Saturday, April 1, 2023

Alexis Black: MSU Theater heads to Broadway

August 2, 2022
<p>Photo courtesy of Alexis Black. </p>

Photo courtesy of Alexis Black.

Alexis Black, an assistant professor of acting, theatrical movement, and stage combat in the MSU Theater program has moved her expertise to the largest stage. Joining the critically-acclaimed revival of the Shakespeare classic, "Macbeth," as the assistant violence director, Black is putting MSU on the map for performance.

Coming from an artistic family where both of her parents were singers, actors, and musicians, Black was raised to love the spotlight and the stage, even doing community theater as a bonding ritual for the whole family. Black's family pushed her to follow what activities brought her joy.

“I loved ballet for the technique and ability for expression, and sports for athleticism and community building," Black said. "In college, when I found stage combat, I realized it combined all of my loves—athleticism, expression, technique and theatrical productions.” 

While Black lived in NYC, she began working with award-winning companies such as the Vampire Cowboys Theater Company and En Garde Entertainment, focusing on representation of marginalized groups in theater as well as physical storytelling.

“I started to move away from acting and toward choreography as my joy came in collaborating and nuancing storytelling from the outside, and being an advocate for actors," Black said.

This led to her passion for teaching, receiving her MFA in Movement Pedagogy at Virginia Commonwealth University, focusing on the art and science of teaching movement on stage. This degree allowed for Black to utilize skills to teach performers to act with more expression in stories that relies on physicality such as fights and intimacy.

At MSU, she leads a unique program that focuses on contemporary practices when approaching intimate scenes and consent activities that come with it.

"I teach classes in movement and acting to both undergraduate and graduate students, including animal work, mask work, contemporary unarmed and classical armed violence techniques (as in swords), I lead staged intimacy workshops for each production, and often choreograph movement for productions," Black said.

Black and Tina M. Newhauser, another MSU Theater faculty member, are also looking to teach in another format, writing a book on staged intimacy, named "Supporting Staged Intimacy," to be released in 2022.

Black explained that this will be the only-second full length text on contemporary specialization on intimacy direction ever written, excited to bring her research to print.

Her and Newhauser first started to collaborate when Black came into MSU as the new movement specialist and Newhauser wanted to partner with her on Newhauser's new advanced stage management class to explore how each director interacts with each other, creating new curriculum entirely that the two realized didn't exist anywhere else.

“Everyone intersects with this with this content, and so we really just started opening it up and, and thought about it more broadly," Newhauser said. "Then that became kind of the catalyst for the idea behind the book."

After only an hour after proposing the book idea, the pair had a positive responses from their publishing group. Newhauser was excited to research the idea with the support of others in the industry.

Newhauser explained that being able to collaborate with Black was a relaxed process with no ego involved. The two were able to just do what was best for the story and explore creatively together.

“When you're in that process, and you feel that energy... you can're doing something special," Newhauser said.

Black has also been able to take her talents internationally, both acting and choreographing in Europe and Asia, collaborating with different backgrounds to expand her own creative processes.

“The common thread with anywhere I have worked on staged violence or other movements has been empathy, care for each other in building extreme stories safely and the passion to create a clear, cathartic story for the audiences," Black said. "Movement is very important in bringing stories performed in English to different countries, when the audiences may not understand the words being spoken but are following what is happening by reading the body language.”

When it came time to hit the stage domestically, Black's long-term mentor, David Leong, asked about her interest on the revival of "Macbeth." Being completely interested, this revival was the 15th project and second Broadway collaborating between Leong and Black.

“As assistant violence director, I joined Leong for many meetings with the creative team prior to the start of official rehearsals, took notes for him, answered actor questions during staging, brainstormed choreography and tested out some movements prior to sharing them with the actors, demonstrated movements for the actors, and stood in as a test body for some of the fake-blood special effects," Black said.

Black explained that one of the most educational and exciting parts of the rehearsal process was meeting with another MSU Theater alumna to choreograph combatants to special effects such as blood, fake glass, shatters, and haze.

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“David Leong and Director Sam Gold had several conversations about making the violence be physically messy and very bloody, and using interesting, a-typical weapons such as a screw driver or sledge hammer,” Black said.

She explained that her inspiration for the show was horror-style fights and an excess of stylized blood, pulling from the book of Quentin Tarantino.

"When in the rehearsal room, however, our inspiration really came from the amazing actors such as Daniel Craig, who all had ideas about the desires of their characters, how they moved and thought, and what they might choose to do while attacking someone," Black said.

Black said that she is truly honored to be in a Tony-nominated show, being able to witness the work of two nominated designers in both sound and lighting as they were building it in rehearsals, being thrilled that their hard work was recognized by the Tonys.

She commented that she is proud of how this adaptation was able to honor all identities that surrounded the cast and crew.

"Diverse casting was done intentionally, to help uplift the voices and stories of actors (and thus characters) from marginalized groups," Black said. "This approach gave the words and the story a new meaning in some cases, while still celebrating the universality within the stories of Shakespeare.” 

Black hopes that with her working on such a main stage that her other colleagues at the university can work on higher profile projects, bringing attention and support to the theater program.

"Our faculty, staff and students are incredible, and hopefully projects like this can help those at MSU and in the wider community to recognize their artistry and achievements, whether in the Fairchild theatre or in working on Broadway," Black said.

Black explained that her homecoming to MSU will be her next adventure, directing a show for the department called "For the Love of...(or the Roller Derby Play)," celebrating female and non-binary empowerment in movement-based staging, focusing on compassion for others.

“I am also looking forward to mentoring more students next year in building physical theatre," Black said. "I love this work and am thrilled to be a resource, supporter and collaborator with the artists of tomorrow. I learn as much as I teach every year.” 

One student she mentored to become a fight director was Jacob Squire.

“It's been such a great experience, to be able to have somebody who's as like passionate and has as much experience as she does to be able to kind of jump in on things, to give me feedback on some of the like choreography that I'm coming up with the storytelling, and then also to see how she works with the actors in the room,” Squire said.

He explained that Black's easy-going nature makes her teaching what is, breaking the tension that could surround intimacy direction, allowing students to make the progress they need to make.

“She's got a bunch of different approaches in her back pocket to be able to kind of pull out and help students really start to see what works for them, instead of just being so focused into one method or one thing that kind of may stifle some actors, you can then grab the different tools," Squire said.

Squire said the highlight of working with Black is her humor, being quick-witted and on top of jokes, making part of the charm of working with her the fun that they have.

Black loves both the experiences she had last year on Broadway as well as teaching others, learning more by being fully apart of this industry she holds a passion for and teaches others to have a deep respect for.

“It was a wonderful reminder of the vibrant, ever-changing path of modern theatre," Black said. "Being immersed in the world of Broadway taught me a lot about how the path of this industry is changing for the better, and how we all need to keep uplifting actors, playwrights and creative team members from marginalized or disempowered groups by supporting their stories and their work.” 


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