An Interview with Kwame Kwei-Armah as Center Stage’s My America, a new feature film, is released on Fandor July 4

Center Stage announced this week that its digital theater project My America has become a feature length film that will premiere world-wide on July 4, 2014, exclusively through streaming service Fandor, followed by a special July 9 screening at the IFC center in New York City.

Conceived and commissioned in 2012 under the leadership of Center Stage Artistic Director Kwame Kwei-Armah, My America is a digital collection of 50 monologues by a number of contemporary playwrights, including Marcus Gardley, Anna Deavere Smith, and Christopher Durang.

The monologues confront complex topics in the American consciousness from race and religion to the nuances of The American Dream, and are performed by noteworthy actors such as Jefferson Mays (Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder), Kristine Nielsen (Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike), and Tracie Thoms (Rent).

Watch the trailer here: www.fandor.com/films/my_america and find out more about the project in Cara Ober’s Interview with Center Stage Artistic Director Kwame Kwei-Armah.

* Photo above of Kwame Kwei-Armah by Jonathan Newton for Washington Post.

Screen Shot 2014-07-03 at 9.31.16 PM

Film Still from My America

Cara Ober: How did the project come about? 

Kwame Kwei-Armah: The original idea came from my coming to America three years ago. I knew that I would live here with my family and I wanted to know what this country is. I also wondered, who do I trust to tell me? I went out and asked a number of playwrights to write a monologue, with no specific agenda. I asked them to ‘write your America’ and then we asked Hal Hartley to film the performances.

CO: How did the editing process for the film work? 

KKA: We probably reached out to sixty playwrights and around fifty said yes immediately. It has been such a tremendous success. There were so many performances that I loved, that spoke to me about my new country… At the beginning, I thought, Can we make this into a film? We had lots of problems to solve, but we found our way around them. I am thrilled that now it is going to live on Fandor as a feature film.

CO: What is the impact and future of combining theater with digital delivery? How does a camera and the editing process change theater? Is it an art form in itself or documentation of a theatrical performance?

KKA: It’s interesting – we are investigating it. We always thought of it as a media event – where theater and film cross. A lot of interesting work is being done in that arena and we did a big event, where we had live and filmed performances together.

I believe there is a way that ‘live’ can still be live, and doesn’t have to be right there with an audience. I think I can take in art in a televisual way – without performing it live. For example, it’s like growing up, watching a soccer match on TV, thinking it was made for television, but then experiencing it live. It’s completely different, but the Internet generation demands access, that we make it available to as many people as possible.

I don’t think this stops a performance from being theatrical and live… it’s just performed and captured as live.

CO: Let’s talk about art and politics. Many of these monologues are overtly political. Can you have art without politics? What is your personal opinion on this?

KKA: I think that every work of art is a confection and every criticism is an autobiography. It can be political, by the very nature of the confection – with a big or small P. We may assume a piece of art is non-political, but this just means that it supports the status quo. Is this type of work big or small P political? Does it take a political stand? Art has different rules when it is personal.

I think that all art is political, whether we perceive it or not. Families are political, right? Our parents, how we relate to our brothers and sisters, how we lead our lives – do we lead them in opposition or compliance with our family’s ideal? What do we discuss around the dinner table? Families are political. All work is political and all work is not. I think to be human is to be political.

CO: You are British. Tell me more about why you wanted to create this film and narrative about America?

KKA: It allowed me to ask more questions – questions I didn’t even know I had in my mind. In particular, some of the Latino playwrights who participated discussed their immigrant experience in ways I had never realized. I learned that I have a great commonality in the immigrant experience and that this is the big question in the American experience. This film and these monologues explore what the immigrant experience means and how you grow and how you dream in this country.

CO: Traditional theater audiences seem to be shrinking these days, and many young people find the cost prohibitive. Do you think that creating a film of live monologues and making it available on the Internet via Fandor will create a new generation of theater-goers?

KKA: Access is everything to me, and a main goal of this project. I download music and love it. The Internet helps me to discover new music. Although this is pretty inexpensive, when that band comes through town, I will often spend that exorbitant $ to see them live. I don’t agree that theater is too expensive. If we open it up, and provide something that people find interesting, people say, ‘oh this comes out of the theatrical tradition’ and it leads to further exploration.

