(If These Trees Could) Shop Talk: Actor & Writer Isabella Star LaBlanc

Posted September 23, 2020

Isabella Blog Image

Isabella Star LaBlanc is a stage and screen actor, a writer, a poet and an activist hailing from Minnesota. And while she's working with us for the first time, she is not new to APT. Read more about Isabella below, and get your tickets to "If These Trees Could Talk" to experience some of her work.

APT: Brenda DeVita described you as a poet, a playwright, an actor and an activist. Can you give us a brief origin story – a little about your life, how you got into the arts, and your work around the country?
Isabella Star LaBlanc: I was born and raised in Minnesota and sort of stumbled into theater and started acting regionally before I was ten. My father’s family is from the Sisseton Wahpeton Dakota reservation in South Dakota, but I was raised in the city. Growing up, I was often the only Native kid in class, and theater was a welcome place where it didn’t feel like I had to carry stories on my own. Being onstage was where I could be seen, or heard, in a way that wasn’t afforded to me elsewhere.

Over the course of my career I’ve been lucky enough to work on stages in Minnesota and around the country, primarily on new works and adaptations, some Indigenous roles, some that became Indigenous when I played them.

In my time on the road, while making a living playing other people, poetry has become an extension of how I tell stories. Writing is a way for me to stay connected to where I’m from, even when I am a way. To make space for the stories I myself carry.

I come from a people of storytellers and I like to believe my work, be that as an actor or writer, allows me to honor all the ones that came before me.

APT: I heard that that you came to APT with your grandmother as a child. Could you talk a little about that?
ISB: Yes! My grandmother loves theater, and especially Shakespeare. When I was in High school we would meet her in Spring Green and spend a weekend seeing as many shows as we could. Some of my favorite plays to this day, I saw for the first time at APT (Special shout out to my collaborator Jim DeVita, who’s performance in APT’s production of An Iliad, I still consider to be one of my favorite theater experiences ever).

APT: How did you get involved with If These Trees Could Talk?
ISB: Last month, Sarah Bellamy, the brilliant AD of the Penumbra Theater, reached out and asked if she could put me in touch with a theater looking for a Native writer. If Sarah says I should talk to someone, I’m gonna talk to them-- and then when I found out it was Brenda and APT, I was sold. I couldn’t get to Wisconsin fast enough.

APT: Can you tell me a little about the process that went into curating the pieces that went into the tour script, and how the writers’ room worked together on the original works? How did you determine which works to include?
ISB: This process was pretty special, and being that none of us had ever created a show quite like this before, it felt like we were getting to create a new method in real time. After our first week, we joked that we were already experts in this process, even though we ourselves had only been working with it for a few days. That’s how natural it felt.

We started by combing through books and writers that we loved, and collecting writing that all three of us felt “spoke” to the piece. Most of these were writers of color, and writers with a focus on relationships with the natural world. Then one night, we took all those pieces and threw them at the wall (figuratively and literally) to create something that felt like a narrative or conversation. From there we worked on getting rights and further tailoring our story.

For every piece we weren’t able to get rights to, we asked ourselves “Okay. What purpose does this specific piece serve as at this point in our conversation?” We would talk it out and then one of us would use that intention as a prompt to begin something new, before passing it along to the other two to build, until we had a new piece that still fit nicely into that portion of the script. In the end, we would have a poem completely different than the original writing we had in its place, but was even more specific to our conversation. There was something so satisfying about finishing a piece that didn’t even feel like your own. Even though I could recognize my own words, they were so effortlessly blended with Melisa’s and Jim’s that it felt it belonged to none of us. Jim coined the author name “IsMeJi” for those poems (Is for Isabella, Me for Melisa, and Ji for Jim), a testament to the fact that none of those pieces would be possible without the three of our voices.

We really set out to create a show that highlighted ancient and unheard voices, it only felt right that in the process we also created a new one.

At its heart “If Tree Could Talk” is a testament to the fact that this land has her own stories. The woods, the hill, the trails, have always colored the stories this theater has told atop them. We worked to create an experience that reminds us all of the history of this place, of those who loved it first, and in doing so, introduces a new understanding of our relationship to the natural world.

APT: What are some of your favorite things about the tour – which poems/poets speak to you, and what is your favorite part of the experience?
ISB: I’m not a parent, but I imagine picking a favorite poem is akin to picking a favorite child (impossible and would probably upset someone) so I won’t go there. But I will say that the range of talented writers and styles in this piece is pretty astounding. I think my favorite part of this piece is hearing all these voices side-by-side in conversation with each other. It’s a country in and of itself, one that is both rich and diverse, and intrinsically connected.

APT: What do you hope the audience will take from this?
ISB: I’m obviously very biased, but I think our writer’s room taped into something pretty amazing for this process. APT and my lovely fellows creators, created a space that I believe is the future of theater, one that is communal and reciprocal. One that holds us accountable to each other, and encourages each individual voice. My hope is that every one who experiences this show, gets to experience a little bit of what it was like to create it. That they leave inspired by collaboration, be that between trees or people.

For tickets and more information on "If These Trees Could Talk" visit the APT website.