BWW BLOG #3: IN THE TALL GRASS Author Paul Kalburgi Crosses the Pond for Dallas Documentary
One of the great things about working on a live story is the ability to really connect. Last week was all about helping the cast immerse themselves in the real world of the play, visiting key locations in Dallas and rehearsing in-situ. This week, however, we took things to a whole new level, as cast members connected with the real life contributors who they will portray on stage. Of course, I am able to share details of each of my interviews with the cast, but meeting in person or speaking over Skype where possible can be invaluable, and so this was something I was keen to help facilitate in order to strengthen back stories and build on their character work.
Verbatim plays are curated and crafted from first-hand testimonies of the people at the heart of the story, as such, the cast of In The Tall Grass are now the custodians of these words, and with that comes immense responsibility. Actor Neil Rogers who plays Doug, explains, "Being the words of real people there is a demand to get the words and inflections exactly right. Words are being spoken on stage that people said out of their own emotions, fears, angers and first impressions. It has been emotional and somewhat liberating. I have thought that performing on stage gave actors the ability to see new things through the eyes of their characters. But this play takes that concept to new heights and has made the experiences more viscerally real." Sheila D Rose was able to meet with the contributor behind one of her characters, Marcy - the cousin of murdered Dallas transgender woman Janette Tovar. After having lunch together, Sheila commented, "I have always been an ally, but I never considered how many challenges were faced by this community. This has been a wonderful experience and I have been challenged in a good way, and oh my god...to actually meet someone you are portraying? All I can say is, wow."
Something else I was always keen to do from the outset was to cast transgender people in transgender roles. For the R&D development workshops, this proved a challenge and we were forced to fill role with out-of-state talent. However, given budgetary restraints, this wasn't going to be possible for a full production given the duration of rehearsals and production, which has resulted in creative casting, once all attempts to cast locally had been exhausted. I didn't have to look too far to know that local transgender advocate Shannon Walker, would be an asset to have on board for this production. In The Tall Grass will Mark Shannon's stage debut, however, the amount of insight that she is able to bring to the rehearsal room and share with the company seemed a great trade for a crash course in acting. Indeed, casting a community chorus to perform alongside professional actors is not uncommon in verbatim works seeking to further links with the world of the play. With an experienced and supportive cast around her to lean on, it has been a joy to watch Shannon grow in confidence throughout the rehearsal period and deliver resolute and steely performances in the roles of Cindy and Tracee. I look forward to seeing Shannon tread the board at other theatres across DFW in the future!
This still left me with the need to cover four more transgender characters, which I decided to accept as a real opportunity to extend artistic license and further play with gender fluidity on stage. Excelling the roles of transgender women Toni-Michelle and Sahara is Kyndra Mack, who was a little nervous at the initial prospect of portraying transgender women... "I was extremely because I wanted to portray them the right way. When I reached out to Toni Michelle and spoke to her, it felt like a huge weight was lifted from me because I realized, we were more alike than I thought. We like the same things and we have similar voices, inflections, and mannerisms. We may not have been born the same, and our struggles may be different, but none of that takes away from the fact that I am a woman, portraying another woman. She told me she felt completely confident with me playing her. That meant so much to me because I felt like once I spoke to her, I had to confidence to trust myself, and really explore." Perhaps pushing the boundaries a further still, actor LaMar Roheem Staton was cast in the role of Josh, as well as trans women Jade and Star. LaMar accepted the challenge, calling the opportunity a tremendous gift as an actor, "Many times we're gifted roles to bring to life and it's a journey of one individual, but being able to play a cisgender straight male, an early stage trans female and a transgender woman is almost mind blowing in itself. To go to those three separate places at first was intimidating, but once I got over how "different" they were I realized how actually similar they are." Completing the line-up on stage are Michael Salimitari and Mieko Hicks, two stellar actors who I am thrilled to be able to bring forward from the R&D workshops to this world premiere production.
As of Sunday, the full play has now been relocated to the stage and the majority of the soundtrack, video projection, and lighting design created, ahead of tonight's first tech run. With the cast off-book now I have been able to put my script down and really take in the play as a piece of theatre, shaping and refining the play as a whole. It's such an exciting feeling seeing the cast really start to sit into their roles as they enter the stage with wig and props for the first time. It's all coming together, and after a two-year process, its now just a matter of days now until we share this very special story with public and press.