Wednesday, May 18, 2016

Q-and-A with Diana Shortes

Diana Shortes in White Sauce and Diaper Babies [photo credit: Louis Maistros]
Based in New Orleans, Diana E. H. Shortes has a deep and diverse background in theatre and education. In June, she will be a part of the 2016 Dallas Solo Fest with her show White Sauce and Diaper Babies, about the life and work of poet Anne Sexton.

TSP got a chance to ask her a few questions. Here we go...

Q: Please give us a brief bio, where you are from and how you started in theatre/performance?

A: I am a performing artist and educator, yoga instructor, tour guide and bartendress, who has been living and working in New Orleans, LA since Mardi Gras of 2000.

I was born in Austin, TX and moved a lot while growing up (Galveston, San Fransisco, Cleveland and Nashville were among the highlights). No, my family was not military. My mother is a social worker and a free spirit, and she took me wherever the wind took her.

I fell in love with Shakespeare in the fourth grade, when we were introduced to a few scenes from Romeo and Juliet, and found myself on stage for the first time in the fifth grade as a spunky girl from a children's book adapted for the stage by our librarian. After that, I was hooked.

My high school years were spent in Clarksville, TN - a military community just north of Nashville - which just happens to be home to one of the best regional theaters in the Southeast: the Roxy. It was there that I cut my teeth, theatrically. While the other kids were doing whatever "normal" kids do in high school form 7-10p, I was almost always in rehearsal, learning the discipline of the dramatic arts.

 After a nine month internship in NYC at Dixon Place, I graduated from Antioch College with a self-designed degree in "Feminist Literary Theatre" and a burning desire to create something new, rather than put myself into the well established theatrical rat race of NY...LA...Chicago, etc.

I decided to move to New Orleans, LA and quickly became entrenched in the theatre scene there. I have worked with many of the city's production companies over the years. I served as Artist in Residence for the Dog and Pony Theatre Co., spearheading their Shakespeare in City Park series, and am the proud recipient of two Big Easy awards for Best Actress. In NOLA I have had the opportunity to write for the stage, perform, direct, design, produce and stage manage. I've also taken to teaching, and am currently a member of the Drama department faculty at New Orleans Center for Creative Arts, a public high school dedicated to the creative arts, where I teach yoga as part of their movement curriculum.

Q: What event or desire brought you specifically into the world of solo performance?

A: The desire to control everything, honestly. I've had a vision for years of finding a way to literally control even the lights and sound from the stage. Complete artistic control, however, comes with complete artistic responsibility... and I have questioned the wisdom of my decision to perform solo many, many times since creating "White Sauce" as my senior thesis at Antioch.

The more time I spend in the world of solo-performance, the more I begin to recognize that quite often the best solo performers have an army of folks supporting them behind the scenes: directors, designers, producers, etc. No woman is an island.

I do think, ultimately, it is my passion for the entirety of theatrical production that drives me to perform solo. I do truly love every single element of the process of creating something for the stage.

[photo credit: Louis Maistros]
Q: Could you tell us about some of your particular kind of of solo work?

A: "White Sauce" is an exploration of the life and work of the great American poet, Anne Sexton. I created the piece by weaving together excerpts from her body of work: poems, prose, letters, interviews and journal entries. In this way, I have attempted to build a narrative which speaks to the poet's struggle to create, amidst a minefield of mental illness, chemical dependency and the social expectations of the mid-twentieth century middle-class American landscape.

With my work, I try to tell the truth about what it is to be a woman in the world. I am passionate about women's history, women's stories and women's words. The more I talk about the accomplishments of women whose lives I find inspiring, the more I recognize how vitally important it is that our stories be brought to light and kept alive. Most folks honestly don't know how powerful and productive so many women have been throughout history, against all odds. They simply haven't heard.

For instance, I have also written a piece about the Baroness Michaela Almonester de Pontalba. Some people are aware that she built Jackson Square and the Pontalba Apartments in New Orleans, as well as the Hotel Pontalba in Paris, which is now the residency for the U.S. embassy. Most everyone who has heard of her has also heard the erroneous rumor that she had an illicit affair with President Andrew Jackson, hence the statue placed in the center of the square, tipping his hat to her center apartment. Very few, however, know the truly incredible story that she did all of this AFTER surviving a brutal attack upon her life by her father-in-law, leaving her with a mangled left hand and three bullets lodged permanently in her chest.

Q: What is your favorite thing about doing this work?

A: The sense of connection that comes from working so closely with the spirit of such incredibly accomplished individuals, and the appreciation I receive from folks in the audience who have been touched in some way by the performance.

Q: What inspires you to keep going and how do you keep yourself motivated?

A: A sense of duty, at this point. I have come to view the work as my dharma - simply what it is I am meant to be doing with my life at this time. The way I see it, I've been blessed (or cursed!) with certain talents, skills and abilities, as well as a passion for performance, literature and women's history. It therefore stands to reason that it is my job in this lifetime to figure out how to use what I have been given to be of service, to share all of that energy with the rest of the world.

