Redefining Success with Carla Stillwell

Carla Stillwell: The Western model of theatre is not suitable for this time. The evolution of theatre is more toward indigenous storytelling, traditional storytelling, African-centered storytelling. Most cultures of color feel the same way about theatre in the round, performance in space, with spectators, not an audience, but with gatherings of community, and I think that is where theatre must go, or she will die, because this world, we are no longer…

We are too tender. We’re a little too delicate now. Too much has happened. We’ve lost too many people. We need that feeling of community and sharing everywhere we go. So much distance was created. That pandemic changed the world. There’s a whole different way that we have to deal with each other. We need to be softer with each other. And Western theatre is cold and it has hard edges, and it’s not soft, and it’s not meant to include people.

Yura Sapi: You are listening to Building Our Own Tables, a podcast produced for HowlRound Theatre Commons, a free and open platform for theatremakers worldwide. I’m your host, Yura Sapi, and I’m the founder of various organizations and projects, including a 501(c)(3) non-profit, a six-hectare farm and a food sovereignty project, and LGBTQ+ healing and art space, and I’ve helped numerous creatives, leaders and other founders unleash their excellence into the world, through my programs, workshops and coaching services.

In this podcast, I’m showcasing the high vibration solutions for you as a visionary leader to implement into your own practice and thrive. Stay tuned this season to hear from other founders who have built their own tables for their communities and for the world, in this evolutionary time on earth. You are here for a reason and I am so honored and grateful to support you on your journey. So stay tuned and enjoy.

Have you ever felt stuck in the idea that making theatre or being an artist won’t bring you financial success? Have you ever felt stuck in the starving artist trope? Well, if so, this is the episode for you. I sat down with Carla Stillwell, founder of The Stillwell Institute for Contemporary Black Art. This organization provides resources and support for emerging Black artists, teaching art making across genres, teaching trauma-informed art practices, and introducing art making as a vocation.

Carla shares her inspiring story, with beautiful quotes from her mother and that support of an entire ancestral lineage. We dive into topics like tips for starting a new kind of project you’ve never done before, what the evolving theatre industry is asking of us in this time, and ways to get over this scarcity mindset of economic freedom as a theatre artist. So check out this inspiring episode. Get to know Carla Stillwell. And get your notebook because this is a moment to take notes. Enjoy.

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Welcome to the podcast, Carla. It’s so good to be with you.

Carla: Thank you. Thanks for having me.

Yura: I love to start off asking, if you were a superhero, what would your origin story be? What is that pivotal moment that really led you to forge your own path and build your own table?

Carla: It all started when I started acting. Quick story: I’m nine years old. It was time for the Christmas play in the fourth grade. My teacher hated me and I hated her. The feeling was mutual, because I thought I was smarter than her, and I probably was. But anyway, I had a speaking part and she took my role from me and gave it to Margaret Brown. She told me to step out of class. They voted me out of my role. I was devastated because I had a speaking role in all the plays since kindergarten. I was devastated. It was like Christmas Around The World or something, and they gave me the role of Santa Lucia.

So her costume, she was supposed to be wearing white and have a wreath of candles on her head. My mother was a seamstress and a painter. So I went home and I told my mommy, I was like, “She took my role. I’m devastated.” So my mother was like, “Oh, she did.” So my mother… I had just had communion, so I had this beautiful white communion dress. And my mother made a wreath and sewed the candles in it. And so we go to the show day of the performance, and my mother grabs me, and this is when people could still smoke inside, but she was a smoker, she grabs me and she pulls out her lighter and she goes, “Wait a minute.” My mother lights the candles and pushes me on stage. And I walked out. And there was a gasp from the audience. I had flames. And my mother had been making me walk with a book on my head for years, so I was very straight and I floated across with my flames. And I went back and my mother blew my candles out, and I was like, this is my life.

It was the high drama. I was like this. So I begged my mother to put me in drama the next year, and she did, and that’s when I started my theatrical career. And just over time, I was a little plus sized Black girl in theatre, so I never belonged. I never had a place. I always had to make my place in this business, especially when I was acting.

