“We are addicted to ‘story’ and we become inspired by each others lives,” says Michele Shay, the Director of No Rules Theatre Company’s current production of August Wilson’s Seven Guitars. My conversation with Michele in Part I of The Playwright’s Playground, takes readers on a journey of the artist and the human being behind the art.
In 1996, Shay originated the character of Louise in Seven Guitars and was nominated for a Tony Award for Best Featured Actress in a Play. The Obie Award-winning actress/director is best known for her performances in August Wilson’s Seven Guitars (Walter Kerr Theatre), Gem of the Ocean (Directed by Kenny Leon, Alliance Theater), Radio Golf (Yale Repertory Theater), and Home (Negro Ensemble Company.) As a fifth year Adjunct Acting Professor at NYU’s The New Studio on Broadway (a part of Tisch’s Undergrad School of Drama), Shay says “we train triple threats – singers, dancers, and actors.”
Discussing her directing process and approach to August Wilson’s Seven Guitars text, Shay engages in how she uses her past experience of working with August Wilson and her acting history to enrich the depth and texture of this New Rules production. With his ten ‘Pittsburgh Cycle’ plays, Pulitzer-Prize winner August Wilson developed a body of work of monumental impact and importance. Michele Shay is a wealth of insight into the wisdom, thinking, and motivations of the inspiring Master Playwright, August Wilson.
For Michele, directing Seven Guitars is not simply directing another play; it’s personal and a vivid part of her ‘story.’ Her process begins with actualizing Wilson’s intention. “I want to get the juice out of everything that he’s written, so people really recognize his brilliance.”
Sydney-Chanele: Our readers are intrigued by Playwrights and Directors’ vision of a play. For people unfamiliar with Seven Guitars, can you provide a background of the play that they’ll see with this No Rules production?
Michele: It’s hard to describe the play, but part of what inspired August to write it was his love for the Blues. He was particularly focused on the Blues. Hence I think, Seven Guitars. When he originally wrote it he conceived it as an all-male cast. Then this woman showed up and said you can’t tell this story without me – and that woman was Vera. He always listened to characters, and he wrote what he heard inside his head. He said that he believed that stories about our life should do what James Baldwin talked about ‘you should have rituals and ways of doing things that sustain you when you leave your mother’s house.’
So he felt that talking about his mother’s rituals and what she had in her pantry was worthy of art – hence, Seven Guitars.
We have things that are very ordinary in it, like how to make greens. In our culture, good greens are very serious business. And, we have some dancing and bid-whist, the thing that makes community. We have the aspiration of the musician that’s in it, and the ever-present longing for freedom and actualization, and the ever-present longing for love. These are all very present in Seven Guitars.
I’d love to hear more about you and your relationship with August Wilson’s work. Have you ever directed Seven Guitars before this production with the No Rules Theatre Company?
Yes. I have directed Seven Guitars two other times with students, and the first time was at the North Carolina School of the Arts. (I also directed Fences and directed and acted in Gem of the Ocean.) Two students from the school are in our cast now. One is from my Gem of the Ocean cast and the other is from Fences. Then there’s another graduate of the school, Ron Dortch (Hedley)is also in the cast but I had never directed him before.
Is the North Carolina School of the Arts where you met Joshua Morgan, No Rules Theatre’s Artistic Director? Where else have you directed it?
Yes. Every time I direct Seven Guitars I learn something new. I did it last year at ACT (American Conservatory Theatre) in San Francisco with the MFA students. (Michele also has an Honorary Degree from ACT.) And, one of my cast members from that is in this show here, and he’s from Baltimore.
Every time I do Seven Guitars I hear something new, much to my shock and amazement. Because for one thing, being an actress you’re not aware of the whole play – the whole scheme of the things. So even though I had been it for two years, I had to learn it from a whole other place in terms of how to put it all together.
That has to be exciting, stretching you in new ways as an artist. How does the experience of being in the original production of Seven Guitars and working with August Wilson guide your direction?
It is exciting, and it’s always fresh. Then it’s about how to translate that to the actors! For example, one of the things that is interesting when you get to work on his plays from the very beginning is that the script changes drastically over time. But as he peels away lines, pages, scenes – layers . . . For example in Seven Guitars, you might have lines one day, or they’re given to someone else or completely discarded. Then they show up in another one of his plays. But you always had that layer to be there with you. Even though it wasn’t there anymore, it was still part of the character.
People don’t have that when they just get the play now. So you have to figure that out what you need to fill in for them. Or hints like how to mind the circumstance in the play, to do what Phylicia Rashad calls “enter the life of the character.” There is a way to do it. You can do August and be on the surface, and you’re doing a good play, but to really become the character requires something else.
The further you get away from the pain of our original history . . . you have to build a bridge for young people who haven’t been through that. This is what I experienced with the students. It reconnects them to what August calls a “blood memory,” which is there whether you experience it or not. It’s up under there, and ancestors will talk to you if you want to listen.
This may be true of any August Wilson play, but it sounds like for you as the director that you’re not only directing but your educating and guiding a history lesson.
You’re teaching, and your listening to what I call ‘August Whispering’ in my ear. I feel like I get downloaded with things. Most of us who have worked with him originally have stories where they feel like he’s eavesdropping. Some way or the other – he’s communicating what he wants.
