Salima Seale, 28, is a freelance stage manager who grew up in a mixed, multicultural community in Maryland and now works in the Twin Cities (Minneapolis St. Paul, Minn.) area. “I love theater,” she says, “because it is a chance for adults to play.”
As a high-schooler attending a small Muslim school in Maryland, she had to take an elective and wound up with a theater class that inspired her. Her context for theater was Shakespeare, so she was surprised when the teacher challenged the class to tell their own stories: “We’re gonna make a play,” she says the teacher told them. “You guys are going to write stories. You’re going to make skits. You’re going to tell me about your lives and your day, and we’re going to make a play about you all.” As a young Black woman who did not see herself widely represented in stories, she says, “That kind of got me out of my shell. It got me thinking that I could tell stories that were relevant to me.”
It is essential, says Seale, that people have a chance to see theater that represents them and their experiences. “As a young Muslim woman, in the time that it was, in particular, there was nothing, so I wasn’t seeing people who had experiences anything like mine.
“It was really cool. I think it was necessary for me to start to understand some of my worth, that I had stories to tell, that my story also could fit in the larger world and wasn’t just for my community.”
She remembers a formative experience of going to see “The Hijabi Monologues,” a Muslim interpretation of Eve Ensler’s “Vagina Monologues” at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C., as a young person: “I was like, ‘What?’ I just remember the fact that I was watching Muslim women in a thing called “The Vagina Monologues,” but then like talking about like vaginas and sexuality was like, ‘Yes, we’re not these one dimensional, you know, people.’ ”
She studied her craft as a theater major at Macalester College, focusing on acting. But she realized she liked being backstage more than auditioning and being on stage. She was part of the Summer Institute—a three-year leadership development program training young artists—at the historic, Black-led Penumbra Theatre in St. Paul, Minn. She started working backstage at the Penumbra and Stages Theatre Company and her career started going.
Penumbra, Minnesota’s only professional African American theater, and one of only three professional African American theaters in the nation to offer a full season of performances, had a big impact on her.
“I still remember the feeling of going to see the first play I saw there. And realizing like this whole building is just dedicated to Black people on stage. That’s great,” she says. “I think it’s very important for people to see ourselves. I also think it’s important for us to see ourselves living our lives on stage and being in situations that are true to our everyday lives. So, for some people that is being the only Black person in a space. But in particular, you know, seeing Black families, seeing Black friendships, Black love, all those things on stage. I think it’s essential.”
Even at Penumbra, it was a hard awakening to realize how few people of color there were working backstage. “That experience, to start off, was disappointing. I will not lie to you.” That has been true throughout her career.
“I am usually, all but a few times, the only Black person, or brown person even, backstage,” she says.
Her work is primarily to keep everyone on the production safe and to facilitate the storytelling of the theater. “My job is really just to be eyes—to look, to watch and to care for the people involved in the project. So I’d like to think that it comes out of a place of care for the people involved, primarily, and then for the story being told.”
There is not a lot of money in stage managing. She remembers looking for internships out of school and most were long hours, late nights, and mostly unpaid. Many people just cannot stay in theater work financially. “I know there’s a lot of people who aren’t able to continue in this work,” she says. “They may like it in college, study it in college, but afterwards, it’s like, ‘Well, I gotta make money. So, I can’t afford to play anymore.’” For her, she had to balance her priorities of making a living and making what she calls “weird art.”
In the Twin Cities, she sees a vibrant theater scene where there are creative communities that are working to be more diverse. But still, there are not enough people of color working in the theater field, so some professionals are overworked.
The most meaningful part of the work are the relationships with her collaborators. “I get to work with amazingly creative and different exciting people every day,” she says. “And I get to be with them and assist them in creating and having fun.”
“I think one of my proudest moments was a production called “The Red Shoes” (at the) Open Eye Theater. I was the stage manager. And it is one of the oddest, funkiest shows I’ve ever worked on. But it was, I just loved it. It was beautiful. The process was fantastic. There was such artistry involved, so many amazing artists just coming together, and making and tinkering up until the very last minute. And I ran lights and sound for the show,” she says. “I can’t say it went phenomenally, but it’s definitely my proudest moment at the end of that show—when it finally closed—and I felt like I had mastered those cues.”
Scripting by Julianna Olsen; Edited by Ryan Stopera.
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