And then fast forward to my mother passing when I was twenty-six, I got small. I didn’t want to be seen, so I started stage managing. And that was short lived because I hated every minute of that. What I learned about myself was that I’m a thirty-thousand foot thinker. I was never comfortable just taking direction and doing what other people wanted done, especially when I know you’re not doing it right. Because at that point, I had been in theatre longer than anybody who I’d been to college with, worked with. So I was like, I want to write, maybe that’s what it is. So I started writing plays. That’s when I wrote my first plays. And then I was like, I love this, but I also just think I need to direct. So I started directing, and that works for my personality. I was like, okay, I can do this thing.

But then, the whole time, it was trying to skirt racism and misogyny. So I was doing that slalom. And then at some point in 2018, I woke up after my second sister had passed, I’d lost two sisters at this point. And a month after my second sister passed, I was like, I don’t want to do any of this anymore. I want to make a space that’s bigger than me, and that’s bigger than theatre for Black artists because art is a human right, not something that is just for privileged white people. It is a human right. When we’re all done, when we’re all dust, the only thing that’s left is the art that was created. That’s why we know what has happened in the past, because of the art, the literature. So I decided to develop The Stillwell Institute for Contemporary Black Art to help find funding and support for Black artists across genres to create. So this is my story. That’s all and now I’m here.

Yura: That’s incredible. Congratulations and thank you for all you’re doing. I definitely resonate with that aspect of wanting to expand even beyond theatre. And also, it is a decolonization too for me in terms of what is theatre, what gets to be counted as this type of very specific storytelling, with the current very European understanding of its origin, when we can actually trace it back to many other different cultures and ceremonies and events that are really representative of this same type of storytelling, so I really resonate with that.

And I’d love to ask you, so that story about your nine-year-old self, wow, really reflecting on all these years, what would you say to that younger version of yourself? What advice would you give?

Carla: I think my mother taught me, in that moment, to just be bold. But I can’t advise that girl because I’ve always been me. I just needed a push. I needed somebody to literally light candles on me and push me. And the takeaway from that was, she was able to take it from you because you didn’t give your whole self. You weren’t so good that nobody could take it from you.

And what my mother taught me in my moment was, you have to be bold. Even when people don’t believe in you, you have to be very intentional about how you present in the world and what you kind to do. And my mother taught me, you do not go on stage, you do not create, without giving your full self.

Yura: Really welcoming your strengths and knowing that sometimes the challenges were presented are actually the gateway to further understanding where is it that we need to go, honoring and being grateful even for the challenges and for the ways in which things don’t go as planned, because there’s always something more on the other side.

Carla: Literally. And my mother taught me so much in that moment. She literally taught me, there are no small roles. There are only small actors. That became a very real… When I first heard that quote many years after that moment, I was like, oh, that’s real. It’s very true. It is what you do with your gift. It is how you present your talent and your worth to the world. Nobody can put you in a box.

My life, I say often, is a series of happy accidents. I was just born to the right person. I was born in the right family. Were they perfect? Absolutely not. But they were perfect for me. I was born into a family of plus sized women that thought they were beautiful. You couldn’t tell these women a thing about their body or their looks or their hair. They thought they were gorgeous. I tell people all the time, I didn’t know that I was fat until I was in kindergarten, until I went around lots of… Because I’m the baby and I was raised around a lot of adults. I didn’t know there was a problem with my body and my look until I was around other humans.

And I’ll never forget, I told my mother, I was like, “Mommy…” This girl, her name was Carla too. She was my archnemesis in kindergarten. And I was like, “Mommy, she called me fat.” And I was confused. I wasn’t even sad. I was like, what is that? And my mother said, “The next person that calls you fat, Carla, you tell them, I may be fat, but I can lose weight. You can’t do anything about your face.” And so the next day, I went to school and girl called me fat and I said that. And I got a big old laugh and I was like, “huh, yeah, I am amazing.” And that is like my mother taught me to stand up for yourself, not be ashamed of you are. You’re beautiful. So I was just born to the right person, at the right time in history.

