Theaterjones: Tell us a synopsis of your solo show Mo[u]rnin’. After.
Brigham Mosley: The way I talk about it is, [it is] a mythic autobiography through Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Oklahoma! It started out…this show has had many iterations. It started in New York, when I was living there I got a grant to make new queer work under Tim Miller. It was a grant from the NPN [National Performance Network] and the PS122.
I was making a piece about my great great-grandparents, granddad’s granddad in turn-of-the-century Oklahoma. They were American Indians who passed for white. It was really this critical piece about the idea of closets and what that would be, and during the middle of this, my granddad passed away and it was very sudden. I was doing this piece about his family and it suddenly felt very mean. My granddad was the last person I loved, who I was very close to [and] who I had never come out to. During this time, I was getting the deepest I’d ever gotten in a relationship with my now-fiancé, and it was this sort of love letter to him, to all of the ancestors that came before us, and it was this relationship with Zac my partner, now fiancé and closing this circle of closets and secrets, and all of that on top of the tracks of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Oklahoma!
It’s reappropriating those songs, it’s getting into lineage and secrets, but really it’s love and family and heritage. That’s a lot! It [that description] just sounded sort of curvy and gnarly, but on the other side of that, I think it’s funny. It’s definitely full of emotion, and it’s about being raised in southwest Oklahoma, being gay and Jesus camps, all that sort of thing that terribly has become a cliché part of being in the Bible Belt. But then also having this incredible family of support and love.
How did you become involved with Solo Festival?
I was recommended to this festival by many people. [PrismCo co-founder] Jeffrey Coangelo, I think, was the first person who recommended me to it. I’ve also worked with [Dallas actor and previous Solo Festival performer] John Michael, who is lovely, and there [are] some wonderful things to say about [Audacity Theatre Lab artistic director] Brad McEntire, who runs the festival, and then this work. I recently moved back to Dallas. I went to school here but then moved to New York after graduating in 2010, and then I moved back at the end of last summer, so I’ll be coming up on a year. Most of the work that I was doing in New York was solo work, and once I got back, so many people said, “You have to do this festival, it’s really great. This is its second year.” It’s really popular, so that’s how I got involved. I’m really happy that they let me in.
You said you did a lot of solo performance when you were in New York.
I did in undergrad as well. One of my interests was queer theater, solo work specifically. I had the happy opportunity to work with Tim Miller when I was in undergrad. He comes to SMU every year. He’s incredible. He is the solo performer, and really has been just a wonderful mentor, and has set so much into motion in my own life. It was always an interest that I had, I was doing solo work in undergrad but once I got to New York, that’s where most of my opportunities [that] came [to me] were in solo work. And for me, it’s the fastest way to produce, because it’s one person. I write, I perform, in terms of putting a production together, it’s much easier than a large, 20-person cast. That was the work that kept coming. It’s work begetting work, and that just ended up being what I did most.
What does a solo performance do better or differently than a play with two or more performers?
I love both. I write plays and I write solo shows. I love the immediacy of solo work. As an artist, I like mess and big emotion. I like to be very present, I like the idea of performance rather than acting, to be in a room with an audience. I think audience participation is really scary and I don’t like it, but I love acknowledging audience, I love having conversation, I love there never having that separation between the performer and a room. What is allowed there is an in-the-moment conversation. Things can change, especially when you’re your own writer, you don’t have that beholded-ness to the script, because it’s like, “These are my words, I can do what I want.”
[For example] I’m going on because this person said something in the audience, or there was a moment here, and I can acknowledge that and live in that. It’s been a wonderful way to play. I think both are amazing. I think, for me, I’m able to maybe explore more human personal issues as a solo performer, just because it’s your own story. With this “mythic autobiography” where I definitely take liberties—like, I never met my great great-grandfather, I never knew them [my great great-grandparents] personally—to create these relationships, and then to fill in your own mythology, your own story, which I think is what we do as humans, but then in this way that it really has that energy and focus onto it. I like the immediacy of it, I like the play of it, the mess of it. It’s magic.
It sounds like there’s a different dialogue with each performance, between performer and audience.
Yeah, sure! I think there should always be that give and take, otherwise why is it theater, why is it live? Watch a movie or TV otherwise. I think that acknowledging the audience and inviting them to participate in the work…that’s what theater does best, and film does film so well, why should we ever try to do film in theater? For me, I love a script. I’m so envious of people who can just go off the cuff for an hour. That’s not me; I love scripts. But I always want to be present enough that if something dangerous, something raw, something exciting happens in the room, to be able to explore that and give myself and the audience permission to take that journey. I hope it’s always different. I hope it is. But then on the forward side of that, lots of preparation, being very comfortable and grounded in all the work, and that gives all that freedom on the other side to play.
