We're all constantly dissecting our roles in the world, how we fit in socially, personally and professionally. Sophie Shackleton shares with us her experiences of living as a white American woman in Mali, the growth of cultural intersection in Crown Heights and how growing up as a tall woman will be leading her to the stage of the Edinburgh Fringe Festival...
Do you remember your first week in New York?
I got a paid internship at BAM, and had to arrive in New York within the week to start. I crashed with a friend up at Columbia University, and had to commute to Brooklyn everyday.
I have a real sensory memory of that time; it was this time of year (summer) 3 years ago. So every time summer comes around, I get this awkward feeling of having just moved to New York and of not knowing where to go and feeling uncomfortable everywhere. I get waves of it every June because it all smells the same.
Did you always want to come to New York?
I’ve been doing theater forever. I assumed I would end up in New York at some point because that is the common trajectory for anyone doing theater.
I’m not the kind of person who wants to end up in New York forever. I’m going to London soon, and part of the reason is because New York is not ‘the pinnacle place”. I meet so many people here who have always wanted to live in New York, it’s their dream. For me, it’s much more complicated than that.
I grew up in a rural place, so I sometimes find New York difficult. Brooklyn is much easier for me than Manhattan. New York is such an amazing place to be when you’re focused on your career. The minute I start wanting things outside of my career it feels really difficult.
I don’t want to be too down on New York. I’ve had an amazing 3 years. I push pretty hard when it comes to work. Before New York I had taken some time out of that by living in West Africa. I had to really slow down. At a certain point I felt like it was time to push forward again with work for a while.
Amazing, tell us how you ended up living in West Africa.
It’s a funny story. I took an African dance class in college during my junior year. I had no background in dance. I was never a skinny kid so I never felt really like I fit in a dance class. I took this class almost as a joke with friends. It turned out that I really liked it, and I wasn’t bad at it.
It also interacted with the work I was directing at the time in theater. I’d worked in theater for so long, but in some ways found it frustrating and dissatisfying. I was always trying to bring more music and dance into theater. This African dance class made me realize how important dance was in my own work.
I took the class for a second time my senior year, and also started taking other dance classes. A professor decided that I should come to Mali with her dance company. It wasn’t to go and perform over there; rather you went over and lived in a house together, took classes and met other artists.
The first night in Mali, I was lying there under my mosquito net thinking “oh my god, only 28 more days to go”. It was kind of scary; it’s a culture shock at first. By the second or third day, the art that I was seeing was so fascinating and so much more in line with what I was trying to make. It was mind blowing to see it as a natural part of culture, rather than something to have to work really hard to make.
How long were you there for?
I would raise money in the States and then live in Mali for 8-12 months. You can’t really make money over there unless you’re doing an expat job. I would work for my parents whenever I came back, and also produce an African dance festival at Brown. I did that for 3 years.
It must have been a huge contrast living between Mali and America …
It wasn’t too bad. The context would just shift in my head. I do find it unsettling that I can so easily shift into a different culture and context really quickly. It’s weird when you’re using a bunch of water in the shower and not freaking out, and two days prior you were taking a bucket shower.
New York has been really interesting because I had been living racially as a minority in Mali. The politics of being white there are very different. Integrating with African communities here has been really interesting. There are some West African communities, and once in a while I’ll bump into someone from Mali. I speak the language.
I still take African dance class in the city, but it’s mainly Guinean and Senegalese dance here.
What was the biggest thing you noticed being a minority in Africa?
It’s different to what you would think because you aren’t oppressed as a minority. In America, minority and oppression go hand in hand. Because of where I stand socio/politically in a global setting … I’m still a white woman from America. There is a story there. So in Africa, I was an outsider.
Before then, I think I’d spent a lot of my life trying to fit in and I was actually kind of a relieved in Africa to have that sense that I actually would never fit in. I just was different. I enjoyed not feeling like I was supposed to be fitting in. It was freeing to know less that other people, I enjoyed being taught by people.
Tell us about Tall Women in Clogs!
Two years ago, my friend Katherine and I were in the dance studio at BAM in our Dansko clogs. We were making fun of ourselves, and doing these weird synchronized movements in our clogs, we were joking around and ended up coming up with the name “Tall Women in Clogs”.
We have a couple of other female friends who we thought fit with that vibe, of what a tall woman in clogs spiritually might be. Every two months we would get together and talk about what a show called “Tall Women in Clogs” might look like.
It wasn’t even about a show at first, it was more a project. We would all get together and eat, and have some sort of organized discussion about being tall. It was interesting discovering these things we had in common. For example in first grade we were made to line up according to height and we would always be with the boys. A lot of us made friends with more boys, but by high school you aren’t the girls they have crushes on because we were “one of the guys.”
