interview: Damaris Webb

For number nine in the interview series, we check in with Damaris Webb, whose show THE BOX MARKED BLACK is on at the IFCC through February 24.

Damaris Webb.  Photo: Laurie Anne Lynch.
Damaris Webb. Photo: Laurie Anne Lynch.

Hi Damaris. Can you tell us a bit about your background. Where did you grow up?

I was born in Dar-Es-Salaam Tanzania (dad was working as part of USAID), came to Portland when I was 3. Lived in house that has been in family since the 1950’s in Irvington. In third grade went to Botswana, returned to Fernwood Middle school in 6th grade. Went to Jefferon HS (full time) for all four years of high school.

When did you start getting into theatre?

My folks were/are part of a Great Books Group since 1959 (when they were single and carefree). One summer, they were discussing a Shakespeare play, which someone pointed out was being produced that summer in Ashland, so they decided to make a road trip down to check it out. So began an annual tradition (still going on today-three generations now). So from a little girl, one of our big family trips was down to OSF, and I remember the thrill and importance of when I was finally declared mature enough to go to the evening play (I think Romeo & Juliet or Midsummer). That set the importance for me. Also, when we lived in Botswana, my parents, with some ex-pats, decided to put on a version of Hans Christen Anderson’s The Snow Queen, in an old church. I was given the part of Wenke the Robber Girl. It was a novelty enough (in a country where there was no electricity, except in the capital, and only one stop light in the whole country), that the President’s wife came to see it. That also made a huge impression on me. And then, Jefferson. I had wonderful teachers and the school had wonderful programs – very vibrant and experimental.

You got an MFA in Theater Contemporary Performance at Naropa University. What was that program like?

Naropa is a Buddhist inspired university, so that contemplative frame work, including sitting practice, was such the right frame to have around the MFA program that is rooted deeply in creating your own work and in ensemble development. Supporting sanity and equanimity as an artist. Deep and rich studies in Viewpoints, Contemplative Dance Practice, Psychophysical Acting, Developmental Movement and Body-Mind-Centering work, Roy Hart Vocal Technique, Performance Studies, Butoh, and various Contemporary Performance guest artists sharing techniques for creating original performance, (self scripting, choreography, etc). Also other Portland based artists have graduated from the MFA (Bobby & Tyler Ryan of Lights Up Productions, Kate Sanderson Holly, Jacob Coleman, & Amber Whitehall of PETE).

Who were some key early influences on your aesthetic and practice, either in terms of playwrights, actors, or non traditional theatre makers and performers?

One year at Jefferson I went on one of those NYC theater tours with other HS theater students from Portland. We stayed in Times Square and saw Cats, & 42nd street, etc. Then, one night, someone with some willingness to ask questions and take a risk, took us to see an adaptation of Alice in Wonderland by some small local theater company, produced in a cramped black box, on the second floor above a restaurant. This was the first time I understood how theater could be intimate and magical and surprisingly creative and deeply personal, and that a show could be a play with music without being a musical!

You have practiced and studied many kinds of contemporary theatre and dance. How would you describe the kind of theatre you make?

My work lives in the intersection of contemplative dance, improvisational performance art, and contemporary theater. It is often seen in non-traditional performance venues such as late night parties, warehouses, church basements, or the Aegean Sea. It is sometimes epic and may involve zombies, superheroes (or sock puppets).

As a theater maker, I believe in the power of the ensemble, in a non-hierarchal approach to theater making, and in acts of graciousness and generosity. My approach to creating work is physically based, Brechtian, and deconstructionist. Through varied post-modern composition techniques, improvisation and awareness practices I draw inspiration from the spaces between and look for the edge of not knowing while using everything. I value collaborative creation, rigor and transparency in process and product. I trust in the exchange between audience and performance and it’s power to educate and evoke questions of oneself, one’s society and the nature of things.

You have been involved in street theater in New York. Can you describe what that was like?

Trust in your skill set, lots of crafting & costume, generosity to the public, staying in the moment, being flexible, figuring out how to carry your metro card, ID, cell phone and lipstick on your body, often staying up very very late to perform. Being gracious. New Yorkers specifically love to participate in spectacle.

Some YouTube videos:

my annual zombie walk

Emperor Satan’s Roco-coach, with Zeroboy & crew, NYC Halloween Parade

somaphrase: dancing the translation with the modern dance awareness society in Andros, Greece

How long have you been performing THE BOX MARKED BLACK, and how long did it take you to develop it?

Production History:

The exploration started out as a 10 minute piece at graduate school, and I returned to it in the summer of 2011 as a possible solo piece. The Box Marked Black: Tales from a Halfrican-American Growing up Mulatto. With sock puppets! was first produced as a-work-in progress at NYC’s Dixon Place in February 2012. During June of 2012, it was included in Portland, Oregon’s 1Festival of Original Works and presented at Boulder, Colorado’s The We’re House. This past summer it was accepted to NYC’s The United Solo Festival, and for inclusion in All For One Theater’s Festival Salon (unfortunately I had a conflict of dates teaching and performing in Greece). In November of 2012 it was presented at Community College of Denver’s Studio Theatre in the King Center, hosted in part by the college’s Diversity Department, and in December 2012 it was awarded an Oregon Regional Arts and Culture Council Grant for a three week run at Portland’s Ethos/IFCC Theater in February of 2013.

Do you have plans to take it anywhere else after the Portland run?

Festivals, and higher education tours (and I VERY much would like to bring it to Jefferson High School – any one out there who can help navigate this?)

When you look across the whole field of contemporary entertainment and performance in the US, including genres like traditional theatre, devised work, standup, improv, comedy and everything else – do you have any opinions about where the real action is? Are some areas more fertile or vibrant right now than others?

I don’t know about the whole field, but it does seem to me there is more and more respect for ensemble theater makers, those who train and work together for years. And maybe also a new understanding of a non-hierarchal approach to making theater.

It can be hard to make a living in theatre. And yet there seem to be more and more theatre artists such as yourself creating their own work, producing and touring it. How do you see the national theatre climate changing regarding what you do? Is it easier today to do what you do than it was say ten years ago?

The internet has made publicizing a lot lot easier. But making the work is still just as much of an endeavor of love. There does seem to be more of an interest in storytelling currently.

I seem to ask almost everyone I interview a question about the importance of marketing and building a channel to the audience. What do you think is harder: creating a great show, or bringing in an audience to see it?

I have yet to see a training program that includes a real emphasis on teaching the artists marketing, or even how to talk with others about the work you are making, so this is difficult. I suspect for most of us it is difficult to be birthing a new work and have time and energy to network in those oh so important last weeks (or month) before the show. For some years in NYC I was the artistic director of a small theater company. We had another theater company who we were friendly with. Our aesthetic of creating work was quite different, but our values similar enough, that we got on famously. We would plan our seasons together so that we could run tech for each other and help with marketing and all the behinds the scene stuff that is hard to do when you are in the thick of creating. This worked very well for us both, and is a model I that I wish I could see more often. As an artist and a business person, I firmly believe “we are backed by the land of plenty”. There is enough of everything to go around, and I am eager to think with others on new ways to support a vibrant and inquisitive theater culture in Portland.

Thanks, Damaris. Good luck with the show!