Feb 15th, 2021
In today's episode, I welcome Darnell Benjamin! His interview was so good that we ended up spending twice the time talking than my guests and I normally do. We've broken up his interview into two segments. Enjoy his experience as a professional actor, dancer, and artist today and next week.
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Episode 040 - Darnell Benjamin
Lindsey Dinneen: Hello, and welcome to Artfully Told, where we share true stories about meaningful encounters with art.
[00:00:06] Krista: I think artists help people have different perspectives on every aspect of life.
[00:00:12] Roman: All I can do is put my part in to the world.
[00:00:15] Elizabeth: It doesn't have to be perfect the first time. It doesn't have to be perfect ever really. I mean, as long as you, and you're enjoying doing it and you're trying your best, that can be good enough.
[00:00:23] Elna: Art is something that you can experience with your senses and that you just experiences as so beautiful.
[00:00:31]Lindsey Dinneen: Hi, Artfully Told listeners, it's Lindsey here. Hey, I just want to quickly let you know something before our episode begins and that is that this interview was awesome. I had so much fun talking with my guest today. And I know you are absolutely going to love Darnell as well. And hey, we had so many good things to talk about, and the interview lasted a lot longer than is typical for Artfully Told listeners. So I just wanted to give you a heads up to let you know that I've actually broken this into two parts. So you're going to get part one today and then part two next week. And I just want you to know that ahead of time before we dive in, and I cannot wait to share Darnell with you. And I know you're just going to absolutely love everything has to say as well. Thank you so much.
[00:01:26] Hello, and welcome back to another episode of Artfully Told. I'm your host Lindsey, and I am so very excited to have as my guest today, Darnell Pierre Benjamin. He is a performing artist. Thank you so much for being here.
[00:01:43] Darnell Benjamin: Thank you. Thank you. Thanks for having me.
[00:01:46] Lindsey Dinneen: Of course. And I know that performing artist barely scratches the surface of all the different things that you do. So I would love if you would just share a little bit about maybe who you are and your background and kind of all the different things you're doing now.
[00:02:01] Darnell Benjamin: Sure. And you know, and I'll say all the things I try to do, I'll definitely say I'm originally from a Southern Louisiana small town by the name of St. Martinville. And I started dancing at around 14, mainly because I came from a family that was already very big into music and dancing. And the short version is that it was actually in therapy that I basically got coached by my therapist to explore some movement things. We were just playing with movement. And that's when I learned that for some reason, movement became a, a sort of balancing act for me, a centering place. And so I started out doing some modern dance and that got me into playing with some ballet.
[00:02:44] And fast forward to high school, start playing with the speech and debate team, and helping with the plays and then on a whim-- like no joke, it was very much at the last minute-- two weeks before starting college, I decided to change my major from what was going to be aiming towards criminal psychology to theater. And I changed it to theater. And while in the program, I was realizing that I was getting just as many dance credits as I was getting theater credits. So that's when I just realized, "Oh, I'm going to just be a performing arts major," because I was bouncing around between the two of those. And that's when I started getting in love with also Shakespeare and language and words and how they words dance in their own way as well. So, that's when I got into Shakespeare. I ended up going to grad school at University of Houston, got my MFA.
[00:03:39] And the program particularly looks at the world through the lens of classical theater, specifically Shakespeare we focused on a lot, and it's a movement-oriented program. So it was perfect for me. And now, I mean, I just kind of right now, I just juggle between acting, dancing, choreographing, directing and teaching. So you know, I, I got a bit of advice many, many years ago from a professor who told me to broaden the brand, whatever you want to do, do it. Who's stopping you? And that really stuck with me. And so now I just like to pretend my way through things.
[00:04:14]Lindsey Dinneen: I love it. Yes. Well, and obviously you're not just pretending your way through things. You've been very successful, which is fantastic, but we all have to start somewhere. So there you go.
[00:04:26] Darnell Benjamin: Yeah, exactly, and that's what I mean by pretend is that, you know, it's--I remember the first time I started to choreograph. When I really started in the beginning, because as a dancer, you know, have your, you have your awareness of your body and your body and what your body can do, but you don't necessarily think about other people's bodies. You do when you're working with them, but how to create movement for other people's bodies. And that became a whole learning curve for me. And I caught on pretty quickly and I realized that, "Okay." Cause I think I have my strength in choreography is that I think I have a good eye, and I think I'm not afraid to lean into storytelling. I'm very inspired by like, for example, there's that dance group, Polobolus , who is like one of my top, one of my favorite dance companies. I love the type of work that they do because they don't just look at the technical aspect of dancing. They also look at the storytelling. They look at what does this one angle of the body mean versus another. So I'm very inspired by that kind of work.
