This Sunday, local actor Wyckham Avery will share excerpts from her latest solo project, Just Sing Me a Song, as part of the museum's ongoing series presented with CulturalDC. We recently asked Avery a few questions about the play, its inspiration, and the theater scene in D.C.
Warm up those vocal chords—this museum program might require singing.
Eye Level: Can you tell us a bit about Just Sing Me a Song and what inspired you to focus on the life of Ola Belle Reed ?
Wyckham Avery: I actually first heard her name in 2004 when a gospel/folk group named themselves after her, Olabelle. Then, several years ago I started giving myself a crash course in Bluegrass. Growing up in New England, I didn't hear much of it so I didn't have a good understanding of its history and roots. I started listening to everything and tracing back the origins of songs and styles. Ola Belle's name kept coming up as a songwriter and I began to see how much influence she had. But it wasn't until the Smithsonian Folkways released "I've Endured" with restored tracks from both live and recorded of Ola Belle performing her songs that I really understood just how powerful she was.
I started researching more about her, learned more about her life, and borrowed a friend's banjo to attempt to learn more about how she played. I realized this information had the potential to become a show, but I knew I didn't want it to be a simple biography piece. What struck me the most from the live tracks were the number of audiences singing with her. She didn't necessarily have a "beautiful" voice as we as a society would look for today, but it was strong and robust and somehow made you feel you could sing with her. This really struck a nerve with me.
I have long lamented the disappearance of the sing-along and have been fascinated by cultures that still embrace this practice. My favorite memories from childhood are all from singing. Not just singing alone, but with others. My elementary school had a weekly sing-along in the gym the whole student body attended. I sang in the children's choir in church and learned to harmonize there. Ola Belle Reed came up in a community that was integrated with music and singing which seems very foreign to our modern American world. I have been experimenting with Kirtan and Shape Note to see how some communities encourage singing as a group action instead of a performance. It's no question that singing can be a very emotional or spiritual act. After the tragedy in Newtown last month, the most moving tributes tended to be in song: the cold open of Saturday Night Live with the New York Children's Chorus or even the contestants on The Voice singing Leonard Cohen's Hallelujah. All of this is to say that Just Sing Me a Song is probably part biography, part sing-along. It's funny, at this moment I have laryngitis and can barely sing let along speak. Hopefully my voice will be back in full force!
EL: What should our visitors expect to see on January 13?
WA: Well, it's probably no surprise that visitors should expect to sing. Now hopefully that won't put people into a panic. I'm not hoping to run auditions for American Idol, I'm hoping for us to sing together. A lot of my theater work is with the company I co-founded, dog & pony dc. The focus of our work is incorporating the audience fully in to the experience of the play. This can mean many things, but what it never means is dragging people up on stage so that other people can laugh at them. My goal is to provide an opportunity for all types of people to have the experience of singing together without any pressure or pretense or irony.
EL: Where is the most unlikely place you’ve ever performed? Have you ever performed in a museum before?
WA: This could be a long list—I toured with a small Shakespeare company for a while and we performed in gyms, cafeterias, outside on the quads, and even did Macbeth in a church. I have done shows in warehouses and living rooms and in front of bonfires. The most unlikely place is probably in the forests of northern California. As a student, my class did a residency in a tiny town called Whale Gulch. After spending time with this community, we created a show along a trail in the woods that culminated in a big open field.
Many years ago I performed in a museum! One of my first professional gigs was a show for the Corcoran directed by Jennifer Nelson. It was a companion piece to an amazing exhibition called Raised by Wolves by Jim Goldberg. He had taken photos of kids who grew up on the street and told their stories—the play was based on some of these kids. I wish there was more of that sort of thing—visual artists and performing artists coming together. Two companies in town are really working on that: Forum with their (Re)Act series and of course a part of Cultural DC's Source Festival is the Artistic Blind Dates. Both of these are really cool mash-ups of artistic media and style and people and always results in some fascinating results.
EL: What connection, if any, do you see between your theater work and the visual arts?
WA: I just love how so many visual artists are inviting their audience to engage with the work in new ways. I am so thrilled by the Nam June Paik exhibit at American Art right now. I feel like his pieces are invitations to join in the work somehow. I think all of the arts are starting to discover new ways of connecting with their audiences. One of the best things the internet age has brought us is the concept of crowd-sourcing. Ideas can be developed in a collective and people share discoveries across the world. We are connected in creativity and that should influence how we create art. I think the downside (or perhaps it's an upside in disguise) is the lack of human face-to-face connection. I say it could be an upside because I think it's causing people to go back to old forms of getting together: pancake breakfasts, house concerts, potlucks, game nights, and, of course, sing-alongs are all becoming more prevalent and integrated into our culture.
I'm also really drawn to folk art, especially when thinking about my show Just Sing Me A Song. Sometimes if artists don't know there are some unwritten rules to follow, they don't know they are breaking them and that can lead to really cool art. In music, we get pretty hung up on having a pretty voice (and often on how pretty one looks, but that's a different subject) and performing well. We see it all the time on TV with the singing competition shows. I miss those voices that aren't necessarily pretty but sound really individual. Thank goodness Tom Waits is still around. But really the folk artists wanted to express themselves and they figured out the best way they could do that.
EL: What upcoming plays are you excited about and why?
WA: Ooh, there's actually a lot. Right now I'm loving the Pajama Men performing at Woolly Mammoth and Scott Parkinson performing the one man show, The Iliad at Studio, both here in D.C. Both shows use very simple techniques to tell incredible stories. While they are very different, the basics of performance are masterfully shown by these three actors. As a huge commedia dell' arte fan, I always love to see what the Faction of Fools is cooking up, so The Lady Becomes Him is on my must see list. Taffety Punk's Twelfth Night I'm also really excited about. I like seeing Shakespeare in small, intimate spaces. It allows you to get really deep into that language because it's right in your face. The one I just can't wait for, but must because it doesn't open until the summer, is a devised show being developed with Forum Theatre directed by Natsu Onoda Power. Devised theatre, like the work we do at dog & pony dc, is created by the ensemble and I think it's really brave of Forum to jump in to that unknown territory. But they have a great guide in the likes of Natsu. There's a few bigger shows that are also on my list. Metamorphoses written and directed by Mary Zimmerman and Double Edge Theatre's The Grand Parade will both be showing at Arena Stage this spring. Mary Zimmerman does epic theater like nobody else and it's a great opportunity for another chance to see her work live. We've been very lucky in D.C. to have so many of her shows here. Double Edge is another ensemble devised company from Massachusetts, that makes exciting, visceral, physical shows. Again, we are so lucky to have this opportunity to see this work. Whew. That's a lot and I'm sure I've missed a few.
The program is this Sunday, January 13. We hope to see (and hear) you then!