Happy Hour on the Fringe: Theatre in the X’s LaNeshe Miller-White
During the global coronavirus pandemic, FringeArts is pivoting the focus of our podcast to checking in with our artists, our audiences, and our community partners during these unprecedented times. Since we can’t gather, we’ll chat remotely about how we respond to this crisis, and how the role of art during a pandemic shifts.
In this episode of Happy Hour on the Fringe, Marketing Manager Raina Searles talks with LaNeshe Miller-White, the Executive Director and one of the founders of Theatre in the X, as well as the newly minted Executive Director of Theatre Philadelphia. Raina and LaNeshe discuss what things were like for the theatre in the early days of the pandemic, the the changes made to the West Philadelphia Play, as well as some of the online theatre that LaNeshe now is focusing on. To learn more about the Theatre in the X you can visit their website here: http://www.theatreinthex.com/.
Photo by Sharvon Hales
Raina: Hello and welcome to Happy Hour on the Fringe. My name is Raina Searles, and I’m the Marketing Manager at FringeArts. In the wake of the global coronavirus pandemic, many of us, especially those in arts organizations, have had to reflect on ways to do our work despite dramatic social disruptions. One thing FringeArts is excited to continue doing is connecting our artists and community partners with all of you listening through this podcast. We’re diving into how artists are responding to the pandemic, the intersection between art and public health, and how community partners are working to meet the specific needs of their constituents. You can learn more about what we’re doing at FringeArts by visiting fringearts.com/covid-19. And as always, enjoy our conversations with some of the most imaginative people on this plane of existence.
Today, we’re talking to LaNeshe Miller-White, one of the co-founders and the executive director of Theatre in the X, an organization dedicated to breaking the barriers to theater by providing theater for free to the community. Theatre in the X’s main programing is a series of Sunday performances each August in Malcolm X Park, and this year you may have seen additional digital works from them with their Juneteenth virtual tour and their Facebook watch party of the original play, Viv is for Vengeance. We last worked with Theatre in the X in the 2017 Fringe Festival for their work Running Numbers, and we last worked with LaNeshe as a panelist on our inclusive leadership panel at Temple University through Campus Philly, welcome LaNeshe.
Raina: How are you doing?
LaNeshe: I’m doing good. I’m doing good. How are you?
Raina: I’m doing well. It’s an interesting time. We’re kind of gearing up for the Fringe Festival and who knows what’s going to happen. But it’s an interesting time. So our first question is always, what are we drinking for Happy Hour on the Fringe?
LaNeshe: I have water right now trying to recover from probably having too many drinks over the weekend… So replenishing.
Raina: That’s fair. Yeah. I think finally, it was the right time to hear fireworks in the city. But yeah, I think I would love to just know how you’re feeling. You know, what are some of the top things running through your head right now, in the first week of July, first full week of July, that we are entering into?
LaNeshe: so many things, just like thinking about what the future is going to look like as far as –everything, really– but for arts, for arts advocacy, for the school year– since I have a daughter who should have been starting kindergarten this fall, and we’ll see how that goes– what is the future of, you know, all the conversations around equity and inclusion and diversity and race, and so all of those things are like swimming around in my head.
Raina: Yes, that that sounds about right. Yeah, I well, I guess I’ll walk things back a little ways because there’s been a lot that’s been happening and it’s crazy to think that four months have flown by, but I want to take us back to March and April when things first shut down and everything kind of shifted for the foreseeable future. You know, what was that process initially like for you? Because I know you guys have been working on this West Philadelphia community play, and I know that that’s had to be put on hold, so what were those initial conversations like for your team?
LaNeshe: Yes. So I mean, when we first got the stay at home order, like, I had a feeling it was not just going to be two weeks, but I kind of left it alone. I said, you know, we had a meeting and we decided that we wouldn’t decide anything until we got to the point of the summer when we usually would be starting production. And so that is usually in June. So we just kind of left things alone and we were like: “we’ll see where we are in June because that’s when we would be starting anyway and we’ll see what happens”. And so, you know, as time went on, we’ve seen that things were not getting better. And so we decided to postpone our shows for this season, which were the West Philly Play and Zooming on the Sign.
