A conversation with ‘Is God Is’ Director James Ijames and Stage Manager Patreshettarlini Adams

July 22, 2020

While awaiting the release of ‘Is God Is,’ the Wilma’s first radio play production, I had a Zoom conversation with director James Ijames and stage manager Patreshettarlini (Pat) Adams. They shared their reflections on this unprecedented moment in history and art-making. This transcript of our conversation has been edited for length and clarity. Please enjoy!
Alexandra Espinoza, Production Dramaturg 

A typical process usually falls into prep, rehearsals, tech, previews, then performance. How were these steps translated to fit a radio play process? James, do you want to talk about prep? 

James Ijames: Well typically, I just read the play as much as I can to sort of get the story in my body and in my thinking, and it sort of becomes a thing that I can see in everything. And I really love that experience. I’m really glad that I prep in that way. I make lists. I don’t think a lot of people see those. I have these lists of things that I write down: “Here are my questions, here are the things that I don’t know, here are the things that I do know. Here are the things that I imagine there’s room for me to sort of figure out what they mean because the playwright has given me the gift of space.” And so, all of those things were in place for what was going to be a pretty stylized version of this staged production, and then in March when the quarantine started, instantly we were like: “Oh… so… yeah. We’re not gonna be able to do this. But we don’t know what we’re going to do yet.” So, we just sort of sat in a holding pattern for a really long time. It just kept becoming less and less embodied the more and more weeks went by, to the point where we were indeed all in our own individual spaces telling this story together. I think the prep helped me find what I thought the stitch of the play was, like the thing that carries us from the beginning to the end emotionally. I was like, “Okay, I can lean into that in an audio play because that’s something I can make people feel.” And I think that’s what’s really important in a radio play. It’s not about what you’re seeing. It’s about what the aural experience is making you feel. 

Is God Is director – and Wilma Theater Co-Artistic Director – James Ijames

Pat, as someone who is kind of the leader of the rehearsal process as the stage manager, what are some of the things that you were preparing for in adjusting for such a different process?

Patreshettarlini Adams: Laughs. Praying that my job would still be viable. In something like this it’s very easy to think that they don’t really need me because we’re not in a room together. There’s no management of people per se. I went down that path for a minute and then I went, “Wait a second, but they do!” There was still paperwork that had to be disseminated. You still had to make sure that everybody had a script. You still had to make sure that everybody knew what time they had to be there. You still had to be there to watch the clock to make sure somebody took a break when they were supposed to. All of that still had to be managed so I was like, “Oh yeah…I still have a job!” This is still rehearsal. And there are still parts that have to all co-exist together, and that is what I do: make sure that the parts still move together. Knowing that even in a virtual world a stage manager is still necessary is very empowering.

Stage Manager Pat Adams on the set of Dance Nation.

How did relationships with actors and designers feel different in this context?

JI:I mean, aside from the major thing of not getting to be in the space and imagine with a whole room of people…I think that’s something I’ll never really get over not being able to do. I really mourned that for a long time. So, that’s the sort of major thing. But I think I try to provide actors agency. Not in the sense of “I don’t know what I’m doing” but more in a sense of “Well, I don’t have to do it 8 times a week, so what is your opinion of it?” After we did the initial run the actors all listened to it. And I could see that they were sort of like, “Oh, okay, this is the medium that I’m working with. I’m listening to myself. Okay, these are the things I didn’t know about myself until I watched myself or heard myself.” And I thought that was really magic, as that’s not something you really get to do in the theatre. They got to have this great experience of “Oh, that’s my voice. Oh, here’s my relationship to my voice that is specific and particular and shaped by my whole life. How am I going to utilize that in a way that I feel is effective in telling the story?” A lot of my direction was rhythmic, about what words we were sort of emphasizing or offering operatives to, about pace and things like that. The choices, the nuts and bolts of who the characters were? That came very much out of those actors. That was the biggest thing where I walked away going, “We should give actors more agency. They’re really smart. They’re brilliant about their bodies and about emotion.”

The times I was able to sit in, I have felt, maybe because everyone is so afraid to interrupt in Zoom, that sometimes conversations get to a healthier pace because the listening becomes a lot more engaged. I feel sometimes when we’re in the room that the clock is so present, that not every thought gets examined and it seemed like everyone was really heard, which felt really great to observe. 

JI:  I love what you said about the clock and this is my mantra: “When we’re done, we leave.” I was really nervous because that’s a true thing when I’m in the rehearsal process. I’m like, “We got an 8-hour day. That don’t mean we gotta be up in there for 8 hours.”  And there is a point, if you allow yourself to be open to the room in that way, where you go, “Yup. We’re not gonna get anything else done.” And I had to be really sensitive of that in this process because it’s so into the camera, into the microphone. And that’s exhausting and takes a toll on your body in a different way. So I was even more brutal:  “We’re working for three hours today and then I’m gonna go play quizzo.” 

Pat, did you notice a shift or a change in how you interacted with designers in this space?

