“The idea is to work and to experiment. Some things will be creatively successful, some will succeed at the box office, and some will only – which is the biggest only – teach you things that see the future. And they’re probably as valuable as any of your successes.” – Hal Prince
Ideas Need Human Bodies
In March of 2018, two months after Typecast was completed, I sat in Metro Baptist Church on West 40th street with my new friend at the time, Maria Baratta watching one of my friends play the lead in a staged reading of “Fefu and Her Friends” through Upstart Creatures. Fefu was a play which I had never heard of. As I spoke with my friend Gabra during the first intermission (the play is three acts) she said that the cast and director had talked about doing Fefu in an immersive production.
Over the course of the two months after Typecast I had been allowing the idea of an all-female production/immersive experience with food roll around in my head like a pool ball that doesn’t have a pocket to fall into. The moment Gabra spoke a light bulb went off and over the next few weeks I began to put the idea into motion. After a late night brainstorm with Maria until 2 o’clock in the morning, the idea eventually became “The Women’s Cycle” .
Break it Down to Build it Up
As with every endeavor, not everything goes smoothly. The first incarnation of The Women’s Cycle was to be an immersive multi-play cycle over the course of the month of June. We would present all four weekends with Fefu on the 1st and 3rd and two new plays on the 2nd and 4th weekends. There would be food and the entire thing would take place at the Mount Vernon Museum and Garden on east 60th street in Manhattan. It is a historic home that is currently owned by the first all-female historical society and run by one of the kindest, sweetest human ladies there ever was, Terri. While I was coordinating this with Upstart Creatures, I went through multiple women before I found the Executive Producer who ultimately stayed through until the end, Heather.
On Martin Luther King Jr. Day of 2019 I had scheduled to be home all day to work on producery stuff and have a call with my friends who own and run Moriah Pictures with whom I had co-produced a film in October. About two hours before their call I get a text message from Heather that read, “Ebony, I’m so sorry about Upstarts. Let’s chat later today and regroup.” I hadn’t checked my email yet and immediately opened it to find a message from the Upstart leaders stating that with great sadness they had to pull out of TWC. You see, they had submitted to get the rights for Fefu and we were denied in November an hour before I left to begin my grief trip that I do every year. Then the second play they had submitted to get the rights to was also denied. At that point there was not enough time to raise money and get the show done the way we had all envisioned. It was a reasonable and smart decision. And oddly, I felt total peace when it happened. I felt the Lord had been preparing my heart for this change and as I prayed through what to do next I heard, “Go back to the beginning.” I talked and prayed with my friends at Moriah Pictures and Laine suggested to make this more of an event and that maybe I could add an artist. After a week of thinking about it my friend of 14 years, Michele Struss, popped in my head and I asked her to join. She prayed on it and came aboard. Right after Upstarts pulled out I moved our location from the museum to The Cell Theatre which is also owned by a woman and the first place I had inquired about the previous summer (Go back to the beginning). The event would be shrunk to one weekend in June (eventually moved to July because of a scheduling snafu with the theater) for three nights. Another change was serving desserts and wine only and keeping the two new plays written and directed by women but I still had no baker. A month later some friends in my church small group mentioned Vanessa Ceballos and her restaurant Firefly in Sunnyside, Queens. She joined up in February of 2019 and we were off…sort of.
Losing Sleep One Night at a Time
At the end of March my stress levels began to climb and by June they were through the roof. There were several factors at play and my stress began to overshadow the joy I usually find in the process. I LOVE rehearsals! And man were rehearsals with Sara Benjamin and our cast fun! I love planning, building and bringing artists together. But by the beginning of April my moving forward became a sheer act of will to continue and my anxiety was getting worse and worse.
Two wonderful things happened to me in June; our film Ghoul Station was accepted into the Amazon Prime: All Voices Film Festival and a play I had written in 2018 was accepted into the Long Island City: One Act Theater Festival. Instead of being excited, I felt overwhelmed. I was producing this event that was bigger than anything I had done before, Assistant directing one of the plays, navigating through the needs and asks of everyone, making sure we were complying with equity rules, paying for things, fulfilling my full-time day job, being mindful and protective of my creators hearts, minds and security and being there for my family when some wonderful things were happening as well as trying to find someone to take over my play for the festival and promoting the film and TWC. All of this was weighing on me. I wanted to curl up in the fetal position, lay on my Mom’s bed and cry while she told me things would be okay. That isn’t possible, so I held it in and soldiered through not eating and losing sleep until the very last night on Sunday, July 14th.
Here is the kicker, The Women’s Cycle went really very well. All three nights were sold out. The desserts were beautiful and delicious, the plays were brilliant and the art gorgeous. The people who came had visceral reactions to both plays and were in awe of my dear friend and her incredible artwork. Mind you, what my creators made was never a fear. My belief in Sara, Michele, Maria and Vanessa was unshakable. I never doubted that what they made would be wonderful. But belief in myself is a serious problem. Belief in myself, my nature to take on too much, and that people were counting on me to do this job well was overwhelming. Producing TWC was a job NO ONE asked me to take on! I chose it! So, why did I break down? Well, that’s the question.
Is Success Even a Word?
On July 31st Harold Prince died. Hal Prince is responsible for a large portion of why I fell in love with the theater. Yes it’s his fault, blame him, God rest his precious soul. The list of Broadway credits he has is magnificent and too long for this post. Google him. All I will say is that I am devastated over this loss and the world is a little worse for it.
The first of his quotes that I put on social media as tears rolled down my face was the one at the top of this post. It encompasses how I am processing the end of The Women’s Cycle. It was hard. I expected it to be difficult, but not to be relieved when it was over. That isn’t a feeling I am acquainted with when it comes to making theater. I’m usually sad and would immediately do the whole thing over.
Was The Women’s Cycle an experiment? Yes. Was it creatively successful? Yes, what Maria, Michele, Vanessa and Sara created were wonderful. Did it succeed at the box office? Yes. But I think that for me, this whole endeavor was more about teaching me things that see the future.
One day when I was on the struggle bus Maria said to me, “I think it’s like you are on an accelerated course. For whatever reason God is teaching you a bunch of things all at once so you can be prepared to do the next thing. ” She also reiterated after The Women’s Cycle that as I sit and ponder what I did incorrectly, which is of course my main focus, that I should think about what I did correctly. Why is looking at how I messed up and what wrong choices I made so much easier than seeing anything good? If I don’t do both I won’t have a rounded view to prepare for whatever God has next for me.
After every opening night Hal said that he’d make a 10am appointment for the next day to meet the creators of his next project. He kept going. Whether the show was a success or not he kept going. That’s why he had 21 Tony awards and inspired multiple generations of theater makers like me. I don’t know what is next. And yes, I have to learn from each experience, but I also have to remember to keep going and trust. We only have so much time on this earth and God has brought us here for a purpose.