Thomas Riccio, performance and media artist, writer and director, is from Cleveland, Ohio, where he grew up in a working-class Italian-American neighborhood and attended West Technical High School where he was on the varsity wrestling, track, cross-country teams--grappling, persistence, and endurance becoming life-defining themes. He has worked variously as a US Merchant Seaman, Teamster, warehouseman, a hotel manager and maintenance engineer, for a crisis center, and as a high school teacher for the New York Public Schools in Bedford-Stuyvesant. He received his BA in English Literature from Cleveland State University, his MFA from Boston University, and studied in the PhD program in Performance Studies at New York University.
He is Professor of Visual and Performing Arts at the University of Texas at Dallas. Prior to coming to Dallas he was a Professor of Theatre at the University of Alaska Fairbanks and director of Tuma Theater, an Alaska Native performance group. Riccio lived in Alaska for fifteen years, his cabin was nestled in the great boreal forest along the Tanana River. While there he became an avid outdoorsman, kayaker, canoer, skier, hiker, mountain biker, and dreamer. His research work in the area of indigenous performance took him to over thirty traditional Yup'ik, Inupiat, and Athabaskan villages.
As Artistic Director of Tuma Theatre, an Alaska Native performance group for nine years he devised and directed nine performance works. While working with Tuma he revived, developed, and re-imagined indigenous Alaska Native performance vocabularies and expressions--Athabaskan Indian, Yup'ik and Inupiat--for application in a contemporary context. His work with Tuma served as template--one that combines ethnography, drama therapy, aesthetic production, activism, education, and cultural development--for work with numerous indigenous groups worldwide. He received the Dancing Bear Award by the Athabaskan Indian Tanana Valley Native Corporation and was recognized by the Museum of the North for his contributions to Alaska Native Culture. He has received numerous awards and recognition for his teaching, directing, and contributions to cultural development and revitalization in a variety of cultural contexts.
Before Alaska, he served as Artistic Director of Chicago's Organic Theater Company where he developed several theatre and performance works. Among his achievements was the creation of the Organic Greenhouse, a community incubator for small performance groups and independent theatre and performance artists, facilitating the cross-germination of visual, performance, musical, sound, and experimental arts, producing or co-producing over fifty works. Among his initiatives was the development of a performance art series, inviting to the Organic post-disciplinary artists from the Netherlands, Poland, France, Italy, the American Ritual Theatre (opera) and the School of the Art Institute, among others, to explore and present a wide range of experimental work.
As Dramaturg and Resident Director, Cleveland Play House he directed several plays, initiated the New Works play reading and development series, wrote program notes, and was editor of Stage Notes, the theatre's newsletter. Prior to that he was a freelance director working in New York, Cleveland, Boston, and Europe. While a graduate student he served as Assistant Literary Director, American Repertory Theatre where he organized and ran the script reading cohort, served as an assistant director and dramaturg, wrote program notes and for the theatre's newsletter. While at ART he was a Harvard University research assistant to Robert Brustein and Michael Kustow. Visiting positions include, Professor of Theatre, University of Der es Salaam (Tanzania); University of Pondicherry (India); University of Nairobi, the Korean National University for the Arts; Visiting Professor of Anthropology and Ethnography, Jishou University (China); and Visiting Professor of Drama Therapy, California Institute of Integral Studies.
Trained as a stage director, Riccio has directed over one hundred plays and performances works at theatres that include, LaMama ETC, The New York Theatre Workshop, the Cleveland Play House, the Organic Theatre, the Teatro di Roma of Italy, and the National Theatre of Sakha (Siberia). He directed plays, musicals, and opera to critical acclaim. An experimenter and explorer by nature, he now views theatre as a component of his work, preferring an unhindered post-disciplinary response to the profound and foundational shifts confronting our time. His work with the Dead White Zombies serves as a forum by which to explore themes, issues, and expressions of place, spirituality, and evolution of the planetary indigenous.