Yura: Yeah.

Carla: Yeah, that’s the story.

Yura: But I really love this offering. I’ve been diving more into this idea of soul’s purpose and really welcoming the, what if we, on a soul level, chose to be here in this moment of the planet, in this specific body, with this specific voice, with the specific family, in the location we decided we chose, for a reason that actually in order to really do what it is that we need to do in this lifetime, we are given all the tools we need? And I would say, going back to that other Carla and these other kids growing up, it’s really, yeah, you could see, it’s their problem. It’s not really your problem. And so, yeah, there’s this beautiful aspect of being able to support in this larger healing journey of what we are here to do in that way.

You can be an artist, and it is a job and it is your right to do as a person of color. I almost want to say, it’s your responsibility, if you are artistically inclined as a person of color, to lean into the arts as a vocation. 

Carla: And it’s never to say that I’ve never had insecurities. It’s never to say that I’ve never felt… We all have. I want a different this. I want a different that. But what I can say with all sincerity is that, I’ve never not wanted to be myself. And myself has always been an artist. From my earliest understanding of me, I have always been drawn to performance, specifically performance art, and the creation of theatre. And I know I would not be anywhere to close to a healed human, if I hadn’t had this medium in my life so early and so consistently, because I’d never stopped doing… When I was ten years old and I took my first actual acting class—I am fifty-one, been forty-one years of theatre, on all levels: administrated as a performer, a writer, director, producer, all levels. I’ve been engaged in this discipline and it has saved me spiritually, emotionally. But I think one of the things that I want to say, especially to artists of color, is it’s also taking care of me financially.

And that’s something that we are told that you’re supposed to be a starving artist and art is supposed to be for your soul’s work, and that’s okay when your parents have trust fund, when your parents have left you money and you have endowments and dowries and things, but it’s very hard for, especially poor people of color, to look at their artistic child and encourage them to just be an artist, because you’re not taught that it is also a business.

And I think one of those happy accidents is that, my mother and father never discouraged me from being an artist as a vocation. And that’s how I’ve always… I’ve looked at my artistry like I look at farming, like I look at HVAC work. It’s a vocation and it has taken care of me. I’ve been fortunate in that way. I don’t think I’ve been lucky though. I think that I was given a blueprint that this is a business and it is a career choice and it’s a path, and you don’t have to go and be an accountant first. You don’t have to be a lawyer first. You can be an artist, and it is a job and it is your right to do as a person of color. I almost want to say, it’s your responsibility, if you are artistically inclined as a person of color, to lean into the arts as a vocation.

There’s an African proverb, it’s something about, the lion is always the victor in the story. It’s something to the effects of, the person that tells the story is always the victor. You’re never going to be the hero in the story that’s told by your enemy, that’s told by someone else. So as people of color, it is our responsibility… And I messed that proverb all up, somebody’s going to correct it, and I hope so.

Yura: Is it, “Until the lion tells the story, the hunter will always be the hero”?

Carla: That’s the one. Yes. That’s why I feel it is our responsibility and duty to be storytellers.

Yura: To speak the lion…

Carla: Be the lion.

Yura: And also the hunter and lion within us. If we tell ourselves the story that the only way to be an artist is to be a starving artist, that in order to be an artist, we have to do other things to support ourselves, that’s just going to be what the story is that we believe and that will happen. But if we’re able to tell ourselves a story that there is a way that there is a business that look at all these other people who have done it, and it’s ultimately just another way of exchanging services, which is what humans do, is we offer services and then we receive what we need in exchange for listeners welcoming in that other story whenever you might find yourself stuck in an impossible mindset or storytelling of yourself, to catch yourself and say, wait a minute, what am I doing? Because I’m a powerful being. If I am bringing forth this story within, that is going to be what the reality is, and there’s just so many ways to keep opening it up and expanding.

