BWW INTERVIEW: Creative Team of HONEY, AN IMMERSIVE PERFORMANCE, Presented by Fresh Paint and Oklahoma Contemporary
Ronn Burton, Regional Contributing Editor for BroadwayWorld Oklahoma, sat down with members of the creative team of HONEY, an original devised play from Fresh Paint Performance Lab, commissioned by Oklahoma Contemporary's Women In Performance series.
RONN: I'm here sitting on the set of HONEY at Oklahoma Contemporary with Katherine Wilkinson, the director of HONEY, and Chelcy Harrell, artistic director of Fresh Paint. Ladies, tell me a bit about your backgrounds and how you got together to collaborate on this project?
KATHERINE WILKINSON: I founded the Gale Theatre Company in Austin, Texas; my company's focus was on new, devised work - made from scratch, no script: all these performers and artists come together and focus a burning question such as "What does it mean to be alive today?" and we build a show around that. Through Gale, I became acquainted with Daniel Leeman Smith - he and I trained together with the Siti Company in New York. A few years ago, Daniel invited me to come perform in a project here at Oklahoma Contemporary, and through that project I met Chelcy. Chelcy and I really connected over new, ensemble-driven work and the potential of devising. Most of the work that I do is new play development, devised work, and adaptations of the classics - which I approach in the devising style. The work I do focuses on the ensemble being the generative motor in the room, as opposed to a singular playwright. For me, the thing that makes theater tick is the ensemble and all their ideas; I will always go to the mat that the collective ideas are going to be better than one singular idea: we are better when we do it together. I left Austin three years ago to move to New York City. I've been directing there in downtown New York and am about to finish my MFA in Directing at Columbia University, where I work as Anne Bogart's personal assistant.
Chelcy called me when she got this commission from Oklahoma Contemporary. She was very interested in the idea of female bodies and working with an all-female ensemble. We started talking about the idea of sex work and the kind of labor that women do in the world. We really wanted to devise a piece that spoke to the ways in which women's labor is both seen and not seen. For us, the entry point for that was physical labor and what we are calling "intimate labor." Then it led to us interviewing about 25 different intimate laborers ...a lot of them are sex workers. Women who make capital - make money - using their bodies in different fashions. So that's how I got here!
RONN: Sounds exciting! Chelcy, tell me more about you and this commission from Oklahoma Contemporary.
CHELCY HARRELL: I am currently serving as the artistic director of Fresh Paint Performance Lab. We have been performing in the theater space at Oklahoma Contemporary since we started in October 2016. When they were planning their Women In Performance series, they wanted to include a local homegrown piece as well. So Jeremiah Davis - the artistic director of Oklahoma Contemporary - reached out to me and said that they would like to commission Fresh Paint to create an original show in a "Fresh Paint style" ...which means encourage, cultivate, help, and workshop new types of performing arts and theatre that is collaborative and cross-genre. Jeremiah said we could do pretty much whatever we wanted within the theme of "women in performing arts" and we could have whatever team we wanted. So I immediately thought of Katherine, and we have been working pretty hard to ensure an almost entirely female creative team, design team, and cast. We have one male person on the project - who is my husband (laughter) - who is writing music for the play; so he is not in the room, but his work is in the room. And that's pretty much how we got to this point.
RONN: How did this particular idea coalesce from theory into theatre? And what has the rehearsal process been like now that you are all here in the room?
KATHERINE: In terms of how the play was generated, we did a lot of interviews... we just started by talking to people. One central interview we built a lot of the show off of was a sex worker who spends a lot of time in hotel rooms and business parks around the country. She would be sent there for days at a time, and clients would come and go. She wouldn't know when they were coming... she would be sort of trapped in this hotel room. We built a lot of the show based off of that.
We did development reading in New York City in September, then we did another reading in January in Oklahoma City. A lot of that was taking the ideas that were generated from these interviews and working with actors in the room trying to figure out what the scene is going to be: what stereotypes, ideas, or dreams do you have about sex work? We were in dialogue with a lot of people who have very different ideas about this one topic. So once we got to Oklahoma, the first week was ... in. tense. (laughter) The first week we worked with with two of our core collaborators from New York, Morgaine and Emma. We were all out on a farm writing the show, building the show, listening to interviews, and deciding on the things we had been separately working on in different locations. Then we all came together to synthesize the information and build the script.
Then when we got the actors the next week, we had them read the script... and that script looked very different than what you will see onstage in the final version. The first week of actual rehearsal with the actors, we didn't stage any of the scenes we had written - we spent the entire time with the cast generating new physical work, movement, more scenes. We thought what we had was pretty solid, but we also wanted to know what it inspired out of other people. So the first week might have driven some of the actors a little batty because many aren't used to working in this fashion. We would say "Read this scene. I'm going to give you a list of information and things that we want you to make. Go build this thing, and we will come back and work with it." We just generated lots of movement based off - not only the interviews and script - but based off the actors' experiences as women and entertainers. A big part of the idea of "physical labor" that we brought up is the differences are small: the difference between a sex worker and an actor, a sex worker and a domestic worker, a sex worker and a massage therapist ... those lines are really slim. We wanted to bring that into the room with their bodies as performers. So they brought a lot of their own experience and physical reactions, and we used that to build a lot of these movement sequences. Once we did that, we generated a lot more information and went back into the script, and then we started to build the scenes and stage them in a more traditional manner: learning the music, learning the dances... and then we would just continue to go back-and-forth. The script was still getting changes up until yesterday, but because the actors have been so integral to the building of the thing, the way they take on the changes is so quick.
