Fast Forward Friday with Cornelia Ravenal

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For this week’s Fast Forward Friday, we interviewed the multi-talented award-winning writer-producer-filmmaker-visual artist Cornelia Ravenal. Her work has been performed at Lincoln Center, the Kennedy Center and regional theaters, published in magazines in Asia and the US, and screened at international festivals. For more information, visit www.wildernessfilms.us.

Q: What are you currently working on?  Tell us about it.

I’m working on several projects, each at a different stage. I never know which is going to move forward or when, so I have to keep teeing them up. These are the most current:

MOVING STORIES, a documentary I produced and co-created, premiered at MoMA last year and has been in almost 40 festivals to date. I’m still working daily on it, because we’re in the marketing, distribution and social impact phase.

As a writer, I’m juggling a few things. My script ON THE BLADE won a spot at the Writers Lab funded by Meryl Streep a few months ago. To push that forward, I recently wrote the script for a “proof of concept” short that my husband and filmmaking partner, Mikael Södersten, will direct.  We’re now strategizing how to shoot it.

I’m also in the middle of a first draft of a thriller, a dark, modern retelling of the story of Adam and Eve. But I took a break from it last week to write some marketing materials for comedy called THE INtiMATES for a producer in LA. Otherwise, I’m waiting for notes from another producer on a comedy called A MIDSUMMER NIGHTS MOOSE STORY; as soon as I get those, I’ll dive into the rewrite. In musical theater, I’m writing lyrics for BOYNTON BEACH CLUB, a musical that goes up in a regional theater this fall.

Q: What was the inspiration and impetus for doing this project?

The documentary is about an acclaimed NY dance company that goes to India, Romania, Korea and Iraq to teach the tools of choreography to at-risk and often traumatized youth. When I first heard about the work they were doing, as a former journalist in India, I knew it was a story that had to be told. And as a trauma survivor myself, I know firsthand the power of the arts to heal.

The musical … when composer Ned Ginsburg and Susan Seidelman asked me to write lyrics for a musical based on one of her films, I jumped. Susan directed DESPERATELY SEEKING SUSAN, which had a big impact on me early in my career.

The scripts I’m writing all have personal connections. ON THE BLADE is inspired by the true story of a brutal hazing at an Ivy League school; it came out of my husband’s experience. Two of the other scripts explore marriage, one comically, the other as a thriller. And MOOSE was inspired by my experiences living in Sweden. It’s about a hapless American who gets lost in Swedish Lapland on the way to the wedding of a Facebook friend. (Not that this happened to me. But close.)

Q: Who are your artistic heroes – who have had an impact on you and your work?

I’ve been inspired by many people. When I was a teenage songwriter, my artistic inspirations were Joni Mitchell and Laura Nyro. Several careers later, I look to legions of women filmmakers for inspiration: directors like Jane Campion, Ava DuVernay, Angelina Jolie, Jill Soloway, Patty Jenkins, Kathryn Bigelow, Greta Gerwig and Lynne Ramsay; actor-producers like Elizabeth Banks, Jessica Chastain, Viola Davis, Penny Marshall and producers like Gale Anne Hurd and Christine Vachon.

All this said, the artistic hero who has had the biggest impact is my mother. She’s a painter and art historian who made a career for herself at a time when there were many more obstacles than there are now. She continued to paint into her 70s and to write into her 80s. She’s continually curious about the world and is inspired to create daily.

Q: What keeps you motivated and inspired as an artist?

The work itself. I like making something out of nothing. I’m really stimulated by the process of creating and of problem-solving in words, sounds and images.

Q: What other projects would you like to tell us about?

I started out as a performer and I still sing. I recently pinch hit as a studio singer. After I sang with a jazz quintet in Sanders Theater several years back, I promised friends I’d make a CD.  I’ve been putting it off for a while, because of the demands of other work, but plan to do that this year, if only for family and friends. I’m also a visual artist. My work has been in a few gallery shows, including a solo show in Sweden.

Q: What is one instance of knowing you are living in your vision?

Anytime something I’ve made gets up out of the crib of creation, gets to its feet and walks on its own tells me I’m living in my vision. That’s as true for finishing a first draft of a script as it is for seeing a musical or film on its feet.

Q: If there were no barriers to entry, what is one thing you would be doing?

There have been so many barriers to entry and advancement over the decades that I’ve been working, it’s hard to say. If I hadn’t encountered them, I might have made the natural transitions from writing to show running to creating TV shows or directing feature films.

Q: What has been big your biggest obstacle in achieving your vision?

Fear, both conscious and unconscious. But the biggest obstacles have probably been all the barriers to entry and advancement. Any woman reading this knows what forms those can take. But when I think of obstacles, I tend to think of solutions. So, one way I’ve dealt with professional barriers is to create groups to empower myself and others who may be dealing with the same things. The most recent, which I started 5 years ago, was for women producers. Fifteen of us met once a month in my living room. It’s since become WIP (Women Independent Producers), with close to 60 members..