Sometimes, I also find that it can be helpful to just go into a totally different place, because sometimes we get stuck in a certain almost flow, like the river flowing, like a river caught up in its flow and not able to just move and keep going. For me, it can be helpful to be with people who are able to affirm the impossible is possible. And also meditation is a huge one for me in terms of being able to get out of my own storytelling.

Carla: Right, no, I meditate every morning. I wake up every morning at five or so in the morning and take thirty minutes.

You just said something that, just the whole idea of being in your own way and feeding yourself a narrative, it’s so damaging to the soul to do that. And it’s damaging to the art. And the negative talk is one of the reasons most people can’t see their way to live off the art. Because you’ve decided that it’s never going to be lucrative, because you’ve decided what lucrative is. You’ve decided that success is that, if you’re not on television, or you’re not in the public eye, you’re not successful. That’s 1 percent of the people. I have a very dear friend whose husband has a whole Oscar because he created the hand for Thanos. Thanos’ hand and ring were his design and he has an Oscar.

Yura: Wow.

Carla: I have two Emmys, as a producer. Nobody knows who I am. You know what I’m saying? Success, we have to start talking differently. And I speak to communities of color because I’m a Black woman, period, and that’s where my concern sits for my people. So I speak to communities of color when I say, we have to honor the unseen. We have to know that there are things and people at work. The woman that designed the costume of Black Panther, I think her first name is Robin, she has an Oscar. There’s a whole swath of creative jobs and working and ways in which people are living and thriving and creating art. Not saying they didn’t work to get where they are, but in the project you’re watching, they didn’t make the project. There’s the grips. There’s the sound designers. There’s so many people. There are PAs. There’s so many people making a living doing amazing things that are very important.

We learned how important entertainment was in 2020. None of us would’ve been any good if we didn’t have Netflix and Paramount Plus during the pandemic. So I just always want people of color to think about how important storytelling is, not just as it’s healing, nurturing, emotional thing, because that’s part of the negative talk, that storytelling and art creation are these things that are only meant to feed the soul and to be ethereal and above and surreal, not that these are practical things that we need. We humans need to be engaged with beautiful things so that we feel whole, and that’s a business. It’s just like the people that make the cookies. We need cookies. Cookies are necessary for our soul, like food and air and water and art. We need these.

Yura: Are you ready to step into who you were born to be? As a certified soul purpose or a dharma and spiritual life coach, I am so ready to guide you in this powerful transformation of your life. As a successful social entrepreneur, social innovator, I am so excited to support others along this journey, because ultimately, when we all thrive in our respective communities, our impact really multiplies exponentially. And it brings me so much joy to help creators and leaders like you unleash your incredible talents, skills, and destiny of who you’re meant to be for our planet in this time. I get to bring together all of my training in the business and arts management world, as well as the climate justice sector, and the healing and shamanic energy work initiations and certifications, to really bring you into alignment and into full force movement for what you’re meant to be doing.

In my three-month coaching program, we’ll take a journey through your deepest desires for the world, to really harness in that future vision. You are such a powerful leader and I’m so excited to support you. So go ahead and check out my coaching services at, and you can find the link in the show notes as well. Talk to you soon.

There’s something called the behavioral confirmation response in the psychology worlds, and it talks about when individuals end up actually acting the way others expect from stereotypes. There’s actually studies that have shown how this ends up happening when there’s people around you thinking a certain way or thinking about you, or that these stereotypes coming through and then acting in that way, you end up or you can be prone to falling into that and into their almost wavelength of what it is that they’re projecting onto you. So I think it’s just so important to understand that, name that, like you said, and just know that is something that exists out there in terms of what people think, and we don’t have to welcome it in into our reality.

We talked about meditation. What are some other practices that you’ve used to really kick that idea out when it might start coming through or when you maybe notice it in different spaces around you?

That is my advice for anybody, especially creatives: find that release. Find that thing that feels like a blankie to you, so that you can give yourself a soft place and let things out and allow yourself to rest. 

Carla: I write. I write every day. And I encourage everyone to write something every day. I don’t care if I’m just telling a really good joke on Facebook, I write every day, because I feel that’s important for me. I am not good withholding things in. That does not work for me, so I let them out.

