c/o Gemmarosa Ryan, Contributing Photographer

c/o Gemmarosa Ryan, Contributing Photographer

Whether she’s leading tours for prospective students, creating her theater thesis, or blazing new trails for artistic students of color through the SHADES theater collective, Isabel Algrant ’21 is an integral force within the Wesleyan community. Even over Zoom, it was clear to The Argus that Algrant is a creative powerhouse.

The Argus: How are you doing? Are you on campus? How’s your semester going so far?

Isabel Algrant: Yeah, I am on campus, which has been very nice in its own weird way. It’s been a stressful week but normally things have been going pretty fine on campus, midterms and all, but such is life.

A: What are you majoring in and how did you decide that?

IA: I’m a government and theater double major. I like to say that I came to campus—also I apologize, I’m a tour guide, so everything I say sounds super rehearsed—knowing what I wanted to do but not knowing what it was called and then I sort of stumbled into the government department and really fell in love with it. That being said, I knew I wanted to do theater. I wasn’t sure if I wanted to major in it, but as the way things happen on this campus, you take a couple of classes and all of a sudden you’re in too deep. So I ended up three credits into the theater major by the end of my freshman year and I was like, I’m not gonna back out now. And I really fell in love with the people and the program.

With the government major, I was on WesMaps before my freshman year and I saw a class called “Democracy and Dictatorship.” I
thought it sounded really awesome. I don’t even think I read the course description. I was like, I don’t care, I’m taking it. I ended up in it the first semester of my freshman year, absolutely fell in love, head over heels, and so I ended up being a government ma-
jor. It was pretty set from right then.

Looking back on it, I really knew that I cared about government and policy and constitutions and making the world a better place through governing bodies and systems, but I didn’t know what that was called. And then when I came and took one class, I was
like, “oh, this is the kind of thing I want to be doing and studying and learning about in my time at college.” Pretty obvious, at the end of the day, what I was doing. I’ve loved it ever since.

A: Are you more interested in the technical aspect of theater or acting and being on stage?

IA: I’m not much of an actress. I do mainly stage management—I’ve done a lot of stage management on this campus. If you’re in theater circles, I’m kind of known as THE stage manager on campus these days. That being said, I’ve done other things sort of on the technical side. I’ve taken acting classes, but most of my performance qualities manifest in being a tour guide and being a course advisor and talking to people on the daily. I don’t do a lot of acting.

A: What has your experiences at SHADES theater collective been like?

IA: I absolutely love the SHADES theater collective. I got involved with it freshman year. By October I was on the SHADES board, which was a pretty crazy experience. The thing about SHADES was, I walked into it in a period where they were transitioning from being very angry with Second Stage to being more open to sort of facilitating, working together, and creating diversity in theater. I obviously had just shown up to campus. I didn’t know that there was an issue with diversity in theater, but I started to understand.

Through that is how I grew into being a theater-maker on this campus who wanted to work specifically with shows that were attempting to create diversity. I sort of worked my way up through SHADES, I took on a lot of mentees through the SHADES pro-
gram. I worked on the first SHADES show in the ‘92, which…happened my first year on campus. After that, we just kept producing and pumping out different kinds of student work, trying to have lots of fun activities.

Last year was kind of a rough year for us. It was hard to really get ourselves together and collect. But this year we really took the pandemic and the shakeup in theater on campus to be a sign that it was time for us to come back in a big way. So me and Luna [Dragon Mac-Williams ’22] and Esme [Ng ’22], two absolutely incredible people who are going to do an incredible job with SHADES next year, the three of us really took time in April and May to sit down and say like, “Ok, we’re in charge now—what are we going to do?”

We restructured all of SHADES, decided to start trying to do an event every week or every other week to the extent we can. We instituted regular meetings. We actually did a summer series, which was all about trying to bring in theater-makers of color. We
did an anti-racism in theater training. We decided to just fill a lot of voids that exist in our theater community here, which is that we just don’t, as much as we talk about diversity, we don’t actually put in the work and the hours and the time that we all sort of wish that we could. It’s more than just doing shows by playwrights of color. It’s more than just doing shows designated for actors of color. It is really about getting the involvement and interest. I don’t think Second Stage, or SHADES for that matter, has ever
been good at outreach and convincing people that theater is a space for them.

Our new mission, certainly this year, between SHADES and my thesis, the Braided Project, are really all about trying to show people that theater can be a space for them, and theater on this campus can be a space for them. So that’s really been my experience with SHADES and the work I’m hoping to be able to do more of this year before I graduate, and hopefully, sow some of the seeds of a more diverse theater community for the future once I’m gone.

A: You mentioned your thesis. Can you tell me more about what that is and what you’re doing with it?

IA: Absolutely, I was so hoping you’d ask. As part of the theater major, you have the opportunity to do a thesis. I worked really really hard to be able to qualify for mine. To be perfectly honest, the theater department puts you through the wringer before they
let you do a thesis, and I went through it.

