Brenda DeVita on the new 'Out of the Woods' play readings

Posted October 21, 2020

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We chatted with Artistic Director Brenda DeVita about the latest play readings, which will begin their run on PBS Wisconsin's website November 6.

We are so excited to bring a second series of 'Out of the Woods' play readings to a small screen near you! The three new additions to the series - The Sins of Sor Juana by Karen Zacarías, Nat Turner in Jerusalem by Nathan Alan Davis and Smart People by Lydia R. Diamond - will post to PBS Wisconsin's website beginning November 6, and once posted will be available to watch on-demand for free through December 31. You can find more information on the plays including post dates, cast and artists here.

Plays are, to an extent, intangible. Though we would rather experience them on stage and in person, the stories themselves can’t be confined. And it’s a good thing too, because remote storytelling is the way of the 2020 world.

APT’s first round of Out of the Woods play readings came in like a lion, and the company learned and evolved as the series progressed. APT’s actors and artistic staff worked tirelessly to identify, rehearse and record a series of mostly public-domain classics. The goal was to get those stories to the audience with APT’s usual precision, and attention to language and story. But also as quickly as possible in order to bring some comfort in a time when we were all blindsided by crisis.

Artistic Director Brenda DeVita recently said (from her office via Zoom, because that’s the world we live in now), “The first set of plays were such a fever. And we were so proud of them - that we were one of the first arts institutions out there doing effective play readings. We were really proud of the quality, and PBS was such a great partner. And it just spoke to what comes next. After they concluded, we were eager to work with PBS again, and eager to focus our attention on BIPOC (Black, Indigenous and People of Color) voices. It seemed imperative and it seemed right. And so we started to work on finding new plays almost immediately after we closed the ones on PBS in August.”

The approach to selecting and casting and creating this new round of play readings had to move with more consideration, while maintaining urgency. Where the first stories were by and large familiar to APT, everything in this second round is novel, and took some time to explore with the artists APT hoped to involve in the process.

“We started to read and reread, and talk to authors, and talk to actors, and talk to directors about pieces that we thought would be in line with what we wanted to be doing, and in line with APT's mission,” Brenda said. “And we knew that they had to be thoughtful and beautifully poetic, as well as ring true for the artists working on them. We needed to try to create a space where that was a joyful and meaningful space for them to work, as much as possible.”

After months of processing, the creative team came to this new trio of stories. They fit within APT’s mission to expand the notion of what’s considered a “classic,” while bringing a variety of perspectives to our newfound Zoom stage. And while they’re stories about the lived experiences of BIPOC people from the 1600s to the 1800s to the 2000s, they’re also stories about faith and feminism; knowledge and relationships. The stories of humanity that we’ve come to expect from the very best plays on our stages.

“Every step we take on our journey is to immerse ourselves in a more equitable theater space, and a more equitable understanding of the world we live in, through great writing and great poetry and great stories. And this is an amazing opportunity for us to read and explore all kinds of poets. We go to theater to see ourselves, as well as to understand others. And great plays do both. We find ourselves inside of those stories, and then go, wow, I never thought of it like that. The best stories are always about discovery, and those are the plays we were, and are, looking for.”

Out of the Woods

Begins November 6 on

Brenda: “I think that the common theme is that human beings are just trying to get through this life with some idea of why we’re here. And that's what the pieces are about. They all really speak to us, and point out our differences, but also bind us and connect us with one another in a way that shows that we’re all undoubtedly, inextricably linked. Because we are, on a primal level, all up against the same concerns.”

November 6

The Sins of Sor Juana
By Karen Zacarías
Directed by Jake Penner

“Juana’s work was to change the world as far as what was possible for women,” Brenda said. “And we are still in that space. And I think that the director, Jake Penner, has this brilliant mind for detecting what is what is valuable in a piece of writing and what is what is approachable and accessible. And I felt like when he read Sor Juana, he was immediately like, ‘Oh, this is perfect for APT. This is a writer we all should know, and this is a story we all should have known. She’s a brilliant poet who lived an inspiring life.’ And Jake, as a Mexican American, was really thrilled to get to work on a piece that was of his heritage, when there’s not necessarily many opportunities for him to do that. I think it was just a great for him, and for APT, to get to work on something that was important to him. And there was a great part for Melisa. I mean, it's like it was written for her, so that was exciting. And I've known some of Karen’s work, and this was a great piece to start. She has a lot of plays we'd like to look at more closely, so that's exciting.”

November 13

Nat Turner in Jerusalem
By Nathan Alan Davis
Directed by Gavin Lawrence

“So, I reached out to Nathan Davis, he immediately texted me back, and I said ‘I just read three of your plays. And I don’t know why I didn’t know your work before.’ He's so brave in his writing style. And so poignant, and I just I just loved meeting him and getting to get to know his work, and I'm excited to whatever that brings for our future,” Brenda said. “And with Nat Turner, I wanted something for Gavin to be able to really dig into. Gavin has a deep, profound love of language and poetry and great writing. And I think the story of Nat Turner, and the complexity of his life and his actions, I thought it was a really good fit with Gavin’s type of deep thinking and his willingness to embrace the flaws of a character and a human being. And the importance of being able to tell a story about slavery. It's important that we are able to do that, and do it in a beautifully written story, and have it ignite deep and thoughtful ideas to contemplate and consider. And I think that Nat Turner does that beautifully because it is so much about spirituality, and about the larger picture of one's existence. And I feel like that's a place where we can have these difficult, important conversations.”

November 20

Smart People
By Lydia R. Diamond
Directed by Melisa Pereyra

“I talked with Lydia Diamond about her play, which I think is a really extraordinary piece and a really challenging piece,” Brenda said. “And our audience is so smart. And I just thought it was a good match intellectually with our audience, and really timely. And Lydia was so generous and encouraging. And it's exciting to engage artists of color and have them be willing to let us do their work, and have them understand what we're trying to do here and feel like it's important. And to support us in bringing more contemporary writing to this theater, while understanding that we are about the words, and understand how we are inspired by language. And it’s this thoughtful weaving of ideas with words that moves people. And with Melisa at the helm, who is incredibly thoughtful and committed to breaking open complicated conversations, I think this play can really lean in; I think it lets us look through a kind of a window at people having really complicated conversations in front of us, and let’s us see how those conversations can move and change things.”