Fostering Collaboration: Partnership empowers Cherokee creative community

It’s late on a Friday afternoon at the Museum of the Cherokee Indian in Cherokee, North Carolina, and the artists gathered in the rehearsal room are about to bare their souls. At least that’s what it feels like in the room.

But first, Cherokee actress and writer DeLanna Studi asks everyone to remember the words of the renowned playwright Samuel Beckett, which are  printed on a large white board up front:

Ever tried. Ever failed.

No matter. Try again.

Fail again. Fail better.

“I want you guys to go bigger — I want you to fill this space with your beautiful voice, your being, your intention,” Studi says. “If you think you went a 10 last time, I want you to go a 20. And I have seen you guys on stage, so I know you can do it.”

One by one, the actors, storytellers and musicians taking part in the professional-development workshop run through the traditional Cherokee stories they’ve been adapting and modernizing all week. And to much laughter and applause from their peers, each one takes Samuel Beckett’s words to heart.

Studi, who has been planning for this day for nearly a year, beams like a proud mother. It’s been a productive week in the room, this communal space where creative learning thrives.

Performances like these are the result of the Native American Theatre Project, a three-week “creative co-laboratory” that has brought together artists and leaders from two of the country’s most important Native American theatres — Unto These Hills of Cherokee and Native Voices of Los Angeles, California — to share best practices on the art and business of acting.

Sponsored by the Thomas S. Kenan Institute for the Arts at the University of North Carolina School of the Arts and the Cherokee Historical Association, with support from the Cherokee Preservation Foundation, the project seeks to strengthen Cherokee artistry in North Carolina and nationally. It is an ambitious goal, but with modest beginnings.

The partnership is the brainchild of Studi and Corey Madden, who met several years ago while working on a play in L.A., where both theatre artists were based at the time. Only later, after Madden wrapped up a 30-year career in new play development and moved across the country to become Executive Director of the Kenan Institute, would their paths cross again, this time to collaborate on Studi’s dream project: “And So We Walked: An Artist’s Journey Along the Trail of Tears.”

Written and performed by Studi, “And So We Walked” is the frank and funny story of a contemporary Cherokee woman who embarks on a six-week, 900-mile journey with her father to retrace the steps their ancestors were forced to travel along the Trail of Tears. Directed and produced by Madden, the dramatic memoir is shaped from the stories father and daughter documented during their travels last summer from their ancestral home in the North Carolina mountains to Oklahoma, where their family was forced to relocate in the 1800s.

For Studi and Madden, the Co-lab is a way to give back to members of the Cherokee community who welcomed them with open arms two years ago during the research phase of Studi’s project. In addition to teaching at the workshop, Studi performed a free reading of excerpts from “And So We Walked” one evening for the community whose stories helped her create the work.

No one ever came to my small town in Oklahoma and said, ‘This is a career option — you can be an actor, a storyteller, a musician.’ For me, this is a dream come true.

DeLanna Studi,Writer

“No one ever came to my small town in Oklahoma and said, ‘This is a career option — you can be an actor, a storyteller, a musician,’ ” Studi says. “For me, this is a dream come true. And every day I am just grateful to be in the room and see what these students bring. And every day my expectations are exceeded.”

Studi credits her parents for teaching her the importance of giving back, no matter your wealth or circumstances in life.

“It’s just ingrained in me — for every good thing that comes your way, you give back to someone,” she explains. “In my family, we grew up impoverished. I learned that wealth wasn’t measured by how much you had. We defined wealth by how much you can share — a meal, a cup of coffee, the gift of time, the gift of attention and support.”

Giving back is equally as important to Madden, an award-winning writer, director and producer of more than 300 world premieres. In fact, she feels it is her duty. And opportunities like the Co-lab are key to the mission of both the Kenan Institute and UNCSA to help strengthen creative communities in North Carolina, Madden says.

“Cherokee is remarkable — it has this incredible creative community. If we can help them identify what they need, and we can connect them to resources and help them build their capacity,” she says, “they can create a self-sustaining way of life that celebrates their core cultural traditions on the one hand, but is also culturally growing. It’s alive, rather than an artifact. So it’s both.

“How many storytellers are there? Not enough. How many outlets are there for those storytellers? Not enough. How plugged in are they to the new forms of technology? Not enough. So the question becomes: How can you make this place not only a mecca, but a beacon, so that you don’t have to leave Cherokee to be a worldwide artist these days?”

Many of the 10 workshop participants, ranging in age from 21 to 61, are performers in “Unto These Hills,” one of the nation’s foremost outdoor dramas for more than half a century. Among the challenges they face is a lack of access to professional-development opportunities in performance and creative practices that can expand their artistic potential.

Each weekday afternoon during the workshop, they’ve gathered to study improvisation and movement, voice and text analysis, and acting and performance skills with Studi and two other L.A.-based professional actors. Mary Irwin, a voice and speech professor in the School of Drama at UNCSA, rounded out the teaching team.