[00:05:28] Lindsey Dinneen: Yeah, absolutely. So you started as a dancer and it was in your teens, and so you had mentioned doing modern and ballet. And so did you continue to explore those two or have you also branched into some other dance styles as well?
[00:05:45] Darnell Benjamin: Oh, definitely. Yeah. A little bit of both. So I started out in those two and I always struggled with ballet and yeah, no, I was told early on, " Yeah, just don't have the feet." And so it's still that kind of got in my head for a long time, but then I noticed I had a a facility and comfort with modern dance and contemporary world. And that opened the door to me, even playing with some jazz. And that's really where I probably think my personal movement style sits the best. And that opened also to some tap. I'm pretty decent at tap. And then I started playing with some ballroom dance and I did well at that. And when I say--well, keep in mind, I am , I would say that I think I'm a better freestyle dancer than I am like, don't get me wrong--choreo that sits in a world of modern jazz, I am ready to go. Even some hip hop, I'm ready to go---but ballet is it, it's really hard for me. And, and I, I've been trying over the years to figure out what is the wall. And some of that, I think it's a mental block because I have in my head from that one person who told me, "Ya just don't have the feet."
[00:06:59]Lindsey Dinneen: Oh man!
[00:07:02] Darnell Benjamin: Yeah. And so now it's the one that I'm afraid of the most to be perfectly honest is ballet. Terrified.
[00:07:07] Lindsey Dinneen: Oh, well that is so funny you say that because ballet is my forte. I absolutely love it. I think it's absolutely wonderful, but I'm, I'm the opposite of somebody who's like, "Here's this really abstract, modern piece or, or even worse, here's this hip hop piece." I'll be like, "Mmm, I don't think you want me."
[00:07:28] Darnell Benjamin: And that's, you know, I totally like, I guess, you know, on the opposite end I can relate. Because I think what is so amazing, I love watching ballet mainly because I love watching something so technical that's done so freely. When it's done well, you know, when somebody really is just breathing in it. For me, I found that I was having a hard time with allowing myself to breathe. I get very tense with ballet work, and we all know that type of tension is not going to be useful for that type of work. So that was always my issue, but the freedom or what I'm perceiving rather as being freedom in, for example, modern dance , I think what, why I gravitate towards that is because I'm so story-oriented. So, and in contorting my body and moving it in , you know, anything from like, for example, a flexed foot is exciting to me because I'm like, "Oh, what does that mean?" And so I find myself digging into the story of modern dance. And it's not that by the way, please don't--I don't want to make this sound like I'm saying there aren't stories with ballet because there are absolutely some fantastic stories--it's just that I have a hard time allowing my brain to turn off when I'm doing ballet. I really do have a hard time with it.
[00:08:49] Lindsey Dinneen: Yeah, that makes complete sense. I think it's easy in whatever genre that, that doesn't come as naturally or as easily or whatever to you, to have that in your head aspect of, "Oh my goodness. I'm just trying to focus on the technical aspects and remember my choreography." So I think that's like completely normal for any dancer, for sure. And for a lot of artists who are dabbling in, you know, trying to like expand a little bit. If you're out of your element, you don't feel as free just in general, I think.
[00:09:22] Darnell Benjamin: Yeah. And also the other side of that is, you know, to be absolutely real, I'm 37 and we all know what the body--like ballet at 37, it's a very different thing, especially if you've been away from it for so long. But I keep saying one of these days, I am definitely going to get back into a class because I would love to just go back to the basics. I don't know about you. I love barre work. I love just being there in the classroom and just doing the work. That's what, I'm not thinking as much. It's when I'm performing it that I get in my head.
[00:09:53] Lindsey Dinneen: Fair enough. Yes. I absolutely love barre work as well. It's like, there's something so--just exciting, but also safe or, which is kind of a funny way to put it, but it's just this like, feeling of home. It's like, "Okay, we're going to start back in the barre. Every time we're going to start with our plies." It's like having this, this predictable really well-thought-through formula.
[00:10:22] Darnell Benjamin: Yeah, absolutely. Yeah. When you're in that work session, it's really all about you. You just get to focus on your body. I mean, for example, I'm right now teaching at Northern Kentucky University, and I'm teaching a Movement for the Actor class and the students were working on some Tadashi Suzuki technique and it's a very focused technique. It is very--actually I would compare it to ballet in the sense of it's all about being very specific in getting to the shape, what is the shape, the specific shape--but where it's a little different is that one, and it may not be that different really , is that it's all about getting there faster, sooner, better. And it's about being able to train your body to know where that shape is without having to think about it. So that way you can just sit into it. And so working on that with my students right now, it's totally bringing me back to, I feel like I'm in a ballet class.
