Interview with Kill Move Paradise playwright, James Ijames

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We asked HotHouse actor Lindsay Smiling to interview playwright James Ijames about Kill Move Paradise and being an artist in Philadelphia. Lindsay Smiling plays Isa in the Wilma Production of Kill Move Paradise and also acted in James Ijames’ play Moon Man Walk, which was produced by Orbiter 3 in 2015.

Lindsay Smiling: I remember meeting you when you first arrived in Philadelphia as you were about to start grad school at Temple University. Since then, you’ve made a huge impact on the Philadelphia theater community. What is it about Philadelphia that has resonated so much with you as a performer, director and playwright to make it your home?

James Ijames: I think when I finished grad school at Temple and started working in Philly, the city felt like this tremendous space of potential. Initially I wanted to stay here for a couple of years and then move on. But the city, the people have a way of making you grow roots. I started to find my artistic homes here at the Arden and the Wilma. I started to spread my wings and try other areas with the theater. I started directing, putting my writing out there and it was all embraced. I come from a pretty dope family but I’m far away from them. Philly offered me family. Early on with folks like Kimmika Williams Witherspoon and Ozzie Jones, people like Amy Dugas Brown and Matt Pfeiffer. Some of the closest friendships of my life with Justin Jain, Aime Kelly and Akeem Davis. I feel like when you have a family they become your audience. The people you make art for. I found that here and it has made my career and my life more full.

You recently wrote that “the Wilma has had a tremendous impact on my work as a playwright” and that your first full length play was written in the dressing room while you were in the Wilma’s production of Angels in America. How do you think your relationship with the Wilma has influenced your writing?

Yeah I wrote …Miz Martha! [The Most Spectacularly LamentableTrial of Miz Martha Washington, which had readings at PlayPenn and the Wilma, and was produced by Flashpoint Theatre]  You know. I think it has something to do with scale and practice. Everything I’ve ever seen at the Wilma whether I loved it or not has always felt both wild and precise. These sort of became my guiding principles as a writer. Be wild and precise. I think this was true long before Angels in America. There have been a lot of Wilma productions that come to mind when I’m writing. Scorched, The Clean House, In the Next Room, Jesus Hopped the A Train, Leaving, and many more. That production of Angels in America in particular was inspiring because Blanka created a whole world really out of blank white emptiness. That set! It was like the Wild West and it forced everyone in the cast to engage in these large performances. When I sit down to write I’m aiming for that level of scale. Huge. But I’m also tethered to the ground by the desire for the world I write to feel precise and to make sense. It doesn’t always have to make sense to everybody but the hope as I work is that it will connect and move people.

You’re very familiar with the Wilma HotHouse, and have been commissioned to write a play for us. How do you think the Wilma’s process do think will elevate Kill Move Paradise?

So the play is incredibly physically demanding. The characters are caught in a space that I’ve come to think of as like the bardo [in Tibetan Buddhism, a transitional or liminal space between death and rebirth]. This goes back to what I was saying about wild and precise. The HotHouse practice meets this kind of writing really beautifully because the play is open. Right? I think the play is more a gesture than an instruction manual. The HotHouse approach is playful and exploratory and then it irises down to something quite precise and I believe Kill Move Paradise will benefit from this.

One of the play’s epigraphs is a quote from Jonathan Lethem’s The Fortress of Solitude: “At what age is a black boy when he learns he’s scary?” The idea that my skin alone is something society fears certainly resonates with me as I’m sure it does with many people of color. Can you talk about how you are challenging the audience to confront this fear in Kill Move Paradise?

Woof. Okay. So this is going to be a very long answer so buckle up.

You remember that Samuel Jackson movie A Time To Kill. I think Sandra Bullock was it in it. Anyway at the center of the movie a young black girl is brutally beaten and raped by a group of Confederate flag wearing white men. They get acquitted. Sam Jackson shoots them in the lobby of the courthouse. The rest of the movie is about Sam Jackson’s trial. His lawyer is the “Alright alright alright” guy that does those car commercials. Skip to the end of the movie Mr. Alright Alright Alright is doing his closing argument. He describes in graphic detail what this young girl has gone through. And then at the end he says to the jurors. “Now…Imagine she’s white.”

Now. Even as a kid I was like “huh?” why is that necessary for compassion or empathy? Are only white people offered this piece of human kindness?

Fast forward to the beginning of the 21st century and black people are being killed left and right by vigilantes, by law enforcement who say things like “I was scared for my life” when talking about teenage boys. And that thought kept running through my mind, “Now…Imagine she’s white.”

