This is Dria Brown’s first time performing at Folger Shakespeare Theatre. She’s settling in quite nicely. After touring to nine different locations since February in the lead role of Joan in Bedlam Theatre Company’s production of Saint Joan, she’s thrilled to be landing in D.C. with this play. Between the unique layout of Folger’s theatre and the proximity to politics, Brown finds a lot to be inspired and reinvigorated by for her role as a brave, young woman with prophetic visions going up against a stubborn patriarchy.
While this production has been touring for months, and originated with Bedlam back in 2012, Brown believes that not only the fact that she’s Bedlam’s first woman of color to play Joan but Bedlam’s ethos of unique staging and audience engagement make this production feel fresh and exciting. Even since arriving at Folger, the production has changed.
Brown also believes that the story of Joan of Arc, though repeatedly told, still holds so much relevance and public interest. In fact, Brown tells me that her dream audience member would be Emma Gonzáles, the Stoneman Douglas shooting survivor and gun control advocate, who reminds her of a kindred spirit of Joan.
BYT: This is a long tour for a production. How do you keep the show feeling fresh for you as a performer?
Dria Brown: Our tour ended about two weeks ago. This [Folger stop] is kind of a separate entity in itself. We had four cast members in the tour– it was me, Kahlil Garcia, Sam Massaro, Aubie Merrylees. Two of the [Bedlam] company members (Sam and I) are with the Folger doing Saint Joan for D.C. and two of the original cast members Eric Tucker (who’s also the director) and Edmund Lewis are joining this cast. So I have the luxury of being with two new people for this particular performance. It really allows everything to be new again. It’s really exciting because there are things that I’ve never heard before or that gets lost with the repetition. There’s just something so rewarding and so fresh about hearing things again. It’s almost like hearing it for the first time, with two new people who’ve been doing [this Bedlam version of Saint Joan] for five years! Just being in the mix with them is just wonderful and keeping it fresh is pretty easy because Shaw makes it so easy with those beautiful words that he’s written.
If you’re just breathing and living in the moment, things are new and fresh every night. If you’re really actively listening, genuinely listening and responding, things are thrown at you different every time and there’s no room to sit back and go on autopilot. You have to be really present. The story is so timely and it’s just the perfect time to do it that it’s so exciting to do it every night to see what an audience is going to take from it or how they’re going to respond. It’s been really rewarding in that way.
BYT: Bedlam’s been doing their version of Saint Joan since 2012. Can you tell me if there’s a new vision with this current production?
DB: Not so much a new vision as there are new people. Andrus Nichols originated the role [of Saint Joan] and Samantha [Steinmetz] did it in Houston [in 2016]. Now I’m stepping into the co-pilot seat. Everything, Eric’s vision, seems to be the same. The costumes are the same but when you put four new people in a room it’s going to be different. The words are going to land differently. I am a woman of color and I’m the first woman of color to step into the role of Joan for Bedlam, and that changes things a bit.
I’ve changed it with being a woman of color, but I’m still a woman at the end of the day. We’re still facing gender norms and prejudices that come with that. The story [of Saint Joan] is still the same. The story is still beautiful and fascinating and miraculous. The foundation is the same, the actors are the only thing that’s changed.
BYT: It’s pretty unique that Eric Tucker, your director, is an actor in the show. How’s that experience been?
DB: It’s so much fun. Eric is just so brilliant. The ideas that he has and the things he comes up with in the middle of rehearsal are just something I’ve never worked with before. We have been doing this play for three months and the blocking has been the same, but we got in the theatre [at Folger] and most of the blocking changed because Eric had a brilliant idea of how to rework the first scene. You just roll with it and you trust him. He’s brilliant so there’s no reason not to follow what he’s saying. He’s always throwing in something new and something fresh and fun. Then he’ll step away for a second or jump off the stage and sit in the audience so he can put on his director hat. He’s such a brilliant actor and it’s so amazing working with him. He’s so funny. He’s hilarious. There’s always something to laugh at with what he does. He brings such a light into the room. He demands such simple storytelling and such specificity. He’s been my favorite director to work with thus far. He’s just brought this strength and groundedness out of me and in this work with Joan.
I was joking that when I first got the job, that being a part of Bedlam, was like being in grad school express. That there was no need for me to go to grad school anymore because I feel like I completed four years with him already. He’s such an amazing director and I’ve just been urging all of my friends to get in the room with him when or while you can because he really makes you be a better actor.