I cry a lot. Everybody that knows me knows I’m a big crybaby. I cry about all kinds of things, and I allow myself to cry. That’s one of those things that people would shame me out of. But as I’ve gotten older and actually had real tough time, I’ve decided a few years ago that I’m going to cry whenever I feel like it, wherever I feel like it. I release. That is my advice for anybody, especially creatives: find that release. Find that thing that feels like a blankie to you, so that you can give yourself a soft place and let things out and allow yourself to rest.

My mama, when I’d be going through something and be very upset and stressed, she was like, you are allowed three days to lay on the couch and cry and have a tantrum and feel sorry for yourself. And on the third day, you must rise like Jesus and get up and do something. And what she was teaching me is that, you get to take some time to plan, to think things through, to journal, to breathe, to cry, to let things out, so that when it is time to get up and work, get up and do, you are prepared mentally and spiritually for whatever the warfare is of the day.

Yura: That makes a lot of sense. I’ve been learning about these different energy states that we flow through, and there’s this offering that we go through three different stages of creation basically. So the first is this element of air, this inspiration that comes through very heady, very from the universe of divine kind of inspiration that comes through the idea. And then we move into the fire element, so this space of action of doing, of really using our hands and making something happen from this idea and the kind of working, bringing it into the 3D realm of the earth.

And then after, there’s the rest and the checking in and being able to evaluate what happened. And so this element of water and earth really holding us in, checking in and resting and letting the creation that we had exist, so that we can then move again into this element of air and inspiration and be open to receive. So yeah, definitely hearing that in your response around what we might do when there’s a shift or change or something that comes through that we need to process, that it’s totally normal to go ahead and take that time to rest and recuperate and then bring ourselves into that space of really being able to say, what’s next? What do I need to do?

Carla: The reflection part is key. As you are resting and laying down and purging, I always try to think about, well, how did we get here? How did I get here? How did we get here? How did this get to this point? What does this mean? So that I can either duplicate it or never recreate this moment again or turn this into…

I’m still dealing with a pretty serious health issue. I was in the hospital December 1st, I almost died.

Yura: Oh my God.

Carla: I found out I had a rare autoimmune condition that I did not know I had, that was masked by an autoimmune condition that I do know that I had. I just kept thinking, how did I, over all these years, how was this thing missed? This little detail, as I reflected back, I’ve been struggling with this little detail for probably thirty-plus years. And how did all of the doctors, all of the… Because I stayed going to a doctor, a hospital, I can’t have… How did it… Why now? Why this year? Why this moment? Why did this come full circle now?

And I ended up being rushed to the hospital I was born in, when I almost died. I was like, this has to mean something, that I’m here in this moment, back in this hospital, almost fifty-one years to the day I was born, fighting for my life. How did I get here? And I was like, because I’m supposed to do something artistic with this. Because I’m not the only person that has died from a thousand misdiagnoses. Now, I’ve been working through in my mind.

I started when I was laying in my hospital bed, this can’t be for naught. I cannot have gone through all of this and not tell this story, because I know I’m not the only Black woman who has been ignored by the medical system in this same kind of way. And it is a story that has to happen. So to your point, it’s that reflection piece, because I don’t believe in coincidence. I believe in that there are things that are divinely ordered, that there are things that are happening in a way. And I don’t believe that things just happen to us for us, because I always think about, what am I teaching with my life?

Yura: I 100 percent agree, and I’m so grateful, one, that you’re here with us today. And of course, also, that you’ve made this realization as to, why is it that this would happen? I think that’s so powerful, to be able to move from a state of very much helplessness and confusion and disempowerment really to feel like this is happening to me, and then to say, actually, it’s maybe happening for me because there’s something else that’s going to happen. But even more so, it’s happening through me, because I am now being this conduit of a more universal experience of a larger change that is inevitable, coming forth from actually what I can do to share this story, and gather other people too who have shared this story. So wow.

