Last Summer Performance Artist Tahyira Savanna produced a play with WOOF at the Brooklyn Comedy Collective
More and more performing artists are taking on their own undertakings with scripts, productions, casting, producing, and more. During COVID-19 we saw the increase in the type of content that is funded versus the type of content that is needed. Tahyira received the opportunity after applying to an Instagram ad from WOOF. “On the day I submitted, I made up the “pitch” on the spot. I knew I wanted to do something to mark the anniversary of the Roe removal but I definitely didn’t know it would be a whole play with performers and a sold out audience on both nights.” Many times we do not know the possibilities but we should always be in the driving seats of our lives. We chatted with Tahyira about her first stage directional debut as well as producing her own play production from casting to wrap party.
TREMG: How did you get the idea for the title THE REAL WORLD? What was the concept?
My best friend actually gave me the initial idea. I knew I wanted to do like scenes and to make each scene touch on a different plight women in 2023 are facing. I knew that I had an abortion story sort of goal so I used that as an anchor. When we were hanging out and he said, you should make it like the real world, the show we both grew up on with MTV. It was one of the first documentary reality shows. I ended up calling the play The Real World and I made the character’s names in the story fictional from real sitcoms and films, Blossom, Six, Cher, Dee, Dorothy, and Blanche and so on.
TREMG: How was the casting process? How many roles did you have to fill?
Casting was an adventure. I was nervous as hell in the beginning. Most times when you’re new at something and are operating as a rookie essentially, you are always concerned about who is going to want to work with you. The beauty of being a producer is that you wear that hat, often. You are always pitching new stories, scripts, treatments, ideas, and budgets. I worked for 10 years as a talent manager for an actor. I am well seasoned on casting platforms but I opted to use Backstage this time around. It costs about $30 to post and market a theater gig on there for a 30 day period. I knew I was a one woman show so I pre-planned all of the responses, the dates that were needed for rehearsals, and the response to the folks I could not cast this time around. You never really notice how much work and pre- thinking goes into creative endeavors until you leave the passenger seat and begin to hit the gas. I posted the casting notice on my Instagram page as well. I didn’t necessarily want it out there to my audience but I thought about the closed-mouths don’t get fed mantra, so I used that platform as well. I had just wrapped a play I performed in myself out in Maplewood, New Jersey for Pride Month. I played a drag queen, a dance double for a queer guy lost in the city, it was 80s themed, and it was so amazing. So when I went back to Backstage, I felt a little burnt out. Tyler Perry’s teachings came to my mind. I started calling myself Tee Perry. I received about 150 responses for 8 roles.
TREMG: WOW! Yes that’s true, most do not know what goes into the behind the scenes. How did you make the rehearsal schedule?
Ahhh another one of my learned lessons. I know scheduling is one of the most trickest issues in Hollywood and on Broadway. My favorite tv show back in college was an HBO show entitled ENTOURAGE. Ari Gold taught me so much lessons. He’s the Hollywood agent in chief on the show which follows the rise and fall and rise again of an east-coast transplant turned major movie star. It’s loosely based on Mark Wahlberg’s rise to fame, it was his show. You always keep contingency plans. I wanted to be as accommodating as humanly possible so I took a two week break from my 9-5 to sweat equity life, and spent the time being available. Before you can ask someone to help bring your idea to life on a stage, you need to be able to meet them there, you need to be able to carve out that same sacrifice. I made options for after work hours and weekends. A lot of our character work was done on zoom so flexibility is easier. When it came to the mandatory in-person time I worked it within the framework of night rehearsals with a couple of free days to work specific scenes as a director. I also played the role of Dee in scenes 2 and 3.
TREMG: Heard you. Okay now tell us a bit about the rehearsals process?
Okay so once casting is finalized its go time. This is where the artists come alive. I love these moments the most as a bts (behind the scenes) creative because from the table read to the scene work, we really get to see each human bring their own pizazz to the characters. A lot of our cast played two roles to make things go faster and to keep the cast smaller for me to manage. I hope they know how much that helped keep it all afloat. In theater there are cheats as far as human bodies needed to pull off a stage production. A lot of scenes in Hollywood-esque films have the budgets for extras which really ramps up the world of make believe. On stage, we cheat a lot and the audience is fully aware of it. It’s honestly an opportunity to be present in your art. When we perform a show on stage, it is live to both the players and the audience. It creates an immersive experience that we do not get from film. One of the earliest inspirations for me as child artist was going to the Wintergarden Theater in New York City to watch CATS, THE MUSICAL. The entire theater was designed as an alley. In fact my seats, had a weird bar on it, and I asked around to find out what this was for. I soon found out. After intermission, there was a person standing on that ledge, toes tucked onto the bar, and on lights up, I jumped back because I thought they had real cats in the theater. It was a dancer dressed in their CATS’ costume. I was sold from then. We spent a lot of time working the scenes different ways and finding those cools sections to input lines from the real fake on-screen character.
