Catherine Filloux

SEVEN AVENUES TO A DREAM PROJECT: Take Baby Steps

Catherine Filloux’s 360 Livestream Web Story “turning your body into a compass” about children and deportation premiered at CultureHub, New York City, on May 13, 2019. Watch it for free here.

Hello, I am going to use my web drama “turning your body into a compass” to explore the steps one can take in building a “dream project.” We can break it down into helpful learning tools and/or new ways to create; I hope you can use parts of this now and, perhaps, more later. As a playwright who has been writing about human rights for over 25 years, I have always explored ways to make work that is as accessible as it is impactful. I’ve often thought that a significant portion of the population is left out of theater audiences in the U.S. I’ve also wondered how the ubiquitous use of screens as a “venue” for the sharing of stories these days might fuse with elements of live theater (in this case, staged reading).

I feel that aspects of this article may be helpful in envisioning how a variety of moving parts can come together and, also, how the separate parts of the project provide standalone lessons.  Hopefully, in the spirit of kindness to oneself, we can embark on this adventure. You can use this link as a reference point to the piece and its specifics: 

Every exploration brings up more questions, so please feel free to write to me with them at selma65nyc@gmail.com

1-A clear goal for oneself: I wanted to create a dramatic story that existed solely online, that could be seen by all for free in perpetuity. A subject I was passionate about was deportation and children, so I made this story my priority. Forty-five minutes struck me as a manageable running time for a wide viewership, and a manageable length to produce. And as I wrote my story, instinctive logic told me that it needed to flow easily between scenes. Below is the beginning of the web piece, and you can watch it online to see how it plays.

(A video of a young white MAN.)

 MAN: I would not have let them rip the baby from my arms.

 (A boy, MATEO, tries to figure out the different directions, with his body.)

 MATEO: East, West, North, South.

They’re coming from the North. And the others are being sent South.

 (A GIRL hears knocking on the door.)

 GIRL: I hide

In a corner.

Behind my mom’s bed.

Coconut. Soap.

MOTHER: Goodbye, be good.

2-To choose one’s collaborators: In a joyful decision, I reached out to the tried-and-true and the new. Asking people whom one admires and likes to collaborate with proves to be invigorating.

A new collaborator, Daria Sommers, was a talented filmmaker I had gotten to know through discussions and sharing work, and I asked her to be the film director. She invited her collaborator—director, writer, and producer Arthur Vincie—to produce with his company Chaotic Sequence. Serendipity was at play when we all collectively knew and had worked with filmmaker Benjamin Wolf, who joined our team as well. Discovering people’s generosity, interconnectivity and creativity will give you the energy to grow. CultureHub was an organization I knew well, and I wanted to place “turning your body into a compass” in their trustable and expert hands. Billy Clark, the Founding Artistic Director, organized his team for our collaboration, including Mattie McMaster, Sangmin Chae, and DeAndra Anthony.

Trust and innovation make for a solid launching pad. Who can you trust artistically, and who do you want to get to know and form new partnerships with? Theater artist DeMone Seraphin, who had been a performer in my musical, called out to me in the hallway after our musical asking to direct my next play, so I chose him to be the theater director for the piece. DeMone invited actors who were new to me and further expanded my horizons. Please check out the cast of extraordinary actors who worked under a SAG New Media contract, organized by Arthur Vincie.

3-The producer’s hat: I applied for a grant for “turning your body into a compass” based on my belief that a web story accessible to all served a democratic need. When I received the grant, I was equipped with a budget and needed to structure the road ahead for my new concept. Lead time, the big picture, and baby steps proved to be a good triumvirate.

I’m a big fan of lead time, and I also realize everyone has their own rhythm. Circumstances may dictate the road ahead, so I’m not saying that a rushed deadline doesn’t also work. In this case, “lead time” allowed me to map out all facets of my project; it permitted me to enjoy the steps more fully, since I wasn’t racing around with constant multi-tasking (though some days that can’t be avoided).