Fast forward to me sitting down to write Kill Move Paradise and trying to create a space in which the humanity of the people on stage is undeniable. These characters embody all the ways in which we try to be human. They are jealous, they are kind, they maternal and paternal, they are pushed physically to the edge of something and then fall. You can’t deny their humanity. And they are all black. So the audience has to see them as they are. Imagining the white version of them is not an option.

At one point in Kill Move Paradise a list of names is read of Black men and women who were untimely killed. As we are coming up on beginning rehearsals, how has your relationship to this script changed, knowing there are many more names that could be added to that list?

I always say that I hope this play becomes obsolete one day. That’s like a crazy thing for a playwright to say. But I hope one day that people will say we don’t need to do this play anymore because we are different. We are better. And every time I think we have reached a point where maybe this play is obsolete. It’s suddenly not. And the violence with which that reality comes to me never ceases to take my breath. Even now as I write this I’m thinking about Nia Wilson. And I’m also anxious because I know, by the time this play opens and someone is sitting comfortably in those fabulous seats, perhaps sipping a glass of wine, that list will have grown. I’m anxious because by the time this play closes that list will have grown. I don’t say this to be cynical. I don’t say this to be pessimistic. I say it because, unless we really begin to look at why this is happening. Structurally, psychically. We will repeat it. I think it’s Mark Twain who said that history doesn’t repeat, but it rhymes. A repeat you know how to deal with cause you’ve seen it before. But rhyming just different enough to fool you into thinking it’s something new.

HotHouse Intensive: Reflection

Temple University Musical Theater BFA student José Raúl Mangual took part in a HotHouse Intensive this winter.  He documented the experience through daily reflections and photos to share as blog posts as we prepare for the Summer Intensive.

Application in Performance

I first allowed myself to “sit back” and observe whether I would notice any of the training from the HotHouse intensive arise in performance. I had already built an accessibility to the extremes of my vocal register over the course of the rehearsal process. But, post-intensive, I could not help further nuancing vocal placement by specifying its accompanying physical resonance in my body. Whether the changes made would resonate (comprehensively, not physically) with audience members was uncertain to me, but I am certain it more deeply colored my interactions with Mercutio’s world.

I felt more interior stirrings: stirrings to throttle Romeo, to massage him, to swipe at Benvolio, to smooth my clothing and therefore regain my appearance of composure, and on to increasingly higher degrees of specificity from the inside out. Instead of theorizing actions and obstacles and deliberation of tactics on a sheet of paper or in front of a computerscreen, I was came upon the answers to questions I’d sought before from simply interacting with my fellow actors and the world around me through my ever-malleable text, on my feet and in my body and voice, clothed in the newfound flexibility discovered in the HotHouse intensive.

I found that, in Mercutio’s pursuits and given his circumstances, my body frequented certain resonances. Frequenting these resonances resulted in more consistent colors of response to obstacles, which refined the types of responses accessible to me in Mercutio’s body, mind, and voice! Even if I made no “decisions” about who Mercutio “was”, a character would be created for me through my living in this new acting appendages – which had always been there, but had new levels of familiarity and thorough exercise.

Insistence: Live

After almost two years of struggling everyday with the same vice, I happily share that I have insisted beyond the point of everyday struggle to something less frequent than the majority of a week, with the frequency still decreasing. I believe the efficiency of my fight had something to do with the physical outlet of my insistence – even more specifically, its role in a community. I had physical evidence of the effect of fighting an urge and surrendering to something greater than myself. In the large scale-model, my community is simply this world and the role I intend to play in it. I carry the concept of insistence with me everyday and am continually excited by its multifaceted application.

Click here to read about José Raúl Mangual

Read the first HotHouse Intensive blog

HotHouse Intensive: A New Breath

Temple University Musical Theater BFA student José Raúl Mangual took part in a HotHouse Intensive this winter.  He documented the experience through daily reflections and photos that will be shared as blog posts as we prepare for the Summer Intensive.

HotHouse Intensive Day 6 (3/7/18)

I felt like today’s class was the first that I saw, without seeking, the parallels between exercises. (AKA: I feel familiar enough to explore the method in solitude now, as wished on Day 1 of Week 1!)

We saw how a new breath is a new idea through an exercise in which a two-person scene (from Passage, the Wilma’s recent world premiere) was read by two actors surrounded by a multitude of chairs, the seats facing inward. The nature of the exercise revealed just how employable punctuation and phrasing can be in the pursuit of an objective or, more generally, in the exchange of ideas with another actor. Often overlooked, the text of a theatrical work can be seen as a diverse, often character-specific terrain which informs what steps, leaps, halts, retractions, etc. we can make towards or away from what we want. If the punctuation/phrasing of the “terrain” is potholes, canyons, slopes, ice, etc., we learned in this exercise that breath often precedes, and arguably should always precede, an action: a skip across the pothole, a leap across the canyon, etc.