And so we are– we initially were thinking possibly of doing– we were kind of thinking to still do it outdoors, we felt like we could go as far as October and still have good weather. But at this point, we are seeing that we aren’t on a trend to be any better in October unfortunately right now. So we postponed the West Philly Play until August 2021 and then actually kind of back-tracked some of the work that we’ve done already.
And so to kind of catch people up on the project: It essentially was a series of community play sessions where we basically talked to West Philly people in different areas of West Philly to develop a play that was, kind of like, by them and based on what they gave us and those conversations, or what they wanted to see about themselves and about West Philly on stage. And so now, I mean, we had a script that was probably about 80% done and we said we’re not going back to the drawing board. I think the structure of the script is probably going to stay. But as far as content now, so much more has happened, really, you know, covid-19 has happened, the uprising, the civil uprising has happened, and with there being like actual police vs. community member actions like in 52nd Street in West Philly. And so we’re going to work on collecting those stories digitally for now, both in group zoom meetings with people from West Philly and also doing some one on one interviews on camera being safe, of course. And so using, kind of, gathering a second phase of research to go into the play that will be presented next summer.
Raina: Yeah. I think the understanding that I had previously had of the work was that the timeline hadn’t been set or that the setting of the play hadn’t been established. And so, you know, in factoring in things like covid-19 and the pandemic, are you looking to purposely push it into a more modern or even like future picture of the world?
LaNeshe: Yeah, I think we have to at this point, I think it’s going to be impossible to try to tell a West Philly story next summer that doesn’t have the stuff involved in it. So where we were kind of looking a little bit back, we would might have been in the 80s, 90s range is where we had landed originally for this story, we’ll have to either go like current time or future. Yeah. Current time or future, or a right before or right in the beginning of this whole thing happening.
Raina: Yeah, it feels like so current that there are things– And, you know, there’s obviously always things– actively happening. But so many, like major moments happen every day, and every month brings something new. Yeah. No. And I think that that will be a really interesting process to see play out of continuing to develop it by gathering all of those stories. Do you think that will also bring in new characters and, I guess like new aspects of voices that you, I don’t know, like, would you be featuring, like, you know, black people who work in hospitals, or who work in emergency care facilities and kind of like bringing in different voices that are a little bit more tailored to everything that’s going on?
LaNeshe: I think so. I think for the most part, kind of, the characters that we had developed can stay. But there, yeah, there needs to be kind of that succinct representation of a person who is dealing with it from that level, like probably from the medical level. I can’t imagine we won’t end up introducing someone into the story, like, who comes from that perspective. For the most part, I think that our characters will stay the same, but be kind of the outside– the things that are happening outside of the room when they’re together will change and then their perspectives maybe will change. I’m unsure.
Raina: Yeah, I think there’s a lot of meat to dive into there. And so thinking about some of the other programing that you have been able to put out, can you tell us a little bit about Viv is for Vengeance? I actually I was at the Facebook watch party and it was so much fun to see everyone commenting on and sharing their thoughts, like I felt like I was in an actual audience, which I don’t think I’ve had a lot of other like just virtual like Zoom plays I’ve watched. And so that was kind of like the first time that I experienced that. It was super-duper fun.
Laneshe: Yeah, I’m really, really happy that we did it. And so Viv is for Vengeance is essentially the story of your Euripides’ Medea, but it is set on the cast of Fresh Prince of Bel Air. And it is by the playwright, her name is Lindsey Hope Pearlman. And so, yeah, I mean, I think we– especially now having seen what other like digital things that have rolled out– like, I think we did a really great job at putting together something that felt communal. And it was interesting because we had pre recorded it and then I did some editing to it and we put it on a Facebook watch party, which allowed for the cast to watch along with the audience, which is an experience that you don’t often get.