[00:11:16]Lindsey Dinneen: Yeah. And so I'm actually curious, you kind of touched on something. Do you feel that being a teacher and learning how to break things down for different students with different learning styles has helped you be a better dancer and mover?
[00:11:32] Darnell Benjamin: Oh my goodness. Do you know? I, I firmly believe that the best way to truly test your knowledge of your work and your knowledge of your body and your truth of your creative spirit is by teaching. Because when you have to navigate working with different bodies and different abilities and different levels of understanding, and to try to get them all on the same page, but you have to use different methods for each person there, it's impossible to not be able to reflect that on your own work. Because I know for me, those students teach me something different every single day, every day.
[00:12:10]Lindsey Dinneen: Yeah. I absolutely agree. It's so funny because sometimes professional dancers or pre-professional aspiring dancers will ask me questions like, "What do you think, you know, is something that I should do in this endeavor? And I always say teach, because I think, when I started teaching it, it forced me, I suppose, to astronomically develop my own technique and to go back to basics and realize, "Well, I'm telling you this, I better do this too." You know, it's just so funny. And yeah, that's just a, such a big piece of advice I always give people is teach, learn to teach, and then you'll, you'll become a better dancer yourself or artist or whatever, you know? It's yeah. It's like when you have to break down all the fundamentals, you're like, "Oh yeah. Huh. I should probably do that too."
[00:13:01]Darnell Benjamin: Absolutely. Oh my goodness. And you know what, I also try to be really honest with my students and tell them, "Hey." That whole, you know--I'm sure you've been told this, we've all been told this--when you start off in the arts young and especially I think about like, you know , that fresh out of high school going to college or going to a studio, whatever direction a person goes. And there is the, the emphasis goes a lot on discipline, you know, and I know, I think back to the time when I first taught a class, and specifically first taught a dance class, I found myself on the first day making mistakes I never make. And I remember beating myself up so much. And what I realized afterwards was that I started getting in my head and I started forgetting what I knew.
[00:13:49] And I started doubting myself and putting all of, and I was trying to be, I think I was trying to be the instructor, I think I thought I needed to be, as opposed to truly just trust your craft. And I learned a lot about myself that semester teaching and, and, and also being challenged to not only just teach, but consistency. You know what I mean? Being able to fully show up and be honest with the students and tell them, "Hey, well, there is this expectation that we are supposed to always be in the right space, quote unquote, you know what I mean, as artists, and when we go to do our performances, we still have to give those people the same show we gave the ones the night before and the night before and the night before, regardless of what baggage you're bringing into the room." But what I've tried with my students to really open the door to is having a conversation with, "where are you today?" Particularly in class, if you are in a space where you're not maybe -- let's say you didn't sleep well. Let's say you didn't drink enough water. Let's say--the list goes on. "What can you focus on you? Maybe you can't focus on the whole, but can you focus on one thing specifically?" Because you got to remember that, that classroom, whether you were the instructor or the student, it's your time and what are you doing with your time? If you're wasting it, that's on you. I mean, I, I put a lot of accountability on my students to challenge them, to accept the fact that they may not be in the best place on that given day, but you still owe yourself the time and effort to focus on something. You know what I mean?
[00:15:19] Lindsey Dinneen: Yes, absolutely. I love the way that you put that. And I think one thing that stood out to me was you mentioned basically the word honesty. And I thought about that too, where it's, I'm sure many teachers can relate to this too, if they're being honest with themselves. But it's so interesting that I had to learn as a teacher to be very, just honest with my students too. And like you said, some days are off days, and even as a teacher and I don't want to bring that into my classroom, but at the same time, there are days I fall out of every single pirouette that I try. Right? And I like to call those high gravity days, but the reality is, you know, some days things work and some don't, but I think that's bringing in the humanity of the arts and the, the reality of the arts is you do your best. You show up every single day, you do your best, but then you just keep trying. And the next day you come back and you do it again. And not every day is going to be the most, you know, ah, success day. But you keep showing up.
