Tag Archives: Saturday Matinees

Actress/Director Lisa Strum to share hilarious and poignant solo work on ‘Saturday Matinee’

by France-Luce Benson

Lisa Strum, a Philadelphia native living and working in the New York area is a director, an educator, actress, playwright, producer, casting director, singer and a certified wedding officiant! I’d add to that list truth teller, world traveler, and cherished friend. Her soulful voice and infectious laugh make her a powerful presence on stage and off, and her sharp wit, insightful observations, and wicked sense of humor are what makes her work so compelling. An award-winning actor, she’s starred in some of American theatre’s most celebrated plays, including Wilson’s Fences, Morriseau’s Pipleline, and Nottage’s Sweat. But lately, it is her work as a director that is getting everyone’s attention. I am lucky enough to have had her direct two of my own plays – Fall at the Ensemble Studio Theatre in New York, and Nanã for the All Hands on Deck Virtual play Festival. She also directed a Kennedy Center Award winning production of For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide When the Rainbow is Enough, and is currently directing Flyin West at Five Towns College. On this week’s installment of “Saturday Matinees”, Strum will perform from her original works She Gon Learn, An Actor Prepares, and Poetic Tirades. I sat down with her to discuss her journey from actor to director, and the beauty of acceptance.

F.L.B. What led you to directing?

L.S.   I dabbled in directing while I was in undergrad; directing one acts and short scenes. But it wasn’t until I was hired by Carl Johnson to act as the Theatre Specialist for the Abrons Arts Center Summer Program at Henry Street Settlement that my directing skills really began to take shape. I discovered that I had a strong visual eye to tell stories on the stage and to get great performances out of the actors I was working with – regardless of their experience or their age. There was always a mainstage show at the end of the 5 weeks of the summer program of an original devised theatre piece created by the students. The show also included dance, singing and a set, so there was constant collaboration between the voice, dance and visual arts instructors throughout the summer and year after year we generated some incredible work together. It was exciting being the conductor of all of this collaborative work. I became hooked. And I just liked telling people what to do! LOL!

F.L.B. – What has been keeping you sane?

Staying connected with friends and family. Preparing and cooking home cooked meals. Laughter. Lots of laughter! Movies from my teenage years. And simply accepting the reality of the situation we are living in right now. Adaption and going with the flow are key. Many people realized during the quarantine how much they needed a break from the constant hustle and rat race. I didn’t realize how much I needed to be still. With all the constraints we’ve been under because of COVID-19, I’ve found peace within the boundaries. It’s been an amazing way to stay focused and to stay in the moment.

FLB. – What gives you hope?

L.S. The will of the human spirit and the ability to adapt and find joy regardless of the circumstances.

France-Luce Benson is a playwright and the Community Engagement Coordinator for the Fountain Theatre.

Award-winning Philly playwright Josh Wilder is now finding brotherly love in L.A.

by France-Luce Benson

Josh Wilder might be the most down to earth wunderkind I’ve ever met. Barely in his 30s, he is the winner of numerous awards including the Jerome Many Voices Fellowship, the Lorraine Hansberry Award, and Holland New Voices – among others. But the Philly native truly represents “brotherly love” – spending his time guiding and nurturing young writers, and developing his green thumb. Wilder is currently based here in Los Angeles, and graciously agreed to appear on this week’s Saturday Matinee. In this interview I learned that although he is an Angeleno at the moment, his Philly roots are firmly intact.

FLB: Philadelphia is a recurring character in many of your plays. What about the city inspires you?

Everything! The murals; the culture; the accent; you can walk anywhere and find a story. Philly is a city of rowhomes with thin walls, so ear-hustling was the everyday. THE LOVE. We really are “The City of Brotherly Love”. Most importantly, it’s the attitude. Philly is an attitude, and everybody you know from Philly got one! PHILLY ALL DAY, BABY!

FLB: I understand you’re based in Los Angeles now. How long have you been here and what has the transition from east to west coast been like for you?

I’ve been here since April. The transition has been very smooth. I love that I can escape to the beach and just think. There’s something about the ocean…

FLB: What do you miss most about Philly?

The food. I want a mushroom cheesesteak with friend onions from Max’s so bad…. Water ice and soft pretzels; the Reading Terminal; block parties in the summertime. Sitting on the porch with my brother.

