New theater company Philomela Productions will announce its arrival with an explosive offering: the regional premiere of Alice Birch’s Revolt. She Said. Revolt Again, a play variously described by critics as “theater in beast mode,” “ferocious” and, according to New York Times critic Ben Brantley, expressive of “anarchic fury.”
Artistic director Tamarra Nelson, who says she has “a passion for sincerity and a strong belief that theater should reflect all walks of life,” is a recent graduate of the University of Denver with a BA in English literature and theater. The new company has its roots in DU’s theater department, and the production of Revolt will take place in the JMAC White Box Studio, running August 22 through August 24.
We caught up with Nelson to learn more about the company and its debut production.
Westword: Is Philomela a DU company, or is the intention to become independent?
Tamarra Nelson: The group I'm working with is almost entirely made up of DU alums and students. Many of us are local artists who work around town — Curious Theatre, Colorado Shakespeare Festival, Fearless Theatre, etc. — and I think we all really admire each other. Everyone is crazy-talented and so hard-working, so there's a deep respect among us. When I decided I wanted to direct this play, I had almost every single designer and actor picked out within a week. So I sort of went to everyone, one by one, and asked them to join the project. Everyone was really excited by the chaos and honesty in this play, and by how different it was than anything we've seen so far. And now, here we are!
What is the significance of the company's name, Philomela?
It comes from the Greek myth of Philomela, the Princess of Athens. Her older sister, Procne, was married to a king. Procne sent her king to retrieve Philomela and bring her to their home, but when the king sees her, he falls in love. He makes advances, and when Philomela refuses, he rapes her, cuts out her tongue, and locks her in a cabin in the middle of nowhere. Philomela begins to weave a tapestry that tells her story, and convinces one of her servants to take it to Procne. Procne sees it, sets her free, and in revenge, the two sisters kill the king's son and serve him as his dinner. The king eats it and tries to kill them in a rage, but the gods protect the sisters by turning Philomela into a nightingale and Procne into a swallow so they can fly away.
I found this story through my research for Revolt, where the image of a nightingale reoccurs. I was drawn to it, because there's something powerful about a woman who stands even when her voice is stifled.
Where are your plans? Will you expand beyond the university eventually? Where do you anticipate future performances taking place?
We can't quite talk about our next plans yet, because there are a few things still up in the air, but we will certainly put on more shows in the future. Philomela Productions is a very new company, so we half operate out of DU's campus and half wherever I can bring my laptop! I do want to note that we aren't technically a part of the University of Denver. Because most of our company are alums, and we have maintained great relationships with our former professors, they are letting us use their space free of charge as well as allowing us to rent props, costumes, and technical fixtures. We'd love to produce more work in the DU spaces if they allow, but we'd also love to expand to other theaters in the future.
You've chosen a gutsy play as your first. Can you tell me why you chose it? Will your company specialize in feminist theater, and if so, how do you define that term? Can you tell us more about why this script appeals to you?
When I chose it, the word "gutsy" didn't come to mind, though it's come up with others. All I knew was that the play spoke to issues I found compelling, and it made me laugh. I liked that it didn't try to hide or dilute any of its ideas, and it didn't shy away from chaos. This play is great because it gives space for women to yell, scream, laugh and feel without worrying about any sort of decorum. There's also a lot of heart. It's about revolution, which comes from anger, which comes from pain.
In a way, I guess Philomela specializes in feminist theater in the sense that everything we produce, even if it's not explicitly labeled as such, we hope to be feminist. I think feminist theater mainly serves to highlight women and explore the structures in place that work against them. This to me includes a lot of theater. Because these patriarchal structures are rooted so deep in everyday life, it's hard to make art that doesn't reckon with that in some way.
Do you have ideas for future productions?
I'm largely interested in work that subverts dramatic norms in some way, but still holds a lot of sincerity and heart. I also want to continue to produce work that puts queer/trans/POC/female bodies on stage. Specific plays I have my eye on are Still by Jen Silverman, Anatomy of a Suicide by Alice Birch, and anything written by Suzan Lori Parks.
Revolt. She Said. Revolt Again runs August 22 through August 24 at the University of Denver's JMAC White Box Studio, 1901 East Iliff Avenue. For tickets, $10, go to brownpapertickets.com.