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Start By Telling Your Own Story

May 22, 2013

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Wood Bones by William S. Yellow Robe Jr., Directed by Bob Jaffe at June Havoc Theater.

I’ve had the privilege of documenting the development of a new theatre company called Eagle Project over the past 16 months and their first full production of Wood Bones by William S. Yellow Robe Jr from staged reading to workshop and production. The mission of Eagle Project  is to bring Native Tribal voices to the forefront of American Theatre while at the same time allowing everyone a seat at the table and a chance to be heard. I’m excited to share some photos from Wood Bones journey alongside an interview with Founder/Artistic Director Ryan Victor Pierce.

Ryan Victor Pierce is Nanticoke Lenni-Lenape from Southern New Jersey. He was given his Lenape name, “Little Eagle” at age 12 by his uncle “Strong Oak”. Throughout his career, Ryan has devoted much of his time performing in and helping to develop theatrical works of indigenous people from the US and around the world. Many of those works have been developed and performed at the American Indian Community House of New York City, AMERINDA, Culture Project, Times Square Playwrights, the Australian Aboriginal Theater Initiative, as well as the United Nations. Having a passion to incorporate American voices that aren’t frequently heard, especially those of Native Americans, into the performing arts arena, Ryan founded the Eagle Project in 2012.

Moment Work: In looking back at the photos I’ve taken from the first staged reading to production, it’s been fascinating to see how various moments in the play have evolved. In these photos I’ve attempted to show the evolution of various moments throughout the play from  its staged reading to full production. Wood Bones first staged reading was a sold out event held at Playwrights Horizons Studios. 

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POLITICAL THEATRE MAKER (PTM): Before starting Eagle Project what was your discipline? What kind of work were you doing? What made you start your own company? 

RYAN VICTOR PIERCE (RVP): I was an actor and singer before starting Eagle Project. I did all kinds of work from singing in the NY City Opera to more Avant Garde off-off Broadway plays. Over the past decade I’ve been involved with many different organizations in NY that have helped to develop Native theatre such as the American Indian Community House and AMERINDA who both to fantastic work. American Indian Community House offers services to intertribal members who come to NYC in addition to a platform for performing artists. AMERINDA provides a centralized database for Native artists of performing and visual disciplines. Many of the Native plays I worked on never made it beyond the workshop phase. I wanted to create a company that was able to take indigenous works to full productions and build audiences for them. Wood Bones is a play that needed a full production. I want to help create a platform for that to happen and to bring life to other Native stories that need to be told. Contrary to many believes there are not a lot of institutions throwing money out to Native American organizations. That is a myth and stereotype. We are creating an infrastructure that has never been here before – it’s why it’s so critical that support needs to be given to Native American arts before any more cultural and historical links are lost.

PTM: What do you hope to accomplish artistically and culturally through the Eagle Project? 

RVP: There are many talented Native American performing artists in NY – from writers to actors and directors. As it stands right now, the work that’s out there doesn’t fit the need of these artists and our community. When theatre, film and TV roles do have Native people in it – it’s often conventional stereotypes that don’t have much of a basis in contemporary American reality. Think of the last time you’ve seen Native Americans on TV, film or in theatre. Most likely it’s in some historical piece. Currently, Johnny Depp is playing Tonto. Even a film such as Dances with Wolves is historical but doesn’t show Natives in contemporary life. Eagle Project is designed to give Natives of all tribes their rightful place in contemporary American theatre. Native American identity is the center piece of all the work we do.
PTM: Why did you choose Wood Bones as your first production? What is your history with the play and playwright?

RVP: I chose Wood Bones as our first play because while it was a Native play that dealt with so many Universal American themes – I thought it would have broad appeal far beyond Native audiences. It breaks stereotypes of all kinds and it’s a story that calls for a multiracial cast which also helps explore how contemporary Natives fit into their current environment.I first met our playwright William S. Yellow Robe Jr. through the Native American Theatre Festival at the Public Theatre back in 2008. Following that festival I developed a relationship with Bill and kept in touch via e-mail. He let me know about a play he was working on called Wood Bones and immediately I fell in love with the play. A few years later when the time was right we started to work on it – in readings, staged readings, workshops. The staged reading of Wood Bones was the very first event that Eagle Project did in March, 2012.

