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Headshot of a man.
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.

Bob Fulcher
Photo by Sarah Terpstra Hanson

2019 National Heritage Fellow, Folklorist, State Park Manager

For more than 40 years, folklorist, state park manager, and 2019 National Heritage Fellow Bobby Fulcher has been seeking out and recording traditional artists, creating programming around these artists to shine a light on their work, and serving as an inspiration and mentor to multiple generations of young folklorists. That Fucher has accomplished all this while working for Tennessee State Parks really gets to the heart of his vision: the deep connection between traditional culture and the natural environment in which it occurs. He began his career as a naturalist and came to love and cherish not just the environment but also the traditional arts that were created in the Cumberlands of Tennessee. When he first heard traditional banjo music in college, he thought, “If I could learn that, I’d be happy every day there on out.” He did learn the banjo and would bring it with him when he went on his search for little-known traditional musicians because he believed that if you arrive with “a banjo or fiddle in your hand, you’ll make yourself welcome wherever you go.” He is a soft-spoken philosopher who has brought to his work an insatiable curiosity and a deep sense of wonder. You’ll hear it in this podcast—and you’ll also hear some of the old-time music Fucher has shone a light on.

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Photo by  Ken Rahaim

Director of The Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian (NMAI)

Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian (NMAI) Director Kevin Gover (Pawnee) has been leading the only national museum devoted exclusively to Native peoples since 2007. Established by an act of Congress in 1989, NMAI consists of a museum in New York City, a conservation facility in Maryland, and a stunning five-story, 250,000-square-foot golden-colored building with sweeping curving walls and indigenous landscaping on the National Mall. With Native Americans taking the lead in both its design and organization, the museum is home to more than 800,000 Native artifacts from throughout the Western Hemisphere, an archive of more than 125,000 photographs, and a vibrant collection of contemporary native art. It also offers a range of exhibitions, film and video screenings, school group programs, public programs, and living culture presentations throughout the year. In this podcast episode, Gover talks about the mission of the museum, which is to celebrate the art, culture, and history of Native peoples as vital and sustaining while unraveling the myths that have been engendered about Native peoples through popular culture. Given the museum’s mandate to represent not just the 573 Indian nations in the United States but all the Native peoples in the Western Hemisphere--from the Arctic Circle straight down to South America, Gover has a daunting challenge. He meets it with extraordinary equanimity, insight, and a commitment to collaborative creativity. Here’s a look at a museum like no other through the eyes of the man who guides it.

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Photo courtesy of Jenifer McShane

Documentary Filmmaker

Documentary filmmaker Jenifer McShane’s new film Ernie and Joe puts the viewer in the car of two police officers who are part of the San Antonio Police Department’s ten-person mental health unit. As partners they respond to to 911 calls involving people in emotional distress not as enforcers but as resources working to de-escalate situations and lead people to much needed mental health services. McShane spent three years, on and off, riding with Ernie and Joe--chronicling their work and their partnership. In this episode of the podcast, McShane talks about riding along in the police car and filming the titular duo as they worked patiently and compassionately with people who were despondent, despairing, or violent; and, she talks about Ernie and Joe themselves, their relationship and the ongoing banter that allows them to decompress. We also discuss how she filmed Ernie and Joe without compromising their work, and the emotional reception the film has received at festivals across the country. Ernie and Joe has been picked by HBO where it is now streaming.

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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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Photo courtesy of Jeffrey Palmer

Filmmaker

Christmas has come early this year: filmmaker Jeffrey Palmer has made N. Scott Momaday: Words from a Bear a documentary about novelist, poet and painter N. Scott Momaday. Momaday is an artistic force of nature, and it's a nature embedded in Kiowa art, culture and history. He's received many awards; most notably the 1969 Pulitzer Prize for Literature--the first and only time it's been awarded to Native-American writer--and the 2007 National Medal of Arts. For his long career, N. Scott Momaday has been profoundly influential for Native artists and extremely significant for anyone interested in American culture. Although they are generations apart, Momaday was an influence on Jeffrey Palmer. Kiowa and born in the same area of Oklahoma as Scott, Jeffrey met him when he was a kid and while overwhelmed by his size and deep voice, (Jeffrey remembers it was like shaking hands with a catcher's mitt), he also was instantly inspired by him and the possibilities he represented. And thirty years later, he found himself making a documentary about M. Scott Momaday for American Masters. Jeff and I talk, of course, about Scott Momaday and his deep importance to American culture, as well as Jeff's decision to present Scott's story within the larger story of the Kiowa and add visual elements of magical realism. (It's a visually stunning film that partners beautifully with Scott's poems and stories.) We also have a couple of excerpts from the documentary, so you'll get to hear N. Scott Momaday distinctive voice and get a sense of his captivating presence. He is a national treasure.

