Viewing entries tagged
arts

From The Stage to the Farm - The Likely Path of Emily Simoness

Comment

From The Stage to the Farm - The Likely Path of Emily Simoness

1010368_600619263292565_1827125364_n

I met Emily a year and a half ago through a friend and was invited to a fundraising event for her newly formed not for profit, SPACE on Ryder Farm, a retreat space for artists to cultivate their work. I said yes to the fundraiser, but wasn’t really quite sure what I was saying yes to. Adam Rapp one of the presenters spoke at the fundraiser about going to the farm and being ‘transformed by the experience.” Being a cynical city-slicker, I thought, “ok, you wrote some good stuff.  There was some grass and some trees. Take it down a notch, guys.” 

 And then I was invited to the farm for a visit.

 An hour north of New York City, touring this 139-acre expanse that abuts a lake and wooded area, I was transported and a little transformed for the mere few hours I was there. Eating a wonderfully fresh, farm-to-table lunch with a group of theater artists who were in residency to develop a new script, I learned more about the history of the farm and the retreat’s vision. But I became more curious about Emily, the executive director and former actor’s path to the farm. How did she get here? And why?

This is a snippet of our hour-long conversation.

When did you decide you wanted to be an actor?

Well I was sort of a super kid, meaning my mother had me programmed to the hilt. I was doing piano and dance and volleyball and soccer and basketball. And somewhere around sixth grade, I tried out for the school play but until then my background had been singing and dancing. And I was like, “oh this is fun. This is delightful.”  And meanwhile, I was doing the sports thing and then…

You had to choose.

Yes, and the theater prevailed...I grew up in Minneapolis so close to the Guthrie Theater and the children’s theater company and I started to plug-in downtown. I grew up in the suburbs south of the twin cities and I think that is what turned the corner for me.

So is that why you decided to major in theater?

I actually really liked musical theater. So if you asked me at that time if I want to be a musical theater star…yes. Singing has always been my favorite of the three. But I’m a better singer than I am a dancer but I’m a better actor than I am a singer. Does that make sense?

Yes.

So, I got my BFA in Acting at North Carolina School of the Arts.

And then you come to New York.

Right, but I went to Williamstown Theatre Festivalfor the first time as an apprentice the summer between the Guthrie and North Carolina. I felt like it was the first time I felt really validated as an actress and I felt like I had a community of people. One of them was Susan Goodwillie, who is now a really good friend and we started SPACE together but that was a lovely touchstone. They have you do everything from mopping the floor, to hanging lights to getting cast in main stage shows with Terrance Mann and Lewis Black which happened for me. I lucked out and that was magical because that really wasn’t supposed to happen.

So I finish with the school of the arts and in 2007 I come up here to New York and I did a lot of regional theater and I did some downtown stuff.

Did you have a definitive experience where you said, ‘I’m an actress now. This is my job, what I’m going to do?’

I think that was always hard for me as an actor. They want you to say this is what I do but my favorite experiences were musicals that were just like sort of right for me.

Yes. I have huge issues with authority. Being an actress wasn’t a good fit because you are definitely not in control, you are being told what to do, you are reading someone else’s words. I’m probably going to piss some people off but you’re an interpretive artist.

Did you think at some point you would take a divergent path?

Yes. I have huge issues with authority.  Being an actress wasn’t a good fit because you are definitely not in control, you are being told what to do, you are reading someone else’s words. I’m probably going to piss some people off but you’re an interpretive artist.

You are a vessel.

Exactly, you are an incubator for someone else. I don’t think I knew it but I was sort of understanding it because it pissed me off all of the time. I was really angry.  Well, I’m still pretty angry but I’m a lot less angry than I was. (Laughs.) Because I was like, ‘where am I in this?’ ‘What’s going to be right for me in this?’

And how small is the box I have to fit in so that you can cast me.

