Four Questions with Carlyn Aquiline

In the midst of the excitement and chaos of play selection for the 2008-2009 Season, Literary Manager and Dramaturg Carlyn Aquiline took a few moments to answer four questions:

Stuart:  Playwright Charlayne Woodard started as an actor and has a thriving stage career, including an Obie Award for her performance in the World Premiere of Suzan-Lori Parks’ In the Blood.  Is there a quality in her writing that reveals her experience as an actor? 

Carlyn: Absolutely. First of all, Flight is a true ensemble work. There is no “main character,” per se—and therefore no room for egos. Instead, each actor gets multiple opportunities to take center stage, so to speak, in one or another of the play’s folktales; in return, they each play minor roles in others. This requires actors who can really work together as a group, supporting each others’ performances, trusting each others’ process, and developing through a kind of improvisatory openness the physical and emotional life of each folktale. It also gives each of them the challenge and fun of playing not only the slave characters, but many other characters–human, animal, and spirit–in the folklore. They really get to show their versatility in the range of characters they play, in the improvisational nature of the playing, and in the opportunity to use their whole “instruments” since the play’s “telling” is done in myriad ways–through oral storytelling, dialogue, music, and movement. Finally, Charlayne has written down just enough to convey her vision of the play but she leaves much wide open for the actors and director to do what they do best–and what they like to do best–to make strong choices about character and action. She gives them great ownership of their stories, allowing them to join the great tradition of oral storytellers that the play in one sense celebrates.

Stuart:  What drew you to Flight?  The story?  Characters?  Use of music and dance?  What was the “hook” for you.

Carlyn: All of the above, and more. The folklore is captivating, at times somber, at other times funny, but always absorbing and filled with great possibilities for visual AND verbal storytelling and great theatricality. The characters have a compelling need to gather as a community and re-tell these narratives, which have been passed from generation to generation to impart strength and wisdom, explain the world, connect these people to each other and to their ancestors–and provide some levity when possible. It’s in the past that the characters find their strength for the future–difficult though it will continue to be. Charlayne has created powerful imagery that exists on multiple levels, from the tree that Li’l Jim climbs–which is literal but also reminds us that as the characters’ personal histories continue to grow and branch out, their roots still exist in Africa–to the percussionist, who will be present onstage but who represents the spirit and heartbeat of Africa that beats within these characters who were forbidden from drumming (a musical tradition in Africa) and speaking their traditional languages. Finally, though Charlayne sets her story within the grim institution of slavery–and there’s no getting away from that fact–and has chosen folklore from mainly West Africa (which is where most of the slaves along the Eastern seaboard were from), she is miraculously able to inspire hope, to make us laugh, and to point up the universality of the folklore, which at its core illuminates the best and worst in all humanity.  

Stuart:  You are one of those slash-titled folks, Literary Manager/Dramaturg.  Most people probably have a sense of what is involved in Literary Management (or think they do!) but as dramaturg what are some of the things you will do leading up to and during rehearsals for Flight to support the production?

Carlyn:  First, I prefer not the “/” but the “and”: Literary Manager and Dramaturg. I’ve gathered some research for the actors to explore, if they’d like–as a few examples, we have period photos of slaves in daguerreotypes (really incredible images) and plantation settings, the slave narratives (oral histories) that were recorded in the 30s, a map of a typical plantation layout and information on plantation life and slave culture, and collections of African and African-American folktales (a lot of Charlayne’s research, too, used the slave narratives and, of course, collections of folklore). But Liesl will have four experts in the room with her–Charlayne; George, the percussionist; Thomas, the music director; and Oronde, the choreographer–and those people know infinitely more about their own areas of expertise, from drumming to African dance–than I would ever be able to learn and/or impart. So, though I won’t need to be in rehearsals for this production as often as I sometimes am, I’ll stop into rehearsals to see how everything’s going, to see if I can offer support or assistance to Charlayne and Liesl, to watch run-throughs and offer response, and then to watch previews and offer response. I also will put together some materials to enhance audience experience–a newsletter, which will include an interview with Charlayne and an article on the designs, a program spread about the oral tradition, and a lobby display with a lot more images and information on the world of the play (including some of the research I placed in the rehearsal hall).  

Stuart:  What is on your i-pod? 

Carlyn:  Depends on my mood–I tend to rotate four or five CDs at a time. Lately, I’ve been listening a lot to: Jack Teagarden’s Basin Street Blues; Los Lonely Boys (their self-titled CD); Zap Mama’s Ancestry in Progress; Sting’s Songs from the Labyrinth; and the new Eagles release Long Road Out of Eden.

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