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There are few who experience life (and the region) as fully as Simone Cottrell. The daughter of a Cambodian refugee and a Vietnam Veteran, she is a multidisciplinary theatremaker in Fayetteville, Arkansas whose work evolves from her deep connections with the community. Learn more about her and, in doing so, learn about some of the best aspects of Northwest Arkansas in our interview below.
TITLE: Multidisciplinary Theatremaker
CITY: Fayetteville, Arkansas
How did you end up in Northwest Arkansas?

My sweet, patient sister Savannah lives in Bentonville and after listening to me complain over the phone about not being able to do the theatre work that I wanted to do, she simply asked, “Why don’t you move to Northwest Arkansas?” She talked to me about the arts scene and how it was expanding, but I was already sold on the opportunity of just being closer to my niece and nephew. On New Year’s Eve 2015, I drove a 20-foot Penske truck with my cat Lady Chairman Meow (RIP) in the front seat from Mississippi and parked it in Fayetteville.

When people ask me where I’m from, I say that my body was formed in Tennessee, my heart was shaped in Alabama, my spirit was built in Mississippi, and now my imagination is expanding in Arkansas.

What was your immediate impression of the region?

Because Savannah lived in Northwest Arkansas when things were still quiet, my immediate impression was that it was sleepier than Mississippi. Then on one trip to Bentonville, Savannah took us to the Bentonville Farmers’ Market and there were faces behind the produce stands that looked like mine! I started to learn more about the Hmong community that was here, and it excited me to know that if I moved to the NWA then there would be more Southeast Asian faces that looked like mine. In Mississippi, my family was the only family of Cambodians, and we are a mixed-race family. It’s an extremely lonely experience living in an area where no one looks like you, thinks like you, or even eats like you. The only major bias I have against NWA is the University of Arkansas. I went to Mississippi State and will be a bulldog for life. Hail State!

Editor’s note: Finding Northwest Arkansas does not endorse Mississippi State. We are Razorback fans for life, “Wooo Pig!”. 😉

Coco (Simone's pup)
Coco (Simone's pup)
What was your immediate impression of the region?

Because Savannah lived in Northwest Arkansas when things were still quiet, my immediate impression was that it was sleepier than Mississippi. Then on one trip to Bentonville, Savannah took us to the Bentonville Farmers’ Market and there were faces behind the produce stands that looked like mine! I started to learn more about the Hmong community that was here, and it excited me to know that if I moved to the NWA then there would be more Southeast Asian faces that looked like mine. In Mississippi, my family was the only family of Cambodians, and we are a mixed-race family. It’s an extremely lonely experience living in an area where no one looks like you, thinks like you, or even eats like you. The only major bias I have against NWA is the University of Arkansas. I went to Mississippi State and will be a bulldog for life. Hail State!

Editor’s note: Finding Northwest Arkansas does not endorse Mississippi State. We are Razorback fans for life, “Wooo Pig!”. 😉

WCWA Pro Wrestling Event
What do you enjoy most about the region?

My view of this region continues to evolve and in a lot of ways, I still feel like an outsider, which I don’t mind. It keeps a healthy perspective. It is definitely one of the most fast-paced areas I have ever lived in as far as the South goes. I enjoy that there are at least five events occurring on any given day, the community’s political and social justice involvement, and an artistic create-it-yourself atmosphere. I love that my experiences here have challenged me to become a stronger woman by solidifying my artistry, including defining my professional values.

Where do you like to spend your time in the region?

I truly enjoy spending time with my friends by attending workshops, having meals and wine, and dressing up a little extra to explore a new activity around the NWA. Recently, my favorite gal-pal-date experience was attending a WCWA event at the Fayetteville Town Center. I loved it! Pro-wrestling is such a unique form of theatre that I have kind of loved since junior high. The audience was electric, the stage combat wrestling moves were high-flying, and they sold Cheetos! It’s cheap, so a family can attend for some Sunday night quality bonding time. As a new fan and theatre nerd, I’m deeply invested in knowing how these storylines develop particularly for the women characters. There are two places that I have seen in Northwest Arkansas that folks have gathered naturally regardless of race, age, class, or finances, and that’s the Golden Corral near Johnson and the WCWA.

Other than that my list of faves are:
Fayetteville Public Libarary
Fayetteville Public Libarary
  • Other than that my list of faves are:

Describe NW Arkansas in 3 Words

Thrives on authenticity.