Where are you at with this project now?

Carla: I’ve decided it’s probably a documentary.

So it’s weird. What’s happened with me having this diagnosis, I realized I have severe aplastic anemia, which is a precursor to blood cancers, lymphoma, multiple myeloma, and leukemia. My second sister that passed died from multiple myeloma, and I had never heard of this thing. My father had lymphoma. I never knew that this was all the same cancer. Come to find out, there is an actual gene marker because everybody in my family that has died from cancer has been the same types. And my mother’s uterine cancer was a part of that marker. And then, my cousins and I now we’re all talking and we’re like, I have this anemia too, oh my God. I have this because I’ve gotten some heart damage out of this. And so I have cousins that have the same kind of heart damage, and it’s all a whole family of Black folk with all the same stuff. How did this… What if?

And said, now I’m like, oh, this is ancestral. This goes back because we are the descendants of kidnapped, trafficked, and enslaved Africans. We’ve done our DNA. We are from 1629 basically. What is the trauma that made this mutation in our bodies? And my sister has a version of these same issues. So I feel like there’s more study. This is a documentary project, so this will be new for me. I’ve never done a documentary project like this. That’s what I’m going to try to do with this piece. But it’s bigger than a play. It’s bigger than a stage, because it’s a genealogical historical journey through my DNA basically.

Yura: Wow, that’s incredible. And I do think that more is coming out of DNA, because this other information that’s in our DNA holds information. It’s not just there for no reason. It’s just that science currently has not been able to uncover and pinpoint what is it that the information in our DNA holds beyond the specific information that’s already been said.

Carla: Humans mutate. Species mutate to adapt their environment. Those mutations are sitting somewhere. The steps to that mutation have to live somewhere inside of us. The way that my ancestors worked, my people are from the field. The trauma of the middle passage, the trauma of slavery, are living in our bodies, and our bodies mutated to adapt to that. But that’s physical abuse. But what happens now that it’s mental and spiritual warfare on you. You know what I’m saying? It’s all inside of us, and that’s really what I want to explore.

Yura: Yeah, I’m really excited to get to experience the final product of this.

And I’m curious too, if you can share some advice for anyone who might be doing something different. Like you said, you haven’t done a documentary like this, and you also know that you want to expand beyond theatre. If someone is currently maybe in that type of situation, what would you recommend they consider if they’re doing something they haven’t done before and also something that’s bigger than before?

Carla: Talk to people. When I decided to start the institute, I didn’t know how to start an organization. I had no clue. So my first step was to call Angelique Power. She was working for Field Foundation at the time. She’s a friend of mine, and in philanthropy for many years, amazing woman. And I called her and I was like, “First of all, I don’t even know if this is a real thing what I’m trying to do. So I want to do this thing, give me your thoughts.” She was so encouraging. She put me in the path of the funders she knew. She helped me. I picked up the phone and I called people that I know that do this thing.

I have started talking to some of my friends who are filmmakers, who this is something that they do. It’s like, where do you start? What should I do? So my thing is, I think we don’t take advantage enough of cold calling folks. Now, it’s so easy because you can jump in somebody’s DMs if you’re on Instagram and you see somebody doing the work that you like. And you were really, “Wow, this photography is great. I’m not a photographer. I’d like to start,” reach out to that photographer. What can they say other than no, right? That’s it.

Yura: Yeah. I love the recommendation too of reaching out to those in your network. And sometimes, I don’t realize who I know, and it just takes a moment of introspection and being with myself and asking, who can help me with this? And being open to receive that information. Sometimes, I suddenly remember, oh yeah, this person is there, or I’m going to a certain city and I remember all these different people are there that would be good to check in with. And so, I definitely really value that recommendation on using your network, continuing to expand your network, and placing yourself in situations where you might meet someone who is the exact person that can help you. So whether that’s going to specific events.

