20,000 Works of Art, Innovative Theatre, and a World Premiere: A Conversation on "soot & spit"

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Exclusive Interview: Kim Weild of SOOT AND SPIT at New Ohio Theatre

<p><em>soot and spit</em></p>

soot and spit

What drives a single person to create nearly 20,000 works of art?

This is the lead-in question for "Soot and Spit," a new play which celebrates the life of James Castle, one of America's great outsider artists. We may think of many artists that seem delegated to the "outskirts" of society...but what exactly is an outsider artist?

Outsider Art is roughly known as a form of creative expression that exists "outside accepted cultural norms," starting with the research of psychiatrist, Dr. Morganthaler ,and his patient Adolf Wolfli, a genius who produced countless thousands of works from a small cell in his Swiss asylum. I myself found art accidentally, stuck in a surgical ICU, and it soon became a lifeline - a voice - through a decade of physical and emotional trauma. It wasn't long before I discovered art to be the most rewarding, forgiving, and transformative means of navigating through darkness and reemerging into the light.

Outsider Art has inspired Our Voices, a company known for presenting innovative theatre, to present the world premiere of acclaimed playwright Charles Mee's "soot and spit." Born profoundly deaf, Castle never learned to read, write, sign or speak. His art was his language. Bringing his world to life through bluegrass, dance, and multi-media displays of his works, soot and spit enables its audience to experience the "other"- and rejoice in the unquenchable creativity of the human spirit.

The show has already received rave reviews from the New York Times, and Kim Weild, the director behind this ambitious new work, shared her "insider" perspective of the outsider piece:

What inspired you to direct this piece?

To me at its core, Soot and Spit, is about the intrinsic nobility, tenacity and perseverance of the human spirit and it is also about the special bond I share with my brother Jamie. Born five years before me, and profoundly deaf since birth, he himself communicated through drawing and only came to learn American Sign Language later in life. Having him as my brother has been one of my greatest blessings. He has taught me much about love, patience, kindness, compassion, courage, tenacity, true communication, the value of silence - how to feel and hear with my eyes, empathy and perhaps above all - Grace. He has taught me that each of us is deeply original and every day, no matter how hard, we must look beyond the fear of differences in order to connect.

Amy: How did you meet soot and spit's creative team? What inspired you to take on this project?

Weild: Boyd Branch (video projection design), Haley Peterson (costume design) and Daniel Puccio (arrangements and original compositions) were all from the first time I worked on the show at ASU's Herberger Institute for Design and the Arts. Paul Miller (lighting design) I met when we did AMAZING GRACE together on Broadway, Leontine Greenberg (props design) worked with me on several other pieces and is one of the illustrators for my children's book "HOW THE I BECOMES THE WE". I met Matthew Imhoff (set designer) through Edward Pierce. We had not known each other before this show. This kid is brilliant...I mean truly brilliant.

Chuck and I first met in 1995 when I went to Saratoga Springs for the first time to train with Anne Bogart's SITI Company of which Chuck is a member.

When I first read the play, I saw it all in my head. I related to it because of my brother. The choice to take it on had to do with the sheer challenge of it. It's as though Chuck threw down the gauntlet on this one, said "Good luck" and then waited to see who would be crazy enough to attempt to make it.

What were the first steps? What was the most difficult part of putting this together?

The very first step was to learn all I could about James Castle. [I responded to his life] with awe and gratitude. There are a lot of moving pieces to this show from acting, dancing, playing music live, video projections, live-time video, ASL interpreted performances.

What role does visual art play?

Our production of this play would not be the same without the visual of Castle's artwork. Visual art plays a large role in all my work-it inspires me constantly. I paint three dimensionally in time and space so, for me, theater is also a visual art.

Can you briefly describe what Outsider Art is? What is most intriguing to you?

There is a good documentary on Castle called: James Castle: Portrait of An Artist and there are a bunch of art historians, critics and other artists interviewed on it and they can tell you far better than I what is Outsider Art. -The energy inside it.

What drew you to the life of James Castle? How did you first learn about outsider art?

I was eight years old and I was looking at a print of a painting by Grandma Moses and my father mentioned to me that she was what was called an "Outsider Artist". I think we spent the next 45 minutes discussing what that really meant along with exploring other examples.

What do you feel is the value of Outsider Art in mainstream society?

Chuck has written a series of plays about artists that are all wonderful and available on his website: www.charlesmee.org for free. I think plays about art are plays about the human need, impulse, desire to create and there are many of those plays that I have seen or red that I have responded to positively.

Give us a brief teaser about what inspired the title.

James Castle literally made the ink for his art from soot from the wood burning fireplace mixed with his own spit.

How would you define a fictionalized bio play? What artistic liberties did you take? What do we need to know coming into this play?

