Tamilla Woodard is a theatre director who works both nationally and internationally. She is co-founder of PopUp Theatrics, a partnership creating site impacting theatrical events around the world and in collaboration with international theatre artists. Currently, she is serving as the Artistic Director of The Five Boroughs/One City Project, a multi year initiative of The Working Theater. The project will support the commissioning and development of 5 Playwright/Director teams working in collaborations and creating theatrical works in response to working class communities in all 5 boroughs.
She is a current Time Warner Directing Fellow at the Women’s Project Theater Lab, a Usual Suspect at New York Theatre Workshop, alumnus of The Lincoln Center Directors Lab and artistic affiliate with New Georges. She graduated from The Yale School of Drama’s Acting program and is the recipient of The Charles Bowden Award from New Dramatists and The Josephine Abady Award from The League of Professional Theatre Women. Her work has been presented and developed at the Working Theater, NYTW, New Georges, HERE, The Lark, The Actors Theatre of Louisville, PS122, DR 2, The Culture Project, Urban Stages, Dance Theatre Workshop, The Kitchen Theatre and for festivals and theater’s around the US and Internationally.
I met Tamilla last year and again this year during writer David Kranes' New Playwrights' Lab at Salt lake Acting Company in Salt Lake City. She was one of the directors and I was the choreographer. She blew me away with her intuitive ability to reveal through her process what was truthful and therefore important in the translation of a script. I was inspired by her playfulness and generosity in working with all of the collaborators involved. And in talking with her I discovered that NOW-ID and PopUp Theatrics, the theater company she created together with her partner Ana Martineanu were investigating similar themes and forms and I am excited to share her thoughts on the work below.
Tell us a little bit about your background; you originally trained as an actor, when and why did you know that you wanted to move on to directing?
I went to two pretty good schools for actor training and at both always found myself looking for opportunities to direct. I have always felt like I was surveying the theatrical event from the outside, even while building my performance as an actor and I deeply desired more control over my creative experience. Now that I really only direct, I realize and actually treasure the fact that one never has full control over their experience as a creator anyway. In fact the act of creating is most intoxifying for me now, when the potentiality and the unpredictability of it is most palpable.
Do you feel that your training as an actor helps you in your role as a director?
Absolutely. I revere the actor because I know how difficult it is to do the job. It costs a lot and requires a lot to commit to tell the truth ever night, to give oneself over and inhabit another life, another’s story with honesty and veracity. Actors dare to feel the totality of the human spirit and experience, to shape that into a performance and then to tell the truth to an audience about what it means to be human in a single moment. That kind of empathy, courage, curiosity and attention to detail does not belong to everyone but it’s the mail tool of a good actor.
What is it that you most enjoy about directing?
Creating a playground for my collaborators and proposing the game for the day. I love shaping and packaging the collective brilliance of a room. I get great joy in making things with other people and in facilitating our collective visions towards an audience’s experience.
Tell us a little bit about your creative process in working with actors, playwrights and a technical team?
With PopUP, my partner Ana Margineanu and I spend a lot of time dreaming. Our favorite words are “What if..” We use this- I use this all the way to the premier. I insist on a lateral collaboration in my rooms. Meaning- we all have an expertise. I’m gonna be a 100% expert at my job and I need you to be 100% expert at yours. We will perform our jobs in response to each other not in service of each other. The only thing we serve is the text/concept that exists between us and belongs to all of us and we remake and re-image it constantly as we become more familiar with the tools that lie between us. Now, this doesn’t mean that I won't get up on the stage occasionally with the actor and say, ‘hey try it like this’, but it does mean that I never forget that the actor is an expert at filling the vessel of the text the playwright creates and the composition the director creates. I can’t do that for them. I can only provide inspiration, provocation, clarity, environment—those sorts of things that invite them to their job more fully. Lately, I’ve been insisting that my team use an online collaboration plateform that allows us to create a group notebook together. It’s more informal than dropbox and allows for different kind of artists to respond to shared material in different kinds of ways. I’m really visual so a picture is worth a 1000 words and rehearsing on our feet will get me closer to solving something than talking about it around the table. But if the artist I’m with has a different way of interrogating the material, that’s exciting for me too. I’m always up for expanding my POV as long as we all are in service of the same thing.
Why did you decide to create the company PopUp Theatrics, what void did you feel that it was filling and can you talk a little bit about the philosophy behind this company?