They’ve also learned practical tips on topics ranging from how to prepare for a cold audition to how to effectively market themselves via social media.

For Sarah Elizabeth Burkey, a singer-songwriter of Cherokee descent who performs traditional roots music, the workshop couldn’t have come at a better time. Following the birth of her second son, she had decided to take a hiatus from work this summer as a performer and assistant music director with “Unto These Hills” to concentrate on being a mom.

“I didn’t even realize staying at home, being isolated, how much I was missing my creative work and writing and being around other creative people and having that stimulating interchange,” she says. “It’s turned out to really trigger my writing again — I’m just writing up a storm. As it turns out, being in this Co-lab is making me a happier person and a better mother.”

Burkey, 36, is currently at work on her fifth solo album as well as a book about her life journey. Yet, like so many artists, she still battles what she calls her “inner critic.”

I’ve never been a part of anything like this ... It’s actually teaching me to believe in myself again and to quit putting my creative abilities on the back burner.

Sarah Elizabeth Burkley, Singer-Songwriter

“I’ve never been a part of anything like this. It’s been 14 years since I graduated from college,” she says. “It’s actually teaching me to believe in myself again and to quit putting my creative abilities on the back burner.”

Another bonus for Burkey: She’s made new friends with people who share a love for cultural storytelling.

Kathi Littlejohn, a native Cherokee and longtime storyteller in town, believes community-building is critical to the survival of the tribe’s cultural heritage. The elder in the workshop, she performs at the town’s frequent bonfires and at annual events like Cultural Heritage Week.

But she worries that many of the tribe’s storytellers are elderly. That’s why she encouraged her 21-year-old son, Justice, who has performed in the outdoor drama, to attend the workshop alongside her.

“These stories are probably 11,000 years old and they are still vital in our lives today and will be for the next 11,000 years,” Littlejohn says. “They’re important because they tell us how things came to be in the Cherokee world and how we should act as Cherokee people. If no one learns them after we are gone, then it would be a loss that we could never recover.”

Felix Ortiz Cruz and Thao Nguyen, both performers in the outdoor drama, are trained actors drawn to the Co-lab because of the high caliber of training it offers.

“I met DeLanna and Corey last season when they were here, and they were so warm, so bright, so welcoming,” recalls Cruz, whose ancestors come from the Taino tribe of Puerto Rico. “I knew these two women really believed in what they were doing and knew I wanted to work with them in the future.”

“This is providing an opportunity for members of this community to do something they don't regularly do,” adds Nguyen, who graduated from UNCSA in 2013 with a degree in vocal performance.

“The instructors are the finest in their craft and very skilled in what they do,” Nguyen says. “One of the big things is they individualized our time with the instructors. I told them what I needed and they supplied it.”

Cruz, whose plans include returning to Rutgers University this fall to finish his last year of studies, has found the Co-lab experience “invaluable.”

“It really has given me a lot of tools that I am actually able to translate into my professional career here in the drama — like the voice work and the storytelling techniques,” he explains.

That’s precisely what Jennifer Bobiwash and Robert Vestal had in mind when they agreed to join their friend Studi on the Co-lab teaching team. Both are members of the Native Voices ensemble in Los Angeles.

Vestal, a descendant of the Cherokee tribe on his father’s side, specializes in improvisation and acting.

“It’s gratifying to come in here and see the effects happen in such a short time,” he says. “It’s not the same for every student, but some have grown a lot in just a week.”

Bobiwash, whose session on social media was a big hit during the workshop, feels she learned as much from the students as they did from her. She hopes to one day return to her native Ojibwe community in Canada to do the same kind of teaching.

It’s showing them an opportunity to grow beyond the reservation, and not that they have to leave the reservation, but there is so much more that they can do from right here — they are brilliant people.

Jennifer Bobiwash, Native Voices Ensemble

“It’s important just to show that there are other natives out there working — they see just a small sliver of them on TV,” she says.

“It’s showing them an opportunity to grow beyond the reservation, and not that they have to leave the reservation, but there is so much more that they can do from right here — they are brilliant people.”

Irwin concurs. “Seeing how far they came by that last presentation on Friday and how enthusiastically they were taking the training on board that we were all offering them was rewarding. I learned a great deal, too.”

Madden, for one, hopes this “unprecedented collaboration” in Cherokee continues beyond this summer. Indeed, there is already plenty of talk among this year’s workshop leaders about what the next phase could look like.

“These stories are very much in the hands of the Cherokee people — they are not lost,” Madden says. “The question is how do you connect them with a contemporary audience? Perhaps in three or four years this project will have created a group of leaders among the young Cherokee who can sustain the program itself and look for new ways for these stories to be shared.”

She also hopes the Kenan Institute and UNCSA can continue to take a leadership role in the work — not just training actors for the theatre but for the diverse communities of North Carolina and across the country.

“I’m proud of what we are doing.”

September 27, 2016