Alumni Spotlight: Ashley Tata '12

March 10, 2021

The Alumni Spotlight is a place to hear from the School of the Arts alumni community about their journeys as artists and creators.

Ashley Tata makes multi-media works of theater, contemporary opera, performance, cyberformance, live music and immersive experiences. These have been presented in venues and festivals throughout the US and internationally including Theatre for a New Audience, LA Opera, Austin Opera, The Miller Theater, National Sawdust, EMPAC, BPAC, The Crossing the Line Festival, the Holland Festival, The Prelude Festival, The National Centre for the Performing Arts in Beijing, and the Fisher Center at Bard. Her work has been called “fervently inventive,” by Ben Brantley in the New York Times, “extraordinarily powerful” by the LA Times and a notable production of the decade by Alex Ross of the New Yorker.

Her Associate work has been with directors Robert Woodruff, Jay Scheib, Daniel Fish, Richard Jones among others in such venues as St. Ann’s Warehouse (on the critically acclaimed production of Oklahoma!), Brooklyn Academy of Music, The Lincoln Center Theater Festival, The Park Avenue Armory, Spoleto Festival, USA, Fort Worth Opera and LAOpera at REDCAT. More info including contact for collaboration can be found at: ig: @tatatime_ 

Was there a specific faculty member or peer who especially inspired you while at the School of the Arts? If so, who and how?

I can’t say there was a specific person at SoA who inspired me. But that seems by design. What’s incredible about traveling through the master's program is having a cohort of five other directors who know your work, obsessions and blind-spots better than anybody else. Learning how to hear criticism from a chorus of voices turned from intimidating to empowering. I started listening from a perspective of “it’s not about me, it’s about the thing.” Beyond the cohort of directors in my year what remains a source of inspiration are all the artists I met at Columbia. To this day (and very likely on whatever day you read this) I communicate and share ideas with a wide net of alums from different disciplines and years. And when I think back on it there was a very specific moment of inspiration facilitated by Anne Bogart who has an uncanny ability to speak into existence what you’re really secretly wishing might be possible. I vividly remember presenting a multi-media work in a class and at one point the performer, Lea McKenna-Garcia, opened the curtain with some music scoring the revelation of a sunlit window behind her (we were in Nash). In critique Anne simply said “you should look into opera.” It was like I had been holding my breath, waiting for this permission for years. And it took that totally benign suggestion to actually pursue working in opera.

How did attending the School of the Arts impact your work and career as an artist?

Before SoA I was working as a bartender and server at a diner around the block (Deluxe on Broadway, RIP). I had been there for five years having worked many other like jobs in the years preceding that. My parallel artistic career had been built by saving enough to secure park permits ($25 at the time) so I could create works in parks. Or the back room at Jimmy’s No. 43 (RIP). And the like. It’s funny that the parks have become a very promising venue again… Being at SoA where I could just focus on projects for classes, read and meditate on theater and performance and work with other artists on their projects provided an opportunity to be immersed in what seemed like a fantasy life. But it very slowly morphed into a grounding awareness that these spaces are where I can best serve. I became intensely disinterested in going back to being a server at Deluxe. At CU Tom Gilmore hired me to work in the scene shop. I hoped that these skills would transfer to my post CU life. And they did. Ever since graduating the Theater has supported me.

What were the most pressing social/political issues on the minds of the students when you were here?

My thesis production was Brecht’s The Good Person of Szechwan. Dramaturg, Jess Applebaum and I were invested in the Occupy Wall Street movement. We would go down, talk with organizers and occupants and participate in the community being built. There was a not-so-successful attempt at working on some of Brecht’s Lehrstücke plays at Zuccotti. We passed out invites to attend our production and after the second performance we programmed a conversation between Occupy organizers and the audience. How to be a “good" person and survive in a capitalist society. It’s a question. Shout out to Jess who helped remind me of the specifics of this and dramaturged this response.

What was your favorite or most memorable class while at the School of the Arts?

The two most important classes for my practice were an interdisciplinary arts incubation course taught by Gideon Lester that was offered to students across the school of the arts and the music school. And the design collaboration course with the designers at NYU. It was in these spaces, with artists working in different media, seeing things from different experiences and prismatically manifesting works where I started to finally practice what I had imagined theater was. And Arnold Aronson’s Avant-Garde Theater class enabled me to radically expand my definition of being a theater artist.

What were the first steps you took after graduating?

While still in school I started developing a project called “Decay of Cities” in which we occupied locations and made pieces that were a meditation on structural, cultural and social decay in the US. Between my 2nd and 3rd year we created in a former family farm in Maine. Right after graduating we went to a former auto shop in New Orleans. I then assisted Robert Woodruff on David T. Little and Royce Vavrek’s opera Dog Days which was a very early Beth Morrison Projects production. That got me into the contemporary opera scene. And I kept working at the CU shop. Most of my time since graduating has been split between my own directing work, assistant or associate work, and tech work. Slowly the majority of my work has shifted to my own projects. Tech work has faded away. And I’ve been able to add teaching to the mix. Which is the reason I applied to grad school to begin with.

What advice would you give to recent graduates?

Get into the rooms you want to be in. There are many entry points. And create the rooms you want for your collaborators. I make a daily practice of clarifying why I’m in a room. How am I best serving the thing there? Am I learning from a collaborator? About a system? Is it an “impossible" problem that’s fascinating to solve? Is it to pay bills? If there’s nothing there maybe someone else is better positioned to support the thing. I also strongly encourage seeking nourishment by art works in all disciplines, across category, geography, medium, etc. It’s an endless feast and you won’t go hungry. Oh. And there’s no shame in a nap. In the back of the theater, in the park, on your subway commute. Twenty minutes can save a rehearsal.

Read more from the "Alumni Spotlight" series