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In Conversation with Charlotte Brathwaite by Jessica Lynne

I first met Director Charlotte Brathwaite while working at the historic 651 ARTS, a Brooklyn-based organization dedicated to contemporary performing arts of the African Diaspora. When you meet Charlotte, it’s hard not to be drawn in by her generosity of spirit, and you immediately recognize why artists like Abigail DeVille, Meshell Ndegeocello, Toshi Reagon, Byron Au Yong, and Aaron Jafferis (I could go on) trust her vision. A graduate of the Yale School of Drama, Charlotte takes an interdisciplinary approach to theater making while using the medium to respond to the vastness of the human condition. Earlier this year, we sat down briefly to discuss her origins in the theater that began at the legendary La MaMa Theater, the relationship between her work as a director and her work as a professor, and what it means to be committed to a praxis of collaboration and art making.

Jessica: Can you talk a bit about what brought you to the theater?

Charlotte: Well being from Canada and my family from the Caribbean, from a young age carnival has always been a theatrical experience that has been with me. Since before I can remember, my family would take me to the parade. We also went to see shows, went to museums, and they put me in dance classes really early.  (I think those were actually the only moments I felt calm as a kid). The arts have always been a part of my life.  In  high school, I attended a school for the performing arts in dance. I moved to New York when I was 15, that move connected me to Ellen Stewart (founder/director of La Mama Theater). Before meeting Ellen, theater and the arts were things I just did. I could dance, so did it.  At La MaMa, because there were so many different kinds of people from so many different cultures and ages, with different skills making the theater happen, I felt for the first time like that I had a stake in the larger conversation of making theater and art.  

La MaMa was a company in which everyone participated in making work. I worked in the office during the day and then went to rehearsal at night. I went from being an intern to being a production coordinator.  It was during this time at La MaMa that I started to feel like this was something I could actually sink my teeth into as a lifestyle. It was like ‘oh, I can travel?’ ‘I can get tickets to go places and see art?’  ‘I’m in!’

I worked for La MaMa for many years. We toured all over the world. Eventually, I decided I wanted to get even more serious about my personal artistic practice. I ended up in an undergrad theater program in the Netherlands. Before and after that program, I lived in Europe for a while making art and eventually I started directing. I got really into performer generated work, which meant that I was performing, writing, directing and designing all the pieces I was making. I loved it but it was exhausting! During my final thesis production in undergrad, I injured myself so badly I had to cast someone else in the role I was supposed to play.  It was a blessing in disguise because it was then that I realized I actually preferred the vantage point of the director— off stage but totally engaged and involved in the work.

It took me awhile before I would dare call myself a director.  Mainly due to the fact that the program I was in didn’t talk about acting and directing in a traditional sense. It taught theater-making (a much fuller concept of creating for the stage). It wasn’t until I finished the directing program at Yale  School of Drama that I started to call myself a director.  Nevertheless, I still believe one can make theater from many different vantage points.  You can initiate a project from anywhere not only from the eyes of the director or playwright.

J: One thing I admire about projects you undertake is their collaborative nature. Artists such as Abigail DeVille and Justin Hicks often are integral to the works as they’re  realized. That gesture feels particularly unique. Do you think that this training that first began in the Netherlands informs how you approach collaborations? What is at stake for you in those type of creative partnerships that may manifest themselves differently than folks who have a more singular view of the role of director, a more authoritative understanding of that particular position?

C: The word director exists in different people in different ways. It’s like when you say “manager.” Different people have different management styles and one may gravitate towards one person’s style more than another person’s. I feel like a director, but I think there is something about a particular way that I was introduced to directing through what’s called an auteur director. That role isn’t about thinking there’s an absolute one way to do a play,  but more about being honest and creative when uncovering what I and my collaborators see at the heart of the work.  It’s also about recognizing that a play may start out as words on paper with a clear plot, but also a piece of music, a theme, a visual art concept, a poem, a moment of choreography, a feeling – anything can be the initiating impulse of a work of theater. My earliest connections to theater involved watching auteur directors dive into those themes and draw from the people around them to try and create a unique, relevant, timely, magical shared experiences.

I was a performer for many years, I think my directorial style is definitely influenced by my urge to create truly collaborative situations where the whole creative team (including performers) are involved in the development of the experience. I’ve found that the best work emerges when everyone feels like they have a real artistic stake in the work. If you feel like you’re just checking boxes, there’s a set, there’s blocking…blah..blah, then yeah, you can probably direct. If you have the skill set, you can do it. But if I can get my team to feel really emotionally and viscerally engaged (like something really matters and is at stake),  the work is better than anything I can sit down and write out on my own. It’s like with Can I get a Witness:  The Gospel of James Baldwin? Did you see that?

J: I didn’t.

C:  It was a work created in collaboration with the amazing Meshell Ndegeocello.  In that process, Meshell had ideas about seeing James Baldwin as a deity and wanted to create a church in honor of him.  Over several months, Meshell and I had several brainstorming sessions that eventually included more of our collaborative team. Everyone involved in the work gave an incredible amount of themselves to make the work come alive.  Justin Hicks, Abigail DeVille, Toshi Reagon, StacyAnn Chin are just a few of the collaborators. There were so many wonderful artists and human beings working on that project.  It was an exhilarating and truly rewarding process.

I’m from the school of ‘let’s figure out what we want to make together.’  In the best case scenario, the thing we make together is way beyond anything any one of us alone could have imagined alone. When the artists creating the work feel really connected to it, it has the likelihood to speak volumes.

