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BWW Interview: AN AWAKENING Larry Powell Sets His GAZE On Speaking Out

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Larry Powell has two of his plays opening online this week - THE RECLAMATION OF MY BLACK ASS IMAGINATION: AN AWAKENING and THE GAZE... NO HOMO

BWW Interview: AN AWAKENING Larry Powell Sets His GAZE On Speaking Out

Playwright/actor Larry Powell has been making the very most of his time in these crazy quarantine circumstances. Larry has two of his plays opening online this week - THE RECLAMATION OF MY BLACK ASS IMAGINATION: AN AWAKENING (as part of Greenway Court Theatre's 20th anniversary season opener IF I SHOULD WAKE); as well as, THE GAZE... NO HOMO for The Fountain Theatre. It's a wonder Larry found time during this final week of pre-show responsibilities to answer a few of my queries.

Thank you for taking the time for this interview, Larry!

How have you been making creative use of your stay-at-home time? Writing new plays? Zooming your Powell Academy of the Performing Arts classes? Adapting your 2020/2021 Eugene O'Neill NPC finalist THE GAZE... NO HOMO into a 12-part online series?

It's been a pretty wild ride as I'm sure most can imagine. It started off with me losing all of this creative work I had lined up due to COVID-19. That was a mindbend, but because I have great faith in the journey and am a firm believer that necessity is the mother of invention, I searched within for ways to rise above creatively. But, only when I was sure it wasn't coming from a need "to just do something because the world stopped." I couldn't create from that place. I needed to take the moment to stop and breathe. So, once I was sure that I really had something to say, right now, in this wicked moment we are in, filled with tremendous loss, pain, and triumph, I did.

BWW Interview: AN AWAKENING Larry Powell Sets His GAZE On Speaking OutThe quarantine continuation of my creative expression as I like to call it, started off simple: me, sitting on Instagram Live, when I still had social media - I don't anymore, and reading my plays to whoever would be in the room. It was pretty cool, but I needed something more. Then, sometime in April, I had the idea to adapt the first play of a cycle of plays I had started writing last year, THE GAZE, into a 12-episode digital series. I had never made one of these before, and no one had really done it in COVID times. I mean, we got this cleared by SAG in mid-June 2020, we were done shooting late June, and by August were showing episodes to the world. I still am in awe of our team.

But, see, we had to do it! The play had just received finalist status at the O'Neill, which I thought was beyond cool. Then, the uprisings around Ahmaud Arbery, Georgre Floyd and Breonna Taylor started and I found myself out there on the frontlines. Simultaneously, my Black theatre community began to speak out and take action against white American Theatre and its longtime relationship with systemic racism and microaggressions. THE GAZE is my attempt to find a way to breathe in BWW Interview: AN AWAKENING Larry Powell Sets His GAZE On Speaking Outcertain white, microaggressive American theatre spaces. This piece seemed destined to be among the many voices courageously choosing to speak up. And so I decided along with my longtime friend and powerhouse producer Angelica Robinson's Tell Me A Story Productions and so many other brilliant artists/activists to bring this story to a digital medium in the middle of a pandemic, uprising and industry shutdown in order that it be told NOW. Making this series in this way, in these times has forever shifted what I know to be possible.

Another thing that has profoundly inspired me is an organization I founded at the top of 2020 called The Freedom Workshop's pivot to the online space. The Freedom Workshop went by a different name during its initial pivot and was known for a brief moment as the Powell Academy of the Performing Arts. We're back to the original name of the organization now and are thriving!

What motivated you into founding The Freedom Workshop?

My experience growing up as an artist in places and spaces that did not center the multi-dimensionality of my Black experience, because they couldn't, is what motivated me to found The Freedom Workshop. The Freedom Workshop is a holistic experience created for diverse and intergenerational Black artists to put each other on game. To get a turbo jolt of quality, top-notch access to cutting-edge training, community and opportunity in the entertainment industry while providing cutting-edge, thought provoking productions to a new, diverse audience.

BWW Interview: AN AWAKENING Larry Powell Sets His GAZE On Speaking OutThis, in the way I envision it, was missing out in L.A. especially; so I did something to fill the void. We had a deeply successful inaugural, pilot version of The Freedom Workshop before the pandemic hit, and I didn't want to abandon this community and work we had started just because we were stuck inside, mourning losses, and marching in the streets. To me, we needed a space to come together as Black/Black queer artists to train and pour into each other and strategize creatively with each other more than ever. So, we hopped on Zoom, four times a week, for twelve weeks, and we did just that and more. Through it all, the pivot was super successful, and we have exciting things in the works moving forward.

