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Courtesy of Amy Stolls

Director of Literary Arts

The National Endowment for the Arts' Literary Arts Director Amy Stolls joins me for a conversation about books that can see us through difficult times. From children's books to YA to short stories to novels...and oh yes, there's poetry too, we discuss the many ways books can bring the world to us as we shelter in place. Amy and I also talk about the almost magical power of books to open ourselves to imagined worlds in other universes and then intensely inhabit the perspective of a single human being in a barren landscape. And, Amy is known as the agency wit--so it's a fun podcast! The books we discussed are below:

Metropolitan Stories: A Novel by Christine Coulson

Culinaria Italy: Pasta Pesto Passion edited by Claudia Piras

The Principles of Uncertainty by Maira Kalman

Here by Richard McGuire

In the Distance by Hernan Diaz

Severance by Ling Ma

At the Same Moment Around the World by Clotilde Perrin

The Fortunes by Peter Ho Davies

Barn 8 by Deb Olen Unferth

The Murderer's Ape by Jacob Wegelius

All the Names They Used for God by Anjali Sachdeva

American Journal: Fifty poems for our Time, selected and introduced by Tracy K. Smith

 

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Photo courtesy of Charlotte Mangin

Documentary filmmaker

Unladylike 2020 is the brainchild of documentary filmmaker Charlotte Mangin. It's an innovative multimedia series about little known but extraordinary women at turn of the 20th century whose legacies we all benefit from today. There are 26 ten minute films that combine archival footage, diary entries, animation, and dynamic artwork (funded by the NEA). Narrated by actors Julianna Margulies and Lorraine Toussaint, Unladylike 2020 puts the biographies of women like aviator Bessie Coleman, politician Jeannette Rankin and actor Anna May Wong in their historical and social context. But they also include interviews with contemporary women who are the direct beneficiaries of these trailblazers' legacies. The series began on March 3--with a new episode dropping each week at Unladylike 2020 and PBS American Masters. Both websites are packed with information, so if you're home with the kids visit the websites. These films are perfect for family viewing, and they can open the door to thoughtful conversations. In this podcast, Charlotte Mangin takes us "backstage" and walks us through how Unladylike 2020 came to be. We talk about some of the women she chose, the innovative techniques she used to bring these women to life digitally and the joy of working with a team of women on stories about women.

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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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Photo by Keith Bormuth

Television writer

Cord Jefferson began his career as a journalist, but six years ago he began writing for television. Since that time, he has put together a jaw-dropping resume—writing for shows like Succession, Master of None, The Good Place (for which he just received an NAACP Image Award) and the ground-breaking series Watchmen. Watchmen is a super-hero series set in an alternative world that nonetheless shares much of our racial history. In fact, the series opens with 1921’s Greenwood Massacre in Tulsa, Oklahoma—where whites rioted and razed Greenwood, a prosperous black part of town, killing hundreds of African Americans and destroying the community. A bold way to begin a super-hero series—but then Watchmen is a smart and profound examination of African-American history and how it shapes our world today. In fact, the episode Jefferson wrote with showrunner Damon Lindelof has a character living out her grandfather’s memories of vicious racism in the 1930s. In this podcast, Jefferson takes us inside the writers’ room of Watchmen; we talk about Lindelof’s vision for the series and how the writers worked together to bring it to fruition. We also talk about the process of collaboration, world building, and weaving real history into a fantasy series. Jefferson is immensely talented and a great storyteller.

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Photo Courtesy of Trey Ellis

Filmmaker, writer, teacher

Filmmaker, writer, and teacher Trey Ellis knows how to tell a story—whatever the genre. He recently moved into documentary filmmaking, working with the acclaimed documentarian Peter Kunhardt on what became the award-winning King in the Wilderness. They joined forces again almost immediately for the documentary True Justice--about Bryan Stevenson, founder of the Equal Justice Initiative (EJI)-- which opened the 2019 AFI Docs Film Festival (a long-time National Endowment for the Arts grantee). The film looks at Stevenson’s work tackling death row appeals at EJI as well as his more recent work as a public historian. Stevenson is also responsible for both the National Memorial for Peace and Justice, which commemorates the nearly 4,000 persons lynched in the south, and The Legacy Museum: From Enslavement to Mass Incarceration, which spotlights how the effects of slavery and Jim Crow reverberate through the criminal justice system today. In this podcast, Ellis talks about bringing Stevenson’s work to the screen, how his approach to filmmaking changes based on the visibility of his subject, and the ways in which his films have profoundly changed his life. He also discusses writing for screen versus for the stage and the challenges of teaching screenwriting in a quickly-changing media landscape.