FLB: I read that you started as an actor? Does that inform your writing process? Do you have any desire to return to acting?

Yes, my favorite playwrights are actors. My writing process is actor focused—being in the room with actors is the ultimate experience. Better than the actual run of the show. There’s so much magic in the room that I never want to leave my side of the table. I don’t have a strong desire to return to acting— I really love being in my lane.

FLB: What was the very first play you ever wrote?

My very first play I wrote and produced was called Michael’s Testimony. I was in my senior year at the Creative and Performing Arts High School. I’ll never forget how the audience left the theater that night. 

FLB: In addition to the Pandemic, we (Black and Brown folx) are in the midst of an uprising while simultaneously continuing to see our people suffer at the hands of police brutality. How have you been processing all of this? Do you feel that it has fueled/informed/or radicalized your work in any way?

ALL I CAN SAY IS THAT I LOVE BEING BLACK. I WAS BORN BLACK, I’MA DIE BLACK, AND I’MA CONTINUE BEING BLACK NO MATTER HOW HARD THESE EVIL-ASS PEOPLE TRY AND THAT’S ON THAT. MY GOD AND MY ANCESTORS GOT ME. MY PRESIDENT WILL ALWAYS BE BARACK OBAMA.

FLB: Lol! Agreed!!

FLB: What’s been keeping you sane?

My teaching. As soon as COVID-19 shut the country down—everything changed for me. I was let go from a teaching position in Atlanta just as I was getting the hang of Zoom. Once that happened, I packed up my apartment, got in my car, drove to LA and I set up shop by starting a Playwrights Workshop in April. So far I’ve connected with over 40+ playwrights around the country and the world! I’ve never worked with so many Black and POC playwrights in my whole teaching career—90% women. These women keep me sane– they’re gonna be the ones to watch when the theater reopens. I also became a Plant Daddy J

FLB: What gives you hope? Knowing that the sun is shining, and the sky is blue.

France-Luce Benson is a playwright, the Community Engagement Coordinator at the Fountain Theatre, and host of the livestream program Saturday Matinees.

Playwright/Poet Kit Yan shares dream space on this weekend’s Saturday Matinee

Playwright/Poet Kit Yan.

by France-Luce Benson

This Saturday on Saturday Matinees, we’ll be joined by award winning playwright and poet Kit Yan, whose musical Interstate won “Best Lyrics” at the 2018 New York Musical Theatre Festival. Born in Enping, China, Yan’s family immigrated to Hawaii where they were raised. Yan describes their work as “a dream space where I witness, remember, and reflect on my queer and trans herstories.” I met Yan at the Playwright’s Center in Minneapolis where they were beginning their residency as a 2020 fellow. I was charmed by their warmth, and flattered by their generous support of my work. Since then, I’ve remained intrigued by their uniquely vibrant work – a combination of ancestral reverence, queer pride, and lots of pop culture fun. In this interview, we talk about inspirations, cultural traditions, and our shared love of aerobics.

France-Luce Benson – What were some of your favorite musicals growing up?

Kit Yan. – I love Disney lol.  

Was there one in particular that left an imprint on you?

I love In the Heights. I have always felt inspired by family, community, neighborhoods, and relationships.

You say “writing is a spaceship into the borderless ancestral past…” I love that because I feel a strong connection to my ancestors whenever I’m creating. Is this true for you as well?

Absolutely. I carry with me all who have come before and all who are coming ahead in all my work. Writing is a dream space for me, to reimagine, retell, remember, and rewrite time and time again. I am only who I am because of the stories, and work of the ancestors. I never take for granted that I stand on shoulders and that gratefulness holds me accountable to telling stories that matter to me. 

In another life I was a step aerobics instructor. I still love Step. So naturally, I’m intrigued by your musical MISS STEP. What was the inspiration?

WTF this is amazing about you! I was taking a step aerobics class in Long Island and getting really into it. It helped me feel free in my body as a trans person. Then Melissa (Yan’s collaborator) and I went down a rabbit hole of watching competitive aerobics for 8 hours straight one night while working on Interstate and just fell in love with it! When we dove deeper, we actually found the world of competitive aerobics to have some problems. There were misogynistic rules and expectations embedded in the rules in this sport that is supposed to be a ground for self- expression and frankly is pretty amazingly gay. So we set out to tell a story about trans people challenging these rules in order to feel free in their bodies and connect to something within themselves. 