RONN: Chelcy, how has this process been from an artistic director's standpoint? Has this devising process created any challenges in the preparation? Or maybe it has added a few delights along the way?
CHELCY: For me personally, I love working in that way! But yes, the logistical aspects have been a little challenging. It would be really nice for all of us to have been in the same physical location for more than four weeks. But everyone has been super enthusiastic and on-board wanting to help with a constantly evolving script and the needs that go along with that. However, we have such a great team who were really on their toes and willing to evolve as the show evolved; they are on board to make the magic happen.
KATHERINE: I think it's not fun for Chelcy when I call and say "We need this set piece right now because this brilliant thing has been brought up!" (laughter)
CHELCY: But everyone has said "Okay great! Let's make it happen!"
KATHERINE: Some of the big structural changes that have happened in the last week or so...the actors are the ones coming up with the ideas. Chelcy and I would look at each other and ask "Would that be impossible?" And we would decide "No? Great! We're going to make it happen because we agree with them."
CHELCY: And I think it's also something that's been really fascinating... within the cast, I don't think many of them have worked with this devising process before, so at the beginning I think there was a slight fear - but full trust - in the process. And now they're like "What can we do? How can we help?"
KATHERINE: I feel like it will be hard for them to go back into a process where they are just being told what to do. I'm not the kind of director who makes the actor walk exactly this way and stages them rigidly... actors are artists. So it's been really fun for a lot of the young women involved... to watch as she realizes "I get a say? I am an artist?" Yeah! You are an artist. You're not a puppet.
CHELCY: I think the themes of this show are going to cause some really great conversations. Being inside the process will start a lot of conversations to say "Oh! There are different ways to make theatre!" And that completely aligns with Fresh Paint and what Fresh Paint is trying to do, and be, in Oklahoma City where you see a lot of classical theatre and classical theatrical processes.
RONN: What are some of the things the audience should expect - or not expect - as far as their involvement in the show? Is this participatory or is this something they can sit back and watch?
KATHERINE: You will be invited in. There is definitely a community-oriented audience experience. Actors may talk to you, actors may want to get to know you a little bit before the show. But no one... (laughter) I keep hearing this thing that audiences in Oklahoma I don't like being touched or talked to. I will say that no one has to participate in anything. But the actors are involved in the life of the audience; they're not pretending like we're in the dark and you're not there -
CHELCY: - but if there any concerns... no one has to walk around, you can stay in your chair, no one's going to touch you or take you to a secret closet, no one will be brought on stage. There are no volunteers -
KATHERINE: - yeah it's not a promenade piece. It is a seated environment. I think a great way to think about it it's like a cabaret. It's a really good time: it will be a blast to watch... so much fun!
CHELCY: I think there's something for every type of audience member. If you like more abstract movement pieces in the dark, there's that. If you like big Broadway there's that -
KATHERINE: - there are a lot of things about it that feel really traditional: it's a play, inside of a small room, where people are acting with one another. It's a combination of things that are really known ... and a few that are really unknown.
I think it's really important that, in order to challenge people, you have to really welcome them and make things incredibly accessible. Because if not, you just put up a huge barrier. I think that's where experimental or avant-garde theatre gets a really bad rap because everyone thinks "But I can't access it so what's the point? It's for you, not for me." I think a big part of what we're trying to do is make something that is challenging yet welcoming and accessible. But also opens up a lot of questions around "What is intimate labor? What does it mean for us to labor as it as a society?" In this capitalist world, so much of life is based around the type of labor that we do. Why are we not talking about labor? It's something really applicable for Oklahoma - in this market, people use their bodies really immensely, every single day. There are a lot of huge metropolises where people are only using their brains for work. But in Oklahoma you have oil fields where people are going out putting their bodies on the line. So I think the thing to expect is a lot of questions about what we are all doing together.
RONN: So is anyone going to feel dirty? This is about sex...is it going to make me feel uncomfortable?
KATHERINE: No! There's no nudity, no sexual interactions onstage...you see someone in a bra, someone curses once.
CHELCY: That's a very small part of it.
KATHERINE: It's really like the PG version of this subject. I wouldn't say it's a kids' show, but it's not scandalous. It's something that everybody would feel comfortable watching and being a part of -
CHELCY: - the important thing to take away is it's not a "sex play" ... there are definitely aspects of that are inside of the heart of it, but that's not what you're seeing on stage. I think it's a play people will come in to watch and see themselves in it. How do I feel about this subject now that I know this one small piece of information?