Tenderness. Veracity Butcher and Freedome Bradley as Vera and Jacob share some very tender moments throughout the show. This particular moment happens at the beginning of the play when the young couple is introduced to the prospect that they might be able to afford their dream house. Jacob surprises Vera by showing her the house. 

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PTM: How can artists get involved with Eagle Project? 

RVP: Writers can submit plays that fit our mission statement at any time to submissions.ep@gmail.com. Ideally Actors and Directors should see some of the work that we do and introduce themselves so we can get a sense if whether or not we’d be a good fit for each other.  We want to learn how artists communicate and what their values are. If we share the same values and same goals it’s the building block for a good professional relationship.

PTM: What has your path been like building Eagle Project? What have been the triumphs and challenges? 

RVP: We’re a young company. We’ve only been around for almost a year and a half. I would have to say our triumphs have been the quality of work we’ve been able to do and the quality and diversity of great plays that have come our way. Being able to do a full production of Wood Bones in a relatively short period of time has certainly been a triumph.

The challenges that we face are challenges that are no stranger to artists in NYC – building sufficient enough infrastructure to sustain a company where no infrastructure has existed before. The support of a growing community both in terms of finances and audience attendance is critical in rising above these challenges.

Wood Bones challenges audiences perceptions of race, family and stereotypes. The characters below Kristen, Sam and Mary (played by Joleen Wilkinson, Robert Baumgardner and Eden Sanaa Duncan Smith) face some devastating realities. 

IMG_6294Staged Reading

IMG_4651Rehearsal

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PTM: What is the status of Native American theatre artists in New York and around the country?

RVP:  I would never to claim to have the vantage or speak for all Native Artists in this country but from my perspective, living here in New York, there’s a growing pool of very talented Native Artists which is a hopeful sign. Unfortunately the infrastructure hasn’t grown nearly as fast to match the depth and diversity of the need of these versatile Native artists.
PTM: How do you see Eagle Project challenging the preconceptions and stereotypes of Native Americans and Native theatre? 

RVP: First, we start by Native’s telling their own stories. Eagle Project doesn’t have some other agenda by showing Natives or anyone else for that matter  from a vantage point that is not their own. We try to look at history in its totality and from its very many vantage points because those that control history shape the view of the present and plan for the future.

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The Fool. Ryan Victor Pierce and David Fierro work wonderfully together as Calvin and Neal providing some (rather tragic) comic relief as their characters’ ignorance lead to the climax of the show. The staged reading in 2012 (first photo) featured Christopher Romero Wilson in the role of Neal. 

PTM: What is on your creative wish list – for Eagle Project and for New York Theatre in general?

RVP: Well, on my wish list for Eagle Project is to have a fully sustainable performing arts organization where Native people are telling their own stories. We want to have space, get grants, have a full season and educational department in addition to a development series. I’d like to incorporate other aspects of the arts such as music, dance and multimedia. I want to use theatre to help revive indigenous languages that are in danger of becoming extinct.

For NY Theatre in general, I’d like to see an environment and community that is more inclusive and less of a cartel. I no longer want theatre to be viewed as an art form that’s only by the few and for the few (which right now happens to be the wealthy and well-connected). I want to see a community and changed attitude that becomes about the work we can create together and not just a business that’s narcissistic and ego driven.

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Wood Bones cast with Playwright William S. Yellow Robe, Jr.

Left to Right: Freedome Bradley, Veracity Butcher, Albert Ybarra, William S. Yellow Robe Jr., Dawn Jacobson, Eden Sanaa Duncan Smith, Joleen Wilkinson, Rober Baumgardner, (Bottom Row) Ryan Victor Pierce and David Fierro

WOOD BONES by William S. Yellow Robe Jr. is directed by Bob Jaffe and plays throughout Saturday, May 18th at the June Havoc Theater on 36th Street. To purchase tickets visit Eagle Project’s website

Many thanks to the cast/crew of Wood Bones from its staged reading to performance who have allowed my camera into their process. 

Ashley Signature

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