Yeah. And that’s the really confusing thing to be18 to 26 years old and being told that you need to shrink and shrink and to minimize and to be less. And be this thing and be that thing. I just got really fed up with it. And at the same time, was really sad that I couldn’t be those things for those people and ‘why could those other people do it? Why, was I not suited for it?

But, when I track back I was always producing things...finding a way within the actor life to have some sort of agency.

But, when I track back I was always producing things, When Hurricane Katrina happened, I did a benefit for it, Or when we graduated, we had a New York showcase but we didn’t have an LA showcase. I saw a missed opportunity, and produced that.  We raised the $25k to do the LA showcase. So, I was producing along the way finding a way within the actor life to have some sort of agency.

I completely relate to you because it wasn’t enough for me to wait,I too started to have to figure out how to make something.

And how to have a life while you’re waiting for something to happen.

What was your defining moment? Was it finding out about the farm?

I think it was a culmination of moments. I was working but it wasn't working out for me. I wasn’t happy. I was doing the regional thing and I was leaving a lot to do shows.  And I would rarely get excited because most of the roles I would audition for I’d be like, ‘are you kidding me?’ I was sort of like, ‘this is all there is?’ But I wasn’t ready to give up. Everything I had done up to this point suggests this is what I’m going to be doing so I can’t possibly not like this. I can’t possibly need to change direction or want to change direction. It must mean I haven’t auditioned for the right part or the right agent….

It’s like dating.

Exactly.

You were like, ‘maybe it’s me.’ Or “I haven’t met him, yet.”

Yeah, or mostly likely you do meet them and you’re like.  ‘Oh, this is it?" (Laughter)

There was this legend of a Farm when I grew up on my mother’s side. It’s called Ryder Farm and it’s been in my mother’s family and my family since 1795. l literally called her up one day and said, Hi, I’m Emily I’m related to you and I’d really like to come up and check out that Farm that’s been in our family.

And then the Farm?

There was this legend of a Farm when I grew up on my mother’s side. It’s called Ryder Farm and it’s been in my mother’s family and my family since 1795. And as a kid, I remember we’d get a yearly letter from the farm because it’s a corporation and all of the shares belong to family members so we were kept abreast of the farm’s goings on. It was like folklore as a kid. I still don’t know what made me call my fourth cousin once removed, Betsy Ryder, whom I never met.  She runs the organic operation on the farm but l literally called her up one day and said, ‘Hi, I’m Emily I’m related to you and I’d really like to come up and check out that Farm that’s been in our family.”  I really don’t know why, maybe I thought the organic thing was sexy.

Was it like, you’re looking at New York Magazine and you wanted to read the Michael Pollan book and you were like, ‘wait, I have a farm?’

Yah… farmer’s markets have been in vogue for a long time.  I think I was like, 'I got one of those I think I should go check that out.'  I was expecting a 10-acre farm and there was a 10-acre farm but it was within a 129 acre expanse of woodland and pasture and a half-mile of lake frontage and it’s like a piece of property that I think its, objectively, sort of astonishing.

I think if someone hasn't grown up on a farm or used to being around some spots of land… you think they’ll be chicken and goats but not the lusciousness the property has abutting it. The landscape is gorgeous.

It is. That day when I went up, the structures were not in good shape and we were there in the dead of winter but it was clear to me that they really hadn’t been inhabited and kept up for quite sometime. My wheels were already turning about what this could be.  I just kept thinking about it and I was in the midst of this community of artists and I wanted to make something with this community and for this community and I think those two impulses just crashed together.  In June, I brought some really close confidants (to the farm.) One of them was Susan, who is now my co-founder and asked them if I’m crazy. I’d already had this half-baked idea of an artists workshop-art space-residency-retreat and Susan thought, ‘this is awesome. You should totally do this.’ And we did.

I remember asking Betsy if I could take some of her time at the Union Square green market. (Because the farm was the first organic farm represented at the Union Square green market in 1978.) Anyway, I remember being so nervous and we sat in the middle of the Greenmarket and I couldn’t look her in the eye. I pitched her on this idea of an artist’s retreat space.

