Pangea World Theater opened its doors a quarter century ago in a plain office building at Lake & Lyndale. Since then, its mission has been clear: intertwining theater and social justice by uplifting the voices of diverse communities and artists and engaging the community around them.
The theater now has six programs that strive to involve surrounding communities. Writers and directors of diverse identities — people of color, women, immigrants and indigenous and LGBTQ artists — are encouraged to bring their vision onto the stage. Students are invited to attend matinee performances after which they can discuss what they watched with the actors. A “Lake Street Arts” program focuses on East African, Latinx and indigenous communities through “engagement and meditations on themes of home” and has included poetry, visual art, performances and the creation of a community mural.
Dipankar Mukherjee, the co-founder and artistic director of Pangea, emphasized its importance as a theatrical institution with racially diverse leadership. Mukherjee has been a theater administrator for about three decades, and he’s seen how the dynamics inside a theater’s leadership team can affect the work it produces.
“[At previous Twin Cities theaters,] all of my colleagues were white. The choice of literature was all white,” he said. “I didn’t [want to] just sit and complain about what regional theaters are not doing or what they should do.”
When he decided to begin Pangea, he was intentional about what the theater was called. He chose Pangea as a metaphor for togetherness — it’s the name of the unified landmass that existed before the continents drifted apart.
“We really consciously took that as a name because we wanted to see what genuine collaboration with the public looks like,” Mukherjee said. “It’s not like a ‘We Are the World’-type of togetherness, but a progressive, cutting-edge, radical coming together. Because we are not all the same. Yes, we can still work together where diversity is celebrated as a difference and not as a similarity.”
On Dec. 7 and 8, Pangea produced “Castles,” written and performed by Kat Purcell, a nonbinary artist whose main practice is experimental art. The performance was the result of Purcell’s residency at Pangea World Theater, in which artists are given the space, time and resources to produce their own shows.
The staff at Pangea works closely with the artists to help them achieve their vision through musical direction, set design, lighting, costumes and more. Purcell’s “Castles” included movement centered on the nettle and milkweed fibers they had used to decorate the set, as well as introspective dialogue on how being human intersects with connectedness.
This show was one of the many ways that Pangea World Theater hopes to shake the idea of traditional art making. Instead of reading Shakespeare during their auditions, actors are asked to tell a story about their families. Ticket prices are kept low, and many of Pangea’s shows include a pay-what-you-can day. Rehearsals begin with two minutes of silence for mindfulness.
Pangea’s next show, “Sueño,” scheduled to run in March, is an adaptation from playwright José Rivera. It follows the story of Prince Segismundo, who will take over the Spanish crown once he is released from prison. Meena Natarajan, the executive/literary director of Pangea World Theater, said she believes the 17th century play, which tells the story of a conflict between three villains, is resonant in today’s turbulent political climate. “We really love the energy of it,” she said.
In celebration of its 25th year, Pangea’s theme for its 2019-20 season is “Re-Cognizing Our Pluriverse.” The idea of a “pluriverse” signals Pangea’s intention to create shows and programming where the artists and the audiences are interconnected rather than two distinct groups.
“We are all practicing artists, and that’s why we created Pangea,” Mukherjee said. “We’ve got genuine core belief that the future lies in collaborative politics, where you and I can collaborate, and I can participate in solidarity with you, even when you’re talking about your politics. We will stand in solidarity.”