TODAY, MARIE CISCO is the owner of a full-service production company, one she founded to uplift stories of Black and African culture. Currently, she’s juggling producing duties on The Black Joy Project, a unique collaborative that will result in the creation of both a play and documentary film; editing an anthology of essays by Black millennial artists reimagining the future of live entertainment post-pandemic; and developing new initiatives with Academy Award-winning rapper Common.

Despite her recent success, Cisco says it’s unfortunately still rare to see young, Black women in roles like these. “I think it’s not seeing people in a lot of these positions that look like us,” Cisco said. “I think, speaking personally, it’s suffering from imposter syndrome, feeling like if I’m one of the only people in the room, then am I really supposed to be here? And it’s systemic; it’s the gatekeepers. If the gatekeepers are all older, white men and they’re bringing in their friends, then you’re not getting in the gate. It’s all those things you’re up against.”

Cisco’s introduction to theatre was, in part, a happy accident. “I grew up in Atlanta, and I ran track my freshman year because all my friends did it,” Cisco said. “But it’s very hot in Atlanta, and I quickly realized I didn’t like to run.”
The teacher of her drama elective at Salem High School suggested she audition for the school play. “A friend and I did, and we were both cast in Little Shop of Horrors. That was my first musical,” Cisco said. “It was the first time I had been part of something where I felt like everybody from different backgrounds, different social milieus within high school, came together with one similar goal. I knew this was something I wanted to do. I thought at that time I was going to be a pediatrician or a lawyer, so I didn’t think I would pursue it as a career, but I knew that, in some capacity, it would be part of my life.”

Cisco soon moved away from acting — “I quickly learned that wasn’t my jam,” she said, though she did close out her Thespian career playing Ruth Younger in A Raisin in the Sun. Yet her interest in storytelling remained. Following administrative roles at The National Black Theatre and The Public Theater, in addition to a stint working on television and film productions with Lee Daniels Entertainment, she founded Cisco & Co. Productions to amplify voices of other Black creatives.

“I’m clear about the stories I want to tell, but I’m also open to stories I haven’t thought about that are interesting to me,” Cisco said. “I’m West African, so it’s really important to me to tell traditional West African stories. But I was born in the States, so African American stories as well and stories that aren’t necessarily based in the struggle of being a person of color or Black person in this country. That can be kitchen-sink dramas, that can be sci-fi, that can be horror stories that elevate the level of storytelling and free writers to create ― not under the oppression of what they think they have to write for white consumption or for consumption by the masses. Those are the stories I’m really interested in telling and being part of.”

Marie Cisco
Marie Cisco

How did you find your way to producing?
I went to undergrad for theatre management. At the time it was a very new major. Only three or four schools in the country had it, and the Theatre School at DePaul University was one of them. In this program, they partnered with the business school, so you had some creative classes, but then you also had business and accounting classes, statistics classes, and things like that. The people in my class wanted to be anywhere from marketing directors to IT people in theatre. I didn’t know what I wanted to do in theatre, actually; I just knew I wanted to be an artist at the table.

When I got out of school, I was stage managing. I was the director of audience development for a small theatre company, MPAACT in Chicago, then I started directing. And I really, really loved directing. But I wanted to oversee and organize the entire process and bring people together. Directing didn’t do that in the capacity I wanted. I had thought about being a producer, but in undergrad when we met producers in class, they were Broadway producers, and they were all older white people who had money. I thought, to be a producer, you have to be older and white and have money, and I am none of those things so I can’t be a producer.

So, I worked in the field, and I decided to go back to grad school after being out of undergrad for three years. I did a one-year M.A. program at Columbia College Chicago in interdisciplinary arts, and that’s where I worked with a cohort of artists from multiple disciplines. We produced work together, we collaborated, we made scripts for each other, we learned how to incorporate multimedia ― just really fascinating things I never got to do. I realized I wanted to be a producer, and I could figure out in what capacity I could be a producer. I began to understand it didn’t have to look like how it had been presented to me. I could find my way into this role and create what I needed it to be for me and for the work I wanted to make.

Marie Cisco produced the special event Black Girl Magic, featuring Shannon Matesky, at the National Black Theatre of Harlem.
Marie Cisco produced the special event Black Girl Magic, featuring Shannon Matesky, at the National Black Theatre of Harlem. Photo courtesy of Marie Cisco.

