Keith David Williams,
Emmy-winning Actor, Voice Actor, and Producer.
A message from Omar Sangare, Chair and Professor of Theatre,
with his commitment to: Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion:
Although we are fortunate to be able to offer a full and rigorous on-campus experience this coming fall at Williams College, there is no doubt that COVID-19 will disrupt our regular production schedule for in-person performances. Luckily, our Theatre Department is quickly adapting to these times of unprecedented change and week-to-week uncertainty, and we are still committed to offering world-class performances to our community (even if we are forced to operate outside the normal channels of in-person communication).
That’s why I would like to initiate a new program “The Green Room: a peaceful space for progressive minds” this coming academic year. Structured as a weekly informal conversation moderated by Williams professors and students, “The Green Room: a peaceful space for progressive minds” will offer an opportunity for Williams students and community members to critically engage with the arts industries in which they someday hope to work, and learn from important leaders in those industries. The goal of this program will be to offer advice and mentorship resources to socially-minded, artistically conscious Williams students, but also to serve as a platform through which students can participate in a dialogue with leaders in the arts.
We’re inviting a diverse group of leading performing artists to join us in conversation over the course of the academic year, and we would love for you to be among them. “The Green Room: a peaceful space for progressive minds” will consist of serially-produced one-hour “episodes” in which speakers will be introduced, be given the opportunity to make a statement on your vision and advice, and later have a chance to answer questions from students. These discussions will take place via Zoom (or another interactive platform).
The Green Room: a peaceful space for progressive minds
In the Fall of 2020, the Williams College community engaged with “The Green Room: a peaceful space for progressive minds.” The Green Room, a series where acclaimed theatre professionals share diverse viewpoints, experiences, and lessons with the Williams College community, featured six acclaimed theatre professionals including actors, stage managers, and writers. Developed by Professor Omar Sangare, Chair of the Williams Theatre Department, and moderated by students and faculty members, these sessions included speaker presentations and question-and-answer sessions. “It was truly encouraging to see a space dedicated to progressive speakers from backgrounds which tend to be underrepresented in academia and show-business,” wrote Theatre student Saud Afzal Shafi. The Green Room offered the Williams community an unprecedented opportunity to exchange perspectives and explore personal beliefs in the context of Theatre’s changing role in modern society.
The first session of The Green Room featured renowned photographer Chester Higgins. Higgins, whose work has been featured in the New York Times, the New York City Museum of Modern Art, and the Museum of African Diaspora in San Francisco, shared how he used photography as a tool to bring attention to different cultures and history little-known around the world. The facial expressions and color clothing captured in his photographs emphasized the role of using body language and costume to express oneself on the stage. Moreover, his work celebrated the coexistence of different cultural values and served as a staunch reminder of the importance of tolerance, acceptance, and mutual respect in today’s hyper-polarized world.
In the second session of The Green Room, casting director Erica Hart — who has cast for projects featured at SXSW, Tribeca Film Festival, and Cannes Film Festival — discussed the progression of her career, starting from her time at NYU. She told attendees that she always knew she wanted to be involved in the entertainment industry but did not know specifically what role she sought. She found discovered her niche as a casting director. Hart emphasized the importance of networking (especially during college) in the entertainment industry, noting how she initially got all of her jobs through connections made at NYU. Her advice underscored the importance of demonstrating each person’s individuality and uniqueness; one should strive to make each audition unique and to make bold choices. As student Yash Mangal noted, Hart’s session emphasized “the importance of persistence and creativity for young actors.” This theme would re-emerge throughout future Green Room sessions. Hart’s discussion and career serve as reminders that hard work and perseverance are keys to success in any industry or profession in entertainment or otherwise.
In the third session of The Green Room, Yale University Professor and Stage Management Chair Narda Alcorn discussed her theatre career as an actor and stage manager. Professor Alcorn focused on the importance of “the individual” and person-first management in theatre rather than rushing a final product. From prioritizing the safety of cast and crew members to valuing every member of the performance and crew teams — putting people first — Alcorn’s post-graduate work informed her work on developing her “ethics of care.” Additionally, Professor Alcorn answered student questions and elaborated on stage management as a career path; her work across multiple genres of theatre; and responding to challenges of equity on and off the stage. This session was of particular interest to Theatre student Dani Galvez-Cepeda: “I was so impacted by the Green Room sessions that I could not stop talking about them… The lessons I learned are not only relevant to my productions skills, but… to all different aspects of my life.” Galvez-Cepeda was especially moved by Professor Alcorn’s work on addressing the issues of power dynamics and equity in the theatre industry.
The fourth session of The Green Room featured costume designer Sharen Davis. Davis recently received her second Emmy nomination in the “Outstanding Fantasy/Sci-Fi Costumes” category for her work on HBO’s award-winning series Watchmen, starring Regina King and Jeremy Irons. “Sharon Davis’s work on costume design for Watchmen was amazing… I never imagined I would get to meet the person behind the wardrobe of [Watchmen]…” wrote student Alex Szrol. Davis began as an acting major at the Pacific Conservatory of the Performing Arts and eventually fell in love with the art of costume design. Her favorite projects have been the ones that afforded her the most creative autonomy including science fiction projects such as Equinox and Watchmen and such as Django Unchained. With Watchmen, Ms. Davis enjoyed that she was given vague, simple concepts to build on. Attendees of Ms. Davis’ discussion heard the importance of finding and enjoying your passion, as well as seeking opportunities for creative freedom.