You have your August Angel.
Yeah, and now we have a lot of “Wilsonian Soldiers” up there. That’s what we call ourselves. Constanza Romero, his wife, coined that phrase.
I like that. How has Louise, the character you played as an actress on Broadway, evolved into the ‘Louise’ we see you directing today? Discuss the qualities and the inspirations you drew upon to create Louise, and who the character is.
For me when I created Louise I tried to create the Louise I wanted aside from August’s words, I wanted to pay homage to women, the black women that I knew.
I wanted to pay homage to my mother who was a widow at a very young age who had to raise us. I picked one of her friends, Sophonia, who had a fantastic sense of humor that whatever was going on she would make it better with her humor. So I definitely wanted that in there. Also the sense of resilience and just because you’re older doesn’t mean you’re washed up in terms of your sexuality. Those were the kinds of things that interested me to add on to whatever August had written down about her. August said that she was lonely, and that she had a man who left her. I used all of those kinds of things.
I have directed three different people as Louise. The other two were students so they weren’t particularly intimidated, I don’t think. This Seven-guitar Louise – Bonita Brisker – she knows me and is a friend of mine from California. I knew that she was living here, and I was interested in having her audition because I know how good she is. I think she’s had a harder time. But I kept saying “listen it is not about me, it’s about Louise.”
I told Bonita, “You have to find the women that inspire you, to put inside of her.” It’s a process. She’s finding her way through that with the incredible joy that’s there in terms of being those people and celebrating the many people whose lives we stand on – the many people to honor. That’s part of the joy of it. She’s finding that joy!
What I’m finding is that whenever you direct, you can have a concept about something but you really have to deal with the person that the actor presents you with. I’m not so egotistical that I think my ideas are stronger than the person that’s there. I don’t work like that. Bonita has a wonderful, loving sweetness about her. She’s sexy, but she’s sexy in a very different way than I am. So I’m honoring those things in her.
I really care that the actors have a great time and an extraordinary experience. To me that’s the invitation that August is and I want them to have that.
That is fascinating insight about the creation of a character. Tell me more about what you learned from working with August Wilson. What are your favorite aspects or themes about his work?
One of my favorite things is how August talks about love in his plays. One of the most famous scenes in Seven Guitars is when Vera and Floyd come back together for the first time, and he’s been in Chicago with another woman. He’s coming back with a hit record and realizes a hit record is not enough. He needs her. So he’s learning what it is to really love somebody. It’s the difference of what you concept of love and the responsibility of loving – not only having the responsibility but the accountability of loving. One of the things that August talks about is opportunity and choice. I feel that he’s forever holding us accountable as a people and saying, “O.K., you’ve got this thing called freedom. What are you going to do with it?”
He basically believes that we have everything we need in our culture as black people to be totally self-reliant. Because of the background of racism that is always pushing against us, it is sort of sculpting us in one way or another. ‘Are you going to be somebody because of this or despite this?’ So the characters fall on different sides of the equation. They make different choices and take different risks. As a community of human beings, I think that’s what we’ve come to and you see it all played out in seven different people. You see that happen singularly, in duets, and in the whole orchestra of the community of all of them together. It’s really fun.
I like to tell people that one of the biggest things you need to be able to do when doing August Wilson besides tell a good story, is to be able to tell a good joke.
Was this one of your rehearsal techniques to open up the actors?
Yes. I didn’t tell them (jokes), but I showed them where the jokes were. This is the set up, but this is the joke. You have to find the humor. You know with our people, humor has been one of the ways that we have survived. That and faith in God. Those are the two of the strongest things, and learning how to make something out of nothing and how enterprising you can be. I think August always shows those things off in his plays.
Those are literary gifts that Wilson shares with the world. What would you like to leave the audience with, to take away with them after seeing Seven Guitars? I think you may have said it in many different ways. Is there any thing else that you’d like to say?
This is going to make me cry. You know when August died I had the privilege of being at his funeral. The first scene in Seven Guitars they talk about putting dirt on of Floyd’s grave and that’s exactly what I did for August Wilson. I put dirt on his grave. I think on some level he was always aware of the two trains of live and death at all times. Ultimately, Seven Guitars remind us of how precious every moment of life is and you should live it and love it to the fullest.
Tomorrow in Part II: We get personal with Michele. Michele Shays talks about her discovery of theater, early influences, and her continuous education as a working artist. Shay details her new play experience with August Wilson, her road to Broadway Seven Guitars journey, and reflects upon a life in theater and lessons learned.
Seven Guitars plays through September 28, 2014 at No Rules Theatre Company performing at Signature Theatre – 4200 Campbell Avenue, in Arlington, VA. For tickets, call the box office at (703) 820-9771, or purchase them online.
David Siegel’s review of Seven Guitars at No Rules Theatre Company on DCMetroTheaterArts.
The Playwright’s Playground is a monthly in-depth conversation with local female playwrights in the D.C. theatre community. Female theatre artists make up more than 50 percent of those involved in the theatre, yet the number of female playwrights being produced is dramatically lower. In this continuing Column, I will also interview and introduce DCMTA readers to the many talented playwrights and artistic teams in the DMV area to learn about their writing process, their inspirations, and their motivations and struggles to write and produce their art. Sydney-Chanele Dawkins.