC, I was also pursuing a minor in Art Management. I’ve always been keen to business, which is great because artist often have the talent but don’t have to drive for the business.
Through pursuitofnappiness.org, I was able to merge my interest of arts and social advocacy. Pursuit of Nappiness started as an idea for a t-shirt line. It began to grow into an avenue for me to support and build a community for conscious women of color in pursuit of love, life, and nappiness. I later started a blog [and] did several national and international initiatives to support black women and artists of color. I wanted to take the work I was doing with Pursuit of Nappiness (which I incorporated into LLC, with plans for 501 c 3 status) and as an artist and grow.
NYC was still the home [where] most of my collaborators and friends were at that time; since then most have all left. I wanted to be with my people and help them reach the next level with their work as well.
How did you decide to audition for CalArts?
I knew CalArts was the only school in the states with an experimental avant-garde approach to theater. They encouraged interdisciplinary collaborations. If I was going to continue to train as an actor, it needed to be in an environment where I could truly spread my wings. CalArts was the only choice.
Did grad school differ from undergrad for you? Would you say it was worth it to go?
For me, grad school was the next best move. I’ve grown as an artist and really been able to cultivate my artistic expression at CalArts. I walked into grad school extremely focused. I set goals for each semester during the summer before. Grad school is about being self-driven, disciplined, and aware of your surroundings. I had way more free time and was more social in undergrad. Grad school is hard. But, reflecting on my personal and artistic growth, it was worth it.
We finished at Marymount during the Great Recession. Going through that had a direct impact on me. I believe that if the recession hadn’t happened, I would’ve stayed in New York and worked whatever photography-related job that I could get and continue to immerse myself in the emerging photography culture that I had completely fallen in love with. Instead, I witnessed galleries and nonprofits really struggle to weather the tide, which is why I chose to go to grad school for arts administration. Did the recession matter to you at all?
I can imagine that if there wasn’t a recession, more theater would have been happening in NYC, but I can’t say that more theater would have meant more opportunities for me. Acting is so subjective.
The recession did make it so I wasn’t alone. No one [was] finding jobs that could sustain them in any field. Everyone was working retail or two to three jobs. It was a very discouraging time. But that struggle helped me realize I didn’t want to just be an actor: I was a creator.
When we were in Paris in 2015, you spoke on how you had shifted from wanting to be a stage actress to seeing yourself as a performance artist. I would imagine that those are two completely different worlds in terms of opportunities, networking, and such. I know how to move through the world of fine art photography, but I would have no idea where to start as a commercial photographer.
Almost as soon as I understood the world of theater, in terms of opportunity and networking, I decided I wanted to go a different route as a performer. It's definitely two different worlds. Still trying to figure it out. But I've been selected to participate in the Rhizomatic Performance Lab at the Hammer Museum this month. I’m sure this will give me more insight into the world of performance art.
When we spoke a few months ago, I remember that you were stressing about getting a project done because collaborators were just not following up with you. Has it been a general difficulty to find people to hire or collaborate with?
It can be a challenge to find artists willing to collaborate for free, which I completely understand, or difficult to get collaborators to treat the work with the same respect they would if there was the incentive of pay. I have been blessed to overall work with dope artists who believe in the message of my work. The next level is to be able to pay my collaborators. We deserve to make work we believe in and get paid.
What are you seeing as your next move, as you prepare to finish your masters?
This a really big question. I don’t know yet. What I do know is I will continue to make little bricks of accomplishments as I build the bigger picture.
Shaina, it’s been amazing. Thank you.
Shaina Lynn Simmons is a performance artist whose work centers around the black woman’s experience. In 2016, Lynn received the Theater Grant from The Puffin Foundation for her recent project AfroFuturo, which she performed during Art Basel Miami the same year. Simmons is currently completing her Masters of Fine Arts in Acting at CalArts.