Riccio continues to work extensively in the area of indigenous performance, ethnography, ritual, and shamanism and has conducted fieldwork in South Africa, Zambia, Kenya, Burkina Faso, Tanzania, Russia, Alaska, Korea, India, Nepal, China, and the Republic of Sakha (Siberia), which declared him a Cultural Hero of the Sakha People. For the National Theatre of Sakha, using indigenous performance vocabularies, he devised and directed Sardaana, a large scale production dealing with emotional and spiritual trauma of Soviet colonization. In apartheid-era South Africa he directed Emandulo which helped initiate the Kwasa, a Zulu-based performance group. A year later, during the run up to the first post-apartheid elections, he devised, directed, and performed in Makanda Mahlanu, for the Natal Performing Arts Council. The performance, based on a Zulu myth, toured throughout kwaZulu Natal--from marketplaces to rural clinics to union halls to bus stations--educating awareness of democratic and voting rights. In Zambia hed devised and directed Imipashi, a large-scale performance based on a Bemba myth that addressed inter-tribal conflict and corruption. Performed outdoors to audiences of thousands, it was the largest artistic event in the nation's history and toured throughout Zambia.
For the Metamorphosis Theatre of St. Petersburg, Russia, he devised and directed, Shadows from the Planet Fire, a performance applying pre-Christian, Slavic ritual. That performance was shown on Russian national television and toured to the Ural Mountain region. Working on a reserve with the !Xuu and Khwe Bushmen of the lower Kalahari Desert, he developed a camp-wide healing ritual with eight traditional healers as a way to deal with the trauma of losing their traditional folkways. For the Korean National University for the Arts, he devised and directed Twelve Moons, a performance that re-imagined and evolved traditional performance vernaculars. Working with traditional practitioners and students he facilitated the creation of contemporary masked characters as a way to revitalize the Kumkum mask tradition. In Ethiopia (2009), he devised and directed Andegna, for Lul Theater and Addis Ababa University. The performance, blending traditional and contemporary idioms, was an historical overview of Ethiopia's inability to come to terms with its self-destructive character. In repressive Ethiopia, the public voicing of discontent, unemployment, governmental corruption and repression, sexism, and tribalism is strictly monitored. Andegna was shut down by the police after two performances.
Riccio is a Fulbright Senior Specialist and has received grants and funding for his work from a variety of local, national, and international sources. They include, USIS, NORAD (Norway), the British Council, the Republic of Zambia, SIDA (Sweden), Finnita (Finland), Alaska State Council on the Arts, National Endowment for the Humanities, the Joyce Foundation, the AT&T Foundation, the Goethe Institute, the Theatre Communications Group, Swedish Writer's Institute, the Office of Cultural Affairs (Dallas), among others.
Riccio has presented conference papers, conducted workshops, and given lectures throughout the world, most notably at the national universities and theatre schools of Poland, Sweden, Finland, Nepal, Kenya, Estonia, and South Africa. Academic writings have appeared in TDR (The Drama Review), TheatreForum International, Theatre Topics, Theatre Research International, and PAJ (Performing Arts Journal). Peter Lang published Performing Africa: Remixing Tradition, Theater and Culture. He is the recipient of the International Distinction Prize in Playwriting from the Alexander Onassis Foundation; his play Rubber City ran in year-long repertory at the Kleist Theatre in Frankfurt, and three of his plays were selected as semi-finalist by the O'Neill National Playwrights Conference. He was a panelist and workshop instructor for the Great Plains Theatre Festival (2010-2014).
He has worked extensively as a Narrative Engineer for Hanson Robotics creating robot "brain" for the world's leading conversational social robots. Robots include: Bina, Zeno, Joey Chaos, Swami, Einstein, and Jules. His photographs, videos, and installations have been exhibited in a variety of installations, publications, online competitions, and gallery exhibits. In April 2018 he was named Creative Director for Hanson Robotics.