Q: What do you do to stay connected to your creative self?

There are so many things I enjoy creating that I’m rarely not in my creative self. But in the last several years, one of my projects has involved an overwhelming amount of non-creative work, so I’ve had to fight to stay connected. To stay connected, I prioritize the time to create. I minimize distractions. I make deadlines for myself that I stick to as rigorously as deadlines from outside. I put the work first. I turn down invitations. I don’t pick up the phone. I create a cocoon. I’m fortunate that my husband is also a writer-filmmaker-producer, so often, we’re in the cocoon together.

Q: If you could let go of something that has held you back, what would it be?

Fear.

Q: What is your favorite piece of art?

The paintings of Hieronymus Bosch. The life’s work of photographer Sebastião Salgado. Stravinsky’s RITE OF SPRING. Brahm’s violin concertos. The works of choreographers Ohad Naharin and Pina Bausch. The musical, FIDDLER ON THE ROOFwhich I just saw again, this time in Yiddish. (Best production ever!) Too many films to count, although right now, it’s the Yorgos Lanthimos film, THE FAVOURITE, which is transgressively brilliant.

Q: What person do you most admire, living or dead?

I admire people who lead and inspire, despite obstacles and fears. I think that’s why the first names that come to me are Abraham Lincoln, Martin Luther King and Gandhi,  for reasons everyone knows. But I’d also have to say: my husband. He treats people with respect.  He’s also extremely ethical. I’ve seen him lead and inspire and take care of people in ways that remind me daily of what it means to be a leader.

Q: If you could be known and celebrated for one thing, what would it be?

My creative work.  

Q: If you could describe yourself in one word what would it be?

Resilient.

Q: What is your guilty pleasure?

Exotic ice creams, like rose petal and kulfi.

Q: If you could sit down with yourself 15 years ago, what would you say?

Don’t try to be perfect. Don’t give anyone the power to diminish you. Don’t be afraid.

Q: Where would you most like to live?

I used to have favorite places – India, Sweden, Italy – but these days it’s anywhere I can write. Right now, I’m on a train and that seems pretty good to me.

Q: What is your idea of success?

Being recognized for what I’ve created.

Q: What is your idea of happiness?

Creative exploration.

Q: Final Thoughts?

Gratitude.

Fast Forward Friday with Andrew Moore

For this week’s Fast Forward Friday, we interviewed bass-baritone Andrew Moore. He is working for his MM in Opera at Mason Gross School of the Arts at Rutgers University. Currently studying with Grammy-winning Eduardo Chama, Andrew starred in the Rutgers production of Beethoven’s Fidelio as Rocco, and as the title role of Figaro in Le Nozze di Figaro by Mozart. His previous credits include Mozart’s Cosi fan Tutte (Guglielmo), Ravel’s L’enfant et les sortileges (L’Arbre), Poulenc’s Dialogues of the Carmelites (1st Officer) and Blow’s Venus and Adonis (Adonis).

Q: What are you currently working on?  Tell us about it.

Currently I am preparing for two operas that I have coming up: Gianni Schicchi and Il Tabarro, which will be performed this February. It will be my final lead in my masters at Mason Gross School of the Arts.

Q: What was the inspiration and impetus for doing this project?

I really love Puccini and it will be my first Puccini lead as Gianni Schicci. This role is a lot of firsts for me such as a higher range and use of a character voice for Buoso Donati and I’m glad to be doing it now in my final year here.

Q: Who are your artistic heroes – who have had an impact on you and your work?

Some of my artistic heroes would be Feruccio Furlanetto (famous bass-baritone); my current voice teacher Eduardo Chama, who inspires me all the time;  my mother; and all of my singer friends who are doing exactly what I am doing, which is going out there everyday and giving it their all.

Q: What keeps you motivated and inspired as an artist?

My support from my family and friends. who are always rooting for me and are so proud of the work that I do. What keeps me inspired is that when I see a show or opera and I am reminded that I get to make people feel the way I do when I see a show. It’s the constant love for performing that keeps me going.

Q: What other projects would you like to tell us about?

This summer I will be a participating in four operas as part of in Santa Fe’s Young Artists Program and I am currently learning music for this summer’s season.

Q: What is one instance of knowing you are living in your vision?

This past summer I was invited to be a part of the Merola Opera Program where I sang for more than 3,500 people with orchestra . To me, that was a definite sign that I am on the right path.

Q: If there were no barriers to entry, what is one thing you would be doing?

I would definitely want to get into voice acting and be a voice for a Disney animation film or some sort of cartoon show. I love doing funny voices and I would have so much fun doing that.

Q: What has been big your biggest obstacle in achieving your vision?

My biggest obstacle right now is my age. The roles that I want to play won’t be for another few years until my voice has really matured. If you were to compare me to a bottle of wine, I feel I am a classic 2016 Cabernet and I want to be that bottle from 1938 that is a rare find and has the best taste.

Q: What do you do to stay connected to your creative self?

