Editor's Note: This is the fourth of a monthly column on TheaterJones, in which Aaron Zilbermann and Tiana Kaye Johnson will chronicle their journey in starting a new theater company, Metamorphosis: a new living theatre, which has a mission of theater for social justice. They will write about administrative and artistic issues as they near the first productions in June and the fall.
Dallas — For this month's column, we have a conversation between Zilbermann and Johnson about the first production for Metamorphosis, running June 9-11 at Arts Mission Oak Cliff.
Aaron: Metamorphosis arrived at selecting the Obie-award winning play, Dutchman, for our inaugural production quite easily. Since my second year as an undergraduate student at the University of Texas at Austin studying political theater, I have always been quite intrigued by the play. That year, I took my first class with Dr. Omi Osun Joni L. Jones, African American Theater History, and naturally Dutchman was among the list of required readings for the class. The piece played a substantial role in my investigations into theater and its relationship to society that year and left a significant imprint on my mind. So, when Tiana and I met to discuss what play would be perfect to present as the first public production by Metamorphosis, naturally Dutchman was my initial thought. The play is immediate, urgent, revealing, uncomfortable and forces its audience to reconsider their understanding of the relationship between race, power and privilege in our society. It was the first title written on my list to share with Tiana at our meeting, and she and I quickly reread the play. In fact, we both read and reread play after play, seeking out the perfect fit for our nascent theater company. And we both kept returning to Dutchman. It is problematic in countless ways, but although we exist 53 years later, the play remains highly relevant to today’s national dialogue on race. One other play, A Day of Absence by Douglas Turner Ward, seriously spoke to both of us, but didn’t elicit nearly what we found in Baraka’s One Act.
Tiana: I love people’s reaction when I tell them that we’re producing Dutchman as our first production. Either they’ve never heard of it and are in for a treat, or remember it very specifically as a major protest piece of the 60’s. Either way they’re excited to see it in this day and age and current context. Conceptually, our goal is to take the radical 1964 drama and pull it into the year of 2017 to expose the current issues around race relations as historical ghosts that covertly move through society as microaggressions but are nonetheless violent. For Morph, this is an exploration of the historical and contemporary concept of the hyper-sexual black male and the innocent, white female, or the damsel-in-distress stereotype. What happens when they are constructed or deconstructed right in front of our eyes? For this endeavor, we are using a very specific method and aesthetic called SoulWork, developed by Dr. Cristal Chanelle Truscott.
Truscott explains SoulWork “as a comprehensive methodology of acting, directing, playwriting, devising, script analysis, ensemble building, and community engagement designed to create heightened levels of emotional sincerity and evoke circumstances that elicit a visceral response or, more esoterically, that elicit ‘soul’ and the exchanges of soul between artist and the audience/community.” Cristal has been teaching and training artists in SoulWork, in master classes, workshops and courses in university, professional, arts-based and international settings for over 15 years. I was introduced to SoulWork as an undergraduate student at Prairie View A&M University and continued the practice after being invited to join Dr. Truscott’s touring ensemble, Progress Theatre, in 2013. It is now a part of my process as a professional actor and director and perfect for a piece like Dutchman.
SoulWork is a method that goes beyond the text and uses breath and emotion to take the audience on a heart wrenching journey. Aesthetically, it is a technique that allows the show to start at a point of heightened emotion and urgency and end at an even higher point than we, the audience, thought was possible. Shows that tackle social justice issues can often be jarring to present to an audience. It is a journey that may be difficult for some to take, particularly when you see yourself reflected in an idea that you don’t like. This method is not meant to make this work more palatable, but elicit empathy from the audience that will make them want to lean into the discomfort and potentially move toward conversation and ultimately action. This journey is true for the creative team as well. We are tasked with bringing every piece of our identity into the room, committing to self-evaluation, and leaning into the discomfort on a daily basis. We have two wonderful actors: Lindsay Ryan, a third-year MFA at Southern Methodist University, and McClendon (“Mickey”) Giles an SMU alumni of Meadows Acting Department. They both have great acting instincts, and a desire to go on this journey that is required of SoulWork practitioners.
Aaron: I am so deeply thankful to have the opportunity to practice this work with Tiana. Her depth and integrity in her creative work are quickly apparent and I have learned a great deal about another approach to theater that truly makes sense to me, that, in fact, compliments my long-held theories that are deeply rooted in Theatre of the Oppressed work and Augusto Boal’s writings. As I watch Lindsay and Mickey become more and more emotionally available through SoulWork, I am reminded of Boal’s thought that “the profession of actor is so unhealthy and so dangerous. We are routinely asking our actors to take themselves into their whole person, deep within, right inside, in the pressure-cooker, the place where demons dwell at boiling point. And the actor, having patiently tamed her wildcats long ago, is once again obliged to go and waken them. Actors search the depths of the soul and the infinity of the metaphysical.”
SoulWork demands this accessibility to all emotions in the same way that Boal describes it, and the work can be dangerous. Healthy actors dig deep into their persons, beyond a constrained personality, in search of pure emotional availability, “in the hope that, once the curtain has fallen, they will be able to get them back into their cages. And in the best of hypotheses, they succeed in doing this. But sometimes . . . once awoken . . . (they) refuse to return to the darkness of that Pandora’s box which each of us is. There are actors who become ill.” We are fortunate enough to be collaborating with actors who see the value in such a journey and are so deeply pursuing it. After only a few weeks of this work, I am certain that I want to learn more. I have begun reading Black Acting Methods: Critical Approaches, in which Truscott is featured as one of the artists who, “offer alternatives to the European-American performance styles that many actors find themselves working with,” and I am already seeing ways for this methodology to influence my work.
Seating is extremely limited for Dutchman, so if you would like to attend purchase tickets immediately for June 9, 10 or 11 at www.morphdallas.org/dutchman. All performances will be held at Arts Mission Oak Cliff, 410 S. Windomere Ave., Dallas.
» Aaron Zilbermann, executive artistic director of Metamorphosis: a new living theatre, has worked with Big Thought and other local teaching institutions. Tiana Kaye Johnson, the theater's director of education, is a Dallas native and Southern Methodist University graduate, and a member of the Dallas Theater Center’s Diane and Hal Brierley Resident Acting Company. She currently appears in Dallas Theater Center's Electra and is in the world premiere of the musical Hood, opening in late June.
» Living Theatre runs on the second Friday of the month on TheaterJones.com (except this May edition, which was moved back; we'll get back on track in June)
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