Where are the difficulties in preparing for that, since it is so personal and emotional?
This piece is definitely my most intimate show, my most personal show. I don’t typically write from such a vulnerable place, and it came out of this very surprising time where there was…to be a part of the mentorship with a deadline and grants and funding and a presentation, and in the middle of that for granddad to have died and to know that there’s still a show to be made, and just this is where I am right now. There’s a rawness and a vulnerability, and for me it’s always about tempering that with comedy, with jokes, with music. I never want it to just be like Medea, things should always be fun and entertaining, and for me to build in the parts that are fun that I get to be excited about…you know, if I’m not having fun, the audience isn’t having fun. I think the big emotion and the big scrawly, messy solo shows, like my work, we all get to go through it together, and I never want it to be masturbatory or depressing. There’s always got to be room for play, the silliness. And you know, granddad died, but there’s also this love story, all these fun moments of hope and love and optimism.
You mentioned there’s this undercurrent of Oklahoma! Looking at the titles of some of your other plays, you seem to playfully draw on other classic works and characters. Why is that, and how does it affect your writing process?
I love reappropriating. I have a Marlon Brando piece, I have a Scarlett O’Hara piece. My work is full of allusions and overlaps. For me, it’s about getting into a deeper conversation about existing work, about the zeitgeist, about cultural consciousness. We all have this dialogue happening with cultural fixtures of the American musical, or American literary icons, and all these people we are aware of, that we have relationships with. The minute that you take them out of context and put them in somewhere new, I think there’s this interesting discomfort in changing the narrative, changing the story, taking something familiar and then putting it in something that is new, that is uncommon. I have this Scarlett O’Hara piece that is about just being incredibly poor in New York, just wanting to be an artist but not figuring out how to make it happen. While the people around me are doing great things and changing communities, to feel very selfish in that moment. And we know Scarlett O’Hara, we know who she is, we know that’s a selfish person and a survivor. What do you do when you take her and put her in 2014 New York and she can’t afford rent? You get to be awful with her, but you also get to tell the story without it becoming a downer, without it becoming masturbatory.
With Oklahoma! and this show, it’s about taking these songs, these moments, these images, these characters that are in the play, and moving them around to where I can play Laurey, where my now-fiancé can play Curly, or we can switch roles and tell that story again, where I can be Ado Annie and we can move these songs around where the song about moving on from a relationship can be about trying to find the hope after granddad’s passing. I think it really plays with all of our histories with all of our references, and the minute you already have a relationship to but you tell a new story with it, people are already invested in it because they know it.
What have been some of the audiences reactions to your work when it’s inspired from another work?
For me, and this show specifically, I would always hear a lot about people forgetting about that song, in a way that’s not “Oh, I forgot that song was in Oklahoma!” but in a way of “I forgot what that song is actually saying.” Especially for something like Oklahoma!, [which is] done constantly. I was raised in Oklahoma, every high school does Oklahoma! every year. It’s something that people know well, but it’s also a dark play full of really complicated emotions and danger and murder and violence, and it’s this play that’s really hopeful in all this despair, loneliness and isolation. You take these songs and you move them around, have a different character singing them, it changes the context of what the music is, and Rodgers and Hammerstein are just brilliant, amazing. They created musicals. To see how deep some of these go, because we’ve experienced them so much…it’s interesting to encounter them again and find the beauty in it, the danger in the darkness.
What is the rehearsal process like?
I work with an incredible collaborator, Laura Hix, and she’s coming in to reset this. She’s also my best friend in the entire world; we went to school together. Many people can direct themselves; I can’t. I can’t see myself when I’m performing. Especially when you’re doing work you want to be incredibly present with the audience, it’s hard to remove yourself and have that outside eye while being present, while just doing the piece. I work with an incredible director who is very close to me, and we have an incredibly tight relationship. We challenge each other as artists but also as humans, and when you’re dealing with something as sensitive as your story, your life, it’s a tough line to tow, but we do.
And in terms of preparation, for me it’s the script, it’s the text, it’s knowing things backwards and forwards where if you ever do go up [forget a line] in a moment, you know it well enough that you can pick back up or jump ahead, or if you miss something, you come back around and do it again. I need to know the text to find the freedom to play. It’s really the boring stuff, of just over and over again in the living room, going over the show.
