"L'union fait la force" ... union is strength, a revolution can only occur if people unite and fight together.
I was selected by the LTC, and counted in a cohort of some of the most exciting and respected practitioners in the industry today. To say that I am honored, or humbled, does not even begin to express how much it meant for me to be in that space, and counted as a peer.
I directed a play called Richard and Jane and Dick and Sally, written by Noah DIaz.
The classic “Dick & Jane” characters from the ubiquitous 1950s children’s books are grown-up and struggling to stay afloat in a home fractured by grief. Newly widowed Dick (now going by Richard) is raising his two children, Dick Jr. and Sally, who is deaf, while trying to manage a terminal illness that will inevitably leave them orphans. When he calls home his estranged sister, Jane, the family must reconcile and make peace with their shared and misunderstood histories before it’s time for him to go. A recipient of the Kennedy Center’s Jean Kennedy Smith Playwriting Award, Richard & Jane & Dick & Sally is a dramatic comedy about brothers, sisters, mothers, and fathers, with sign language, talking dogs, picnic tables, and Snickers bars.
When the play was sent to me, I had a block of time between one thing and another, and stopped at Dante's Pizza for a beer, a slice, and a read, I did not expect to be so moved by the piece. I definitely cried in my pizza, and grabbed a second beer. The play had all the elements I love, a strange, surreal, painful, magical flow, movement sequences that were several pages long, people who love one another who somehow cannot seem to see one another, and the frank and honest portrayal of women and POC. I immediately emailed Lisa Portes, the Carnaval Champion, and agreed to participate.
I was paired with a fantastic design team, who I learned a lot from and who captured everything about the piece that inspired and moved me. We only had two 1-hour meetings - and they came up with a fantastic, impressive, magical design that felt like it came straight out of a dream. The creative team included Mariana Sanchez (scenic design), Carolyn Mazuca (costume design), David R. Molina (sound design), Pablo Santiago (lighting design), and Dr. Liza Ann Acosta (dramaturgy).
The Carnaval itself was so much fun. 6 readings, multiple sessions and conversations, food, drinks, and the largest scale affinity space I have ever experienced in my professional life. You can see the spirit, charge, and power of the weekend captured in the opening ceremony, which was live streamed around the world. (Hi Mom and Dad!)
Rachel Bykowski: What is your mission as a director?
Denise Yvette Serna: I aim to create compelling work that captivates and engages. I support artists in celebrating their shared experiences while reflecting on our diverse global community. Theatre is most meaningful when it holds space for intersectional dialogue, and advocates for positive social change. want folks to do the things they love and feel great about doing, and truly see one another.
RB: What attracted you to SPARK?
DYS: Often, when I have seen marginalized populations presented on stage we see the big moments in their lives. oming out, death, divorce, ig victories, finding love... That sort of stuff. And yet our lives consist of many more seemingly unspectacular moments. Mostly unspectacular moments. The little devastations and fleeting joys. SPARK gives these moments in the Glimord sisters' lives dignity and complexity.
RB: What do you think Spark is about?
DYS: SPARK is partly about the ways devotion and sacrifice for the ones we care for can bruise our love for them. When extreme sacrifice is layered into the foundations of a relationship, resentment can creep up in love like vines, and become so entangled ith it you can't tell where the love ends and the resentment begins. I see this tendency often in female identified people and people of color I admire, and there isn't often social support to compensate them for the emotional labor they do for those around them. s the Glimord sisters attempt to articulate this phenomenon in their lives, I hope we, in turn, can start to speak about it in our own lives.
RB: What is your favorite line in the play and why?
DYS: "We all get through what we get through, even if no one’s hangin’ any kind of flag for us." There are a lot of battles female identified people in this world face that go unseen, or worse, ignored. As we take the responsibility to tell one another’s’ stories, we’re hanging those victory flags for one another, and lifting one another up.
RB: Without giving too much away, what are you most excited to see in this production?