I’m having the anxiety moment that you must have felt…

Oh My God. Just loaded. Like a loaded gun because a) who was I to ask for something like this, like what a crazy idea. She just met me.  But bless her, she was like, ‘that sounds like an interesting idea. Let’s do that.’ The initial conceit of Space was that we would make capital improvements on the structure because they were not ready to house artists.  So we basically did that for a summer and a half.  We make literal and figurative capital improvements on all of the farm’s structures.

Do you have an idea what was driving you? It’s not like you have a carpentry background.

Nope, but I do know my way around the Brewster Home Depot. I’ll tell you that. I do now.

Was it divine?

Maybe? I mean I’ll tell you. I have got will in spades. I. Will. Make. Something. Happen. So there’s that. So that is something to know about me. I’m going to freaking do it. But, and Susan and I talk about this, the other part of this is, can I actually do it?

So, like a challenge?

Yeah, it’s like the biggest challenge in the whole freaking world (to me.) Here’s this 126 acre property, with these structures that need a ton of work and I have no expertise there. Here’s this not for profit that needs to be formed and I have no expertise there. Here are a lot of relationships that need to be negotiated. I’m gonna try that. But like…so there is that. But I do think in a way that life put me there.

And the Farm had a need too from what I understood because not only the failing structures but...

I mean it’s like great fodder for a novel. They want to keep ownership and tenants within the family. I didn’t realize it but in the life cycle of the farm I’ve come at a perfect time in that Betsy doesn’t have any children.

So the legacy…Betsy is the last arm working on the farm?

There are a lot of shareholders but now I’m on that Board and everyone there has me by 30 years. I’m 30 and the next person is like, 65. It’s a really interesting. It’s taught me a lot about family.  I never would have had the opportunity that I have if my mother didn’t have my name. If that name wasn’t in my DNA they would have never granted me access because this is a family.  We are the only family in Putnam County to have the same ownership of the same piece of land in 1812 and in 2012. Because Putnam Country was actually founded in 1812; the Farm was founded in 1795 so it used to be part of Duchess County and then Putnam County was founded. And they became part of Putnam but they held on to that land. And they will continue to hold on to that but they need help holding on to that land so we rehab the structures and created revenue streams that didn’t exist because we pay rent. So we were literally contributing and supporting the viability of the farm because it’s a small organic operation. It’s not like they’re making money hand over fist or anything. They’re making money off of the rent but…

so I don’t know what was driving me. It probably was bigger than me. Some may say it was sort of a dare but I don’t actually think that’s true. I think I was really compelled to make this thing and put this into the world. And I scrapped together the people that would do that and the small resources that were going to make that happen.

They’re living the farmer’s life, which is hand to mouth depending on the season.

Yeah, totally. So I don’t know what was driving me. It probably was bigger than me. Some may say it was sort of a dare but I don’t actually think that’s true. I think I was really compelled to make this thing and put this into the world. And I scrapped together the people that would do that and the small resources that were going to make that happen. It didn’t seem like there was another option. And it hasn’t since. It hasn’t seemed like there would be another option but to do this.

Do you feel more creative now than you have had as an actor?

Definitely, because I get to actually do it. Because being an actor is being creative once whenever someone let’s you be creative. It’s a different kind of creativity. You know, there are some days that I miss the little corner of the script that an actor occupies because being an Executive/Artistic Director you have to have your eyes on everything which for me is very creative for other people that’s overwhelming. My creative muscle turns out to be a broader brush.

I wanted to ask you this. Your self-esteem in 2009 when you were acting, your self esteem now? Don’t you feel that that is directly contributed to and, I’m not trying to put words in your mouth, your sense of creative output and reflection?

Oh hell yes. Totally. I call it I’m in the pocket. I was out of the pocket and I didn’t know it. I was in this free fall. But when you’re in the pocket, you know it. It’s just not as hard. And people are like, what do you mean it’s not as hard, you’re running a not for profit it’s gotta be hard. Yeah, but it’s not as hard as the other thing was. But that’s personal. You’re sort of vibrating at a frequency that is just working, instead of something that is dissonant.