I keep seeing shows and seeing my friends in their shows. This keeps the inspiration in me alive and I am able to remind myself how much I love performing in general.

Q: If you could let go of something that has held you back, what would it be?

This is a tough question. I guess I would have to say my thoughts that make me compare myself to other singers. It’s a bit inevitable in the business. “Why him and not me?” But at the same time, although this can hold me back at times, I find myself also inspired to push further and become personally better.

Q: What person do you most admire, living or dead?

Lucille Ball because she was told at an early age that she wouldn’t make it as an actress and now she is one the most recognizable actresses of the century. She believed in herself, really made an entire career for her and her family, and was such a wonderful person and a really amazing entertainer.

Q: If you could be known and celebrated for one thing, what would it be?

For being me! I consider myself to be one of a kind and I would want to be remembered just as I am.

Q: If you could describe yourself in one word what would it be?

Entertaining.

Q: What is your guilty pleasure?

This isn’t that bad but sometimes after a long day, there is nothing more I love than having just a few oreos and watching really awful, scary movies. It’s something about the really bad acting and predictable story line that makes me entertained.

Q: If you could sit down with yourself 15 years ago, what would you say?

“Don’t let anyone tell you that you can’t make it or that you’re not good enough because one day, you will prove a lot of people wrong.”

Q: Where would you most like to live?

Somewhere with a beautiful view and a beach. I’ve grown up by the beach, and water has always been a source of energy and leaves me with a sense of solidity.

Q: What is your idea of success?

Being able to support myself on my own and doing something that I love everyday.

Q: What is your idea of happiness?

Removing negative people from your life and surrounding yourself with those who truly care for you, and you in return, care for them.

Q: Final Thoughts?

Everyday I am still working and striving for something greater. And although I am young, I cannot wait for what the rest of my life has in store for me.

Fast Forward Friday with Tjasa Ferme

For this week’s Fast Forward Friday, we interviewed actor-playwright-producer Tjasa Ferme. She is a resident actress at The Cell Theatre Company and PopUp Theatrics. She is also the creator of a short film Ophelia’s Flip (Cannes Film Festival, 2012). Her interactive solo show, Wild Child in the City, premiered and played at the Secret Theatre in New York and has since gone on five European and Russian tours, winning the Audience Choice award at Teden Slovenske Drame-International Theatre Festival of Slovenian plays.  To learn more, visit www.tjasaferme.com.

Q: What are you currently working on?  Tell us about it.

I just completed an Off-Broadway run of The Female Role Model Project at 3-Legged Dog femalerolemodelproject.com. It merged theatre and neuroscience on the subject of modern femininity. It was a scientifically enhanced multimedia devised theatre piece exploring representations of female role models and their evolution in a time of great sociopolitical change and the possibility of transforming our brains. It combined theatrical performance and interactive games with live recordings of neural activity from both actors and audience members using Brainbit and Emotiv EEG headsets.

Q: What was the inspiration and impetus for doing this project?

There was something percolating inside of me for a long time and through my body of work –  a sex-positive farce Cocktales: Confessions of a Nymphomaniac, Wild Child In The City and Marlene Dietrich,  a one-woman show – a new thing emerged. My observation was that we don’t have enough female role models who would be powerful, imaginative, vulnerable but invincible in their intent to persevere and make their voice heard, and manage to carve their place under the sun on their own terms to inspire the rest  – or perhaps we just don’t talk about it enough. So I started developing a devised theatre piece about female role models paired with high-tech neuroscience and founded my own company Transforma Theatre Inc. with Dr. Natalie Kacinik, Professor at Brooklyn College, CUNY, specializing in Cognitive Neuroscience;  and NY attorney Jacob Sebag.

Q: Who are your artistic heroes who have had an impact on you and your work?

Sarah kane, Jerney Lorenzi and my parents for allowing me to be a free-range kid. My dad was a rock star when I was growing up and that made a huge impact on me! They always gave me so much freedom in choice making but they also held me accountable. They made it possible for me to explore a lot of things and learn completely from my own experience.

Q: What keeps you motivated and inspired as an artist?  

Innovation and universality, the depth of human experience, taboo topics, absurdity of human existence, the deep mystery of consciousness.

Q: What other projects would you like to tell us about?

Well, the next one cooking is a brother show of The Female Role Model Project which will be about men! I want to explore the complex position men are currently in society-wise and what this means for managing their instincts, traditional gender roles and future relationships with women. Look out for the Men Circle or if you have something to share, please holler, we are just in our exploration phase, so are all ears.

Q: What is one instance of knowing you are living in your vision?

Being on stage five days of the week and feeling really connected with our audiences, them sharing their experiences with us and hearing about their aha moments. Our audiences have been divine. I wanted to meet every single one of them, climb into their head, even have a closure or continuation, something. The reason why I founded Transforma Theatre was to create interactive theatre incorporating science into a live reciprocal format leading to higher states of consciousness, more openness, connectedness – RITUAL, tapping into the inner workings and exploration of consciousness. But only when I found myself creating this space of ritual and reciprocity in the theatre,  loving the audience, the interaction with them and the fluidity of thoughts spreading, did I grasped WHY the ritual component is so important.

