"Statera Voices" is a series dedicated to reclaiming dominant culture narratives as a means towards gender balance in the theater and beyond. "Statera Voices" is where we tell our stories, expand our histories and celebrate each other. It is here that we join in a circle of mutual trust and support to share our thoughts and self-reveal on our own terms and in our own voices.
In January of 2016, Statera Foundation launched a one-year test-run of a National Mentorship Program. While it was very successful, Statera quickly realized they needed a larger dedicated team to run the program effectively.
For the past six months, Chicago-based theatre artists Erika Haaland and Minita Gandhi have been building a regional mentorship program based on the Statera model. Today's Statera VOICES offering is an interview with Erika and Minita about their collaboration with Statera Foundation and their work facilitating mentorship opportunities in the Chicago area. Enjoy!
STATERA: Tell us about your work in the theatre.
ERIKA: I have been an avid theatre lover since I directed, choreographed and starred in my fifth grade production of "Grease". As an artist and educator I have worked all over the country in Regional Theaters, universities, Chicago storefronts, and public schools. More recently I have been working in the Chicago Public School system teaching theatre alongside yoga & meditation through the context of social emotional learning.
MINITA: I got into theatre because I love storytelling and believe stories can heal and create change. I have been working as a professional actress for over 15 years on the regional theater circuit on wonderful stages that include The Arena Stage, Berkeley Repertory Theater, Lookingglass Theater, Indiana Repertory Theater, and Milwaukee Repertory Theater. I also do a wide variety of film/tv. I have a recurring role on Chicago Fire and most recently played Mussarat on the hit web series Brown Girls.
Being a Chicago artist I have had the privilege of working on new work and sharing a room with playwrights as they put the finishing touches on a world premiere. I loved being a part of that process! I remember working on the world premiere of Rajiv Joseph’s “The Lake Effect,” and getting to play the dark, complicated, and messy role of Priya. I began to recognize I was starving for new work that held a different kind of narrative for women of color. And shortly thereafter, I wrote my first full-length play, “Muthaland.” Stepping in to create a narrative I wanted to see on the stage felt right and accessible because of the supportive Chicago theater scene. In particular Silk Road Rising, Victory Gardens, and 16th Street Theatre.
STATERA: Can you both share about your journey to the Chicago theatre scene?
ERIKA: When I graduated from the MFA program at UC Irvine in 2011 I moved straight to Chicago – I knew a few people, but was mostly making my way on my own in the beginning. I had seen a few productions in Chicago and was deeply impressed with the quality of work so I had a lot confidence in my decision. Once I got settled I started auditioning, worked at a casting agency, got an agent and pursued a career in acting. After making my way into the community as an actor I began shifting my focus towards education. Another graduate from UC Irvine moved to the city and we taught a lot of physical theatre classes – helping actors to become more grounded in their bodies and in their work. Since then I have worked with multiple theatre companies both through workshops and productions as a teacher and consultant. More recently I have been working with an incredible woman – Colleen Fee – to build a place where women can come together in this community and share their stories, discuss their trials and tribulations, and come together for support.
MINITA: I moved to Chicago without knowing I was “moving” to Chicago. I had just finished an internship with Milwaukee Repertory Theater and had moved to California. I got an offer to understudy a show in Chicago and knew it was absolutely impractical for me to go to Chi town but really wanted to be around the script. It was called “Merchant on Venice,” which was an adaptation of Shakespeare’s “Merchant of Venice.” It was a Hindu/Muslim conflict that took place in LA. I tossed 2 suitcases and my laptop in my car and left Cali thinking I would be back in 3 months….ahem…so um….10 years later…I’m still in Chicago.
I’m here because Chicago does a lot of new work and has a COMMUNITY. I love that I can grow and stretch myself as an artist here. It’s the kind of place where you can experiment and find your voice as an artist.
STATERA: What is your own most memorable mentorship experience?