[00:16:30] Darnell Benjamin: Yeah. Yeah. And I feel like what it does, I found that teaching with that perspective has made my students better by the end of the semester, because they are being accountable for themselves. Because like, for example, in this, you know, environment where we're teaching virtually, I know that some of my students are not committing a hundred percent to what we're working on. I know they're not truly going there, but it's not all of them. And it's not all the time, the same people. So what I told them is that it's on you, you know. You know when you're there, and you know when you're not. Like, for example, I'm teaching an auditions class, a movement class, and a , a sort of musical theater intensive for high school students. So in those three different worlds, those are three different types of people, you know, very much so, but I told them in all three situations, this is an audition class. This is a movement class, and this is a musical theater intensive. You chose to take this class. So there's something you want to work on.
[00:17:35] And all three of those have to do with being prepared at the end of the day. So if you're not going to do the work, I mean, who can you blame? And so what I've noticed is that pushing my students to really take responsibility has made them actually be better at self-evaluations, be better at final products because they know where they sort of, I guess, set back. And it's showing up in their performances and they're able to comment on it in reflection papers. And for me, there's no greater joy than when I can read something a student wrote or even in , you know, verbal format, hearing them be honest about their craft because we all know like, I mean, the business is hard enough. The last thing you want to do is go pointing fingers elsewhere. Right?
[00:18:25] Lindsey Dinneen: Yeah, definitely. Yeah. I think that's really important. It's a great life skill to help them develop to, of take responsibility for yourself. You're in charge of your life. That's very cool.
[00:18:37] Darnell Benjamin: Yeah, and it's fun. It's fun. And there are good days and there are bad days. Cause sometimes these--you know, right now with a pandemic going o,n mental health conversations are happening a lot more. And my students are being very forthright with where they are as individual. Particularly last semester, I mean, I had a lot of students reach out about some things that are going on and, and I'm like, how much can we, as you know ultimately mentors , give them enough tool sets to be able to truly not only be honest about their work, but also be able to keep track of it, to log it and be aware of if there's something consistent. Are you consistently having an issue with something? Are you consistently not showing up to class, whatever it is, whatever that consistent thing is, if it's not on the positive and what are you doing to change that, you know? And that's, that's where I get excited. Whenever I can see my students grow not only as performers, right? But also as a young adults, you know, that's, that's--what a joy.
[00:19:40]Lindsey Dinneen: Yeah, I absolutely agree. I've been reflecting on teaching methods and philosophy a lot lately. And I think that there's nothing greater than that. It's, it's so cool to witness those light bulb moments and, and those.... Right? When something finally clicks and it's like, "Ah, yes, you get that!" It's so fun. So yeah. Yeah, it's great. And then the other thing I've been noticing too, is just how special it is when students don't realize how much more they have, and you're able to kind of show them that, and then it's like this, you just watch the transformation on their face, you know, like, "Oh, I, I can turn out that much or I can go that much higher on my releve," or whatever it is. And then they're realizing that. They have all of this and I, I just, that's just such a cool thing too.
[00:20:32] Darnell Benjamin: Yes. Yes. I have a friend right now in Seattle who is doing this research project, particularly on movement, actor movement techniques, but specifically from the perspective of risk, the concept of risk . Are you actually taking a risk with your work, whether that's in the classroom or in performance? Are you really throwing yourself into it and falling flat on your face so that you can learn something? But and you know, even relative to the Suzuki method, which is all about push, trusting that your body can go further than you think it can. And that's not, of course, in a way of abusing the body, not at all. It's more a matter of--like, even thinking about the turnout thing--most recently, I made a post on Facebook about how I was asking for advice because I've always had sort of really tight hips and really getting myself to truly let the legs actually turn out and not force it, but also not halfway go there. I got a lot of great tips and let me tell you, I realized something. It's not that I had such a hard time doing it. It was disciplined. I was not. Like going at it every day. I was really not truly committing to it and taking that risk to throw myself in far enough.
[00:21:52] And the results have been fantastic because I've been doing it every single day. I've set a time for stretching. I've set a time for breathing exercises and I've set a time for just really challenging and going challenging my body and going there because, you know, I mean, obviously I've been in his body and dancing and movement work in general for a while. So I know what my sort of quote unquote safe limitations are, but I've been really trying to push towards the riskier limitations. How far can I take it? How much can I do within the bounds of reason of course, but I'm, I'm noticing all kinds of great results. And it goes to show that sometimes what it boils down to is discipline, you know?
[00:22:38] Lindsey Dinneen: Yes. Amen to that.
[00:22:40] Darnell Benjamin: You're right. And especially as a ballet dancer, I am sure you know what I mean.
