Trustus Artistic Director Chad Henderson has been participating in a residency with The Studios of Key West (www.tskw.org) since July 15th. As he prepares to return to Columbia, he shares his experiences and tells us about what he’s been working on with his wife and creative partner, Dancer and Choreographer Bonnie Boiter-Jolley:
“For those who are close to me, they know that Key West is a very important place to me. It enlivens my spirit, there is a rich melting pot of various cultures, it provides inspiration around every corner, there’s delicious adult beverages everywhere, and ultimately, it’s a place where one can find quietude that allows for the mind to reset and return to that magical place where creativity exists. So, it’s quite a gift to receive an invitation from the Studios of Key West to work and create and also play in America’s eastern version of paradise.
I was introduced to the Studios of Key West in 2009 when I joined Trustus Company Members Monica Wyche and Dean Poynor, and actors Paul Kaufmann and Sydney Mitchell for a residency where we workshopped a staged reading of Poynor’s new (at that time) play, Homo Apocalyptus. That show has now seen productions in Australia and our very own Piccolo Spoleto in Charleston, SC. I’m sure it’s been performed elsewhere – it’s about a zombie apocalypse. Who wouldn’t want to see a play like that? Point is, I fell in love with Key West.
Since that first residency I’ve met my wife, Bonnie Boiter-Jolley. While we were dating we were able to come for a week in 2012 and work with TSKW during their 24 Hour Theatre Festival: One Night Stand. Point is, Bonnie fell in love with Key West as well.
Bonnie and I returned to Key West for our honeymoon in July 2015. Point is, we had fallen deeper in love with each other and were still in love with Key West.
Pardon all of the personal information – but it feels like some framework is necessary to explain that Key West is nothing new to us, but the experience we had working here over the past two weeks were new.
Our goal during this 2017 residency was to research and collect experiences that would lead to an episodic theatre and dance piece to be performed in 2018 at The Studios of Key West.
Originally, we proposed this project to TSKW as “Portraits, Strangers in a New Land.” The goal was to set a precedent for future location-specific works that could be created in other locales. While we were not strangers to Key West, we thought we could experience it differently than before – and we did.
The new strokes of beauty we found here were in engaging with folks who live here. “The Conchs,” or the locals, all have stories of what brought them here and why they stayed. From the disgruntled Hollywood professional who came here for a film shoot and never left, to the grandson of a Cuban tobacco farmer who still rolls and sells cigars the way his grandfather did on the island decades before – there’s a story in every conversation. Needless to say, we got really good at looking at a person and saying “You from here?”
We also dove into the history of the island. There’s the Navy presence, rum runners during prohibition, Flagler’s Overseas Railroad (destroyed by a Category 5 Hurricane in the 1930s), President Truman’s love for Key West, and the narrative focusing on Cuba’s influence on the island’s culture. And that’s just skimming the surface.
We were also witness to a particular phenomenon that happens every July: Hemingway Days. During this week, Hemingway look-alikes are in every bar on Duval Street and there are events all over town focused on the author’s work and gestalt. For this Papa fan, it was a truly great experience. I hope to compete after my beard has whitened completely and become fuller. We’ll give it 15 years.
The question became: how do we frame this piece? What’s the thread holding it all together? Or as one gentleman asked us, “So you’re creating a piece about Key West. Why Key West? The question is in the riddle.” Granted, we thought this guy was high as hell…but he had a point.
Much of the language concerning the Overseas Railroad which later became the Overseas Highway (US 1 is the only way to get to Key West on wheels) kept stating it was “The End of the Line.” You’ll even see this phrase (or “end of the road”) in bars or on tourist-directed merchandise. However, it seems like a new narrative came from our experience here in Key West. For many, this is “the start of a new road” or a “new beginning.”
So many find themselves coming here for a reason, and they stay here. They need this place to help them heal, escape, or to simply start over. And that’s exactly what it does. Even for an Artistic Director who’s experienced two seasons of major changes, this is a much-needed energizer (I can’t wait to get back to work with the amazing new staff at Trustus on our 33rd Season).
So now the framework exists, and Bonnie and I have the opportunity to continue to explore our experiences as we begin creating words, movements, characters, and musical explorations that we’ll piece together in an attempt to answer the “riddle” back at home in Columbia, SC. Hopefully TSKW will like what we come up with and ask us back to perform it here on the island that inspired us.
On a personal note, I’m very thankful to work for an organization and board that values its staff engaging in creative works abroad and knows that professional development is important to a thriving arts organization. Not to mention, our staff has been amazing (as they always are) in the time I’ve been gone and I get to experience another amazing gift when I return: the premiere of a new work, Black Super Hero Magic Mama.
What an amazing summer. I can’t begin to explain how wonderful it is to be able to start creating a new work with my wife, and then return to my theatre home to experience an original work in production. This is an important part of Trustus’ long-standing mission, and we’re doing this even more in our 33rd Season.
Well, the time for writing is over during our last day here on the island. Time for a Cuban coffee and a swim off of South Beach where Tennessee Williams took daily swims during his time here at the “end of the line”. We’ll see you soon Columbia.”
Artistic Director of Trustus Theatre