With the COVID-19 pandemic forcing most of the world to shut down, as well as uprisings against racial injustice seeking to end America’s long history of racialized violence, it seems unlikely that anyone would look around and decide to try something new. But that’s exactly what Asian & Pacific Islander American Studies and theatre professor Francis Tanglao Aguas is doing with his new virtual theatre company, Aguas Arts Ink.
The story of Aguas Arts Ink began in March when the College announced that students would not be returning to campus after spring break, and that Aguas had to transition to teaching his course “Sex & Race in Plays & Films” in a virtual format. His new pedagogical methods involved having his students read “Rolling the R’s,” an autobiographical play by R. Zamora Linmark about growing up in Hawaii, out loud over Zoom. Aguas first had the idea to try out virtual theatre when one of his students, Xavier Soto Burgos ’20, pointed out that the Zoom readings felt like watching the play live. Burgos, a New York City resident, was drawn to Linmark’s play by his feeling of connectedness to the source material.
“One of the biggest things that jumped out to me was that I found so many similarities in people growing up in Hawaii with kids from the Bronx in New York City,” Burgos said. “I thought that was amazing.”
Inspired by his students’ reactions, the idea of a global arts company began germinating in Aguas’ head.
“That really planted a seed in my head,” Aguas said. “My students’ reaction to “Rolling the R’s” in the spring of COVID germinated this idea of a global arts company.”
Aguas was also inspired by a desire to ensure that the performing arts did not become a victim of the pandemic.
“The more we marginalize the arts, the more we are cut off from these platforms of dialogue, communication and community.”
–Francis tanglao aguas
“The arts have always been a place not only of expression, but of communion and exchange,” Aguas said. “The more we marginalize the arts, the more we are cut off from these platforms of dialogue, communication and community.”
As spring became summer, Aguas worked closely with Linmark to cast a virtual production of “Rolling the R’s” featuring students as well as professional actors from San Francisco, Boston, Los Angeles, Honolulu, the Philippines, Washington, D.C. and Williamsburg. But as the production grew, Aguas realized he needed a stage manager. He reached out to Madison Hauser ‘19, with whom he had worked on William & Mary Theatre, Speech, and Dance’s 2019 production of the play “Our Lady of 121st Street” by Stephen Adly Guirgis. Hauser, who had just lost her job at a Florida theatre company because of the pandemic, was more than happy to get involved with theatre again.
“I’ve always seen theatre as a disruptive force, a platform which inserts itself into people’s lives and reflects what’s going on in the moment,” Hauser said.
When Aguas’s production of “Rolling the R’s” premiered as a Zoom livestream May 9, Aguas Arts Ink was born. The company truly embodies Hauser’s idea of theatre as a reflection of the moment.
“We produce the work of the minoritized and marginalized to create a space of dialogue, openness, acceptance, and solidarity,” the company states on the front page of their website. “We support writers and performers who believe in shining a light on hidden stories and silenced voices. It is our mission to educate the public on the value and crucial import of artists and their place and purpose for all.”
Since “Rolling the R’s,” the company has only grown. Aguas Arts Ink has put on four virtual productions since May, three of which were produced in conjunction with the 1455 Summer Literary Festival. The production team grew as well, with Aguas bringing on playwright Amanda L. Andrei ‘10 as a company producer. Margot Flanders ‘21, the treasurer of the William & Mary Theatre Students Association and president of the classical theatre troupe Shakespeare In The Dark, also joined Aguas Arts Ink this summer as a producing intern.
“We have ideas and are formulating things out for the next year,” Flanders said. “We have lots of plans in the works for different things, some of them are workshops, some of them are panels, some of them are shows.”
On Aug. 28, Aguas Arts Ink presented “Songs of Freedom: A Civil Rights Concert in Honor of Rep. John Lewis.” Tickets for the virtual concert were sold on a pay-what-you-can basis. It featured songs, monologues, spoken word poetry, interpretive dance, and many other performances that honored worldwide struggles for freedom. The cast included current and former students at the College as well as professional actors, professors, musicians and even the Commonwealth of Virginia’s new poet laureate, Luisa A. Igloria. Sumié Yotsukura ‘22, a member of the “Songs of Freedom” cast, is excited to see how theatre finds new ways to thrive in our new normal.
“In these times of crisis, theatre can stand up and say interesting and powerful things that can really provoke change.”
–Sumié Yotsukura ‘22
“In these times of crisis, theatre can stand up and say interesting and powerful things that can really provoke change,” Yotsukura said. “I think especially now, the ways that theatre performers are finding to still do theatre and still make art during the pandemic like Aguas Arts Ink are really crucial for continuing to keep spirits up and keep propelling the movement forward.”
Aguas sees the company, its performers, and the new works they cultivate as a necessary part of coming to terms with times of systemic change.
“The more threatened a society is, the more unstable, and the more flux we encounter, the more we need these spaces where people can be brave and safe at the same time,” Aguas said. “And that is what we seek to do at Aguas Arts Ink.”
As students search for new ways to adapt to the rapidly changing global landscape, the team of students, faculty and alumni behind Aguas Arts Ink continue to find new platforms for the minoritized and marginalized to make their voices heard.