[00:22:45] Lindsey Dinneen: Oh, yes. It is definitely the whole idea of consistently showing up and yes, so. Yeah. Okay. Awesome. Well, so then, you know, you've also had an acting career kind of alongside, it sounds like. So you said you had done a lot of Shakespeare work. Is that something that you've gravitated towards more? Do you do all sorts of different theater or, or how did that whole come about?
[00:23:15] Darnell Benjamin: Oh, yeah. So in , in high school I was in, I was one of those nerdy kids in the AP English class, and we did not do any Shakespeare. And I remember being a little confused by that because I assumed we should have . Fast forward to in college, I had my first experience with Shakespeare and I loved it immediately. I'm a person who is very fascinated with language. I'm very fascinated with alliteration, linguistics in general, anything that is about the exploration of the sounds of words and how those sounds affect meaning. For example, like phonetics , all that stuff, I'm fascinated with that. So Shakespeare was like the motherland when I came across it and that kind of opened the door to me making the decision. That's partly why I went to grad school because I wanted more training in Shakespeare. I wanted to get better at it because I'll share a little story with you.
[00:24:10]I went to the University of Louisiana at Lafayette. Go Cajuns. And I'll tell you what--I'll share their story. And I don't say this for any, with any hate towards the university, but in the undergraduate program, specifically getting my BFA in performing arts, one of the professors there at the time, he , he taught all of this sort of, you know, the stage craft and lighting, the tech side. And he was also going to be the one directing "Taming of the Shrew." And I was so excited. It was going to be a summer production, which I was like, "Oh my goodness, this is fun." And they opened it up to the general public. So a bunch of people came in, auditioned for this, and we all watched each other audition. That was the worst part about it. Let me tell you, I could not be bothered with that. Watching people go one after another, getting antsy. But I'm watching people go in. I'm like, "Okay, all right. I'm not like the worst one here. We're going to be all right." And not even in a bad--I didn't mean that in a mean way.
[00:25:12] Even when I thought that it was just more of a, okay. I maybe could actually get a shot at this. And I went up there and did my thing, felt really good. And noticed the , the callback list went up a couple of days later, my name wasn't on it. And I kind of was like,"Eh, okay. That kind of sucks or whatever, but maybe I might still get cast because you know, there's always the chance just because you're not called back doesn't mean you didn't get it." So fast forward to the cast list is going up and I am looking for my name, looking for my name. All the way at the bottom, "Hey! I'm the Habit Asher." Well, when I saw that and I noticed there were people who, and again, you know, there's so many things that go into this, as taste, who knows. But there were so many people who-- like, I mean, some of them didn't even, were not off book at their audition. Some of them who just did, it's almost like they kind of got teleported into a theater. They had no idea what was going on.
[00:26:09] And so I was disappointed that I had gotten this role. So I talked to the stage manager who eventually told me that the instructor ultimately--and the one who was going, and by the way, this is one of my instructors and this was the person who was directing that show-- he said that, "Well, I just don't see black people in Shakespeare unless they're slaves." So that obviously, it was like, "Whoa." I went to talk to the Dean. And I was asked to go back down the ladder and go talk to the head of the department who was new at the time. So he's like, "Hey, you're going to have to go talk to the Dean. I kinda don't have my footing. I don't know any of these people. So, I'm giving you permission to climb up and go talk to the Dean." So I want to talk to the Dean and found out later that there were all of these cases piling up against this person. Everything from sexual harassment to racism to, I mean, it was across the board. And eventually this professor got fired. Yay.
[00:27:09] But, but what it ultimately did, it, it lit a fire under me. And I think I wanted to prove him wrong. That's how it started. It started with me having so much passion for it, the language and being told that, and being hit so hard by that. And so I made a decision that I was really gonna dig into this and like, start to understand it because I really started researching and thinking about it and I'm like, "Oh, wow. There really isn't a lot of black and brown representation in Shakespeare that I'm seeing." So, it became a mission of mine because I never wanted another kid to feel like I felt. I mean, and so I ended up going to University of Houston in which--my goodness, I will say this for any listeners--if you are a physically-inclined actor who is strong with language and want to you to get stronger, that is a great program. The work is very physically inclined, but also very see, hear, smell, touch such detail inclined.
[00:28:05] But fast forward to I finished there and I graduated in 2009 with my MFA and then I bounced around a little bit, landed in Cincinnati. And I started working with the Cincinnati Shakespeare Company in the 2010-11 season. And I've been working there as a resident actor since then. I've also done some Shakespeare elsewhere , but like that's the company that has been my home base with doing Shakespeare, and so Shakespeare is one of the things I do. I love experimental work. I love, I mean, actually it was an experimental company that moved me to Cincinnati, the Know Theater of Cincinnati moved me there. And they're kind of, they call themselves the alternative playground and they do a lot of fun alternative work.