Because it is your story, how does Laura help bring out more from you?
Thank God we are as close as we are. I think there are those moments in all of our lives that we’re crippled by and scared of. It’s all those shameful moments, of guilt, regret, all those terrible things [that] are so scary to touch on, and I know that as a writer, they’re the things that I gloss over, that I am afraid to dig deep into. It’s like, “Oh here’s a touchstone, moving on.”
Laura has always been really great about probing, about asking, “Well, what is that moment? How can you make that poetic? How can you find the metaphor in that so that you can actually explore it?” She’s an incredible collaborator because for her, it’s about finding the poeticism in the moment, about the metaphor, the vehicle. The minute that you take out the need for the explicit, saying, “This is fact, this is what happened, I am quoting here,” and that you can say, “What does this look like? What does this feel like? What are the colors of this, what’s the taste? What are these connections you can make to where you can probably build the moment into a more specific way without having to get into the nitty gritty of autobiography, of past?” I think that that’s been the key of it, is look for metaphor, look for poetry.
In this and in your other work, “Oh What a Beautiful Mo[u]rnin,’” you have the “u” in brackets.
It was the idea of the song, “Oh What a Beautiful Mornin’” [from Oklahoma!] about the idea of hope, optimism and a new day. And the “u” in brackets is about mourning the loss of someone. For me it’s that idea of—those aren’t mutually exclusive—a bright future, that even after loss, relationships can continue. I think is what this show is about, is these moments I lost with granddad [and] to think that we can still continue our relationship, that we can still have those conversations, that I can still make him a part of my life, of my relationship with the man that I will marry, our future. And much like this continuing relationship with these ancestors, these American Indians who passed for white, this big spot in our familial history that we have no context on, or concept of. We can create those histories for ourselves, those lineages. I think that there’s not an end. You can wake up—oh what a beautiful morning, oh what a beautiful day—and you can keep going through loss and tragedy. There’s always hope.
You’ve performed this in a few places. What drew you back to Dallas and what makes the theater scene here appealing and unique?
I love it here! I’ve been lucky to be able to do my work in many places. This show specifically is the one I’ve done the most and been able to take the most places. I’m interested to see how it plays in Dallas because I’ve never done it in the Bible Belted South. It’s only been done mostly in the Northeast, and so I’m interested to see how it plays. I think more people will have this story about being outted by their church, about the loneliness and hostility of being gay and raised Southern Baptist. I think that this is something people know more, so I’m wondering if it’s going to play as new or if it’s going to be like, “I see that,” or if it’s, “I’m bored by that.”
For me, Dallas is a place of energy, of interest, of investment, of community. When I was in school here, I always saw myself coming back. I knew I wanted to go away just because I was raised in Oklahoma, went to school in Texas, and I wanted to see something new. I would always come back to Dallas because my family is so close, I went to school here, I had friends here, and I was just always blown away by the activity, by the fact that you can do whatever you like as long as you are creative enough to make it happen if you’re willing to put in the work. My partner and I made the decision of, “Okay, we want to invest in a community that we see as our own, that we want to be a part of for decades to come.” We’ve been here 10 months now and I’ve been able to do more creative work in less than a year than I did in the five [years] that I was in New York, which is crazy.
In terms of show creation and piece development; I was able to perform the same pieces many times, but there’s just an investment here. I’m with the playwrights’ group at DTC, I’m in a couple of groups of young artists producing their own work. There’s just so much enthusiasm. There’s space, the boring side, but being able to afford to put up your own work, to produce. It makes all the difference, and the time afforded and piece development and creation. I did readings of two new shows this month, which is amazing to me because I never would have been able to pool those resources to get audiences of people I don’t know who are coming out to see these things, which I’m blown away by. For me, it’s that enthusiasm, it’s that commitment to the work and the artists. It’s a generous place, and it’s such an exciting time to be here. I feel very lucky to be here. I tell my partner and anyone that will listen all the time, that this is the first time in my life that I feel like I’m in the right place at the right time. And to be someone who wants to create, and not just perform, but really wanting to build brand new things and experience new things. I can’t think of a better place to be right now, which is why I’m here.
» Brigham Mosley's Mo[u]rnin'. After. is performed at the following times:
- Thursday, June 4 @ 7:30 p.m.
- Thursday, June 11 @ 10:30 p.m.
- Saturday, June 13 @ 9 p.m.
And you can follow our coverage of the 2015 Dallas Solo Fest in our special section, here.