THE TURRET, GILDED BALLOON, 12pm
Can America only dream in black and white? Desiree Burch is here to find out. In her own straightforward style, Desiree investigates the intersection of institution and individuality in the UK premiere of Tar Baby.
Let Desiree be your guide in this exploration of America’s love affair with race and capitalism, as she reveals their impact on her experiences as a black woman in academia, the entertainment industry and personal relationships. Solo, devised and interactive theatre forms combine to speak for the growing majority of minority experiences in the US.
What inspired this production: did you begin with an idea or a script or an object?
Desiree Burch: When I set out to create a solo show with friend, storyteller and playwright Dan Kitrosser, the intention was to create a show that wove the folktales collected by Zora Neale Hurston with the stories of my own life to draw parallels about storytelling and modern mythology.
However what came from my writing were stories that I had never put on paper or told anyone. Stories about my family and upbringing and moments that formed my identity. At one point, when writing specifically about my own blackness, in the face of the post-racial fallacy inspired by Barack Obama's presidency, the heart of the piece, which happens under a sheet fort built with the audience, came into being.
The writing has evolved much since Dan and I first decided to write a play together back in 2011, but all of it revolved around the writing that happened concerning that particular that day.
What can the audience expect to see and feel - or even think - of your production?
They audience should expect a carnival! That is how we pitch the show from the beginning and that is how it gets played out. It's the most screwed up carnival in the world, but it's a carnival nonetheless.
That said, the carnival doesn't happen unless the audience participates. It isn't hard, it really just requires being present and willing and listening and responding. It's less about being wrong or right, and more about being open. Audiences will empathise more with the "black experience" than they ever realised they needed to, and afterward, will converse about things they thought frightening to talk about and see things in society they never would have recognised before.
The Dramaturgy Questions
How would you explain the relevance - or otherwise - of dramaturgy within your work?
In the collaboration between Dan Kitrosser and myself, it's been mostly that I have done the writing and Dan has done the structure and editing and "call for submissions" (if you will) of different stories from me on various subjects.
However, there has been a lot of grey area in that over the course of our process. As far as straight sort of research, I think that for both of us, talking about race makes you want to know more about the
history and culture and legacy behind certain ideas and practices. The process of writing and conversing personally has compelled us to do our own reading and growth for the sake of our own identities. In addition, through various workshops and iterations of the piece, people have recommended articles and books and other kids of reading for us to absorb.
There is really not enough room for all of the things we'd want to talk about in this piece. But it has made for such a thoroughly vulnerable, open and soul searching conversation between the two of us for some time now. It has made us closer friends to be able to learn about these things in a fundamental way and support each other as we came to our own discoveries about things brought up by this show.
What particular traditions and influences would you acknowledge on your work - have any particular artists, or genres inspired you and do you see yourself within their tradition?
Solo performer and playwright Deb Margolin inspired the genesis and really all of my work as a solo performer. I studied with her while studying at Yale, where I figured out that this was what I was going to spend the rest of my life doing. She has such both deep parts poetry and humour in her work, and I was so fortunate to discover her at the time in my life when I desperately needed to start slashing words into the world. She really showed me that theatre is about desire, about need, about sending a certain kind of fire into the universe.
When I first saw Young Jean Lee's Songs of the Dragons Flying to Heaven I was floored. I think it is the same experience that some folks--especially people of color--have expressed to me after seeing Tar Baby.
It's like, "She just said it. I can't believe she just said it." All of these things that people of color know to be true about the world and their experiences of it and how all of it is viewed by white people. She was hilarious and brutal in her vulnerability in that show, and I think part of me didn't quite know I was allowed to make things like that until I saw that--and saw an audience full of theatre-going white people watching and listening and wondering how they were experiencing the show. That particular experience fascinated me.
Knowing that there were people in the audience experiencing and responding to the same thing in vastly different ways.
I have worked with the New York Neo-Futurists off and on for the past decade, and their work consistently inspires me. It is that everyday magic that happens when you don't take for granted the fact that, at any performance, none of these same people will ever be in the same room ever again. When there are no fourth walls between the sacred stage and the "normal world" and one begins to permeate those boundaries, profound and lasting things can occur.
And I am continually humbled and influenced by the work of Anna Deavere Smith. I was fortunate enough to be able to take a workshop with her and various other intensely talented artists just over a year ago. She has always been the foremost name in solo performance in my mind, and the fact that she uses her background as both actress and educator to create civic engagement with her work is so profoundly important to me.
It is really how the theatre remains relevant in the age of Netflix. And that's not a knock on Netflix--it's amazing. It's so amazing, why does anyone need to leave their house anymore? Well, a theatre is where people come together. It's where they are both transported and trapped. It's where learning and conversation happen. It's where those moments of connection and beauty--moments that stay with you throughout a lifetime--can happen. And she embraces and commands that space, and is a role model for anyone who does this kind of work.
Do you have a particular process of making that you could describe - where it begins, how you develop it, and whether there is any collaboration in the process?
I always start with two things: personal and funny.
I start with personal because I know I need to lay my ass on the line for an audience. These people have paid hard-earned money to sit in the dark and willfully shut the fuck up and listen to me for some reason. And I know that they are willing to do that because we are all searching for presence and authenticity in art and in the world. It's why humans like sex and drugs and all kinds of other fun things... they get us closer to something that feels raw or deeper or more like the "us" that we forget we are.
And good theatre makes you feel alive and in your body in a way that Netflix can't. So I know that, for me, I can only do that if I submit myself to the rules of being authentic, raw, honest and present. Moreover, there's just a lot of fucking fire in me--I've got a lot to say. And the world hasn't heard enough of my stories yet, which is evidenced by the fact that people keep showing up to hear them. The best way to connect with someone else is to be so completely yourself. People relate on that essential level. And that space allows you not only to be vulnerable, but also to listen, which audiences always appreciate.
Which brings me to the funny part. Being funny requires listening to your audience. It both requires and facilitates empathy. It allows people to accept ideas that they might ordinarily reject as too "out there" or taboo or "too close to home". It's the rub after the spank that lets people take a little more of the pain and shock, and perhaps actually like it. It creates a sense of knowing and connection with an audience that lets them know that you are on their side, and they on yours. It is quite essential in dealing with the awkward, provocative and controversial. And also, it just make the work fun for me to do. It means that things always have to adjust to accommodate people and it makes shows interesting for me to do night after night.
What do you feel the role of the audience is, in terms of making the meaning of your work?
The role of the audience is an absolutely essential one to my work. Their role is to stay present and engaged. They have to want to connect as much as I do, and I hope that my earnest desire to do so is reflected in the vigor of my work. The audience must want to rise to the challenge as much as I do. And when they do, they leave the theatre feeling buzzed, invigorated, wanting to engage others.
Audiences that just sit back and say, "Well, I paid--You do the show" are coming from a position that is far too entitled to receive anything meaningful from the work. They'll sit there and think it's "interesting" or "fun" and not experience it fully as the call to action that it is.