Responding to The Migration Series: Tearrance Arvelle Chisholm

The Phillips has commissioned five plays from local playwrights in response to Jacob Lawrence’s Migration Series.  The resulting 10-minute, one-act plays will be performed on Oct. 20. In this series, we interview each playwright.

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Tearrance Arvelle Chisholm

Why did you decide to get into theatre? Was there someone or a particular show that inspired you?
Tearrance Arvelle Chisholm: I got into theatre as a writer. I was a Fine Arts major in undergrad at the University of Missouri–Columbia. I wanted to break up the tedium of four hour studio classes, with a class where I got to sit at a desk and read and write. But I had an aversion to facts at the time. So I took a creative writing class. I took it so many times that they eventually wouldn’t allow me to take it anymore. On a whim, I took a playwriting class instead. The first play I wrote became a finalist for a prize at the Kennedy Center. I got a free trip to DC, where I fell in love with theatre and the city.

Tell us a little bit about your writing process. Do you have any writing rituals? Do you write in the same place or in different places?
TAC: I write sober and edit drunk—or vice versa. I don’t have a certain place I write, but I need to be alone. I tend to talk out loud and move around while I’m writing, so this isn’t really conducive to a coffee shop. I sometimes pick a song that I feel captures the mood, tone, and rhythm of the play, and then I listen to it on repeat. But for me, each play is different and I find that I have a different rituals depending on the play.

Please share your thoughts on what The Migration Series means to you. What excited you about being a part of this festival?
TAC: As a visual artist as well as a playwright, I’m really excited by opportunities to marry art and theatre. For me, The Migration Series represents the power of limitations. I find Jacob Lawrence’s process extremely fascinating in that he limited his palette to just a few colors. I think working within a set of limitations actually makes you more creative.

Tell me a bit about your play. What is it about, and what do you hope audiences will walk away thinking about after hearing it?
TAC: In the final hours of the project, this play became extremely personal. It follows the journey and migration of my own family from Mississippi and my personal migration to DC. At the same time, it speaks to a bigger, more mythological migration—a universal narrative. I hope the audience will walk away considering the migration of their own families and how they relate to larger migration narratives.

Which of the Migration Series panels inspired your play? What drew you to it? What was it like to write a play inspired by a work of art?
TAC: I was really inspired by Panel no. 3. I was drawn to it because of the mass of people all moving on one accord and the fact that their journey is mirrored in the flight of the birds. This forced me think of migration as an instinctual imperative. I wrestled with whether there was some inborn impulse to migrate in humans, as well as how much of human migration is instinctual and how much is practical. I’m still considering these questions.

Why do you think the message of The Migration Series still resonates today? How does your play related to that message?
TAC: I think that migration (or at least the impulse) is a sort of universal experience and it still resonates because people are still in motion.

What advice do you have for up-and-coming playwrights?
TAC: Read plays. See plays. Write plays.

What next for you? Where can we follow your work?
TAC: Next up, I’ll be joining the Lila Acheson Wallace American Playwrights Program at Juilliard this fall. And my play Hooded: or Being Black for Dummies will receive its DC world premiere at Mosaic Theatre in January 2017. You can follow me on twitter @theatrethirsty.

Responding to The Migration Series: Norman Allen

The Phillips has commissioned five plays from local playwrights in response to Jacob Lawrence’s Migration Series.  The resulting 10-minute, one-act plays will be performed on Oct. 20. In this series, we interview each playwright.

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Norman Allen

Why did you decide to get into theatre? Was there someone or a particular show that inspired you?
Norman Allen: It’s entirely my parents’ fault. They began taking my sister and me to shows when I was 7, but they were very thoughtful about how they did it. My mom would sit us down by the old record player and play an original cast album. Hello, Dolly! was the first. After each song, she’d lift the needle and fill in the story, then play the next song, then fill in the story again. The following day we went to a matinee fully prepared to have a great time. And it was magical! Broadway musicals are still my first love. They’re also the gold standard in terms of dramatic structure and character development.

Tell us a little bit about your writing process. Do you have any writing rituals? Do you write in the same place or in different places?
NA: I usually write in a big old armchair that’s roomy enough for me and my two dogs. I slouch down, get comfortable, and write on my laptop. The other thing I love is writing in coffee houses. (Never Starbucks.) I love getting immersed in the writing for 30 minutes or so, then looking up and taking a break with some top notch people-watching. Then it’s back into the world of the play. The caffeine helps too.