I have heard this concept of breath being a new idea before. It was noted in the beginning process of learning to speak Shakespeare, for example. The breath is a revving-up to drive the energy through to the end of the line, where it must, in addition to every word along the way, land with deliberate intention. I’ve seen the undeniable value of apportioning breath this way in my work on Romeo and Juliet as well as in Acting 3, (Temple’s Shakespeare-centric acting class) but the validity of this conceptual understanding of breath was proven to me in new fullness today. It was as if the breath is inhaling the information given to me and allowing it to chemically react with the inside of my body, progressing to exhale a new chemical, which is then inhaled by my partner, and thus a cycle is born.

HotHouse Intensive Day 7 (3/8/18)

Today’s class left me feeling confident in yesterday’s discovery. This work is full of information and freedom I have yet to find elsewhere. I am a thorough (the good side of slow [right?]) worker as it is, so having time in this expanse of exercises to breathe and introspect is enough to keep me entertained for a good, long while. I found that, if I relax and allow my body to breathe into the triangle, it will. I also found that my stress or withdrawal from the group and into myself can result in gripping the muscles in my lower back slightly, but enough that I cut off the opportunity for my breath to extend to my lower back and the perineum.

We also played with an exercise drawing from Cicely Berry’s methods, which was a glamorous wealth of experience and experimentation. Each member of the group acted like “ghosts”. We were voices inside the monologist’s mind, to me presenting an opportunity for each actor role, both monologist and ghosts, to be approaching the line being spoken from the received intention of the prior spoken line’s/words’/word’s intention. In the role of “ghost”, as I see it after today’s experimentation, every individual actor can “agree” or “disagree” with the perceived intention of the current line’s delivery.

To me, to “agree” is to:

  • Emphasize the monologist’s delivery of the approved word or phrase by bolstering* facets of it (such as an electric voiced s [z], the rhythm of a delivery, the received feeling of the word, others)
  • Say nothing (subtext being something of: this sounds good; keep going)

And to “disagree” is to:

  • Deliver the disagreed delivery in a way you see as preferable

HotHouse Intensive Day 8 (3/9/18)

Today’s exercises all left me feeling like we were a family of uninhibited children!

We returned to the exercise of resonating into our hands. This time, I was able to engage in such pure experimentation that I forgot I’d ever had trouble in my introduction to the exercise. The shifting of my shapes originated from my torso, initiated by the triangle from which our breath originates in the corporal sequence. Warping the positioning of my torso, specifically my diaphragm, opened me up to different sounds and, in tandem, different stirrings of emotion. In one position, I began to laugh as deeply as I used to in middle school, my eyes welling and my smile unbreakable. In another, I felt awareness spring up from my feet, as if I’d opened the door to the fight-or-flight response. I happened upon an especially fun asymmetry with my upper back hunched and my voice gurgling in a which created the image in my mind of myself as a sort of humanoid sea monster.

(José Raúl Mangual)

One exercise in particular felt totally free: we took turns being held by the rest of our ensemble, carried around in everyone else’s hands with our eyes closed, able to experience a unique form of play in which we were completely dependent upon the ensemble to control our corporal experience. There was a personally hilarious moment for myself when, floating above the floor (a given in this exercise) and spinning in a fetal-esque position, I could not shake the image in my mind’s eye of myself as a spinning cheesecurl, complete with flecks of flavoring dust. Some would call my experience nonsensical, but it only served to free my mind to experience a form of unbridled imagination I could not possibly hope to experience on my own two feet.

Read the first HotHouse Intensive blog

HotHouse Intensive: Meeting Myself

Temple University Musical Theater BFA student José Raúl Mangual took part in a HotHouse Intensive this winter. He documented the experience through daily reflections and photos that will be shared as blog posts as we prepare for the Summer Intensive.

HotHouse Intensive Day 5 (3/6/18)


Today’s corporal sequence felt like a (welcome) scale model of a “real”-world battle: a constant, inner battle between corporal and mental/goal-oriented desire.

Our breaths as an ensemble seem to strive to follow a consistent tempo regardless of the nature of the movement being executed. In a pedestrian scenario, some movements warrant quicker breath than others post-execution: generally, a person would agree that squatting until your butt touches the floor exerts more energy than moving your head 90° to the right. After the more exhausting segments in the sequence, of which I consistently have three, I find my breath to be shallower and faster than the tempo of the collective ensemble.