So, it was a lot of fun, like because the cast was able to, like, watch and see the reactions firsthand and, you know, talk about things. And it did feel I mean, I think that was probably one of the first kind of joyful experiences I have had since everything happened, both like participating in the conversation and also like recording it. It was kind of the first artistic thing that a lot of us had done since the stay at home order.
So that was a lot of fun and I’m glad we got to do that. I’m glad we got to because we’ve had that play for a while now. I had been submitted– we do an annual call for plays– and so it had been submitted to us, but it wasn’t, it wouldn’t have worked in the park. And so we just kind of had it on the backburner for maybe doing a staged reading at some point. And so when we had the opportunity, we were like “OK let’s do like a virtual reading,” which we do, and we thought that was a really good piece to do. And it turned out to be like really good and really fun because people were able to– like most people know the Fresh Prince of Bel Air and the whole saga of the replacing of the mom Viv. And so it was a fun thing that you were able to easily connect to in that time.
Raina: Yeah, I would definitely agree with that. I had actually watched a version of Medea, I think, last year. So I also had that story in my mind, just like as I was watching, I was like, these are super like fun parallels, and hearing the dialog was so entertaining and so entertaining to watch all of the performers. And I would actually kind of agree. I think that was one of my first moments of like actual joy in the middle of this pandemic, too, because I think, you know, obviously we’re going into the Fringe Festival, were planning for things to be pretty much all digital and even things that might be outdoors might also have a digital component, so you’re like listening to something as you’re walking down a trail or something like that.
So really, you know, trying to follow all of the guidelines would still create this innovative art. And I think that was kind of like the first touch point of like, oh, these are interesting ways to use these technologies that I think we’re like really only seeing the beginning of, and I’m so excited to see what people come up with and how far people take it from here. And I think one of things I will add is that I heard, I remember reading or seeing somewhere that someone was like, “yeah, you know, there are digital plays and it’s called TV”. And so what are what are the aspects of live theater that we can capture online that isn’t necessarily what you get when you’re just watching TV or movies or something that already lives in this digital space and is already pre recorded and all of that in a set format?
LaNeshe: Yeah, I mean, it’s still it’s still something different. Like when I’m watching virtual digital theater like it, it’s still– especially things that are done live, which I’ve seen a lot of like people who are doing plays like over Zoom. So you still have the live component, so it’s not like TV in that aspect. And even– Yeah, I don’t know, it’s just still different. And I think the recording process is also different. You still feel that kind of like live aspects of– at least the works that I’ve been seeing– because even something like like– someone who’s doing this really well, of course, is Disney. And they’re doing these singalongs, which are like wonderfully edited together, live experiences that are far, far surpass what I can do right now with Zoom, but maybe I’ll learn over time, but they have put together different experiences than just a TV show. I would I would argue with whoever you read that from.
Raina: That’s fair. I will let you know if I remember who it is and you can take them to task. So I guess following Vivi is for Vengeance, you know, things just worldwide have taken definitely a more serious turn. And so I wanted to talk about the Juneteenth virtual tour that you set up, highlighting different stories from Black history, American history across the nation. And really just kind of dive into what your process was for developing that and how you choose which stories to highlight.
LaNeshe: Gotcha. So that’s– So the Juneteenth project we did in partnership with Iron Age Theater. And so they actually do an in-person Juneteenth event every year in Norristown. And so it’s similar in that there is one actor who is presenting a story, and it’s usually that they’re spread out throughout an area of Norristown, so you kind of walk from one end to the other and hear them portray these stories. And so for this year, they decided to do it as a digital project, of course, just because of everything going on. And so they partnered with us, and so one of our—one of our team members, Richard Bradford, is actually one of their team members as well. So Richard and John from Iron Age do the curation of the pieces. And I submitted some to that too, knowing that we were looking at the theme of, I guess, showcasing how much hasn’t changed, really. So looking at stories throughout history from the first Juneteenth to today and stories that dealt with similar uprisings, things that happened around Amadou Diallo when he was killed by police, looking at just throughout history to kind of showcase how much hasn’t changed or how much we still– how far we still have to go. And so the curation of those pieces kind of came from wanting to tell that story.