Please share your thoughts on what The Migration Series means to you. What excited you about being a part of this festival?
NA: I’ve known the series for a long time, ever since writing a documentary about The Phillips Collection for PBS back in 1999. In a way, it’s a theatrical experience, certainly a narrative one. In the world of theatre we’d call it a “promenade production” where the audience follows the action through a series of locations rather than sitting in their seats and letting the actors do all the work. The Migration Series is like that. You move through it. I also love that it’s about travel, about movement—both the sweeping, epic movement of a people and the courageous journey of each individual. And courage is key. Anyone—any immigrant—who leaves what is known and sets out for the unknown is a person of great courage.

Tell us a bit about your play. What is it about and what do you hope audiences will walk away thinking about after hearing it?
NA: I kept the basic movement from a repressive, dangerous situation to the supposed freedom of New York City, but I set in 1980 and I made my protagonist a young, gay man who’s escaping an abusive family and community. He meets a conductor on the train who was actually part of the Great Migration, and who becomes a kind of mentor—and friend. In studying The Migration Series, I was struck by the similarities to the migration of gay men to urban centers during the last half of the 20th Century. Places like Greenwich Village in New York and the Castro in San Francisco became havens—then became thriving, rich communities. But there’s the dark side too. I set the play in 1980 so that the characters would be unaware of the AIDS crisis that was about to hit. They’re unaware, but I hope the audience still remembers that devastation, and feels the weight of its approach.

Which of the Migration Series panels inspired your play? What drew you to it? What was it like to write a play inspired by a work of art?
NA: I chose Panel no. 5. It depicts a black locomotive moving through the night. Heavy smoke pours from the top and flows toward the back, but a headlight shines forward and a bright yellow bell is swinging. I was initially drawn to it for personal reasons. I’ve traveled a great deal by train, crossing the United States several times, and traveling across Europe, including a couple of long trips from Amsterdam to Moscow. And I especially love being on a train at night, watching the lights of small towns or farmhouses pass by. I didn’t realize at first that the panel is also a hopeful image. All that is dark falls behind, and the light shines on what’s ahead.

It was fun to write with a specific visual as my inspiration. In my early years I used to spend hours in museums, writing short stories that riffed on classic paintings. It was nice to return to that. It was also great to be able to visit the Phillips on multiple occasions and experience the work firsthand—and observe others doing the same. It’s always interesting to find what emerges when a writer is given a specific prompt or a visual to start from. There’s the possibility that it’s going to be limiting but it usually becomes a launching pad, and whatever is lurking in your subconscious, the story that wants to be told, is going to bubble up. There’s no escaping that.

Why do you think the message of The Migration Series still resonates today? How does your play relate to that message?
NA: As I said above, I found direct ties between The Migration Series and the experiences of gay men escaping their abusive homes and communities. But there’s a much more immediate resonance in the vast movement of refugees today. The journeys are arduous and dangerous, sometimes deadly. They take great courage. Unfortunately, what we’re seeing today often mirrors what happened during the Great Migration. That act of courage is met with distrust and exclusion, with slamming doors rather than open ones. But not always.

What advice do you have for up-and-coming playwrights?
NA: Get your work off the page and onto a stage. Hear it, assess it, and revise, revise, revise. You don’t need a full production at some high falutin’ theatre. Gather your friends in your living room, order some pizza, and hear the play read aloud. Raise the funds to self-produce your work in a small venue, or as part of a fringe festival. Find an audience, listen to them, learn from them.

What’s next for you? Where can we follow your work?
NA: My musical retelling of Carmen re-opens in Prague this fall, where it’s been running on a repertory schedule at the Karlin Music Theatre for more than five years. The score is by Broadway veterans Frank Wildhorn and Jack Murphy, so it takes me back to my musical theatre roots. It’s also in its second year at the State Musical Theatre in Kaunas, Lithuania. These are beautiful theatres, built at the turn of the last century to house operettas. I just love that my work is living in those spaces. Here at home I’m in the midst of getting a Masters of Divinity from Wesley Seminary. A lot of my published work these days are essays on spiritual and religious topics—always from a liberal perspective. And I still can’t escape my musical theatre roots! One of my most popular pieces was for the OnBeing website, an essay called A Sound of Music Theology!

