Supporting creative work by women
Chelsea D. Harrison is a director, writer, teaching artist and dancer. She directs Nothing–a solo show about autism and based on a best-selling European novel–at The Tank in New York City September 15th through 17th. Chelsea joined the award-winning show recently and helped adapter and performer Jon Kovach re-work the multimedia piece.
Chelsea speaks with Works by Women about working on Nothing, the best advice she’s ever received and life as a multihyphenate creative woman.
WORKS BY WOMEN: Why theater?
CHELSEA D. HARRISON: Theater, for me, is more than just an audience sitting and watching a performance. Theater is that magical, alchemical process that happens whenever we collectively turn our attention to a storyteller. Theater happens on subway platforms, at the bus stop, in line at the grocery store. Theater gives me a way to process and express; it gives me a place to use every skill I’ve ever learned and challenges me to learn new ones.
WBW: Tell me about working with Jon Kovach on Nothing.
CDH: Working with Jon on Nothing was a breeze! One man shows can be tricky. Actors can be very protective of their work and reticent to let new folks in. Sometimes people ask for your help but then you give your first note and suddenly it’s a battle of the wills. Jon was not like that. Thank goodness! Jon was very intentional about making his creative team a diverse one and he really wanted other people to come in and work their magic. Jon was open to trying new, silly ideas. He listened and was excited by new perspectives. He’s the kind of artist you want in the room while you make something innovative and heartfelt.
WBW: You joined this piece later in its development. What is that like re-working a piece?
CDH: Joining the play’s development later in the process made my job a whole lot easier! If I were to create this piece from the ground up, the workload would’ve been a little intimidating. I saw myself as simply an outside eye providing new insight into an already polished work of art. Re-working what was done before was like getting a coloring book sheet and having the freedom to color like crazy within the lines. Having a little structure freed me.
WBW: You are a multihyphenate creative woman. Where do you find inspiration?
CDH: As a multihyphenate creative woman, I find inspiration in my experience as a woman of color. The history of my people in America (and globally!) gives me unending inspiration. Learning about all the ways women of color have fought for their rights, spoken up after being brutally silenced, subverted oppressive regimes, fallen in love during revolutions, birthed generations, braided hair, grew food, used herbs to heal, revolutionized entire industries, it’s incredibly inspiring. Whenever I feel afraid I think of all the trailblazing women who came before me and how they’re depending on me to continue The Work. The Work of community building and history-making. My history reminds me that being an artist isn’t really about fame and fortune. It’s about telling the story, passing it on to generations, uplifting and fortifying the spirit. I find inspiration from my students through my Teaching Artist work. I find inspiration from traveling and learning about new ways of life. Going someplace completely new and learning about how other people live makes me question everything I assume. New flavors, scents, textures, and music reframes my world view. Travel makes me aware of the fact that I am a global citizen; we are all connected.
Nothing starring Jon Kovach and directed by Chelsea D. Harrison.
WBW: What’s the best piece of advice you have ever received?
CDH: My mother always reminds me, “Chels, it’s about The Work.” The Work she’s referring to is the craftmanship of being an artist. The Work is sitting down to write every day even when I’m uninspired. The Work is spending days and nights rallying enthusiasm for a cause. The Work is thanklessly creating day in and day out. The Work is not about recognition. The Work is not about money. The Work is not glamorous. The Work is happening all the time, everywhere, and you have to stay alert. That advice helps me to stay focused when I get caught up in trying to impress. Or when I want to give up I remember that The Work never ends and it’s waiting for me to get back to it.
WBW: What type of theater inspires you?
CDH: Theater has a long history of changing the world and spurring social and cultural movements, so theater about topical issues inspires me. Theater that innovates and creates new ways to story tell inspires me. Living room dramas put me to sleep. Theater that evokes wonder and creates those rare and special moments of magic awakens me.
WBW: What’s next for you?
CDH: I’ve just joined the Teaching Artist ensemble at The New Victory Theater on Broadway. I’m also joining the Teaching Artist ensemble of another awesome organization called Opening Act. I’m associate producing a series of arts events in Harlem. I’m working on the screenplay for my first feature film. I’m traveling to South Africa. I’m opening an online store. Whew! It makes me tired just thinking of everything- but I wouldn’t trade it for the world. I’m living my multihyphenate-creative-woman dreams.
Nothing plays at The Tank September 15 through 17 at 7:00pm. For tickets and information, visit The Tank’s website.