MINITA: My most memorable mentorship experience was right after I graduated from the Pacific Conservatory Theatre (PCPA). One of my favorite professors, Dr. Patricia Troxel (who many of us called GOD because she had so many degrees, was a brilliant director/dramaturg/teacher and never made you feel inferior while she revealed to you the secrets of the universe), hired me on as a dramaturg and choreographer for a production of "Much Ado About Nothing".
I was so honored to be working with her. During the process she really took me under her wing but also pushed me to be independent and learn to trust myself and my choices. She was such a fiercely independent woman who commanded the space with her genuine authentic being, intelligence, and vulnerability. This was a huge lesson. As women we are constantly told that vulnerability is weak. She instilled in me that it is a balance of vulnerability and assertiveness that makes for a good leader.
She gave me an opportunity and took a risk on me. She passed away a few years ago from cancer and I can’t tell you how many times I think of how she would handle a situation.
STATERA: What about you, Erika? Tell me about your most memorable mentorship experience.
ERIKA: When I worked at the Utah Shakespeare Festival I had the privileged of working with Laura Gordon. It was my first time working at a major regional theatre with larger roles so naturally I was incredibly nervous and felt like I had a lot to learn. Not only was Laura an incredible director, she was a patient teacher and a constant support during my time there. She pushed me to be the best version of myself both on and offstage and was always there when I needed encouragement. She also shared a great deal with me about her own personal journey as an actor/director and those stories have stayed with me as I’ve grown as an artist.
STATERA: Tell us about your engagement with Statera Foundation.
ERIKA: I was a part of the first group conversation about Statera in 2014 in Cedar City, Utah. Since that time I have been an avid supporter of the foundation and was a presenter at Statera's National Conference last October at the Denver Center.
MINITA: I know some of the fiercely talented Statera founders from my time at PCPA and Milwaukee Repertory Theater. When Sarah Greenman reached out to see how I could be involved, I was so honored. I was really excited about bringing my solo show and teaching a breakout session on mentorship, sponsorship and mansplaining. I work with a wonderful global communication skills training firm called Pinnacle Performance Company. I had spent the last year developing a women’s leadership curriculum for them. We decided the Statera Conference was a great time to pilot some of the material.
I was amazed at how many women were in agreement with the fact that often as women we don’t help each other rise but tear each other down. Every woman in that room wanted that dynamic to change. And mentorship and sponsorship is a way to achieve it and it was very palpable in that room.
STATERA: When did your engagement evolve into becoming part of the team and taking on the Mentorship program?
ERIKA: I have always been extremely interested in the Statera mentorship program. When I learned about it from Melinda and the other women who were a part of shaping it, I wanted to find a way to be involved with Statera in a more immediate way. When I met Minita at the 2016 Conference and she spoke about her work developing professional mentorship programming, I reached out to her and we started talking about what an artistic mentorship program would look like in Chicago. This lead to a bigger conversation about the National Mentorship Program – figuring out what was working and what needed to be shifted to offer artists the best possible pairing for them. As Minita and I discussed our dreams for a mentorship program in the city, we relied on the experience that Statera had in developing their National Program. Together we talked about what was working about the program that was already in place, and how we could shift it to meet the needs of our participants. Those conversations lead to the idea that Minita and I would take our findings on the regional/community level and implement/oversee Statera’s National Mentorship Program.
MINITA: I was so pleased that Erika reached out to me. She is really wonderful like that, always proactive and actualizing what she wants in the world. I love that about her! We met up at a café to connect in Chicago and decided we could co-create a program that we thought the Chicago community really needed. We were so full of energy and synergy after the Statera Conference and we wanted the women here to feel the same.
STATERA: What was the goal in starting with a regional mentorship program?