Your current role as a producer for the Black Joy Project is such a unique experience. A group of artists, led by director Stevie Walker-Webb, isolated together for a month on a farm in Vermont to create a play outside the power structures of and without reference to whiteness. Can you describe your takeaways from that process?
Stevie’s whole purpose for this project was to create a methodology for creating work that is rooted in Black culture but also to create a play from that. Then we filmed the entire process documentary-style, and we’re going into postproduction for that film next month.

I had never worked on anything like this. To have a group of 17 Black creatives in one of the whitest states in the country isolated on a farm for a month on stolen land trying to figure out what Black joy is authentically ― that is, in itself, a very unique experience. But I prepped for it like any project in terms of budgeting and organizing travel and supplies. Then when I got there, I quickly realized this was not like any project. We didn’t come there with a script. We came there with the intention to create and discover, and when you have such an eclectic group of artists and creatives you realize that everybody does that in their own way.

When you aren’t under the guise of an institution that is dictating how you are supposed to create and when you are supposed to show up and when you are supposed to deliver ― that freedom didn’t allow me to produce the way I have allowed myself to be trained to produce. I had to let go of some of the rigid nature of what it means to be a producer who’s super organized and allow myself to be open to what the process needed while I was there on the ground. That was very different but also a learning experience for me as we were thinking about how to strip away Western ways and ideologies of making. There has to be structure. You have to be organized but also open to whatever the process needs and what the needs of the people involved are. That’s one of the things I definitely want to take away as a producer ― to allow the process and the people involved to inform what the process needs to be.

You’re also working on an anthology of essays by millennial artists of color about post-pandemic entertainment. What have been the common themes?
One of the things that’s coming up a lot is critiquing things that don’t work in the live performance world, and I think it’s across the board from all disciplines. But also identifying places or institutions or companies that are doing it right. And then there’s ― and I think this comes from a lot of anger of the protests and Black people dying at a disproportionate rate from corona ― a lot of call for revolutionary acts, taking back what it is we need and not just taking it back but creating that world. Not going to the white institutions and asking, “See us, treat us better, pay us more.” Instead it’s saying, “No, we are going to decenter you and your need, and we’re going to create the reality and future we want to live in.”

I think as students are going into college and getting out into the professional field, we always know when we’re in spaces where something doesn’t feel right. It’s important to come together and say no. It’s not enough to just complain in the dorm room or form an affinity group and complain about it there. It’s important to have those support spaces, but you have to have action. Don’t be afraid to put action behind the things you have identified that aren’t working, especially in places where you are paying money to be educated. It’s owning your education and being bold and speaking up when you know something isn’t right. And it’s knowing there are people out there who are feeling the same way you are. Find those people and know they may change as you change and become the person you’re meant to be.

Marie Cisco directed the MPAACT production of Blackademics by Idris Goodwin.
Marie Cisco directed the MPAACT production of Blackademics by Idris Goodwin. Photo courtesy of Marie Cisco.

You have held many roles, from performing and writing to directing, stage managing, and producing. How does a broad range of experience help you as a producer and the owner of your own company?
It’s so important as a producer to know how to talk to people in different roles. So, to have the experience of being a director, I know the things they’re thinking about, the concerns they have, their planning process. When I sit down and talk to a director, I can help guide them. I haven’t performed in a really long time, but I know what it means to go through the process of learning lines or learning blocking and to go through all the things actors do. I have been a stage manager, so I can dissect a process from all these roles and capacities. It helps me organize and create a flow of what needs to happen in production but it also helps me sit down and talk to almost anyone in any department in any role and understand where they’re coming from.

What advice would you give Thespians interested in a career like yours?
Identify people whose careers you like and study the things they did, the people they talked to. Figure out how to set up coffee dates or phone conversations with as many of those people as possible. I know it seems daunting to reach those people, but it’s really not that difficult. If you’re thinking about college, find a program that has producing, even if it’s just a single class you can take. Take accounting classes, take statistics classes, take classes on how to put together a business plan so you have that knowledge. But stay tapped into the creative and what it means to develop a script, what it means to develop a project. It’s really about having both feet in the production side but also the creative side as well.

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