I want to tell you about one of the most amazing actor/writers I know: Nilsa Reyna. I hope that she inspires you as much as she has inspired me.
Nilsa Reyna was a working Chicago actor with a great reputation for solid work when she was struck down by a stroke. She was an up and coming actor in the Chicago theatre scene, the artistic director of her own theatre company and had the whole world in front of her. Nilsa's search for answers was a long and difficult road, but at the end of it, she was a writer with a unique voice and story to tell.
The why's or how's weren't nearly as important as the personal journey that this medical crisis took her on. Nilsa's stroke turned her life upside down. But more importantly the journey it took Nilsa on changed the direction of her life, created amazing lessons for her which she chronicles in her solo play, "The Care I Need" which has received two developmental Off Broadway workshops.
Nilsa joined April's writers retreat a couple of years ago as soon as she moved to New York City from Chicago. She'd heard about April's work from Juan Villa, whose Jeff nominated solo show "Empanada for a Dream" was developed in April's weekly writing classes.
"April's strong, quiet, supportive presence was more vital to me exploring MY story than I would have thought. The safe environment she creates gave me freedom to be fully honest with myself in ways that surprised myself. In any interviews I give nationally about my solo play "Empanada For A Dream" (nominated for a Jeff Award for Best Solo Show), I make sure to mention April Yvette Thompson's name because the most complete stories in my award winning play were from her workshops. She has inspired me to help others tell their stories. She taught me that the same commitment I give to others, I should give to myself. I haven't looked back."
So with Juan's words in Nilsa's ears, she joined April's 2 Day Writers Retreat. She spent 16 hours writing, asking questions, learning about structure and learning just how much work was involved in writing your story.
But she didn't let the task overwhelm her. What April didn't know at the time was that during that writing class, Nilsa was still in recovery from her stroke. She wrote slower, but she wrote nonetheless and did a lot of deep listening.
A couple of years later, once Nilsa had established herself in NYC and had laid down a rough draft of the story, she contacted April for private coaching. She had gotten as far as she could on her own and had built in her own hard deadlines. She got the support of a theatre company behind her to develop her new solo show with a series of developmental workshops culminating in public readings.
This was both terrifying, but important to her finishing the work. If you know you got to do a public reading of your work in 60 days, you're not going to come up with any lame excuses to not write. So she and April met weekly for writing sessions.
The result is that in less than 3 months, Nilsa finished her first performance draft and had two off broadway readings of her play. She and her director found the amazing humor in Nilsa's story as well as her courage in telling the no-holds barred story of a woman who overcame tremendous odds and found the life that she truly wanted to be living as a result of the journey.
I have a special treat for you today.
It's an interview I had with Nilsa about her work.
Love, Light & Power,
April & TheWritersRoom
""""One of the most mortifying moments I experienced in my theatrical career was when I was asked to bring the entirely African-American cast of a new musical we were workshopping, a new piece by an African-American librettist and composer, across the street to the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion and up into the plush boardroom so they could perform a song or two for the board of directors. I wanted to say something, but I didn't. For one thing, it would take an invaluable 45 minutes to an hour out of the creative team's limited time together. But... every year we had to do the same old song and dance for the board to remind them that yes, we did do new plays and musicals, so yes, it was sometimes a good idea to expose the board to new voices, to the vibrancy of an exciting work in progress.
You all know where this is going, don't you? I led the team in. The talent in that team! The writer/composer himself and the cast, lauded veterans of the stage and the most promising members of the next generation of acting giants. And there was our board. White, as white as can be, white white white white. And very comfortable. They'd just been served lunch, I believe. My theater spared no expense in pleasing our board and catering to their demands (oh my god, I'm feeling such rage right now! I'm pretty sure we had a staff member who was mostly dedicated to help our richest board members get house seats to shows on Broadway and the West End. But I digress...)
The only black face in the audience seated at the conference table? The only person of color? The head of our education department, of course. My heart went out to her.
The cast sang a song from the show. They did it. And they brought it. Because they were and are professionals. And the very pillars of the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion reverberated down to the parking lot. It was breathtaking.
And I had just been complicit in the remaking of a scene for the millionth time: black bodies and voices entertaining white audiences, an institution raising money on the backs and voices of black bodies.
I was too mortified to apologize to our writer and to our cast, none of whom, I should add, expressed even an iota of discomfort. They were professionals, and they shone. And come to think of it, they'd probably all become accustomed to this scene. "It's just how theater works," they might have thought with a shrug of their shoulders. Or maybe they seethed inside, for the millionth time, when all they were trying to do is workshop a new musical.
Well, I apologize sincerely now to our writer and those actors. I wish I had had the courage to put my foot down. It is not how theater should work.
I quit the American theater on Valentine's Day 2016, so I've been out more than four years now. And honestly I don't plan to return, which is why I can write with such candor.
The heart of the problem, my friends, is with the non-profit structure, which is capitalism on steroids. Who are the bosses ultimately in an American institutional theater? The board of directors. Who are the board of directors? For the most part, those members of the community not with the strongest attachment to the art form but those with the deepest pockets. Often they're really not members of the community. They often just drop in. They are sometimes mere tourists.
It's no wonder that that board meeting was held in the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion. The theater, like most American theaters, had built its board of directors on the old opera model: You get the richest folks together, offer them galas and house seats and receptions and private recitals and showings (for which artists often don't get paid extra, mind you), you pamper them and make them feel more special and entitled than they already do, and then they'll write you big checks to support the kind of art they like, the kind of art they can bring their kids and grandkids to. AND they--not the artists, not the community--get to hire the institution's leadership.
It is a rotten model. Rotten to the core. How can any artistic institution claim to be working for and in the community with that model?
It's got to be torn down. It's got to be reinvented. And I have no idea what the next model will be. I really don't. And no, honestly I don't think government is the solution frankly. Some of the most bloated, self-satisfied, decadent theater I've ever seen was in Germany, where it was almost fully government-funded. Lots of bells and whistles and provocations and completely soul-dead.
I see amazing and galvanizing lists of demands recently being made and posted by theater artists of color. These are vital demands. But they don't address the central issue. As long as the ultimate bosses of an artistic institution remain the community's deepest pockets, nothing will change. Nothing. You'll be putting band-aids on a gaping wound. Sorry, but it's true.
So please figure something else out. Maybe for a few years you just avoid the institutions. You've already started. In the pandemic, so many of you are making amazing art without an institution. Find those who truly adore your work and ask them to fund it. Screw non-profit. Form a corporation and value your art art-making as a resource that profits you, your viewers/audience and your community. I have no idea.
But please don't return to a new version of the old. After the virus, after he's out of office, after police reform and nationwide conversations about race, after, after, after, begin something new. I can't wait to see what it is!”
Words: Pier Carlo Talenti
Video: Griffin Matthews
April Yvette Thompson