Interview by Tanisha Christie

Tanisha Christie is a producing filmmaker/performer and creative strategist. A certified spinning instructor and yoga enthusiast, she loves the beach and her white Specialized road bike.  She’s hard at work on her next documentary project and too many other things. www.tanishachristie.com @tanishachristie

Comment

Outside of the Colour Box with Amie Batalibasi

Comment

Outside of the Colour Box with Amie Batalibasi

Stereotypically speaking, walking around most urban areas means you're faced with the requisite dilapidated building, an abundance of rats and lots of street art (Lower East Side anyone?). While the majority of us pass by edifices that have long since retired without so much as a second glance, some of us wonder how the burnt down pizzeria on our corner might look as a cultural center or a restaurant or even an art gallery.

It takes a keen eye and a desire to create something new to take the time and energy to re-claim a space. Amie Batalibasi, Australian filmmaker and the creator of Colour Box Studio, wanted to create a place for artists to promote their work, exchange ideas, and learn new skills. In 2012, Amie decided to turn an old tattoo parlour into  just that. Working with a dedicated team of volunteers and an exceptional drive, Amie createed a space that has turned into a communal and artistic hub in Footscray, a diverse and artistic inner city suburb in Melbourne, Australia. CultureFphiles spoke with Amie about the process of creating something out of nothing, why Footscray is such a special place to live and the importance of promoting your work.

You created Colour Box Studio in late 2012 after noticing an old tattoo parlor you wanted to change into a community hub/creative space. What sparked your interest in reclaiming that space?

The tattoo parlor was pretty awesome – it had skulls and roses painted on the outside! And although the interior was dull and dark, as soon as I stepped inside the building, I knew that it was the right space. It had a shop front, a large room in the back and a courtyard outside. In my mind, I immediately saw these three spaces filled with art, creative workshops, pop up shops, events, community and creative people! So in one month on a shoe string budget, with the help of an awesome team of volunteers, we plastered, sanded, painted, knocked things down, built things and transformed the tattoo parlor into Colour Box Studio. It was such a wonderful show of community spirit and we opened with a bang on November 7th 2012 – 140 people through the door in one evening!

I know that as an artist, there are challenges to generate income and find support, a lack of opportunities to showcase work and a need to network with like minded people. So I guess I hoped to fill some of those gaps...it was really important for it to be set up by artists and creative people for artists and creative people.

Why did you think it was important that Colour Box Studio exist? What sort of need did you envision it fulfilling? 

Because I have a creative practice myself [as a documentary filmmaker and community arts practitioner], I know that as an artist, there are challenges to generate income and find support, a lack of opportunities to showcase work and a need to network with like minded people. So I guess I hoped to fill some of those gaps and address some of those issues with Colour Box Studio. And it was really important for it to be set up by artists and creative people for artists and creative people. In the short time that we have been open [8 months], I think that we have achieved some of this vision.We’ve showcased over 100 artists through our programs and enabled artists to gain an income through our Pop Up Shops and facilitating workshops. We’ve also run events and exhibitions that are free and accessible to the broader community.

For folks unfamiliar with Melbourne, Australia, what is Footscray like? What makes the neighborhood so special to you?

Footscray is unlike any other place I know and it’s a very unique suburb of Melbourne. The most notable thing is that it's rich in cultural diversity...I’ve lived here for over 6 years and can’t imagine living anywhere else in Melbourne. The thing that makes Footscray special to me is the sense of community – it’s not just a suburb, it’s a community of diverse people and cultures...sometimes a walk in Footscray can feel like you’ve traveled to another country.