Ana Margineanu and I decided to create PopUP Theatrics because we love traveling, we had great collaborators waiting to work with us around the world and we wanted to create on a larger scale than was then available to us particularly in New York. Nobody was going to give us money to make anything or to go anywhere so we sat down to figure out how to create alliances that could pool resources to ultimately create work that would help pay for itself. The company has two main goals- to create work that is unique in its use and response to the performance space (site specific, immersive, site impacted) and to create work that encourages dynamic collaboration between artists of different disciplines, cultures and languages. I’m also really obsessed with the role of the audience in the theatrical event and our sited work allows me the opportunity to continually evaluate that relationship. We can’t imagine a better scenography that the sites we’ve created in –all without having to alter or change a detail of the natural environment. We can’t imagine richer stories than we have collective while talking with the real people who occupy those real spaces. Often times, our on-the-ground-work, that is research, rehearsals all the way to premier takes place in under 21 days. Most often 14. We’re like Kamikaze collaborators. Of course all of it requires a lot of pre-planning but also a lot of faith in the concept, in the collaborators and in the community in which we’re going. We jokingly and rather grandly say that the world is our stage. But it’s really true. I love the work that we do. It rejuvenates me and excites me and terrifies me. I am continually reminded of the power in being able to tell stories to each other face to face.
What do you think are the strengths in site-specific work and why is this kind of work important? Our sited work is always also immersive work. We live in a world where people are more and more physically disconnected from each other and from their environment. There is a screen between us and just about everything. The ability to lay hands on a real object and a real person is tantalizing. In our work, we simply take greater hold of the idea that the theatre is a 3 dimensional art form. In theatre, we are all in one place TOGETHER, breathing the same air, hearing the same sounds but in site specific work, the experience is not limited to a stage many meters away. It is all round. For sure, in site specific work, I may have less control over an environment and therefor the gaze of the audience. But that small loss comes with a big gain. When we emancipate ourselves from those cushy red seats we gain the ability to connect the story before us more profoundly, physically to ourselves.
I loved reading about your “Hotel Project” and that you have adapted it to hotels in various big cities – can you talk a little bit about this project, why you wanted to take on such an ambitious and what I can imagine would be a logistically challenging project? What did you discover were the differences culturally in doing it in Mexico and in NYC?
Hotel Project was our first big concept. We tried to do it first in NYC but couldn’t find the support or resources. And it only came about because good friends in Mexico City were intrepid producers used to making the impossible happen in that country. We learned a lot from them that first time out. They were like the embodiment of that NIKE slogan “ just do it!. We worked with an ensemble of actors attached to a wonderful company Sabandijas del Palacio located in Queretaro. We actually used three different locations: a gorgeous guest room at a small exclusive hotel, a room at a hostel, and one of the salons at the theatre. So audiences traveled from a luxurious lodging to a budget room to an improvised accommodation. We spent only 14 days on the ground from meeting the ensemble and making first drafts to rehearsals and opening. I was stunned by the inventiveness of this community of actors. They were so much more physical in expression. They were so much less cerebral in their responses to the work and less hampered by naturalism. And they amazed me with how emotionally connected and profoundly honest their work was. I had been wishing for this in New York. It was also the thing that I has initially loved about Ana’s work as a director and about my Mexican collaborators work’ Illusion that has the appearance of truth’! The most invaluable reminder I got in that 14 days was that theatre is a place of magic and that we have to give ourselves permission to leave the everyday world in order to create things of illusion that speak profound truth. A quick origin story: The idea of Hotel Project really came about because Ana and I were working with a directors collective at the time and we all wanted to create a vehicle for some international collaborators to get together to make something in NYC. But the price of renting a theatre – any theatre in the city – was beyond our reach. And then, we also couldn’t guarantee we could even get a decent sized audience even if we could rent the theatre. Because marketing was so expensive. Oh- and the production costs- you know, lights, sound, costume, sets- those were totally out of budget, too. Ana, rather seriously suggested to the group that the only thing we could actually afford to rent was a hotel room for the night and if we made a play for only one audience member at a time we would be sure to sell out. Well, that was the beginning! She has always been brilliant at turning a problem into a concept. So, it was her concept and after still many road blocks she and I shared the idea with our friends in Mexico City and they said, come back here in a few months and we’ll do it with you. So we mapped out the concept, content and logistics- how the audience would flow, what first contact looked like and what in fact was the contract we were making with them as spectators. These were some of the most important questions of our initial work together. Who are these other people called audience? What is to be required of them? Why only one audience member at a time? How do we make them feel special? We grabbled with these questions throughout this first project. To this day, we have to answer these same question as part of our consideration for any concept. In our work, the audience is privileged in some way at all times. We call it the audience superpower. What is the privilege or superpower we get to bestow upon them? How are they mores special here than in daily life?
I sense that the international component in PopUp is an important one. Why?
Well… frankly, we both suffer from severe wanderlust. We are also stupidly curious people. We are both Sagittarius, born only a few days apart though in different years and countries (so if you believe in that kind of thing there ya go!) We find ourselves attracted to the same kind of opportunities and questions. We like being the stranger, the outsider, and the naïve observer. We like learning new things- languages, customs and ways of working. We trust too many people. We are willing to go anywhere if we can make something with someone interesting for someone interested. We are refreshed by how different audiences experience the work and how different collaborators engage the work. I don’t know why we’d stay in one place, ever.
