Talking to THAW’s Sophia Skiles

On Tuesday, July 27th, THAW celebrates the one-year anniversary of its Freedom Follies at HERE Arts Center.

THAW, or Theaters Against War, is a quickly growing network dedicated to organizing, informing and promoting artists who believe in pro-peace foreign and domestic policies, and includes theatres from NYC and all over the world.

Every month THAW hosts Town Halls in various downtown theater spaces, where artists and anti-war organizations can gather, meet, and find ways to collaborate. The The Freedom Follies, curated by Sophia Skiles, is meant to be an outlet for artists to explore current political and cultural issues.

When Sophia isn’t volunteering her time and energy with THAW, she can be seen onstage in productions such as Target Margin Theater’s The Mysteries of the Charity of Joan of Arc at HERE this past spring. In a recent interview with her, I was able to uncover just a little bit more about what makes THAW tick.

Meryl: How Did Theaters Against The War begin?

Sophia: The first meeting was in Fall 2002 and was packed with all sorts of crazy people on the mainstage of P.S 122. Then the following spring/winter 2003 was sort of the build up to the war and at that time THAW presented itself as a website and a place where people can stay in touch with a network… stay in touch with a nexus of people who are thinking of doing things and brainstorming what could be done to prevent the war. The great thing about the genre of theater is that it assumes that everyone in the room, whether performer or audience, has the show in common and so we all have shared in something to start from. It is much trickier talking about the war without talking about something specifically and theater or film, by their very nature, will help jumpstart that.

One of the big achievements early on was this event that centered around March 2nd, which was a day of action. We were affiliated with a big global reading of Lysistrata, organized by Kathryn Blume, that was part of one of the ideas that popped up in the Town Halls. I remember this past winter I went to New Orleans for a conference as an activist and people were like, “THAW… does that have anything to do with the Lysistrata Project?” and I was like “Yeah, yeah totally!” and they were like, “Yeah, you know we did one in Georgia, and we did one in Cleveland!” It was really exciting to have been in the Town Hall when the idea came, and then hear how it had spread.

Since then Josh Fox, who was really instrumental in the early months, spoke with Kristin Marting who coordinated these weekend-long events called 24/7 Against the War, that started from midnight on Friday and didn’t end until Sunday. At the time there were all these big global protests and this huge surge of grassroots activity all over the world saying no to the war. There seemed to be this real kind of possibility that if we just show up and say no then things will change. I felt like, “My God, the numbers are so persuasive how can it not change?” And then of course the war did end up happening which was tricky.

Meryl: How did the dynamic change when the war did actually happen?

Sophia: There was a huge sense of disappointment that this huge show of global solidarity did not in fact stop the war. And it was really easy to overlook the real achievement – that the Vietnam war was raging for years before there was an anti-war movement and so to have a pre-emptive anti-war movement was a huge success! And maybe it takes a little bit of time and a sort of patience with yourself and the world to recognize that achievement. Folks will say what really results in true heroes is the long term vision, it’s the civil rights movement, it’s the little bitty steps that end up building legislation.

Meryl: How did you become involved with THAW?

Sophia: I really appreciated these 24/7 events that Josh Fox was coordinating and a couple people from his company, International Wow. However, it looked like it was going to have to take a break that following summer, which would then be a year ago, and I remember hearing about a THAW Town Hall which was asking for volunteers, because this is a fully volunteer-run situation, and I was like “I want to help! I want to help! I think this is a great thing!” I had never really experienced something like this before. I also had slight misgivings too, about my expectations of community, and the downtown theater scene. For the first time I really saw people step out of their own artistic ambitions and wanting to communicate their art in a bigger way. I thought that was really worth building and sustaining. For me privately, that was really inspirational. So I went to this town hall and found out Josh Fox was going away for the summertime and they were planning on taking a break from the 24/7s. I was heartbroken, because what is really amazing is that they keep on going month after month, and they are there for people when, and if, their schedule permits for them to come back. That way there is this constant opportunity. So even though I had never done this before I volunteered. I am a teaching artist so I work in different artistic communities, different artistic environments, so I put that to use and ended up spear heading it with Noel Salzman and all the people that have been volunteering on a regular basis to put these events together.

I was really moved personally as a theater artist, to find a group of people who not only identified themselves as artists, but as activists. I have a lot of respect for Bread and Puppet street theater – which isn’t necessarily conventional theatermaking where you have an audience and you have this very specific socially accepted relationship. Although I have a lot of respect for that, that is not the kind of art or the kind of acting I do, so it was really cool to see a diversity of artists in the room together. It takes all kinds, and people who are incredibly mainstream, for whatever that’s worth, were also in the room and that’s cool. We are looking at our one year anniversary which is fun!

Meryl: So what exactly is the Freedom Follies?

Sophia: The Freedom Follies sort of morphed from these 24/7s. They are not so radical, not all night, instead the focus is more on creating a dialogue based on a given idea. Almost a curated cabaret.