As an Australian Solomon Islander, coming from a diverse background myself, I feel really comfortable here. Also, there’s a bit of a rising art scene – there are quite a few galleries and artist run spaces and we’re happy to be one of them! I just hope that with all of the recent gentrification and new development in the area that Footscray can hold onto its unique character. The building where Colour Box Studio is at the moment will actually be knocked down next year to make way for 12 Storey apartments – so we have to relocate at some point.

Most people who see a space and have a dream to create something from it are stopped by a number of challenges. What inspired you to move forward on this idea? What were the first steps you took to make that a reality?

Yes, I would agree that there are so many challenges in terms of following your creative dreams whatever they may be. I knew nothing about setting up a creative space – all I knew was that I had an amazing creative network that would be able to use and benefit from Colour Box Studio so I just jumped right in. I am a pretty determined person – once I have my sights set on something I give it everything I’ve got. I am lucky to have had strong women role models in my life to look up to. The first steps I made were to educate myself – I researched other creative business models and I spoke to a few people running them.

The most important thing I did was to consult with my creative networks...I think that for me, the three key elements to setting up Colour Box Studio were persistence, team work and listening to my community. These are still key to how we operate.

The most important thing I did was to consult with my creative networks, invite them to the space in the middle of construction phase and ask them over a glass of wine, what they could see happening in the space and how it could benefit a place like it. From there I ‘rallied the troops’ (volunteers) and promoted like crazy. I think that for me, the three key elements to setting up Colour Box Studio were persistence, team work and listening to my community. These are still key to how we operate.

What have been some of your challenges and how have you overcome them? What keeps you moving through these challenges? 

Running Colour Box Studio is a volunteer position for me and everyone involved and it seems that everyday a new obstacle presents itself! One challenge would be that everything we do is for the first time, so we are constantly learning! We have run four completely different programs accessing very different artforms and creative communities - an Art & Craft Program, Digital Media Program, Ethical Fashion Program and a Writing and Performance Program. Our next program will be Music and Sound...the good thing is that with every program, we increase our networks for the next time.

It has sometimes been hard to find media opportunities in more mainstream media – especially with one big Australian newspaper stating that we’re 'not newsworthy enough.' We don’t have an advertising budget so we have to think creatively about how to promote our artists and programs for free. So we’ve really tried to focus on local newspapers and bloggers who have been very supportive. And we’re really trying to grow the Colour Box Studio blog with quality content written by our volunteer blogger team. Of course, we’re all over social networking! I think that the small successes along the way keep me inspired – whether it be someone coming in to buy a locally produced item in our Pop Up Shop, seeing a local musician perform at an event or attending a creative workshop by a local artist. This is why we’re here – to provide a platform for artists to pursue their creative passions and that’s the vision that keeps me inspired.

It’s been really tough starting out and getting our name out there – and it’s been a big learning curve personally. I think what has got us through, is the community around us – the amazing volunteers and our creative community. This year we ran a Pozible crowdfunding campaign to raise funds to keep our doors open. Thankfully, we were successful! It was so humbling and awesome to see that our community really wants us to be here!

How do you manage the responsibilities of running Colour Box Studio and other areas of your life?

Finding work/life balance is tricky for me. Apart from volunteering to run Colour Box Studio I am a documentary filmmaker, media trainer and community arts practitioner. At the moment I am making a documentary film called Fishing for Culture about people from diverse cultural backgrounds who like to fish; and I’m also volunteering for a group called the Australian South Sea Islander Secretariat – a group that works to be a representative voice for the descendants of 62,000 Pacific islanders who were brought to Australia in the late 19th Century to work on the cotton and sugar cane fields as laborers. So I am busy - but very happy and lucky to be busy! The truth is that I work a lot (people often get emails from me sent late at night!), but these are the things that I am passionate about so I am driven to do them! And I can say that I truly love the work that I do.

You've gotten a lot of folks on board as volunteers for the project. How did you manage to do that? What do you think was the draw for people to get involved?