PA: The biggest thing for me was being brought into that design discussion process a little sooner. Usually, I join production meetings when rehearsals start, whereas the director, and the designers, and the production manager have been talking for weeks and weeks and weeks. When we knew, or I should say, when we thought we were just going to have to come up with a different way to do the physical play, I was looped into the production meetings with the designers and with James. And then as another shift occurred, and then another shift occurred, instead of hearing about it secondhand and not knowing what was what, I was in the room where it happened! Being able to be in that conversation was very, very helpful, so that when it came time to talk to actors about whatever shift was happening, I knew exactly why we had to do it. As opposed to trying to kind of just, you know, calm nerves and stuff like that but not knowing what I’m talking about. And being able to reinforce the agency that James was allowing them, so that when I would send emails to actors I would always put at the end: “Remember, this is new for all of us. You can ask any question you need to ask. ANYTHING.” I said it over and over and over again. Because I didn’t want anybody to feel like they just had to produce without being able to understand or question or argue.

The cast and crew of Is God Is recording over Zoom.

Let’s talk about the director/stage manager relationship. Have you all worked as director and stage manager before and if not, do you mind talking about your relationship going into the process and if you’ve learned new things about each other?

PA: This was the one where I felt a little robbed. I’ve worked with James as an actor, I’ve worked with James as a playwright, and this was gonna be James the director and I was like, “We gonna be sitting at the table next to each other, and I can whisper shit, and I can write little stuff and it’s gonna be great.” And then, we weren’t able to be in the same space. All those little things that I can feel in the room, suddenly I couldn’t feel them. So I’m just listening really hard to the change in inflection, or listening for how long the pause is before the sentence is finished and just being aware. So that when he says, “What time is it, should we…” Yes! We should take a break here. I love the way his brain works. I love the way that the pictures that he sees, I can see them. It makes it easier for me to gauge where we’re trying to go. Like James said earlier, I mourned the fact that we could not be in the same room together. I did not realize how big an effect that was going to be, you know, because intellectually I’m like, “Right. Okay. Fine. We can’t be there together. It’s gonna be fine.” But when you do a thing like this, and especially with this piece, this piece is so emotional. To not be in that room together, to share that emotion, that hurt. But you know, we good. Because it’s gonna come around again, and we’re gonna get to be in the room together. I know this.

James Ijames in Angels in America
James Ijames as Belize in the Wilma’s 2012 production of Angels in America

JI: I mean, Pat is the best in the business. You know? I’ve been an actor in a production she stage managed twice. First time working with her was Angels in America: Millennium Approaches. Which, welcome to the Wilma, right? She has become very dear to me as someone in this community that I see as a moral center of what you should be doing, what a good theatre maker is. I also am really sad that I didn’t get to sit beside you and whisper and write notes and talk shit. But in this process, I really got to experience just how much Pat lifts the production and makes everything more effective, more smooth. There were things I just didn’t have to think about. Her intuition is great. Philly has some of the best stage managers in the country, so she’s in this gorgeous company of really amazing stage managers, but her particular approach is so wrapped in “I love you and I want to take care of all of these people.” That was actually really great for me because I was having a really hard time with how much it was changing. And whenever there was a change, we would have some call or email or text or something and she would say, “We’re gonna figure it out.” That was the refrain. And that’s really beautiful to me. It sort of released me of this faux director thing of “I have it all figured it out, here are the answers.” I come from choral music, and I draw a direct line from that and me as a director, and maybe a little bit as a playwright, this idea of a lot of different people coming together to make a thing. [As the director,] I am the one who is choosing to be the conduit of a lot of different people’s energies and impulses and thoughts and traumas, and all of that stuff. What I loved about being in that room with Pat, is that she does that too. 

James, we’ve talked before about the “essential beauty” or the ultimate truth of a play. I’m wondering if you have a sense of what that is for this play and if the process has affected where you landed with that.

JI: I think the embodied production of this play was going to be a lot more curious about style and the stylistic references that Aleshea Harris is pulling from. So, I was thinking about the Greeks. I was thinking about that particular kind of Western. I was thinking about Afropunk. I’m gonna make a confession: I probably was gonna direct a slightly overdone production of this play. And what this did is that it made me go [whoosh]. What is it that Aleshea is trying to say to me that I can then communicate to other people, and the thing that I kept running back into is this notion that cycles of violence and cycles of trauma are really difficult to pinpoint sometimes. They are really difficult to stop. To just say, we’re not gonna do that anymore. This notion of revenge as the engine of cycles of violence is really, really true. You know, families, even very close families have jealousies. If you take this mundane example of you know, “There was a boy I liked, and she dated him when we was in high school…I don’t like my cousin because of that,” to “You tried to kill my mom and me. I will end you because of that.” That is really hard to stop once it’s, for lack of a better term, in the blood. And so for me, I wanted people to get to the end of the play and this really beautiful moment with Anaia, where she has to make a choice about what she wants to do moving forward. And I love the choice that she makes.

Pat, the job of stage manager tends to be characterized as logistical wizardry, but I’m sure because you have spent so much time with the piece that you have your own answer to the same question, what is the essential beauty or ultimate truth of this play?

