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An interview between KJ and Forum’s Marketing & PR Manager Emily Wilson
Emily: Tell us a little bit about yourself! Where did you grow up? Where did you go to school? How did you find yourself in the theatre?
KJ: I grew up in Mishawaka, IN, which is right next to South Bend. No, I’m not a fan of the Notre Dame, but I am a huge Indianapolis Colts fan. My husband and I have been together for 6 years and married for 2 years. I am super close with my family and my husband’s family. We are definitely lucky that our families get along and actually enjoy being with each other! My husband and I live in Northeast DC with our fur baby, Hunny, who is our everything!
For my education, I attended Ball State University where I received a Bachelor’s in Theatre. I graduated in May from Carnegie Mellon University with a Master’s degree in Arts Management. One of the coolest things about my time at CMU was that I was able to spend a semester in Bologna, Italy. My Italian is not so good but I met some great people, saw some amazing art, and ate some amazing food. My time in Italy and at CMU really influenced my view on how art is a right and it belongs to the community.
I started doing theater with my mom and sister when I was just a wee one. It was something fun for the three of us to do do together. Our first show was A Christmas Carol. I did a lot of community theater and directed shows at one of the local middle schools during High School.
E: You have been working in the DC theatre community for a while now--what is it about the scene that excites you so much?
KJ: I have to say it's the people. When I moved to DC from Indiana, I knew no one. All of my friends moved to Chicago, LA or NYC. My family still lived in Indiana. From my first show, the theater community was very welcoming and supportive. The support of one another is what really allows the art to thrive in the area.
E: What is one performance (in or outside of DC) that has really influenced the way you look at the role art plays in our community?
KJ: Many of the influences that have shaped my view on the role of arts in the community have been people and experiences more so than performances. Graduate school played a big role in influencing how I look at the connection between art and the community, particularly my semester in Bologna, Italy. The conversations centered around art being a right, not a privilege. It is very important that art and culture are preserved and play an integral role in not only the development of a community but in the lives of the citizens.
The group of people that have influenced me the most would be the actors and the team at Art Stream. My work with Art Stream really showed how art and performing can play an integral role in our lives. It was an amazing experience.
E: What is your proudest accomplishment of your career thus far?
KJ: The teams I have worked with have had moments of success and moments of learning that have helped the shaped how things move forward. Through the combination of those two things, if the art can happen and people have access to the art, then that is the biggest accomplishment.
E: What is it that drew you to Forum Theatre specifically?
KJ: #TeamForum. The team at Forum is an amazing dedicated group of people who are dedicated to creating accessible and inclusive theatre. Forum actively works to create open dialogue around big topics and to make sure that anyone who wants to be a part of the discussion, can and is apart of the discussion. Forum makes theatre a right, not a privilege.
E: Do you have any advice for recent undergrads hoping to break into the theatre world?
KJ: Put down the smartphone and read a book. I’m only half joking. Disconnect from technology for a bit. It is amazing what you can accomplish when you just stop and reflect.
E: And probably the most important question...what is your spirit animal (wild or domesticated) and why?
KJ: Llamas. Llamas are magical.
Emily Wilson, Marketing & PR Manager
A Jersey girl at heart, Emily graduated from the University of Maryland in 2013 with a BA in Theatre and English. She has spent the past 5 years working in Marketing and Development for DC theatres including Arena Stage, Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company, and Imagination Stage. She lives by the mantra "pic or it didn't happen" and wants you to go like the Forum Facebook page right now (www.facebook.com/forumtheatre.dc). She has strong feelings against balloons and eating cereal with milk. @emywils
“Why do the doctors get to choose which happiness I keep? Why do they get to decide which sort of happiness I feel?” — Max
“I have never struggled with not caring, only with other people thinking that I should.” – Anonymous post from Actually Schizoid
We began rehearsals for World Builders armed with diagnoses and traits from the DSM-5, prepared to understand and portray personality disorders to a psychiatric T. As we delved into Johnna Adams’ vibrant, heart-wrenchingly honest story, however, we discovered that clinical definitions of Max and Whitney’s Schizoid Personality Disorder (SPD) only paint a surface-level picture of these characters’ complex inner lives.
