Learn how you can use your art as a form of resistance, protest, and insurrection with Dominique Morisseau, TONY nominated playwright and MacArthur Genius Grant recipient.
What’s in Store
- Learn about the world of playwriting and how to develop a script.
- Discover how your art can speak to social issues and instigate change.
Prompt #1: Social Junk
Thinking about a time of social junk or social dynamite that we’re in right now, like Damon speaks about in Sunset Baby.
What does social junk look like? What does social dynamite look like?
Imagine you are talking to Kenyatta and he asks, “Which one are you?” What do you say? And what defines you as such?
Prompt #2: Finding Pride
Imagine, like Shanita, that there is a job or a trade or a life that defines you and brings you pride. What is it? What about it gives you pride or purpose?
What would it mean to you if the industry ceased to exist beyond this moment? Is there a part of it that is indestructible to you? What is worth “riding til’ the wheels fall off” in your life?
Prompt #3: Rules of Governance
Imagine, like Omari, of the rules that govern you. If people could know exactly how to treat you to make you emotionally safe and able to exist fully without restriction, what would be your ten-step rules for them to follow?
If you have time, decide who needs to hear these rules first, and set up how you would like to present these rules to them. What is your character’s intro?
Q&A with Dominique Morisseau
You are so creatively curious and committed to many different fields, how do your different creative fields — poetry and playwriting — intersect, and how do you keep them sacred and separate?
That’s a great question. What I can say is that they intersect when they need to. You know, sometimes a poem is just a poem. It only comes to me that way and that’s what it needs to be, and sometimes that same poetry will make its way into a play, or the idea from that poetry will make its way into dialogue when I feel like it needs to be a little more straitlaced. I also think that a lot of my work has poetic voice. You can’t really remove me from who I am and what I write, right? I’m one whole package. So if I think in poetry, if poetry comes to me, it’s gonna come out in my playwriting, and I don’t really work to segregate it, I let the story and the language come to as it feels like it, as it wants to, because that’s how I liberate my own voice as an artist.
What’s the trick to writing dialogue?
Actors, when they want to know how to have deeper characterization as they observe people— we were taught in school you go on observation trips, and you watch people, and you observe and you take note of different idiosyncrasies. And that’s what you learn to embody in yourself as an actor.
I think that’s the same thing for writers. I listen. I listen to language, I listen to podcasts, I like to hear people interview, I like to hear people in their own voice speak about things, you know? Because how someone in New York answers a question is so different than how someone in Detroit or in the South is going to answer that question, so I like to listen to people talking. That’s the one thing that helps me in dialogue writing. And then there are practical things, like I’ll just practice writing without any story attached to it, and sometimes I find the story that way.
For instance, I’ll have one character say, “Hey, where you goin’?” and the next character will say, “Who asked you? Well, why you askin’ me?” And I just gotta go back and forth, back and forth, like let ‘em talk. It doesn’t have to lead anywhere but what do people naturally say when someone says, “Could you get me some more chips from the store?” Then I just have to respond with a counter, you know, like, “Oh, okay, are you gonna give me the money?” And now those people start sounding like somebody to me.
I just let them start talking, I just let them talk it out until they figure out who they are, right? So there’s ways to work on dialogue writing by itself that is separate from trying to fit that into story and narrative.
But I think listening to people talk is great. I recommend for everybody to listen to The Moth podcast, it is one of my favorite things to listen to. It is people telling their own true stories in their own words and I love it. Hearing people in their own words tell their story inspires me as an artist if I’m trying to recreate them for a story I’m writing.
What role does the choreopoem play today?
In terms of the choreopoem genre, I think you have to tell a story in whatever form that fits your heart in that moment. I returned to a different version of the choreopoem format when I was working on Blood at the Root. I was working with Penn State students, and I was trying to take all of these different stories, and I find that the choreopoem format works when it’s a looser structure, and when I want to go from a scene to having people just start rhyming and spit, you know? Or I want to go from that to, like, a choral conversation. I hear it in different ways, and so a choreopoem works for that because it allows you to do what you want to do.
I think what I’ve learned from the first choreopoem I ever wrote to the second one and the third is the storyline streaming. So even when I go back to poetry, I’ve now learned how to take one story and stay focused on it. Even if I switch form or if I want to go into a rap here, I’m still trying to tell one specific story of what somebody wants, the basics. You know, like what somebody wants and what they’re willing to do to get it, whether they’re going to fight or die for it, or willing to walk away from it. And whether it’s a piece of cake or a dream. People— we just have something we want really badly that we’re willing to do anything for that usually helps push a story forward.