Q: If there were no barriers to entry, what is one thing you would be doing?

Psychedelics in theatre, it would be a wonderful way of journeying, healing and witnessing – partaking in an exploration of a more primordial soup states of consciousness. By the way, before you asked me that question I never asked myself that so even I am kind of shocked by my own answer.

Q: What has been big your biggest obstacle in achieving your vision?

Not having enough funding.

Q: What do you do to stay connected to your creative self?

For morning practice I do “fairy yoga,”  it’s my conglomerate of yoga with fairy symbols and mantras setting intentions for the day; meditating; running in nature; taking trips and “no-pressure-to-perform-or-be-productive” vacations; and lately I’ve been drawing again as my creative flow and relax time – my favorite activity as a child.

Q: If you could let go of something that has held you back, what would it be?

The constant pressure I put on myself to keep moving, producing, performing, my insane expectations from myself in this short span of a human life.

Q: What is your favorite piece of art? 

Oh! I love the giant painting of Waterlilies by Monet, but I also love a lot of Dali’s pieces. From theatre I love going to the NextWave Festival at BAM. A piece that really blew my mind and made me almost giddy from excitement was Germinal at Under the Radar in 2016.  A French production about the concept of language. Amazing!

Q: What person do you most admire, living or dead?

That’s hard. I’ve been thinking about this all day … I like a lot of people and their work but “most admire?” That’s hard. OK, well, right now I say that my current role model is Elizabeth Gilbert – a phenomenal writer and speaker. Not sure I admire her above everybody else for her work even though I obviously “consume” her wisdom. I just love it how deep and yet down to earth and forgiving she is. I admire the author Alan Lightman for Einstein’s Dream; I admire Philip Glass for his Orion series; I admire neuroscientists like David Eagleman, Moran Cerf and Patricia Kuhl. And a lot more … Obviously who wouldn’t wish to be able to write like Shakespeare!

Q: If you could be known and celebrated for one thing, what would it be?

Bringing science into interactive theatrical experiences, demystifying the nature of consciousness in theatre with audiences as participants.

Q: If you could describe yourself in one word what would it be?

An explosion of energy.

Q: What is your guilty pleasure?

Running in the woods.

Q If you could sit down with yourself 15 years ago, what would you say?

Slow the hell down.

Q: Where would you most like to live?

Hmmm, partially in New York, partially in Italy and partially somewhere in Latin America.

Q: What is your idea of success?

Being able to create cultural movements and changes with my work, being financially supported for the projects I do.

Q: What is your idea of happiness?

My idea of happiness is fulfillment, and my personal fulfillment comes from dreaming up a vision, deciding to make it reality, taking a plunge and then taking a risk. It’s my personal heroine’s journey, almost like a video game. I have to take on something difficult in order to feel satisfied and at peace. So sometimes I’m going crazy with all the stuff but at the same time there’s a part of me that is totally at home in that position. I always imagine somewhat mythically how I am this storm queen riding a huge cloud of lightning and thunder.

Fast Forward Friday with Fengar Gael

For this week’s Fast Forward Friday, we interviewed playwright Fengar Gael. Her plays include The Usher’s Ball, The Portraitist, The Gallerist, Opaline, Touch of Rapture, Gift of a Forgotten Tongues, The Cat Vandal and Sycorax: Cyber Queen of Qamara. She has had her plays developed and produced at The New York Stage and Film Company, the Sundance Theatre Lab, New Jersey Repertory, Playwrights Theatre of New Jersey, InterAct Theatre of Philadelphia, the Salt Lake Acting Company, Kitchen Dog Theatre, The Venus Theatre, the Utah Shakespeare Festival, The Landing Theatre, The Outcast Theatre, The Rorschach Theatre, MultiStages, Turn to Flesh Productions, Playwrights Gallery and The Ego Actus Theatre Company. To learn more, visit www.fengar.com.

Q: What are you currently working on?  Tell us about it.

I’m working on a louche tale of the supernatural called Passing Parades that features an idealistic young woman who undergoes a radical transformation after a bomb shatters the lives of marchers gathered to celebrate the centennial of women’s suffrage. The woman awakens from a coma convinced she’s possessed by the soul of a pioneer suffragists who died in a similar explosion in 1850. She must now adjust to the social and technological advances of today’s world, and is the subject of much speculation until she disappears and becomes the object of a citywide search.

Q: What was the inspiration and impetus for doing this project?

I was inspired by research on Elizabeth Cady Stanton, the subject of a short play commissioned by the Hangar Theatre of Ithaca to commemorate the centennial of women’s suffrage in New York State. The first wave of feminism took place in the mid-19th century at the same time as the abolitionist movement. Participants for both causes were subject to constant abuse and ridicule, and I couldn’t resist returning to that period of history –  the decade before the civil war when our country was divided by geography and politics. Today our country’s divided once again, only this time it’s by the politics and geography of urban verses rural regions.