Raina: Yeah, I know I learned about different things from watching them that I just do not–did not learn about growing up in a majority white school and then broadly within the American school system. And I think one of the things that I found so important about that is that there is this re-education process going on all over for people who are really trying to learn about these things, and it is so hard because so many of these stories are not actually taught in any capacity outside of, you know, maybe an African-American history class. And, you know, finding these stories would also like these first person stories seem so valuable during this time.
LaNeshe: Absolutely. Absolutely. And looking at just looking at the– having these first person narratives throughout like such a wide time period that have so much similarities. And so the way even that it was a four day event. And so they were released kind of within group themes for each day. But you’ll see that the works are in the same theme: there’s something 1887, and there’s something that was recorded this year–or that was written this year. And it is yeah, it’s a lot of scholarly work, personal work, and I think it offers like a good entry point from people from all– like no matter what viewpoint they’re coming from where they’re coming from, it has narratives that can touch people no matter where they are, and what we hope is that it opens up people’s eyes to like what freedom really means. And that was kind of the tagline for the year was: freedom under threat. And so what does what does freedom actually mean, and look like to black people from the initial Juneteenth to now?
Raina: Yeah. And I think it is really impressive on some level to see the amount of responses to Juneteenth that have come up this year as a direct result of the ongoing protests and people pushing for more acknowledgments, but then also this idea of putting a Band-Aid on the larger problem and just giving people a day off without actually addressing the problems people are talking about in this idea of freedom being under threat. And so I guess maybe one question just from your personal opinion, you know, do you have an idea on what you think one of the biggest changes that could happen could be, whether that’s reparations or whether that’s, you know, defunding the police or like what one of those biggest things that might be to actually start to create change?
LaNeshe: Yeah, I think, I mean, defunding the police and redistributing those resources across other agencies that can handle all of the things that we put under the police umbrella right now. Like, I feel like that is a big, big thing. And there’s been lots of kind of infographics and things around that show you, you know, if in an alternative world where we have distributed those resources and trained people in a different way, when a person is sleeping at their car at a Wendy’s, someone who is trained in social service is called, and not a police officer. When it comes to traffic violations, there are people specifically trained for traffic violations who are not armed, because why do you need a gun to give someone a speeding ticket? So just looking at really breaking down all of the things that we put under the police umbrella into more individual skill sets that are disarmed that can then actually work for the people, people who can actually serve and protect, because we don’t see that happening right now.
And then within a lot of the conversations that are happening within the Philadelphia arts community, like what it looks like to change the systems of oppression, I think we’re going to need to see a huge change in leadership across the board because it can’t it hasn’t changed in all the time that’s existed because black and people of color who are qualified for many positions are not in these leadership positions and have not been given access to leadership positions. So looking at leadership and making leadership more equitable will then, in theory, and hopefully and most likely, begin to spread down into all of the other rungs. So that’s just kind of like a lot of conversations that are happening for making the arts community better and more equitable definitely come along the lines of changing leadership, along the lines of the concept of increasing your percentage of even artistic works in artists that you work with that are black and people of color, increasing the people who work in the non-audience facing positions, also, so your sound designers and presenters and your costumer that your [inaudible] is making sure that there’s representation across the board from diverse voices.
Raina: Absolutely. So are there any successes or little victories, whether personal or professional, that you want to share from since the pandemic began?
LaNeshe: Um, that’s a good one. I mean, within Theatre in the X, I think the digital content that we’ve created has been good and definitely something we wouldn’t have done otherwise. We also actually had another video that came out. So Iron Age did a similar virtual tour for the Fourth of July. So there is a video there that we worked on them with myself, another actor, Eric Carter, were we are reciting the piece and then [inaudible] Thomas edited it and shot it. And then Richard Bradford directed it– that is a very good, powerful commentary on America. And so that’s another thing that we wouldn’t have been able to do. And I would say both, like I guess this is personal and professional, being able to act in both that piece and in one of the pieces for the Juneteenth project was exciting for me because I have not, like, the admin side of my work has really taken over the artistic. And so I haven’t been able to get on stage in a while. So I was excited to be able to do that self-tape and put that out there and surprise people or remind them that I’m an actress.