CO: How has this project and research, and this city, affected you?

KKA: I don’t know if Baltimore has changed me. I definitely have a deeper understanding of the country. I think I know now what I don’t know. I thought I knew the country much better than I did in truth – that’s been the major thing I learned. Also, there is no one, homogenous audiences. Finding ways to please different audiences is tremendously important and time consuming, but worthwhile.

More Information on My America from Center Stage:

Award-winning director Hal Hartley, the filmmaker behind the My America shorts, has woven 21 of the original monologues together in a seamless blend of humor and poignant introspection on American culture. Hartley’s previous work has won numerous awards at both the Cannes and Sundance film festivals, and he has collaborated regularly with Fandor CEO Ted Hope (Producer: American Splendor, In the Bedroom) since 1989.

Fandor is a unique streaming service that provides access to thousands of independent films from over 100 countries. Fandor is a community of film lovers and makers that offers a broad collection of independent and international cinema specially curated to make discovering new and classic favorites easy and accessible.

My America was the inaugural project of Center Stage’s initiative CS Digital, a program dedicated to exploring the intersection of art and technology in the 21st century and providing access to top theater professionals through digital engagement. The monologues were commissioned in celebration of Center Stage’s 50th Anniversary and remain available to audiences around the world here.

Hartley and Hope will also host a screening and Q&A session for the film at the IFC Center on Wednesday, July 9at 7 pm. General admission tickets can be purchased online at the address below.

Center Stage is supported by a grant from the Maryland State Arts Council (MSAC), an agency dedicated to cultivating a vibrant cultural community where the arts thrive. An agency of the Department of Business & Economic Development, the MSAC provides financial support and technical assistance to nonprofit organizations, units of government, colleges, and universities for arts activities. Funding for the MSAC is also provided by the National Endowment for the Arts, a federal agency.

THE MONOLOGUES INCLUDED IN THE MY AMERICA FEATURE VERSION
(in order of presentation):

ANTHEM
 By GWYDION SUILEBHAN 
Performed by CODY NICKELL
FROM A DISTANCE
 By THE 5TH L 
Performed by THE 5TH L
CURRENT EVENTS
 By NEIL LABUTE 
Performed by GIA CROVATIN
SPACE MOUNTAIN
 By DAN DIETZ
 Performed by FRED WELLER
MISS AMERICA
 By ALENA SMITH
 Performed by CHRISTY MCINTOSH
HIT AND RUN 
By KIRSTEN GREENIDGE 
Performed by KELLY MCCREARY
ME AMERICA
 By GREG ALLEN 
Performed by GREG ALLEN
THE PREACHER’S BENEDICTION (formally, “I Am A Man”)
 By MARCUS GARDLEY
 Performed by MARC DAMON JOHNSON
PHIL
 By DANNY HOCH 
Performed by ANGELO LOZADA
CAKE
 By BEKAH BRUNSETTER
 Performed by JENNIFER MUDGE
CHRISTMAS 
By DJMENDEL Performed by DJMENDEL
NATE’S AMERICA 
By KIA CORTHRON
 Performed by BRIAN TYREE HENRY
FLATLAND 
By LAUREN YEE
 Performed by JOHNNY WU
REMOTE CONTROL KID
 By POLLY PEN
 Performed by JEB BROWN
JOAN & BOOTSIE
 By JAMES MAGRUDER
 Performed by KRISTINE NIELSEN
TWO DAYS BEFORE MY TAXES ARE DUE 
By JEREMY KAREKEN
 Performed by THOMAS JAY RYAN
JOHN
 By KENNETH LIN 
Performed by ANDREW WEEMS
THE AMAZING AMERICA AUCTION
 By LYNN ROSEN
Performed by JOHN ELLISON CONLEE
FIRE IN DREAMLAND
 By RINNE GROFF
 Performed by JEFFERSON MAYS
ROOSEVELT ISLAND
 By RAJIV JOSEPH
 Performed by ALVIN EPSTEIN
STILL 
By NAOMI IIZUKA
 Performed by KATHLEEN CHALFANT

Center Stage
www.centerstage.org
NOW PLAYING: Wild with Happy by Colman Domingo, directed by Jeremy Cohen, now through June 29.