Q: Who are your artistic heroes – who have had an impact on you and your work?

There are too many poets, novelists and playwrights to list them all, but the revelations I felt reading the magic realism of Latin American writers had the greatest influence, especially the work of Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Carlos Feuntes, Jorge Luis Borges,  Pablo Neruda  and Isabel Allende. All my plays possess metaphysical dimensions mixing fantasy with reality, the past with the present, humans with animals, the living with the dead.

Q: What keeps you motivated and inspired as an artist?  

Everything in my phenomenological sphere inspires me: my family, friends and enemies; art, music, films and literature; nature’s abundance of animals, trees and flowers; political essays in newspapers and magazines, and all the emotions evoked attempting to stay sane in a world perpetually at war.

Q: What other projects would you like to tell us about?

I recently finished a fourth draft of Smile Like a Knife, which is my “resistance” or “catharsis” play: a theatrical response to living in uniquely conflicted times with a contentiously divided government under the leadership of a miserly, mean-souled  president who prefers building walls to bridges; denies the reality of global warming; champions the rights of white males to women and immigrants; and who threatens the values of our once proudly progressive democracy.

Smile Like a Knife is a dystopian exploration of life on the shrinking island of Manhattan after global warming has wreaked havoc and forced humanity to become both organic and mechanic. One hundred years from now, an androgynous guide is speaking to an audience of tourists  observing a simulated habitat of a drama that took place in the early decades of the 21st century: In the heart of the city’s most prestigious shopping district stands a watch shop located directly across from a renown residential building where powerful corporate magnates convene and conspire to control global conflicts and economies. In the shop window stands an alluring robotic mannequin equipped with a camera that spies on the constant stream of marchers protesting the country’s dysfunctional plutocracy. The play explores the corrosive effects of a divisive government as well as the human capacity for romance, redemption and invention.

Q: What is one instance of knowing you are living in your vision?

Is it really my vision? Sometimes I feel like a  puppet whose strings are being pulled by perverse, mercurial gods who like to trick me at every turn. Yet most mornings I feel I’m living in my own vision because of the singular instance of wanting to wake up – perhaps to hear  birds chirping, voices beckoning or simply to taste that first cup of coffee, or the chance to escape the building and join the huddled masses on the streets, the subways, shops, theatres and museums of the city.

Q: If there were no barriers to entry, what is one thing you would be doing?

No barriers?! None?!! Then I’d correct the gender imbalance of power in the world, redistribute the cultural, educational, agricultural, and economic wealth,  and melt all the heavy metal weapons of mass distruction into a giant pyramid.  Then I’d escape this mortal coil to the Gates of Paradise Theatres where all my plays are being produced simultaneously, ha, ha! But while I’m here on planet Earth I’d like to be rehearsing my musical, Soul on Vinyl, in big a Broadway theatre with the composer, Dennis McCarthy, sitting beside me in the audience while fabulous actors are singing under the direction of an inspired conductor. Dream on dreamer …

Q: What has been big your biggest obstacle in achieving your vision?

That depends on which vision. My vision for the country depends on the departure of Trump and his fellow plutocrats, but the biggest obstacle in achieving my vision as a playwright has been the American theatre’s relentless preference for domestic realism, linear “carpet-slipper plays” that tread softly, offend no one and simply mirror or affirm our quotidian lives (which television and movies do very well).  I wish that literary managers in the gate positions of theatres, as well as their artistic directors, would cease underestimating the imaginations of audiences,and start producing more creative, theatrical plays that take the audience to unfamiliar worlds. Another obstacle is the oppressive insistence that it’s wrong for writers to appropriate cultures different from their own which means they’re expected to police their imaginations and define themselves strictly in terms of their own race, age, gender, and ethnicity. 

Also our paganistic celebrity-worshipping culture has hurt the theatre in that plays seem to be chosen to accommodate movie or television stars and not for the merit of the plays themselves

Q: What do you do to stay connected to your creative self?

My creative self seems to require NO self, an emptying out of the ego in a place of utter silence so I’m grateful to live in a building with thick walls and quiet neighbors. This emptied self requires the companionship of a cup of coffee and a sense of solitude so I can be available to hear the voices of the characters willing to appear. This means avoiding the distractions of the Internet and being a weak person, this also means escaping the presence of the computer so I wield a pen on paper, then later in the afternoon transcribe the scribblings to the computer. So it seems my creative self is connected to my body, to my hand holding a pen and sometimes a brush since I’m also a painter and illustrator.

Q: If you could let go of something that has held you back, what would it be?

My often crippling self doubt rooted in the isolation of a childhood of constant traveling, and forced to endure the consequences of exclusion.

Q: What is your favorite piece of art?

This is simply impossible to answer – there are just to many that qualify as favorites.

Q: What person do you most admire, living or dead?