An example of maximizing “lead-time” was an email I spent a lot of time crafting that I sent out to the entire cast, giving them all the details of the rehearsal day and the filming day. It clearly outlined the fairly brief but very specific schedule; all of the administrative details, basic clothing/makeup/very simple props, specific seating arrangements, and music stands for the camera positioning of the 360-degree shooting. I tried to leave nothing to chance, hoping to provide all the answers for the team so they would feel comfortable and prepared. I asked my gifted playwriting student—now colleague—Alexa Jordan to join as our Associate Producer and Outreach Coordinator and consulted her about all organizational and creative questions. I feel that a fresh, second pair of eyes is crucial for a collaboration, and endowing this team partner with a key voice in the process will empower them to further take the reins in their future projects. Of course, “leaving nothing to chance” is impossible. For example, actors had auditions and other scheduling commitments which required that our team be flexible and efficient in making constant adjustments to what we had planned. Technical questions about equipment and the logistics surrounding technology asked the whole team to come together to problem solve to achieve artistic goals.

4-The roles of Mateo and the Girl: There were two children roles in “turning your body into a compass,” and I was unsure of how I would go about casting them. A key goal was to honor the roles of the children in my story and how trauma shapes their physiology. I wrote emails to playwrights I know who might have ideas about casting children. An ingenious fellow playwright put me in touch with an actress who had recently cast a series of plays at a New York City theater development lab, which included casting children. This actress told me about Rybin Studio of Drama and Talent Management. After over 38 years of guiding Latino youth in the entertainment industry, Susan Rybin’s management company continues to touch the lives of many young talents—whether for their acting careers or personal development—in many communities in the Tri-State area. I got in touch with Susan Rybin, and she introduced me to a few actors for the role of Mateo Rivas. Daria Sommers and I chose Felipe Salinas, who looked the right age and showed great talent for the role of Mateo, a hyper-vigilant young boy fearing for his mother Christina’s deportation as well as experiencing disruption in every facet of his young life. Susan Rybin recommended the actor Katlyn Campos, who portrayed a young girl whose undocumented mother was swept up in a raid. I never expected to meet a person in my business world like Susan Rybin, and her management team was so well-organized in terms of putting me in touch with the children’s parents, who, with Felipe and Katlyn, become part of our collaboration and creation. Our entire team showed consistent care and delight in working with Felipe, Katlyn, and their parents, and our story thrived because of their participation.

5-Science—Family: For the science portions of the text, I knew I needed guidance and scrutiny in the writing and production. In the preliminary stages of “turning your body into a compass,” my niece Dr. Claire Filloux, a chemistry professor at UC Davis who is now in medical school at the University of Rochester, kindly answered a variety of questions about the background of my neuroscience researcher, Sophie Goldman. Claire’s sense of humor and interdisciplinary outlook helped me to fulfill my vision. When we were in the production stages, Claire’s father—my brother, Dr. Francis Filloux, a pediatric neurologist—reviewed the slides which we used for Dr. Sophie Goldman’s presentation to Congress about trauma and its effect on children’s brains. This part of the process taught me even more about depicting factual information clearly and balancing it with storytelling. Daria Sommers also came on board to help me edit these portions. Teamwork exists in a variety of constellations, which are surprising, educational, and feed our practice. Sometimes the conceived hurdles reveal energizing solutions.

6-Live Chat: Our team knew we wanted to do a Live Chat at the end of “turning your body into a compass” to raise awareness about immigration policies in the U.S. and effect change in deportation procedures. Daria Sommers wrote a compelling letter to RAICES, and we spoke to their team on the phone about their participation in a Live Chat. Alexa Jordan organized all aspects of the Live Chat and was the moderator; she also established connections with restaurants and universities for viewing parties and handled multifaceted social media. During the Live Chat, Erika Andiola, the Chief Advocacy Officer at RAICES, answered questions with my colleague of many years, Grahame Russell of Rights Action. CultureHub had the expertise to set up the software in remote Eastern Guatemala for Grahame Russell. We hope to continue to do Live Chats surrounding “turning your body into a compass,” and that is a future goal which needs further planning.

