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BRAIN PICKING: A Story Told in 7 Fights

“We didn’t ask to see a conversation between two white men!

What we did say is both of you should shut the fuck up and listen!”

I am part of the cast of A Story Told In 7 Fights at The Neo-Futurist Theater and some of the cast members and our director were able to answer some questions that I and other members of the Chicago Inclusion Project had about A Story Told In 7 Fights.

Thank you to cast members Arti Ishak, Stephanie Shum, Rasell Holt, Jen Ellison, TJ Medel, and director Tony Santiago for answering these questions.

What made you say, “yes” to working on this show?

Arti: Tony Santiago and Gaby Labotka at the helm. Don’t get me wrong I’ve been a fan of the Neos since I first moved here too, but I really wasn’t gonna pass up working with two artists of color whose body of work, politics and advocacy I’ve admired for while. I was interested in what I could learn from them and what we could create together.

Stephanie: I have always been a huge fan of the Neos and their work and was excited to work with their process and aesthetic. I had some scheduling conflicts between projects but ultimately said yes because Tony asked and I knew Gaby was creating the fights and I was most pumped about collaborating with them.

Jen: Dadaism, The Neos, the chance to work with Trevor again to create a show, the chance to perform again (which I don't do very often), working with a diverse cast of people I didn't know. I also felt very strongly that the subject was hyper-relevant. That's something I think theatre struggles with - so it was exciting to be a part of a project that felt very "now."

Rasell: I was excited to join this production due in part to Tony Santiago. He is someone I had the pleasure of sharing space with before and I was looking forward to another opportunity to collaborate with him. Along with that, he informed me of other artists I have crossed paths with and just hadn't worked with so I was eager to be in the room with them and explore the life of Jack Johnson; a man I have been familiar with for most of my life but didn't really know.

TJ: The opportunity to work with Tony Santiago and the Neo-Futurists was something I couldn’t pass up. What made it even more special was that it was about fighting and that there would be physical stage combat in it. I was always a huge fan of professional wrestling growing up and I knew that if i had a chance, I would try to make sure I would be able to do everything I ever wanted to do when I was a kid. Catchphrases, acrobatic moves, getting beat up. Tony presented me with an opportunity to work in a way I never knew about and I can’t thank him and Trevor enough for bringing this idea to the table.

Tony: With the Neo's blessing, Trevor ran with a concept and hired directors and actors outside of the Neo's. That was the hook for me. Trevor and I go way back and I've always admired and watched his work but to do something very near and dear to him in his own house with a group of people he'd never met was scary and thrilling.

What, if anything, was unique for you about this process?

Rasell: I think the major thing that stood out to me is how transformative the story is and can be. This production is very much unique to the people in the room, which makes it more of an event to me than just another play. If this production were to continue on somewhere else with another set of people, it would be vastly different beyond just another group of people saying scripted lines because everything presented is coming from a deeply personal place from each performer.

TJ: All of it. From the casting to closing night, everything has been such a brand new discovery for me. I get to work with such incredibly talented artists in the community and I helped devise a piece that I am extremely proud of. The most unique part of the process was the writing meetings and the hard discussions we had to have in order to make the script where it is today. I always said during the process that if we’re going to do a show about fighting, then we’re going to invite that conflicting energy into our work. It was a very unique experience to have hard conversations with my fellow divisors about changes we wanted in the script. What made it even more unique was when the institution and allies listened to our concerns. I don’t think I’ve ever felt listened to in a process that is so unique.

Jen: Not being in the director's seat. It's been a while since I wasn't "in charge." Relinquishing that control was great - challenging at times, but really valuable.

Tony: This was an amazing and exhaustive process because we kept asking "Why and why like this?" the story and script kept flopping from "this is great" to "let start from scratch" . Which is exactly what Trevor and I wanted. Our cast is comprised of people who aren't just wickedly talented but known for keeping it real. Which seems silly but for a Neo show where the majority aren't from the Neo's we need truth and artistic autonomy. And we bonded through that- through all of it we always came in and tried to tell the story better, to kick each other's asses better.