PA: The thing that I love about this play is this is a FAMILY. And this is what happened to a family. And cycles of violence within families is something we really don’t talk about. So, when I first read this I was like…Woah. I was all about that physical staged play. I was all about that big design and those really cool costumes, and then we couldn’t do any of that. But there’s this story that was screaming to be told because we have to talk about these things. Sisters and their mother. That got me right away. Because, you know, I have a sister. So that whole thing of something that happened to them that they shared from childhood into adulthood…the relationship or non-relationship with their mother, I could totally, totally, totally get into that. So when it got down to being a radio play, it’s like, “Okay, how are we going to keep the ride exciting? How are we going to keep the ride alive?” And those actors, that thing that they did, it’s like James said. They read it and then we sent them the recording. And when we came back to it, everybody had stepped up. Everybody was like, “Oh I get it, oh I know what’s happening now.” And suddenly it became so alive. And the violence…because we were like…this is not gonna work, we’re gonna lose them because they’re not going to be able to see it. But it’s very interesting what your own imagination will do for you. And there is something about Black folks and storytelling that this process brought me back to. When my parents would go out, they’d put us to bed before they left. But I would always be awake when they came home, and I would hide at the top of the steps and listen to them talk about where they’d been, or what they’d done. There’s something about us and the way we tell our stories and the way we embody them to each other that I was very happy, proud, to just be a part of. Because we didn’t need all that other stuff. To do the play with all that other stuff would be fun and exciting and we would make it great, but doing this play this way, bare, down to her bones, allowed me to remember the root of storytelling is just the voice. And maybe a sound here and there. So yeah, I’m excited for us to release this because I’m hoping that people remember, that’s all you really need. 

JI: Yup. 

James Ijames in the Wilma theater’s 2016 production of An Octoroon.

Violence is so embedded in every aspect of the world of this play. The central characters suffer from violence and also enact violence. James, what was your process of contending with that, before knowing it would ultimately be a radio play, and how did you sit with that when it became a radio play?

JI: Well I mean in the embodied production of it, I was thinking of it as very much a traditional violence experience with the exception of being really specific about hiring an African-American fight choreographer, Ren Liam. Ultimately we couldn’t use them. Because we weren’t together. But they are fantastic. And that was really important to me, that the violence would be handled with some care. And then I was like, “Oh, we’re not actually gonna do it in person but we’re gonna do this video version where you can’t touch people.” And I sat with that for a long time because I’m like…if you don’t touch someone it’s not violence in this context. There’s all sorts of violence that you can enact on people, but you can’t beat somebody’s head in without touching them. I had to sort of go, “Either that’s going to be some sublime thing we come up with or it’s going to be just dreadful.” And I was trying to embrace that, but the moment it became a radio play I was like, “Oh, we can be as violent as we need to be.” And that was really freeing for me.

The thing that I love about this play is this is a FAMILY. And this is what happened to a family. And cycles of violence within families is something we really don’t talk about. So, when I first read this I was like…Woah.

Wilma stage manager Patreshettarlini (Pat) Adams

Pat, if this had been a staged production you would have overseen fight call every day. As stage manager, did you end up having a unique relationship to the elements of violence in the radio play? 

PA: Sometimes you have to bring people back from violence. Depending on how you’re doing a particular moment, sometimes it’s helpful to let them stay in it and let them move into the next thing. But sometimes you have to break it and help them move out of that to get into the next place safely. So, in a physical production we would have had a fight choreographer who would’ve, with the actors and James, decided what those movements would be. And then it would be my job to make sure those movements are repeated safely. We would have a fight call before every show and I would take notes on the fight during the show, and I would check in with the actors after the show, to make sure everybody’s okay. Working on it this way, depending on how many takes we would have to do within a violent moment, when you come out of it, it’s [asking], “Are we pushing through to keep this bubbling up so we can get into the next thing?”, or “Wow, we did that like three times in a row. Let’s take a break here, let everybody breathe, and release some of that energy and we’ll come back into it.” I didn’t realize how not seeing it but hearing it, what that would trigger in myself. So therefore I’m like, if that triggered that in me, what did it trigger in somebody else? So yeah, this was really new. Really exciting but also a little frightening in that way because we’ve never done this before. Just to be able to navigate what that meant for each actor, because it’s not the same for every person. So just trying to constantly be aware as we were working. 

Anything else you would want to share?

JI: About what you were asking about before, I feel like the process (prep, rehearsal, tech, previews, performance) I feel like it was flipped. I feel like the performance was first. We found the performance. Then we did a tech, then we did the design work to try to make it into a finished product, and then we opened. And so, it just felt like a little bit of a reversal of what we usually do, but all the elements were still there, just in really different orders. Which got me to thinking about the ways in which we [can] make theatre more accessible to people, and the ways in which we can utilize this moment and the fact that we have all of these tools and all of these abilities to make content. I’m hoping we come out of this thinking of ways to offer more content to more people. Maybe not necessarily working more, but figuring out a way to make things more available to folks.

Is God Is by Aleshea Harris, directed by James Ijames, streams July 23-26, 2020.