We are clear this is not a biography of Castle. This is a story from Chuck's imagination about what it might have been like to be inside James Castle's head. Or at least that is my interpretation of the play. -It might be helpful to do a little bit of research about Castle. You can go to: www.jamesc astle.com and currently on the 7th floor of The Whitney museum there are 23 of his works on display.

Why do you feel the New Ohio Theatre was a good fit for this?

I love the intimacy of the New Ohio Theatre. This space in particular, how Matt Imhoff our extraordinary set designer has used it, makes us, the audience feel as though we are right there in the Ice House (Castle's art studio) with him.

How are multimedia elements incorporated?

The stunning video projections by Boyd Branch are an integral part of the storytelling. There is a dramaturgy to them that we worked very hard on developing and the projections both support and illuminate the story.

Why did you decide to use music, and how does it add to the piece?

The original title of this piece is SOOT AND SPIT, THE MUSICAL. The last part "The Musical" was removed after I spoke with Chuck about my concerns that people would think this a traditional musical and we are very clear that this is not, yet there is music almost constantly throughout the whole piece.

What was it like working with the actors on this? What skills/concepts were the hardest for them to learn? What came together most naturally?

This company is extraordinary. I had someone recently remark to me that in watching the show, they were stunned to see just how much and how well the cast takes care of one another on stage - the human kindness and love is palpable. -We have a profoundly deaf actor, two actors with Down syndrome and an actor who is hard of hearing. Everyone had to be ok with knowing that this was going to be a far from traditional rehearsal process. I was also looking for actors who sing, understood bluegrass and also played instruments. If they knew American Sign Language or had some exposure to it that was great too. -I don't know what came together the most naturally per se, but what I do know is that they all made a leap of faith when they said yes to this project and we all held on to the leap-together.

Where there any moments in the coming together of this play at took your breath away? What surprise you?

Every day there was something that happened to take my breath away. -Early on, I think it was the third rehearsal, everyone was on a break from learning music. Karen who at that point was very, very shy when speaking to anyone in the room, came up to me to ask if I had the music (the karaoke version) of the song she used for her audition, Meghan Trainor's "Me Too". I replied, yes but then explained that "Me Too" was not in our show and that instead she needed to learn the bluegrass music. She gave me a look as if to say, "Ok I am going to have to spell this out for her" and asked me again if I had the music. Again, I replied yes but it wasn't in the show-we went back and forth on this several times and then finally I realized she wanted me to play it right then, on the break. I turned the music on and suddenly this very shy young girl, started dancing and singing her heart out and performing the song for the whole cast, getting them all clapping and singing with her and by the end of it, Chris Lopes joined her singing and dancing. Some cast members asked if it had been rehearsed for them - they were that good. It was this stunning moment of bringing everyone together - Karen and Chris asked us to meet them and in doing so, a huge shift happened in the room that's hard to explain but drew everyone close together.

You mentioned that the goal of this piece is to experience the "other" - how do you feel the other becomes the norm? What role does THEATRE play?

Through acceptance and tolerance. -Theatre has the ability to introduce and expose people to stories, ideas, politics and people they may not necessarily or otherwise know about. Theatre has the ability to offer up a different way for society to organize itself-in a positive way.

What about the process surprised you?

The large number of people that have so generously given of themselves to make this happen-from all the creatives, the cast, the ASL interpreters, the crew and then how all of them have responded saying that for them, they believe this is a very important piece and it has been important to them to be a part of it.

What new things did you learn in developing this project?

Not to be afraid to ask for what we need. The worst someone could say is: No.

What do you hope audience members will come away with?

An experience of "other" and the understanding that we are all James Castle in our need to create and our need to communicate.

Describe what the play is about in four words.

Love, perseverance, determination, human-spirit.

Four words that plant infinite seeds of possibility. Catch "soot and spit" at the New Ohio Theatre until June 17th.

SOOT AND SPIT was developed, in part, through the Archive Residency, a program of New Ohio Theatre and IRT Theater.

Autism-friendly performance: June 17 (2 PM)

Performance: June 7th (7:30PM

Written by Charles Mee, Jr.

Directed by Kim Weild

Featuring: Robert Ariza*, Karen Ashino, Estelle Bajou*, Alida Rose Delaney, John Ford Dunker*, JW Guido, Peregrine Heard, Toussaint Jeanlouis*, Geraldine Leer*, Christopher Lopes, Douglas Waterbury-Tieman*, and Arielle Yoder*

Running time: 90 minutes, no intermission

Featuring: Robert Ariza*, Karen Ashino, Estelle Bajou*, Alida Rose Delaney, John Ford Dunker*, JW Guido, Peregrine Heard, Toussaint Jeanlouis*, Geraldine Leer*, Christopher Lopes, Douglas Waterbury-Tieman*, and Arielle Yoder*

Running time: 90 minutes, no intermission.

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