The Playwright’s Playground: Michele Shay Discusses the Influence of August Wilson, Her Artistic Journey, and Lessons Learned from a Life in the Theater

For Michele Shay, directing Seven Guitars is not simply directing another play; it’s personal and a vivid part of her story. “We are addicted to ‘story’ and we become inspired by each others lives,” says the Director of No Rules Theatre Company’s current production of August Wilson’s Seven Guitars.


In Part I of The Playwright’s Playground, Michele Shay discusses her directing process and approach to August Wilson’s Seven Guitars text. Shay engages in how she uses her past experience of working with August Wilson and her acting history to enrich the depth and texture of the No Rules production. “I want to get the juice out of everything that he’s written, so people really recognize his brilliance.”

The conversation continues with a more personal look into Michele’s life in the theater and the influences in her artistic career. Shay speaks about her early discovery of acting and the theater, her road to Broadway, and her continuous education as a working artist.

In 1996, Shay originated the character of Louise in Seven Guitars and was nominated for a Tony Award for Best Featured Actress in a Play.  The Obie Award-winning Actress/Director is best known for her performances in August Wilson’s Seven Guitars (Walter Kerr Theatre), Gem of the Ocean (Directed by Kenny Leon, Alliance Theater), Radio Golf (Yale Repertory Theater), and Home (Negro Ensemble Company.) As a fifth year Adjunct Acting Professor at NYU’s The New Studio on Broadway (a part of Tisch’s Undergrad School of Drama), Shay says, “We train triple threats – singers, dancers, and actors.”

With his ten ‘Pittsburgh Cycle’ (Century Cycle) plays, Pulitzer-Prize winner August Wilson developed a monumental body of impacting work. Michele Shay is a wealth of insight into the wisdom, thinking, and motivations of the inspiring Master Playwright, August Wilson.

Michele is passionate about the power of the theater and pursuing your artistic calling. She says, “The imagination is the foundation of reality. You practice making the world the way you want it to be. You get to practice the consequence of choice without paying the price for it.”

Sydney-ChaneleActor, Director, Producer, Professor, Coach and Healer are all talents and responsibilities that highlight your resume. As a working artist you are often juggling more than one at the same time? How did your love of the theater begin? What inspired you to be an actor, an artist?

Michele: What inspired me to act in the first place was when I was in High School where I was first introduced to plays. It was during the Civil rights struggle and I wasn’t directly in the struggle  . . .  but in New Jersey, Amir Baraka was doing plays and was really militant, and that was a little scary to me as a young person. I had my Uncle who was a theatrical set designer, and he would take me up to Harlem to meet Robert Macbeth, who was the Artistic Director of the New Lafayette Theatre. It is still to this day one of the most exciting theatres, because it was Environmental Theatre. Theater happened all around you and it was designed for the community, which was very interesting to me.

Then there was the Negro Ensemble Company coming into being, and all of these things having to do with identity – theater as a platform of power. Basically, from what I could see, theater was having people experience one another in a way they couldn’t in their nine to five realities and that made a deep, deep, impression on me.

You went on to study and major in Acting at Carnegie Mellon University. Was there a particular play or performance that once you saw it you knew you wanted to be an actress?

I was going to an All-Girls High School in East Orange, New Jersey, and one of the first people I ever so on stage was Gloria Foster performing In White America. I was b – l – o – w – n away by her, the power of her presence on stage in. I sat close enough to see real tears fall from her eyes. It was so powerful. I also was blown away by the ability to open people’s hearts so they understood each other better and I wanted to do that. It was directly inspired by racism and I wanted to help litigate any way possible – through performance.

You said your Uncle was a Set Designer for the theater. What was your family’s reaction to you wanting to pursue a career in the arts?

My mother stayed on her knees. It wasn’t until she came up to Carnegie and saw me do The Owl and the Pussycat, I think that was the first time that she actually thought that I really had something. Until then she was being the good parent letting me do what I wanted to do, because it came out of left field. I was going in a completely different direction. I hadn’t even been in a play or an audition. I took my babysitting money and took a bus to New York and met Lou Gossett, Jr. who I heard was going to start an Acting School, and he coached me for my auditions for school.

Really if it wasn’t for him and my Uncle’s name, I wouldn’t have gotten in because I had never even been in a play and I used a monologue from In White America. Lou was the first person to tell me I had talent. We’re still close; I adore him. Truly if it wasn’t for him, considering how ignorant I was, and Carnegie Mellon was the best school in the country at that time. I guess that it was destiny that I got in there. It was my first choice. (Her Uncle, George Corrin, integrated the Drama Department.)

