Courageous, community-minded, gorgeous, and smart as hell, Amanda McRaven is a powerhouse. She embodies the bust-through-your-fears guts and enterprise that define the folks featured in my Rebel Beauty Project.
A holder of an MA in Community-based theater, an MFA in Directing, as well as a BA in English and Drama, Amanda brings her social justice sensibilities to her work as a director, educator, writer, and collaborative theater creator. A Fulbright Award recipient, her dedication to collaborative and socially-conscious performance is apparent in all the work she does, including teaching Performance Studies at California State University, Northridge, creating works with her theater company, Fugitive Kind, and serving passionately as the founding member and Executive Producer of the LA Lady Arm Wrestlers (LA LAW).
I met Amanda in 2015 though Facebook (yes, good things can happen on FB)! I was researching local feminist-based groups in LA for which to offer my photography services as a give back, and I landed on an event for an LA LAW bout at Brokechella. As a feminist artist and activist, the trifecta of LA LAW’s fundraising, feminist, and social-justice mission instantly aligned, and I happily discovered that the Brokechella shoot served as my initiation into the larger LA LAW family.
Framed as volunteer-based, synergetic performance ensemble, LA LAW reads as a democratic collective steeped in post-structuralist feminisms: think a wild, unapologetic, egalitarian, inclusive mashup of Intersectional Feminism, Queer Theory, and ensemble theater modalities in the service of fundraising for local nonprofits and providing audiences with top shelf comedic, physical performance theater. It is brilliant. It is super positive. It mirrors the personal philosophy Amanda draws on for all her endeavors.
Read on to discover what fuels this Rebel Beauty.
Tell me a little about LA LAW—what drew you to founding the Los Angeles Lady Arm Wrestlers?
LA LAW was a love note to my hometown of Charlottesville (Virginia), where the movement started. When I moved to LA, I wanted to bring that piece of home with me. And I had known Jess at Bootleg for many years and knew it would be the perfect home for it. So I pitched it, and here we are 5 years later, having raised over $30,000 for our community.
Considering the incredible amount of work that goes into LA LAW, what keeps you coming back—what makes it all worth it for you?
Oh wow. Every single event I have a moment where I am looking out over the crowd, and I am seeing everyone buzzing and exuberant and absolutely alive and astonished and it overwhelms me. I stand there for a few moments in bliss, just letting all that joy in and marveling what it is. I still don’t know. I think it’s a combination of so many different kinds of liveness that people are hungry for. And the community. I spend my life creating community through art. That will always always keep me coming back.
What drew you to the performing arts? What is one major element that keeps you excited about creating?
I have been performing since I was 12, when I signed up for Musical Drama Class on a whim and got cast as Annie in Annie Get Your Gun. I haven’t stopped since then. Performance is the one kind of creativity that is a live exchange between strangers: creators and witnesses. That liveness is my lifeblood.
As a founding member of Fugitive Kind, what are some of the inspiring and also challenging aspects of creating and developing a theater company?
As an Artistic Director of a tight ensemble, you are the head of a family. The inspiring aspects are also the challenging ones: understanding where all the hearts are in the room on a given day and leading them to create powerfully together by first being human together. It’s a lot of work to keep us all together in a healthy and rich way, but it’s so important. I have worked with many of them for over ten years now and it is a magnificent journey to know each other so well. The challenge, too, is to not get myopic. To always consider, “can this story intrigue an audience of people we don’t know or are we just making ourselves happy”?
I imagine that sustainability is a challenge. What do you want people to know about the importance of theater, in general, and especially in a town like Los Angeles?
That it’s a fantastic place to make theater—lots of heart and love. Actors are hungry for physical, live, ensemble work. They spend much of their lives doing commercial work, so we have this vast landscape of theatrical talent that is quite remarkable when you tap into it.
You mentioned that yoga, meditation, and mindfulness inform your teaching and directing modalities. Tell me what you draw from these practices?
Mindfulness is EVERYTHING. I have heard it described as the pause before acting. In that pause are vast stories and the opportunity to speak kindly and honestly. Being an educator and a director is about getting the very best out of your team. It’s also about being fully and authentically present in the room. So directing is absolutely a mindful practice.
Share a little about the specific work you do with refugees, veterans, and formerly incarcerated women. What is important to you about this work—why these voices?
Live performance has the great gift of literally being able to give voice to the voiceless. When you are raised up in the theater and you have a sense of social justice, community-based work becomes necessary. It’s how artists build houses and save lives. My work with communities to tell their own stories to heal, to celebrate, to protest, to learn to speak has been the most formative work of my life. I have a t-shirt that says We Will Save The World With The Stories We Tell. And we will. The only thing that will save us now is listening and hearing each other. We save the world at the community level, not with who we vote for for president. We save the world one act at a time. Community-based theater is my way of acting.
As a professor of Performance Studies, part of your focus is on the application of performance theory to social change. In what ways do you feel performance art/theater can participate in larger social justice narratives and movements? Is it just about staging resistance narratives?
Staging resistance narratives is a huge aspect of it. We see it happening now, in our current political climate, nearly every day. People showing up in pink pussy hats or standing in solidarity with Charlottesville. Performance has the power of VISIBILITY. Humans are compelled by image. Performance allows us to change the image. Taking a knee on a football Sunday will never be forgotten. We stage resistance for a long time, and one person is brave enough to do it on a national stage where we can’t look away and then the NFL does it. And then change happens. But it starts with one strong performance of belief, with changing the story so powerfully that it sticks.
When working on my MA in English, I wrote papers on feminist characters in Shakespeare. Considering your extensive experience working with Shakespeare as an actor and director and your passion for creating feminist, socially conscious theater, tell me how you feel the works of Shakespeare you have presented with Fugitive Kind align with this passion.
Feminist and queer approaches to Shakespeare are absolutely vital. We have a history of holding plays like Hamlet up as masterworks of human nature, but if you look at it, it’s not that—it’s the story of a man lost as to how to fulfill masculine social constructs.
Many of Shakespeare’s plays are in that world. But even so, he was someone who wrote females characters with such love and sometimes astonishing clarity. Like Tennessee Williams, he was pushing against the structures of his time as far as he could. I believe in confronting those structures head on and exploding them. What are we saying if we leave endings like Twelfth Night (or any of the comedies really) intact? Every single one reinforces a heteronormative dynamic that, frankly, I am tired of. What if these stories were told by women or gender non-conforming folks? Not women playing men, but women being women? I don’t at all think that every production has to do that, but it is something that I, as an artist at this stage in her career, must do.
I am no longer ashamed to make feminist theater and to call it that. I was a fierce fighting angry little feminist in undergrad, then mellowed because I was told to, and I learned to make theater and to break all the rules and make big luscious physical bold plays, but I wasn’t brave with what I did with gender. I was participating in telling the same stories, just in a cool form. Now, I fight to tell love stories between all kinds of people because love stories happen between all kinds of people. I fight to foreground women’s experiences.
Any final thoughts you would like to share with readers?
I am so honored to be part of the Rebel Beauty Project. When you are a woman who walks through the world in this body, the times are astonishingly rare that you are told that you are objectively beautiful and worthy of being in a camera lens. This is a powerful project. On the outside I am soft and fleshy, on the inside strong lines and edges. When I saw the photos we did together, I saw the me that I always am on the inside, but never get to see. It is a remarkable thing. Thank you.