By SPECIWOMEN Photography PHILO COHEN
"Figuring out what kind of mental preparation worked best for me each night according to how I was feeling emotionally and physically over such a long run was a really scary experiment. Mostly what I learned from that process of experimentation was the importance of trusting and listening to my guts in service of a strong performance."
Tell us about yourself.
My name is Zora, I’m from Brooklyn, NY. I’m currently a freshman at Smith College and I’m planning on double majoring in Africana Studies and Theatre.
I'm very drawn to writing and research and last year I had a lot of fun with extensive research and writing on the Black Arts Movement and black theatre between the 40’s and mid-70’s.
Right now I’m doing a lot of thinking, reading, and writing about Audre Lorde, Julie Dash and Octavia Butler, and what they mean to me artistically.
How did you get into theater?
I started bossing my mom around and directing little plays in my room when I was 3 or 4 years old. As I grew older i recognized my attraction towards dialogue and spoken word as an interest in performance and acting and I have been pursuing it ever since.
In 2015 I participated in a series of performance workshops in New York, with artist Joan Jonas for her video installation presented at the The American Pavilion of the 56th Venice Biennale. In the spring of 2016 I performed in Joan Jonas’s piece at The Kitchen in Chelsea called They Come to Us Without a Word II. I am so thankful and honored to have been a part of these pieces and to have spent time with Joan and witness her creative process. It was a beautiful, inspiring, and fun exploration of intuitive creativity.
My first experience in an off broadway ensemble production was this past year. I performed in SLUT directed by Katie Cappiello and Meg McInerney. SLUT follows a 16yr old girl's process of coming forward after being raped by two of her closest friends. It’s essentially about slut-shaming, sexual assault, and gendered stereotypes. The cast was entirely teenage girls. Working and exploring the subject with them was life changing. I learned a lot about the impact that theatrical storytelling has on a community and the ways in which the many voices and opinions that come together within a performance have the ability to reach audience members. The talkback sessions with the audience after every performance was really informative and also revealed how much further we need to go in getting people to see the bodies and sexuality of young women as autonomous and safe and valued. As high school seniors graduated, many of us were recasted and the show is still going strong! For info: http://stopslut.org/
As an actor, what has been the hardest role to mentally prepare yourself for?
Most of my experience in theatre have been with school plays, outside classes, and with people my age. I performed in Slut over the course of about 9 months so as the only extended production I’ve done to date, it was an entirely different experience. Figuring out what kind of mental preparation worked best for me each night according to how I was feeling emotionally and physically over such a long run was a really scary experiment. Mostly what I learned from that process of experimentation was the importance of trusting and listening to my guts in service of a strong performance.
What is the biggest misconception about the theater?
My biggest misconception about theater (which almost entirely drove me out of theatre while I was in high school) was that theatre was a homogenous and extensively white art. I did not see myself or the experiences of people of color reflected onstage at my high school and rarely were students of color chosen for lead roles. This really distanced me from theatre. In high school my mother took me to By the Way, Meet Vera Stark, by Lynn Nottage, which centered around a young black woman grappling with visibility in the theater. I think of this as a vital moment for me in slowly realizing that theatre is not a “white art,” and that I had a place in it to weave my own interests and experiences.
Why theater over film?
At ten years old all my best friends wanted to be actors with agents...so I asked my mother to help me audition for an agency and she told me that first I had to learn the craft through live performance - and that i needed to see if acting was something that i really loved. So live performance became the vehicle through which I learned how to act.
Do you prefer dramas or musicals? Why?
I have always responded more strongly to straight plays...maybe because I am not musically adept or because I have not seen enough musicals. But I was really moved and struck by the Public Theatre’s production of Total Bent this past spring- a show featuring a whole lotta gospel and rock ‘n’ roll.
What are your top three favorite shows?
Eclipsed by Danai Gurira, Venus by Suzan-Lori Parks, An Octoroon by Branden Jacobs-Jenkins.
Are there any projects in the works?
I’m continually going out on auditions and working with my acting coach Sally Stewart and this semester I’m focusing on introducing myself to film studies.
Where do you see yourself in three years?
In college! I have no idea what I will want three years from now, but I hope that I will somehow be interweaving my interests in Africana studies and writing and theatre or film.
As a woman in the theater world, what have been your biggest challenges thus far?
I avoided a lot of theatre because I was simply afraid of the judgment and vulnerability that comes with live performance. Though I am still very afraid of this vulnerability, I have also learned to love and treasure it. I cannot feel satisfied with any performance without it.