This semester, Wesleyan welcomed Visiting Associate Professor of Theater Kim Weild, who is leading the directing courses for the Theater Department this academic year. Weild recently served as associate director of the Broadway production of “Amazing Grace,” and recently, she also directed “Indian Joe” at the Norma Terris Theatre in Chester, Conn. “Indian Joe,” inspired by true events, is a musical about an aspiring musician named Liz and her relationship with a man, named Joe, of Native American descent.
As a recipient of the IRT Theater Archive Residency Award, Weild will further develop the musical “soot and spit” by Charles Mee. She will also begin work on her second commission from The High Line in New York City and a one-man show called “American Moor,” written and performed by Keith Hamilton Cobb, that was recently nominated for an Audelco Award.
The Argus: You’ve been working on, as a director, “Indian Joe,” a production at Goodspeed Musicals in Chester, Conn. Can you talk about how you got involved with the project and what the project is about?
Kim Weild: Goodspeed Opera House is known in part for the musicals that it produces on its main stage in East Haddam, which tend to be revivals, although they do new works as well. They have a second space in Chester called the Norma Terris [Theatre], and that space is specifically designated for the development of new work. “Indian Joe” is written by a woman named Elizabeth A. Davis, who is also an actress and a musician. She wrote this originally as an essay that then was developed into a one-woman show at the Cherry Lane Theater in New York. A woman named Carolyn Rossi Copeland went to see the show and she thought that the piece had the potential for larger life, rather than being a one-woman show. She saw the potential for a musical with songs because at Cherry Lane there were no songs. What we have now is a seven-actor-musician piece with a whole new number of songs that Elizabeth has written along with Chris Henry, who is the co-book writer, and Luke Holloway, who is also a co-composer and orchestrator, and Jason Michael Webb…. So she developed the piece and then Goodspeed decided to give it what is called the Developmental Production at the Norma Terris, which entails three weeks of rehearsal and three weeks of performances. It has been a terrific process. The script actually continues to change.
A: Working on a Developmental Project, having the script continuously change and putting that change up for the audience shortly after…how has it been for you, working in that environment?
KW: Always working on new work and developing new work, it’s a particular process that is challenging and exciting. It’s part of what we’re learning; we’re learning a lot in certainly putting the piece up in front of an audience, because they’re the ones who complete it for us, and they tell us what is working and what isn’t working. We are actively listening, we being [Goodspeed Line Producer] Donna Lynn, Carolyn, and myself, along with Matt Castle, who is our music director, and we are learning from the audience what they are responding to, what is puzzling to them. There is a survey that goes out to each audience member afterwards and that is also helpful in giving us feedback. So it’s a process that [is] intense! It’s thrilling too.
A: Is it something that particularly interests you, or are you more comfortable working with an established work?
KW: I think today, to be a director, you have to have an ability and a facility for developing new work. I find it personally very exciting, fulfilling, and gratifying to work on new pieces, to help a new piece come into the world. It’s not for the faint of heart because it’s an incredibly difficult process, even when you have terrific collaborators and people get along. But it’s challenging, and this is why also sometimes it takes five to seven years for a new musical to be born and come to fruition.
A: What made you interested in working on “Indian Joe” as a director?
KW: I received a call from Carolyn; she’s a producer I’ve worked with multiple times. She produced “Amazing Grace.” I have been the associate director on that. She said, “I have a piece that I think you’d be very interested in, that I think you’d be a good director for.” She explained also that Elizabeth is wearing multiple hats in this piece: she is a writer, an actor, a musician and a composer in it. So it takes knowing how to help her navigate all those many hats, and Carolyn knows that that’s something I excel at. When I read the piece, I was struck by the music, which I thought was very moving, and it’s not a traditional musical. The music is not your traditional sort of Broadway-sounding, it’s got more of a American folk/industrial pop sound to it, coupled with the story, which is based on, or inspired by, Elizabeth’s true life relationship with a man named Indian Joe, who was a homeless man. She had a 15-year friendship with him. He passed away last year. The story is about how the two of them came into each others’ lives, and it was not always easy, but they ultimately became family to one another. It deals with issues of class and issues of race, which are issues that I’m particularly interested in and explore. I have my own company, called Other Voices, which works with deaf actors and hearing actors. It’s a multicultural company that deals with cross-collaboration in that way. So Carolyn knew that it would be dealing with needing to find a Native American actor to play Joe and having an African-American in the cast, and Elizabeth…she needed a director who could navigate that territory.
A: There are some racial tensions between the African-American character [Jordan] and the Indian Joe character. How do you think that tension works in the story and how have you been able to approach and direct that in this production?
KW: The racism towards the Jordan character that comes at Jordan from Joe is actually true to who Joe was. Joe was a racist. So we don’t sugarcoat it because this is based on a true story and somebody that was who he was. In doing table work, I spent time with all of the actors, we talked about race, we talked about race in America, the actors also talk about their own personal experiences with racism. I think the tension in the play itself between the two of them is true to who Joe was, but what we also see is that Jordan rises above certain things, not because he is a martyr and not because he is a saint that way, but because he has had certain experiences in his own life that has informed his orientation to the world and how he chooses to be in the world and in relationship to other people. There is a particular scene of understanding that is probably the most important scene in the whole piece.
A: I noticed, in the main hall of the theater, pictures of the original Indian Joe on the wall and some posters about homelessness. It brings awareness to the real issue in the world and in the country. So, how do you think theater functions as something that can bring attention to these issues?
KW: It’s theater as social activism. There is a scholarship fund that’s actually been set up in Joe’s name. There are drives that we are doing for local homeless population in Connecticut. Our hope is not only people come and see the piece and they learn something about this unique friendship between these two people, but, per chance, the next time they see a homeless person in the street they won’t be so quick to turn away and realize that that person might actually change them and expand who they are in the world. I think we are quick to turn away from the other.
A: Coming from “Amazing Grace” on Broadway, how has the transition been for you coming to Wesleyan and also working on a production in Connecticut?
KW: Part of what I do, as a freelance director and educator, is being able to shift into different environments. Broadway is its own particular thing with its own challenges, but you don’t get to Broadway without first starting at some place like Norma Terris. It’s not just that you suddenly write a musical or a play and it’s on Broadway. In America, there is a development process, and Goodspeed Musicals is very well-known for its developmental process. I’m just always happy being in the room and doing the work. For me, it’s about the work and telling the best story in the most dynamic way, the most theatrical way possible. Coming to Wesleyan, I’ve been a teacher for a quite some time and I was thrilled to be offered to come here for the year. The students that I have met over the years who’ve come out of the Wesleyan program are just so impressive. To be able to have time with the student body, I find that very exciting, and I have been proven right on that! It’s been great! The students here have fecund imaginations, in the best way. They have an appetite for the work. They are astute in their observations. They have an intellectual rigor and creative intellect…the capacity to think outside of the box, the capacity to actually draw together or connect a variety of threads and themes, not just from the composition assignments or the plays that they’re reading and the scenes that they’re working on, but from the world at large and the social implications and political implications as well. I’ve been really struck by the appetite of the students for knowledge through experience and the willingness to throw themselves into the work that I know is probably on a graduate level.
This interview has been edited for length.