I Want to Co-Create Powerful, Entertaining Work- 10 Questions with Director and Choreographer Roxanna Lewis
Originally from Washington, DC, Roxanna Lewis was born into a family of writers, visual artists, and civil rights and political activists. Early exposure to the arts led to Lewis living a fully immersed artistic life. With a high level of enthusiasm and curiosity, Lewis explored many creative endeavors including working as a professional dancer, choreographer, actor, director, producer, and writer.
In 1999, an original production Lewis choreographed titled Dreambody debuted in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. The production was highly praised and considered groundbreaking as it expanded the boundaries of dancing using dancers both with and without disabilities, triumphing over stereotypes and limitations. Dreambody featured dancer Kitty Lunn, who performed out of her wheelchair for two-thirds of the production and her wheelchair wasn't revealed to the audience until the third section of the piece. Lunn's wheelchair then added a dynamic quality to the performance. At times the wheelchair served as a fourth dancer, while at other times, the wheelchair become a focal point as all the dancers performed on and around it. The original score for Dreambody was composed by Glen Velez, a four time Grammy winner, and the production toured the US and Italy.
Lewis, who is also a mother, is at a pivotal point in her career. Family priorities previously required Lewis to temporarily put her artistic endeavors on hold. She is now working diligently to re-introduce herself to the creative community as she continues to develop her craft.
Most recently Lewis directed Peter and the Star Catcher at Theatre Jacksonville, a production which received rave reviews. Lewis has has been invited to participate in the 2017 Edinburg Fringe Festival, the world's largest arts festival, which in 2016, spanned 25 days and featured 50,266 performances of 3,269 shows in 294 venues. The festival focuses on theater performances that are experimental in style or subject matter.
Lewis is creating an original production titled String Theory to reveal at the Fringe Festival. The production converges at the intersection of dance, music, spoken word, aerial art, stage, film and revolutionary physics - exploring tensions between the competing forces of order and chaos. String Theory is scheduled to feature an international cast consisting of Kelli Young (US opera singer), Sonja Perreten ( UK dancer), and Tim Watson (US actor and tech). Watson also lives in Jacksonville, Florida after recently relocating from Jupiter, FL to serve in the role of Technical Director at Theatre Jacksonville.
10 Questions with Roxanna Lewis
Do you have any patterns, routines, or habits when you start a new project?
My brain goes into overdrive at the start of a new project - I attack mundane tasks in order to clear my mind and physical space. This frees me to transition into a heightened creative realm. Initially, I seek to unleash the contrast in a project. Whether working on an original project or a piece with a history, I identify the variables that make it a viable work unto itself.
Then comes the extensive research – travel, reading, interviews, watching footage, studying art work, photographs and postcards, collecting trinkets, dreaming. I explore a multitude of sensory inputs related to the work-to-be, ranging from smells and textures, music and sound elements - sometimes the natural extension of or a deliberate clash with the subject matter. I absorb it all. Then, I step back to look at the mess of a puzzle I’ve given myself to solve, put it all aside and trust myself. I play.
How do you define success in what you do?
That’s a layered definition. First and foremost, I ask myself what social value a project has to an audience - does it provoke dialogue? Does it add value to life? Does it remind us of where we’ve been and what we can choose to bring into our future? Does it heal something for someone? I’ve chosen to take on projects largely by the challenge they present for me as both an individual and a working artist.
If I’m a little scared, it’s a good thing. If I can look back on a job and see pronounced growth in my process and/or my perception of the world, then it’s a success. If it’s made an impact on the individuals with whom I worked throughout the process, it’s a success. If I have touched people’s lives across divisions of economics, language, age, culture, different physical abilities – then it’s a success. If the work has lifted someone’s life and empowered them and/or challenged or shifted philosophies - it’s a success. So “success” is a very private, sometimes elusive, experience for me as a creator.
Then there is “success” derived from external sources including recognition and financial gain. It’s hard to say these elements are important at all, but on varying levels, there are metrics of success in our society. It is my belief and experience that in order for an artist to establish a foundation from which to live, take risks and create generously to stimulate both an audience’s interest and dialogue, one must be able to sustain themselves from a place of balance, which is completely unique for each individual.