Colour Box Studio is 100% volunteer run and operated. I think that this helps us to build a sense of community around what we do and it means that everyone who is here, really wants to be here and shares the vision of supporting our creative community. At first I used my own networks to get people on board, and now through word of mouth and social networking people are coming on board. Our most recent volunteer found us on Twitter! I think that people want to be involved at Colour Box Studio because it's a chance to give back to community and we provide hands on experience...but also I think that our volunteers like to be a part of our community, they can network and meet other creative people here.

When we started in November 2012 I had no idea what I was doing and no experience in setting up a creative space. It was like starting from scratch again. I had no business plan and I had no processes and procedures in place!

How has creating Colour Box Studio differed from the creative process of making a film? How has it been similar?

I think that some skills from my filmmaking practice like project management, managing people, producing skills, organizational skills, teaching skills etc. comes in handy. [In other ways] setting up Colour Box Studio and running it, is entirely different to my filmmaking practice. My film work is quite diverse – sometimes I am making documentaries for other people, sometimes I am teaching/sharing filmmaking skills with diverse community groups, sometimes I am producing community film projects, sometimes I am working on my own film projects. I have been developing my filmmaking practice over the last few years so I feel like I have been able to hone my creative processes a bit and I have certain ways of working. But in terms of Colour Box Studio – when we started in November 2012 I had no idea what I was doing and no experience in setting up a creative space. It was like starting from scratch again. I had no business plan and I had no processes and procedures in place!

Basically we have been learning as we go, making lots of mistakes and then fixing them. I basically just try to make sure we can keep our heads above water in terms of covering costs and then I try to keep the overall vision of Colour Box Studio strong in my mind and keep moving forward.

Folks tend to have lots of romantic notions of the "life of an artist" or being an entrepreneur. What do you think are the biggest misconceptions?

Hmmm...I’m not sure who thinks that about artists! Maybe because all of the people I know are in creative fields and we all know that it’s a tough gig – especially in the beginning. I know a lot creative people and artists who have to work at another job (that they don’t like that much) to sustain their creative practices. In Australia, it is really difficult to do the creative things that you love full time, and make an income from it. I’m not saying that it can’t be done but it is challenging.

The other thing that I have experienced, is that if you want to be an artist and make a living from it, you have to become a business person as well...the most important lesson was not to be afraid of promoting your work – because basically, if you don’t do it in the beginning no one else will.

That’s part of the reason why I wanted to set up Colour Box Studio – to allow creatives and artists to pursue their creative passions and make a bit of income from it. If we can at least be a stepping-stone for someone on their creative career path, then I am happy...if you want to be an artist and make a living from it, you have to become a business person as well. After university, I did a business short course and found that it was invaluable to have the basics of how to write a business plan, how to do your own accounts and the most important lesson was not to be afraid of promoting your work – because basically, if you don’t do it in the beginning no one else will. And this is probably why we try to promote our artists at Colour Box Studio as best we can.

What legacy are you looking to leave with your work? 

Wow – this is a big question. The word ‘legacy’ is scary especially since I am only 32! Much of my work is collaborative and centered around community, culture, creativity and storytelling. I feel very privileged to work with the people I work with - whether it’s the volunteers at the studio, participants and collaborators in film projects, or the audiences and communities around that. I think that with whatever I do, I can only strive to give it 100% effort and 100% honesty in terms of setting out to achieve my aims and objectives. If by doing that, my work can help to create a little bit of positive change for people and communities, then that's an added bonus.

 

Interview by Jahan Mantin

Feature image by Rachel Main

Comment

Social Change + Art in Tanisha Christie's film, Walk With Me

Comment

Social Change + Art in Tanisha Christie's film, Walk With Me

tanishawithcamera

You know how most documentaries feature a slew of talking heads lamenting about dying whales or something? You know you should be interested but then you doze off and wake up with a crick in your neck and drool on your chin from falling asleep on the couch? Let's be honest - sometimes a really compelling documentary can be hard to pull off. It takes a good story, interesting subjects, great footage and a whole lot of other things I'm completely unaware of to make it enticing. Drawing from a well of creativity coupled with incredible drive and determination, filmmaker Tanisha Christie directed and produced the film Walk With Me along with her co-director and co-producer, Ellie Walton; a process that has taken over five years. Inspired by her mentor and teacher, Rebecca Rice, Walk With Me profiles three women who use theater to inspire and connect with people in overlooked communities e.g. prisons and schools. The result is a compelling, interesting, moving, and inspiring documentary film about giving voice to the people often deemed voiceless and allowing them to access their own sense of power through theater, play, and discovery.