Today, I found myself enforcing Justin’s teaching that we must surrender to the ensemble in those moments…for all of a few breaths. I know how to alleviate the shallow breaths as they come: we make sure our eyes stay open in soft focus, we insist upon the collective tempo, inhale and exhale from the triangle, project our breath to the rest of the ensemble, collect energy from the earth, and more; but it seems my twenty years’ muscle memory prevents my brain from taking over my body and allowing the changes to come through.

(José Raúl Mangual)

I did implement the tactics to remain with the ensemble, and they did seem to be successful! Still, the unfamiliarity felt scary enough to somehow make quitting more attractive. In a way, it felt like one of those all-too-familiar moments of panic where the comfortable, familiar option is chosen over the foreign but measured one. The quote, “If you’re afraid to dive, then dive afraid.” (-Lisa Nichols) comes to mind.

In retrospect, I believe this is the “meeting oneself” which has previously been discussed by Justin. I am stunned by what I perceive as its parallel nature to what I do when I “meet myself” in my day-to-day life! In both instances, I know the result I wish to change; I know what it can do for me: the value of the desired result, and I know the nominal (titular) steps I need to take. However, when it comes down to total implementation, I consistently fall short: I have been engaged in an inner battle with my relationship to food. Some, myself included, would categorize my behaviors as symptomatic of dysmorphic or eating disorders, though I have never received an official diagnosis. I have wanted to make “the change” for over a year and a half, as my fight to repair my relationship to food has consumed much of my attention and energy

I know the steps I need (want) to take, the changes I want to make, to fluctuating levels of specificity:

  • Cut the junk food
  • Eat more greens
  • Exercise often (dance, run, gym)

And yet, when I’m at the fork in the road, I consistently choose the path I know to be dark and winding.

Today’s moments of shallow breath leave me with odd hope. If I have an improved understanding of the components of a “failure,” I theorize “success” is that much easier to bring about. I intend to use this theory in my daily battle with this vice and other vices which have lain dormant but quiet bubbling.

(José Raúl Mangual)

I had a similar experience in a ballet class last school year. When balancing at the barre, I would take so long finnicking with the minute placement of my foot, the activation of my muscles but the relaxation in my bones, and my center of gravity, and the ease of my fingers and the wing of my foot and the turnout in both legs and more, that I would not permit myself to take my hand off the barre and simply work on balancing when the time came. Once class, my ballet professor pointed this out to me. At risk of seeming hyperbolic, I say I heard truth twofold in her note.

I realized my muscular inefficiency was being practiced in my life, in my decision-making. In general, my attention had become hyperfixative on minutia, little imperfections I rightfully wanted to fix but capitalized to the point of their eclipsing the simultaneous truth that I was not at all far from the goals they were blocking.

At that time, I wanted to clean my room. My clothes were scattered throughout the room. I had books, papers, and writing utensils in places I’d never settled to read, write, or draw. When I would muster the energy to commit to cleaning my room, I would find thirty minutes had passed with me still organizing the same top surface of my dresser drawers I began those thirty minutes focusing on, unable to graduate to the next section of my room until everything reflected the ideal configuration in my mind’s eye. Yet, in the grand scheme of my room, the mess was comprised of no more than some clothing, books, papers, and writing utensils.

Read the first HotHouse Intensive blog

HotHouse Intensive: Resonating with the Ensemble

Temple University Musical Theater BFA student José Raúl Mangual took part in a HotHouse Intensive this winter.  He documented the experience through daily reflections and photos to share as blog posts as we prepare for the Summer Intensive.

HotHouse Intensive Day 3 (3/1/18)

Today’s personally most captivating exercise was one in which four pairs: eight people, four and four on opposite sides, faced each other with evenly distributed space between each other. Based on my experience, (the exercises are wonderful in that there are multiple lessons to be learned, which makes post-discussion an especially fruitful experience) I would call this exercise one of projecting resonance.

Facing my partner, who also sat cross-legged across the room short-ways (I estimate eight to ten feet between us), my instructions were to vibrate his chest by resonating from my chest. Same with mouth to mouth and then head to head. I noted:

  • It was easier to resonate from a body part when I sent jolts of energy from it, similar to the pulse/punch of yesterday’s exercise.
  • The power of my deciding to resonate his body was enough. Beyond the doubt and the unfamiliarity of the exercise, I believe we are still animal enough to break our conditioned pedestrian-ism.
  • As time went on, the color scheme with in which I saw my partner began to change to one of dichromatic spectrums of blues and oranges. The texture I saw him in changed as well, similar to depictions of “tripping” in visual art.

