Women Center Stage – An Interview With Lauren Whitehead

laurenw300Lauren Whitehead directs her original work A Tribe Called Blessed: Songs toward the Advancement of (T)history.

Every story has a point of origin and a different point of origin depending on who’s telling it. In the sprit of re-originating and on a mission to re-member a shared racial and musical history in America, join Lauren Whitehead as she retraces her own story and finds her tribe in this 15 minute incendiary ditty: A Tribe Called Blessed: Songs toward the Advancement of (T)history

What inspired you to do this play?

Right now I’m a student of Dramaturgy which is really just a fancy word for “how drama works.” We’ve been learning all these theories about drama and we’ve been watching a lot of dramatic work and reading a lot of different kinds of dramatic texts and you know, looking for patterns, general grad schoolery. As an assignment we were charged with presenting ourselves and one of my classmates gave me the prompt “who’s in your tribe?” I sort of knew immediately that it was “impromptu singing, make a song out of anything, black folks” so I just ran with and toward that idea and in so doing uncovered some memories and some songs and before I knew it, I had this precious little thing. It was really aptly timed, now that I think about it because I had been, consciously or not, looking for a way to talk about my “school” of dramatic thought. All these years of study and I was finally being asked to articulate where my aesthetic ideas come from, what patterns I was noticing and what those patterns have to do with race and gender and sexuality and really, the body of work that I respond to and have grown up with. This piece is trying to speak to that eloquently and clearly but in the incendiary way with which I tend to do things. I just wanted illuminate a different point of origin. I wanted to write up my musical theater point of origin story.

How did you get involved in Women Center Stage?

Right so, then I had this thing. This 15 minute one woman musical or performance memoir or – I still don’t know what to call it, really – but I had this precious little thing. And what exactly does one do with a 15 minute musical memoir for stage? I was sort of feeling like I had written this piece just for myself, for the assignment, but mostly for myself. And I loved it. And I thought, maybe that’s enough. The next day I got an email from Alex asking if I wanted to participate in Director’s Weekend which was looking to showcase 15 minute performance pieces on media narrative. I gasped cause, you know, maybe the universe does work that way. Ask and you shall receive and all that.

Your play sounds very personal. How do you prepare to share your own story with an audience?

Yea… I mean I come from a spoken word poetry background so the idea of telling my own story is nothing new to me, really. The word that would closest describe my work would be memoir I suppose. I really rely heavily on memory, personal and institutional and intuitional and all of it. I like that memoir can do that, or be a place where the thing can be absolutely true but also only true for the person remembering the story, you know. Might be totally different from another memory’s point of view. That grey area is exciting to me. Anyway, all that to say, yes, the work is personal. How I prepare? I guess, over the years I have learned to value my own story. To treat it with worth. One of the patterns that I’ve noticed in my studies in school and in life is that the stories of black women aren’t always valued or given worth, so I “worth” my own work. I get nervous that a room full of people will sit there looking at me like “why should I care” but I try to dig in to my personal to find some universal that we can all relate to and learn from and heal with. So I get scared for sure but I prepare by caring and that caring, I hope, will allow other people to care too.

So many plays and stories are told by men. What do you think prevents women from telling their stories?

I don’t think there’s anything preventing women from telling their stories, I think there are things preventing people from valuing the stories. Women are telling stories all day every day. Righ now. At the hair salon, on the bus, behind high powered desks in high powered conference rooms. Stories are happening. I trust that. Whether or not they are being heard and why they might not be getting heard, well that’s a whole ‘nother story and a conversation we might need to have in some secret room of our own, you know what I mean?

If more women could tell their stories, what do you think would change?

I think the thing is really about balance. And I don’t mean balance like for every two stories told by men there will need to be an equal and opposite number of stories told by women and brown people and blah blah blah. It’s not a quota and it’s certainly not a zero-sum game. There’s not finite limit on story in the world, c’mon. Really it’s about populating conversation with a variety of voices presenting a variety of views on what it is to be a human out here being. Just populate the narrative. Add argument and history and color and then we’ll have the nuanced story that people crave.

Two women just won Best Director at the Tony Awards – only the second time a woman has won Best Director of a Musical. Why do you think that is the current state of things?

I can’t really say. I celebrate the work of these women to be sure. My gut, though, says that if this is the current state of things, where women are just now getting recognized for work we’ve been doing for a long time, then we need to investigate the people in charge of handing out the shiny trophies. What’s up with them? Cause like I said before, the stories are happening and the hard work is being handled by women all the time. I can see it, so it’s not my eyes that need to be checked.

We see so many more plays written by men than by women onstage. Why do you think that is the current state of things?

There’s always a gatekeeper at the door. The person who is responsible for vetting plays or writers or theater troupes and honestly I don’t think those gatekeepers spend that much time investigating their own patterns, tendencies, aesthetics, propensities, biases, etc. We need readers in literary offices or artistic directors who are willing to take chances and willing to go outside their own comfort zones and look beyond what they would normally see as a good fit for their theaters and push themselves in order to push their audiences. The gate, at least as far as I can tell, opens much easier for men than it does for women. And don’t even think about adding any ethnicity to your womanhood, or queerness to your womanhood or poverty. That shit will just continually raise the bar for access. It’s funny, all this talk about affirmative action lately and is it necessary and all that. Some one needs to dig in to that media narrative a bit. I’m not sure how so much of the world has come around to believing that being a poor, black, queer, woman in the United States is an advantage for anything. Seems to me like the straight, right, white, men are getting all the advantage around here. And everywhere.

How do you think the current state of things can continue to change?

Oh absolutely! Like I said, there is a girl somewhere right now making up songs and stories and one day she’s going to sing them and somebody’s gonna hear them and that’s really all there is to it.

Please tell me your thoughts about the roles women currently play in theater and the roles you hope to see them play in the future.

My thoughts are simple. Women have ALWAYS been there, will ALWAYS be there and will continue to play integral roles in the making of, development of, creating of, telling of, rendering of, designing of, performing of the ongoing list of important stories of our day and beyond. There is no limit to the roles we have had and will continue to have. The limit is in the ability of the gatekeepers to recognize these contributions. Wish they would get with the program already…

Please tell me anything else about your play or women in theatre that you would like to share.

Come see me do my thing!

3 Responses to Women Center Stage – An Interview With Lauren Whitehead

  1. Hi Lauren,

    I was looking you up on Facebook to congratulate you and Reed on being ONE MONTH MARRIED!
    And then I saw this site about Women Center Stage. I don’t know how current the information in it is at this time, but I would certainly like to know more, especially if you’re involved (so grand that you’re in a field I chose to study) because I’d like to see a performance when schedule permits.
    By the way, have you ever heard of International Women Writer’s Guild?

    your cousin

    Mattie-Margo Wakefield