BWW BLOG: IN THE TALL GRASS Author Paul Kalburgi Crosses the Pond for Dallas Documentary

British Playwright Paul Kalburgi blogs for BWW about making his Texas debut with In The Tall Grass at Bishop Arts Theatre Center.


It's 8:35am on Friday August 25, when I leave my home in Madrid, Spain, and head to the airport, bound for Dallas. It's been fifteen months since I completed a research and development workshop of my new verbatim play, In The Tall Grass at the South Dallas Cultural Center. After exactly two years of research, interviews, writing, and re-writing I am thrilled to be returning to Dallas for the world premiere production at the Bishop Arts Theatre Center, in the very neighborhood where I conducted my very first interview for the project!

In The Tall Grass explore the circumstances leading up to the murder of Shade Schuler, a 22-year-old transgender woman whose body was found dumped in a field in the Medical District of Dallas in July 2015. Shade's story is set against the backdrop of wider atrocities across the US, which saw at least 23 trans or gender-nonconforming people murdered in 2015 alone - at the time, more than any other year that advocates had recorded.

Hold up! What's a 'verbatim play' and why are you writing it in Dallas? I get that a lot. Verbatim is a form of documentary theatre, whereby the playwright immerses themselves in a story or event, usually, while it's still unfolding and records interviews with the people on the ground connected to the story. This method allows for the capture of raw, unedited emotions, which form the basis for the play. The process involved hours and hours of interviews which are then painstakingly transcribed into hundreds of pages of raw material. This content is then carefully curated to form the play - which of course must still hold up like a conventional play with a coherent story arc and be satisfying for the audience. The words of the living contributors are brought back to life by actors on stage, retaining every element of the contributor's natural speech. When an audience watches the play, I want them to take on my role and witness the harrowing testimonies as though first hand.

I moved to Dallas from London two weeks after Shade's body was discovered. Realizing that Shade's murder was just one tiny piece of a much bigger story that was playing out in cities across the United States, I felt compelled to react. Transgender women, and in particular African American and Latina transgender women, are suffering an unforgivable injustice. They are suffering systemic and institutional abuse and neglect at every level, including being denied legal support, healthcare, job opportunities and housing - all of the resources and support systems that the majority of us assume will be there when we need help. In town and cities across the US, and throughout the world, our trans people are marginalised, pushed out, forced to exist in the underworld or 'in the tall grass'; and that's where the title for the play came from. Shade Schuler lived, and sadly her body was found, in the tall grass in a field in Dallas. When someone's support network, family, resources and public services are removed what do they do? As human beings, we all have a survival instinct. We all need to eat, to drink. We all want to be safe, be clean, have somewhere to sleep at night. So tragically, many of our transwomen are forced into a life of crime... forced into sex work, drugs and criminality in order to survive, and sadly forced into all of the danger that comes with that kind of lifestyle. The average life expectancy of a black transgender women in 35! That's a crazy... shocking statistic.

Twelve hours later, after touching down at DFW Airport, I pick up my rental car and head straight to the theatre. Since the play was programmed whilst I was in Spain this is my first visit and I can't wait to take my first look at the auditorium that will soon play host to the world of the play and be filled with the touching personal testimonies that make up the play. For now... I need to sleep.

Jetlag, copious amounts of coffee, and two migraine tablets later, I drive back to the Bishop Arts district for the first day of rehearsals. Two members of the cast were involved in the workshop period last year, and other members have been cast via Skype auditions across the Atlantic so I am very excited to finally have everyone together in the rehearsal room to start to bring this important piece of theatre to life. Programming this play is a brave move for a theatre in the Deep South and I am thrilled to be given the opportunity to share this story and hopefully spark a wider debate, raise awareness, and to change hearts and minds. I suspect we probably have the most diverse cast ever seen on a Texas stage and are bringing something very special to the stage. I can't wait to share it with you!

Catch my post next week, when I'll share photos and insight from our first week of rehearsals.


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