That being said, in my sophomore year I fell in love with “Othello” by William Shakespeare. I come from a mixed-race family—my mom is black and my dad is Jewish—so stories about interracial relationships have also held a special place in my heart. Often, the thing I notice about them is that they’re so frequently tragedies. It was so funny to me because my family is one of the happiest, most functional I know, so I’m very lucky for that. That being said, Othello is a play about a Black soldier, who by virtue of being in this all-white society, doesn’t believe that this woman who so deeply loves him, could actually love him for who he is. And I thought that that was such a beautiful, modern, and relevant way to talk about race isolation and what the power of internalized racism and code-switching really are. I have always loved Shakespeare, and I wanted to be able to direct something by Shakespeare, and when I found this play I kind of knew that it was what I wanted to do. As part of the final for that class, I wrote about it in conjunction with an opera that Toni Morrison wrote called “Desdemona,” that’s a follow- up to Othello. I love Toni Morrison, it was absolutely beautiful work and a combination [of ] Toni Morrison and Shakespeare that felt so culturally rel-
evant to me and who I was and what I loved.

I started this thing called the Braided Project. It started with me wanting to weave together these two texts and I was talking to my mom about these two texts and she said ‘Well you know I never heard Toni Morrison talk about weaving but she does talk about braiding hair.’ And in the Black community, and I’m sure in other communities, the act of braiding hair and doing each others’ hair is such a huge part of who we are, out of necessity but also it’s a beautiful cultural thing and something I did with my mom when I was a kid… So then all of a sudden I had these three voices: I had Toni Morrison, I had Shakespeare, and I had my own. And so here were these strands that I could then braid into something. That was sort of the birth of this idea of the Braided Project.

I went to the theater department and I was like ‘I want to tell these stories and I want to tell them with a predominantly white cast but with a team that is comprised of students of color, of first-generation, low-income students, students from wherever I can find people from every background.’ I wanted a deeply diverse team so that we could have all of those stories involved in this process. The braiding of these stories is only really possible when you have the most to take from… Othello is a very complicated story. It is the story of a black man killing his white wife, and that comes with a lot of historical baggage. And if you don’t really scaffold it, if you don’t really tell people what you’re trying to say before you do it, it can be incredibly harmful. So this project is not meant to do that, this project is meant to really show people—in a moment that we’re really talking about race—what does it mean to be Black in this world? But also, allowing not just the play I really love to speak for it, but allowing other artists and other storytellers and other people, and especially people of color and Black people, to be involved in the creation of that story and be involved in the process of it.

Not only is the Braided Project a production but it is a space to start conversations. Everyone who wants to be involved can, should, and will be involved in this process. We will find space. There’s going to be education initiatives and public speaking workshops and times where we host tough conversations and storytelling spaces for people who want to talk or learn about people from different backgrounds. I like to talk about it as exposing the skeleton of the theater-making process. It’s not just seeing a beautiful final product at the end but seeing all the work we put in and our team put in to get there, and the conversations we had to have in order to do that. And bringing the skills that we learn from doing that to not only our campus community but the larger Middletown community as a whole. We’ve been emailing different community organizations and schools and things like that to see if we can facilitate these conversations not only on our campus but far beyond it. This is a moment where we all need to be doing our part and we all need to be thinking about how we can learn about each other. And that means education, it means status, it means race, it means gender, it means sexuality, it means all of those things. As many voices as can be involved and can talk to each other about things, that’s what we’re trying to do with this project. I’m calling it radical inclusivity.

A: Is there anything else you want to say about your experience at Wes, or any advice to students who have similar interests as you?

IA: Wesleyan is a really great place to find yourself or what you’re looking for or people to talk about it with. I’m always somebody who wished I jumped into it sooner. I really was a much more hesitant person when I came to Wesleyan than I am now, certainly. I would not have been doing this four years ago or three years ago. Always reach out to people and talk to people. Heck, reach out to me. I want to talk to you more than anything in the world. Take chances, do something surprising for yourself, this is really a place to learn and grow and there are not a lot of places in the world that are going to throw resources at you to just figure stuff
out and try new things. It’s what I’m really trying to take advantage of while I get the opportunity to and to still be here. This project is something that I am absolutely obsessed with and in love with right now but the beauty of it is is that this is my first step. If I have my way, this is not the end of this project on this campus, in the world, in the work that I’m doing with my life. And found it because I met a lot of really incredible people through SHADES, through Wesleyan, through the theater department, through the government department, and they gave me those tools to be able to talk and do those things. Take advantage of all those things. I don’t think anyone knows how they’re going to find their passion or their place but I am so surprised that this is mine.

But it makesa lot of sense…. If there’s anything to say about my Wesleyan experience, it is imperfect but it is probably the best place I could think of being. I think this place has put a lot of things in perspective for a lot of people and the fact that this it the place I really wanted to come home to and be in at this time has really taught me how much I just love being here and the energy of being here with these people who are so creative and smart and engaged. I felt so inspired just being on this campus in a way that I haven’t been since I left in March….This is the kind of place that highlights and loves people that are trying new things and doing things that are out of the box and creative. And that’s a really lucky and incred- ible space to be a part of. Complain all you want, you absolutely should, but take advantage of it while it’s here because I certainly am someone
who is so much better for having gotten to be here.

People should talk to me. That is the last thing that I really want to say is that… I just want to be an accessible person and people should just email me…I am always consistently talking and thank you for giving me space to do that.

 

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Hannah Docter-Loeb can be reached at hdocterloeb@wesleyan.edu

Isabel Hoffman can be reached at ihoffman01@wesleyan.edu.

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