If and when I start making it all about me, that's when I get myself into trouble. When I begin questioning whether or not all of the hard work is worth it, if this is actually something I want to be doing, if the work is important or necessary, if people will like it or like me, that's when self-doubt comes around, makes itself comfortable, and often hangs out for weeks...eating everything in the refrigerator.

Thankfully, that voice is most often drowned out by the encouragement I receive from a wonderfully strong support system of fellow artists, colleagues, friends and family who never miss an opportunity to ask, "so what are you working on now?"

Q: What is your approach to the development process when putting together a new project? Do you create a lot on stage, improvising? More on paper? Tape or video record? Hold readings? Go to a mountain top?

A: Depends on what the work calls for. I do know I create most effectively in community, which can certainly be a challenge as a solo performer. Each one of my solo shows has found its genesis alongside others working toward the same goal. I've facilitated several of them writing for performance workshops in NOLA, and in this way created an incubator for my own ideas to come light.

Feedback, for me, is essential. I generally begin performing a piece before I feel it's "ready", and allow it to alchemize in the fire of audience opinion. I'll often add elements that interest me along the way, and then scale back when and where it feels necessary. Everything for me is an experiment. I love the feeling of security that comes when something is "set", but often we need to adapt to new perimeters of space, time or energy, and I always leave room for improvisation. As a performer, I view myself as an instrument, playing with the portrayal of human existence. Life is an ever evolving act of improvisation, is it not? If so, there must always be room, in my mind, for possibility - for that moment of discovery on stage.

That being said, I have found using video taped recordings of performances absolutely invaluable as a tool toward directing myself. I will often ask trusted colleagues to sit in on rehearsals and offer feedback, but nothing has proved so helpful as literally watching myself and taking notes as I would with any other performer.

Q: Who are some of your influences or people that inspire you, be they solo performers or just in general as an artist?

A: Frida Kahlo, Georgia O'Keefe, Patti Smith and the Dalai Lama. Carolee Schneemann, Marina Abramovic, Diamanda Galas and Coco Fusco. Tilda Swinton, Julie Taymor, Jane Campion, Maya Deren, Shakespeare, Chekhov, David Mamet and my mom.

Q: How do you bridge the gap between the creative and the business side of solo theatre?

A: This may be the single biggest challenge of my adult life. I find it quite difficult to open myself fully to the creative process, while simultaneously remaining focused and grounded in the material world.

I have experimented with trying to block out time (hours, days, weeks...) to work on one aspect or another of production, but so far I haven't been all that successful at disentangling the two. I do my best to outsource when and where I can. While I am truly interested and invested in every element of the process, I have learned the messages I received growing up that said, "if you want it done right, do it yourself" don't always serve me - or the work.

Another interesting challenge I have found is that of self-promotion. While I have been a performer my whole life (my mom will be the first to tell you how much I have always enjoyed being the center of attention), I am actually quite shy and introverted in many ways. If I am completely honest, I would also have to admit to regularly experiencing nearly crippling bouts of insecurity and low self-esteem, which can make talking about myself and my work almost painful. Ironically, (and perhaps it is no accident) I believe Anne Sexton - and many other artists as well  - have also suffered from a similar dilemma.

A few years ago I had an awesome conversation with a successful artist in NOLA who explained she has taken a cue from Beyoncé and created an alter-ego for herself, a persona who can take over whenever fear or self-doubt begins to creep in and mess with her. I have found this method to be super helpful. Often, when Diana feels like she just can't do whatever it is that needs to get done, that's when Anne (or the Baroness) steps in, gets all dressed up, puts her game face on, and goes out into the world - to take it by storm.

Q: Any advice for some aspiring artist just starting out in solo performance?

A: In many ways, I feel I am still a novice, and so any advice I may have is directed first at myself!

Don't be afraid to ask for help. And don't give up. The reality of solo performance is that one will find s/he must at some point take on the role of artist, director, designer, producer, stage manager, tour manager, marketing director, technical director, videographer, secretary and booking agent. Have I left anything out? Probably. Oh yes, that's right. Most of us are also likely  holding down a jobby-job (or two or three) that allows us both the freedom and stability to pursue our performative passions. So just do it. Accept it, and then figure out who you know who can help you with what and ask them for support.

Q: What do you see for the future of solo performance and for you personally as an artist?

A: As far as the future of solo performance goes, I think the form is optimally suited for healing and transformation. By this I mean, as solo performers we have a unique opportunity to explore the Universal Truths of human existence through the specific lens of individual experience. When we share our stories with one another - or perform our individual interpretation of the stories of others who have inspired us - we participate and engage others in the primordial act of human connection. Traditionally, storytellers serve as shamans in society. When we listen to one another's stories, we begin to understand and identify with each other on a very deep level. Compassion is cultivated through the sharing of our stories, and the result is often an opportunity for both personal and social alchemy.

Personally, I have hopes and dreams of traveling the globe, performing and building community. I love teaching, directing and helping others to create new work. I also have had a life long love affair with both classic and contemporary theatre, period. Basically, I want to see great work world wide and be an integral part of making it happen. 

Q: Links?

A: My show is playing this June at the Dallas Solo Fest. Check it out... here.

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