From a clinical perspective, SPD is one of 10 personality disorders described in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. SPD is a Cluster A disorder (“odd/eccentric”), characterized by up to nine different traits, but generally “by a pervasive pattern of social detachment and a restricted range of emotional expression.” Although the extent to which individuals with SPD interact with the outside world varies case-to-case, many prefer living within their controlled, often fantastical and wildly imaginative, worlds; this trait seems unhealthy, abnormal, and intimidating to many outsiders —despite studies showing that “normal” individuals spend more than 30 percent of their own waking hours daydreaming themselves.
Although Max and Whitney have been hospitalized for and clinically diagnosed with SPD, their individual journeys constantly teeter from official DSM definitions. As we excavated the text more closely, we realized that a clinical perspective could not offer the nuanced tools we needed to truly understand this story.
We decided instead to investigate the human, day-to-day world of SPD. We combed through 24 pages of posts on Actually Schizoid, a tumblr blog dedicated to real-life stories of SPD and one of the Internet’s most comprehensive glimpses into this world, and discovered that this personality type is as malleable and complex as any other psychiatric diagnosis. The farther we dove into the blog, the more we realized that many individuals have no desire to treat their SPD; in fact, many are perfectly at-ease with their inner worlds and even consider their clinically abnormal personality to be an asset rather than a mental illness.
What makes Adams’ play so honest is not its adherence to modern psychiatry’s definition of SPD; rather, it is the nuance of her characters—both of whom adhere to and contradict standard notions definitions of SPD throughout the play—and the questions that their journey within the world of mental health reveal. The idea of a “disordered” personality in and of itself raises enormous questions: What constitutes a personality? Who defines “normal” and “abnormal,” and who has the right to deem whether a “disordered” personality needs treatment?
This is not to say that World Builders is rallying against modern psychiatry or demanding that psychiatric patients have full control over their treatment. Rather, Adams asks us to see ourselves in Max and Whitney as they grapple with their own definitions of normalcy and happiness, challenging our own preconceived notions about mental illness and offering a rare glimpse into these characters’ colorful and often-misunderstood worlds.
“It’s the closest thing I have to a heart.”
We continue Season 12 at Forum with World Builders: a love story by Johnna Adams. As this season's Directing Intern, I was fortunate enough to assist director Amber McGinnis Jackson on this production. I took part in the incredible journey of bringing this play about people who feel everything and nothing at once to Woolly Mammoth’s Melton Rehearsal Hall, where it is playing through November 21. Daniel Corey and Laura Harris star as Max and Whitney.
The core question that the team asked as we began table work was how to synthesize the fascinating and thorough research that our dramaturg, Maegan Clearwood, had collected about Schizoid Personality Disorder (SPD) with the reality of Max and Whitney as Adams wrote them on the page. As Whitney recites early on in the play, individuals with SPD are “obsessively introspective, addicted to building an elaborate fantasy life, and indifferent to social norms.” These traits certainly check out with the Max and Whitney that we experience in Act I, the Max and Whitney who have freshly arrived to a drug trial designed to kill their worlds. They are awkward, abrasive, and unsure of how to connect with each other. The only reason Whitney seeks a connection with Max, the catalyst for our story, is for personal benefit—if her world dies, at least Max will be able to carry on the memory of it.
In the rehearsal room, the actors created posters with lists of traits from textbooks, online sources, and beyond. Jackson encouraged them to use the traits as a base line for character development, but to also be ready to explore far beyond. It was important to keep in mind that these traits were defined by doctors and psychiatrists, not actual human beings who are identified as SPD. A Tumblr page that Clearwood dug up, “Actually Schizoid,” did feature the stories of individuals with SPD from all around the world. What we discovered was that their stories were intensely specific. Many stories contradicted the doctors’ general opinions of SPD, which was no surprise to anyone. How could anyone define something so ephemeral?
The aspect left completely to the imagination of the actors was the visual interpretation of the worlds inside the characters’ heads. Their worlds are drastically different, which serves to highlight the individual nature of SPD. Both worlds are visually arresting and completely unique. Jackson encouraged Harris and Corey to find images that were reminiscent of their individual worlds. We hung these on the wall alongside the research posters, creating an enveloping environment that blends the known and the unknown.