There is no singular person, and I resist the idea of idols of any kind, but I do greatly admire my parents, both deceased; my brothers, my amazing friends; and the authors, artists and everyone everywhere struggling to express themselves with dignity, grace and compassion in a volatile world.

Q: If you could be known and celebrated for one thing, what would it be?

I would like to be known as a benevolent faith healer with the power to cure the afflictions of the doomed, but since  I’m the wickedest person I know, and since my circle is small, and the few times I’ve been celebrated have rarely led to the opening of doors I dared to dream would open, then I cannot seriously imagine being known or celebrated for anything while I’m alive, never mind dead, and after all, life is for.the living. However, the artistic director of the Venus Theatre said to some people I’m known as “the animal  playwright” which shocked me — until I realized that nearly all my plays  do indeed feature animals, ha!

Q: If you could describe yourself in one word what would it be?

Intractable!

Q: If you could sit down with yourself 15 years ago, what would you say?

I’d say, “You fool! Stop dwelling on your failures! Stop wasting precious time and energy trying to convince the  unconvincible that you’re worthy of their time and resources. There will always be people on  whom you are utterly lost, so let them go their own misguided ways. instead learn to appreciate and celebrate your true and loyal friends, and try to see the genius in everyone!”

Q What is your guilty pleasure?

I have more than one guilty pleasure, and they are too personal and possibly illegal to discuss in a questionnaire that might fall into the hands of the FBI or the CIA.

Q: Where would you most like to live?

I would like to live wherever the people I love are living. I’ve traveled extensively and lived many places, but my heart’s home is New York. That said, I wouldn’t mind leasing one of Mad King Ludwig’s Bavarian castles where my partner and our friends would spend our days creating, reading and producing our plays for our mutual amusement in between hiking in the forest, swimming in the lakes, dining like kings, dreaming in the moonlight …

Q: What is your idea of success?

I’m already living my idea of success: I have a loving partner, wonderful friends, a comfortable home, breakfast with coffee, dinner with wine, and I’m not confined to a padded room in Bellevue which is where I’d be if I did not have a vocation that allowed me to express the demons within. Yes, success for me means survival through the creation of plays and paintings and beyond that the bliss of enduring relationships.

Q: What is your idea of happiness?

See success.

Fast Forward Friday with Madeline Johnson

For this week’s Fast Forward Friday, we interviewed award-winning screenwriter-director Madeline Johnson. Her debut short film Juneteenth was an official selection of the Prague Independent Film Festival, the Budapest Short Film Festival, and the Crown Heights Film Festival – as well as winning a Platinum Reel Award at the Nevada International Film Festival in the student competition. Her newest short film Beyond our Mountains won Best World Director at the Austin Revolution Film Festival and continues to play on the 2018 festival circuit.  She is currently finishing final drafts of two feature scripts and developing an interactive web series. To learn more about Mattie go to: http://madelinemjohnson.com/

Q: What are you currently working on?  Tell us about it.

I am currently working on an interactive series, tentatively called America’s Freedom. Through this project, I am exploring what racial reconciliation could look like in the U.S.

Q: What was the inspiration and impetus for doing this project?

Honestly, I feel inspired to tell this story because I’m trying to answer a question I wish we had an answer to. Over the past two years in particular – although this is a conflict we’ve been navigating for generations – I find myself and others wondering what it would take for the U.S. to actually achieve racial justice and reconciliation. I really wish for so much better for us all.

I think a lot about what America’s legacy could be and what it has been so far. I find there’s a gap between the legacy we wish to leave and reality – and what matters most is the legacy we actually leave behind us.

I think a lot about America’s past and what we can do now to give ourselves a better future. In general, I think a lot about how the past, present and the future we dream for ourselves, can co-exist in the same decisive moment.

This project had a distinct jumping off point about a year ago when my friend showed me an article about a diverse, mixed-race, eco-friendly community who lived in the Great Dismal Swamp in North Carolina prior to the end of the Civil War. A significant portion of the community were ex-slaves who freed themselves by escaping into the swamp.

I was fascinated by it. It amazed me to hear about a diverse community who lived together, but who disbanded after the end of the Civil War. I found myself asking so many questions about them and wishing I knew more. I was also surprised that I had never heard about this. I had even studied Ethnic Studies in college, but I still had never learned about this. I wondered if this community had wisdom we could learn from today.

For this project, I found myself pulled in so many directions – into the swamp, into my father’s family in West Tennessee, into the mass incarceration crisis of today. While each deserves their own story in their own right, I found myself feeling like the answers that I want could only be explored through incorporating them all together. I wondered whether I was trying to do too many things. But I think this story really does need to be told with all of those touchstones in place. I want to see what happens when we intercut the past into today and when we intercut our dreams when we are making decisions right here, right now.

Finally, I am so excited about the interactive portion of this story. Our technology is changing, allowing us to interact with audiences and tell stories in new ways. Honestly, we are living in an age where the news is so proximate; our newsfeeds are flooded with our own echo chambers. It really feels like we are actors living in a larger story. So I decided to craft the story to empower audiences to truly participate in our communal narrative and questions.