At what point in the process did you feel the script needed to be destroyed and re-written?

Arti: Day one. At the table read. I remember reading the initial draft and hearing the thesis Trevor proposed, and honestly prepping myself to be in another production where people of color are expected to ignore their race as their character, in the interest of surface level inclusion, you know,

industry optics. It happens to actors of color in history plays or period pieces all the time, everyday. In this case we were told Dadaists were these revolutionary artists whose art was rooted in destruction and rebellion, but there was no talk of arrests, pressed charges, no one called it looting or rioting, no one was a thug or a terrorist, no one suffered any kind of consequence and in fact we’re considered history makers. I instantly thought of the stark differences between the way the Black Lives Matter movement and Women’s March rallies are portrayed and consequently how history will probably remember them too. When Trevor then asked us to bring violence to his work as a means of collaboration to help create the final product, the first thing i thought was “poor guy, he really don’t know what he is asking for.” Then I saw the opportunity to change the narrative for people of color in a way we only dream about in the rehearsal room. And I was excited by the invitation to finally be seen as myself on stage, even if it came through the necessary yet difficult work of annihilating someone else’s beloved idol. But honestly it’s 2018 so...fuck your rose colored glasses.

Stephanie: We had this one long, very intense rehearsal a few days before tech where everything changed. A lot of the process-oriented conflicts came to a head and we were given the directive to fight for those arguments in the real time of the run. I think the action of that task translated in a way that words or conversations hadn’t necessarily before and is most reflective in the “final product.” The stakes were high and deeply personal and the rewrites from that point on served the intensity in the room.

Jen: At several points - but that's natural. When devising a script, every iteration feels new, awkward and flawed. You burn it all down, scavenge what's left, and rebuild. It's part of the process.

TJ: When my cast mates of color voiced their concerns to our white allies about the things we were saying in the script. When I would hear their concerns, it started to spark some serious thought into my position in it all. Rebuild it or burn it all down? I felt like we needed to do both in order to get to where we wanted. I witnessed my fellow cast mates of color begin to fight for changes that were actually implemented. It gave me hope that I could do the same if that moment ever arose. That moment eventually would happen and I fought hard to get what I wanted because I saw my friends fight for it.

Do you feel you ever got the answer to, "Why am I cast in this show?"

Arti: Sort of and not in the way I expected. I realized through devising the show, that the character “Arti” that I play on stage is a reflection of the way I aspire to move through this industry, as a disrupter of conventional thinking and supporter of excluded voices, but never perfect, mostly flawed as fuck, and always learning, and never tired of fighting.

TJ: Yes. Trevor says in the show that we were hired because we were the best people for the job. I honestly believe that. That this version of A Story Told in Seven Fights was able to get to where it is because of the artists that are involved in it. Of course my minority brain tells me that we needed a diverse and racially even cast in order to tell the story in its purest form. But what’s most important is that even though he says that, it doesn’t mean that we’re the only ones that can do the show. I have hopes that if a remount were to happen or if this work were to go to high schools and colleges that any combination of artists of color can take on the tracks we’ve created so that more underrepresented individuals in the audience can see themselves on stage.

Jen: Sure - from the outset it was clear why I was there: I'm the voice of Dada. The challenge was discovering what form that would take.

At what point did you feel like you could trust the people in the room?

Stephanie: After that breaking point rehearsal. It was so hard and we were all personally hurt and it felt like we were either going to cancel the show or pull through. Not only did we pull through, we banded together, made huge risky changes and heard each other in a new way.