Simone Cottrell
Simone with Xue Lee, Kholoud Sawaf, and Laura Shatkus
How do you describe the region to those that haven’t been here?

I love it when folks from out of town stop me on the street and ask what is there to do. I answer them with a question, “Well, what are you into? Because we have a lot going on. Let’s curate a schedule for you!” They are usually shocked, but I assume that they assume that this must be how folks in the NWA operate so they stay long enough to chat. It ends up being this wonderful conversation with strangers and I feel like an NWA concierge. They get to walk away with a schedule of options and I get to walk away having helped folks navigate their way through the NWA.

What is your personal take on the regional arts ecosystem?

I think my greatest hope for the state of the arts in Northwest Arkansas is that we move away from skimming the surface of what it means to have diversity, equity, inclusion, and accessibility within the arts. This is hard work for any individual or institution to do and we can’t rush through this. I whole-heartedly believe in all the places, freckles, spots, and intestines of my being that Art is the best and strongest way to have honest conversations about the truths of who we are as individuals and as shared, compassionate communities. In order for us to create that space, we all need to take a hard look and question our current policies, procedures, ethics, and boundaries. If they aren’t built to protect and allow the most vulnerable person in the room to be seen and heard, then re-start. Our business is to create, and it doesn’t always mean on the canvas, the page, or the stage.

Tell us about some things you’ve worked on since being in the region.

Creating theatre with communities, especially youth, is my passion and I’m very lucky to have found my career path early in life. 2019 has been a banner year so far in my career growth, which includes developing new boundaries, visions, and even a new title change. I don’t think I’ll ever feel comfortable with a formal leadership title because of the social practice theatre that I do. I call myself a “multidisciplinary theatremaker,” which when it comes challenging outdated institutional theatre structures is a powerful statement on how I identify myself in this field. In 2019, I worked with Veterans with the VA and Marshallese youth with Marshallese Educational Initiative to develop and perform original theatre based off of their experiences and cultures. Both projects titled “We Are Veterans” and “The Bwebwenato Project” took almost two years to develop, so having the performances with the communities that create, wrote, and performed this year was so fulfilling and exciting. I also currently work with Art Ventures, a non-profit art gallery located in the heart of the Fayetteville Square, which has opened up a completely different set of opportunities to explore. I was also selected as an Artist INC fellow this year, which has been instrumental in re-shaping my career as a solo artist. It was with Artist INC that I have networked with amazing artists and I have so far been asked to a part of projects with visual artist Chad Maupin and poet Molly Bess Rector.

I have been honored with an invitation from the National Cambodian Heritage Museum and Killing Fields Memorial in Chicago, Illinois, to do research within the museum with full access to their materials, staff, and networking opportunities. I’ll also conduct a theatre workshop with their youth who are participating in the Asian American Advancing Justice project titled “I Speak Power.” We’re hoping that my current project Lotus Rising Theatre will somehow work into research they are doing with the University of Chicago in studying intergenerational trauma.

Other than that, I’m enjoying hunkering down and researching best non-profit practices, mainland Southeast Asian performance arts and history, volunteering with organizations deeply invested in social justice through creative acts, and attending protests or participating in acts of awareness.

Bwebwenato Project Cast
Bwebwenato Project Cast
Tell us about some things you’ve worked on since being in the region.

Creating theatre with communities, especially youth, is my passion and I’m very lucky to have found my career path early in life. 2019 has been a banner year so far in my career growth, which includes developing new boundaries, visions, and even a new title change. I don’t think I’ll ever feel comfortable with a formal leadership title because of the social practice theatre that I do. I call myself a “multidisciplinary theatremaker,” which when it comes challenging outdated institutional theatre structures is a powerful statement on how I identify myself in this field. In 2019, I worked with Veterans with the VA and Marshallese youth with Marshallese Educational Initiative to develop and perform original theatre based off of their experiences and cultures. Both projects titled “We Are Veterans” and “The Bwebwenato Project” took almost two years to develop, so having the performances with the communities that create, wrote, and performed this year was so fulfilling and exciting. I also currently work with Art Ventures, a non-profit art gallery located in the heart of the Fayetteville Square, which has opened up a completely different set of opportunities to explore. I was also selected as an Artist INC fellow this year, which has been instrumental in re-shaping my career as a solo artist. It was with Artist INC that I have networked with amazing artists and I have so far been asked to a part of projects with visual artist Chad Maupin and poet Molly Bess Rector.

