PuSh Play Episode 4: “Sound of the Beast” Transcript

Listen to the podcast episode here.

Gabrielle [00:00:02] Hello and welcome to PuSh Play, a PuSh Festival podcast featuring conversations with artists who are pushing boundaries and playing with form. I’m Gabrielle Martin, PuSh’s Director of Programming. And today’s episode highlights how the story calls to its form. I’m speaking with Donna-Michelle St. Bernard, writer and performer of Sound of the Beast, which will be presented at PuSh Festival January 20th, 21st and 23rd 2024. Part concert, part theatre, Sound of the Beast blends the personal and the political with stories of coming up in Toronto’s hip hop scene, the intersections between conscious rap and political activism, and the sacrifices we make for the things we believe in. Donna Michelle, a.k.a. Belladonna the Blest is an M.C. playwright and arts administrator. She is artistic director of New Harlem Productions and a vocalist with folk funk hip hop trio Ergo Sum. She’s a true believer. I’m delighted to share our discussion that gets into her ethic of research and retelling and what happens at the nexus of ease and discomfort. Here is my conversation with Donna Michelle. I have a ton of questions for you. I’m really curious to get to know more about your practice, about this show. First, I just want to acknowledge the territories that I’m on today for the call. I’m on the Unceded traditional and ancestral territories of the Coast Salish peoples, so the Musqueam, Squamish and Tsleil-Waututh. And it’s an absolute privilege to be here working for PuSh, to be based here, and just to be living here as a settler. So this is where I am today.

Donna-Michelle [00:01:38] I am coming to you from Treaty 13 Territory, but as newcomers call Toronto, which is the traditional territories of the Anishnabeg, the Chippewa, Haudenosaunee, Wendat, and Mississaugas of the Credit and this is also territory that is subject to the Dish With One Spoon Wampum Belt Covenant. And we are all implicitly signatory to that responsibility here.

Gabrielle [00:02:04] So I just want to dive right in by asking what is exciting you the most creatively these days?

Donna-Michelle [00:02:12] I’m really excited, by the way the shape of things is changing and maybe I’m a nerd, so I’m going to mix up that it’s changing creatively and organisationally and disciplinarily. You know, the people are creating work that looks more like itself and less like each other. And people are creating work in structures that look more like what is needed for this moment and less like what we think it’s supposed to look like. And so I think I’m excited by the possibilities of opening those vessels up and working. Working to blossom out rather than to crush ourselves into the shape that we think is expected.

Gabrielle [00:02:58] I think that segues really nicely into a follow up question I have about New Harlem Productions, because you’re the artistic director of New Harlem Productions and this is an arts organisation that prioritises marginalised narratives and centres, sustainability, solidarity, professional development, equitable resource distribution, social implications and frontline experiences. So I feel like when you were just describing what excites you about how people are making work. To me, I’m thinking about your own company and I’m curious in your experience how these values change the nature of creation and production, your creation and production.

Donna-Michelle [00:03:42] Yes, I appreciate that question because it is an ongoing consideration. I think that New Harlem started as like a net to catch what was what was not being picked up by the mainstream organisations for reasons that were unclear or not valid to me. Like this piece works in languages other than English and we don’t trust people to follow it. I trust people. Let’s go. Let’s do this. Or looking at artists who were emerging with with a strong voice that was that, that needed different support for the audience or different outreach for the audience. And like just a little bit more work. Let’s just do that little bit more work. Not that we’re the greatest and everything not to shine us on too much, but it’s my perspective was that there were artists that we could lose if they weren’t encouraged, affirmed and supported in doing something that was not what we expected them to do. And so working, working in the way that we do at New Harlem, really trying trying to have that value based centre, which is, by the way, a practice that evolved from my work with Native Earth Performing Arts, where we were able to say the all of the work of this company should be guided by these seven grandfather teachings that that seem to exist across many different nations, although they sometimes take different wording or different shape. And so that seemed like something really that’s possible to guide our decisions in a way that is not that does not leave it to the judgement of an individual, to the judgement of the leader of the moment of the company. But there’s these more enduring guidelines of how and why we’re doing things, and that if we can agree to that, then when we when there is disagreement or when there are difficult choices to make, we agree what the touchstone is. And so similarly at New Harlem, we’ve evolved these value statements around, as you mentioned, like sustainability, ethical resources. And so those writing those things out or articulating those things allows us to say like, we do need some funding and we don’t want that oil money. And that is clear to us because this thing in recently learning more about trauma informed practice and pulling some principles from that out a little bit more, such as like, Wow, I was considering the most effective, how do we serve the most affected, not the most vocal in any given scenario, you know? So I think those things really help us to move through some very difficult moments and to make choices to take what might seem like a risk. But from where we’re sitting is very clearly the correct thing to do, and that helps us be emboldened to stand up for what feels like the correct choice to make.