I’ve made a bunch of shows without a lot of money.  I believe if you have two cents and rub that together it can generate an idea. I honestly believe that a good idea is worth way more than a ton of money, especially if you have the kind of exceptional collaborators I’m blessed to work with.  I’m not opposed to working with money. In fact, money is very very helpful!  But I’ve done a ton of shows with Abigail DeVille and Justin Hicks, for example. I know they definitely don’t need me to make work, but together the things we create are pretty powerful.

J: How does that ethos translate to the work that you do as a professor in the classroom or do you see the hats that you wear as distinct? Do they speak to each other?

C: They absolutely speak to each other. I didn’t really like school growing up. I dropped out of high school to come to New York City. I eventually went back, but more because I had to than wanted to. I wasn’t a bad student, I just found working in the arts more engaging than most of what we did in classes.  After high school I was away from institutional learning for many years.  Working at La MaMa was where I studied and learned about art and the world. I worked there for about seven or eight years before I decided to even think about undergrad. Once I completed undergrad, I took more time away from formal education before deciding to go to grad school. Basically school for me wasn’t about fulfilling some societal obligation; it was about giving myself permission to find my own mode of expression.

Now I teach at Massachusetts Institute of Technology in the Music and Theater Arts Department.  I do my best to encourage my students to express themselves, speak up and speak out.  Through our work I try to instill in them a feeling that what they have to say, their point of view actually matters. My MIT students aren’t looking for a way to get to Broadway, but they do need permission to know that whatever they’re feeling about the world matters. I think there’s a lot of silencing of voices going on in the world. Teaching is a practice in empathy. I think my directorial practice tries to tap into that.  I try to give the artists I work with the space to make what they need to make but still try to guide the work in a strong direction for our audience.  I have a different process but similar goals with my students too.  The older I get the more I feel art and life so connected. In both cases I try to encourage conversation, curiosity and determination in uncovering whatever it is we are trying to make, the feelings we are we trying to evoke, the outcomes we aspire to have. Discussion, debate, sharing ideas honestly and with respect work in all levels of negotiation, in theater and life.

J: Otherwise the work does not go anywhere.

C: It’s possible to have a successful show, sing a pretty song or whatever without a process of collaboration. But there are various levels of interpretation in creating theater. Being engaged, feeling part of the conversation is essential for it to be powerful whether you’re creating what’s on stage or you’re in the audience watching it.  I think of other cultures who make artistic collaboration essential to expression. Carnival traditions in the Caribbean are one example. There, communities gather together to commemorate their ancestry, their stories, and their traditions. But in Barbados, for example, you pay to participate, you pay to be part of a team, to join the collective creative process.

J: It’s also an alternative economic conversation happening.

C: Absolutely. I feel like that’s why you pay to go see the theater here. You pay to be apart of a world that someone is creating. Greg Tate said to me once, “you’re a good party planner!” I was never told that before but I liked it! I like to think of my shows as events or parties. I like it when collaborators and audiences are so engaged they’re completely immersed in the world we’re creating.

J: It seems to me that so much of that – creating empathy and space for a type of party—is connected to trust. How do you cultivate an area of trust to encourage, or entice, or invite people to also join you in that particular moment of energy?  There is a lot of conversation about who goes to the theater and who does not.  Much of that is a money conversation but also a conversation of trust —trust in what may or may not happen, not only on the stage but in the institutions that frame our stages.

C: Trust is inherent in everything I create, as a director, as an educator and as a maker of content for the public.  In my directing work, I try to give my collaborators a direction but also the space they need to respond from the heart and create.  In my classes, we deal very often with identity politics.  Many students are really drawn to this type of investigation of self because most have never a way of contextualizing who they are and how they feel for themselves in a safe group setting.  To most of my students creating something inspired by their own personal thoughts, feelings, and impulses is a completely foreign thing to do.  I think there is a trust inherent in our relationship as we get to discover who we all are together.  Audiences also need to feel that trust in order to even bother to show up to the theater.  Especially audiences of color who often feel left out of the conversation.

I’m reminded of the James Baldwin quote, “We can disagree and still love each other unless your disagreement is rooted in my oppression and denial of my humanity and right to exist.”   I really believe disagreements (having different was of seeing things) force us to find new pathways, new avenues for achieving even greater ideas.  Also allowing people the space to feel heard and be seen is essential. Acknowledging a person’s right to exist, to feel or think a certain way is a big reason why I make theater.

J: Recently someone asked me if I consider this cultural moment to be one of resurgence for black cultural production. I said no because it’s not a resurgence if it didn’t go anywhere.

C: Black folks have always been making shit. We make it all the time, whether people want to pay attention or not is another thing. In my case, I’ve been inspired by Black artists from before me, and since I’ve started making stuff I haven’t stopped, nor do I plan on anytime soon.

J: Before we go, I have to ask, who or what informs your artistic practice? When you’re at home or on the plane, what are you reading? What are you listening to? Who are you turning to?

C: I just finished reading Octavia Butler’s Parable of The Sower.  She’s outstanding. What an imagination; what a clairvoyant, such an incredibly masterful artist.  I also just re-watched Ousmane Sembène’s heart-wrenching masterpiece Black Girl.  So much informs my artistic practice… I don’t even know where to start.  The good, the bad,  the unseen, overlooked, unheard in the world around me. The stories of my people, my loves, my collaborators, my environment and life expression in all manifestations.  


Jessica Lynne is co-editor of ARTS.BLACK

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