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Photo courtesy of Armed Services Arts Partnership

Founding Director and current Executive Director of Armed Services Arts Partnership

In 2013, when Sam Pressler was an undergraduate, he came to a profound understanding of the civilian/military divide and the sobering realities many veterans face when they return to civilian life. Based on his own experiences of coping with loss, he thought comedy might be a way to help returning veterans cope. Since there weren’t any comedy classes for veterans, he started one—partnering with an existing writing group. From that one class, the idea of Armed Services Arts Partnership (or ASAP) grew and flourished. Located in Hampton Roads Virginia and the Washington, DC area, ASAP has reached close to 1,000 veterans, service members, and their families through over 200 workshops and classes. It’s also produced 150 performances of its graduates—including shows at the White House—and reached some 15,000 audience members. Sam Pressler—who recently stepped down as executive director and now sits on the board of ASAP—and the current executive director Brian Jenkins tell us how ASAP came together and grew into a thriving and beloved organization and what they’ve learned about community, veterans, and the arts. It’s a great story.

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Photo by Sara Houghteling

Author, physician and NEA Lit Fellow

Author, physician, and National Endowment for the Arts Creative Writing Fellow Daniel Mason wrote and published his first novel while he was still in medical school. The Piano Tuner received international acclaim, was translated into 28 languages, and adapted for theater and opera. Mason took time off after medical school to complete his second novel, A Far Place, which was short-listed for several literary prizes. Mason then finished his medical training and began his clinical practice and--since he’s not super-human after all--his third novel was 14 years in the making. Again,he struck gold wowing critics and readers alike with The Winter Soldier. The Winter Soldier tells the story of Lucius who leaves medical school in Vienna at the outbreak of World War I to serve in the Army. The Austrian-Hungarian empire, facing a shortage of doctors, allows medical students to staff field hospitals. Anxious for this practical experience, Lucius joins up and finds himself in a tiny village in the Carpathian mountains. He is expecting a well-staffed hospital run by experienced doctors who can mentor him. Instead, he finds himself the sole doctor in a bombed-out church doubling as a hospital whose single remaining medical personnel is a field nurse, Sister Margarete. The story that unfolds is Lucius’s medical and emotional coming of age. But the novel is also about the mad incongruity of World War I, the fleeting connections forged by war, and the growing awareness of the pervasiveness of a new condition affecting the armies—shell shock. Mason speaks thoughtfully about writing and psychiatry (his medical practice) and how his two careers are complementary and how they are not. We also talk about the joys and pitfalls of research and the attitudinal changes in medicine in the past 100 years.

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.”

Crys Matthews
Photo courtesy of Crys Matthews

Singer/Songwriter

Singer/songwriter Crys Matthews makes music that is absolutely her own. Sometimes the songs are bluesy, at other times they’re country soul. Maybe a song has a little funk or maybe it’s absolutely bluegrass or Americana. Matthews lets the song decide what it wants to be. It’s working for her: she won first prize at the 2017 New Song Music and Performance competition, which led to performances at both Lincoln Center and the Kennedy Center. The preacher’s kid from a small town in North Carolina is doing quite well with eight releases under her belt including songs about social justice, love, loss, and her dog. She’s really terrific--immensely talented and personable. And miracle of miracles, she can actually support herself through music. No small feat! Find out how she does it and listen to some very cool live music on this week’s podcast. And yes, we talk about her dog!