Gabrielle [00:06:39] Thank you. So eloquent.

Donna-Michelle [00:06:40] So philosophical.

Gabrielle [00:06:42] Clearly you’ve thought about this, clearly, this is deeply embedded.

Donna-Michelle [00:06:44] We never stop thinking about it.

Gabrielle [00:06:49] And clearly your work is also about creating space for others as well. And so I’m curious, maybe we can talk about the 54ology project because you’re the principle creator behind this project, but you also have many long term collaborators on it. And it’s a project that looks at each country in Africa through a different piece of performance work. You’re now about two thirds of the way through. And so I would just like to know why 54ology and how has this project and the collaborators in your long term collaborations, how has all of this changed you if it has?

Donna-Michelle [00:07:29] Oh has it ever. So 54ology the first piece that ever existed in some draft form with something called OSU data that had to do with HIV infection in Sudan and sort of like folk remedies and the impact of that, these folk remedies and the impact of the like poor investment into other remedies that well, that was a tough one. It was I was pretty blunt about certain things that are difficult to take in. That was the beginning of me sort of learning about like what is what is my positioning in relation to this story that I’m researching that is not my story? What is the positioning of, what is my understanding of how the story affects other people differently than it affects me? So from from that piece which was workshopped but not produced, I went on to create the first draft of The First Stone, which is my the biggest piece to date, which is about child abductees in Uganda. And that and so that was really challenge challenging. There are so many stories there. I encountered many people who were affected by that. That historical moment, moment is a very small word for it sorry, and I really had to evolve what is my relationship with the people whose stories I’m telling? What is my ethic of research and retelling and engaging with those kids who are now grown? Taught me a lot about non extractive research and about what I’m asking when I ask someone for their story, what I’m asking when they retell it to me, and it’s like a very difficult part of their life. And then so now I have this story. Thank you so much. And what did that do for them at all? Really trying to consider those things. What is our contribution to the lived reality that we are fictionalising. And that is something that’s evolved through the 54ology understanding of our responsibility to the source of our the need for us to make a meaningful contribution to the communities that we’re deriving our stories from the need for to show them what we’ve done with what they’ve offered, and then also thinking about the shape of the story. You mentioned that there are so many collaborators and sometimes sometimes in the 54ology, it’s a story about things unsaid and then I’m like, mmm, but I’m a sayer. That’s that’s mostly what I do is I say. So like, who are my choreographic collaborators that can help me to bring a different vocabulary to this and who are the musical composers and so on, or multi-media artists who can bring other vocabularies that I may not have into this? And then? And then how do I. How do how do I share what is inside of me in this of this story so that we move forward into it together? And how do we have a shared ethic of research? So I’m not a sound bitey person, so maybe this has become a diatribe, but 54ology is so much about process to me.

Gabrielle [00:10:52] Yeah, right.

Donna-Michelle [00:10:53] And so much about like how the story calls to its form and and when I need to step up and when I need to step back in my narrative voice being a part of it. So I’ve learned so much through doing the 54ology about different forms. And I feel like each new piece is an education. And there are and there is yet so much for me to learn. And I’m just really excited and really grateful to everyone who’s contributed to it in all the ways.

