A GLORIOUS COLLISION OF IDEAS by Elaine Durbach
The SouthNEXT Festival celebrates different views.
Right up there in Angela Kariotis’s website title you can see her aim: angelakaRIOTis.com. No destruction here, just up-front, fearless fighting spirit. The poet-performer-teacher actively pursues civil disorder, as in being civil while smashing preconceptions. And that is why the organizers of this year’s SouthNEXT Festival were so eager to have her as their keynote speaker.
“We’re talking about constructive collision,” explains Stephen Schnall, the South Orange Trustee who is the founder and producer of the annual two-day extravaganza. “It’s not about screaming and yelling, or provocation for the sake of provocation. It’s about keeping our hearts open.”
The weekend of October 19 and 20 will be the fifth iteration. As in previous years, participants – “audience” is too passive a word – will have 12 different events to attend, ranging from talks and music to acting performances and participatory art projects. And for the first time there will be a Saturday night “SOMA has Crazy Talent” show, offering the reward of “pride and prizes, with celebrity emcees and judges,” according to the program.
Back in 2014, Schnall says, South Orange’s leaders decided they wanted to draw attention to the community’s rich cultural diversity. There was also a desire to build the relationship with Seton Hall University, to make more of the town-and-gown relationship. The response from the university was quick and concrete – in financial terms and talent.
Adding a third dimension, RWJ Barnabas Health also stepped up as a sponsor and has stayed involved.
Women have played a major role all along, and this year even more so. Three of the main presenters happen to be women: Caren Martineau, who is kicking off the program on Saturday with a shake-up on how we deal with mortality; Kariotis as keynote speaker on Sunday, and legendary farm-worker organizer Dolores Huerta as the headliner later that day. Schnall said this selection wasn't about gender, but rather a circumstance that they welcomed – that there were such extraordinary women available.
Given the range of offerings, coming up with an umbrella theme has been a challenge. Last year, preparing his opening address, Schnall recalls he struggled to find a way to weave together the multiple notions of mindfulness, engagement, technology, and inspiration – and then, “In the shower, it came to me – TIME. That’s what it’s all about, in a way.”
This year, with the various issues escalating, social responsibility is uppermost. And this is where Angela Kariotis comes in. As a professor in the College of Communications and the Arts at Seton Hall, known for her dynamic, engaging style, she was a natural choice, but it was her particular expertise as an “applied and devised theater facilitator” that earned her the prime-time slot.
The description of her SouthNEXT presentation reads: “Fighting for instead of fighting against. Calling in instead of calling out. Using the applied and devised theater tools from her classroom at Seton Hall, Angela Kariotis will lead SouthNEXT participants in a series of exercises intended to build community, guide urgent conversation, and in the face of seemingly overwhelming current events, encourage a vision that allows for collective joy as the greatest act of resistance. We instead of I.”
In addition to her work with students, Kariotis has run a series of Walking the Beat programs bringing together police and high schoolers in Elizabeth, using theater to build understanding between them in the hope of averting violence. The success of those sessions provided the model for a program she and her partner ran this past summer with the Los Angeles Police Department.
“Everyone loves to be heard,” she says. Urging people, even those who’ve suffered trauma, to open up about themselves can be tough, but the process, she insists, is “fun and joyful and deep and urgent.”
Kariotis grew up in Irvington, passionate from the start about collaborative creativity. “I loved to write, but I was surrounded by people who were into art and music and dancing,” she explains. “It came naturally to work with all the amazing work they were doing.” The daughter of Greek immigrants, she was aware of the challenges facing newcomers and working people, a sensitivity fostered by her chief champion, her older brother Hercules.
Now a single mother of two daughters, she handles a packed schedule closely meshed with family, friends, students, and co-creatives, drawing on all that to tell her own story – and to inspire others to tell theirs.
“You’re not being asked to give up your own values," she said. "It’s not about meeting someone halfway when you don’t agree with them. It’s about sharing where you’re coming from, how you came by your values – and hearing that from others. It’s about reaching ‘yes, and’ – not ‘yes, but.’”
Dolores Huerta works in a very different way from Kariotis, but deeply related to it. The 89-year-old former teacher has been championing the cause of downtrodden people – specifically farm workers, and poor women and children – since she was in her 20s. In 1962 she cofounded the National Farm Workers Association along with Cesar Chavez, and she has never slowed down.
Still vibrant and just as passionate, she has been quoted as saying, “Every moment is an organizing opportunity, every person a potential activist, every minute a chance to change the world.” Like Kariotis, she confronts the need for change while also demanding a sort of kindness towards oneself and others. “If you haven’t forgiven yourself something, how can you forgive others?” she has asked.
She will be interviewed by broadcaster Alicia Menendez, another woman of power. After graduating from Harvard, Menendez became a broadcaster and writer, and is currently a correspondent on the PBS show Amanpour & Company and hosts the podcast Latina to Latina, among other roles. As the daughter of New Jersey Senator Robert Menendez, she has been steeped in politics her whole life, which guarantees the exchange with Huerta will have depth and breadth.
Schnall is delighted by all this. As a certified compliance and ethics professional, he spent 30 years dealing with the interface between business and technology before retiring in 2011 so that he could devote his time to nonprofit work, and producing Broadway-bound shows. A trustee and a board member for the South Orange Village Alliance, he has been involved in a range of local cultural, recreational and financial projects. And all of that feeds into his passion for the SouthNEXT Festival.
While the themes have varied from year to year, what has stayed constant, he says, is the way it draws in participants, both as audience members and organizers. Around 25 people have helped run the array of events; last year 20 of those were either students or faculty members from Seton Hall. This year again, there is an invitation to the public to join that team.
The idea, Schnall says, is to foster “hope in a time of anxiety” and further strengthen our confidence in the marriage of technology and mindfulness, and that confronting opposing ideas can be productive.
As serious as the challenge is, the results can also be hugely enjoyable. “It’s like putting together peanut butter and chocolate,” he declared with a big grin. It’s what he wants South Orange community to be known for – not that food, but the cultural promise of interaction that is fun, enriching and supportive.
Elaine Durbach, a writer and editor based in Maplewood, has just published her first novel, Roundabout, about the long and passionate connection between two very different people.