Did you ever experience systemic racism earning your degree at Carnegie Mellon?

Yes, of course, and I took the lead on speaking up about it a lot of times while I was there and continue to even after graduating. I think it's important to know that it's not something any Black/POC person can be safe from while enrolled at such a prestigious institution unless the white institution is actively anti-racist. Like, it doesn't stop at The Drama School, it's all over the campus, and out into the neighborhoods you have to find housing in while living in Pittsburgh. And then here, and then there. I stay in contact with the school, those who are woke, ha, and work to mentor/lend a ear/learn something from the current Black students. It's very important to me that there is a real deal, open, and reliable channel of communication between those of us who have gone through historically white programs and have found a way to rise above whatever traumas we've gone through. No journey is the same, of course, but we are each other's roadmap.

BWW Interview: AN AWAKENING Larry Powell Sets His GAZE On Speaking OutWhat cosmic forces first brought you together with Greenway Court Theatre and this production of IF I SHOULD WAKE?

I am a two-time recipient of the L.A. County Arts Internship. This was an incredible initiative to connect college-level artists to arts organizations in Los Angeles as interns. My second year I interned at The Robey Theatre Company! There I met and worked under Ben Guillory and learned so, so much from him about Black theatre, making theatre in general, acting, running a non-profit, you name it! Anyway, one of the production photos that would always stare me in the face while at my desk there, first as an intern, then for two more years as an executive assistant, was a poster of the show PERMANENT COLLECTION, co-produced by Robey and Greenway. PERMANENT COLLECTION was a show I loved to hear Ben talk about. It even went on to be picked up by Center Theatre Group. I would sit at my desk and dream of one day having one of my plays done at such a level. Then, 10 years later, I met Tiffany Moon at the Ojai Playwrights Conference. From there, Tiffany continued to support me and my work by re-introducing me to Greenway. I have workshopped and held readings of three of my plays at Greenway over the past two years. So, when I got the email to participate in IF I SHOULD WAKE..., I was honored at the chance to give back to and continue to grow with a company that has given so much to me.

BWW Interview: AN AWAKENING Larry Powell Sets His GAZE On Speaking OutDid you write THE RECLAMATION OF MY BLACK ASS IMAGINATION: AN AWAKENING specifically for IF I SHOULD WAKE? Or is this a piece you're already written?

Yes, I wrote THE RECLAMATION OF MY BLACK ASS IMAGINATION specifically for IF I SHOULD WAKE. It's a commissioned piece.

Did you write RECLAMATION specifically with yourself in mind to perform?

Well, yes. But, also, AND. If you know what I mean. It's a "Yes, and'' kind of moment where I did write it for me to perform AND if someone else feels called to do it, and do it well, be my guest. As long as the spirit of reclaiming one's indigenous imagination is the center of the experience for the artist and audience -- I'm good! Getting back to creating from this native space within, it's one of the things I'm most interested in right now as a human being, as an artist, as a Black artist, as a Black artist that happens to be queer.

You know, I was thinking today and I remembered my first real acting teacher, Lee Lavery. I love that man so much to this day. But I was thinking, he was the one who passionately threw A RAISIN IN THE SUN at me and said, "Here. Go to this page and read 'Walter Lee.' Start at this line." That was the beginning of my journey as an actor. Lee is a white man. I was actually the only Black guy in my class. I went to an independent private school named Oakwood School in North Hollywood, CA from BWW Interview: AN AWAKENING Larry Powell Sets His GAZE On Speaking Outseventh to twelfth grade. I am beyond thankful for my education and what my Mom and family had to go through to make sure I got it. But, also, can you imagine having this conversation about racism, writing about it, acting about it, singing about it, dancing about it -- since the 7th grade? I'm 34 years old now and the year is 2020. It becomes exhausting and there comes a point... Well there came a point for me where I became much more interested in writing and acting from the place in me I would create from before my travels into white private academia. Before I even knew what the word "minority" was. My journey is my journey for a reason and I'm thankful for the tools and experiences. But, I'm much more interested nowadays about what makes MY folx tick. What are the things we want, and why?

Which brings you more satisfaction - being onstage acting? Or being offstage with actors performing your words?