7-Planning what’s next: Gathering into a document all the comments received after a project can serve as testimony of what was accomplished as well as a map for how one can proceed for the future. Some takeaways of the reactions were the public’s interest in the new technology—a new delivery system for my work. The Live Chat was deemed an integral part, combatting collective resignation and illustrating the ramifications of global economics and colonial hegemony. Also, the press that we received served as an important tool for context for the future.

Additionally, I wondered if my project could serve as a prototype in academia for theater students. Daria Sommers and Arthur Vincie turned the brief black-and-white film with the Girl and her Mother at the beginning of “turning your body into a compass” into a short standalone film called “Afraid.”  “Afraid” had its festival premiere at the Bohemian Downtown Arts Festival on January 4, 2020. The festival was organized by a friend of Daria’s, Nick Rosal, a musician and the co-founder of Atelier Rosal. (Nick’s artwork has been collected across the United States, and Daria asked Nick to use his painting Border Child for our graphic.) I was inspired by the two characters, Jean and Susan—who are sisters in the web piece—to write more about them in a separate story which is called “White Savior.”

Conclusion—”And where do we go from here? Which is a way that’s clear…” (David Essex)

I will never forget when Billy Clark closed the door of the CultureHub studio and we began the Livestream of “turning your body into a compass”—performed in real time only once, going out to anyone around the world who had a solid internet connection, and then archived at the link.

And now I am writing an article for my beloved Playwrights’ Center in Minneapolis, where I have had the pleasure of working with P. Carl, Kira Obolensky, Carlyle Brown, and Hannah Joyce. I look forward to hearing from you and continuing the journey, thank you.

*Directions for 360° Livestream technology: 

You can tune in to the Livestream on computers, tablets, and smartphones. For anyone with access to a headset, it can also be experienced in VR. While “turning your body into a compass” can be watched as a traditional program, 360° Livestream technology allows viewers the opportunity to interact with the production in real time. You can explore different areas of the stage and follow the actors as the story unfolds by moving your smart phone around or swiping the screen. On a computer, you can navigate the 360° environment with your mouse by clicking and dragging to new viewpoints or by operating a compass of arrows. For the best viewing experience on a smartphone, please download the YouTube App.

Press for “turning your body into a compass”:

IMMIGRANT REPORT 

Interview by Matthew Barbot for Immigrant Report, an online publication celebrating the immigrants of this country through their stories, art, and ideas:

THE LIGHT LEAKS 

Alexa Jordan, about our project, for The Light Leaks, an editorial website and LLC created for the support, empowerment, and education of women and GNC filmmakers:

WOMAN AROUND TOWN

Article by Daria Sommers, a contributor to “Woman Around Town” which covers New York City and Washington D.C.

About the author
Catherine Filloux
Catherine Filloux is an award-winning playwright who has been writing about human rights and social justice for twenty-five years. Catherine was honored in New York City with the 2017 Otto René Castillo Award for Political Theatre. Her new play whatdoesfreemean? about women and mass incarceration in the U.S. premiered at Nora's Playhouse in New York City. Her play Kidnap Road premiered at La MaMa in New York City, and was presented by Anna Deveare Smith as part of NYU's Institute on the Arts and Civic Dialogue. Filloux received the 2015 Planet Activist Award due to her long career as an activist artist in the theater community. Other recent productions include: Selma '65 which premiered at La MaMa and has been performed around the U.S., including at Pygmalion Productions, Rose Wagner Performing Arts Center in Salt Lake City, Utah; and Luz at La MaMa, and Looking for Lilith Theatre Company in Louisville, Kentucky. Catherine is the librettist for three produced operas, New Arrivals (Houston Grand Opera), Where Elephants Weep (Chenla Theatre, Phnom Penh, Cambodia), The Floating Box (Asia Society, New York City). Filloux has been commissioned by the Vienna State Opera to write the libretto for composer Olga Neuwirth's new opera, Orlando, which premieres in December 2019.