Carla: Go to the art galleries. Go to the art galleries. Go to the theatre. If you want to produce or direct, go to the theatre you like. Especially in Chicago, there is a producer or an AD somewhere on the premises. For every show, there is somebody that will be able to at least point you into the right direction of who to talk to at that organization. You have to show up for yourself. You have to show up for yourself. You have to put yourself in the position to be seen and heard, because nobody’s going to just walk up and give it. You have to put yourself in position.

And it’s okay to not know. This is what I think people don’t realize, because they think about talking to celebrities and people that are like, oh, I don’t want to talk. Oh, I’m bombarded. They think about approaching people and they think that’s the response they’re going to get. That’s 1 percent. The other 99 percent of people want so desperately to talk to somebody about what they do. They want so desperately to share what they’ve been through and their journey and to help people. In my lifetime, I can say I’ve gotten very little resistant when I’ve asked: So how do you do this? Where should I go? So what should I do? How did you start? I think that people are afraid of the rejection. And somebody may pooh-pooh you, but that doesn’t mean you stop trying to talk to folks, because most people really want to share. They do.

Yura: Yeah. And there’s paying it forward too. If you think about yourself, if someone came up to you, for anybody who’s listening and is wanting to support on something you’ve already been able to accomplish, then you offer that support and then it comes back to you. And so I think that also ends up being forever. Because ultimately too, in terms of a strong network and these relationships that we’re building through the industry and through the work that we’re doing, there are always things that we can do to help each other, especially when it comes to this type of connections.

Because maybe for example, you helped me with something that I didn’t know about, and I’ve got you in mind. I know about you. We’re connected. And maybe I know that you’re specifically looking to meet a certain funder one day, and so then I have an opportunity to connect with that funder and I remember about you who helped me, and so I make that connection. There’s always something that we can offer in terms of this exchange. It doesn’t always have to be money. It doesn’t always have to be material things. There’s so much that comes with being able to help each other.

Carla: I know I’ve probably quoted my mother fifty million times already, but I quote that lady every day, all day long because she was brilliant. She was amazing chick. And she used to say, “If you hold your fist so tight and don’t let anything out, you won’t let anything in.” You have to live life with an open hand.

And I’m a mentor. They call themselves my theatre children, I have about twenty-five of them. And I’m picking up new ones every day, because people mentored me, and people still mentor me. And that’s the other thing. You don’t ever get out of the learning curve when you are an artist. You are always supposed to be thinking about what’s new, what’s contemporary, what’s right now, and how do we adapt these disciplines so that we can give story to people and it can be received.

Right now, we’re living in this immersive theatre time, which I’m enjoying so much, a time where there’s not this fourth wall, where artists are creating art, where the audience feels like they’re a part of the show with audiences engaged. It’s so beautiful and rich, and we’re living in such an exciting time. And theatre can go so much farther. But we have to be a community. We have to find a synergy and work with each other and help each other, because this is a hard time too. This is a time for favors and bartering because it’s so difficult. It’s time for us as theatre artists to live with an open hand.

Yura: “I’m open to receive.” The mantra, the affirmation. And also, “I am born to be seen.”

Carla: Yes.

Yura: You may have this question with what you just said, but as the theatre industry evolves, what do you believe it’s asking of us as creators and leaders?

Carla: My discipline is African-centered theatre. It’s where I landed as an adult artist and where I’ve lived most of my life. And it’s the concept that every piece of the production is a character in the show, that all things live in concert, that the music is as important as the dancers, as important as the actors, and that the audience is as important as all of us. And the lights are a character. And that is where I think theatre must go.

I think the Western model of theatre is not suitable for this time. This is a time where the walls need to come down. People need transparency. I think people would much rather sit in a show and be able to talk back to the stage and clap and laugh and be fully engaged, and be able to walk around a set during intermission and touch things and be a part of the moment. The coldness of traditional Western theatre no longer suits the world that we’re living in because it’s so much tension. People need a soft place to land, and Western theatre is not soft. I think the evolution of theatre is more toward indigenous storytelling, traditional storytelling, African-centered storytelling. I think that most cultures of color feel the same way about theatre in the round, performance in space with spectators, not an audience, but with gatherings of community. And I think that is where theatre must go, or she will die, because this world, we are no longer…

We are too tender. We’re a little too delicate now. Too much has happened. We’ve lost too many people. We need that feeling of community and sharing everywhere we go. So much distance was created. That pandemic changed the world. There’s a whole different way that we have to deal with each other. We need to be softer with each other. And Western theatre is cold, and it has hard edges, and it’s not soft, and it’s not meant to include people. It’s presentational, and I think that’s no longer a safe space for people.

