Interview: BodyWise Dance Director Margot Greenlee on ‘Rookies’ First Feast’

Dance and theater performances can be much more than sitting in a seat and watching. BodyWise Dance and its cadre of dedicated, diverse artist educators have been touring throughout the DMV to respond to a need for a therapy-informed performing arts program for individuals with intellectual and developmental disabilities (I/DD), including those with a diagnoses such as autism spectrum disorder, Down syndrome, cerebral palsy, and traumatic brain injury. For BodyWise Dance, attending and taking part in a live movement and theater performance is a way to ignite imagination, agility, resilience, and memory for individuals with intellectual and physical disabilities.

Amanda Althar and Clayton Pelham in ‘Rookies’ First Feast.’ Photo by Mwanos.

According to a recent Census Bureau report about individuals with intellectual and physical disabilities, about 27.2 percent, or 85.3 million, of people living in the United States had a disability in 2014. In addition, about 17.6 percent, or 55.2 million people, had a severe disability.

Director of BodyWise Dance, Margot Greenlee, leads a team of artists well-known to the DC area such as Tuyet Thi Pham, Jeremy Hunter, JJ Johnson, Kelly King, Clayton Pelham, and Ryan Sellers. Over the past few years, BodyWise Dance has partnered with the nonprofit agency MVLE to bring therapy-informed arts programs such as MVLE Moves to the DMV.

MVLE is a Virginia-based agency that provides employment training and job placement, contributing to enhanced quality of life for people with intellectual and physical disabilities. The accredited nonprofit also partners with commercial businesses, government, and other not-for-profit agencies.

The next BodyWise Dance MVLE Moves performance is Rookies’ First Feast. This performance is suitable for those with and without intellectual and physical disability.

Greenlee describes Rookies’ First Feast: “Two newbie firefighters face their highest hurdle yet: cooking for the squad. As the young firefighters strive to fit in and learn to cook healthy food, their Veggie Godmother comes to their aid – showing them what teamwork and imagination can do!”

Jeremy Hunter and cast in ‘Rookies’ First Feast.’ Photo by Mwanos.

Greenlee adds: “Working inside a supported-employment organization, it’s a unique opportunity to use the clients’ work and life experiences as a launching pad for our productions. For this year’s show, Rookies’ First Feast, I was inspired by one of our cast members who volunteers at his local firehouse. During our creative research, the cast visited a local fire station to get a sense of their day-to-day and got a sense for how firefighters form a family; they live, work, and eat together. Food is a really big deal. But what if you don’t know how to cook?”

David Siegel: How do you take an idea for a theatrical production and make it real?

Margot Greenlee: We started with questions to the cast: What’s your favorite lunchtime food? Do you like to cook? Do you eat differently when you’re all by yourself with a bag of potato chips? I listen to their answers. I listen for strong action verbs and I watch people’s bodies for idiosyncratic movement.

Each of the company members adds their own flavor. Jeremy Hunter is new to the cast and has worked with Step Afrika! Once he’d been in rehearsal a couple days, he asked if he could make a body percussion for our daily warm up. Yes! He created a “rumble” phrase that was SO much fun, with claps, snaps, and stomps. To tailor it to the show, I just added the words, “Fire squad!” and suddenly it was an ensemble dance for our show.

Please tell us more.

I tend to build a big collection of material at the beginning. That’s the “open funnel” phase of the creative process. In a typical rehearsal, I might have three groups all working on different ideas simultaneously. It’s devised theater and dance, so I come in with ideas and let the company play. Build a washing-dishes phrase! Make music with these empty food containers! Find ways to toss these giant pillows! Then I cycle through all the groups to see what’s happening. Eventually, cool stuff starts to gel.

When I start editing, I decide on a rough narrative arc, place the separate elements, build transitions, and insert audience participation invitations. I try to include participatory activities (keeping a rhythm, joining a dance, answering questions) every other minute or so.

How do you cast artist educators for a production like Rookies’ First Feast?

It takes a big skill set. I look for professionals who have excellent improvisation chops and devised theater experience. I look for dancers who can talk and actors who can move. I also need people who are able to both perform and take care of other people on stage. And because we tour all over greater DC, I need people who can wake up on Tuesday morning ready to adapt to a new space and solve problems together. I gravitate toward performers that geek out on the challenge.

Any final comments?

Rookies’ First Feast is the latest chapter in our work supporting disabled adults’ physical, cognitive, and emotional health. You’ll be invited to join the action. Movement is the primary language, and by the end of the show, you will be hungry for food that’s fresh and delicious, colorful, and nutritious.

Running Time: About 45 minutes, without an intermission.

Rookies’ First Feast will be performed on Tuesday, May 7, 2019, at 11 a.m. at Sherwood Community Center, 3740 Old Lee Hwy, Fairfax VA. Performance is free, but seating is limited. For more information, call (703) 894-8247 or go online.

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David Siegel
David Siegel is a freelance theater reviewer and features writer whose work appears on DC Metro Theater Arts, ShowBiz Radio, in the Connection Newspapers and the Fairfax Times. He is a judge in the Helen Hayes Awards program. He is a member of the American Theatre Critics Association and volunteers with the Arts Council of Fairfax County. David has been associated with theater in the Washington, DC area for nearly 30 years. He served as Board President, American Showcase Theater Company (now Metro Stage) and later with the American Century Theater as both a member of the Executive Board and as Marketing Director. You can follow David's musings on Twitter @pettynibbler.