I love acting. Period. Meant to do it. Period. Annnnd, the truth is, I found writing first. I would write on the back of brown paper bags when we had no more paper when I was like 8, 9, 10 years old. BWW Interview: AN AWAKENING Larry Powell Sets His GAZE On Speaking OutLong before I would act, though I would read the words to people. So, maybe I found them both at the same time? I will say I love to see virtuosic actors show me things I didn't even know I had written on the page. It's an experience unlike any other. But being on stage/set as an actor with my fellow actors while they are working their magic with words I have written is the supreme experience. It makes me a better actor because it forces me to be extremely present as the actor. I can no longer be the writer - I have to forget I wrote it in a way - in order to successfully and responsibly be in that magical world of infinite possibilities my fellow actors are in.

Do you find there's less pressure in originating a role, as you did in THE CHRISTIANS, THE LEGEND OF GEORGIA McBRIDE, FATHER COMES HOME FROM THE WARS, BROKEOLOGY, WHILE I YET LIVE, than in taking on a character other actors have portrayed before? No room for comparisons, right?

I truly believe I am here to originate great roles in masterful works. That's one of my mantras I keep with me at all times. So, when, in the past, an opportunity has come up for me to take on a character other actors have portrayed, being truly pulled to the role, or made by circumstance to take the job, I make it my number one business to understand and make clear to myself, the writer (if possible) and the director what I am doing differently with this role. It's got to be crystal clear. And here's why: building a role, when you're really doing it, is not for the faint of heart. Whether you're originating or not. It's really intense, deep, challenging and, ultimately, rewarding BWW Interview: AN AWAKENING Larry Powell Sets His GAZE On Speaking Outwork. So, when you're really in it, you don't have time for worrying about what others are saying and doing with their comparisons. That's a distraction. It's important, for me, so I can get to work, to understand how I will make this interpretation original. Which is always just about being true to myself and not thinking so much about it. So, in a way, I am always, in my mind, originating a role. Now, classics are a different story... it's an honor to step into the lineage of players who have played a role. But, that too, is about making sure it's original to you in a way. I also think it's important and fun to steal/sample from others who have done the role before if you find yourself in that position. I believe there is a shared consciousness with roles and the players who play them and it can be a very satisfying experience to use others findings to get you closer to the nucleus of the role.

Tell us about your three plays world premiering over the next two years.

I have a play called NIGHT CAP, where a young guy brings an older guy back from a bar to his recently deceased Mom's apartment only to find he's in for much, much more than another drink with dude. NIGHT CAP started as a ten-minute play at The Fire This Time Festival. FTTF does incredible work in NYC and I'm a proud alumni. I'm also planning a premiere of my play LOST DOG, which I've been developing for some years now all over the country. LOST DOG is about a brother who has the ability to return lost souls to their right homes but when it's his younger brother's soul that gets lost, he refuses to do it. The other is my play REALNESS where my time coming up in the Vogue Ballroom Scene Culture collides with my time in white conservatory training programs. I'm excited for all of these to rise above the pandemic and premiere in theatre spaces but, if adapting THE GAZE into a digital series has taught me anything, nothing will stop me from getting these stories and more out to the world. All three will also make great movies/series.

What other projects are you juggling at this moment?

BWW Interview: AN AWAKENING Larry Powell Sets His GAZE On Speaking OutWe have lost so much and so many this year. I was shocked to experience where my grief took me on November 5th, 2020 when I lost one of the most significant people in my life, my Auntie Gerri. She was one of the women who raised me. She was another Grandmother, my actual Godmother, and one of my best friends. Throughout the past two weeks since she passed away unexpectedly and extremely painfully, I've begun to examine, Strength. She was a strong woman and was so strong for so many others. I'm curious about how ones who are weak find strength when they lose someone who is strong. And, how those who have been so strong for so many discover, hold, and offer up the places where they are weak. So, I'm now working on a piece about that. Also, check out we're having a watch party of Season 1 (runtime 2.5 Hours) on November 29th 3pm PDT/6pm EDT! But, mostly, as for me, I'm getting ready for originating some roles in some masterful works. :)

Thank you again, Larry. I look forward to checking out your RECLAMATION and THE GAZE... NO HOMO.

For free viewing of THE RECLAMATION OF MY BLACK ASS IMAGINATION: AN AWAKENING and other pieces of IF I SHOULD WAKE, log onto Twitch.TV/GreenwayCourtTheatre

Part 1 begins streaming November 20, 2020 at 7:00 pm PT, with Part 2, November 27 at 7:00 pm PT, and On Demand through Thursday, December 10, 2020.

To watch THE GAZE... NO HOMO, also for free; go to beginning Friday, Nov. 20.

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From This Author Gil Kaan