The traits that Harris and Corey created for Whitney and Max were constantly evolving. What started as a childlike, hand on neck twisting gesture from Corey transformed over the rehearsal process into a tendency to pick at his hair. Harris discovered the power of Whitney’s voice to intimidate and convince Max of her needs. In the end, deftly guided by Jackson, they created two vastly different humans with one thing in common: rich, complex fantasy worlds. If you encountered Max on the street, and then Whitney five minutes later, you’d never guess that they would be diagnosed with the same thing—what doctors generically term “Schizoid Personality Disorder.”
Whitney at one point says, “[My world is] the closest thing she has to a heart. I don’t know who I’ll be if the pills work. Someone without a heart.” This line, to me, is the basis of character creation for these two. They know that they are different. They don’t desire to be like everyone else—like anyone else. These are people who are not only comfortable with but also proud of their uniqueness. The overarching question of the play, of course, is whether outsiders should be allowed to decide what kind of happiness a person should have. Because, by the end of our story, Max and Whitney can have a different kind of happiness, a typical kind of happiness. Harris and Corey slowly deteriorate their physical traits over the course of the story, resulting in two people who you would never guess have anything “wrong” with them if you passed them on the street—let alone that they are on medication for the same reason.
Rebecca Wahls, Directing Intern
Rebecca Wahls is a DC-based director and actor with a BFA in Performance for the Stage and Screen from George Mason University ('15). She is a proud Artistic Associate, Teaching Artist, and Touring Company Member with Acting for Young People in Fairfax, Virginia. At Mason, she directed Dido, Queen of Carthage (sponsored by the Office of Undergraduate Research), Woyzeck, and many ten minute plays. Locally, she has assistant directed for Constellation Theatre Company and GALA Hispanic Theatre. She has also appeared in several plays at Mason and in the Capital Fringe Festival. www.rebeccawahls.com
I remember the first negro musical I ever saw.
[…] it burst upon us as a glad and stunning surprise.
—Mark Twain, The Autobiography of Mark Twain
Director Psalmayene 24 calls Young Jean Lee’s The Shipment a “postmodern minstrel show,” which both acknowledges society’s penchant for declaring status beyond things and aptly frames the experience of this production. Postmodernism announces a break from modernism in its embrace of juxtaposed styles and moods, including unapologetically mixing realistic and nonrealistic elements as well as forms of high and low art. It is bound to poststructuralism in its rejection of fixed meaning in advocacy of ongoing negotiations with what has gone before, what has not come, what is unseen but still present, what is deferred, and what is unavailable. In addition, postmodern stages a resistance to the Obama-era fantastically quixotic term post-racial, which describes a utopia that is yet to be.
The play offers a meditation on black stereotypes by way of the minstrel show in the first half and well—you’ll see—in the second half. Lee intended for the play “to walk the line between stock forms of black entertainment and some unidentifiable weirdness to the point where the audience wasn't sure what they were watching or how they were supposed to respond.” By using the minstrel show as an anchor, the play exposes the extent to which black figures in contemporary entertainment are haints (or ghosts) of blackface characters of the 19th and early 20th century.
In its traditional form, the minstrel show has three parts. The first section features songs, upbeat dancing, and variety entertainments. The second part, called the olio, is punctuated by a comedic yet affectedly critical stump speech. The third section, known as the afterpiece, consists of a one-act play that typically shows an idealized South wherein newly-freed slaves sing of yearnings to return to good ole’ massa and to the simple pleasures of plantation life. Structurally, The Shipment duplicates the minstrel format while upending conventional (black) narratives and revising its content for today.
If, over the course of the play, you find yourself uncomfortable, paranoid, or watchful of everyone, stay with it; it’s working. If not, stay with it, and later interrogate what it means that your sense of comfort remained intact.
Otis Ramsey-Zoe,The Shipment dramaturg
Lecturer of Theatre Arts, Howard University; Associate Artistic Director, banished? productions; Series Editor, NoPassport Press’s Dreaming the America series; Freelance Dramaturg; OpenForum Facilitator.
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