What have you learned about yourself through your career in the arts?
Both the act of living life and the act of making art are collaborative processes. My career as an artist has provided me with an enduring and continuing education about humanity, values, and ethics. Through my career in the arts, I have met and become friends with people from all over the world, from homeless street performers to A-list celebrities in New York and Los Angeles, who have brought with them, the most beautifully diverse backgrounds and thoughtful insights. I care deeply about putting messages of courage, unity, and vitality into the world as both a mother and as an artist. Our voices matter. Art is an indispensable part of who I am; I simply cannot picture my life, or the world, without it.
What role has work ethic played in the development and progression of your career?
Work ethic is absolutely vital to establishing and cultivating an artistic career path. My personal drive to constantly learn, flow, experiment, risk, develop, and hone skills remains a paramount factor in moving forward professionally.
I first learned the meaning of hard work from my boundless dedication to my childhood dream of becoming a working ballerina. That opportunity closed for me. Receiving no as a response can be a powerful motivator – after a “gut check,” I opened myself to new means of expression and fulfillment. Education through traditional and hard-knock experience was a very important part of re-inventing myself too.
A strong work ethic and an enthusiastic yes to a wide variety of opportunities leads to more work! I threw myself into many artistic endeavors in the Big Apple. I fought past the fear of hearing no and earned work as a professional dancer, choreographer, actor, producer and writer. Whether producing a body of work for one’s own personal satisfaction or work intended for public consumption, I see passion as the flesh and blood of an artistic endeavor and work ethic as it’s backbone. I have taken that enthusiastic yes with me ever since.
As a Director, what communication techniques do you implement to convey your artistic vision to cast and production team?
Each cast and production team is so very unique. There’s also an added component of creating for stage or on-camera. The production team is a huge factor in bringing a piece to its full production value.
When working with a technical director, costume designer, or composer, I design very specific presentations to establish the overall feel that I envision as well as specific elements that I want to incorporate. Sometimes it’s a short, informal process that comes together very quickly and sometimes it is extensive with many adjustments along the way, right up to show time. I honor this collaborative exchange very much.
A cast doesn’t often know one another prior to production. My first goal is build trust both with and within the cast. The personal off-stage or off-camera relationships are not my priority but what happens on-stage or on-camera is. An audience can always sense when a cast is authentic and present for one another when performing. I’ll communicate through a purely physical approach to get the performers out of their heads and into their bodies, which jump-starts their process past any resistance.
A variety of elements come into communicating my vision for a production. For some projects, I bring a detailed artistic vision that then needs to be clearly presented and understood by the cast and production team. I have brought in storyboards, assistants, videos, history lessons, recordings, photographs and sketches to convey what I’ve worked out in pre-production. Other times, I work from a very clear vision in my mind’s eye and deliberately incorporate tons of exploratory dialogue, experimentation, and a rich collaborative or improvisational process with the cast to achieve that vision.
It may not sound like it, but I come into every directing job with a soft voice, a lot of eye contact, and active listening. I also create the time to work with each individual one-on-one so they know I am invested in their private artistic process.
Can you describe the feeling you experience when a production hits its stride and there is a cohesiveness amongst all the individual components and moving parts?
Pure joy – a sense of warmth, ease, and quiet celebration drops into my being. I make peace with passing the baton to the performers and just enjoy watching the work spring to life.
You developed a curriculum that emphasizes dance, theater, and story-telling to teach principals of math, science, and history to elementary school students. What do you feel are the benefits of the arts being fully integrated into academic curriculums?
There is absolutely no doubt that integrating the arts fully into academic curriculums are nothing less than 100% beneficial for all. There are extraordinary benefits of enhanced self-esteem and an increased desire to participate in the classroom. The arts teach skills for collaboration and effective communication. Art helps students develop individual perspectives and a sense that their perspectives have value.
Students learn how to problem solve through many modes of expression. This allows them to connect to life outside of the school setting and hear words come alive and ideas jump off the page. Learning to create visual art gets young people engaged in a quiet, active, concentrated mode while the performing arts get students up and moving together.
The arts allow students to see the world through the eyes of another. The arts possess an innate therapeutic component providing students an outlet for self-expression and dreams to be actualized – in any field they choose.