The penultimate session of The Green Room was its most adventurous yet. Students heard from actor Chris Chalk and engaged in a two-hour long question-and-answer session during which Chalk offered invaluable personal and career advice. Chalk spoke on not only establishing clear goals for the future but also relentlessly pursuing them and cutting loose anything — or anyone — in the way. Chalk’s ultimate goal remains developing his ability to be authentic, purposeful, and thoughtful and thereby maximize his personal freedom as a performer and individual. Moreover, Chalk shared a number of valuable insights on the film industry based on his experiences in Homeland, 12 Years A Slave, and Perry Mason. Chalk related the importance of thorough preparedness for auditions and roles. He provided students with tips for distinguishing themselves in front of casting directors by establishing personal connections and using performance anxiety to their advantage. The experiences Chalk shared impacted Alex Szrol, who wrote “I found myself resonating with… Chris Chalk, whose passion and willingness to ‘get lost in the sauce’ made me want to start auditioning for acting roles immediately.” Chalk’s conversation focused on identifying students’ personal and career goals and using his own perspective to share advice as to how students can be successful in their own endeavors.
In the final session of “The Green Room” series, attendees met acclaimed actor and author Hill Harper. Previously appearing in numerous projects such as Concussion and He Got Game, as well as authoring Letters to a Young Brother and The Wealth Cure, Harper shared his numerous experiences and advice from the entertainment industry and from his writing process for the attendees. He explained how bold, courageous decisions can sometimes be the most difficult choices yet also the most straightforward ones. He told the audience how one must use every tool at his or her disposal to immerse oneself into a role. Harper shared examples of how he fully immersed himself into past characters by describing prior physical transformations he underwent. He explored his own writing process and his ways of developing ideas and told the attendees to record any and every thought or idea they have as a piece of advice for all artists. Notably, a number of students volunteered to moderate this final session; for student-moderator Saud Afzal Shafi, that opportunity made this session the most rewarding one yet.
Another student-moderator, Derick Peake, noted, “…moderating the last Green Room experienced helped push me out of my comfort zone… [this event] gave me even more confidence with public speaking. I viewed this as a transition from the confidence I gained inside this class to confidence outside the classroom.” Overall, Harper’s talk illustrated to the audience the embodiment of complete dedication to one’s craft, and serves as a reminder of the hard work that is necessary to succeed in any industry.
The Green Room will continue next semester with an all-new cast of guests eager to share their experience and expertise with the Williams community. Our first speaker, Bellina Logan, is a veteran performer with experience on the stage and screen who will speak to us on Claiming Williams Day. Logan has appeared in films under directors including David Lynch and Katherine Bigelow. Additionally, we will welcome Oak Onaodowan, who has taken on a variety of roles across theatre, film, and television including in Hamilton, Law & Order: Special Victims Unit, and Station 19. Next, students will hear from Emmy-winning actor, voice actor, and producer Keith David. His extensive career has included roles in Requiem for a Dream, Armageddon, and a wide variety of voice acting roles in films, shows, and video games. Another guest, Zach Stafford, will share lessons learned from his career in journalism at The Guardian and as editor-in-chief of The Advocate (the oldest and largest LGBTQ publication in the US) where he covered police brutality and LGBTQ issues. We also welcome social activist and co-founder of Black Lives Matter Toronto, Janaya Khan. Khan is a storyteller and organizer who focuses their work on analyzing intersectional topics including the Black Lives Matter movement, queer theory, Black feminism, and organized protest strategies. Students will hear from The New School Professor Zishan Ugurlu whose work has included an extensive array of acting and directing roles in theatre performances for over two decades. The Green Room will also welcome American Jazz legend Dee Dee Bridgewater, a three-time Grammy award-winning singer/songwriter; a winner of the Tony Award for “Best Featured Actress in a Musical” for The Wiz; a long time host for NPR’s renowned radio show, JazzSet with Dee Dee Bridgewater; and a philanthropist serving as a United Nations Goodwill Ambassador for the Food and Agriculture Organization. Additionally, world-renowned playwright and director Robert O’Hara will speak to students about his career and work exploring sexual and racial identities. The Green Room also plans to welcome Jess Salomon, an Israeli comedian married to a Palestinian wife, who examines politics and society through the lens of humor. Without a doubt, the Spring 2021 sessions of The Green Room promise to offer incredible opportunities to engage with artists, scholars, and professionals as we explore a fascinating array of diverse and underrepresented perspectives.
Over the past four months, “The Green Room” series invited an array of theatre professionals to share the lessons they have learned through storied careers. Attendees heard from actors, authors, a costume designer, a casting director, and a photographer; every guest was dedicated to their craft and massively successful in his or her respective field. Participants of “The Green Room” series heard genuine experiences surrounding an entertainment industry that can often appear elusive and intimidating. Attendees were the given opportunities to ask meaningful questions and receive advice they could take to heart. This series provided a space for free thought and expression, and participants left each session with new perspectives and outlooks on their own lives.
Special Thanks to:
Prof. Rashida Braggs
Betsy Ware Fippinger
Erica A. Hart
and Laurie Booth