Podcasts

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Headshot of a man.

Photo by  Zack DeZon

Playwright, composer, lyricist

Playwright, composer, lyricist Michael R. Jackson's play A Strange Loop had an extraordinary year--it has won Lambda Literary Award for Drama, the New York Drama Critics' Circle Award and the Pulitzer Prize for Drama becoming the first musical to win a Pulitzer for drama without a Broadway run, the first time it was awarded to an African-American for a musical and only the second time an African American received the award for drama.(The NEA funded the world premier which was produced by Playwrights Horizons.) A Strange Loop in the words of its author," about a Black queer musical theater writer who works as an usher at a Broadway show who is writing a musical about a Black queer musical theater writer who works as an usher at Broadway show who's writing a musical about a Black queer musical theater writer...as he cycles through his own self hatred." The show is bawdy, joyous, disturbing, funny and heart-breaking. The songs are often bouncy and hummable while the lyrics can tear at your heart. Michael R. Jackson has said he never thought the play would ever be produced, so he just wrote what he wanted. (There's a lesson here). And his mission statement is "is to make works that are as challenging as they are entertaining." He succeeded. In this podcast, we learn about the strange loop A Strange Loop has taken from its beginning as a monologue to its recent full-scale production. Michael talks us through some of the songs, we learn how his career goal changed from writing for soaps to writing for musical theater and much more. Michael is smart, funny, and extraordinarily engaging. (And the music is great!) Enjoy!

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Photo courtesy of Anna Needham

Theater Artist and former NEA Intern

Anna Needham (Red Lake Anishinaabe) is an emerging theater artist, arts administrator, and a former NEA intern with Folk and Traditional Arts. Theater arts typically is an uneven career path (the performing arts aren’t exactly a reliable source of income). Add to the uncertainty Needham’s passion for and commitment to Native theater, and the road becomes that much more challenging. In this podcast, Needham tells us how she meets those challenges, and how she’s learned to become an advocate for the arts and for Native culture and rights.

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Photo by Kirsten Lara Getchell

Playwright

It may come as a surprise to discover that in the 2019-2020 season, (Shakespeare aside) Lauren Gunderson is the most produced playwright in America. She’s achieved this in no small part by putting women’s stories at the center of her work. And she doesn’t just create the lone female protagonist—she has women interacting with other women-- sharing dreams, hopes, disappointments and successes. Her protagonists who are smart, funny, and determined and if they’re involved with science—so much the better. Science is a topic Gunderson returns to again and again in her work. As Lauren said in our interview, “I think theater is made for the biggest questions we can manage, and science like religion, like the arts-- is the thing that says, “What are we doing here?” That literally was the question at the center of her play Silent Sky that was recently produced at Fords’ Theater in Washington DC (and partially funded by the NEA). Silent Sky is based on a turn of the century astronomer named Henrietta Leavitt, who worked at the Harvard Observatory. Although she is little-known, Leavitt’s work and discoveries are crucial to our current understanding of the stars and the universe. In this podcast, Lauren talks about Silent Sky, her adaption of Peter Pan (in which Wendy is an aspiring scientist), her love of theater and science, and most crucially, what changes when women take the center stage.

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Courtesy of Arena Stage

Playwright

Playwright Ken Ludwig has a resume most theater folks would envy: his ear and eye for humor has given him hit after hit. His first play on Broadway was Lend Me a Tenor which had already opened in London where it garnered some Olivier Awards. (When it opened on Broadway, it picked up a Tony). He followed this with Crazy for You—a play inspired by the music of George and Ira Gershwin. This tune-packed extravaganza delighted audiences as much as the critics—it ran for five years and won the Tony Award for best musical. His extraordinary run of plays include Twentieth Century, Moon Over Buffalo and Leading Ladies. His most recent play just had its world premiere at Arena Stage here in Washington DC. It’s a two-hander called Dear Jack, Dear Louise, and it’s based on the correspondence between his parents during World War II. While it has amusing moments, no one would call this laugh-filled, nor is it meant to be. It’s simply a story of two people who get to know one another and fall in love through their correspondence. In this podcast, Ken Ludwig takes us behind the scenes of writing and mounting a play, why so many of his plays are set in a theatrical environment and his deep life-long love affair with theater.

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Courtesy of the Shakespeare Theater Company

Actor

For a young actor, only four years out of the conservatory, Ayana Workman has amassed an impressive resume, including: Juliet in Romeo and Juliet (at the public Theater in NYC and the Shakespeare Theater Company in Washington DC), Perdita in Winter’s Tale (again at the Public) and Banquo in MacBeth at the Lucille Lortel Theater in NYC. But frankly, these roles seem like a walk in the park compared to her next play Everybody by MacArthur Fellow Branden Jacobs-Jenkins which opened the season at DC’s Shakespeare Theater Company. In Everybody, which based on the 15th century morality play Everyman, the actors rotate their parts randomly via lottery for every performance. So, they find out in real time, in front of the audience, which character they’ll be playing that evening. As you can imagine, it takes a lot of guts and no small amount of talent to do. And while many of Ayana’s friends told her she was crazy, Ayana was eager to take it on. If she relishes creative challenges, it runs in the family. Her dad is 2020 NEA Jazz Master Reggie Workman and her mother is dancer and choreographer Maya Milenovic Workman. Ayana grew up in a household steeped in creativity, filled with access to music, dance, theater—all the arts, really. As she said, she grew up thinking it was normal for musicians to have jam sessions in her home every weekend or to fall asleep as she listened to her father’s playing in a jazz club. In this podcast, Ayana talks about her parents’ influences on her career as well as all aspects of performing in Everybody—from learning the script to rehearsing to getting up on stage not knowing who you’re going to play that evening and the special bond that cast has formed because they all, at one time or another, play the same parts. She’s smart, honest and ridiculously charming.