Besides studying acting in college what other training has been a part of your process to becoming a versatile artist?

When I first got out of Carnegie, I was a member of the Guthrie Theatre Company for three years doing Classical Theatre and having an amazing time. But I would come back to New York and the Black Theatre scene was happening and I wanted to be a part of it! I was still too young to be directly in it but it was the most exciting thing that was happening.

As I got older and studied NLP (Neuro-Linguistic Programming) – the way the brain codes information through the senses, I discovered that if you want to open people’s minds that it’s a matter of seduction – you need to create a space of openness and willingness in your audience. I didn’t see that happening in the theater all the time when we were introducing new ideas. So that led me to start studying communication. Since breaking this knot of racism was something that I was focused on, and opening doors that way, I thought I needed to know more about it, so I studied that. I studied Ontology the way we generate being and language with Fernando Flores and Julio Olalla who were doing ground-breaking work. This was all a part of my process, in addition to working with the National Black Theater Company and The Negro Ensemble Company.

August Wilson.
August Wilson.

The Black Theatre scene in the late 60’s and the 70’s was as exciting time. I love hearing stories about that era. Are there any specific people or favorite memories that you recall?

I remember meeting Robert Hooks who was very big here in D.C. at that time, and being so inspired by him. I remember all I could think about was that I wanted to work with The Negro Ensemble Company, and eventually I got that chance.

(Her voice begins to break) It makes me very emotional thinking about it because that became my home. Many of us, Sam Jackson, Latonya Richardson, Denzel Washington… a whole bunch of us… It was a place where we developed a family together. New plays got developed, you got to do interesting work and… we were just down for each other. It was a time of the creation of “the company” in the theater movement and working in that experience was a much different one than working for an all white company. But even at The Guthrie – because I happen to fit into the company – I got to do amazing things. I got to play Kate in The Taming of the Shrew my second year out of school and I got to play Curly’s wife in Of Mice and Men –white characters.

There were things that I did there that I was not able to do in New York – that I wasn’t invited to do in New York. And yet at the same time being invited as a human being – as an artist and then as an African-American person, to really delve deeply into the experience of my people is a very healing experience. Just like getting the chance to work on August’s work, it has the capacity to move you in a very profound way.

There are so many different stories in the African-American experience that needs to be told. Speaking of August Wilson, he once said in an interview with the Paris Review, “I think my plays offer White Americans a different way to look at Black Americans.” How has Wilson’s outlook inspired your direction of Seven Guitars?

Well, I have now directed in one form or another, seven of the ten plays in his Pittsburgh Cycle, much to my shock and amazement. I fell into directing. I didn’t plan to do it; I got invited to direct and fortunately I had studied it when I was in school at Carnegie. For me in terms of August it’s just a privilege to do his work. I’m always trying to give people what his intention was. The advantage of having the whole cycle when I reflect on this is before, when you just had one play, you had only that play’s development.

Now you can look at the whole cycle and glean clues for how to do something in terms of the arc of his overall thinking, which is really profound. It’s a bottomless pit doing his work; you can never get it all. But, I’ve been able to do that twice. The first time was at The Kennedy Center when we did all of the plays there in what I call “August Wilsonville”- because we were there for a month. (Michele played Aunt Ester in Gem of the Ocean.) The second time was when we recorded the plays for The Green Space for New York Public Radio. It was a life transforming thing to get to do and witness all of those plays.

How did you meet and begin working with August Wilson?

What happened was, I was a member of the Eugene O’Neill National Playwright’s Conference acting pool. I was there and prayed that I got to do his play. I knew they were doing a new play of his, Seven Guitars, and fortunately I got selected to be in it. I tried to do a really good job when we worked on the play in 1994, workshopping it. He was working on the play for the first time. We had four days to work on the script, and he does rewrites during the whole time and then it’s presented. Basically it was the Piano Lesson Company and I was the newbie in it. (It had Charles Dutton and everyone who was in The Piano Lesson.)

Everything I know about working on new scripts, I learned from being a part of that. That’s where August was discovered – at the O’Neill with Lloyd Richards. When we did the play then it was about three hours long and it was that script that we took to the Goodman Theatre.I was praying that I would be asked but I didn’t know. Fortunately I was asked. There was never any guarantee that I would get the full ride but fortunately I did.

So explain the next steps, the progression of Seven Guitars and how it eventually reached Broadway.

