Recently we invited Assistant Professor of Theatre, Brittney Harris, to share a bit about herself and her work. Brittney teaches courses in acting, the theatre experience, and communication, activism, and performance in the Department of Communication and Theatre Arts at Old Dominion University. Her areas of expertise are in race and performance, theatre for social change, and performative community-engaged programming.
For ODU Rep’s spring 2020 season she wrote and directed the play “Echoes: Transcending Through Story,” which featured an all-female cast and considered pain, anger, despair, and strength of women, along with the power of sharing personal stories. More recently she offered the virtual program “Resilient Stillness: A Theatre
Workshop About Stillness and Togetherness” for the ODU Summer Arts Series. The program is viewable on Facebook, Instagram, YouTube.
Now Brittney is workshopping and touring two solo projects, “The Intersection (The Sandra Bland Project)” and “Being B.A.D.,” which explore the effects of social media on the personal psyche and how narrative-based storytelling is used for social resilience and redemption.
CS: Tell us about your background.
BH: I was born and raised in Norfolk. My background is in Performance, Theatre for Social Change, and performative community-engaged programming for adults and youth. I hold an MFA in Acting from the University of Georgia and a BFA in Acting and Communications from Old Dominion University. Professionally, I’ve been performing for the stage for about 15 years and I’ve been an educator for about 5 years.
CS: What drew you to theatre?
BH: Desire. The desire to use the stage to amplify narratives that had not been seen in the forefront. As a creative, it is my duty to provide a sacred forum/space for artist to create, explore, discover, and breathe life into their narratives. There are hundreds of stories in each and every one of us. The people we see, the places we go, the things we do—all of these things contribute to our narrative. Allowing the stage to take one issue and be the anchor in providing a dialogue that extends beyond just a performance is literally what drives me to create my shows.
CS: What challenges have you faced?
BH: My most challenging experiences with performing come from being in the realm of academia and finding that the shows that were put on by my department did not always speak to the cultural experiences and narratives unique to my background as an African-American actress. Sometimes the shows were challenging skill-wise since I was a student in a professional acting program; however, they did not speak to certain perspectives distinctive of students of color.
CS: What is the focus of your creative practice?
BH: Using artistic expression as a form of “activism” clarified for me how a performance can be used to educate people about their mindset towards current conditions and work towards change. I look at the concept of “race” as a celebration of self, culture, and creative expression. For instance, I’m currently workshopping and touring two independent solo projects exploring the effects of social media on the personal psyche and how narrative-based storytelling is used as a vessel for social resilience and redemption.
CS: What aspects of your work are most fulfilling?
BH: As an artist and educator, my approach to creativity centers on providing a sacred space for discovery, exploration, and individuality. In each of us are memories that are longing to be released. These memories are thoughts that cloud our judgments or even anecdotes that we want to share.
I sometimes view my courses as therapeutic, allowing a person to unlock her inner artist. Of course, I meet with the opposition. [Some say] I am not an artist: I can’t draw or sing or act, so this work is not for me. I explain to them that creativity can be physical or spiritual. Every step taken creates a rip in time, a gust of wind. A smile, for instance, creates a chain of peace and respect. Laughter can produce joy, anger could create chaos, and so forth. Each exquisite individual is a walking piece of art that was formed from her experiences and choices.
CS: What value do you feel the arts have today?
BH: Truthfully, the isolation of this pandemic has been ideal for putting things on paper and take time to expand on concepts for the stage. Of course, right now, the stage can be our living rooms, our garages, or even our front porch!
One thing I have also found is a deeper appreciation for self-care and stillness. There’s something about being in your artistic thoughts and not being distracted by the chaos of our day-to-day expectations and responsibilities. As an artist, I believe we have a responsibility to stop, exist in the now/present, and use our medium to respond to it. My response is using this time to focus on the creation of something new, knowing that this creation could be inspirational, eye-opening, or even controversial!
One thing I had to constantly remind myself while feeling creatively stifled, at times, during this pandemic is that while my body may be in quarantine, my creativity is not.
Cullen Strawn, Ph.D. is the Executive Director for the Arts of the College of Arts & Letters at Old Dominion University.