I'm not the only person diggin' the film. Walk With Me has been screened at multiple film festivals and has been used for educational presentations at various national universities; the film also won honorable mention at the 2012 San Francisco Black Film Festival and most recently, Best Documentary Feature at the Our City Film Festival in Washington, DC. Christie beautifully shared her creative process with CultureFphiles as well as the importance of yoga and cocktails to help make it through the challenging times.

Walk With Me is inspired by your relationship with your mentor, Rebecca Rice, who is one of the three women featured in the film. What about your relationship with her inspired you to make the film?

I met Rebecca while I was the Assistant Director at the former Living Stage Theater Company in Washington, DC. Working there was a pivotal time in my development as an artist because that experience not only deepened my craft as a performer and educator; I learned the responsibility of being an artist and while the nurturing of my own voice has value, there is significant value in sharing the creative process with others.

Rebecca brought an amazing amount of integrity to her creative work and taught me that process was just as important as the product. It is rare to find teachers or mentors who are so good at reflecting you back to yourself - for better or worse - she did that for me. She was adamant in giving me tools to figure out the 'whys' of wanting to make art - What stories did I want to tell? What songs did I want to sing and for what purpose? She would often challenge, 'you can sing in the shower, write a poem for yourself, but the minute you desire to share it with the world, what do you want the audience to experience? Why should they pay money to see it or hear it?' She firmly believed in the artist’s role in culture and society; and taught me to take great care in my role by having respect for myself as a theater artist.

In making Walk With Me, we, [Ellie Walton Co-Producer/Co-Director], wanted to share a slice of Rebecca’s story and the stories of our friends and colleagues who are doing similar work inspired by the same passions. When artists and community workers talk about ‘arts activism’ or ‘arts for social change,’ most don’t understand what that means. Instead of theater artists simply “talking” about this kind of creative work, we wanted to show what making theater with people actually looked like. We wanted viewers to witness the process and see how others' were moved by the experience.

What has it been like collaborating on the project with your partner, Ellie? What have you discovered in undertaking a project of this magnitude with another person?

Ellie and I had the rare gift of having the same artistic vision for the film. I enjoy collaboration immensely and both of us respect the concepts connected to having a process around making something – for example,  experimentation, taking-time, critical feedback. We also shared a huge respect for deadlines. You know how it is, we creative-types, we can sit in the nuances of our muse for a long time. At times, one of us would say, 'Let’s just try it this way and leave it!' Don’t get me wrong, we had disagreements and were frustrated by each other. We have very different working styles. But we left our egos at the door, knowing that what we wanted to achieve was greater. We wanted to make the most beautiful film we could make with the resources we had available. Period. I guess we were blessed with ignorance, in some ways. While we knew that making the film was going to be difficult, [Walk With Me is Walton's third feature length and Christie's first feature length film], we didn’t know what challenges were actually going to present themselves and thankfully, we’re both comfortable with being in the unknown.

Our real roadblocks were money and time. And our imagined roadblocks were money and time.

You've been working on Walk With Me for the past five years. How do you get through the real and imagined road blocks to manifesting your vision for the film?