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John Kevin Jones

Photo courtesy of John Kevin Jones

Actor and executive director of Summoners Ensemble Theatre

Here’s a podcast for your Halloween listening pleasure: Actor and Executive Director of Summoners Ensemble Theatre John Kevin Jones talks about his one-man show Killing an Evening with Edgar Allan Poe. In Killing, Jones performs four of Poe’s best-known works: “The Tell-Tale Heart;” “The Cask of Amontillado;” “The Pit and the Pendulum;” and, of course, “The Raven.” It’s a bravura performance, undertaken with a minimum of props….but who needs props when you have Poe’s words and a setting guaranteed to put the audience in an appropriately spooky mood? Killing an Evening with Edgar Allan Poe is performed in the candle-lit salon of the Merchant’s House Museum—a 19th century family home in lower Manhattan preserved virtually intact with original furnishings and personal belongings. The intimate space with candles casting their shadows brings the audience into the action of the play in more ways than one. Jones and I talk about Poe’s work, bringing it to life on the stage, and the challenges and joys of playing in an intimate and historic space. (He’s also performed a one-man show of Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol at the Merchant’s House Museum for seven seasons.) And Jones gives you a taste of the evening with excerpts from “The Tell-Tale Heart” and “The Raven.”

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Rosa Joshi

Courtesy of Folger Theatre

Theater Director

Director Rosa Joshi is a lover of classical theater, particularly the work of William Shakespeare. She is also committed to producing theater in which the cast reflects the demographics of the audience, and she is passionate about creating work that has big, juicy roles for women. That might pose a dilemma to a director who is driven by the text of the play—as Joshi is. But she approaches casting creatively—casting actors of colors in all roles and switching the gender of the play’s characters—so that in her current production of I Henry IV at the Folger Theatre, Wooster, Poins, and Vernon are played by women. Additionally, she is one of the founders of the Upstart Crow Collective—a theater group that creates classical work in which all the parts are played by women. That creative flexibility is one of the reasons Joshi loves theater. As she noted, “There’s nothing you can’t do if you ask the audience to engage their imagination.” Listen to my conversation with Joshi about theater, imagination, Shakespeare, and I Henry IV. Her passion is contagious!

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Photo courtesy of The Highwood Theatre

Artistic Director of The Highwood Theatre

Matt Nicola, the artistic director of the Highwood Theatre, believes deeply in the company’s double-pronged philosophy: “anyone can do theater” and “theater builds community.” Highwood is an educational theater with classes for students from kindergarten to 12th grade covering all aspects of theater, from acting to lighting to set and sound design to directing. In addition, the students put on 12-13 full-fledged shows a year, taking care of all aspects of the production with some guidance from theater professionals. The shows are sophisticated—these students are performing in shows like Sweeney Todd and Arthur Miller’s All My Sons. They are also uniformly very well-received, which is a bit of surprise since there are no auditions for the student productions. Whoever signs up, gets a part. But Highwood has discovered that given an opportunity and a certain amount of guidance, students are capable of extraordinary things. In this week’s podcast, you can hear about what theater teaches students, and what the students teach Nicola and the rest of the Highwood staff.

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Photo courtesy of Stephanie Kline

Marine Corps veteran and comedian

Marine Corps veteran Stephanie Kline is a DC-based stand-up comic. At loose ends after leaving the Marine Corps and then dealing with the end of her marriage, Stephanie turned to comedy through a workshop with the Armed Services Artists Partnership. There she found the camaraderie she had been missing and she found a way to tell her story that provoked laughter not pity from the audience. It’s not an easy path. As Stephanie says in the podcast, ”for a lot of us, we are taking some of the most painful experiences and issues, we are breaking them down and putting them together in a way to get people to laugh. That is terrifying…. (But) I think the response of laughter really helps build us back up.” Stephanie Kline talks about her time with the Marine Corps and the different kind of strength it takes to get up on a stage and let it all hang out. She’s also very funny.

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Headshot of a man.

Photo by Cathy Waite

US Army Veteran, actor, and founder of DE-CRUIT

Stephan Wolfert had been in the army for six years when he saw his close friend killed during a training exercise. Wolfert “lost it,” as he put it, hopped a train, and went on a drinking binge that lasted quite a while. He ended up in Montana and wandered into a theater where Richard III was being performed. Wolfert saw in the title character a veteran like himself who did not fit in and who spoke directly and eloquently to the audience about his anger and contempt for those that did. Wolfert’s life was transformed. He left the army, went to graduate school to study acting, and immersed himself in Shakespeare. He quickly saw that Shakespeare populated his plays with soldiers and veterans who faced their own bloody losses and seemed to speak directly to the trauma Wolfert was facing. Believing that Shakespeare and theater could be as transformative for others as it is for him, he began working with veterans using Shakespeare to help them unpack their own experiences. He eventually started the non-profit DE-CRUIT whose basic premise is theater is medicine and Shakespeare can be the key to healing. In this podcast, Stephan talks about his time in the military, his “Aha!” moment in Montana, how Shakespeare helps veterans both penetrate and contain their own experiences, and the unlikely parallels between theater and the military.

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