One thing I stole from the 24/7 for the Follies is the specific themes. One of the first 24/7s was about the Middle East and it definitely sharpened their attention. It is much more inviting and encouraging for people to show up to something that is not just “Ahh, anti-war” and people just voicing screams against Bush. That’s easy enough, but can we talk about violations of international treaties on one theme, or about mass media… it’s so much more educating. For me the three goals are education, theater and information. Be smart about the time we are going to share together.

Meryl: How has the response been to Freedom Follies?

Sophia: Really terrific results. I feel like I have been around and know the New York theater scene – but people that are amazing are constantly coming out of the woodwork. The generational and ethnic diversity has been much more inspirational to me than working in my own little world, which can be kind of small at times.

It is also great because I have been able to build relationships with people instead of a one-time thing. And it’s free. We rely on the donations of space from our member theaters, Chashama has been a huge champion of ours, HERE has, spaces all over the city that I didn’t know about just sort of stepped up and said, “You know that sounds fun, we can have it here.” It’s lovely to tell a group of 50 to 60 people that this is our space for the night. People come back to perform, which is great that there has been some continuity.

The only minutely negative aspect would be now that it has been about a year there is a toll that is just an energy level that needs to be sustained on the part of organizing it. There is this huge adrenaline rush, like doing a show. It takes a lot of energy out of me, and if anything, it has renewed my respect for people who volunteer, who commit themselves to doing something for no compensation. A lot of people are like “Oh, you act too?” and I’m like, “I am an actor.”

But it is possible, and that is something I really want to communicate to people. Most artists I know are incredibly creative about their time management skills. And thank God for the internet! It has really enabled all of this to explode. I am on email with people in Washington, DC who want to come up for the Follies in July, or people from Australia who are actually going to be in town at a prime time. There’s no phone calls, there’s no writing back via US postage. Just email instantly and it’s there.

Meryl: What is your theme for the big one year anniversary of Freedom Follies?

Sophia: I bounce thematic ideas off the whole group, but my idea is that it could be about a series of artist statements about what it means to be an artist and a citizen. They could perform a piece from an artist they admire, or one hopes to model themselves after, or reading one’s own work. This way people can really just speak their mind. Speak their piece. So that has been the big call, but really people are free to do what they want. Every month there is a resource list where people shop around and choose if they don’t know exactly what our chosen theme means to them. They can start by looking at the resource list and maybe take something from that or go elsewhere with it.

And then in August, we have been talking a lot about what constitutes a war. Obviously there is military war, but there are also systemic policies that are aggressive towards people, like a war against the working poor, the war against drugs … and the people of this country, whether its signing up to go to Iraq or not, are fighting a war. They are fighting a war to get health care, they are fighting a war to put food on the table. That has been a huge casualty in this administration. So the hope is to really explore this idea of what it means to build a pro-peace culture that will clear social justice and peace issues. The whole idea that 44 million people are uninsured is obscene. Prisons in this country are like little third world dictatorships that are under no oversight and they are run by private companies. Those private contractors that are out in Iraq come straight out of these private prison systems, and it needs to hit the radar more and more. Hopefully things like the Follies will allow people to bypass mainstream media, which people are more or less doubtful of, or familiar with, to the point of numbness. It seems to be more effective, or at least a cool alternative, to speak with people in a theater room at the same time. And our site offers a lot of links to outside organizations. I love reading editorials from abroad, because the way our countries media works, is unless it affects America, I am not going to hear about it. America is a big bully. If they don’t get what they want they can just withhold trade agreements and really punish countries, and exempt themselves from all sorts of international treaties. One way of counteracting that is checking out media sources that don’t ride that line.

Meryl: What are some things that downtown theater artists are doing in response to the political climate right now?

Sophia: Reverend Billy, a recent participant in the June Follies, has been doing something that has been getting great press. At Ground Zero every Tuesday, near that PATH train area, at six thirty people get on their cell phones and just start intoning the First Amendment, and they just keep gathering and gathering. And its rush hour, so commuters are just like “What the….?” They just do it every Tuesday with mixed responses. It sort of co-opts this idea that we are on our cell phones and that is somehow making a political point about reclaiming technology to unify people.

I think it is super-smart to take advantage of technology – without the internet THAW couldn’t exist. It has really brought the downtown theaters together. It’s a huge boom, even though it has the potential to be isolating, people just posting things without really being interested in a dialogue, it is a way of keeping in touch with people that is really helpful. There are some things we have to do in person, and that has been a huge challenge for me, being present in person. Like steering committee meetings, there is a lot we can do online but we need to talk to each other in real time and that has been the biggest obstacle.

Meryl: How do the individual theaters participate?

Sophia: In terms of what happens at individual theaters it’s really still up to them. I know, for instance, that there was a great bilingual production of Johnny Got His Gun up in Spanish Harlem. They wanted to make it more of an event, and they invited one of the volunteer staff to do a talkback and then performed an excerpt of it for the Follies. So in that sense there is some exchange, but for the most part the theaters are left to do exactly what they want in terms of expressing what it means to be a part of THAW. Whether it just means signing up, or means putting their logo on the website, or putting inserts that say “You are sitting in a Theater Against War.” Whatever the level of activism is up to that individual artist or member theater. I think what is in the works right now, come the end of summer, is another call to action. Where we encourage folks to do a little bit more than what they would usually be doing. Whatever that may mean, whether it is a curtain speech before their show, which may or may not have anything to do with the war , it is totally up to them, and I think that is the only the real viable way to do it, which is not to legislate how you express yourselves, just to let them do it.

