Art Notes: Panel of playwrights talks creative process at JAGfest

  • From left, founder and artistic director of JAG Productions Jarvis Green, playwrights Elizabeth Addison and trevor tate participate in a panel discussion as part of the opening of JAGfest 6.0 in Hanover, N.H., on May 10, 2022. (Rob Strong photograph) Rob Strong photograph

  • From left, founder and artistic director of JAG Productions Jarvis Green, playwrights Elizabeth Addison and trevor tate participate in a panel discussion as part of the opening of JAGfest 6.0 in Hanover, N.H., on May 10, 2022. (Rob Strong photograph) Rob Strong photographs

  • Alex Hanson. Copyright (c) Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

Valley News Staff Writer
Published: 5/11/2022 11:15:50 PM
Modified: 5/11/2022 11:15:49 PM

Pre-pandemic, the annual JAGfest took place in February, when people were starved for connection and eager to come out and discuss African American theater.

On Tuesday evening, the opening panel discussion of JAGfest 6.0 was in competition with a spotlessly sunny afternoon. Outside the five arched windows of Dartmouth College’s Hopkins Center, students threw Frisbees on the green. Inside, Jarvis Green told playwrights Elizabeth Addison and trevor tate that he wasn’t going to ask them how they were doing, but “can you tell us what color your heart is?”

Purple, Addison said. In the recovery movement, “purple is our color” — it’s also the color of a bruise, the color of healing. “My heart is all about healing these days.”

“I think mine is green,” said tate, like the season. “It just feels very spring-y and alive.”

Public conversations about the creative process are uncommon, even with the growth of the arts in the Upper Valley in the past two decades. Such conversations among Black and queer writers are almost vanishingly rare. For an hour, in the Top of the Hop, as the day declined, Green and his invited guests talked about, well, the color of their hearts.

“I’m very curious about where you’re storytelling began,” said Green, the founder of and name behind JAG Productions.

“I specifically remember,” said tate, tall, soft-spoken, turtlenecked and bespectacled, “maybe 9, 8 or 9, we made a book in our class. Our teacher bound it.”

“The reality I’ve discovered,” said Addison, also tall and wearing a black knit cap over dreadlocks, “is that we’re all storytellers.” Every day, people are telling a story about what they’re doing and why. “I’ve been a storyteller my whole life. I didn’t realize it.”

Addison’s play, Chasing Grace, is the first full-length musical that JAG Productions has workshopped. It’s a sequel of sorts to This Is Treatment, a musical about the experiences of black and brown people in residential substance abuse treatment. Chasing Grace continues the recovery narrative into the struggle of building a life and career.

Asked to take the audience of around 15 people through their body of work, Addison, who’s based in Boston, said she saw Rent for the first time at age 13 but didn’t get to work as a composer, lyricist and writer until she was 29. “I didn’t see anyone like me writing,” she said.

She started writing songs by praying and then sitting down at the piano. “YouTube is my education,” she said. “YouTube and asking people out for coffee.”

Though he was a “voracious reader,” tate, an Austin, Texas, native, went to college for acting and realized he’d made a mistake when he took a writing class and felt comfortable there. He went to grad school, wrote a “one-person drag show” and some plays, and is now writing fiction.

His most recent play, Queen of the Night, about a 60-something man taking his grown queer son on a camping trip, was at the Dorset Theater Festival last summer, Green noted. The play was performed outdoors in Vermont, then indoors in Chicago.

“I feel like the play is really heartfelt and sentimental, in a good way that really warms the audience’s heart,” tate said. “I want people to feel a little bit of hope.”

Asked what their work adds to American theater, the two playwrights gave contrasting answers.

“I think that when you write from experience … you have to know from knowing,” tate said. “Then people from the outside can say, ‘Oh, we’re interested in this queer, Black aesthetic. … I think that comes from outside the play.”

Addison was more direct: “I just say that, hey, I don’t see enough things with people that look like me.”

Addison and tate, along with playwright Kevin Renn, are in the Upper Valley this week, workshopping plays with JAG. Renn wasn’t able to attend Tuesday’s talk. The week is “centered around the work and the process and uplifting the artist,” Green said.

“How do you define success for yourself, and how do you define excellence?” he asked.

The idea of success changes from day to day, Addison said.

“In terms of excellence, I can’t stand that idea,” she said. “Especially Black excellence. Can we just be human? … For me, I’m just like, let me do the things God told me to do.”

“I think I measure success by how much money I have and how many people know my name,” tate said to general laughter. His “heart’s success” is to have someone in the audience feel the same way he did as he was writing.

“Excellence,” he said, “I’m not quite sure about that word either, but I think about rigor.” It’s a practice, not a state of being. “One thing I try to do is write every day.”

Their current work is moving ahead, with staged readings planned Friday through Sunday at the Briggs Opera House in White River Junction.

Addison had worked on treatments for Chasing Grace for years but didn’t start creating it in earnest until April 2021, when she sat down to work on it and started to cry. She realized she was ready, but then had to contend with the voice that said, “No, you’re not.”

“Fear is always the first thing that comes, and then acceptance,” she said.

She asked playwrights and producers for help.

“It just came out of me,” she said. “It was like it was just waiting in the wings until I was ready to receive it and let it go.”

Your Maximum Potential, the play tate and JAG are working on this week, is about the influence of social media, particularly on young people and how we allow the internet to influence our lives.

“I think I’m interested in having queer communities see it,” tate said. All but one of the play’s characters is a person of color.

What do the playwrights want from this experience in Vermont and New Hampshire, Green asked.

“I feel like I’ve already gotten it,” Addison said. “The love, the care,” the attention to her work and hearing it performed. “Realistically, I wanted this sense of community that I already have.”

“The last two days,” tate said, “it feels like an artist’s vacation.”

People generally aren’t aware of how theater is made, Green said after the discussion. It’s important for people to see it and understand it.

“I think it’s also an opportunity to learn who exists in our community,” he said, “and ways in which we can break that fourth wall and find ways to learn more about each other.”

JAGfest 6.0 presents staged readings of Your Maximum Potential by travis tate, at 7:30 p.m. Friday; Chasing Grace by Elizabeth Addison at 7:30 p.m. Saturday; and Padiddle by Kevin Renn at 2 p.m. Sunday in the Briggs Opera House in White River Junction. Tickets are $25 and a weekend pass is $50. Go to jagproductionsvt.com for more information.




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