[00:28:48] So, and now, as far as my own personal sort of--what the stuff that I produce and I do on my own--I'm very much what I call, you know, just I'm an arts activist. I love looking at social issues and how we can use art to further the conversation, and deepen it. So a lot of my approach is from a a social issues perspective, and I love, love the movement of expressionism. So that inspires a lot of my work. I mean, come on. Can we please talk about Pina Bausche? Right. Seriously, that kind of work gets me so excited. I love , I love when people can--especially in dance--I love when we can see people turn on its head what we define as dance, because the question becomes, what is dance? And what is the difference between dance and movement?
[00:29:41] I love exploring that middle ground and taking pedestrian things and turning them into dance and exploring how they can be seen as dance. So I guess across the board, whether as an actor or a dancer, I'm very much about looking into, I didn't know, I guess I'm, research-driven. I love exploring and understanding and taking those little risks that, you know, may not work always, but more often than not. I love that it creates a conversation, you know?
[00:30:14] Lindsey Dinneen: Absolutely. Oh yeah, of course. That's one of the most wonderful things about art, is that it does and can create and spark conversation. And that's pretty special 'cause that's, that's when you really get into all the exciting aspects. And what did the artist intend or what did you gather from it? I mean, because both of those things are important and so, yeah, of course.
[00:30:37] Darnell Benjamin: Right? Absolutely. I mean, I even hate whenever I do my work, it's so important to me to make sure that I'm not telling my audience how to feel. I love to challenge the audience, whether that's through theater or dance. I definitely, when it comes down to dance, I'm very inspired by also Mary Overlie and looking at viewpoints and exploring that to even create. So that way I don't, because, you know, we all have the, you know, we all have our tricks, the things that we're good at and that we can pull out at the drop of a dime. But I love figuring out, "Okay. All right, which of these viewpoints do I suck at?" Let's start playing with that. So that's something I like to try and do at, you know, and, and let's be real. Sometimes it's a pass and sometimes it's a fail.
[00:31:25] Lindsey Dinneen: Yes, of course, but you never know until you try.
[00:31:30] Darnell Benjamin: Exactly and failure is fun. Failure is how we have an opportunity to learn of course, and, and, and try something different, you know? Yeah. So for me, it's like failure is just an opportunity to learn something.
[00:31:44] Lindsey Dinneen: Yes, and that's a great perspective. So you had mentioned kind of briefly in passing you, you mentioned kind of the expressionist movement that's something that really compels you, but I wonder if you could just define that a little bit more and talk about what exactly you see that as being just since we might not all be familiar with that.
[00:32:05] Darnell Benjamin: Absolutely. Yes, yes, yes. I know a lot of people are familiar with, you know, the scream painting and that is from like an expression as peace. It ultimately, and you know, the best way I could describe it, obviously it's in the way that I understand it and how I perceive expressionist movement being is digging into the feeling, what is the feeling that this art wants to portray. And instead of going from, you know, a linear direction with, here's a story with a beginning, middle, and an end, whether that's a play or for example, with a piece of art, you can just , you know, you can draw, for example, paint the Mona Lisa. But, or what you can do, you can paint what Mona Lisa feels like, what is, what is it that you want that piece of art to evoke? What is that feeling at the core? And that's for me, what expressionism is, it's about really tapping into not focusing on what we know as our realistic world, but instead exploring what is this world, this specific world in this piece of art and letting that tell the story.
[00:33:12] Like, for example , contemporary --oh, well, not that contemporary--but Edward Scissorhands, that's a, that's a perfect expressionist film because it created a world that was, yes, we recognize that these are human beings, but the distortion of the character of Edward, even thinking about the those bushes and how he would make these pieces of art with these bushes and that big castle that he lived in, all of that is very expressionism. You have, of course, the iconic film that most people know because It all stems from Germany. There's a lot of stuff out there that explores the exaggeration of things to tell the truth of what that story is.
[00:33:53] And as far as in my personal work , I actually got to do my first film. I directed and choreographed a film, which is kind of mind-blowing that that even happened. But , so I was, I was inspired by , so for instance, so I'm in Cincinnati, Ohio, and there were in 2001, there was the murder of a young black man, 19 years old by the name of Timothy. Timothy Thomas. And this was a kid who had a bunch of, you know, minor parking violations, things like that, tickets, stuff like that. And he was followed and he started running and he ran down this alley. Long story short, he , there are a lot of different reports of what possibly happened, but the gist of it is that he was trying to lift up his pants to climb over a fence. And he was shot because they thought he was going to be reaching into his pocket for a gun.
