One of my favorite aspects of writing for The Betty Pages is getting to find all the events that are going on within the community. Since leaving Boston, that usually means what’s happening in the Pacific Northwest, but every now and then, something on the east coast catches my eye and I have to share it with you. This month is one of those times. Because really, this is good, Poppets.
Last year, I learned about a hot, new playwright, Shawn C. Harris. Shawn is a triple minority – Black, female, and queer – so I was particularly interested in hearing her voice. Fingers crossed, hoping it wouldn’t suck, I read her play, Tulpa or Anne&Me. Oh my God. This was so far beyond simply not sucking.
Tulpa is truly breathtaking. In a raw, honest way, she explores the relationship between two women as they deal with and explore how race affects them as they move from strangers to lovers to possibly friends. Her ability to acknowledge that which unites us as women, and yet push us to face the systemic racism that divides us is rare and valuable.
Since the staged reading of it last year, Tulpa has taken off – and rightly so. Instead of simply passing away into obscurity as so often happens with the work of people of color or members of the LGBTQ community, the show is a featured stage production of the Planet Connections Theatre Festivity 2011 on June 19th in New York City (866-811-4111 for tickets if you or anyone you know is going to be in the area). Yep, Shawn’s gone big-time! So, imagine my delight and surprise when she and her director/co-producer Sara Lyons, agreed to do an interview with me (and told me to call them by their first names, nonetheless).
Bridget Adams (BA): The PCTF website describes the play like this:
Tulpa, or Anne&Me explores a strange friendship that begins with an artist whose lonely world gets turned upside down when Anne Hathaway crawls out of her television. As their friendship blossoms, they begin to examine how race impacts their lives as women, as friends, and as human beings.
How would you describe it? What is it to you, Shawn, as the author?
Shawn Harris (SH): LOL! I wrote that description for PCTF, so I'd say it's fairly accurate of the plot. What the description doesn't get is how the play speaks to my generation's experience with and ideas about race. Ditto gender and sexuality. We were born years, even decades, after the landmark events of the civil rights, women's liberation, and gay rights movements. All that was literally before our time. Back then, it was said that the personal is political. Now we're seeing how the political is also personal.
Sara Lyons (SL): ditto on what Shawn said :)
BA: The show is challenging from an artistic standpoint, in that your actors have to have a level of talent that we aren’t always seeing these days. I imagine, dealing with the issues of race, racism, and social justice in such a raw, honest way was also a challenge when it came to casting. Were there difficulties in finding people who were talented enough to embrace the roles but were also open enough to address the issues?
SH: Yes and no. So much of what's out there is stereotypical and doesn't offer much to the talent that's out there. As for casting, it's not just the subject matter that makes it hard, it's the nature of the main character too - not just as a queer Black woman, but as a person. She doesn't lend herself to expressing herself easily, but that's kind of the point of the character. But actors - especially stage actors - are often trained to be very expressive, so facing a character who is so intensely reserved can be particularly difficult.
SL: To a certain extent, yes. But in my experience working on shows with social justice themes, I have often found that the more openness and trust that I approach the work and my collaborators with, the more they often surprise and delight me with their passion and interest in the issues at hand. I think the fact for a lot of people is that they have never had the opportunity to honestly engage with social justice issues, particularly race--they haven't had the particular privilege of taking lots of expensive women's studies classes in college, for example--and when they are actually given a safe, nonjudgmental, and stimulating environment to get into it, it can be a novel, transformative, and enlightening experience. When I'm casting a piece like this, I don't necessarily look for someone who is a self-described activist, or someone who makes their living doing social justice work (not that that isn't wonderful!)--I look for people who have heart, and who are unabashedly honest. As the play develops in rehearsal, it is that person who will discover that social justice is just as much about what is in your heart as it is about who's in the White House. That valuing of heart and honesty is also a huge part of what makes a quality actor. So, I often find the pieces actually fit together well
BA: What was it about the two of you, Shawn and Sara, that made you realize you could produce this together?
SH: Since we're both passionate about social justice, we come at it with a shared vocabulary that makes it much easier to get certain ideas across. I don't have to explain basic concepts, which makes it a lot easier to go deeper more quickly. As a director who also knows actors, she can grasp the internal and external complexities of the story and communicate them in a way that works for the people who have to give it life. I'm a writer, so I know how to communicate, but that's not the same as being able to speak Actor.