KATHERINE: We really stayed away from all of the things that you think are taboo about sex work. Because we found out that think those aren't the things that sex workers want us to be talking about: they want to be talking at the fact that they also eat avocado toast for breakfast, and they also are people who get bored in hotel rooms and watch television. The stereotypes of what it meant to be a sex worker were those movies like Pretty Woman that we all watch. What they want to be talking about is how they are complex people.
So much is relatable...like, all of us have stayed in one of these hotel rooms; we have all had interactions with people; we've all had dreams of making a lot of money; dreams of falling in love; dreams - or nightmares - about what it's like when we don't have agency over our own bodies...these are all things every human experiences in the world. And we are just shining a light on all those very human things that women, and all people, engage with every single day. I think the conversation that we are having - while it may of been inspired by conversations of people who engage in sex work - the thing that we were most interested in is how they live their day-to-day lives. And so for us, we really don't focus on sex much at all. I don't think the word "sex" even comes up in the play. I think the thing that people will leave with is the question around "What does it mean to live in a world where your body is the first thing that people love, or shame, or disregard? What does it mean to live a life when your body is the vehicle for you not only to keep living, but to make the money that that you need to keep living?" We as an ensemble all come from very different backgrounds with really different ideas - political or moral feelings - around sex work... everybody's got really different ideas around it. So there is no literally no way for us to come out here as a group and say "This is what sex work is." Actually, you can't pin it down, and we as a group don't all agree. So we wanted to illuminate the sometimes wonderful, sometimes scary, sometimes exuberant, sometimes treacherous ways that we all engage with work in the world.
RONN: So is it going to feel boring? Like a lecture or a science project?
KATHERINE: No! We have, strategically, been really really really focused on making it an experience that people will love... it's really joyful! It's super fun. No facts; it's not pedantic. Also, we all love "theatre magic" ...we are all theatre geeks. So, like, we want a money gun spraying money everywhere while everybody sings about the possibilities of making lots of money! (Laughter) We want to have a good time: to see beautiful singing and dancing... and humor! Because humor and all those things that we love about theatre are the things that disarm us and allow us to have these conversations. In no way is this a lecture about sex work. They're are zero real-life interviews on stage; this is not The Laramie Project - and I love The Laramie Project! - but this is not that...this is not a verbatim-theatre piece. This is an artistic, inspired piece of work: a dramatic creation. This is in no way a lecture or something that would be on a university campus. We are not interested in telling people what they should think, think we are interested in sharing a little bit of the divine life that we had the honor of interviewing over the last year.
RONN: Wonderful. Finally, the title of your show is HONEY, AN IMMERSIVE PERFORMANCE. Talk to me about the title and what it means for audiences?
KATHERINE: A lot of our ideas about labor... we think of the different worker bees in hives who do really specific, very different, things. And when we started interviewing these folks, talking to them about the different ways in which they labor, we realized that was lining up with the ways that bees work in service to their queens...the way they make a community. And then we started thinking how those species of animal and humans are so intensely linked, yet we don't think about it. Subconsciously, we are all working inside of this "hive" to make "honey" ...to make the sweet thing - sometimes it's money, sometimes it's love, sometimes it's status - but we're all working very hard to create this magical substance together; laboring and laboring and laboring. We also really liked the fact that it's a word you can use in different ways: a wonderful term of affection like "Hey, honey" ...but also how you can be catcalled on the street. So it's a really versatile title, but all of it pertains to something sweet, that people are living without, that takes a lot of effort to make. And then "an immersive performance" ...we like that idea being welcomed into a community: when you come into the show, you are inside of environment that it is active. There is no fourth wall...people are coming and going, people are moving through the audience - there's a big dance number that starts up in the audience. When you come in to the theater, it's a world of its own ... there is a sense that the whole world is moving with the play.
HONEY, AN IMMERSIVE PERFORMANCE runs June 14-16 & 21-13 at 8pm, with talkbacks after the Thursday performances discussing the creation, rehearsal, and artistic processes. Performances take place at Oklahoma Contemporary on the State Fairgrounds, 3000 General Pershing Blvd. Oklahoma City, OK. For tickets, CLICK HERE or call (405) 951-0000.
CAST: Korri Werner, Morgaine Gooding-Silverwood, Claire Fountain, Julie Watts, Holli Would, Kaylene Snarksy, and David Burkhart.
CREATIVE TEAM: Director: Katherine Wilkinson; Core Collaborators: Katherine Wilkinson, Morgaine Gooding-Silverwood, Emma McFarland, Chelcy Harrell; Writer: Emma McFarland; Artistic Director: Chelcy Harrell; Production Manager: Annie Holt; Lighting Design: Candace Tyson; Composer: Ben Harrell; Scenic Design: Meghan Buchanan, Nicole Emmons-Willis; Choreography/Dance Captain: Kaylene Snarsky
Photo Credit: Ronn Burton