DYS: I'm excited for the laughter. For all this story has to say about coming to an understanding about things that have harmed you, there are certainly moments of joy. Laughter has been getting people through tough times and breaking down barriers between them for a long time. There are some lovely moments in the show where we get to laugh with the women on stage, to marvel with them at the world we are moving through - absurd and intimidating though it may be.
This year, I have partnered with Pop Magic Productions for HOMESET, a quarterly salon series bringing artists together to share ideas. Each HOMESET will give 3 artists space to showcase their works in progress, lesser practiced skills, and interests in a casual atmosphere.
The thought behind the series is simple - artists flourish when they are in conversation with one another, and experiencing and examining one another's work -- especially in times of social and political unrest. It propels our aesthetic and understanding farther forward, and stokes the fire of active engagement.
In an effort to cultivate these nurturing spaces for artists, and in response to the need for more cross-exposure in the Chicago arts scene, HOME SET was put into action. In collaboration with the magnificent Olivia Lilley, I'm doing something I'm really passionate about: bringing artists together to think together and grow collectively.
Join us in reactivating our community this winter. Connect with creatives whose interests and passions can bolster your artistic practice. Support the growth of Chicago’s independent art scene.
TICKETS ON SALE NOW. LIMITED SEATS AVAILABLE. RSVP $5
Sunday March 18th
Follow @PopMagicProductions for updates!
Smyra Yawn (she/her) is on a mission to shine a light on the progressive and thoughtful work of women and genderqueer artists in Chicago Theatre. She brought together a really great panel of DIY Theatre Artists, that I was delighted to take part in. Listen to the episode on Spiel Chicago.
"Artist as Producer: This week on Spiel Chicago, we discuss DIY Theatre! This is a special panel episode, with guests Savannah Reich, Denise Serna, Olivia Lilley and Katherine Lamb, each bringing a unique perspective on DIY theatre, theatre institutions, sustainability and how to get started putting your own work into the world."
More on Spiel Chicago
Episode 14 – Avi Roque - My colleague Avi Roque was on an episode of Spiel. I collaborated with Avi for After Orlando, a international theatre movement created by NoPassport Theatre Alliance & Press and Missing Bolts Productions in observance of Pulse Nightclub shooting in Orlando, Florida.
Spiel Chicago Episode 9 – Mary Shelley, Feminism and DIY Theatre - Olivia Lilley of Pop Magic Productions about DIY theatre and her play Mary Shelley Sees the Future. Olivia and I curate a salon series called HOME SET, and you can expect to see more of our collaborations in the future.
A continuation of our work at CCTA International: Hive Workshop, Climate Change Theatre Action - Chicago was three evenings of readings and performances on the topic of global climate change in support of the United Nations COP23 meeting chaired by Fiji and hosted in Bonn, Germany. This multi-disciplinary international event featured short films, dance, puppetry, live performances, and a call to activism. Developed with artists from China, France, Italy, Slovakia, Spain, The United Kingdom, Canada, across the United States and Chicago, this collective effort supported and encouraged individual action on climate change and steps towards a better future for all.
I drove this project with co-producer Iris Sowlat at Chicago's Pride Arts Center. In an effort to reduce waste, we chose to go paperless for our play programs!
Check out the contributing artists on our digital program page.
Putting this event together required quite a lot of moving parts. Co-Founder of Global Hive Laboratories, Jack Paterson supported administrative tasks and cultivated submissions from our international colleagues. Co-Producer Iris Sowlat worked to livestream an evening of performance, which was central to our mission of providing as many access points to the conversation as possible. Global Hive Labs Partner Carolina Migli-Bateson was vital to our load in, installation, and display of our art installations.
We were joined by playwright Amy Berryman, who flew in from NYC to join us and celebrate her play The New Galileos. We were joined by Carolina Migli-Bateson, who flew in from Piacenza, Italy to perform her piece Nymph of the River. Carolina and the significance of climate change for her hometown was featured on Spiel Chicago.