HotHouse Intensive Day 4 (3/2/18)

Today, the end of Week One, we ended with the entire corporal sequence, beginning to end, with Justin only cuing via…well, I realize now that I don’t know the name for the cue-sound Justin makes. It seems to be initiated by a pulse of his diaphragm.

(José Raúl Mangual)

There were three total moments where I became so out of breath that I begin to consider whether I might pass out! It is worth noting, though, I never felt unsafe. No one held my mouth closed or reprimanded me. After fighting with everything I could, short of losing consciousness, I took a catch-breath or returned to my natural breathing pattern in those moments, rejoining the ensemble at my earliest possible breath. Justin said this might happen and that it was O.K.

I think it is important to note that, in moments I began to lose my breath with the group, closing my eyes only furthered my distance and weakened my relaxation. In today’s practice, I learned that investing my focus in the people around me – the soft focus/focus blur I’d discussed – gave me less to initiate, which seemed to use up less oxygen, which allowed me to breathe longer, which allowed me to longer stay with the ensemble’s communal breath, which allotted me more time to explore the breath in my body. Paradoxically, connecting with the ensemble allowed me to connect with myself.

Read the first HotHouse Intensive blog

HotHouse Intensive: Finding Voice

Temple University Musical Theater BFA student José Raúl Mangual took part in a HotHouse Intensive this winter.  He documented the experience through daily reflections and photos that will be shared as blog posts as we prepare for the Summer Intensive.

HotHouse Intensive Day 2 (2/28/18)

After today’s lunch break, Justin and Blanka talked to us about the training’s potential and design to release sounds which can be described as “primitive.”  They also spoke of the possibility for the training to unlock memories, both from our own lives and the lives of others. A sense of doubt came over me in regard to the idea of these discoveries.

When I say I became doubtful of this potential, I refer to what I understand to be doubt from the ego: I immediately felt doubtful of “my ability” to “do” the training “well enough” to procure such a result. This was not to me a doubt of the process, but a doubt of the self. Regardless, I assured myself (insisted) I could at least experiment with the exercises, in full dedication to abiding by the processes outlined for us.

(José Raúl Mangual)

After the above discussion, Blanka had us resonate (via phonation) into our cupped hands. Upon a few moments of experimenting with her demonstration of the exercise, Blanka directed us to experiment with asymmetry, noting the security of an symmetrical stance with evenly distributed weight. I believe my asymmetries were too external, too forced. There came a moment where I did settle into my body and allow the asymmetries and weight imbalances to arise instead of be produced, but I focused too much on being “correct” as opposed to doing what I would and permitting that to be enough for discovery to occur- more on this later.

The first exercise in this intensive to fully astound me was a focus on resonance: Everyone gets a partner. The vocalizer stands in front of the other partner, and the partner places their hands on various spots throughout the body: head, neck, torso, face, etc. The goal is to send vibrations to the hand of the partner, wherever it is placed. I felt inaccessibility to only one spot, and that was my stomach area, around and below the belly button. My partner’s hand had gone through chest, head, upper back, and areas in between with minimal difficulty in adapting to vibrate her hand.

When it came to that area below my belly button, the best I could do was create as low-frequency a note I could on an “ah” vowel. At the lowest, I was vibrating around an inch or two below my sternum. The method that worked for me to vibrate that area of the torso was to pulse out sound in short, forced pulses in a way that felt like I had a child punching the walls of my stomach from the inside. With this, I could feel my vibration lowering in my body. I kept the punches, feeling progress, until the sound began to almost split in two – maybe it was quickly vibrating in between two, low pitches. Insisting upon lowering my vibration further so that I could complete the objective of resonating into my partner’s hand, I felt stirring at several points in my body, over the course of a short several seconds.

It felt as though I had some fluttering originate in my spine behind my belly button. That fluttering quickly traveled up my spine to my head, and then back down to the area behind the belly button and even lower, so that I was now teetering on vibrating my partner’s hand. My pitch lowered, as if to mirror the now extreme depth of vibration in my body. I could feel the tingling activation between my eyes which arises when I am close to crying. I realized I was going to cry. In retrospect, I wonder if that sensation of something traveling up my spine was my mind beginning to interject in the release of emotion, at which point I decided to permit myself to release, hence the feeling of traveling down and even lower. I believe I had to allow myself to open up (insist) in order to vibrate my partner’s hand, previously unaware I was locked or guarded in such a way. After I became able to vibrate my partner’s hand, tears began to form in my eyes. I was now able to maintain the vibration into her hand physically, but my voice developed a new freedom. With every punch into her hand, my voice rose in pitch while still somehow faithful to such a low physical vibration. The tears started to fall, and I went from crying to sobbing to what I would imagine is the equivalent of keening. My mind jumped to two particular images, each pertaining to the same aspect of trauma/extreme sadness in my life, but I cannot say for sure whether this was in tandem with the emotional release, or whether this was my mind trying to tie an experience to the physical sensations I was experiencing in order to justify them.