Meryl: How has THAW spread internationally?

Sophia: We have a volunteer committee set up that is specifically outreach, to expand that cast of the net. A lot of those theaters are on our web page because people within the New York City community know somebody in Singapore and have shot an email down to them.

All that signing with us entails is an agreement with our mission statement, which is essentially that you are appalled by these current US foreign policies and attacks at liberties at home and abroad. Very simple. Very non-partisan. Actually pretty mainstream. And that covers a real diversity of people. There are anarchic pacifists and there are independent Republicans in that mix too. But for the most part so far, the outreach has been luck, and we are now just barreling into some sort of extended plan of attack at getting more people. I think the long term plan is to have things like the Follies happen within those communities abroad. It’s really, really, simple to do. You just need space and a bare stage, and somebody who will organize it. And that can be anyone. I think the big points of capital; energy, resources, money, isn’t money at all. Its time, good interpersonal skills, and your natural storage of creativity that most artists have anyways. You’re just applying it differently, at least that’s the way I’m seeing it.

Meryl: What are some things THAW has planned for the weekend of the National Republican Convention?

Sophia: Well the New York Arts Community ends up blossoming at the end of the summer naturally, with all the festivals, and it seems like most of the material is gravitating toward responding to the RNC. So the big challenge has been consolidating all that information and activity so that THAW can be a little market place for people to find out how to get involved in things. We also have monthly Town Halls, that are regular events on par with the Follies that are coordinated with by Josh Fox and Alexis Sottile. They are specific forums for people to present ideas of creative protests to network and brainstorm, which have been attended by dozens of artists.

There is so much happening that weekend the idea of putting it all into a calendar is overwhelming! There is one day we have thirty different things going on. Some of it is very simple though, there is a Bell Ringer, Christian Herold, who is passing out bells as well as organizing a circle of bells around ground zero all during that week. The Nation’s initiative is called Light up the Sky. It is just expressing the freedom to gather peacefully by turning on your lights, which is sort of an amazingly cool way to express solidarity and freedom. What I find most exciting is how people are using these events as parties. They are having a picnic on the weekend and everyone gets on their cell phones because the minutes are free and calls swing states. I think this is the kind of behavior that will outlast November, this sense of civic engagement in a really positive light.

Meryl: What are you personally doing the weekend of the RNC?

Sophia: I’m not sure, it’s like Christmas with all these presents under the tree. I want to stay safe, that is a huge concern. It has been really cool, one of the THAW Steering Committee Members, Jennifer Nordstrom, organizes these street theater workshops, people are hungry to get out on the streets, they have something to say to these delegates and there is this real assertiveness that “these are the people, I want to be out on the street, I want to say something directly to them.” At the same time you want to be smart about it, and you want to know exactly what your legal standing is in relationship to being among hundreds and thousands of people. It is very exciting and simultaneously very scary. I personally am terrified of mobs. It just takes a couple of people to throw things out of any positive intention.

Meryl: Will THAW continue as a social justice organization even after this war ends?

Sophia: I definitely think taking a moment beyond, “Oh, I’m against the war,” and taking a moment to look at the history in U.S. foreign policy and imperialism, you realize that this war is just business as usual. It has defiantly hit overdrive with this administration, so it is definitely the worst it is has ever been, but it’s not really that much different from what we have been doing for years and years. There has actually been a lot of talk about how do we shift from being this really kind of catchy acronym “Theaters Against War” to really looking towards building a pro-peace culture. Then it’s not so much about identifying as being against something, as being for something. I feel like there has been a shift in the administrative volunteers to find a way to make this solidarity last. How can we make sure that it doesn’t last just amongst this group of people that meet in a living room once in a while?

The Obie grant this past spring was a really great shot in the arm. What was really great is like any artist worth their salt we’re incredibly ambitious, and we sort of try and do things we don’t know that we can do. Having a job from nine to five and then trying to wrangle journalists and media specialists and top notch theater practitioners to come and speak on civil liberties is not easy. It is kind of wonderful that it doesn’t happen in a void, people do notice and it was really great to get that sense of recognition. And to get it from The Voice, they have been a huge blistering voice on all sorts of civil liberty issues. To have that cachet and association is lovely – and it definitely increased our visibility and gave us a little more credibility. That’s a big deal too, because you can have great ideas but unless people are committed to organizing people are not going to feel so confident about participating or associating or staying on top of what’s going on. So organization and recognition have been key. It is a day-to-day struggle. We are here today, are we going to be here tomorrow? What can we do to stay afloat? A lot of the people who are involved as volunteers are bringing their skills to it.

For more information visit THAW at

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