Actors of marginalized identities often find that there are fewer traditional pathways to participation in the theatre industry for them than there are for their peers. While the industry is making strides to counteract its own systemic marginalization, it is still vital for under-represented industry professionals to forge their own paths. Creating and producing your own work is one proactive way to bring your own seat to the table.
On Wednesday, September 16, Actors’ Equity Association’s Equal Employment Opportunity Committee presented part one of “Creating Your Own Work,” a two-part webinar series designed to arm members with knowledge about content creation and production. It was facilitated and moderated by Equity Western Principal Councilor and 1st Vice Chair for the EEOC, Barbara N. Roberts.
The first webinar, “Artistic Development: Identifying and Working Your Genre,” featured a panel of actors, directors, solo performing artists, and playwrights whose expertise guided members in the process of identifying their story, selecting a genre, and determining artistic composition, performance style, and subject matter for their work. The panel included Indigenous playwright Jay B. Muskett of the Navajo Nation (Merriweather Lewis gave up Scotch); playwright Jeanne Sakata (Hold These Truths); actor/writer Herbert Siguenza (Cantinflas!); actor/writer Roger Guenveur Smith (A Huey P. Newton Story; “Rodney King”); writer Celeste Bedford Walker (Camp Logan); and actor/playwright Charlayne Woodard (The Garden).
Roberts began the discussion by asking the panelists about how they identify the subject matter and genre for their work. Each answer was as unique as the writers themselves. “I think that my inspiration comes from ignorance, not knowing something and wanting to find out,” said Guenveur Smith, and added, “Curiosity, of course, trying to find a hook. And that hook could be a line or image of something. A lot of my inspiration comes from comes from music.” Siguenza offered that he draws from Chicano history in California and their historical figures. Sakata’s Drama Desk-nominated play Hold These Truths was inspired by the history of the Japanese in America. Woodard’s first four plays reflect her personal family history and life. Muskett said that his approach comes from reclaiming his Indigenous past, and “what has been washed away because of colonialism.” Bedford Walker said that her plays come from the Black experience, “a rich source of inspiration.”
Roberts then turned the conversation toward how each panelist starts their creative writing processes. “Don’t rely on your memory,” said Muskett, “Keeping a pencil and paper around at all times is essential. You never know when an idea is going to pop up. Everything is a seed; everything has the potential to become a story.” Siguenza stressed the importance of research, and said, “You have to be an expert on what you're going to be writing about, especially if it’s a historical character or history.” Bedford Walker added that her process begins when she is gripped by an idea that won’t let go. “I think I say they chose me,” said Bedford Walker of her plays, “I could not get away from them. I have to write them for better or for worse.”
“Everything is a seed; everything has the potential to become a story.”
The conversation then moved to Roberts’ next question, “What impact do you want your work to have?” Each playwright had their own distinct goals, which sometimes depended on the type of play they were writing. “For historical plays,” said Bedford Walker, “I want audiences interested in the character or the event and to make them want to do further research.” Muskett said that he had a two-step answer because, “I’m writing for two audiences, the Indigenous and the non-Indigenous. I like to capture a bit of truth - that reservation truth - and at the same time, I have to dispel misrepresentations that have been set in place by non-Indigenous artists.”
Roberts led the conversation towards the concept of artistic freedom and asked the panelists what that concept means to them. Siguenza offered that he never really felt free, and posed this question to the panel, “Are we ever free from the white gaze? Do we write knowing that a white gaze will be watching our work? Does that influence the work?” Sakata answered with a question asked of her by her mentor, the writer Alice Tuan, “What play does not exist in this world that you want to see?” Sakata realized there were certain things that she didn't see represented on stage in terms of Asian American Life, and that, “it has been affirming to me that there can be cases when we're not writing under that white gaze, but people will find our stories authentic and powerful.” Woodard added, “I feel free. That's why I write for the theatre because I assume freedom and it never occurs to me that I don't have the freedom.”
Finally, Roberts asked the panelists what it means to them to “create outside of the box.” Bedford Walker responded that, “When you say out of the box, I think of risk. Often, I’ll start in the box, and then once in the box, you feel kind of blocked. Is there any way I can view this particular subject outside of the box? Or is there any method that I could use to deliver a traditional piece of work in an outside of the box type way?” Guenveur Smith responded, “Know that there are no borders, no tariffs, no boundaries, no obstacles, everything flows in into everything else. We are all functioning as performers to a certain degree. Writers, directors, producers, of course, citizens always. And we need not compartmentalize ourselves as much as we do.” Guenveur Smith then ended the webinar with a powerful impromptu performance of his writing envisioning the last words of Elijah McCain, the 23-year-old Black man from Aurora, Colorado who died at the hands of the police in 2019.
Actors’ Equity Association members can watch the full webinar in the member portal. Part two of the “Creating Your Own Work” series, “Business Development: From Page to Stage” took place on Monday, October 19. In the webinar, Equity members learned powerful tools with which they can mount their own production, from beginning to end.