“I want [audiences] to feel a sense of loss … I want them to understand that nature is a living entity and looks at us puzzled, not understanding what we are doing and why we are destroying ourselves. I also want them to feel the time ticking by faster and faster as we have raped nature and her revenge on us will be terrible if we don’t do something about it collectively.“
- Carolina Migli-Bateson
Aside from managing all the moving parts, stage managing, marketing, and hosting the event, I also directed three pieces from The Arctic Cycle. The three scripts I chose allowed for unconventional presentation and devised performances. For Minor Flood, Major Constellation: Sirius and the Cartographer Map the New World By Lisa Schlesinger I recorded an oral interpretation of the script at CCTA International this summer, and in rehearsal with Chicago based performers devised music and movement to layer upon it. In performance of Gaia by Hiro Kanagawa, the artists donned rain ponchos and threw darts at a map of the world while enjoying beer and bar mix. As they articulated Kanagawa's poetic text, their dart game generated a new painting each evening. Rube Goldberg Device for The Generation of Hope by Jordan Hall, performers led the audience in a participatory artistic experience that ended with a little bit of hope and a whole lot of dancing. It was a pleasure to tickle my directing and devising muscles, and we rehearsed each piece for a few hours and really put our focus into creating stimulating work.
With collaboration from Global Hive Laboratories, Pride Arts Center, BoucheWHACKED! Theatre Collective, La Compagnie Certes, Fusion Theatre Company, and in association with the Center for Sustainable Practice in the Arts, NoPassport Theatre Alliance, The Arctic Cycle, Theatre Without Borders, and York University, the event included live performances directed by producer Denise Yvette Serna, producer Iris Sowlat, Olivia Lilley, Carolina Migli Bateson, Ryan Oliveira, and material developed with artists across the globe. Readings included new works by Elaine Avila, Carolina Migli Bateson, Amy Berryman, Clare Duffy, Angella J. Emurwon, Kendra Fanconi, Jordan Hall, Lisa Schlesinger, Marcia Johnson, Hiro Kanagawa, Sarena Parmar, Katie Pearl, Ryan Oliveira, Caridad Svich, and Jordan Tannahill.
I spent the year after graduate school as a middle school teacher. Of the many things I took from that year, one aspect of experience was the thread that became (the)forget_me\knot. I saw several physical confrontations between students that year, and was struck by the realization that so many of them enjoyed filming the fights. They did not try to stop the fight, did not try to help, and did not make it easy for adults to – but they filmed it. After fights, we’d have to round up phones and delete all the footage. I grew fascinated with the ability of a screen to simultaneously detach a person from their humanity, and with the social media revolution – affirm it. Utilizing the collage style I found while creating La Chingada, I began to piece together poetry, movement, and other cultural artifacts that followed that thought. As the piece came together I realized that throughout recorded history, a single cry has echoed from the lips of humanity: Don’t forget me. (the)forget_me\knot became an immersive, multi-sensory piece that peered through the lenses we utilize to defy our mortality, and glimpsed into our determination to make even the most meaningless moments-and by extension, ourselves- last forever.
The hardest thing to stomach? We won’t.
Those photos in your attic? The people in them are dead.
We don’t know who her prom date was, or why his leg was in a cast. Their childhood home burned to the ground, and there’s a parking lot there now. But the lenses made us feel connected. And whatever the cost, for that moment, we were unforgettable.
It was important to the project that it generate more artistic observations of memory, and that the absurd beauty of the things we were creating compelled people to photograph or record them, creating a cycle of memory. In one room of the venue guests were invited to create soundscapes, and surrealist snapshots, or join Loren Phillips in acro-yoga. We also invited artists to join us for the show, sell their projects, and create new work as they watched. Artists such as Ruby Western, Kendra Strebig, and Sophie Wingland created work each evening that underscored performances, was given to audience members who joined the performance, and used to fill a growing gallery of work inspired by (the)forget_me\knot.
