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Aliya Hunter: The Future of Theater

By: Sai Siddhaye

Borne of the turbulent political climate of this era, Aliya Hunter is one of a generation of young artists channeling their activism into their creative pursuits. Originally from southern California and presently a student at UC Davis, Hunter’s interest in performing arts collided with her passion for social justice during college, creating a drive to use her talent to make waves. Her calming presence and charming manner are still present within our socially distanced phone call, through which her infectious laughter crackles merrily. 

“I think it was a series of moments,” Hunter ruminates, “that made me realize I wouldn’t be happy without [theater] in my life”. Hunter has been acting for several years now, and recently began exploring new facets of theater. “I love acting the most; I’m hoping to get my MFA in acting… but I do really love directing and writing too”. Hunter is dedicated to creating multidimensional characters who embody the marginalized identities that are so rare to see in the media. Her conviction to create the representation that she would like to see is evident in her work, which focuses on the complex process of navigating life during and after trauma, and carries strong feminist undertones. 

Hunter began her newest endeavor of writing and directing this year. “In terms of writing, I really like drawing from my own lived experience as a woman. Watching a lot of representation of gender minority characters is really frustrating sometimes, because I don’t think there are a lot of realistic and nuanced representations of them”. Hunter’s work is heavily colored by her own life as a queer woman of color. It illustrates the most brutal parts of living in a world that was not created for you, yet also showcases the silver lining of finding pleasure and community by virtue of being human. 

Hunter’s forthright manner of speaking about her work alludes to her passion for creating positive change through theater. She recounts that her favorite theater experience was acting in and directing OurStories, an annual production about survival and healing that the UC Davis Women’s Resources and Research Center runs. “I didn’t think it was a stereotypical theater experience; there were a lot of people who wanted to perform but weren’t necessarily involved in theater. So very different kinds of performers, but they all had incredible stories to share.” The use of theater as a form of group therapy is an innovative way that Hunter’s work has impacted her community, but she aims to spread her reach even further.

Hunter is also a member of Theater for Social Change, a performance arts group at UC Davis. “Our main goal is to highlight and give a platform and a voice to students of marginalized identities and allow them to develop their own work… and have more of a space than they would within the rest of the [theater] world”. Theater for Social Change was created in the summer of 2020, during which they collaborated with the Davis Shakespeare Festival and several UC Davis alumni to debut their online theater productions. They not only use classical and well-studied methods of production, but also use new technology and innovation to redefine what theater means.

Her most recent project with Theater for Social Change, Stricken, was a multimedia production that took place on the day before Halloween. “I had just had this idea to get a bunch of artists together and see what they could come up with about the idea of fear, which is what the showcase is about”. Stricken showcased many different types of fear in several different mediums; from interpretive dances about existential dread to comedic sketches about irrational fears, this performance displayed the full range of human emotion and creativity. Hunter’s performance in Stricken, titled Appetite, was the first time I had seen her acting. Her subtle emotional cues and authentic performance brought to life the stir-crazy yet exhausted character she played. This piece confronted disordered eating and a crumbling sense of reality in a candid manner that I have seldom seen in the theater world, and was the prime example of ‘showing and not telling’. As ever, her powerful performance was loaded with a poignancy that reflects the larger sociopolitical issues that influence her work.

During the start of the statewide lockdown, Hunter began writing her first play. Entitled THREE, this piece draws inspiration from her personal experience of isolation. “I wrote THREE in quarantine, and that was one of the first scripts I ever developed fully, I think just because the ideas I was thinking about were so heavily influenced by COVID. The idea of a person wanting so badly to avoid certain aspects of their life was really compelling to me, and inspired me to start writing THREE.” THREE examines the mental, emotional, and physical struggles of isolation, and was planned and performed entirely over Zoom. 

Perhaps because of the creativity that quarantine has sparked for Hunter, she is optimistic about the future of theater amidst the transition to virtual life. “I think acting–at least how I’ve seen it–can actually translate really well through Zoom. I feel confident in the future of virtual theater, actually. I think another perk of quarantine is that a lot of people are going to virtual plays now, because they have free time and they don’t have to go to physical theatres, which are unfortunately pretty expensive because they’re geared towards an older audience. So I think this is a really exciting time to gain a new audience of younger, more diverse people.”

Hunter represents a generation of trailblazers who have used the momentum of our geopolitical moment to pave the way for new artists to expand the medium of performing arts. It is people like her who will bring progress upon us.

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Tortured Artist

By: Sarah Ansari

TW: mental health, depression

I was seventeen when I decided I wanted to become a writer — the same year I was diagnosed with depression and anxiety.