TREMG: Wait, what do you mean by that?
Oh yeah, so I jumped ahead. The characters in the play were based off movies and sitcoms from the 90s and earlier. Dorothy and Blanche. Cher and Dee. Blossom and Six. And so on.
TREMG: Oh! So the play was called The Real World but the story was based off fake characters?
Kinda sorta. We only had 30 minutes on stage as part of the WOOF production. I thought a fast track way to drop the audience into our world was by making the names relatable or familar. The story didn’t follow a specific character or plot from the past, just the use of the character names. I also wanted to use women who were bold in our past. The main anchor of the first opening was to honor the anniversary of the removal of Roe v Wade, we opened Sunday, June 25th. The real world aspect of it was bringing human issues women really face like abortion access, the morning after pill, and sleeping with someone the World is telling you you should just leave alone. All of these conversations led up to the final act, a protest scene on June 24th 2022.
TREMG: Creative! How did the actress feel about stepping into something controversial?
Hmmm, from the 150 submissions maybe a third of the applicants said that the context was too triggering for them to be apart of the cast. I was candid and sent the script out to everyone so it was transparent where we were going with this. In Act 2, scene 3, Sandra and Denise revisit a conversation about incest and having to deal with family trauma on holidays. It is something triggering if you have personally experienced rape or by proxy meaning it happened to someone close to you. I have so much respect for Susan O’Doherty and Kaylah Nicole for being bold in this scene. You could hear the quiteness from the audience during that scene as if everyone watching was holding their breathe. Susan who played Sandra, is a real life psychologist as well.
TREMG: Important work surely we need to have more of this in our art’s. How did you figure out which topics you wanted to focus in on for women?
The hard stuff. I’m such an outspoken creative by trade. The show I performed in for Pride drew my attention because the ACLU’s Drag Defense Fund was our partner. The proceeds all went to help the on the ground work against drag bans, drag shows, trans human rights, and human rights in general. I think art has the power to move hearts and once you moved a heart, you have an opportunity to change a mind. I like this new term artivist – the intersection of art and activism. The Black Panthers co-existed with the Black Arts Movement. The Harlem Renaissance came about from the struggles of the unvoiced who were brave enough to pick up a microphone. It’s powerful. I wrote down the topics I have heard women deal with but never saw on screen or on stage. I was triggered writing it, I can be honest, but I gave the characters thoughtfulness. They are heroines. The lines are very “matter-of-fact”; it is in your face which helps the audience digest the language within the trauma. Suicide awareness month is September by the way.
TREMG: Were you also in charge of selling tickets? Does the theater take a profit?
Yes, as the producer as well as the playwright and director, getting asses in the seats as I say is always one of my main goals. It was apart of the writing and casting process as well. I wanted to find a group of interesting performers to tell this story and that is exactly what we did. Being a rookie means you have a lot of support. Newer actors work to get casted and booked in projects that can help them build their credits. I spent money on ad spacing. We put it out on Stagebill. I also invited some local press outlets on opening night. We sold out the theater. We split the box office with the other WOOF production, and then the theater takes their fees to cover their staff and bills. We had enough for a full cast WRAP party but the next time I would love to be able to pay the performers a bigger stipend. Now with the strike and everything I think we are living and working through an inflection point of equitable financial change. We also had to pay our costume department which was ran by a brand called FUNY Lifestyle. I was happy at the end. Like I said, I called myself Tee Perry. Shoutouts to Tyler! Who knows how he does what he does and still has money to eat. Everything is expensive and it all costs time and money. I am so happy the WGA strike has been broken. Next up, the performers.
TREMG: Aww – the support is so necessary. Do you think people struggle to believe in themselves when they do not have support?
Ummm.. yes! So I was at the Renaissance concert for Bey’s literal b-day. I went back to my home And there’s one major thing she has in her life that so many creatives, Black creatives, do not have. Support from our parents, support within our origin stories, and a group of people who believe in our dreams. I didn’t necessarily have my mother and father in my everyday life but I have extended family that made me their priority. I think it makes all the World of difference. The photo of me, with my grandma and uncle, could have been shot back in 1996, when they were front and center at my dance recital. I’m an elementary school teacher this semester. I always try to remind my young class that inspiration and love can come from the least likely of places. Bey is one example of how it might seem to be to have family support at an early age but there are many other artists, Black artists, that can speak from a different perspective. I love me some Kerry Washington too!
TREMG: Is there anything else you want to share about your team or your work?
Full disclosure I own TREMG. This has been on of the best interviews ever! I am so proud of my artistic expression. I’d like to share some encouragement to up and coming rookies like me, go hard, care about your work, and find people who get it.