What medium are you currently working in?
Mostly poetry/spoken word and acting.
Can you tell us a little about your technique?
When writing poetry, I try to have the goal of a message in mind. Doesn’t always come to fruition and can take many turns, but I like to try and start that way. But sometimes a line or two just comes to you, and you gotta write it down, and that can lead to an end product that you weren’t even thinking of. Acting wise, I like to learn different techniques and approaches and use what makes sense for a given character. That, and I like to play characters opposite me or ones not many people have seen me play. And all that also depends on the show. I think for most of us, message is important. How can the show overall affect someone? How does it affect you as the performer to then affect an audience member?
I love how you describe the symbiotic relationship between performer and audience. Can you think of a time you were profoundly affected by someone’s reaction to your performance?
Okay, this may be kinda long, apologies.
There were two — well, I guess three, but two from the same show. When I did Othello, it was my first show out here. A couple who are white brought their son who was Black to see the show. And amidst saying hi and thanking people for coming to see the show afterwards, they came up to me and introduced themselves. I really wish I remembered names. Anyhow, they explained they know he’s rather young to see the show but wanted him to see what someone who looks like him could do. That’s something I hadn’t expected to hear or encounter. I guess in some way I had reserved that for someone with this huge acting career and not me. But to even have been able to leave a small impression in his mind of possibilities means a lot.
Also from that show, I think once the run was finished, I was at work waiting for food I’d ordered and this woman was like, “It’s you!” …which left me confused and very off-guard. Turns out she saw the show and was confused as to why I was in the building. She thought I made a living acting. I explained I work out here, just in another building, and that I do it for work/life balance. But to have someone react like that based on your performance, just wow. I still can’t believe it happened. Very heartwarming.
And the show I just finished a couple weeks ago, Silent Sky. Thankfully, we were able to still do it. To hear multiple people say how much they enjoyed the show and how they know/knew many of the types of characters that were portrayed, and just wanted to continue to talk about the show within itself means a lot. And it could be because of the times we’re living in and not having been able to perform for a while, initially postponing the show back in August, but definitely had some water wanting to gush out.
What is it like to play a character opposite you? Have you ever had a hard time relating to a character that you’ve played?
It can be fun and draining. I did a show in college playing this drunk executive who was bent on taking and keeping control of this magazine company. At the time, I had never had a drink, so that was something I had to figure out how to do effectively and not look crazy. And to be as conniving and mean spirited as he was felt icky, to be honest. It felt good when rehearsal was over, and I could just be myself again. There was a line he said (it was a faith-based play): “Your God ain’t got nothing on me,” and he was very proud in saying that. Being someone who believes, that took me a minute to be able to say. I was like, God, you know where me and you stand, and this is Justin Franklin saying this and not me. So it was that reminder of separation for me at the time. Yes, parts of me help inform this character, but all that this character is, is not me… even though I had some people convinced, given some reactions on campus some days later. And more so now — after reading, doing trainings and intensives, humanizing the character no matter how they are or can be perceived — makes the difference. Certainly makes it a little easier to portray.
Have you always known performing and writing would be an integral part of your life?
Yes and no.
Writing has always been a way of expressing myself but wasn’t necessarily for anyone else to see or hear—a form of therapy before I knew what therapy was. But when watching other spoken word artists, such as the few clips of Def Poetry Jam I could remember when I was younger, or P4CM while I was in college, it was just moving and inspiring. Still is. No matter how some people feel about it. And I was like, I could do that; it’s not impossible. So jumping over the insecurity of not being able to do it, not having a particular form or structure, not having an English major background, has helped me realize how much it means to me, and that it is indeed integral. Really thinking about this answer right now has helped me hone in on how integral it is. Those thoughts/themes that just yell out wanting to be heard, and my thoughts about it, and getting it all formulated into words is like a breath of air has been taken and released.
Performing, I feel like I did know but wasn’t always sure how. Went to a magnet middle school, with mine being band. Just being in that wing of the school, I was then exposed to acting and chorus. Hence my introduction to performing, aside from my grandmother being a part of a dance group at church. But my love of acting developed there—ended up doing plays, one-acts, musicals, and wanted to do it going forward. Minus clowning… I still have scars on my face [from] trying to get the makeup off during that lesson. I missed some deadlines for applications and auditions to high schools to do so and went to a high school that had a magnet component, and went for Information Technology, which also set my trajectory for college and grad school.