Tell us a little bit about the highlights of your career so far?
Oh man, so many wonderful things. Everything I’ve done with PopUp and my partner Ana Margineanu, and all of our over 100 collaborating artist has been a highlight in my career as a theatre maker.
Who are some of the people who have inspired you in your work and why?
Well, some of these you have never heard of- but they are my unsung hero(ines) Mariana Harta-Sanchez- incredible actress, playwright, who creates the most amazing worlds, has the power to inspire thousands and does it like its life and death every day of the week. Ana Margineanu- totally taught me how to do magic in the theatre; Tennessee Williams whose work reminds me that the theatre is a place for our demons and our angels; Victoria Santa Cruz, who taught me that life calls life; Shakespeare because whenever you do that work its imperative that you remember of the audience that “they’re there”; Evan Yionoulis who taught me how to act and therefore how to be a better director – that empathy, compassion and courage are things that matter. Frida Kahlo who reminds me that we don’t need feet when we have wings to fly; Miro, Picasso, Dali, Pollack, Kara Walker, Romare Bearden, because they can see they can see things I wish I could see; August Wilson, Suzanne Lori Parks, Mary Zimmerman and Jose Rivera because they insist that we are human and gods at the same time; and Ellen Langer, Slavoj Zizek and Joseph Campbell because they give me context, structure and permission for my wild imaginings. And then there is the everyday humanity around me which is always more theatrical than anything I can dream or imagine. Ever.
Watching you work with both playwrights and actors, there seems to be a real necessity for play, discovery, intuition in your process, is that something that has always been a significant part of your approach to the work? Do you plan a head a lot? Do you think that you have gradually grown into your way of directing and is it in constant flux depending on the project?
I think of myself as consistent because well, I’m always me in the room. But the room is what changes. I’m really focused on the other artists more than myself, so within the first few days of our work, I try to establish “our room”: A place that feels dangerous yet exciting, unpredictable yet generative to the artists involved. I plan A LOT. I am an obsessive list maker and graph maker. I draw terribly incomprehensive pictures and create excessively long excel files. But I also work very hard to disguise that. I want people to feel that there is room for them to work. I just make contingency plans all over the place so we can get to a moment that feels good at the end of the day for the artists in the room and that and ultimately get us closer to production and an audience.
What is your favorite quote?
What do you think are three important features to have to become an affective director?
Can there be just three? How about these 5? Excellent listening skills. Humor. Curiosity. Vision. The right amount of Ego at the right time.
Have you experienced sexism in your work as a Director and if so, how have you dealt with it? Do you see more female directors working in theater today compared to when you started?
Oh man, unfortunately, not much has changed. This is where the right amount of ego at the right time comes in handy. People’s demons and bias come out in the most unexpected moments when you are asking a lot of them. I like being liked but I’d rather the company like each other than me if they need something to push up against. I want them to do what I ask and sometimes that means that I have to remind them that I am not their mother, their lover or their wife. People don’t recognize their bias and sometimes throwing it their face is not the way forward. I know this as a woman and as an African American. So, Ultimately, I believe that history remakes itself at the moment of the standing ovation so if the play succeeds we all succeed. These may sound like contradictory things but well, being female, black and a theatre worker means you have to improvise.
What is the project that you have always wanted to do?
A project in Grand Central Station or on one of the abandoned subway platforms in New York City. We are working on it.
Tell us a little bit about some of the projects that are coming up for you and that you are excited about?
PopUP Theatrics actually have two projects in New York City this season. In July/August we will make the third and last iteration of our Broken City concept for New York City. We coined the phrase ‘street immersive’ for this project. We also call it a love letter to the city of New York because it is staged on the streets of a particular neighborhood in New York City and seeks to make the audience fall back in love with a city that can be too fast, too harsh and too impersonal sometimes. This Broken City will happen in the Wall Street district and it is proving to be the most gorgeous and inspirational site we have ever intervened. We also have a new producing partner, Sorrel Tomlinson Barnard who is incredible. Next we’ll make our concept INSIDE in New York in the fall with frequent collaborator and now full partner Peca Stefan. He is a magnificent playwright. We are so glad to work with him on this AND on Broken City this year. We just received a generous grant to finally bring INSIDE, the project we’ve done in Madrid and Bucharest to NYC. This is a performance for two audience members at a time that gives unusual access both physically and physiologically to an iconic location in a given city. We are excited about the possible locations in New York. We are also excited that this year we will work with incredible international artists from playwright Peca Stefan (Romania) to Choreographers and street artists David Bower and Isolte Avila (UK) from Sign Dance Collective to director France Damian (Germany).
Looking towards the future – where do you want to be and what do you want to be doing in 25 years?
Um. On vacation. Until then... lets keep making beautiful things together.