Our real roadblocks were money and time. And our imagined roadblocks were money and time. Even though the means for filmmaking are getting easier, there are still costs associated with making a film. We raised 20% of what was needed to make the film; this was pre-Kickstarter so it was primarily done through Facebook , email campaigns, fundraising events and grants from Humanities Council of Washington, DC and the DC Commission on the Arts and Humanities which we are extremely grateful to. We decided that we were not going to let money deter us. We capitalized on relationships; we had an amazing co-producer named Cat Mallone who came on to the project, amazing support from friends, family, cut costs where we could, and paid for essentials like licensing rights, animation, sound mastering, etc. Time and distance was a challenge because we both had to earn a living, Ellie was teaching and working on other projects in Washington, DC and I was in New York holding down a demanding corporate job. We essentially ‘stayed the course’ and didn’t focus too much on what we lacked but what we had keeping our vision in our sights.

But really I think we got through the blocks with well-timed cocktails and lots of yoga.

How do you move through any doubts, fears, or uncertainties as you continue to work on the film? Are there ever moments where you feel like giving up? Or where you question your commitment to the project?

We were fueled by the labor of love. I know that sounds cheesy but it’s true. We also allowed ourselves to take breaks from the project when, either our schedules were too tight or we were getting burnt out. I feel like we managed our uncertainty by becoming very protective of what we were making. The vision of the project changed three or four times, so there was a lot on the editing room floor, so to speak. And for me, they felt like huge losses but I had to quickly accept this as part of the process of filmmaking. I never feared that we weren’t going to make the film, I feared that it wouldn’t be seen which was a whole other part of this process – making the film is one thing…sharing it with the world is another, which is where we are with the film now. This is the aspect of this project that is the most tedious and time consuming in a different way and the least glamorous. I give up once a month. We’ve had some successes and some disappointments in this area, but I’m committed. I can’t see spending years making something and not giving a good go of sharing it with others. I suppose, this is where my tenacity meets my passion.

What keeps you motivated, inspired, and moving forward?

I’m not quite sure beyond a deep understanding that this is what I’m supposed to be doing although, I often go through periods of feeling lost and unsure. So I have to pay attention to each moment.

I just presented an excerpt of the film to 500 Juniors, Seniors and their teachers at the San Diego School of the Creative and Performing Arts, which is an amazing public school. These students were inspired and articulate about their chosen craft be it visual art, dance, music or theater. I was honored to be invited to speak to them about my creative career, which has taken many twists and turns. I had such a great time talking with them and they seemed to enjoy the presentation….so having 500 people clap, cheer and show appreciation…. yeah…that’ll keep me going for a long while.

Do you feel a sense of satisfaction when you have "finished" creating a piece of art? This question extends to your work as an actor and singer as well. Are you able to be present or feel a sense of finality in your accomplishments?

Ha. I hardly feel satisfied and accomplished! But I suppose, something is "finished" for me, when I decide to share it but at times, even after the audiences’ response, the show/performance/story, I might feel that more work needs to be done. So, I developed a part of my process that is called, 'Tanisha, put the project down' where I just force myself to stop nitpicking the project and myself in order to let my muse breathe.

I have yet to feel a sense of finality with anything that I’ve created. I guess I feel like my creative life is an extended novel, and with each project/show/performance it’s another chapter in an evolving story in my growth as an interdisciplinary artist.

Even with the film, if we were to watch it together, I can tell you everything that’s "wrong" with it. Or when I perform, even after the applause, I’m critiquing my performance. I’ve accepted these quirks and my perfectionism as a part of my process so I work on being kind to myself in these aspects. But no, I have yet to feel a sense of finality with anything that I’ve created. I guess I feel like my creative life is an extended novel, and with each project/show/performance it’s another chapter in an evolving story in my growth as an interdisciplinary artist.

What have you learned from this process? What are some of the things you were most surprised by?

I’ve accepted that I’m a whirling dervish when it comes to my creative life. I’ve begun to understand that, for me, content dictates form, meaning I have an idea and then my muse aids me in choosing how or if I will manifest it. And while this poses its ownchallenges around mastery of craft, time, and resources, I’m surprised by how deep of a creative well I have left.

Check out more information on Walk With Me.

Words by Jahan Mantin

Photo credit: JD Urban

Comment