Yura: Absolutely. Yeah. And I think what’s great about our organizations, these tables that we’ve built, is that we’re ready to go ahead and take the baton, showcase what we’ve already been working on, and go ahead and take center stage, really bring the solutions. I always say theatre is a microcosm of the macrocosm of the world, because ultimately, when we look at many of the world’s solutions for things like climate justice, social racial justice, really reason that we’re still here and our ancestral practices are still here is because they are the solution. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that we’ve had to get to such a dire point. And we’re also still here. We’re at this turning point. We got all the tools we need. Are you ready to make this shift and say, yes, we’re going to actually try something different. But that’s also actually ancestral.

It’s always funny when I hear the word traditional, especially in Spanish, traditional, when you say it more, it’s more about ancestral like traditional music of folk music. So for me, it’s like traditional is actually more of the ancestral, not necessarily classical European traditional. But yeah.

Carla: And I think the other thing that theatre needs to do, your words were reminding me, is that all the artists need to create art together. I think theatre artists get real territorial about the discipline, and I don’t think we invite our painters and our musicians into the space with us in a way that is fresh and exciting. I think we use them as pieces and pawn. I think Western theatre uses musicians as afterthoughts, and uses designers as afterthoughts, and not full participants in the creation of the work. And I think that’s a mistake. And it’s time that we, artists, because actors will call themselves actors. They won’t call themselves artists. Like you’re an artist. Because when you say artists, most people, they go, oh, do you paint? No, I write. I create theatre. I’m an artist. And so are you. And so are we all.

Yura: Yeah.

Carla: Yeah.

Yura: My final question for you is, reflecting on your journey, what has been the most rewarding aspect of carving your own path and building your own table?

Carla: Teaching. Being Professor Stillwell now at DePaul is so exciting. I’ve always enjoyed arts education. It’s been pretty much a part of my adult theatre life I’ve taught. So teaching and mentoring are the great joys of my life. Knowing that the ideas that I have are resonating with the next generation of artists, and that they’ll take those ideas and expand on them and give them to the next generation of artists has always given me great joy.

Yura: Beautiful. Tell us how we can find you and The Stillwell Institute.

Carla: Oh, you can find The Stillwell Institute at You can find me on all the social medias. I’m some variation of Ms. Stillwell. S-T-I-L-L-W-E-L-L, or some variation of Ms. Stillwell or Carla Stillwell on Facebook, Instagram to X, TikTok.

Yura: We’ll add the link.

Carla: Yes, I’m easy to find.

Yura: And what’s next for you?

Carla: Theatre Communication Groups Conference here in Chicago, June 19th through the 22nd. If you are a Chicago resident, you should go to the TCG website. They have some scholarships for the conference for Chicago theatre artists, so that will be great. You should try to get there. And anybody who’s coming in, come see me. I’ll be hanging out all weekend doing stuff.

Yura: Amazing. Yes. Maybe I’ll try to make it as well.

It was such a joy, such a pleasure to chat with you today. Thank you so much, Carla, for being on the podcast.

Carla: Thank you for having me.

Yura: This podcast is produced as a contribution to HowlRound Theatre Commons. You can find more episodes of this show and other HowlRound shows wherever you find podcasts. Be sure to search with the keyword “HowlRound” and subscribe to receive new episodes. If you love this podcast, post a rating and write a review on those platforms. You can also find a transcript for this episode, along with a lot of other progressive and disruptive content on Have an idea for an exciting podcast, essay or event the theatre community needs to hear? Visit and submit your idea to this digital commons.

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