Q&A with ‘Citizen’ Director Shirley Jo Finney: “To be fearless in the conversation and offer a place of awareness and healing.”

Shirley Jo Finney

Shirley Jo Finney

Shirley Jo Finney is more than an acclaimed and award-winning director. She is a force of nature and spirit. To be in her presence is to plug into a deep flow  of energy, to be charged by her kinetic jolt of honesty, intensity, raw vulnerability and joy. It’s the reason why actors flock to work with her and why the Fountain Theatre so values its relationship with her. Although she continues to direct in regional theatres across the country,  the Fountain Theatre is her artistic home.

Prior to Citizen, her Fountain productions are The Brothers Size, In the Red and Brown Water, Heart Song, The Ballad of Emmett Till, Yellowman, Central Avenue and From the Mississippi Delta.  She has been honored with Ovation, LA Drama Critics  Circle, Garland, LA Weekly and NAACP awards for her directing.  

CITIZEN company surround Finney (center).

CITIZEN company surround Finney (center).

How did you first get involved in this project as director? How did it come your way? 

I had not heard about the book before it was brought to my attention and was asked by Stephen Sachs to direct the piece. He said he had read a review and excerpt in the New York Times about the book Citizen: An American Lyric by Claudia Rankine and felt that it had the makings of a theatrical work. He asked me to read it and give my impressions.

What did you think when you first read the book?

It was like walking through a door that I walk through every day of my life.

As director, what were the artistic challenges of staging the piece?

This is the third new work that I have collaborated on with Stephen. In the prior collaborations, Stephen had written linear story lines that had a clear three act structure. This did not. Conceptually creating a visual story that was non-linear was challenging. The book is poetry and reads at times like a narrative essay. The adaptation was created from the book with Stephen gleaning passages that would lend itself for stage.

Finney guides CITIZEN table work rehearsal.

Finney guides CITIZEN table work rehearsal.

How did real-life events affect the rehearsal process? 

Unlike most works, this story was being played out in “the theater of life” with the tragic deaths of so many black lives. The shooting of the South Carolina Nine occurred while we were in rehearsals. We were constantly being impacted by the headlines. There was no separating it from our daily lives. It heightened our awareness of everyday encounters with racism. We were all evolving as Citizens.

How did you confront and speak openly about racism with your multi-racial cast? Was that delicate to honestly navigate?

In the past, when I have dealt with projects that have themes rooted within the “American Wound”, the historic conversation, and racism, I find that as difficult as that conversation may be, actors must, as a company, face their own fears and come face to face with the dark side. Confront it. Acknowledge it. So they are free to tell the emotional truth in the work.

Sharing a laugh with her cast.

Sharing a laugh with her CITIZEN cast.

What kind of actors were you looking for in the casting process?

Their training. That when they say “yes” to a project, they are committed and willing to experience whatever discomfort the project raises. I have been fortunate that the Universe brought the right group of actors to this project. Creative, open-hearted, generous, intelligent and fearless.

Can you describe your process as a director? Your approach with actors?

As a director, it is up to me to create a safe place of trust. I love actors and I live for the process and playing in the creative playground with them. There is nothing like the relationship between director and actor. There is a zone, a dance, that is experienced through discovery of human behavior.

What kind of experience do you hope the audience will have with Citizen? 

We have created something we are proud to present, knowing that it will have an impact with our audience and do what Claudia’s book intended. To be fearless in the conversation and offer a place of awareness and healing.

The World Stage Premiere of Citizen: An American Lyric opens Aug 1st. 

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