In your short film TO DO, there is a beautiful shot of the protagonist making an offering of flowers and cookies to the ocean? What is the significance? Is it based on any Asian tradition?

Yes! this is a food offering to the person who has moved onto their next life. I’m a buddhist and grew up with kind of a mish mash of buddhist, doaist, and feng shui practices. When we visit our ancestors’ graves we always bring food to nourish their spirits.  

During these last 6 months, what has been keeping you sane?

I have been spending more time outside and in nature than ever before. It has been grounding to witness  animals returning to their homes, plants growing in places they did not grow before, and people in relationship to the land in respectful and harmonious ways. 

What is bringing you hope? 

The above is bringing me hope and all this silence is bringing me hope. People helping other people. Collective work towards safety and wellness. 

Learn more about Kit Yan

Kit Yan will be Saturday Matinee’s featured guest this week: Saturday Sep 5 at 5pm PT. MORE INFO.

Dennis A. Allen II to share powerful monologues on Fountain online series ‘Saturday Matinees’

by France-Luce Benson

I first met Dennis A. Allen II back in 2016 when we met to talk about our experiences as Playwrights in Residence at Djerassi’s Resident Artist program. Although I was familiar with his work long before then, particularly his contribution to HANDS UP, a collection of monologues by seven black playwrights in response to the police shootings of Mike Brown, John Crawford the III, among others. His work is raw, gorgeously poetic, and brutally honest. In the past five months, Dennis and I have participated in a weekly virtual gathering of other like minded Black theatre artists, and I have gotten to know the depth of his sensitivity, and the expanse of his enlightenment. He is a truly special artist and man, and I am so thrilled hell be joining us for the return of Saturday Matinees, this Saturday – Aug 22 5pm PST.

Earlier this week, I chatted with Dennis about the work he plans to share with us, his process, and how he’s been processing the events of the last few months:

FLB: What will you be presenting on Saturday?

D.A.A.: I’d like to present three monologues from three different plays of mine. Manhood, The Wretched Begin to Rise and When We Wake Up Dead. Manhood explores the perils or toxic masculinity, The Wretched Begin to Rise is a play set in 1834 Five Points New York and interrogates identity and race relations, and When We Wake Up Dead examines mental health and the effects of untreated trauma within an African American family.  

FLB: I believe you started as an actor, right? How did you find way to writing and directing?

D.A.A.: Writing was actually the first passion. My mother has shared that I wrote a short story about a leprechaun when I was four years old. I don’t remember writing it but I’m sure it was inspired by the Disney movie Darby O’Gill and the Little People, a VHS that was in heavy rotation on my television at the time. Anyway, I always loved writing, I used to perform poetry at open mic nights my undergrad days at Hampton University and for a while had dreams of being a hip hop artist. I won’t bore you with reading my journey to acting and theatre but once I did get into acting I knew that eventually I’d want to write plays. My thinking was I’d be better at creating characters for the stage if I was intimate with the actor’s process. I took a directing class in undergrad and really enjoyed it. My preference is writing, I think because it’s the craft I’ve dedicated the most hours to, so it’s the one I’m most confident executing. For me. acting, writing and directing are just three different styles of storytelling and I love being able to create a good story. 

FLB: How has the last 3 months changed your creative process? (or has it)

D.A.A.: The last three months has not changed my creative process but it has provided me time to ruminate on what stories I think are imperative for me to create.  Capitalism is a helluva drug and there have been times where I’ve focused more on the strategy of making money at the craft than the craft itself. And it’s been those times that I’ve had the least amount of joy ( if any) in my creative process. This “pause” has allowed me to tap back into why I do this; why I love this. 

FLB: What has been keeping you sane?

D.A.A.: Exercise; I’ve been reading specifically Black female sci-fi and fantasy writers this summer (Octavia Butler, Justina Ireland, Tomi Adeyemi, Nnedi Okorafor); and every Friday night for the last five months I’ve participated in a Zoom meet up with friends I consider my creative family- which has provided us all with a catharsis- we laugh, cry, pontificate, talk shit, love on each other and laugh some more. 

FLB: What has been giving you hope?