I have been honored with an invitation from the National Cambodian Heritage Museum and Killing Fields Memorial in Chicago, Illinois, to do research within the museum with full access to their materials, staff, and networking opportunities. I’ll also conduct a theatre workshop with their youth who are participating in the Asian American Advancing Justice project titled “I Speak Power.” We’re hoping that my current project Lotus Rising Theatre will somehow work into research they are doing with the University of Chicago in studying intergenerational trauma.

Other than that, I’m enjoying hunkering down and researching best non-profit practices, mainland Southeast Asian performance arts and history, volunteering with organizations deeply invested in social justice through creative acts, and attending protests or participating in acts of awareness.

Tell us about the project(s) you are currently working on.

Lotus Rising Theatre (LRT) exists to artistically support the narratives of Southeast Asians (SEA) and Southeast Asian Americans (SEAA), particularly those affected by the diaspora, who reside in Northwest Arkansas. Youth and young adults are invited to share their own narratives and collect narratives from their elders through an innovative collaboration of traditional Southeast Asian drama and Western theatre devising practices. Collected and shared narratives will become an original theatre performance for the community.

I have been in the theatre world since I was four years old and it wasn’t until last year when I was 32 years old that I finally watched a theatre performance written by a Southeast Asian about Southeast Asians and performed by Asian-Americans. This was at TheatreSquared and the play was Vietgone. Imagine being so in love with theatre at four years old and doing everything you can to be accepted into this magical world, and at the same time not having any immediate role models on the stage or behind the scenes that look like you and experienced what you’ve experienced. This has been my theatre experience, and once I started learning how to work with historically oppressed, I was waiting for the right time – and the financial stars to line up – to create theatre with my Southeast Asian folks and it just so happened to be with Northwest Arkansas. The Southeast Asian diaspora and its connection with the United States is often an overlooked piece of history. Fort Chaffee alone received 50,000 Southeast Asian refugees in the ’70s and ’80s. That’s a pretty significant population that came through Arkansas and many Southeast Asians ended up living in Northwest Arkansas. I am working with a leadership team of all women – Xue Lee, Aysia Nguyen, Seremy Lor, Marleesa Noudaranouvong, and Virginia Siegel from the University of Arkansas Libraries department of Arkansas Folk Life. The goal is to have a youth theatre performance by October and November of 2020. Lotus Rising Theatre is funded by the Interchange Grant and 2019 Artist 3 60 grant, as well as private and in-kind donations.

What is something that we might be surprised to know about the region?

Did you know that that there are THREE Theravada Buddhist temples between Fort Smith and Springdale, AR? That’s kind of a big deal. Normally, there might be one for a large city, but three? That just makes me the happiest. What I’m hoping to do with the Lotus Rising performances is recognize that these spiritual centers and Southeast Asian communities do celebrate similar festivals with our Latinx communities and our neighbors in general. We have Halloween, the Latinx community celebrates Dia de los Muertos, Therevada Buddhists celebrate Phchum Beuhn (a 15-day period where our ancestors return to visit our families), and the Hmong community has their Rice Festival and New Year in November, where ancestors are also acknowledged. This all happens at roughly the same time. Perhaps this ends up being a Death Festival for the NWA? Who knows? Possibilities are endless!

Kim Heang Cottrell, AKA Simone’s Mom or in Khmer “Mak
Kim Heang Cottrell, AKA Simone’s Mom or in Khmer “Mak
What is something that we might be surprised to know about the region?

Did you know that that there are THREE Theravada Buddhist temples between Fort Smith and Springdale, AR? That’s kind of a big deal. Normally, there might be one for a large city, but three? That just makes me the happiest. What I’m hoping to do with the Lotus Rising performances is recognize that these spiritual centers and Southeast Asian communities do celebrate similar festivals with our Latinx communities and our neighbors in general. We have Halloween, the Latinx community celebrates Dia de los Muertos, Therevada Buddhists celebrate Phchum Beuhn (a 15-day period where our ancestors return to visit our families), and the Hmong community has their Rice Festival and New Year in November, where ancestors are also acknowledged. This all happens at roughly the same time. Perhaps this ends up being a Death Festival for the NWA? Who knows? Possibilities are endless!

Infinity Mirrored Room at Crystal Bridges
Any events, projects, initiatives should we be on the lookout for?
Poetic Justice | Open Mics
United We Dance | Dance Parties
The Four Wands | Witchy Events of Autumn

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Pictured above: We are Veterans Cast

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