Magda: This is hitting home for me.
We all have really different experiences, but there are patterns. The assumption of competence came up a lot, if you’re tall when you’re growing up, people think you are older than you are, and so treat you like you are older. They expect you to perform at a level that’s higher than where you are.
We talked a lot about what it means to be physical in the world. One of the tall women, Jess, sneakily applied for a spot at Dixon Place theater in the LES. It was for a one night only show and we got accepted. We had to decide whether we would actually do it, we only had a month and half to put a show together.
What is the show?
It’s hard to explain. I’m really interested in multi-genre work, song/dance/music/video/theater and putting them together in interesting ways. It’s kind of like a woven together variety show. There are no scripted scenes; it’s very performative towards an audience.
Now we’re going to Edinburgh Fringe Festival, and we just met our Kickstarter fundraising goal!
Magda: Out of curiosity, as a tall woman myself, what are some of the themes that come up in your life? How do you view the tallness?
I find it complicated because I feel like I have to choose what person I am all the time. When I really want to get stuff done and want to act older than my age, which usually comes up in career areas, then being tall is awesome. I’m not intimidated by leading other people, I feel like I can act ahead of my age at work. Taking care of business!
Socially and romantically, being in your 20s, it’s hard for those things to co-exist. I’ve struggled with feeling like I have to dial myself back in order to have that side of things feel good. It’s tricky if you feel like you’re getting to a place where you are making yourself smaller in order to make other people like you, to make men like you, and to find partnership.
Part of a monologue I do in the show is about something I was taught by my Malian friends, which is to be OK with people helping me. To be OK with needing somebody to take care of me sometimes. That really changed how I go through the world, but I feel New York trying to push that out of me again.
What is your role at BAM?
I manage a cultural diplomacy program that BAM produces for the State Department called DanceMotion USA, which sends American contemporary dance companies to do exchange residencies in around the world.
In each season we do 3-4 exchanges, and each dance company goes to 3-4 places. We can exchange with 12 countries a year, and work with the US Embassies in those countries.
It must be awesome working at BAM.
I think it’s one of the coolest institutions in the city. The people there are incredibly intelligent and forward thinking. I get to see so many shows.
My interests are more in producing non-Western artists. How to incorporate non-Western arts into Western curation. What are the ethical and sustainable ways to do that? Being able to be at an institution like BAM, which is trying to produce a lot of stuff from Africa, Asia and the Middle East, to see first hand how it works is really exciting.
You’re living in Crown Heights now, how do you like it?
I love it. It’s so accessible to BAM. I love living between an Afro-Caribbean neighborhood and a quickly gentrifying neighborhood. It’s a cross-cultural exchange, and it’s been interesting to see it mix.
I once stumbled into what I thought was a store to buy sunglasses, and it turned out to be an African hair-braiding salon. They were so shocked to see a white woman show up, there was a woman on the phone speaking Bambara, which is also the language I speak. She said into the phone “hold on, a white girl just walked into the store and I don’t know what she’s doing here”. Because hair salons are such a great divide racially and culturally. I played it cool, turned to her and greeted her in Bambara. She lost it, and we became friends! It’s so fun to have some access to that.
What about awesome bars in the area?
Tom’s Diner is a breakfast diner. Three of the tall women, we have lady brunches there on days when we’re not feeling the best.
There’s a really nice Senegalese place called Café Rue Dix, they serve great cocktails.
I go to Breukelen Coffee every morning. Barboncino is a pizza place that is really good.
What’s the best piece of advice you could give?
Be flexible, and be ready for anything. That’s been the thing that I’ve really had to learn. You have to walk a delicate line between planning as much as you can, and knowing as much as you can possibly know, but at any second you need to be able to throw it all away and know that you’ll be OK.
What is your favorite place to take out of towners in New York?
Have you had a favorite New York moment?
When I moved back from Africa, I had a lot of anxiety about my interest in Africa. I also have a lot of anxiety about how it’s going to intersect with my career, and I didn’t expect to find a job that would take that very seriously.
There was a concert at BAM called Mic Check that was about Muslim hip-hop and there was an artist from Mali in it. I watched the education matinee in the BAM Opera House and it was packed with local kids from Brooklyn. The Mali artist had mobilized all these kids up onto the stage to do this Malian street dance. To see all these Brooklyn kids doing this Malian dance in an old Western style Opera House. It was the first time when I thought, these things can all co-exist here.
What does New York mean to you?
I think that New York means struggle, but not in a negative way. The amazing thing about being in New York is that everybody is fighting for something. That’s a hard environment to live in, but it’s also incredibly inspiring. To be surrounded by an energy of people fighting for success.