Thursday, August 4, 2016

NEA-Supported Military Veteran Writer Maurice Decaul at VCCA

A former Marine, poet, essayist and playwright, Maurice Emerson Decaul was at VCCA on an NEA grant supporting military veteran artists. Maurice, who served in Iraq, divides his time between New York and Providence, RI where he is a graduate student in the Theater and Performance Studies program at Brown University.

In February, Maurice was named as the first artist-in-residence at Theater Communications Group (TCG), an organization founded to foster communication between the theater communities in the professional, community and university realms. Bringing his perspectives as both artist and veteran, Maurice is tasked with overseeing the launch of the Veterans Theater Institute (VTI), a pilot program for veterans and active military that allows them to experience, study and create theater. The initiative is supported by the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation’s Building Demand for the Arts program.

VTI will continue and strengthen the relationship TCG has developed with its Blue Star Theaters (BST) program, which works with active military and their families engaging them with theater, and funding the creation and production of new plays.

The seeds for VTI were planted when Maurice attended a playwriting boot-camp playwright Paula Vogel held while she was developing her play, Don Juan Comes Home From Iraq at the Wilma Theater (a Blue Star Theater, in Philadelphia)“She invited a bunch of us vets into a room with her to write. We did four boot-camp sessions over the course of a year and we all wrote plays and provided input, which helped her form the character of Don Juan, a Marine Captain, serving in Ramadi in 2004.


“I had a conversation with Paula and she said that every year she wanted to do a workshop where she’d take a group of vets to some place beautiful and teach them playwriting. So when TCG approached me, I was clear that this was based on Paula’s idea, but I wanted to expand it. Instead of being once a year, let’s actually partner up with universities and create a curriculum that can go on indefinitely, if we have enough funding. So that’s where it came from. It happened at the right time for me. I began as a poet and I was transitioning into playwriting. It felt like a natural step. I was interested in finding different ways of telling stories and signed up for a playwriting class at Columbia. It was my very last class.”

Maurice has a clear strategy to inspire veteran involvement. “If you want to build demand, you have to start at the base level with young people in the theater as makers: writers and actors within our community,” says Maurice. “We’ve seen this happen with actor Adam Driver (Girls, Star Wars: The Force Awakens), a former Marine. AITA, the organization founded by Adam and his wife Joanne Tucker, bring shows to military audiences around the world. I’ve been to a few of those shows. They do one every year in New York City around Veterans Day. They have used the American Airlines Theater, the tickets are free, and the show is packed with military vets and their families. There’s a pretty healthy population. Vets in New York who come to the show every year because Adam’s on stage. He’s one of us, he just happened to go into theater. We’ve got to build VTI organically overtime. This will not only develop theater audiences, but also ensure veterans’ stories get told.”


VTI will eventually be prototyped in four locations: Providence RI, San Diego California, Fayetteville North Carolina and Tempe/Phoenix Arizona. The approach will be holistic. “If you would like to write, we’ll have playwriting available, if you prefer working on the technical side of theater, we’ll make that available." Maurice has found that certain disciplines are more popular in different areas: “Our partners in San Diego are much more interested in teaching playwriting, so we’re going develop a curriculum focused on that there. In North Carolina, our partner is more about developing technicians, so we’ll focus on technical theater there, and at Arizona State, because the population is so large and because of the interests of the partnering institution, we will teach a combination of arts and tech based classes.”

Maurice arrived at VCCA with the intention of finishing a first draft of a play he started just before he came. “It’s not finished, it’s just a draft; there’s no expectation that it can get up on its feet. I just wanted to get the ideas down.” He next turned his attention to a libretto on Portsmouth, Virginia native Sissieretta Jones, a turn-of-the-century opera singer who was the first African-American to perform at Carnegie Hall.

When Sissieretta was a child, her family moved to Providence, Rhode Island where Maurice lives part-time about a block away from where her house once stood. One of the premier opera singers of her day, Sissieretta toured Europe, the Caribbean and the U.S.—even into the south, and played for U.S. presidents. She gave up her career to take care of her mother when she became ill. Sissieretta went from making $2,000 a week at the height of her career to being almost penniless upon her death. Maurice is not sure whether his libretto, which takes the form of double sonnets, will eventually be performed as an opera or not. At VCCA, he set himself the ambitious goal of writing two sonnets a day. Fortunately, he writes fast. When his draft is done, he will put it away for a period of time before he revisits. “I’ll come back to it in a couple of months and see what I actually have.”

Maurice found VCCA both a beautiful and also a very generative environment. In addition to everything else he did, he also wrote poems. “I wasn’t planning on doing that–it just happened. Just walking the grounds and seeing the bunnies. It’s been a good experience.”

Maurice’s writing has appeared in the New York Times, The Daily Beast, Sierra Magazine, Epiphany, Callaloo, Narrative, The Common and others. His poems have been translated into French and Arabic and his theater pieces have been produced at New York City's Harlem Stage, Poetic License Festival in New York City, Washington DC's Atlas INTERSECTIONS FESTIVAL in 2013 and 2014, l’Odéon-Théâtre de l'Europe in Paris, The Paris Banlieues Bleues Festival, The Middelhein Jazz Festival in Antwerp, The Avignon Theatre Festival in France and Détours de Babel, The Grenoble Festival, Grenoble France, Arizona State University Gammage Memorial Auditorium, The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City, The David Rubenstein Atrium at Lincoln Center and the Park Avenue Armory in NYC, The Mary L Welch Theatre at Lycoming College in Pennsylvania, The Kimmel Center in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania and Brown University. His album, “Holding it Down”, a collaboration with Vijay Iyer and Mike Ladd was The LA Times Jazz Album of the year in 2013.Maurice has been the recipient of fellowships from Callaloo and Cave Canem
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