Gabrielle [00:11:19] It’s really beautiful how you articulated this ethic of research and retelling and how your process of building your own methods for non extractive research. And I’m wondering if you could speak a little bit more to that. I know you talk about the after effects are like not just in, okay, you know, you’re doing the research and you hear from people and hear their stories and create a work and then how does that work then exist in relation to them? I mean, you’ve spoken a bit about that. But yeah, I mean, this is such a kind of theme with, you know, with the PuSh festival wanting to put forward work that accelerates social change. So therefore often it’s talking about or addressing situations that have a real impact of trauma in a lot of people’s lives.

Donna-Michelle [00:12:15] Yes, I’m so interested in this, like and a strong part of what we’ve evolved through doing this work is an ethic of care for both the audience, both the artists and the audience and the folks whose stories we are telling. And and so what I referred to earlier about, like serving the most impacted or the most vulnerable, like, like it comes into play when someone someone gives you a story, “This this is a thing that happened to me and it was hard for it to happen and it is hard for me to tell you.” And then if I if I were to take that away and go, “what a good story, so dramatic” and just tell it again and in the same way that I received it, the way that that would impact another person in the audience who has lived this experience, which I have not can be quite brutal. And I feel like often that brutality is excused by the courage of telling it raw, you know, which is something that is that’s something that the performer or the creator wants, you know, or that might be something that’s like titillating for an audience who will never be near to that experience. And so that’s that’s sort of a specific case study, though, of like, you know, who who’s being served. Why am I telling this story? And I think that there can be a tendency to say, I’m doing a service by drawing awareness to this story, and it just isn’t enough to be doing that. When when I draw awareness to this story, does that put money in the bank for the person whose story it is that I’m telling? Because it mostly doesn’t, what does it do? Does it change the social environment they’re operating in? Well, not if I’m out here bluntly and brutally saying their business to no end. Not if someone else is sitting there having not shared their story with me, feeling like I’m bluntly and brutally telling their business and feeling exposed that they’re in the audience, who am I serving? I think that’s such a big question. And then, too, the other aspect of care is, like all of my plays are going to ask the same question: How. How could you, how could we, how could they, how did this happen? How, why did this happen? How did this happen? How could you. (laughter). That’s my question. So in order for us to tell a story in which we’re like, where care has been absent or where harm has been done, that story cannot ethically come out of a rehearsal hall in which people are being treated brutally in order to achieve the perfection of the performance or in which people, people who are late because their children were puking in the morning are docked pay for the minutes that they’re late. They can’t work. That can’t work. We can’t we can’t illustrate a care ethic without practising it and enacting it in a deep and meaningful way. So we cannot move into an abolitionist future if we are unforgiving of our collaborators in that movement. You know, so everything is everything is my point. That’s Lauryn Hill’s point. I share her point.

Gabrielle [00:15:44] Nothing wrong with that acknowledging a good point. Thank you for framing your perspective, this perspective on creation and production so articulately. I want to know a little bit more about Sound The Beast and where it sits in relation to your other works. Because you are a prolific creator and a self-proclaimed word slinger, M.C, advocate and agitator. Yeah. Maybe you can talk a little bit about how this story has called into its form and its relationship in your wider practice.

Donna-Michelle [00:16:26] This play is quite unique in the 54ology and was quite a site of growth and challenge for me. So it is my first time writing a solo show and that that was a big learning. It was the first time when my work had my story in it. It was so hard, Gabrielle, it was so hard because it’s just not my style and it’s just not.

Gabrielle [00:16:56] A different beast.