Madeline Miller
Photo by Nina Subin

Novelist and NEA Big Read author

In Circe --Madeline Miller’s second novel and our newest NEA Big Read title—the goddess/witch moves from the sidelines of The Odyssey to the center stage of her own story. Miller knows and loves the classics and Circe is an imaginative response to questions Miller had about the exiled goddess. She doesn’t change the story so much as expand it and give us Circe's back story. For example, Circe still turns men into pigs, as she does in Homer’s telling, but in Miller’s book she gives us the context behind this piece of magic. Miller and I talk about gods and mortals, the fine distinctions between witches and goddesses, what shifts when you put a woman’s story in an epic frame, the timelessness and timeliness of these myths, and why every woman should have a lion. She is engaging, fun and funny—in other words, she’s a great addition to the National Endowment for the Arts Big Read program and a super podcast guest.

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Photo courtesy of Pam Muñoz Ryan

Award-winning children’s and young adult writer

For young adult novelist Pam Muñoz Ryan, a multi-cultural perspective comes naturally. She grew up in Bakersfield, California, with her grandmother who was an Oklahoma pioneer woman moving in as she grew older, and a big extended family nearby anchored by her other grandmother, Esperanza, who was born in Aguascalientes, Mexico. Muñoz Ryan based her novel Esperanza Rising on her Mexican grandmother’s life, and it’s become a classic of young people’s literature—taught in schools and beloved in homes throughout the country. She has written over 40 books, and she casts a wide net in terms of subjects: from the childhood of Pablo Neruda in The Dreamer, to a young kid living in a trailer in Oklahoma in Becoming Naomi Leon, to the magical realism of Echo in which three young people in pre-World War II Germany and post-Pearl Harbor America are connected by an enchanted harmonica. But whatever the topic, Muñoz Ryan knows how to write for young people; her respect for them and the way they move in the world is enormous, and it’s reflected in her writing. (She has the awards to prove it; it’s a staggering list!) In this episode of the podcast, Muñoz Ryan talks about her upbringing, learning the histories of both her grandmothers, her writing in general and writing for young readers in particular. She’s fun, thoughtful, and full of stories.

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Photo courtesy of Vermillion Films

Documentary Filmmaker

Documentary Filmmaker Irene Taylor Brodsky is the daughter of two deaf parents and the mother of a deaf son. Clearly she has thought long and deeply about deafness; as she says, “I’ve never known a life without deafness in it.” Her first feature documentary, the award-winning Hear and Now, told the moving story of Brodsky’s deaf parents, their decision in their mid-60s decision to have cochlear implants that allowed them to hear, and the consequences of that decision. In some ways she has returned to that topic with her latest film, Moonlight Sonata: Deafness in Three Movements. It’s another family story that centers on her deaf son’s desire to play Ludwig von Beethoven's "Moonlight Sonata" interwoven with the story of her father growing old and forgetful, and Beethoven's life the year he was affected by deafness and wrote the iconic sonata. In this podcast, we go behind the scenes of the film with Brodsky and discuss it as a portrait of the place of sound and silence in life.

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Photo by Smeeta Mahanti

Novelist and 2016 NEA Literature Fellow

Novelist and 2016 NEA Literature Fellow R.O. Kwon's first novel, The Incendiaries, was ten years in the making. But that persistence and hard work paid off: the debut novel was named a best book of the year by over 40 publications. It’s a vivid, dark story that deals with faith, loss, a fractured love, and fanaticism. But Kwon herself is anything but dark. Talking about that ten-year journey of writing The Incendiaries, she told me she would wonder, ”Why didn’t I become a dermatologist? I would have been a good dermatologist. I love thinking about skincare.” It’s one of the funny asides that pepper this conversation in which she is also thoughtful about herself and about writing. We find out about the genesis of the book—the loss of her deep Christian faith and her grief over that loss, her deep love for fiction, and her sadness that when she was growing up there were so few Asian-American writers for her to model a career on. Kwon also shares how her love of language tripped up her writing in the novel's early drafts and some of the strategies she used to keep going. It’s a wide-ranging conversation with an engaging, thoughtful, and smart author.

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Photo by Gregg Mizuta

2019 National Heritage Fellow Basque musician and tradition bearer

2019 National Heritage Fellow Basque musician, teacher and restauranteur Dan Ansotegui brings his passion for the Basque culture into everything he does. But he also sees culture as a breathing entity—not something set in amber. The roots of the tree may come from the Basque Region, but those leaves are growing in Boise, Idaho. Ansotegui is a great talker. In this podcast, ­learn about Basque music, dancing, and food (he does it all!) and the deep social connections these traditions give a community.

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