When she started attending NYU, Noelia Mann Googled this word combination: political theater, New York and women. The serendipitous result, Girl Be Heard, would affect her life more than she could ever know at the time.
The nonprofit theater program, headquartered in the East Village, works to empower young women by creating original plays and curriculum based on such topics as domestic violence, displacement, bullying, and body image. Mann started as a “feminist-in-residence,” which is their version of an intern, and was then hired full-time as an associate artistic director.
As fate would have it, when she started, the company was in need of another performer, so she stepped in and has been acting with them ever since. As she graduates from college this semester, with a degree in theater, she is certain of one thing: that her work with Girl Be Heard will continue. She said, “I have just learned so much being a part of this organization about how theater and art can directly affect legislation and politics. I really want to continue in that vein. I really believe in fostering young women’s voices who are the future leaders of the world.”
When did you join Girl Be Heard?
I joined in the winter of 2012. I worked there first as an intern, with Jessica [Greer Morris] and Ashley [Marinaccio], the two co-founders. I volunteer interned for them for about seven months and then was hired as their first staff member the following year. And I have been there ever since in a variety of different roles. When I started, we had a budget of about $30,000 and it was just the three of us. Now, three-and-a-half years later, we have over 15 full-time staff members, our budget is over a million and we’ve got 170 members.
You started as a feminist-in-residence. What does that mean?
That’s what our earliest internship titles were called. The organization had had a few feminist-in-residences at different times as they were building up. But I was the only one there at the time who stayed on to become a paid staff member.
Tell us about how you got to perform with the company.
The summer I interned, we were doing a show called Traffic and they needed someone last minute so I just kind of jumped in and did a small role. I’ve been performing with them ever since. It’s allowed me to be both on the administrative side and also perform in a company setting. I feel so honored and privileged that I get to do both things.
Now you’re the associate artistic director. What does that entail?
I’m essentially the artistic director’s assistant, but it’s more of a partnership. Right now I’m producing a show with Human Rights Watch that I helped write. I’m co-directing it, I’m acting in it, I’m producing it. I do everything from booking shows to negotiating contracts. I co-direct all of what we call remounts. We do one to two new works each year, but we’re frequently commissioned by organizations, community centers and schools, like the UN and Amnesty International, who want us to come and do a show. And they’ll tell me the issues most pertinent to their neighborhood and the time frame, and then I’ll build a show on those topics in that amount of time. We have a really wide body of work from the last four years. What I’ll do is put together a script for whatever the requirements are for the remounts. For example, if we want to do a 20-minute version of our full-length show 9mm America, which is on gun violence, I’ll choose which pieces, cast it and run the rehearsals.
What has been one show that really affected you?
The show that we just closed last weekend was called Displaced and it was the culmination of nine months of research on the topic of displacement and the refugee crisis. This summer, I was invited with a few other actors by the State Department to go on a 30-day tour of Europe and spent ten days in a refugee camp in Denmark. We talked to girls and women from all over the world who had been displaced for various reasons and took those stories, and well as the displacement stories of our own cast members, and created an hour-and-fifteen-minute show. It was just an amazing experience. We had the chance to meet some of these women who we really developed relationships with. I still talk to all of the girls I met. I transcribed their work and as we were editing the script, I would speak to them every step of the way. It felt like a true honoring of their experiences, while also making the connection between our experiences here in New York, because so many of our girls have experienced displacement, homelessness, or just the realization that the American Dream is not all they thought it would be. We had a lot of girls talk about debt and the fact that people leave their homes for a better life and what happens when it’s not the life they thought it was going to be.
Explain your work with Humanities Prep in Chelsea.
That’s one of the schools we work at in Manhattan. The afterschool programs are really cool because the curriculum is very unique. We ask girls what’s important to them. We discuss a lot of social justice issues and how to talk about them through art. What’s also great is that some of the teaching artists are actually girls who have gone through the program. It’s a true anti-poverty model in that way as well.
For more information on the organization, visit www.girlbeheard.org