Sara is remarkably open to challenging her assumptions about things, which is what this play is about. So when I send her resources that inform or explain a certain aspect of the play, I feel like that effort helps - even if she chooses not to use it. So that means she comes at it not as imposing upon the play, or merely regurgitating what's on the page, but interpreting itself in such a way that it reveals itself most fully. It's like the difference between textbook Mandarin conversations and Ezra Pound.
SL: Ditto on what Shawn said. We have mutual passions for social justice and for theatre, and we both believe in the effectiveness of social justice theatre both as art and as activism, so it was a natural fit. As a director, I am consistently blown away by Shawn's writing for it's raw honesty. She expresses truths about broad societal constructions in the most private, intimate communications between people. The ability to draw bridges between the personal and political, I think, is one of theatre's greatest strengths, and it's a task that really excites me as a director and as an activist.
Additionally, I think the two of us compliment one another in terms of the perspectives we bring to the script--we took different routes to social justice and to theatre, and have had very different experiences around race in our lives (I'm white). I think that working on Tulpa is a way for us to help each other express our distinct individual voices while we simultaneously discover and build ground around what we have in common. It's fulfilling, exciting, and so productive!
BA: Traditionally, the voices of people of color and from the LGBTQ community have been given far less respect than the voices of white, straight artists. Shawn, you are a minority. What resistance did you face getting Tulpa up originally?
SH: Triple minority! Not too many queer Black women getting a lot of theatre press.
To be honest, most of the resistance has come from myself. Many writers have this problem to an extent. I've questioned and doubted myself in ways that someone like, say, David Mamet probably doesn't. There's always that feeling that you don't measure up no matter what you do. There's always that suspicion that you're kidding yourself because there are so many other writers who said what you said better than you, so the world doesn't need what you have to offer.
But in a way that's kind of symptomatic of the systems that oppress women, people of color, and LGBTQ people. While physical violence is awful, I've found that the most dangerous and insidious effects have been psychological. I've had times when I've actually wondered to myself, "Maybe I'm just inferior. Maybe I'm simply not smart enough, strong enough, or righteous enough. Maybe it's right for me to be treated this way."
That interview Oprah had with Barbara Walters where she admits that she wanted to be White? I understand exactly what she meant.
BA: Where does the title come from?
SH: In a nutshell, tulpa is a term from Tibetan folklore that describes a being made real through willpower and imagination then takes a life of its own.
SL: Shawn said it. What I find most intriguing about the definitions of "tulpa" is the idea that through a nexus of desire, imagination, and necessity, a human being can literally will something into reality. It's an evocative, theatrical concept, and it also brings interesting perspective into thinking about how to create a more just society.
BA: The goal of the show seems to be (to me anyway) to create honest dialogue
around race and racism. Do you think it’s succeeding?
SH: I think it's too soon to say, but the feedback I've been getting about it makes me feel hopeful in a way that I haven't felt in a very long time.
SL: A small number of people have seen or read it so far, but there have been really encouraging responses. A white, straight man who read it said that it influenced his ideas about race and his own whiteness more than anything he'd ever read or seen before. One person's reaction doesn't necessarily mean other people will react similarly, but I do think it's true that this script has the potential to inject a new level of heart and understanding into how we understand race on the most personal levels. That's absolutely what it's done for me.
BA: Has anything unexpected come from the writing and producing of Tulpa?
SH: Definitely! Working on Tulpa, or Anne&Me has taught me something very important: to challenge my expectations. Most of the people who've been supporting Tulpa, or Anne&Me from the beginning have not been artists or activists or academics, but regular people who've read the script or checked out Tulpa's IndieGoGo campaign and said, "Yes, this is what I need to see," or "Finally! Someone who's talking about this like a real person and not a pundit," or "Thank God! Someone understands!"
SL: I completely echo Shawn's words about learning to challenge your own expectations. With a traditional theatre background in addition to a background in women's/gender/sexuality/race studies, I always fear that I won't feel validated as both an artist and activist when I'm constantly moving between both worlds. What I'm learning as I delve more fearlessly into combining these passions is that they don't have to be so different. Directing is largely about envisioning something original and effective and then guiding that vision into tangible existence. So is being an activist. It takes a lot of faith, and the more I believe in my own work, the more positive and energetic the response tends to be--from both the theatre and the social justice worlds.
For more information, contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org or go to http://www.indiegogo.com/tulpa2011 and see why I’m so excited. Last year, I was looking forward to hearing Shawn’s voice. This year, I’m looking forward to everyone else hearing it. So, keep an ear out for Shawn C. Harris and Sara Lyons, Poppets, and remember, you heard their names here first.
Until next month, Poppets, take care of you.