[00:34:44] And we all know we are in the midst of another round of this movement of the Black Lives Matter conversation. And, this has happened far too often. We know this happened back in 2001. And prior to that, there was a man by the name of Roger Owens B. Jr, where this happened in Cincinatti. So for me, I started looking at the repetition of this conversation and how we keep circling back to it. And instead of, and what I found myself leaning towards is we keep talking about it in this sort of sense of understanding of, look, this or here's point A, here's point B. This is what happened. This is the result. And I think it's a lot richer than that. And a lot deeper than that.
[00:35:27] I started leaning into the direction of mental health and that's I think at the core of the problem. And so I started thinking about over time, what are the effects of this repeated trauma on the black community and how are the ways that it manifests itself? And that's when I started , you know, putting this piece together and thank goodness , the company, Walter Hoop, which is an amazing company, please check them out: walterhoop.com. They are an arts center organization that plays in all the different mediums. They play in with podcasts. They play with theater. They do live productions, dance recently, with this film that I did. And they, they want it to produce this and we collaborated. The music is insane and the music matched up immediately with this concept I wanted to play with, which was thinking about how can we have this conversation, but look at it through the lens of mental health.
[00:36:27] So every single shot for me had to be, it was important that the choreography, the writing, which was, which was done by Tyrone Williams and it's a sort of, it's ultimately poetry. I wanted it all to feel abstract. I wanted it to feel familiar, but not . I wanted it to feel claustrophobic. I wanted it to feel all these things that heightened our emotions. And you know, and also in the midst of all that conversation, I wanted there to be joy despite all of the hurt , the lack of understanding. So at the end of the film, there is a -- it, it sort of, kind of goes through an evolution. Now granted, I didn't go--for anybody who might see this film-- which is called "13 the Republic"--I, if you are familiar with expressionism, please know that I didn't go like hardcore, literal expressionism all in. No, I actually played with a mixture of finding, pulling the things from expressionism that worked for me, which was looking at the feeling, what do I want? The, what is this feeling and how can I create that through movement? How can I create that through text? That's kind of how I lean into it 'cause a lot of expressionism, you're not going to have traditional scenery.
[00:37:42]Automize scenery in the film is very much actual streets and actual grass and actual parks, but where I kind of went more towards an expressionist direction in terms of scenery, it was in two scenes where I played with, what is it? What would it look like if we're inside of the main character's head? What does that look like? So there's this, there's a couple of scenes where I leaned into that. But yeah, that's, that's overall how I would describe expressionism in how I utilize it. I hope that makes sense.
[00:38:15] Lindsey Dinneen: That was perfect. And first of all, oh my goodnes, congratulations. That is such a huge accomplishment to have gotten to work on that film. And holy cow, that is a huge congratulations and, and, and kudos to you for starting that conversation and addressing things that really need to be talked about. And I so admire what you said, your intentionality behind the way that those scenes were portrayed and everything is just so amazing. I love hearing the background behind it, and why you chose things the way you did. But also, you know, choosing to bring out an element of joy despite everything I think is just huge. So, oh, my gosh. I cannot personally wait to see this film. Where can we watch this film?
[00:39:11] Darnell Benjamin: Oh yes, you can go to 13thandrepublic.com. And so that's one, three, and it's spelled out and AND republic.com and that's where you can go check it out. And it's an interactive website. That's the really cool thing is that Walter Hoop wanted to make sure that, because originally this was going to be a live production, but we are in the midst of a pandemic. And that's why we did it as a film. And even the film-- just in case anybody's wondering--we did it in August and it was done absolutely with every bit of social distancing and safety in mind. And I found a way even to incorporate masks in the show, in the film. So I found a way to do that. So we went through a lot of lengths to make sure that because, you know, it will be very ironic if you have these this cast of five black actors and dancers performing and they get COVID. You know what I mean? That was not going to happen.
[00:40:07] So it was very important, it was very important to me to make sure that they were safe and not even just them, but also me. And as far as this film, you know, I thank you for even like, 'cause it's, it really is mind blowing to me because it's funny how life has a way of surprising you: here we are in the midst of a pandemic and we were working on, I mean, this film was being worked on prior to the pandemic. We were prepping for filming and then the pandemic hit and we had to push filming back but the rehearsals had to get pushed back for what was going to be a live production because you can't, in my opinion, you know, when you want to talk about social issues and you want to talk about , how do we manage this?