Riccio is the Poo Pah Doo (aka Founder and Artistic Director ) of Dead White Zombies, a controversial and award-winning, Dallas-based, post-disciplinary performance group, designing/writing/directing performance immersions: blah blah (2011), (w)hole (2012), Flesh World (2012),T.N.B. (2013), Bull Game (2013), kaRaoKe MoTeL (2014), DP92 (2015) and Holy Bone (2016-2017) , which was an eight month, multi-phase performance project performed in public spaces and immersive environments. The Dallas Observer named him one of "100 Dallas Creatives" and named the Dead White Zombies as "Best Theatre Company in Dallas for 2017". The current DWZ project in development is Blue Jelly, a multi-phase, year long performance.
He was a fellow at UCLA's APEX: Asian Pacific Performance Exchange (1999), an artist-in- residence at Toolik Field Station (Institute of Arctic Circle Biology, 2003), Halka in Istanbul (2014) and the Watermill Art Center (2016). He collaborated with Sibyl Kempson on conceptualization and initiation of 12 Shouts for the Ten Forgotten Heavens, a series of twelve one-day performance rituals at the Whitney Museum, NYC (2016). He is currently working on a long-term research and performance project with the Miao, an ethnic minority group in southwestern China, which will culminate in a devised performance with traditional healers and a monograph on Miao ritual and spiritual practices . His first documentary film on the Miao, Huan Nuo Yuan, was an official selection at film/video festivals in Beijing, Dallas, Paris and Sofia, Bulgaria. He was a featured actor in Wedding Dresses (2016) a Chinese language feature film--see the trailer above.
Thomas Riccio: I’m a child of the 1950s, and became a big fan of classic horror and sci-fi in a time when American Dream propaganda was at is its apex. I was manufactured during the Ur-moment of the Amerikkkan Zombie. Every Saturday I was at the Madison Theatre where, for twenty-five cents, you could scream and cringe, go home and have nightmares. In between features, they ran Three Stooges shorts—horror, comedy, absurdity fused in my consciousness. I was born and raised in a working-class ethnic neighborhood of Cleveland amidst chemical and stamping plants, foundries, and factories. Life was an immersive walk through horror, sci-fi, ethnic comedy. That’s why I like working with the post-industrial aesthetic of West Dallas. There is a terrible, poetic beauty offered up by our chosen environments.
Cleveland, the mistake on the lake, the city where the Cuyahoga River caught on fire (twice), the rust belt, a corrupt devolution wasteland. We lived up the street from a beach. Lake Erie, a lake declared dead, putrid with industrial effluents mixed with organic death, bloated dead carp gasping, speckled with pustules, slick and colorful with toxin-provoked hues. For fun, we would sit on top of a large pipe waiting for the rumbling majestic spew of raw sewage overflow. These feelings and images are like maggots wormed into my genetics. They lay underneath, a dark passenger, the inspiration for the Dead White Zombies.
Cleveland was a prophecy premonition of the world to come. White, European-based culture, with all of its incumbent values, is self-destructive human-centric, self-aggrandizing, consumption-driven perpetrator of ongoing atrocities. The world is now its suburb. You can’t have unlimited growth on a finite planet. White culture is a death machine. Dead, but like a zombie, somehow still walking around, still causing all sorts of destruction, cannibalizing what little remains until there is nothing left. We are delusional, placated, pacified, willfully ignorant, numbed by the immensity of our predicament.
The metaphor of the Dead White Zombies still guides us, and like a Zombie, we have no one performance space. I get a hair-brained idea, a twitch, a feeling, a flash of an image and then things are off and running. We have a little Zombie community of like-minded crazies; something like a sci-fi or Zombie collective brain is put into motion. I just spark the activity with some words and feelings and set them loose, we talk, we explore, we get confused, and then things happen, performances magically appear. I love working with these people, all of them. Once they are off and running, I have no idea what is going to evolve. All I insist on is for everyone to be relaxed, themselves, creative, and authentic. I tell them that what we are offering is a gift to our community. A gift doesn’t mean anything unless is it offered with a generosity of spirit. Be remembered for how much you gave, not how much you kept.