Q: Who are your artistic heroes – who have had an impact on you and your work?

Oh my – such a hard question. Honestly, most days I find myself being filled from many wells.

James Baldwin and Toni Morrison are the first to come to mind. I find myself in awe at the truths they are able to reveal about race through narrative.

I also listen to a lot of podcasts with Krista Tippett. I find the interactions between her and her guests help me feel more whole myself and tap deeper into the healing truths I want to share.

Regarding film I was impressed with Moonlight, for artistic vision; The Handmaid’s Tale, for bolding telling a story of injustice focused on women; I Am Not A Witch, for narrative and cultural complexity and depth, for directorial vision;  and Capernaum, for the director’s trust and courage to work with non-professional actors and to let them guide the narrative.

While writing for this project, I’ve also been listening to a lot of blues – Mississippi John Hurt, Fred McDowell, hip-hop, Hamilton, Gregorian chant and Japanese drumming. Somehow these fuel the energy I need to write this story.

Q: What keeps you motivated and inspired as an artist? 

My film career is where I feel closest to the real Mattie. That feeling is so tremendously special and is such a source of healing; I find there a lot of energy for my work.

The feeling of knowing I’m doing precisely what I’m meant to be doing is very fulfilling. Honestly, even though this work is so hard, it doesn’t feel like I have another choice. Of course, there are other jobs that I can do and that I enjoy. Film is not the only work I find meaningful. But even though this career path is difficult and unknown, it doesn’t matter to me how hard it is. I wouldn’t choose something else.

One way that I keep myself motivated as an artist is to think about my film career like it’s a pilgrimage. Who knows how long the journey is, what type of terrain is ahead, what kind of support I’ll get along the way, etc. With that analogy in mind, I decided it’s foolish to make this journey without giving myself the right support and mindset. I always joke to myself that I’m making this pilgrimage in an RV.

What that translates to in real life for me is making sure that I have a stable income, giving myself flexibility and as much time as possible to do my film work, taking care of my health body and soul; and connecting with friends and family who support me.

Another thing that keeps me motivated is managing my expectations. I read an article a year or two ago about a writer who aims for 100 rejections a year in order to have a moderately successful year. This comes in handy especially when applying for grants, festivals, etc.  I’ve also thought a lot about how statistically it was easier for me to get into Yale, than it is to earn some of these achievements. So I’ve learned not to take the rejections personally. Rather, I accept that I need to aim for about 100 rejections myself in order to move forward. By keeping my expectations low, I can receive all of the progress with deep gratitude.

What inspires me most as an artist is thinking about the impact stories have within ourselves. Before I decided to pursue film, I thought seriously about becoming a civil rights lawyer. I really wanted to change the world. But I found myself frustrated by the limits of law. I think a lot about how we may have abolished Jim Crow laws, but the U.S. still has vestiges of Jim Crow hearts. What inspires me the most is to constantly pursue telling stories that will touch our hearts.

Q: What other projects would you like to tell us about?

I also have two feature scripts I’ve written that I am in the process of editing. One is inspired by my work in the criminal justice field about someone turning his life around. The other is an adaptation of Jane Austen’s Persuasion, which I wrote with my mother. I’d still love to see these come to life one of these days.

I also have a short film Beyond Our Mountains, which I wrote and directed in Kosovo out on the film festival circuit. The story centers around an Albanian-Serbian couple navigating a difficult choice. In this film, I am exploring the process of healing; the interactions of our past, present and dreams for the future with the choices we have at hand; and the difference between what we want to have happen and what does happen. For this film, it was an honor to work with many talented artists in Kosovo and N.Y.

Q: What is one instance of knowing you are living in your vision?

On the last day of shooting Beyond Our Mountains, I was walking in Pristina to meet the crew. It was early morning and I was walking down the Dragadon steps – a tremendous number of stairs that connects pedestrians from one area in Pristina to another. The sun was just rising, switching from hazy fog to dawn. As I walked down those stairs, I was bathed in dawn’s sunshine. Even though I was tremendously tired and hadn’t slept in weeks, I felt so full of energy. It felt like I was walking into my future.

And honestly, even though I didn’t know what would unfold the next year and I still don’t know what will unfold in the coming years, I choose to move forward with the certainty that I am going to make it.

A few months ago, I saw a photo of Ava DuVernay wearing a t-shirt that said, “I am my ancestors’ wildest dreams.” I think about that a lot. I feel so tremendously grateful to be able to live my dreams. I hope I am making my family proud.

Q: If there were no barriers to entry, what is one thing you would be doing?

I’d be knee deep in a swamp in North Carolina shooting the pilot episode of America’s Freedom.

I’d be writing my feature.

I’d be starting my own production company that focuses on telling untold stories with a social justice focus.

Q: What has been big your biggest obstacle in achieving your vision?

Funding and time have been two of my biggest obstacles in achieving my vision.