It felt as though the world had decided to play some kind of sick joke on me and inject me with a slew of mental health issues at the precise moment I decided I wanted to pursue a career in the creative field. I spent days and nights, unwilling to move or breath or live, but I was the epitome of every romanticized trope.

There was only one problem: during the bouts of depression, I could never actually bring myself to create anything.

My sadness was never a catalyst for the birth of my magnum opus. The only thing I managed to create during those times were never-before-seen levels of grease on my unwashed face. My most remarkable moments were not frenzies of genius and flurries of paper; they were the times I managed to get out of bed.

Every day, I would feel as though I were deteriorating — both mentally and physically — as my hair thinned, the circles under my eyes grew hollow, and my memory dulled. With the moon waned my interest in day-to-day activities I had once adored. That spark of passion that told me I wanted to write flickered, and then burnt away. My thoughts were consumed with an overbearing need to sleep, but the crushing fear of time passing prevented me from even that relief.

One of the most popular stories about Vincent van Gogh involves his consumption of yellow paint in hopes that the sunny colour would impart some happiness upon him. The rumour is circulated in solemn tones whenever he comes up in conversation. Whether true or not, it makes for a good piece of gossip. Suddenly, the swirls of deep blue paint embracing the shocking radiance of yellow are valued by the mass public not because of their inherent beauty, but because they emblemize the figure of the tortured artist.

But depression is not beauty, nor does it lead to anything remotely resembling beauty. Though romanticized, mental health conversations are also stigmatized, so those suffering are afraid to speak out about the pain we feel, wondering if we’ve been faking it all along. Depression for me was bouts of anger– lashing out at my family, saying unforgivable things that I’ll spend my whole life repenting for. When I filled out my college applications, I omitted all awards and half of my extracurriculars, drowning in the feeling that I deserved nothing. I hardly deserved to live, much less to prosper. I’m not particularly religious, but every evening, I would pray for death and every morning, I would curse the heavens when it never came.

In public, to my friends and classmates, I remained as jovial as ever. I think I never made so many new acquaintances as I did in that last year of high school. My grades remained in the A-range in all classes but one despite my unwillingness to study. Sometimes I even managed to laugh, though my smiles were accompanied by pangs of guilt and the wrenching fear that I was falsifying my mental health. In class, I would respond to questions more often, hoping that nobody noticed the way I covered the wrist of my raised arm with my other hand when I did. When my friends wanted me to look something up on my phone afterschool, attempting to peer over my shoulder, I would hunch over for a minute, covering the screen while I closed out search pages I had long-since memorized on the easiest ways to die.

That ambition of being a writer — that tantalizing dream — slid from my grasp until all my hopes for the future culminated in the wish that I would die before I reached twenty-two.

Once I began to see a therapist, the obtrusive feeling of a hot iron pressing on my brain began to subside. A few months into my new routine, I was placed on antidepressants and the fog became a thin mist.

I used to be deathly afraid of good things happening to me, paralyzed with the nagging worry that misfortune in the tenfold would occur as a result of my happiness. One day, I noticed myself having fun — no strings attached — and I took that as my first triumph.

Recovery was never — is never — linear, however. Somehow, as I got better, I felt that I was becoming a stranger to myself. The first stirrings of passion began once more in my gut, but amidst stories of Sylvia Plath, Virginia Woolf, and Kurt Cobain (all amazing artists, but people tend to romanticize their mental health struggles, similar to van Gogh), I wondered whether my writing became worse as I got better. The toxic perceptions of those in the creative industry — a field already undervalued and stigmatized– made me want to exploit myself, ignoring all the progress I had made to fill the ideals of the starving artist and the tortured artist.

But here’s the thing– here’s the thing I wished someone would tell me in the moments I felt myself spiraling down that rabbit hole. While creation can be an outlet for pain, the equation of suffering and beauty is flawed. I’ve already discussed my experiences — while at the mercy of my low days, I could barely bring myself to eat, much less craft an exquisite story. My best material — my only material — came on the good days. Those were the moments I felt most proud of myself for having the strength to allow for happiness. When I write about my pain, it is not to celebrate the beauty of it, but to celebrate the beauty of overcoming it. I am not a tortured artist. Those words contradict one another, cancel each other out. The artistic spirit withers in such conditions. I am undefined by my depression, undefined by my anxiety, tempered by the resilience, strength, and bravery it takes to move forward in the creative field. I am a conduit of worlds, creator of life. 

I’m now nineteen, two years older than I once hoped to live, and against all odds, I’m still alive. I’m nineteen and I’ve rediscovered a passion for writing, found a new reason to look to the future. I’m nineteen and I am an artist.