Meeting one of the minds behind Collidescope: Co-Creator Talvin Wilks
Tuesday, March 1, 2016
Tuesday, March 1, 2016
In April we present Collidescope 2.0, the culminating event of our season, as well as the capper to the two-year Art, Legacy, and Community project master-minded by Judyie Al-Bilali ‘00G. As you may know from past stories, this project investigates the past and current state of racial history and activism in our community. This production boasts an impressive array of spectacularly talented artists; it is an amazing opportunity for our students to interact with the best in the field. Priscilla Page '01G, who is the dramaturg for the project, has been writing about various aspects of the work for the past two years, and in this issue, she profiles one of the primary players of the piece, Talvin Wilks, pictured below with Ping Chong.
By Priscilla Page
Talvin Wilks is an acclaimed director, dramaturg and playwright who took time out of his busy schedule to talk with me by phone about our upcoming production of Collidescope 2.0: Adventures in Pre- and Post-Racial America, which he has co-written (and will co-direct) with Ping Chong. The performances will take place at the Rand Theater, April 14, 16, and 20-23. He is currently in residence at Penumbra Theater in Minneapolis wrestling with Adrienne Kennedy’s The Owl Answers, an imagistic and hauntingly imaginative meditation on colonialism, race, and identity. From there, he will return to UMass to dive into Collidescope 2.0. He is a masterful theater artist who deftly moves from the troubling interiority of Kennedy’s play to the far reaches of outer space with his upcoming project at UMass.
Wilks has a long-standing professional relationship with our department. He served on our faculty from 2002—2004, during which time he taught playwriting and dramaturgy courses for undergraduates and graduate students. More importantly, he ushered in a new era of collaboration between New WORLD Theater (where he served as Artistic Director during that same period) and the Department of Theater. New WORLD Theater (NWT) was a thirty-year old multicultural theater organization in residence at the University through the Fine Arts Center. At that time, he conceived of the Multicultural Theater Certificate with Professor Harley Erdman, then chair of the theater department. This unique certificate, now in its second year, focuses on our robust offerings of multicultural theater courses and requires students to interact with artists of color through workshops, residencies and internships. While at the helm of NWT, he developed and produced exciting new work by artists such as Ping Chong, Laurie Carlos, Rha Goddess, Magdalena Gomez, Lenelle Moise, Sekou Sundiata and Marlies Yearby. These collaborations had a tremendous effect on our students and the larger Pioneer Valley community. He and Chong co-created Undesirable Elements: Pioneer Valley on our campus in 2004.
I asked Talvin to reflect on his return to UMASS bringing Collidescope 2.0 to our department. He and Chong created and produced the first iteration of this play at the University of Maryland in 2014. He is very excited about the continuation of the work.
Talvin: In the classic tradition of new play development, UMASS is giving us a second opportunity to understand the way the world of the play works. Our understanding will develop with the professional designers who are really building on what Ping and I started in Maryland. We are excited to work with Mimi Lien, Jess Ford, Kate Freer, Amy Altadonna, and Webster Marsh. They are a great team and they are starting from what was done (in terms of design) before. Their efforts will strengthen the concept of how the play works. Their work will strengthen the dramaturgy of this play. We get to continue discovering how the aliens in the play live, explore, and conduct their investigation of our world.
Priscilla: In terms of new play development, can you talk about the text and the notion of the “present tense” of this play.
Talvin: It is important that we keep this piece up to date. We are collecting stories and creating an archive of events since 2014 right up to today. This is very important in terms of the work and our vision of this project. In this way, we are living up to the idea that this is a process and not a play. We are collecting up to the moment, history in the making and we are weaving that into what Collidescope is really meant to be: an understanding of time and history, a blending of now and then.
Priscilla: How does UMASS Amherst and the Pioneer Valley factor into the dramaturgy of Collidescope 2.0?
Talvin: Ping and I have learned that this piece is as much about place as it is about history. By focusing on place, we have a whole new investigation. I started conversations with theater department students in Judyie Al-Bilali’s classes last year. We began to look for stories that relate to the idea of citizenship and race history across time. We have done the research and will include material on Black student activism at UMASS as well as the story of Angeline Palmer, a young, free Black girl whose freedom was protected by her half-brother and many Amherst town residents.
Priscilla: What else are you looking forward to with this production?
Talvin: We expanded the size of the cast for the UMass production. And, the casting is completely different. With this larger cast, we have new opportunities to think about the characters and how we tell the story. We have also added another historical character. We depict Mary Turner and the story of her lynching in 1918. Collidescope 2.0 really is its own new production and we are looking forward to the discoveries we will make in Amherst.