ERIKA: The goal was to start small and grow. With a smaller group of women working in a community we know well, we are able to manage feedback and expectations in an effective way. We’re also learning as we go and have been very fortunate to have an incredible team behind us on the ground in Chicago. The ultimate goal is to build a Mentorship Chapter Packet that can be started in any community – complete with surveys, guidelines for sustaining the program, and conversations about what has worked in Chicago. Once these chapters have been established, launching and managing the program on a National Level will hopefully be more effective and sustainable.
STATERA: What were your initial findings?
MINITA: Women are ecstatic about the program! It was wild. Women came out of the woodwork to mentor and be mentees. They really wanted to share their experiences and help each other.
We also found that while the pairings were good, we needed to come up with guidelines, surveys, and data analysis that would allow for the best possible and objective pairings. We are in the process of making modifications for the next pairing session, which will begin in September.
We also found that having a strong introduction packet with guidelines for successful mentorship was key and that we needed a strong core team to be available for troubleshooting, mixers, etc. And we have a wonderful team of women that have made the program a success.
ERIKA: Everyone we spoke to about the program was incredibly excited and we had over 100 submissions from the Chicago Community for our ‘First Class’. We are three months in and the feedback has been overwhelmingly positive. We have been monitoring the Mentor/Mentee relationships via email and meetings to ensure support and open communication. Goals are being set, conversations are being had, and some participant have shared that they are becoming good friends along the way (which is always a plus).
STATERA: What do you see as the greatest need and/or the most common need for mentorship relationships?
MINITA: Our industry is brutal. And it’s necessary to have a strong and safe place to be able to go to be vulnerable, fallible, and open. I think about the conversations I have had with women who have helped me in my professional and personal life. And it all started with knowing they were a safe resource.
There is also a big learning curve in terms of learning the business of being an artist. I WISH I had known how and what to negotiate for in contracts out the gate. And there is a constant work/life balance struggle that takes time to navigate. When you have a strong role model that has been through it, you know that you can. And sometimes that is just what you need. And we face different obstacles as women. That’s still a truth in this world. So, I find it invaluable to learn from other women’s experiences and to make that resource available to all women.
ERIKA: The greatest need is for guidance, support, and clarity of specific goals. I think that articulating to another person what you want out of your career can help the young artist begin on the right foot, and help the more experienced artist redefine what they are looking for in their career.
STATERA: Its often easy to see the benefit of mentorship relationships for the mentee. But the mentor / mentee relationship is a two-way street. What do you see as the benefit for mentors.
ERIKA: The benefits of becoming a mentor are equal to that of becoming a mentee. Mentors are left with the feeling that they are making a difference and changing someone’s life for the better, more clarity about their own goals, and a renewed sense of confidence in all they have accomplished in their careers. I think it’s easy to forget how much each of us has done as an artist and having a mentee helps to remind the mentor of all the hard work they’ve done and all they’ve learned along the way – something that we all need. Plus the effects of helping someone else – on the mind, body, and heart – have been scientifically proven to be beneficial.
MINITA: Yes! To give back to your community is to feed yourself too. I wish I could say I had a strong female mentor when I first moved to Chicago to show me the ropes. I didn’t. But this program means that doesn’t have to be the case anymore!
STATERA: As you vision forward, where do you see the Statera Mentorship program heading in future months and years?
ERIKA: I am excited about the idea of Mentorship Chapters all over the United States along with a national component connecting artists from different communities. The hope is to build a network that has the ability and structure to support artists in a very real and tangible way.
MINITA: I think it will be great to pair women up in different cities; an aspiring scenic designer in Omaha, Nebraska might have a perfect mentor in New York City, and we’d love to be able to pair them up to hone skills and build a nation-wide network. The goal is to remove any sense of isolation as a woman in the arts and to reinforce a sense of greater community through women mentoring other women and sponsoring other women in the arts, I believe we will see an increase in the number of female artists in all aspects of the industry.
ERIKA: Yes. I am also excited to see how this program that we are building will develop in different communities. And of course excited to hear about how Mentor/Mentee relationships develop over time – how we continue to support each other as we grow in our artistic lives.