Raina: Yes, definitely.
LaNeshe: And also personally, to like the schooling that I’ve been able to upkeep for my daughter, which is the thing that had to happen at the result of child care facilities being closed.
Raina: Oh, yeah. Yes. How has the remote work been with the little one?
LaNeshe: It’s been it’s been okay, actually. Like she is she’s a great kid, handling all of this like a champ and she will really, like, self-entertain and play by herself when needed. And so I try to interject like schooling in there for a few hours a day to kind of keep her on track for whatever kindergarten is going to look like. But yeah, and at the family time has been nice, though. I mean, I was already a remote worker, so, like, the only thing that changed is that now also she is here with me.
LaNeshe: So. Yeah. But it’s been the family time has been nice. My husband’s also working remote and we’re all just like here, living through a pandemic. but in our home It’s it’s been great. We’re having a great time as our little three family.
Raina: Now, I think that’s amazing, as you know, there’s so many like negative things to focus on and, you know, everyone’s in a different living situation. But I do think having that time just to kind of be home and be present is super helpful. And like, I know, I mean, I don’t have any kids, but my partner and I like have basically been spending pretty much every day together and we love each other still, which is really great, but I also just think like about how it’s been so nice because during, you know, in a normal work day, you have your commute, you have, you know, the time that you’re spending at work, you have, you know, your commute back home, whatever errands you might be running. And it feels like everything is so separated. And during this time, I feel like I’ve been able to get more done at the times that I would want to get it done. Like I’ve been able to pop over to the bank or, you know, pick something up during the day, because my office hours are not limited to one set time period. And so I can have a little bit more flexibility. And then, of course, we didn’t have, you know, any programing the past few months. So that really, incidentally, lightened my load a little bit. But, yeah, I think, you know, that that’s so good that you guys have had the chance to really enjoy that family time and just enjoy each other for a little while. So to wrap up, I think, you know, where can people learn more about Theatre in the X, and what can people do to support you all during this time?
LaNeshe: Yes. So we are on all the socials: Facebook, Twitter and Instagram as @theatreinthex. And that’s theatre r e. And then our Web site is www.theatreinthex.com Please join our mailing list and or follow us on all the social media so that you can keep up with the things that we are doing. Donations are always welcome and lovely. Any support that we can have is great because we are looking at creating a bunch of things that were not in our budget because we are not doing our traditional show. And so and you know, we have to– one of the things that we seek to do in addition to giving access to audiences, is providing opportunities for artists of color, and that includes paying them. So we always want to give a small stipend to our artists. So any donation you can give can help us with that. If you are in West Philly, we are going to be doing 10 probably, maybe more, Play Streets performances, some short performances for kids that are putting together for people who are designated Play Streets blocks through city. And so we will be around doing a little something, not our regular program, but a little something for children who are in play street blocks, and we’re going to do about 10 blocks with a little show that we’re creating from a book called Since Past King, which is kind of an African folklore story about a little girl who is smarter than the king, and so the king tries to get rid of her, but of course, she outsmarts the king and becomes the king in the end.
Raina: Very nice.
LaNeshe: Also happening, I don’t think we’re going to be promoting it because we don’t want lots of people come– it’s a weird time to be in promoting, because you don’t want to promote things. But we’ll be open so come and check us out in West Philly, doing a little something. Yeah. Definitely follow us on social and subscribe to our e-mail list to keep up with everything we’re doing.
Raina: Awesome. Well, thank you, LaNeshe, so much for joining us for this episode of Happy Hour on the Fringe. .It’s been great having you.
LaNeshe: Thanks for having me.
Raina: You can find FringeArts on Facebook, Twitter, Snapchat and Instagram and download the FringeArts app or visit us at fringearts.com. To all of our listeners at home and to you as well LaNeshe, stay safe and stay well.
LaNeshe: Thank you.