Justin Jain, HotHouse Company member and Intensive Co-Instructor (José Raúl Mangual)

I didn’t know until both weeks of the intensive had passed, but this was a moment in which I met myself and insisted upon further discovery. It proves that these discoveries are innate within us. Much like the deconstructive process of the work in the HotHouse, these exercises all can be seen as a way of stripping the layers: years of resistance and socially forged armor to free the unique animal in each of us. If any human commits to the exercises shared in this HotHouse intensive, there will be moments of discovery of the self.

The reason I have been dappling “insistence” throughout certain moments is because it was a concept introduced to us by Justin and revisited by both Justin and Blanka, and it is present often throughout the process of education (therefore, the process of life, no?). This concept is multifaceted in its meaning and application to so high a degree that it alone can be justified as an entire ideology. Opportunities for insistence are present in nearly every moment of growth, as well as their inverse: moments of resistance- insistence upon safety. To insist is to fight for, but the concept of insistence seems to be most fruitful when applied to moments of inner resistance. If you begin to resist, choose to insist.

A beauty of insistence in relation to the corporal sequence is its physical practice of a physical/mental/spiritual concept. If we insist upon surrendering to the ensemble during a moment of laborious, even scary lack of breath, we can practice reproducing that physical battle in our minds in a moment of resistance of a vice whose “victory” over us we believe would be detrimental, regressive.

Read the first HotHouse Intensive blog


HotHouse Intensive: Corporal Sequence

The HotHouse Intensive is a deep dive into the acting methodologies of Blanka Zizka and the Wilma HotHouse Company.  HotHouse practice is grounded in the Method of Theodoros Terzopoulos and focuses on fostering embodied acting through exercises that draw actors out of their heads and into their bodies.  For information on our Summer Intensive, click here.

Temple University Musical Theater BFA student José Raúl Mangual took part in a HotHouse Intensive this winter. He documented the experience through daily reflections and photos that will be shared as blog posts as we prepare for the Summer Intensive.

HotHouse Intensive Day 1 (2/27/18)

First day!

“We just had our introduction to the Corporal Sequence. I feel…eager to learn and explore the method…once I am familiar, of course.”

We started the day with the Corporal Sequence. Justin Jain, HotHouse ensemble member, co-instructor for this intensive and leader of this exercise has trained in Greece with Theodoros Terzopoulos himself. The sequence begins with all members of the ensemble standing in a circle with individual feet together and parallel, knees bent, and hands across the diaphragm: back of hands facing the circle and thumbs touching, bridging the belly button and forming a downward-pointing triangle. Our breath was to be sent to that triangle on every inhale, and every exhale originated from that same space.

I must note the novelty (relative to American culture) and intrigue of, as an approximation of Justin’s words, “allowing breath to fill down past the belly button into the perineum, genitals, anus.” I see the Corporal Sequence as a biome of discovery, at risk of sounding extravagant. The movements are varying degrees of natural, ranging from seemingly primordial human to contemporary human movement.

Blanka Zizka and HotHouse Intensive students (José Raúl Mangual)

One of the primary focuses of the practice includes connecting to the ensemble. Instead of trying to understand how I would connect to the ensemble, I decided (- insisted, as I would later come to understand -) upon simply moving in tandem with the ensemble. The manifestation of this insistence was connecting via soft focus – a focus-blur, like a camera, as if looking either very close to my face or very far away. (I speak conceptually; I am uncertain as to which, if either.) From this experience onward, (except for moments of insecurity where I would question the validity of this discovery) I knew I was connected to the ensemble. Not everyone was connected to each other, with varying degrees of “disconnection”, and in these moments I defaulted to either defer to Justin, co-leader of the intensive and unspoken “leader” of the corporal sequence, (one goal of the training is to breathe, move, start, and stop across the ensemble as one entity) or to enter a milieu between the tempo extremes. These adaptations to the “imperfections” of the ensemble arose subconsciously, out of pure necessity for and insistence upon uniformity of tempo.