TJ: The rehearsal after the radical restructure of the script. Trevor had called off a few rehearsals to sit down with Arti and Stephanie about the script. After their meeting we had a reading of the newly revised script. When I heard what it sounded like, I was pretty surprised how many changes were made. The changes were a clear form of action that our white cast members were listening to us. From there, more difficult talks were had and more changes were made. With each change came a newly found respect for one another as divisors

Jen: I'm sort of trusting to a fault. So I trusted everyone in the room at the start. There were several times when that was shaken - but mostly because I was uncertain that everyone had the same information. Communication is key. If that is not open (and modeled as such by the leaders) it can get a little hairy. We all think we are better communicators than we are.

Did you ever feel unsafe working on this show?

Arti: Of course. You don’t make a show this close to our ugly beautiful reality without blurring the lines a little. But this question also assumes I have ever felt truly safe working in predominantly white spaces. Safety, like comfort, is a privilege.

Stephanie: My feelings of being unsafe came from my own insecurities. I think I often have a hard time articulating my thoughts, especially in a difficult, pressurized situation and I didn’t know how to contribute for a while. As a non-writer, I was worried I wasn’t pulling my weight. Finding the trust, pushing through the discomfort and learning bravery from my ensemble changed the game and I’m pleased with what I offered to the script in the last week of rehearsals.

Jen: No. Occasionally, I sensed other people might feel unsafe. But that might be my teacher/director spidey senses pricking up.

TJ: Yes. After getting injured a few times through the run I started to think of why things kept happening to me. I started to look around the space and spoke up and out about some of my concerns. It was frustrating for things to happen after you get injured but I didn’t let my frustrations get in the way of the work we were creating.

If so, what happened and did it change?

Arti: I wrote an interlude, it was my first writing pitch to the group, called “How Many More Times In My Career Will I Have to Play A Dead White Person?” where only the people of color in the cast spoke and in it I finally got to ask the question we were all thinking and honestly it went pretty fucking terribly. I felt the air leave the room, everyone was uncomfortable, everyone had questions but no one wanted to say anything - and we ended up cutting rehearsal short and going home to process. This sparked the first of many difficult and necessary conversations we had around these topics that ended up being shaped into the climax of the show. But if our white cast mates hadn’t been willing to let go of their preconceptions of what a good ally is and really make space for us, if they had opted to cut around the issue to save their egos instead of moving through it with us, we never would’ve come out the other side

TJ: I got thrown into a chair and got my knee injured. The Neos took the necessary measures to make sure that the space was fully prepared for us when we would come in. They also made sure to provide me with the necessary resources to cover for any medical expenses for my injuries.

Has doing this show had an effect on you? If so, what was it?

Arti: This show will always stay with me as the first time I've ever felt seen on stage.

Stephanie: I feel empowered. It’s not everyday you get to do such meaningful work with a bunch of super heroes. I’ll carry the lessons of the process and the message of this show through everything else I work on.

Rasell: Collaborating and being able to build up my own individual voice in the show was such a cool experience along with being able to explore boxing onstage. I love physical storytelling and this was a great way to see that be brought to life.

Jen: I don't take for granted that everyone has the same information, or that they understand the big picture in the same way (particularly with non-straight, non-white, non-male collaborators). In devising work, it can be easy to assume that everyone is on the same page. When this assumption is made, communication can go wrong in all sorts of ways. It was good to be reminded of this pitfall, and also see people really try, in earnest, to make the collaboration process better.

TJ: Yes. It showed me that I didn’t have to be silent any more as a performer of color. I felt empowered to fight for my intellectual rights as a creator and I discovered how much of an important resource people of color are to modern day storytelling.

Tony: This play's process was a sacrifice for all of us. To facilitate that process and help put the pieces together was an honor. It's a testament to the Neo's wanting to build community not only in its audiences but its artistic partners too. Art that builds community is something I fight for in my artistry and makes 7 Fights unforgettable.

You have 3 more chances to see A Story Told In 7 Fights.

April 5th, 6th, and 7th at 7:30pm

Thursday is Pay What You Can

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