D.A.A.: With everything going on I am hyper conscious of how privileged I am. My wife is loving and supportive, both of my parents are alive and currently healthy, I have a roof over my head and am blessed to have classes to teach as an adjunct professor; so it’s easy for me to have hope because of my privilege. As bad as it is out in these streets my immediate life ain’t too bad. That said, being able to teach and work with the younger generation has been a constant source of hope because these kids have an emotional intelligence, are politically informed and active, and have an unapologetic exploration around identity that is light years ahead of anything my generation had access to. 

France-Luce Benson is a playwright and the Community Engagement Coordinator at the Fountain Theatre.

The Space In Between …

France-Luce Benson

Playwright France-Luce Benson is the Community Engagement Coordinator at the Fountain Theatre, and host of the online gathering, “Saturday Matinees.”

by France-Luce Benson

A few days ago, a friend and I were discussing the concept of Liminal space, moments in life where you experience the pain and discomfort of being on the threshold of change. We are all feeling it right now; in our communities, in our cities, as a country, and in the world. As we navigate this liminal space collectively, some of us, myself included, are also feeling our way through the challenges of personal transition. Uncomfortable, yes. But ripe with the promise of inspiration, enlightenment, and growth.

After three and a half months quarantining in Florida with my Mom, I’m relieved to be back in L.A. I hesitate to say back home, because I’ve been in a kind of holding space. I moved out of my old apartment, and have been house sitting in Arcadia while waiting to move into my new West Hollywood apartment. Not to mention, nothing in Los Angeles is as I left it. Most everything remains shut down – from beaches to bars, movie theatres, museums, and worst of all for us, theatres. Closed. Indefinitely. Meanwhile, uprisings, small and large, fill the space in between. Artistic directors, producers, playwrights, actors and directors are having difficult conversations about the future of theatre. No one really has the answers. But I believe whatever the future is, already exists in this space in between.

I’ve spent much of these last few weeks listening to the neighbors’ children play in imaginary worlds, absorbing every last bit of their summer, unburdened by financial pressures, political anxieties, and this unrelenting fear Covid-19. While I envy the freedom of innocence and ignorance, the urgency that accompanies our collective awakening is oddly comforting. I am reminded that as artists, our voices are powerful and as a black, female artist – my voice is necessary. Now more than ever.

During my hiatus from Saturday Matinees, I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about this power, and the many ways I have felt powerless in a country, and industry, tainted by white supremacy. I have been asked by many of my colleagues, on the front lines of demanding radical change in the theatre, to recollect and testify about the many ways I have been oppressed in the theatre. The University professors who were unable or unwilling to expose me to artists representative of my identity, the artistic directors who implied that the cultural specificity of my work lessened its value, the directors and producers who failed to honor my vision simply out of laziness and ego. I thought about how powerless I felt at the time. But in this liminal space, I am reminded of how powerful my voice actually is, and how choosing to tell stories that challenge stereotypes and amplify marginalized voices is a powerful act of rebellion. And I’ve been thinking about the ways I might wield this power, peacefully, creatively, urgently. One of those ways is as curator, co-producer, and host of “Saturday Matinees” with The Fountain Theatre.

Saturday Matinees began with a simple premise: A virtual community gathering with live performances. It was an opportunity to break the isolation of quarantine, and to satisfy our hunger for creative expression and live entertainment. It was such a joy getting to know The Fountain audience, and allowing myself to be seen and heard through my own work, and on an intimate level that was completely unexpected. But the greatest gift, by far, was introducing theatrical artists I love and admire to our Fountain family. Once the uprisings began, it occurred to me how powerful this platform could be.

So when Saturday Matinees returns on August 22, I intend to joyfully honor the many voices representative of this powerful liminal space. I hope you will join me in my celebration of resistance, equality, global and social justice, and positive change. Our first guest on August 22 will be Dennis A. Allen II, writer, actor, director, activist. Allen will share from his work and discuss what the current uprisings means to black artists who have been vocal about these issues for decades.

Many of us have desperately attempted to ease the discomfort of this liminal space with catch phrases like “reset” or “pivoting”. But the hard truth is that liminality is defined by the ambiguity, disorientation, and uncertainty one experiences in the middle stage of a rite of passage. However, when the rite of passage is complete, we emerge with greater clarity and strength. In the words of George Bernard Shaw, “Progress is impossible without change.”

 

France-Luce Benson is the Community Engagement Coordinator at the Fountain Theatre, and the host of the online gathering, Saturday Matinees.