A conversation with Tim Smith Stewart Feb 9, 2017

by NKO Rey

I confess I like meeting new people though I’m socially awkward and shy. Talking with Tim Smith-Stewart it becomes apparent almost immediately that he’s smart, but not pushy about his knowledge. His natural ability to facilitate shared space made the conversation easy, and he revealed himself as a moral and thorough thinker. Our conversation at the BASE studio in Georgetown led us down many paths; the value of political gestures in the surveillance state, establishing an inherent sense of personal worth not tied to production, systemic oppression in social response to problems like addiction and homelessness, the dehumanizing effect of capital, the value of recognizing and sharing alternative histories, alienation of social media, and the danger inherent in engaging with the non-profit industrial complex.

& I’m like, Tim’s REAL smart...

Also well read. It was a pleasure to talk for a couple of hours about an ideological analysis of our current dystopian political state. I’m excited for Awaiting Oblivion, in which he and his co-creator Jeffrey Azevedo blend real and fictive actions and narrative in real and imagined spaces. In the process, they ask a lot of questions about hope, hopelessness, oppression, and our current social landscape.

As American artists, it is impossible to ignore the false binary which assumes you are not a “real” artist if you work a real job. It’s also true that making work that’s subversive, deals with systemic and institutional forms of oppression, and questions commodification doesn’t usually buy lunch, let alone pay rent. Watching artists cope with philosophical questions that resist the dominant ideology helps us understand the ethos of their creative work; observing how these questions influence their creative methodology, real-world relationships and life provides a more complex picture of artists in society today.

Tim shares creative vision and control with Jeffrey Azevedo (a longtime friend and collaborator for the last 5 years) and esteemed collaborators - Estee Clifford, Alice Gosti, Alex Harding, Lauren Hester, Alyza DelPan-Monley, Tristan Roberson, Salo, and Skylar Tatro. The team works by creating an anti-oppressive hierarchical model - a consensual hierarchy - which dissolves outside the rehearsal room. This model facilitates improvisation and allows vulnerability without defensiveness; each voice is valuable. He describes this process as a conversation between people seeking a shared truth in a political form opposed to conflict as meaning. In short, allowing individuals autonomy in working together to solve problems and create temporary solutions. He simultaneously acknowledges the difficulty in leading or directing a project that emphasizes dissolution of power and hierarchical roles. The tension of this relationship - the power of the director to shape vision versus the collective voice of collaboration often leads to dynamic, powerful and engaged work.

This informs Tim’s daily practice of creating space to hold hopelessness. His “real” job, dealing daily with homeless youth through community outreach, requires a realistic approach which allows room for despair. Naming oppressive systems allows disenfranchised people voice, giving them power to create boundaries and hold space for hope.

Tim easily discusses space - theatrical, personal, social, imaginative. His formal training as a theater maker, his awareness of the history and scope of the form, allows him to engage critically with materiality, narrative arc, and dramaturgy. But I get the sense that the center of his creative drive is a deep sense of empathy. A desire to ask questions about systemic oppression frames his creative methodology and puts him on the road walked by Brecht, Chris Kraus, Claude Cahun and driven by Thelma & Louise.

I admit I’m biased toward work and people who address these issues - some of my favorite collaborators (DK Pan, Ryan Mitchell, Pol Rosenthal, No Touching Ground) have strong moral compasses and work actively to realize systemic change - through art, dialogue and direct action. I’m excited to see what this young buck has in store for On the Boards.