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Photo courtesy of Nate Powell

Cartoonist and 2016 National Book Award winner

Cartoonist Nate Powell is the 2016 National Book Award co-winner for Young People’s Literature. He shared the prize with Rep John Lewis and Andrew Aydin for the graphic memoir/history March. March is a trilogy, and it tells the story of the Civil Rights movement through the eyes of Congressman John Lewis. From a very young age, John Lewis was involved in the fight for racial equality through non-violent action. As one of the leaders of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, Lewis was present at pivotal moments in the struggle for civil rights, including lunch-counter sit-ins, freedom rides, Mississippi Freedom Summer and the March across the Edmund Pettus Bridge. In this week’s podcast, Nate Powell talks about how he captured those moments in cartoons, the challenges of representing figures who well-known like Dr, Martin Luther King, Jr. and how he grappled with portraying the horrifying violence endured by protestors in a medium so often occupied with super-heroes and super-villains. Nate is thoughtful, smart, and in love with cartooning. I learned a lot.

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Photo by Richard Kholer

Bassist and 2020 NEA Jazz Master

Bassist and 2020 NEA Jazz Master Reggie Workman is aptly named. The man might not have played with everyone in jazz, but he has come close. I don’t want this to turn into a list of Workman’s gigs, so I’ll just touch on some of the major ones: He was a member of both the John Coltrane Quartet playing in such legendary recordings as Live at the Village Vanguard, and Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers during one of the band’s great line-ups. According to Reggie, Coltrane and Blakey were very different leaders: Coltrane gave his band a lot of freedom while Blakey knew exactly what he wanted. Because he could play any style of jazz from the American songbook to avant-garde, he became the go-to bassist for Blue Note Records backing folks from Abbey Lincoln to David Murray. He’s also led his own groups like the Reggie Workman Ensemble and performed in collaborative trios. In this wide-ranging conversation, Workman talks about what makes a good supporting artist and what he was looking for when he began his group. As professor at the New School for more than 30 years, Workman also talked about teaching and helping young musicians to understand “there are mistakes (in jazz),…but you have to be able to justify each note.” This music-filled podcast is a look at a fascinating artist.

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Photo by Adam Jahiel

Leatherworker and 2019 National Heritage Fellow

Leatherworker and 2019 National Heritage Fellow James F. Jackson creates sculpture by carving leather. Go to his website and check out his work—then listen to the podcast. You really have to see the complexity and beauty of his leatherwork to appreciate our conversation about it. With all his projects, James does the work from start to finish: he designs, cuts, carves, glues, sews, sometimes paints and finishes the leather. And while James has certainly created his share of saddles, he also uses leather as the material for unlikely forms like vessels or lamps or wall hangings. Listen to a gentle man from Sheridan, Wyoming discuss his art, his teaching leatherwork around the world, the significance of traditional arts, and the deep impact of the Sheridan style of carving on Japanese leatherworkers.

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Courtesy of Col Don Schofield

Commander and Conductor The US Air Force Band

Commander and conductor of the US Air Force Band Colonel Don Schofield leads a remarkably diverse set of musicians. The Air Force Band consists of 172 members and six ensembles playing music that ranges from rock to jazz to brass to an orchestra. (We can't forget the string ensemble or the fabulous Singing Sergeants!). They play over 1600 performances around the world each year with a repertoire that is expansive and extensive. In this tuneful podcast, we learn how it all comes together, why Colonel Schofield went from music teacher to military service member, and why leading the U.S. Air Force Band is his dream job.

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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.

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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