Donna-Michelle [00:16:56] Yeah it’s absolutely a different beast I’m not accustomed to. I mean, I’ve been writing these stories about the larger global phenomenon that create untenable situations for people. And so it’s very difficult for me to say like, “Oh, it was so hard that time. They didn’t let me do this show and I had to wait and do a different show a week later. Oh my God, my life is so hard’ getting into that and, you know, acknowledging acknowledging my reality is valid to speak about. It was a thing. I also I was an M.C. before I was in theatre, and I came to theatre from that world and then sort of encountered a little bit of like, “That’s cute that you do that. Could you put it down for a second and do this grown up art form?” That was the vibe. And, and so, you know, I rapped on the weekend and did grown up stuff during the week and, and I found my way back. So in this piece where I gave myself permission and also was supported by my colleagues and having permission to be to bring my full self into the theatre, into this formal space with my informal practice as an M.C and with my, my aesthetic, which is like a little sloppy, like, I want I just I don’t ever want you to get comfortable with me as like a clean person that’s like, safe to have around kids unsupervised. Oh, my God, I shouldn’t say that. But you know what I mean. I want you to get the idea that… Lena Waithe there’s this thing that I’m obsessed with about her haircut. She’s got, like, shaved, shaved down the sides, and then, like, a, you know, a little bit of dreadlock come on down the side or I’m sorry, they don’t see dreadlocks anymore. So she’s got locks coming down the side. I’m old, I’m adjusting. And and she did an interview about it once and she said, I realise I’m going to butcher this quote, but paraphrasing she said, “I realised that even though everyone knew that I was a queer black woman, that I was in a room sometimes where people were comfortable with me being there. And that is not my role to be someone that is comfortable to have in the room.” And I was like, Lena, let me go shave my head. Let me never make people feel that they should, that I’m there for comfort. I’m here for discomfort and not here to… While I do want people, I do want to enact care for audiences and collaborators and everyone, I’m not here for you to be at your ease. That’s not my function. And so in order to do that, I’m also stepping very much into my own discomfort and in this performance. Bringing hip hop into the theatre, not as a trick and not as a like, boom pow concert. Like, I’m not I’m not trying to do Beyoncé-esque look, I’m trying to show you what my reality is as a hip hop artist in this community, we perform in small spaces. We perform in dirty spaces. Sometimes people throw bottles, you know? That’s my reality. We perform at protests against police brutality. Like that’s where my work lives, that’s what it’s for. It’s not for, it’s not for going platinum. As if that was an option that I declined. But it’s not for that. It’s for being in spaces of resistance. And that is my function. And so feeling that being able to bring that into a formal space, like a theatre where like you arrive on time and the show definitely starts at this time. And what is this? This is this not this is not very me. And and then there’s a stage manager like. They’re always there. They’re always like, they never go to the bathroom during your song and forget to play the next track, which is what they do at clubs. Whole different situation. So in Sound of the Beast, I am I am at a nexus of ease and effort for myself and for the audience. I can tell you some stories that are easy to digest, and then I just need you to stay with me through some stuff that maybe isn’t. And I’m going to try to create an environment where you trust me enough to come there with me.

Gabrielle [00:21:19] Sound of the Beast: here for the discomfort, and the ease, and the ease. We’re super excited to have this work as part of the 2024 PuSh Festival. Thank you so much for chatting with me, inviting folks into your practice a little bit more and and for agreeing to be part of this 2024 festival. This is an incredible work. You know, it’s such a treat when you from the get go of a performance experience, you just know you’re in really good hands and, you know, that’s that’s this work for sure. So thanks Donna Michelle.

Donna-Michelle [00:21:56] Thank you so much. I appreciate it, I appreciate this time with you.

Ben [00:22:02] That was Gabrielle Martin’s conversation with Donna-Michelle St. Bernard. My name is Ben Charland, and I’m one of the producers of this podcast, along with Tricia Knowles. PuSh Play is supported by our community outreach coordinator, Julian Legere. Original Music from Joseph Hirabayashi. New episodes are released every Monday and Thursday. For more information on PuSh International Performing Arts Festival, visit pushfestival.ca and follow us on social media @PuShFestival. And on the next “PuSh Play:”

Nellie Gossen [00:22:35] When we were talking about care practices of of was turning towards or building capacity building muscle to turn towards experiences that are really challenging, to turn towards suffering, to turn towards complexity and to try to build spaces to to hold that complexity in whatever other container. It all creates more space for us to think.