Lokvani Talks To Debra Wise
Debra Wise is the Artistic Director of Underground Railway Theater, in-residence at Central Square Theater, Cambridge. During URT’s decades as a touring company (1979-2008), she helped create over 30 new works, and toured them nationally and internationally to venues ranging from Lincoln Center to public schools; titles included Sanctuary - The Spirit of Harriet Tubman, Home is Where, InTOXICating and The Christopher Columbus Follies. She led URT collaborations with Boston Symphony Orchestra (Firebird, Creation of the World, Tempest), Boston’s Museum of Science (Aging Puzzle), New Center for Arts and Culture (Jewish Women and Their Salons), the Mary Baker Eddy Library, the MFA and the ICA (Art InterACTions), and the Cambridge Arts Council (theater in dialogue with public art). Since creating Central Square Theater with The Nora Theatre Company, she co-founded Catalyst Collaborative @ MIT (CST’s unique science theater partnership with MIT), and led partnerships with Mount Auburn Cemetery (Our Town) and the National Park Service (Roots of Liberty – The Haitian Revolution and the American Civil War, performed with over 50 performers and guest artists Danny Glover and Edwidge Danticat). URT has won two Elliott Norton awards under Wise’s leadership; The Convert (Outstanding Production) and Bedlam’s St. Joan (Best Visiting Production). Recent acting projects included Homebody (a monologue by Tony Kushner) and The Midvale High School Fiftieth Reunion (by Alan Brody). Other appearances on the CST stage include Copenhagen, Mr g, Brundibar, The Other Place, Distracted, The How and the Why, Einstein’s Dreams, From Orchids to Octopi: An Evolutionary Love Story, Yesterday Happened: Remembering H.M., Breaking the Code, Arabian Nights and A Christmas Memory. Acting on other Boston stages has included Mistero Buffo (Boston Poet’s Theatre); A Boston Marriage and Orson’s Shadow (New Rep), Brooklyn Boy (Speakeasy), and Chosen Child (Boston Playwrights Theatre); in NYC, The Haggadah (The Public, with Julie Taymor). Wise has been nominated for outstanding performances by both the Elliot Norton Awards and the Independent Reviewers of NE. Her work as a playwright includes States of Grace, inspired by the stories, poems and essays of Grace Paley; and Alice’s Adventures Underground, based on the works of Lewis Carroll. She collaborates each summer with Harvard’s Project Zero, training educators on using theater to help students think more deeply across the curriculum.
What motivated you to start the Underground Railway Theater?
Underground Railway Theater was founded in Oberlin, Ohio in the mid-1970's. A group of us wanted to create a touring company that would work collaboratively at the intersection of theater and social change - hence the name, which we chose to honor we thought was the most significant part of the legacy of that midwestern college town: its activism in the 19th century's Underground Railroad, reflecting a belief in the possibilities of dynamic collaboration and in expanding the image of what is possible. For 30 years, we created and toured nationally a repertoire that included politically engaged plays that we performed in community-based venues and in theaters, plays for young people which we performed primarily in schools, and giant puppet spectacles which we performed with symphony orchestras. In 2008, we ended our work as a touring company and opened Central Square Theater with The Nora Theatre Company, as a home in which to continue to pursue our mission in a different way.
How do you choose the play to present at Central Square Theater?
I seek plays to present at Central Square Theater that respond to the mission of Underground Railway Theater, which is to create live performance which responds poetically to vital social, political, and scientific questions of our time, in the activist and collaborative spirit of our namesake. Through interdisciplinary inquiry and dynamic partnership, we seek to create accessible theater that challenges and delights, informs and celebrates. We believe in the power of live performance to catalyze new perspectives and connections, urging us all towards an expanded image of the possible.
You seem to have a big focus on plays that have a science theme. Why the interest in such plays?
The Catalyst Collaborative@MIT is an ongoing science theater collaboration between Central Square Theater and MIT, which was born out of a salon that brought scientists and theater artists together to compare notes about creativity and values and process, and fantasize about intersections between the two disciplines. This kind of interdisciplinary collaboration in the creation and staging of plays related to science grew naturally out of Underground Railway Theater's interest in collaboration, and in using theater as a window on the world. And it made so much sense for Central Square Theater to take on such a project, with MIT as our landlord and this world class research institution just down the street! We have worked with so many talented scientists in so many fields - neuroscience to physics, chemistry to cosmology, evolutionary biology to mathematics.... and each play is an adventure for our artists and audiences. We try to frame each play with conversations with scientists, artists, and audiences, to engage more people in thinking about the important questions raised and explored by scientists.
Can you tell us a little about the Guards at the Taj?
Guards at the Taj features two beautiful characters. They are so challenged by life, but their imaginations rise above the conditions in which they have been placed. The play bridges past and present, Agra and Cambridge. It is ultimately a play about friendship, and also about power. Who owns beauty?
How has the play been received so far?
Our audiences seem to love Guards at the Tag. It is a play that is both simple and complex" about a deep and abiding friendship, yet also about power relationships. It allows us to peek into the souls of two young men who value invention and being creative above everything, yet they are forced to be destructive. But I like to think that their love for life wins out - and hope that the audience takes that message with them.
What suggestions do you have for people who may consider a career in theater?
I think that if a young person is sufficiently inspired by theater to consider it professionally, then she or he should be exposed to as much great theater in as many contexts as possible: theater on the stage and on the street, puppet theater, dance theater, political theater, classical theater, and experimental theater. Young people should be given the opportunity to be theater-makers, and to reflect on the dynamics between performers and audience, and between making art and making culture. A reason to become a theater artist - whether professionally or avocationally - is that you feel theater has a real value both personally and culturally, both for you and for community, and that theater can be a window on the world and an instrument of social change. That experience of value can lead a young person toward what discipline(s) to master, and with what people to work. I think is is useful to first think of oneself as a theater artist, and then as a craftsperson (actor, designer, director) - practicing with great diligence a craft that serves the larger, group enterprise.
Any message for our South Asian readers?
We have produced several plays in collaboration with members of the South Asian community: A Disappearing Number, about Srinivasa Ramanujan; When January Feels like Summer, an unusual urban love story featuring two siblings who had moved to Harlem from India; and an adaptation of Dickens' A Christmas Carol in which the wonderful dancer/actress Mesma Belsare re-imagined the Ghost of Christmas Past. Several actors from SETU have graced our stage, and we have many times collaborated with SETU in the creation of special events for our audiences; we have also collaborated with the South Asian Arts Council, area academics specializing in South Asia, and many Indian artists. We really look forward to more collaborations next season and beyond!
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