BYT: I’m sure that joy and humor is a good reprieve in a show that can be very heavy and intense.
DB: Absolutely. But [the show] is also so funny. We work really hard to touch on Shaw’s humor and to bring it out. The humor is there and it’s so funny. I think that’s what audiences really love about [our production]. You go into a theatre and so many companies put on productions [of Saint Joan] that feel very self indulgent, long, and drawn out. They have beautiful, expensive sets and costumes and it’s about the aesthetic. But for Bedlam, it’s about the story and the words. Things move quickly because there’s only four of us playing 25 roles.
People always say “Wow, was that Shaw? Is it an adaptation?!” and it’s not– we haven’t cut anything. When you don’t have costumes and sets to hide behind it does become the play that’s the thing. It becomes about the play. That’s Bedlam.
BYT: This production has a unique audience involvement. Can you speak to that?
DB: There’s audience seating on the stage and because of that the audience is just as much of a part of the play as I am. They don’t get left off the hook. They aren’t just in the audience with the house lights off. They’re part of the jury. You can see them on stage in the lights. It doesn’t give them a chance to play pretend or escape. They are in the action. The lack of costumes allow for the audience to never take a moment to disconnect. We blend in together. Those words could truly be theirs. You see them sitting forward to listen and hang on every word.
BYT: How do you think this story feels relevant today?
DB: How steadfastly everybody believes in something so much in this play, no matter how outlandish it is. They are just fervent believers in what they believe in. And here comes this young country girl just pitting herself up against the patriarchy. Knocking all of their beliefs off kilter. It’s funny and inspiring.
It’s a story about faith, miracles, and politics. It’s about girl refusing to conform to the gender norms and the prejudices of her time, and frankly our time. You see a little bit of the rise of the matriarchy in this play. It’s on the rise again. Women are coming back to the forefront and taking charge in a way that’s unapologetic. Joan does that because of God and because she’s a fervent believer in being called to do something. A lot of women in this time are feeling called to speak up, in a beautiful way. In a way that’s inspiring other women to tell their stories. Women making other platforms for women. It’s about not being forced to hide anymore. Women having the courage to speak up. That’s also what it was about in Joan’s time.
It was exciting to see this young girl defying all of these rules that were set for her in her time and it’s happening again now. I’m a fan of it. I love it.
BYT: What are some connection points between you and Joan that you’ve used to build her character for this performance?
DB: Joan’s a farm girl. I’m a farm girl. I’m from South Carolina, originally. My father is a minister. My mother is the first lady of the church. I grew up in the church. My uncles are all ministers. I just started there with my connection to Joan. While I don’t hear voices telling me I need to lead a battle, I do feel called to do this role, in a beautiful way. I feel very connected and things come very easily for me with this play. The emotions are very close to home. I feel super honored to do this role and that makes it fun, not scary or intimidating. It feels very on-the-nose for me.
I started there and then did a lot of research and reading about who Joan was. I read the Inquisition. It’s directly from the trial. Shaw didn’t make any of it up. So I read 102 pages of the trial. That was an amazing character work to be able to read her responses and find out about who she was. It’s just so well documented. The life of Joan of Arc in general is one of the best documented lives of her era. It’s really easy to access. There are so many books and films and documentaries. I just tried to read and watch as many things as possible. Reading and re-reading the play helps. Reading it from different characters’ points of view is important. That builds a really strong foundation to just be with the work when it happens.
BYT: It’s a long and psychically exhausting show for you. I’m wondering how you keep yourself healthy and alert for the role?
DB: I take a walk before the performances. I take in everything that’s around me to ground myself. I then take a walk afterwards to decompress. It is an emotionally taxing show. Because it’s so timely, it’s not hard to imagine it happening now. I respect that and I honor that and I acknowledge that and I let that go at the end of the night. That’s really important for any actor to do–to not get too wrapped up in the role that you’re doing and to return back to yourself at the end. You are saying someone else’s words and experiencing their emotions as your own. I make sure to say goodbye to Joan at the end of the night. I make sure to return to myself and be present with people after the show. The Folger has put us in such amazing housing that it’s not hard to do that. It’s so easy to separate here and we’re steps away from the Capitol building. Folger is just such a beautiful space to take it all in and be grateful and to say goodbye to it at the end of the night. It’s a lot easier when we’re staying in one location rather than touring around.
Feature photo of Dria Brown by Teresa Wood, courtesy of Folger Shakespeare Theatre