Additionally, I sometimes struggle with negative self-talk. Sometimes I can be tremendously and unforgivably hard on myself. My perfectionism can really break myself down such that it’s hard to move forward with the work. I’m learning good techniques for dealing with this – for getting out of my own head and out of my own way – and just letting myself move forward with the work.

Finally, I’d say one of the biggest obstacles has also been knowing my own vision, although there is a blessing to this as well. Honestly, it has taken some time for me to recognize what it is that makes my work special and distinct. But while this is a challenge, I still believe this is an exciting part of the journey as well. While I hope to continue to discover my own vision, I also want to discover my own expansiveness, so I can bring my talent to lots of different films. I really feel like every story is different and so I want to strengthen my skills so I can tell each one in the way they really deserve to be told.

Q: What do you do to stay connected to your creative self?

It helps to spend time with friends and family.

I also practice Julia Cameron’s The Artist’s Way. I write Morning Pages every morning and I try to take myself out on an adventure every week. I love trying new foods, seeing new things, going new places, and all of that newness really opens me up and gets my creative self running.

I also find that in order to be creative, I need to take prodigious care of myself. On writing days, it helps to go for a run, meditate, text all of my friends, eat lots of healthy food, drink tons of water and tea, and look and dress in a way that makes me feel proud. When I feel good about myself and take care of myself, it helps me work. Sometimes that requires taking care of myself emotionally, especially if my work brings up hard emotions. I need to self-soothe and allow myself to be a learner who is trying her best. These practices help me stay connected to my creative self.

Q: If you could let go of something that has held you back, what would it be?

Negative self-image. I wish I had trusted myself earlier. If I’m being honest, I feel like I’m on a healing journey to love myself fully and let myself be free. It’s a process.

Q: What is your favorite piece of art?

Such a tough question! I’m not sure!

One piece of art that I have spent a fair amount of time wondering about is this Tranquil Zen Garden of Kyoto. As the original designer did not leave an explanation, this rock garden and its meaning is mysterious. Many people have wondered why it is laid out as it is, including myself. I have a soft spot for art that encourages us to continually wonder without answer. Somehow, I feel like the art gives us more this way, revealing more and more about ourselves and the world around us through our own wisdom and insight.

Q: What person do you most admire, living or dead?

I’ve always been a Jane Austen fan. Jane Austen was a pretty irreverent woman and I admire her astute and frank perception and writing.

I also admire Martin Luther King, Jr. While he has become a bit idealized and consequently de-radicalized recently in U.S. culture, I find inspiring his ability to see beyond who America was/is to see who we deserve to be. I admire his steadfast pursuit of justice at such a tremendous cost.

Q: If you could be known and celebrated for one thing, what would it be?

For loving people so deeply, they feel more free to be their full selves. For loving myself so deeply, I am free myself. For helping us to see a way forward toward love, healing  and justice.

Q: If you could describe yourself in one word what would it be?

Tenacious. Persistent. Creative. Smart.

Q: What is your guilty pleasure?

I scroll endlessly on Facebook. I am a sucker for expensive meals. I turn the heat up really high.  On bad days, I splurge on Starbucks chai tea lattes.

Q: If you could sit down with yourself 15 years ago, what would you say?

I don’t think I’d say anything. I’d just listen. I’d want Mattie to know she’s deeply loved and valuable. I’d do anything she wants.

Q: Where would you most like to live?

Oh my! You are asking Mattie to dream big today! If I could live anywhere, I’d love to have an apartment in Manhattan, perhaps a brownstone in Harlem. I’d also love to have an apartment in Paris.

But honestly, I never really thought of settling anywhere. I always think of my life as an adventure life, going wherever I find it meaningful and valuable to be. But I will say these days, the idea of having a home of my own is becoming more tempting. While I love flexibility, I also love the idea of being able to welcome people into my own warm, loving space.

Q: What is your idea of success?

Oh my! I’ve got so many dreams!

I think my idea of success is being able to do what I’m meant to do in the world. I’d love to have enough financial security to work on my art. I have worked hard to balance my life so that I can do that now. But I’d love to be able to achieve this with even more financial and creative freedom in the future.

Honestly, I’d love to rise up in my career in a way that changes our industry and the world for the best. My idea of success is not even to achieve top awards  – although I’d like that too. I’d love for our entire industry to be different – to be a safer space for women, people of color, LGBT folks, people with disabilities, etc. to tell stories. I’d love for us to achieve parity in work and salary. I’d love to establish a whole community of badass folks who give back to communities and transform society.

I also think that outside of my career, I’m on a healing journey that signifies true success to me. I want to feel safe and proud in my own skin and ideas. I want to feel like I’ve truly set myself free and I’m able to be who I want to be in this world.

Q: What is your idea of happiness?

Tea, adventures, seeing the people you love truly happy, good food and that feeling in your soul of content pride and peace.

Somehow from this place, I’d love to give back to the world, encouraging others on their own pilgrimages toward love and freedom.

Q: Final Thoughts?

Thank you so much for this wonderful opportunity! It’s such a blessing.