BWW Interview: Tearrance Arvelle Chisholm, Gary L. Perkins III And Simon Kiser of P.Y.G. OR THE MIS-EDUMACATION OF DORIAN BELLE at Studio Theatre
Right on the heels of the closing of Queen of Basel, a Miami-set rebirth of Strindberg's Miss Julie, Studio Theatre is breathing new life into another classic. Most audiences are familiar with Shaw's Pygmalion - or, more likely, its musical counterpart My Fair Lady - in which a low-born member of society is taught how to fit in with the upper class. In P.Y.G. or The Mis-Edumacation of Dorian Belle, playwright and director Tearrance Arvelle Chisholm brings Shaw's play right to the eye of our cultural hurricane, centering on the relationship between race, fame and cultural appropriation. Dorian Belle, a Canadian pop superstar, idolizes hip-hop group Petty Young Goons, and hires them to help "toughen up" his image - all while being filmed for television, of course. Chisholm and two of his actors, Gary L. Perkins III (as Alexand Da Great, ½ of Petty Young Goons) and Simon Kiser (Dorian Belle), were interviewed separately over e-mail about their experiences during the rehearsal process and to provide their perspectives on what P.Y.G. can offer audiences.
Where have DC audiences seen your work before?
CHISHOLM: I did my graduate thesis, Br'er Cotton at the Catholic University of America. I had a production of Bhavi the Avenger with Convergence Theatre. And my play Hooded or Being Black for Dummies at Mosaic Theare.
PERKINS III: DC audiences have recently seen me in 1st Stage's production of A Civil War Christmas. Some other notable credits include The Frederick Douglass Project at Solas Nua and Word Becomes Flesh at Theater Alliance.
KISER: I've done a handful of workshops with Theater J and Imagination Stage, and composed for The Wheel Theatre Company. You also might have caught me in the National Players' brief residence at the Olney Theatre Center before we shipped out on tour.
This is your Studio Theatre debut. What's the experience been like?
CHISHOLM: It's been a great experience. I have an amazing team and I felt particularly supported by the institution.
KISER: It's been a delight so far, something I expect to continue throughout the run. The team at Studio has been generous, consistent, and diligent, but that's hardly unique in any good theatre company. What I've enjoyed most is Studio's unabashed commitment to making messy theatre. I can't imagine a better company or environment to work on a play so unbeholden to tidy ends or easy answers.
P.Y.G. is a loose adaptation of Shaw's Pygmalion viewed through the lens of reality television. What were some of your personal inspirations in bringing the world of this show and its characters to life?
CHISHOLM: I started the play as a way to tell white people what to do. After performances of Hooded, many white patrons would approach me and ask, in earnest "how they could help?" I never had an answer. And so I wrote this play as a way to respond to that question.
PERKINS III: Growing up watching MTV's The Real World, Keeping up with the Kardashians, and Love & Hip-hop has had major influence with creating the world of P.Y.G. Not only am I a fan but artist like Chance the Rapper, J. Cole, and Kendrick Lamar were my inspiration with character development.
KISER: The character I play, Dorian Belle, is meant as a fairly obvious Justin Bieber analogue, which certainly made my job as an actor a lot easier, giving me plentiful material to study, sift through, and lift wholesale. Beyond that immediate template, though, I owe a great deal to the twin wellsprings of Greek tragedies and Kitchen Nightmares-so many characters from these works are well-intentioned, passionate, and maddeningly blind to their own mortal sins, and I wanted Dorian to follow in their footsteps. We can (and, I hope, should) like him, feel some kind of empathy despite his circumstances, and still want to spend every second of the play slapping some sense into him.
How does the reality show setting inform the plot and structure of the play?
CHISHOLM: One of the major themes that I explore in the play is how we define our own narratives. Reality TV is a medium that specializes in building story and narratives. It's carefully edited and curated to fit a certain agenda and to use it as the vehicle for the play felt poignant.
PERKINS III: The world we live in today is heavily influenced by the music industry and reality TV. The same influence is applied in the world of P.Y.G. This reality show controls the persona being displayed to the world for each character. For audience members to have both mediums of stage and film being presented sets the structure of P.Y.G. to seem like a real taping of a reality TV show.
KISER: The script makes liberal use of reality TV confessionals-convenient, one-and-done stand-ins for soliloquies-but even more than that, the setting and live camera feeds let us acknowledge a guttural truth most other theatrical actors have to power through: as one of the characters says, "They're watching. All the time. And just waiting. Watching and waiting and judging." P.Y.G. is driven by the constant audience, diegetic and otherwise, and the reality TV show setting allow us to speak about, and to, these audiences in direct and honest terms.
What has been your favorite moment in rehearsals?
CHISHOLM: I think the conversations we had surrounding the play where the most edifying to me. As a playwright so much of my initial work is done in solitary. It was good to be able to discuss some of the ideas I'm wrestling with in the play with other people. It really helped me to deepen the play.
PERKINS III: The best part of rehearsal has been the non-stop laughter throughout the entire process. Originating these characters and creating this world with so many current pop culture references has been pure comedy.
KISER: There's a staggering amount of tech in the show. Even aside from the lights and sound you'd expect from a play mimicking a TV show, the set is ringed by projector screens. Early in the process, we did a lot of video and photo shoots-magazine covers, show intros, travel candids-and I can't speak for my castmates, but I certainly forgot about these in the rehearsal day-to-day. During the first tech week, though, these started getting projected on the massive screens behind us, and so much of the show just came crashing into place. Most of the time, building a world is a meticulous process, but for one beautiful day, it didn't have to be-I watched Petty Young Goons' first music video, and everything just felt electric and malleable and snapped into razor focus.
What's next for you after P.Y.G.?
CHISHOLM: I'm working on a couple of commissions, one of which is the Smith Prize for Political Theatre through the National New Play Network.
PERKINS III: I will be playing the role of Honey Camden Brown in 1st Stage's production of Member of the Wedding.
KISER: I'm going to sleep for a week.
What do you hope to do in theatre that you haven't yet? Sky's the limit.
CHISHOLM: I want to do more work with students, especially black students. I'd love to devise work with high school and college students of color.
PERKINS III: I hope to make a Broadway debut soon and also continue telling stories for the voiceless of all races.
KISER: I'm going to say this with as much humility as I can muster, but casting directors, you're making a mistake with every second you don't get me to play Hamlet.