Going Down to the River - Conception and Preparation
Growing up in South Texas on the border of Mexico, I heard the story of La Llorona all the time. She was more familiar than the boogeyman and more terrifying than the monster under the bed. Everyone’s version of her tale was slightly different, depending on where they grew up, where they heard it first, or what their family had passed down. One thing was always certain, however: She was guilty. Her wet, grieving soul would wail as it wandered the rios, and her screams would haunt our dreams into adulthood. I no longer fear her hands snatching me away or the riverbanks she is said to appear by, but her story has never stopped haunting me. As I have studied literature and theatre and have seen her story in myths and legend from all over the world, I cannot help but wonder why. What is it about this story that makes it worth telling and retelling? Why do we sympathize with Medea, and vilify La Llorona? Why is it a ghost story and not a tragedy, a fable, or a battle cry? What is it about a woman defying societal expectation that terrifies us? Why is it that no matter how many people I asked to tell me their versions, La Llorona never gets to speak? A whole life of love and loss, and she is reduced to three words, “Ay, mis hijos!”
Legends do not get to tell their own stories, so if we gave the voiceless woman a chance to set the story straight... What would she teach us?
Assembling the text was one of the most enjoyable parts of the pre-production. In the manner of programmed oral interpretation, I stitched together language, images and circumstances to create a coherent story line.
Given the nature of the story and the way I wanted to unravel it, I decided to utilize found text and devised movement for the piece. I read dissertation papers, poetry, short stories, ghost sightings, plays, and feminist interpretations of Chicano literature. With the rich text of Euripides juxtaposed against the heartbeat of slam poetry, the script quickly found a voice that transcended time and place; it was both ancient and familiar, somber and kinetic. As I gathered versions of the tale, I could not escape the way her story (and the stories of all Chicano women) was deeply intertwined with those of La Virgen de Guadalupe (the Virgin Mary), and La Malinche (the mother of the mestizos, or mixed/Mexicanpeople). These three feminine icons slowly became the pillars of the piece. A holy trinity, if you will. Deity, emotional/spiritual entity, and human. Peace, rage, and grief. This led to the addition of liturgical iconography and ritual within the piece. Pairing mysticism and Catholicism with the indigenous sort of witchcraft attributed to Medea added to the piece’s voice. The poetry of Anne Sexton and Walt Whitman, with their carnal and aggressive imagery, became the Lover’s tongue. He was desirable, well spoken, and made no mistake about what kind of man he was. More complex than a cheater or a villain, he evolved into a complex individual capable of making as many mistakes as La Llorona. To counter The Lover’s voice, La Llorona communicated through movement-denied of a voice until the very end. The chorus became the fusion of the two worlds. Speaking both in poetry and movement, they intertwined both stories with the remaining literature and contemporary texts. At times they stood proxy for the audience, other times for the characters -neither of our world nor from hers-observers, participants and perpetuators of myth.
Directing for the Shakespeare for Schools Festival is a thrilling and transformative experience. During my graduate studies, I opted for an independent module called Directing Drama in Schools. For this module, I returned to St. Marylebone C of E school (I had volunteered there the semester before to assist with GCSE preparations) to direct their entry for the festival. The festival entry was a piece produced by the Year 12 students and produced at The Shaw Theatre in London. The students were well versed in devising performance through movement, and creating contemporary performance with classical text. And, naturally, they had the accents down. We approached the piece from a feminist perspective – the world of the play has been turned upside down by men returning to a world that had learned to live without them. What would that mean for the women who had been liberated in their absence?
We chose to stage the piece at the close of World War 2, which inspired a fierce, capable, and intelligent presence for the female characters. It was fascinating to approach that history with an English cast, as their relationship to the war is much different than mine as an American. One of our bigger aims was to establish the end of the play as a partnership based in equity and respect, rather than just another woman tamed by love. Through gender bent portrayals or patriarchs and military officials, elements of physical theatre, and lengthy discussion of gender politics in time of war, we crafted a truly enjoyable production.