Great academic minds throughout history have also been exquisite artists. To name a few:
Leonardo Davinci: inventor, painter, architect, scientist, mathematician, engineer
Nicolaus Copernicus: mathematician, astronomer, artist
Bernard Palissy: Hydraulics engineer, craftsman, potter
John James Audubon: ornithologist, painter
Albert Einstein: physicist, pianist
James Weldon Johnson: Lawyer, educator, songwriter
Steven Spielberg: Director, producer, screenwriter, patent holder
Do you feel the arts can serve to build bridges between disconnected communities and foster equality and inclusion?
Throughout history the sum of the human experience has been embodied and expressed through the arts. The arts serve as a platform for all to express point of view and analyze aspects of social consciousness regarding both historical issues and our collective future. The arts provide unlimited opportunities to engage in meaningful exchange about cultures and traditions which creates pathways to a more inclusive personal perspective, community, and world.
“Everyone discusses my art and pretends to understand, as if it were necessary to understand, when it is simply necessary to love.” ~ Claude Monet
What opportunities have you had to present your work outside of Jacksonville, and how have you fostered these opportunities?
I’m very thankful and honored to have had my work presented across the US as well as in France, Italy, Germany, Guatemala, Japan, Thailand, and Hong Kong. Since living in Jacksonville, I’ve had a full-length choreographic work re-mounted off-Broadway (NYC), worked with Discovery Channel and artists on an original reality TV show, and collaborated with international recording artists.
This past November, I was brought in as associate director and choreographer for an original holiday show at Six Flags America (DC) then immediately jumped into production with “Peter and the Starcatcher” at Theatre Jacksonville. Right now, I am excited to have been invited to present a new dance-theater work with an international cast at the Edinburgh (UK) Fringe Festival this August. I’d like to bring it back home to Jacksonville then tour it to DC and London.
It all starts with a resolute “YES.” Many of my recent opportunities for work in and outside of Jacksonville evolved through word-of-mouth or long-standing working relationships with other artists and producers. Sometimes folks ask me to work on a project they have in development or going into production and my contribution is very straightforward. To up the ante, I started a production company, Roxxiedanz Productions Inc, which specializes in collaborating with artists and producers within a wide range of budgets to deliver commercially successful, provocative productions for stage, TV, and film. I’m looking for projects that elevate humanity, challenge social stereotypes, and connect deeply with audiences world-wide.
What production initially opened your eyes to the world of theatre, and if you could pick one production to be a part of what would that production be?
I came to theater by way of dance. Even as a child, I always connected to the narrative and more specifically the emotional range of the work. My passion for dance allowed me to find and hone my first artistic voice, without saying a word. I wanted to tell stories but for some reason acting and the world of theater/film/TV seemed an island unto its own. Maybe it was all the glamour, manners and refinement in classic films that put it out of reach in my younger mind?
In NYC, I obsessively soaked in the diverse spectrum of philosophies of choreographers and a myriad of directors as I trained, performed, taught, and choreographed everywhere and anywhere - downtown to Broadway. Something big was still missing. I craved to know what was beneath my own insecurities – I wanted to discover the power of my actual voice, apart from dance.
What truly opened my eyes to the world of theater was the professional training programs I experienced with Jim Bonney and the exquisite Caymichael Patton. I grew to see acting and theater not as intangible and remote but as a necessary extension of my understanding of human experience. Acting became a porthole to innumerable new experiences!
There are tons of productions that I love and deeply inspire me from the meat of the script to ingenious production elements – from classics to cutting-edge productions like De La Guarda, Matthew Bourne’s Swan Lake, Contact, and Sleep No More. The Producers, Neverland, Six Degrees of Separation, Eclipsed, and Fela! are high on my list, too - but they’ve also already been done.
When I was asked my favorite color as a little girl, my response was rainbow sherbet! Presently, the collected wisdom of my years tells me that rainbow sherbet is the perfect philosophy as to what is to come – I embrace and welcome more than I can see and know right here, right now. I welcome a multi-sensory, resounding “YES” that wildly expands my ideas and my output as an artist. I want to co-create powerful, entertaining work, and it is a wonderfully exciting time to do so. I place no limits on what is to come.