I ended the first day feeling lighter on my feet and longer in my spine; unencumbered. From a physical diagnostic, I imagine the feeling came from:

  • Breathing in a manner more conducive to oxygenation
  • Focused, intensive release of unnecessary muscular tension
  • Focus on efficiency of movement (muscular activation)

Click here to read more about José Raúl Mangual

Explore and be a part of the Wilma’s HotHouse Summer Intensive this June.

OPEN STAGES: An Interview with Playwright Christopher Chen

Wilma’s Resident Dramaturg and Literary Manager, Walter Bilderback sat down with playwright Christopher Chen to chat about his career and the world premiere of his new play Passage at the Wilma Theater.  

Walter Bilderback: Let’s start with a general introduction: where are you from? What led you to become a playwright?

Christopher Chen: I was born and raised in San Francisco. I always knew I wanted to be an artist of some kind, and after dabbling in fiction, poetry, music composition, music performance, filmmaking and theater directing, I finally found my medium in playwriting, which to me is a union of all the aforementioned disciplines. I love the way it is a medium of almost endless possibility. I can push far into my literary impulses while grappling with social issues with as much emotional and intellectual intensity as I can. And I can also be the instigator of huge theatrical spectacle. To sit down with pen and paper and let my imagination run with all these artistic extremes is thrilling.

W: You’re known for creating plays of ideas that are emotionally gripping and that “pull the rug out from under the audience’s feet.” (Each play also engage different ideas and pull different rugs.)  I remember reading Caught for the first time and discovering that each scene changed my perception of both the style of the play and what the “story” was. A Bay Area critic has created the hashtag #ChenMindFuck. You seem to distrust conventional narrative as a way to address your concerns: could you talk about that?

C: As an artist, a consumer of art and as a person, I’m interested in being challenged, in having my perception shifted. Upending conventional story structure is a tool for this. I don’t inherently distrust conventional narrative. I am, however, interested in interrogating the ways by which thought and point of view are constructed, and how we trap ourselves– by outside imposition and on our own allowance– inside these constructions. With this interrogation I often find myself turning convention over, since constructing stories for plays is related to how we construct stories for ourselves in the real world. This play, Passage, doesn’t exactly employ the same kinds of extreme rug pulls I’ve used in the past, but it has the same spirit. It is a minimalist fable that upends convention by removing all explicit markers of time and place, so that discussions of race and power that are otherwise familiar to the current discourse are presented in a disarmingly uprooted context. The goal of this familiar/unfamiliar dynamic is to have the audience lean into the dialogue perhaps more than they’re used to, making them engage and question their own internal wrestlings with the issues as they are watching. I want to activate the audience in such a way that they’re forced to bring fifty percent of the content– their own thinking– to the table in real time to complete the experience.

Rug-pulling play CAUGHT (InterAct Theatre Company production). Photo by Kate Raines.

W: You describe Passage as “a fantasia inspired by A Passage to India.” Tell us a little about your interest in Forster and how he relates to today.

C: And actually I would say the piece is a response to his work instead, because it is a contemporary work that is meant to be in dialogue with it across time. The dialogue centers around his themes of human connection across great divides– economic, societal, racial– and how these themes have evolved, morphed, and remain unresolved in our present day. It is also a piece that is in a more personal dialogue with him stylistically. A Passage to India was a formative book for me when I first read it in high school, and remains a key influence on my writing to this day. What I really respond to is the book’s scale. The book examines a big sociopolitical issue across a wide spectrum of the epic and the intimate: From intimate conversations between friends, to the geological formations of the earth as seen from the sky. Forster uses pattern and metaphor in incredibly seamless ways, finding genuinely organic links between the spiritual and the political. I’ve tried to maintain a similar macro-lens ethos myself in all of my plays, including this one. For me, the parallel of America today to the British Raj is that you have one place with completely separate realities existing for different people, with power discrepancies at play that make these differences unbridgeable. Colonialism was an evil proposition that was normalized in the Western mind at the time, along with its accompanying, reprehensible power dynamics. Similar power dynamics exist in America today between groups that, again, are  experiencing completely separate realities simultaneously. So one thing I wanted to do with this piece was to respond to Forster by directly linking colonialism to modern day racism, in the name of giving the systemic nature of today’s racism a different kind of historical parallel.

W: One of the first things that strikes a reader of Passage is that the characters are identified not by name but by letter – B, Q, F, for example – and a note says “Race, Gender and sexuality are fluid.” Talk to us a little about your decision to do this.

