A Year In: Production designer Natalie George lost all her work to the pandemic. So she started the Police Oversight Project

'I’m ready to be in conversations about how art can actively make change,' says George


Like many Austin cultural workers, Natalie George plies her profession in different arenas.

Trained in theater arts, George is a lighting and production designer for a range of indie performing arts groups — Line Upon Line Percussion, dancemaker Heloise Gold, the Rude Mechs, Salvage Vanguard Theater — creating stunning settings that make a singular world for a show. She served as producing director of the Fusebox Festival from 2009 to 2014, a period when the live performance fest saw remarkable growth. She also produces her own cabaret series, transforming offbeat spaces into enticing temporary venues for intimate shows.

Related: ‘Natalie George sees the light’

George’s artistry extends to other kinds of event design and production too, her company Natalie George Productions creators of arty fundraising parties staged in warehouses to pop-up events during SXSW.

Whatever she’s staging, the essence of George’s creative industry centers on live happenings and events. Then the coronavirus pandemic put it all of that on a complete, immediate and indeterminate hold.

Sightlines: What were you working on and looking forward to when the lockdown began in mid-March 2020? What was the first of your creative work that you saw cancelled or lost?

Natalie George: I was lighting a video shoot for Austin Classical Guitar when Mayor Adler held the press conference about canceling SXSW. I sat in the booth and watched it while the performers were on a dinner break. The rest of the night felt like a blur. I had no real concept of what was to come but I knew it wasn’t good.

SXSW cancelling meant a loss of money for me but I had also been invited to be a panelist for SXSW’s new Creative Experience Awards. I have a lot of mixed feelings about the world of activations — the brands, agencies, and the ridiculous amounts of money spent. It’s like a playground for my lighting design brain but it feels wasteful, commercial, and gross at the same time. However, I was really looking forward to seeing it all from the inside and engaging in conversations about it with industry folks and SXSW staff.

My biggest heart break was the cancelation of Line Upon Line’s May 2020 show. It was going to be a collaboration with Heloise Gold. The combination of my two favorite groups/people and getting to create a world of light, percussion, and dance. That’s my happy place.

S: What percentage of your anticipated jobs/income did you lose this past year?

NG: Pretty much all of it. It was devastating. 2019 was a killer year for Natalie George Productions — the best year I have ever had financially. I had a really strong team, and I was looking forward to weaving through another year of performances and event gigs. Instead, I frantically applied for PPP loans and grants and questioned everything I thought I had figured out about being an artist/business owner. There were definitely many moments I felt defeated.

S: What part of the pandemic were you surprised to find being a creative benefit?

NG: Nothing really — ha! I couldn’t get comfortable in my creative brain. I applaud my friends who got creative with outside events and streamed shows, but I struggled with it. The word pivot was a dirty word in my head. I had to let being an artist go for a while. I tried to let myself just take a break at the beginning of the summer — something I never do. I am grateful for that time, to rest and rejuvenate.

Then the deaths of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor changed everything. Particularly the protests in Austin and the horrific response by Austin Police Department. That kicked my producer brain into high gear — I had to figure out how to use my skills to making change. I have loved and thrived in the Austin arts community for over 20 years and now it was time to invest my energy in the greater community. I want everyone who lives here to have the same opportunities to flourish.

Policing and how our city structure around the police union was my focus. Along with a few friends we created the Police Oversight Project (POP) — an organization with the sole mission to repeal Chapter 143, the state code that essentially gives the police union all of its power by blocking accountability, transparency, and oversight. I’ve spent the last nine months learning an incredible amount about the inner workings of our city government and engaging with a whole new community of Austinites.

I’m not sure yet how my work with POP will be in conversation with my artistic work. To me art is essential. It’s the full makeup of my being and exists in every part of my life. It should be a tight weave in the fabric of our society AND this can’t be true until we know that all of our neighbors are safe. How can I make art when the black and brown community of Austin can’t live without fear in our city?

S: What changes do you want to see in theater/dance and how it’s practiced? What could/should the so-called ‘new normal’ of theater/dance look like? Artistically, what’s next that you look forward to, and are excited by?

NG: Artistically I’m really ready for an opening night. I don’t even care what the show is! I am looking forward to hard work culminating into a high energy performance where the performers are giving their all and the audience is soaking it up and sending so much love back to the stage. To hear the audience clapping at the end, the big hugs in the lobby post show, and the triumphant drinks on a patio after. I am excited for the ritual. And while we laugh and rehash the past year, I am eager to chat with my friends about community and what it means. To think about our city holistically and what it means to be involved in change. How WE must protect and serve our neighbors and what that could look like if we envisioned a better Austin for everyone. I’m ready to be in conversations about how art can actively make change.

The series ‘A Year In’ catches up with artists now that the coronavirus pandemic has passed its one-year mark.

Jeanne Claire van Ryzin
Jeanne Claire van Ryzin
An award-winning arts journalist, Jeanne Claire van Ryzin is the founder and editor-in-chief of Sightlines.

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