[00:40:49] And the only way we can manage this is to have the conversation. And part of that conversation is a communal experience. And we couldn't have that because of the pandemic. So I'm really excited to share this information that I applied for a grant through a local organization here called Arts Wave. And they had this grant for what they call it A Truth and Reconciliation Grant. And I got one of those. And so the goal is that we're going to, we connect it with an organization. I can't say who yet, because it's not public just yet, but we connected with an organization where we're going to take the film out of the urban downtown areas and bring it into the suburbs and the rural areas as part of a showcase of the film. And there's going to be a live element involved with it. And also they're can, it's going to be a Q&A where we get to actually interact with the people who are outside of the thick of , you know , city council and the courthouse and all of that world.
[00:41:45]So it's really, because for me, the reason why I do what I do is to truly, truly have the conversation. And the only way we can do that is if we step out of our comfort zones and take that risk. And part of the risk for me was getting away from the place that I know, and from the people that already know what I do and going out into these neighborhoods where hopefully we will get welcomed. And obviously there's the chance that we will not, but the way I'm looking at it is that if I don't do this, I'm not doing this film the service it deserves, which is to be seen by the people who are not having these conversations, to be seen by the people who may be disagree with this conversation.
[00:42:28] But how nice would it be if we can actually have a dialogue? So that's, that's kinda the next phase of it, which I'm really excited about, but yes, just as a reminder, that's one, three and republic.com and it's an interactive website. So check it out. You get to, there are some interviews that are really cool where we interviewed the cast members to get their perspective and also the , the people on the creative team. So across the board, it's, it's beyond me because in my experience of creating, this is the first time I have ever gotten to do something exactly the way I wanted to do it, and absolutely being truthful to not only my personal mission as an artist, but to who I am as a , as a black queer man. So for me, I've never been prouder of something. Because it's, it's truly every internal experience thought that I've had in a film. It's kind of terrifying because in some ways, it's a little so vulnerable, it feels a little kind of invasive to share it, but it needed to be shared.
[00:43:36] And I think that I, I can't wait until we start having the conversation of mental health in, in tandem with conversations on social issues, because they're not separate. It's all connected. And I, I can't wait till we see, to see more artists, more scholars, more across-the-board people finding ways to connect those dots and really dig into the heart of what's going on within each of these social issues.
[00:44:06]Lindsey Dinneen: Yeah. Oh, my word. Well, I, I'm just sitting here smiling. Congratulations. This is so cool everything that you're doing ,and just congratulations on this grant and this new opportunity to expand your reach and to step out of your comfort zone. And, oh my goodness. I commend you. I think it's hard to be that vulnerable and put yourself out there. Oh my word. But that, but telling who you are and your truth and your story, that is so compelling. And that's going to, I just know that's going to have an impact on people's lives. It's going to spark those conversations that will hopefully actually make some change happen. And just think that you are a huge part of that. That is so cool because you had the courage to be vulnerable. So, oh, my word so much respect, kudos to you.
[00:44:59] Darnell Benjamin: Thank you. That's very kind.
[00:45:00]Lindsey Dinneen: That's all for today. Thank you so much for listening. If you enjoyed this episode, please feel free to share it with your friends. If you'd leave us a review and rating and subscribe to our podcast, you'll get notified when the newest episodes come out. Thank you for sharing art with us, and we hope your day has been Artfully Told.
[00:45:19]Hey, Artfully Told listeners, Lindsey here. And I just want to share with you a little bit more about The SpeakEasy Method. Now, if you've had a chance to listen to Gregg Gonzales' interview on Artfully Told, you're already a little familiar with the process that is so unique. That is the SpeakEasy Method is for people who are ready to write their books, but maybe aren't super confident about their own writing ability, or just want a more streamlined way of doing it. Gregg and his team at SpeakEasy are experts at these amazing questions that help your authentic voice to shine through. So what they do is they go through recorded audio interviews with you and these recordings are then transcribed and put into manuscript format, ready to go. So what's cool about that is instead of months and months, or years and years, of you writing a book, they will actually take you from concept to published and it can be as little as nine months. That is one of the most recent success stories that they have accomplished. And it is just a really innovative method that I am personally so excited to help represent and help share the word about because what Gregg and his team are doing is absolutely life-changing for prospective authors. And I highly encourage you to book a discovery call with Gregg or another member of his team to learn more and see if this could be the perfect fit for you. It's a hundred percent complimentary and you can do so easily by going to his website and that's www.joyful-living.com/speakeasy. And again, that spelled out is J O Y dash F U L dash living.com/speakeasy.