C: The goals of this are twofold. First, it is about disruption. The experiment of this play is to get at foundational human dynamics at play within a situation of extreme power imbalance. We carry a lot of baggage and preconceptions when thinking about who has power and who doesn’t in America, and so with this piece I wanted to see what would happen if we shed a lot of these traditional markers in order to isolate the specific problem of individual perception within the equation. By encouraging fluidity and diversity across a number of different variables, the idea is to let a greater degree of humanity within characters come forth as they push against a fundamentally imbalanced power structure. Second, I purposefully wanted to create a minimalist fable that was wide open to diverse collaborators, so that the piece could be performed in different communities with different contexts. (Hence the two locations are Country X and Country Y.) My hope is that each group that takes this play on will make it resonate in ways specific to them. You will find that this production will land in a very specific way based on the casting within this group. And that is the point. Once specific bodies inhabit the roles, the play becomes specific. In the same way that interpreters find different resonances in Shakespeare and Greek tragedies across time and place, I purposefully sought to write a play that was elastic and foundational enough to be taken and molded and owned by different persons across time and place too.

W: You were able to be with us in December for a workshop with the cast. What was that experience like for you as a writer? What most excites you going into rehearsal?

C: It is safe to say I have never had a text engaged with in this manner before. Through a series of innovative exercises focusing on putting the text of the play immediately and directly into the bodies and voices of the actors (as opposed to psychoanalytic table work), I was able to experience my play anew. The HotHouse process is deliberate, rigorous and, quite frankly, astonishing. Sentence for sentence, word for word, they uprooted layers of humanism and poetic truth to the characters I didn’t know were there. Their work brought forth the central nervous system of the play in such an unexpected way that I found myself shifting my perspective of how theater should be practiced. I’m looking forward to diving into rehearsals with this group of amazing artists. I’ve developed a deep respect for each person involved, and am grateful beyond words that they chose to engage with my work.

Passage begins at The Wilma Theater on April 18 and runs through May 13. To purchase your tickets call the Wilma Box Office at 215-546-7824 or go online at

Photo of Christopher Chen by Sasha Arutyunova. Photo of the Wilma HotHouse Company by David Sarrafian.

Musical Influences

Stew had a passion for music from a young age. Between singing gospel at church and joining an R&B band at 14, his influences span every genre, from Gospel to Pink Floyd. Stew said in an interview with Wilma Dramaturg Walter Bilderback, “I mean what would people say if I told them that the Partridge Family was probably the single biggest influence on me becoming a professional musician? That doesn’t fit the standard narrative but I’d like to mention it.”

While abroad in Berlin in the 1980s, he played with a mixed-media art group The Wonderful Guise. Stew categorizes his work with The Negro Problem as “Afro-Baroque Cabaret,” a term all his own. This diversity of taste clearly influenced the music in Passing Strange.






Content courtesy of The Wilma Theater’s Passing Strange Education Guide.


Stew and Heidi’s band The Negro Problem was the band in the original production of Passing Strange. Because of this close musical and personal relationship, the band is an integral part of the show; they answer the call-and-response of the Narrator and interject with song and dialogue. The band is a character itself, telling the story along with the actors.

The Wilma’s Passing Strange band was not a group before this project. Since Stew went through the original Passing Strange process with his band, he knew that to make it musically successful, the four musicians for the Wilma’s Passing Strange would have to become a band. So they had band practice: the four musicians have been practicing with Stew and Heidi since September. Once Stew thought they were ready, the band needed a gig. On December 11th, 2017, the Wilma’s Passing Strange band had a rock concert in Good Karma Café. An audience of Passing Strange super fans, Wilma patrons, and University of the Arts students together to rock out with Stew and the new Passing Strange band.

MUSIC DIRECTOR AND PIANIST AMANDA MORTON hails from Albany, NY. Amanda has a B.F.A. in Musical Theatre from Ithaca College. Amanda is a Senior Lecturer at University of the Arts.

DRUMMER BEN DIAMOND hails from San Diego, CA and got his B.A. in Music from Haverford College. Ben is a freelance teacher, musician, and composer working in Philadelphia.

BASS GUITARIST ELLYN HEALD is a musician and actress currently residing in Brooklyn, NY. Ellyn received her M.A. from London Academy of Music and Dramatic Arts for Classical Acting.

GUITARIST JAKE HAGER is a Philadelphia-based musician and music teacher, both playing in pit orchestras and his own bands. He worked with Stew back in 2015, accompanying him for a piece at University of the Arts.

Content courtesy of The Wilma Theater’s Passing Strange Education Guide.