Equal parts entertaining and thought provoking, the Goodman Theatre’s world premiere of Christina Anderson’s (Blacktop Sky, pen/man/ship, The Ashes Under Gait City, Man in Love) latest play, How To Catch Creation, is simply a must-see!
The play centers around a young writer’s life that is turned upside down when her girlfriend drops some unexpected news. Fifty years later, four artists feel the reverberations of that moment – and its unexpected consequences – as their lives intersect in pursuit of creative passion and legacy.
N’DIGO recently caught up with cast members Maya Vinice Prentiss (Riley) and Bernard Gilbert (Stokes) to learn more about the fascinating production and all about their careers.
N’DIGO: How did you get your start in acting?
Maya Prentiss: The first play I ever remember doing was at church. I wanted to play Orpah because I thought it said “Oprah” but by the time I figured it out it was too late to undo. Needless to say I was upset. Mostly because I didn’t get to give away a car or something.
Bernard Gilbert: When I was in second grade my teacher recommended I join a group called Odyssey Of The Mind. It’s basically a problem solving competition. I did that from second grade until my junior year of high school. From my recollection, OOTM was my first encounter with anything remotely resembling theatre. I eventually found poetry, mime and visual art, even advertising to be just as stimulating, but acting has definitely remained my passion.
Is it what you always wanted to do?
Maya: I used to switch back and forth between professions all the time growing up. I always wanted to do so many things but never realIy had the passion for any of it. Then one day I told my mom something like, “I want to be a surgeon but I don’t like blood and gross stuff.” And she said, “You don’t want to be a doctor, you want to play one on TV!” Blew. My. Mind.
Was there an “aha” moment when you knew for sure that you’d be able to do this professionally?
Maya: The summer of 2017. I was going into my third year of my Master of Fine Arts at University of Illinois Urbana-Campaign and doing An Octoroon with Definition Theatre Company. I was working with some insanely talented artists who look like me, are doing their thing, and are extremely successful. It was an incredible experience and hands down what prompted my move to Chicago to start my career.
Bernard: Not really, for me it’s kind of been this progression of acceptance, I guess. Outside acceptance from my peers and colleagues, but also an acceptance of my own purpose. My mom still finds old journals where I used to doodle about being on stage and being an actor and being in movies.
What were you first thoughts upon reading the script for How To Catch Creation?
Maya: I’m certain I shed a tear…or twelve. In addition to how beautifully crafted the story is, the way Christina places the words on a page is a work of art in itself.
Bernard: After I finished the play for the first time, I immediately felt like I had read something beautiful. Our playwright, Christina Anderson, really crafted a complex story that feels so real because of the care she took in grounding everybody. That couldn’t have been easy given the scope of the play. The play traverses multiple eras in time and somehow still manages to unite all six characters within multiple narratives. I like the play even more now.
Did you do much in the way of creating a backstory to get to know your character better?
Maya: Doing research about zodiac signs and discovering that Riley is most definitely an Aries gave me a particular angle on how she goes about navigating professional and romantic relationships. Another aspect of Riley’s life I was really interested in was her relationship to her parents and exploring how and why her childhood may have influenced how she envisions her life in the future.
In reality, computers and I absolutely do not get along, but Riley’s history of being underestimated and people not expecting her to be able to do certain things because of the way that she looks resonates so deeply with me. She’s basically the me that I want to be.
Bernard: Kind of. I think with Stokes, I really had to go inward and apply my own experiences to what was already on the page. However, I did do a ton of painting and writing before coming back to Chicago for rehearsal. I’ve been writing for a while, but I wanted to feel what it was like to really paint and invest in painting and express myself like that.
I had never really given a lot of energy to painting before, so that was fun. Now I’m addicted. Stokes and I are so similar that I was worried I might miss him. So I didn’t really have to make up anything to flesh him out. I realized I just have to be honest and people will see Stokes. Actually I did decide that he was a Gemini, which I guess is a little backstory.
There seems to be a great chemistry among the cast and crew. Can you talk a little about the rehearsal process with Director Niegel Smith and how that process went?
Maya: Much like the play, in some way or another we are actually all connected in real life. Bernard and I go way back. We met while I was at Spelman College and he had recently graduated from Morehouse. Ayanna and I saw each other in shows a couple years ago and have been trying to work together since then.