What advice do you have for young black people who want to join the industry?
My advice for anybody wanting to join the industry is don’t join an industry. Be an artist. Don’t worry about joining an industry. You don’t have to join an industry to be an artist.
I think that, in the spirit of freedom, if you are worried about what you want to say, and how you want to say it, everything else will come to you. To want to get that work out there into the world, that is all that is required and that is output. ‘Cause you cannot control outcome, ever. But you can control output. The more I create and make available to the world, I am putting out work.
I can’t control after, because once I put that out, Spike Lee’s gonna look at it and say, “Hey, I want to produce that!” That I can’t control. But I can control what I make available. My husband has this thing— he’s a music artist, a hip-hop artist, and for a very long time, he’d be really perfectionist about his stuff. He wouldn’t put stuff out, and we both decided, like, “Hey, this is music, put it in the world! What are we waiting on?”
Waiting for these perfect stars to align so that the right people can see it, that’s trying to be in an industry. But if you’re trying to be an artist, there is no industry of your art. You are everything. If you’re only trying to be part of an industry, then that means you are only going to be an artist so much as other people allow you to be. But if you’re an artist, you make all of the rules for how your art will go out into the world. And people have to come to you, so I just want to shift the thinking a little bit to that. Think about creating as opposed to joining. Join a movement, but create your art. And create a movement.
This event was originally recorded on October 30th, 2020.
Dominique Morisseau is the author of The Detroit Project (A 3-Play Cycle) which includes the following plays: Skeleton Crew (Atlantic theater Company), Paradise Blue (Signature Theatre), and Detroit ’67 (Public Theater, Classical Theater of Harlem and NBT). Additional plays include: Pipeline (Lincoln Center Theatre), Sunset Baby (LAByrinth Theatre), Blood at the Root (National Black Theatre) and Follow Me To Nellie’s (Premiere Stages). She is also the TONY nominated book writer on the new Broadway musical Ain’t Too Proud — The Life and Times of the Temptations (Imperial Theatre). Dominique is the alumna of The Public Theater Emerging Writer’s Group, Women’s Project Lab, and Lark Playwrights Workshop and has developed work at Sundance Lab, Williamstown Theatre Festival and Eugene O’Neil Playwrights Conference. She most recently served as Co-Producer on the Showtime series “Shameless” (3 seasons). Additional awards include: Spirit of Detroit Award, PoNY Fellowship, Sky-Cooper Prize, TEER Trailblazer Award, Steinberg Playwright Award, Audelco Awards, NBFT August Wilson Playwriting Award, Edward M. Kennedy Prize for Drama, OBIE Award (2), Ford Foundation Art of Change Fellowship, Variety’s Women of Impact for 2017-18, and a recent MacArthur Genius Grant Fellow.
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Dominique Morisseau is the author of The Detroit Project (A 3-Play Cycle) which includes the following plays: Skeleton Crew (Atlantic theater Company), Paradise Blue (Signature Theatre), and Detroit '67 (Public Theater, Classical Theater of Harlem and NBT). Additional plays include: Pipeline (Lincoln Center Theatre), Sunset Baby (LAByrinth Theatre), Blood at the Root (National Black Theatre) and Follow Me To Nellie's (Premiere Stages). She is also the TONY nominated book writer on the new Broadway musical Ain't Too Proud — The Life and Times of the Temptations (Imperial Theatre). Dominique is the alumna of The Public Theater Emerging Writer's Group, Women's Project Lab, and Lark Playwrights Workshop and has developed work at Sundance Lab, Williamstown Theatre Festival and Eugene O'Neil Playwrights Conference. She most recently served as Co-Producer on the Showtime series "Shameless" (3 seasons). Additional awards include: Spirit of Detroit Award, PoNY Fellowship, Sky-Cooper Prize, TEER Trailblazer Award, Steinberg Playwright Award, Audelco Awards, NBFT August Wilson Playwriting Award, Edward M. Kennedy Prize for Drama, OBIE Award (2), Ford Foundation Art of Change Fellowship, Variety's Women of Impact for 2017-18, and a recent MacArthur Genius Grant Fellow.