It was also in high school, due to a scheduling error, that I got put in marching band instead of chorus. I told myself I was done with my saxophone after middle school. After my first day at practice (practice started during the summer before school started), I was like, “Nope, not doing this.” After encouragement from my mother to give it another try, I did, and later that year, ended up becoming a drum major and did that for all of high school. An experience like no other. My band director graduated from Morgan State and ran the band just like he was used to. So that was performing in a way that N-E-V-E-R crossed my mind. You can definitely see that as a role in a play. Because it is a role in the show. Like, I had to tell people that I was one of the three (or my last year the one) they saw on the field leading the band. The underestimation, I tell ya. Or is it just the range? ;)
And I tried to find acting opportunities throughout it all because that was still my thing. Did a community theatre show, which I didn't realize that's what it was at the time, The Six of Us my junior year. And then did Ma Rainey's Black Bottom at school my senior year. I was just happy a show was being put on because there was no acting magnet at the time. The only other acting was the choir putting on The Wiz. They did that each year and I can't fully remember, but I think you had to be in choir to be in it. Did two shows in college, small things in grad school, and then came out here and Othello started my introduction in the area.
Do you have a routine that helps you stay in the creative flow? How do you deal with periods of time when you are having difficulty finding inspiration or motivation to create?
I wish I could say I did. Hmm, if I’m already in it, it depends on what I’m working on. Poems… it needs to be quiet. Maybe have like lo-fi beats on but mostly quiet. Because once the flow is there it just goes; may get stuck needing a particular word or phrase, but it just moves. If working on storytelling, ya know, also quiet. Especially when researching what the character is to be talking about. So there we go: quiet and lo-fi beats. I still struggle with that. The difficulty finding inspiration or motivation to create. I don’t want to force something that isn’t there or coming out. Granted, sometimes that works, but that can be draining and can cause you to resent doing it and frustration. So I don’t force it. Or try not to if a deadline is approaching, and it needs to be done. Ebbs and flows. Observing others’ work, whatever it may be, can help with that and maybe even end in collaboration.
What inspires you?
That’s a good question. You hear it a lot but I don’t always think about the answer. Weird. But people making a way out of no way. It’s a reminder that you can do it, whatever ‘it’ is, and don’t have to let others/something stand in your way. Not saying it’ll be easy but if it’s worth it, you’ll endure it. I’d also say my younger self. To be reminded of what I told myself back then and to see what I’m doing now, younger me was right :)
How have personal challenges impacted your work?
They tend to come out through my poems, and I feel, make them stronger. Or resonate more. The one I wrote for Madison’s Human After All project is very much… um… laying a lot out that I don’t really talk about to anyone. Very raw, to be honest. Others may not think so but going back to read that one is a little hard. Trying to sum up so many different childhood feelings/experiences in so many words without being overly long. So with that, experiences can help dictate phrasing or the choice of words to give the listener a vivid image of what’s being talked about.
Is it hard to share such intimate parts of yourself and your story with others during a performance? How do you prepare for a poetry reading?
Yes, especially when I have no idea who the general audience may be. So many thoughts run through my mind. Will people really be listening? How close are people listening? Am I about to embarrass myself? Will this come across the way I intend for it to? Will I be ok after reading this? Like in Refreshing Peace, the poem for Madison’s project, mentioning my suicide attempt when I was younger. I’ve never mentioned it to anyone. That was the first time to ever hint at it. I only told my sister a few months ago about it. But I was scared to put that in there, and would people grasp what I was saying by how I worded it? But given the purpose of that poem, it was needed, and I think done well. And noting to my earlier response, it’s not as hard hearing it when I go back to listen to it. I don’t know; the initial reaction to going to read it or listen to it, my body braces a little. But it’s not bad.
So to prepare for a reading, if I know when I’m going on and can get away from everyone/everything for a few moments, I do just that and breathe and try to calm my nerves and think about the message that needs to be received. Because just as an audience is hearing it, I am too.
Do you ever have the audience in mind when you write? What do you hope the audience takes away from your work?
Segue :) Majority of the time I do. And that can aid in word choice, similes, and sometimes delivery. What I hope the audience takes away is empowerment, education if information was new for them, and to feel moved. Granted, I know it can’t happen with every poem, but that is my hope.
What would you say to someone who is just starting out?
That cliché phrase, believe in yourself and keep learning. And to just do it. Because as long as you're putting in the work and believe in what you’re doing, it shows, and nothing can stop you. And no telling who you can connect with and what greatness can come of it.
How can our community better support artists?
Go out to support shows, both plays and visual art shows, and other mediums out there. Seek it out, especially if they don’t show up in your usual way of finding out about happenings around town. But of course, given how things are now, as long as you’re comfortable doing so and being in those environments. That, or see how you can be supportive in other ways, like volunteering. Also, check out their websites. I’m sure the different organizations would not be opposed to hearing from the community in bettering that relationship.
Ashleigh Rogers is the Creative Director at DrewBoy Creative. She is an artist and art instructor living in Richland, Washington with her husband and four children. Find her on Facebook: fb.com/AshleighRogersArt or Instagram: ashleigh.a.rogers
Main image: Corey Jenkins by Cameron Milton