The next thing – Lloyd Richard set up created this whole network for August working with different regional theaters so the plays would get developed at each place. We started with the O’Neill script at The Goodman and then we played Boston at Huntington Theatre. We played the ACT in San Francisco and then we came to New York at the Walter Kerr Theater. We did all of those over a two-year period.

How long was the Seven Guitars run?

We were on Broadway for an eight month run. But it was two years of my life completely from beginning to end.

And you received a Tony Award nomination.

Yeees. And I was the first person to say those lines all the way through.

It has to be a special, very different kind of experience working on a new play.

It is a very different kind of experience. You have to learn not to be attached to your lines.  I remember Ruben Santiago-Hudson having a fit about one of his speeches being cut. He had a fit. But everything that got cut showed up in another play.

Michele Shay and Viola Davis in the Goodman Theatre's production of August Wilson's 'Seven Guitars,' directed by Walter Dallas. (Eric Y. Exit/Courtesy The Goodman Theatre)
Michele Shay and Viola Davis in the Goodman Theatre’s production of August Wilson’s ‘Seven Guitars,’ directed by Walter Dallas. (Eric Y. Exit/Courtesy The Goodman Theatre)

What has a life in the theater taught you?

The single thing that I’ve learned being in theater is that imagination is the foundation of reality. And unless that muscle which God has given us to create the future is exercised – it’s like living in a room with a ceiling that is too low. That particular thing is what I worry for our children in schools – not having the arts – because the arts teach you how to have vision to create possibilities. That’s the bottom line.

You practice making the world the way you want it to be. You get to practice the consequence of choice without paying the price for it. I find that profound. That is what keeps me doing it. The theater is a place for profound healing, and the opportunity to be in community around questions about being alive – being human – that you cannot have answered in any other form except through the arts and entertainment.

It reaches the spirit part of us that soars. And we need to be reminded of that especially when life gets tough you need a place to soar. In that way it is religious. It’s spiritual because we go beyond the limitations of time and space, and that is something I am addicted to. We are addicted to ‘story’ and we become inspired by each others lives. This is what we have so far in order to take care of that. And when it is a calling – you have to do it full time.

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Seven Guitars plays through September 28, 2014 at No Rules Theatre Company performing at Signature Theatre – 4200 Campbell Avenue, in Arlington, VA. For tickets, call the box office at (703) 820-9771, or purchase them online.

Part I: Michele Shays talks about her direction of Seven Guitars for the No Rules Theatre Company and in deep detail shares the themes and philosophy behind August Wilson’s work and his influence as a Master Playwright.

The Playwright’s Playground is a monthly in-depth conversation with local female playwrights in the D.C. theatre community. Female theatre artists make up more than 50 percent of those involved in the theatre, yet the number of female playwrights being produced is dramatically lower. In this continuing Column, I will also interview and introduce DCMTA readers to the many talented playwrights and artistic teams in the DMV area to learn about their writing process, their inspirations, and their motivations and struggles to write and produce their art. Sydney-Chanele Dawkins.

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Sydney-Chanele Dawkins is an award-winning feature filmmaker, film curator, film festival producer and a theater/film critic and arts writer. She also serves as an impassioned advocate for the Arts as Chair of the Alexandria Commission for the Arts in Alexandria, VA. Fearless. Tenacious. Passionate. Loyal. These characteristics best describe Sydney-Chanele's approach to life, her enthusiasm for live theater and the arts, and her cinephile obsession with world cinema. Her successful first film, 'Modern Love is Automatic' premiered at SXSW in Austin, Texas, and made its European debut at the Edinburgh Film Festival. She recently completed her third film, the animated - 'The Wonderful Woes of Marsh' - which is rounding the film festival circuit. In 2013, Sydney-Chanele produced the box office hit,Neil Simon's Rumors for the McLean Community Players at Alden Theater, Her next producing effort in 2014 is Pearl Cleage's 'Blues for an Alabama Sky' for Port City Playhouse. Programmer for Cinema Art Bethesda and Co Chair of the Film Program for Artomatic, Sydney-Chanele is the past Festival Director of the Alexandria Film Festival, the Reel Independent Film Festival,and Female Shorts & Video Showcase. She is active in leadership and programming positions with DC Metro area Film Festivals including: Filmfest DC, DC Shorts, the Washington Jewish Film Festival, Arabian Sights Film festival, and AFI Docs. Please feel free to contact me with your comments and questions - [email protected] [Note: Sydney-Chanele Dawkins passed away on July 8, 2015, at age 47, after a battle with Breast Cancer.]


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