I met Jasmine this summer working Front of House for a show she was in and Keith and I have mutual friends all over the country. It felt like the universe was smiling at me when I started the process. Everyone came in with open hearts and minds, willing to trust and explore with one another.
Niegel was such a pleasure to work with. It was a joy to be in a process with a director that has such a strong vision and big ideas, but also truly listens and collaborates and is interested in providing you with the tools you need to do your best work.
Bernard: I worked with Niegel before, but How To Catch Creation is a little different from the last show we worked on. Both plays have a heightened sense of reality that teeters the line of the fantastic, but Christina being in the room the whole time was amazing. The way she and Niegel worked off of each other to build the play we have now was honestly an honor to witness.
Everybody in the room got along so well that we really felt like a family to me. Keith has been like a mentor to me personally. I’m always trying to soak up some wisdom from him and Karen. Ayanna and Maya are family to me. Maya and I were friends when she was at Spelman and I had just graduated from Morehouse, and Ayanna and I went to The Theatre School at DePaul at the same time. Jasmine just started teaching Shakespeare at TTS, too, so we’re all connected.
Our Associate Director Sydney Chatman brought her own style to the room as well. She was just as vital to the show as anybody. And Niegel allows the space for people to do that – grow and play and learn each other as we craft this thing together. I don’t take that for granted. Everybody was special. Everyone in the room and on the design team and our voice coach, Phyllis Griffin, too. So many people.
What if any is your pre-show routine?
Maya: At the same time every day, Ayanna and I twerk and sing old school jams at the top of our lungs in our dressing room. It really provides the physical and vocal warm up needed to perform a show of this caliber. We also scatter various twerk breaks throughout the show to keep us on our toes.
Bernard: I don’t really have much of a routine before the show. I play some music. I have to play music once we hit half-hour so I can get dressed. Otherwise I’m a sloth. So I guess that’s a routine! Right now I’m listening to a lot of Smino and Noname, some Gregory Porter or Miles Davis, Saba, a bunch of people really. Once I’m in costume, I drink a bunch of water and warm up a little, but that’s really it. Before half-hour you can probably find me hanging out with Maya and Ayanna somewhere in the building or near by.
Tell us something most people would be surprised to know about you?
Maya: I can juggle and sing Selena while balancing on a foam roller. On one leg.
Bernard: I still haven’t seen the movie Glory, with Denzel Washington. I don’t know why! I should watch it today.
Best advice or words of wisdom for aspiring actors?
Maya: Stay true to yourself. Your path is your own. It won’t look like anyone one else’s and will take you exactly where you need to go.
Bernard: Do it and keep doing it while maintaining a tight knit circle of those you love and trust. Also, get better and be nice to people.
Any favorite affirmations?
Maya: I got this. Period.
Bernard: Take your time. Speak positivity into existence. Don’t worry about being right. Be real. If you ain’t learning, that’s stupid. Life isn’t about the things that got away, it’s about what you said yes to. That last one is David Geffen.
What’s next for you?
Maya: I love doing so many things it makes me feel like a crazy person sometimes, but also makes it almost impossible to get bored with my art. I really want to start sharing my music and poetry more. I have a one-woman show in the early stages of creation that ultimately will combine the two along with my love of story telling.
I have a passion for teaching and choreographing stage combat and have plans to be certified. I want to get back into directing as well and hope to work with a few theatres in Chicago. It is a huge goal of mine to break into the TV and film scene in the near future, so I’ll be crossing my fingers and toes this pilot season!
Bernard: I actually don’t have anything lined up yet, but I’m hopeful something will come along. Something always does. I do have a couple dream goals and projects I’m working on myself though. I’m writing a novel right now called Lost Cause, and I’m developing a mini-series adaptation of a novel.
I really want to do more film work. I think I could do that forever and be so happy. Samuel L. Jackson is actually somebody I look up to in terms of his success in the film industry. I watch him a lot. He’s done a lot. I want to do just as many films, if not more. Ultimately I want to create and operate my own movie studio, or major media distribution network of whatever the next technological age brings us. Oprah, Lena Waithe, Will Packer, and James Lopez are a few entrepreneurs that I really respect and hope to emulate in that regard.
(How To Catch Creation plays at the Goodman Theatre in downtown Chicago through February 24th. For more information, visit www.goodmantheatre.org.)