American Prom is almost ready for its national debut on our Dusty Loo Bon Vivant stage. Every show extracts at least a small amount of anticipation and excitement from even the most experienced professionals. Theatre is an art that lives and breathes. Artists, characters, and audience breathe in moments together under a mutual agreement that we are both here and now while, simultaneously, there and then. The show is born with the first read, grows and matures in its performance, and clings to its audience until its final breath. The script, however, is not bound to the same evanescence. Every production a transmigrating life with new perspectives and understanding. We here at Theatreworks are exuberant know that the audience and performers alike have the privilege of taking the first of many breaths this show will know.
Don't miss this unique experience. Get your tickets now!
Idris is an award-winning playwright, director, orator and educator and has six plays opening this month, alone, in L.A., CA; Nashville, TN; Austin, TX; Philadelphia, PA; Tempe, AZ; and, of course, American Prom in your beloved Colorado Springs, CO.
Lisa Marie is a Sundance Institute Theatre Lab Fellow (directing ), a Directors Lab West member, a Resident Artist with Crowded Fire Theater and Artist-in-Residence at BRAVA Theater for Women in San Francisco. She is currently developing her new plays Token and Love Is Another Country, which will have its World Premiere with Coin and Ghost Theater Company in Los Angeles Feb 2019!
Idris Goodwin (playwright) and Lisa Marie Rollins (director) sat down for a chat about the process of making new work, like American Prom.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Lisa Marie Rollins: What was the impetus for this play? Where’d the idea come from?
Idris Goodwin: Sometimes you get a commission where the theatre comes to you with a specific idea. Sometimes it’s an adaptation or a historical piece. With this, Theatreworks asked, “what do you want to write for us specifically?” I was living here at the time, so I was thinking about this particular place and how a lot of us in the local arts community are trying to use the arts to have more difficult conversations. It’s a play I’ve been wanting to write for a while. When I get to write the plays that are sort of burning in my mind, that’s a beautiful gift to get. Over the years, I’ve been reading about racially segregated proms—which are still a thing in some small towns, most of them in the south. I read one story in particular about a father who, over a series of text messages, basically disowned his daughter for going to prom with a black dude. That, to me, is a really chilling thought. There’s a disconnect between racism as theoretical for some people, and racism as very real (with real consequences) for other people. That kind of dichotomy is really rich and tragic. I wanted to write this play about a young man and a young woman who decide to create their own space. The play is really looking at how previous generations pass down their biases onto the next, how the next generation reenacts that sort of divisive behavior, but also how they throw off the shackles. I also thought about Colorado Springs in particular. It’s a city that, in some ways, can feel somewhat divided; it can feel very siloed. There’s a difficulty in having some of these conversations around intersectionality—certainly around race, but also around sexuality.
LMR: One of things you just said—one of the main reasons that I was attracted to the work even before it was written—was this idea of what is unspoken in our relationships in the United States, like race relationships, conversations around gender and sexuality, around class. Can you talk a little bit more about that in the context of the piece?
IG: One of the things that’s very frustrating about America is that it’s always had that sort of hypocrisy. And I say that as someone who loves this country. “All men are created equal, but we didn’t mean y’all. We didn’t mean women, we didn’t mean slaves, we didn’t mean our property.” The idea is a really beautiful one, but in practice there’s a disconnect. But we also have a willingness to correct those things.So, the play is called American Prom because it’s really about America and who we are. What are our so-called sacred spaces, and how are they narrowed by bias? When prom was conceived, it was conceived under a very racialized, heterosexual model. But there’s something, as a human, you’re like oh, I want to be part of that, too. Is there room in there for me in the way that I want to do things and who I am? That, to me, is the conversation that we’re having right now across the whole lexicon, the whole landscape: Is there room? How do we make some room? And for real, not just “oh, we have two designated seats for difference. These are our different seats.” No. How are we valued and necessary? The quality of this table will be judged by who’s at it.
LMR: Totally. Can you talk about the development process for this play in relation to your other work?
IG: Lately, I’ve been doing a lot more outlining—I’ll outline a play before I actually write it, which I never used to do. I used to just open myself up, I just let the ancestors guide my hands and my pen. Like, I don’t write nothing, you feel me? I’m just a vessel. But now I’ve become a bit more methodical, so this play is in a sort of newer practice. It also represents a new chapter in my creative life where I’m trying to craft my own approach to theater, my own theatricality in script form, mixing a lot of different techniques and elements. I have a question for you now. What do you look for when you’re like, “this is something I want to steep myself in for X amount of weeks?” What made you want to do this play?
LMR: Well, the first thing was the chance for us to do some collaborative creation. I had the pleasure of assistant directing on Blackademics a couple of years ago with Crowded Fire Theater in San Francisco. But when that play came to me it was a completed project, it had already been work-shopped. When this came up—the chance not only to direct but the chance to be part of the developmental process (which is my jam)—it appealed to my background as a dramaturg and my commitment to the kind of work that I want to see on the stage. All of those things have to come together in order for me to feel like I fit right in a project.
IG: I have one follow up. You said “the things I want to see on stage.” I feel like I only write plays that I would want to go see myself. You feel me? That’s something I’ve stuck to, so I would like to feel like you’re the same way. What does Lisa Marie want to see on stage right now?
LMR: For a lot of our theater people, this is going to sound like what we’ve been saying for a really long time. Thinking about communities of color and our access to institutions and all of those kinds of things, we just want to see stories that are more diverse on stage. We want to see people who look like ourselves and we want them to be complicated stories—we don’t want them to be the same kind of stories we’ve seen over and over. That doesn’t mean that I don’t love a Lorraine Hansberry or I don’t love an August Wilson or I don’t want to direct those things, because certainly I do. But for me, one of the reasons why I’ve been so attracted to new plays is because of the possibility. What do we do with all of this trauma that we have as black and brown people, and how do we have our bodies not only reflect that on stage? Can it reflect joy, can it reflect a personal struggle? For me, it’s the question of seeing something outside the norm of the kinds of stereotypes that we’ve seen over and over. This play in particular it is about speaking the unspoken, and so for me, it does that work. There’s something for everybody in this piece. I think that this play is going to let everybody have an experience together.
IG: Very well-said. Shifting gears a little, this is your first time directing in Colorado, and your first time at Theatreworks, yes?
IG: It’s a very exciting time in the city and for the theater company. Anything you want to say about this experience? Anything that you’re interested in, with regards to working with Theatreworks?
LMR: It’s really great to work in this big beautiful new building. It’s amazing. I’m also learning a lot about when theater companies have a big vision, how hard it can be to move that vision forward. This is one of the few times that Theatreworks has commissioned a new work, so it’s great to be here at this time. Their interest in expanding beyond a traditional framework of theatre-making is really important. I’ve been thinking about everything that I’ve been learning about Colorado Springs historically and how it operates right now, and how that is different from where I live in the Bay Area. For me the gift of being able to work in a place like Colorado and Colorado Springs specifically is that I think there’s a certain kind of openness, even if there’s this long history of what isn’t spoken. Maybe it’s that thing of trying to find language and trying to figure out how we can talk to each other. In our “progressive” places sometimes I feel like language inhibits us because we’re so concerned about making sure that we’re right, that we’re following the certain kind of script that we’re supposed to follow because we are these progressive people. And I think sometimes that inhibits us from being able to just jump in and say, “No, this is the thing,” or make mistakes and let our pride go. I think it’s a gift to be able to be in this space at this moment.