Responding to The Migration Series: Annalisa Dias

The Phillips has commissioned five plays from local playwrights in response to Jacob Lawrence’s Migration Series.  The resulting 10-minute, one-act plays will be performed on Oct. 20. In this series, we interview each playwright.

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Annalisa Dias

Why did you decide to get into theatre? Was there someone or a particular show that inspired you?
Annalisa Dias: I did theatre in middle school and high school. I had an English teacher who suggested I try participating in the Pittsburgh Public Theatre (PPT)’s annual Shakespeare monologue contest in 8th grade, so I did that, and then very quickly got hooked and participated in basically every education program that PPT offered for the next five years. I still look at my experience with their Shakespeare Intensive program as formative. This was a three-week high school summer program by the end of which students put up an entire play on the PPT stage. The year I did it, we did Macbeth. I’ve been sort of obsessed with that play ever since. The irony, of course, is that as my understanding of colonial power structures has grown, I’m no longer a huge proponent of Shakespeare. In fact, just recently, I was invited to speak at DC’s Shakespeare Theater Company about race, identity, and the implications of colonialism on the supposed universality of Shakespeare.

Tell me a little bit about your writing process. Do you have any writing rituals? Do you write in the same place or in different places?
AD: My process is different depending on the project. Some of my writing is solitary. I think many people would tell you that much of my writing is collaborative or devised. It’s interesting to think about ritual in that respect—I’ve been reflecting recently on the active and contemplative lifestyles (I come from a Catholic background, what can I say?), and now I’m wondering about whether different writing or playmaking modes might map onto those. Maybe there’s something to be said for striking a balance between active and contemplative playmaking.

Please share your thoughts on what The Migration Series means to you. What excited you about being a part of this festival?
AD: The Migration Series is so fascinating to me for a number of reasons, not least of which is its narrative capacity. It’s exciting that all of the panels are being brought back together so they can be experienced as a whole story. Recently, I had a passing thought when walking through the Phillips about how the gaps in the separated The Migration Series narrative actually reflect something of the gaps in our understanding of the complexities of American systemic racism.

Tell us a bit about your play. What is it about, and what do you hope audiences will walk away thinking about after hearing it?
AD: My piece is about the current, largely unseen and coerced, migration of black and brown bodies into prison cells. The United States currently incarcerates more people than any country in the world. Our society has criminalized black and brown bodies, and then legally sanctioned disenfranchisement and discrimination against those folks. And our education system is complicit in that. If anything, I’d hope people walk away thinking about the way The Migration Series as not just a historical artifact, but also a signpost that points to still prevalent racism in our country.

Which of the Migration Series panels inspired your play? What drew you to it? What was it like to write a play inspired by a work of art?
AD: I was inspired by so many of the panels, but particularly Panel no. 49. There was something about the acceptance of physical divisions in daily life that spoke to me about our contemporary assumptions about physical spaces. I’m a visual artist myself, so I actually started by doing some pen sketches based on the spatial composition of Panel no. 49. Believe it or not, that led to an image of a balloon with chain link as its ribbon. And that image is alluded to in the piece that I wrote.

Why do you think the message of The Migration Series still resonates today? How does your play relate to that message?
AD: I think the difficult reality is that we live in a racist society, so while we’d like to think that the civil rights movement of the ’60s put an end to the spectre of racial disenfranchisement and discrimination, the reality is that racism is still alive and well. What’s troubling about The Migration Series for me is that I don’t want to think about it as though racism is over and solved, and we might run that risk by sheer virtue of it being housed within a museum. I’m excited by the opportunity to engage with it through theatre, where contemporary bodies might add another layer of complexity to the dialogue about our lived experience with racism today.

What advice do you have for up-and-coming playwrights?
AD: In many ways, I think I still am one! So I guess the advice I’d give to myself is: be rigorous in your thinking about the ethics of creating art, failure is necessary to creation, and be as generous and kind to those around you as you can.

What next for you? Where can we follow your work?
AD: I’m a Producing Playwright with The Welders, so I’ll be working here in DC for the next few years, and you can find more information on my website or Twitter @ajdm. I also co-founded the DC Coalition for Theatre & Social Justice, and if you’d like more information on that, please visit the website or email dcctsj@gmail.com.