A few weeks ago, I sat down with Be Louis, a multi-faceted performing artist in Omaha, and spoke with them about life, theatre, gender, Lauren Gunderson, and their upcoming project, a self-produced production of Bright Half Life.
ANNA JORDAN: Can you tell me a little about your background, training and experience?
BE LOUIS: When I was young, I just saw my sister and brother acting in high school, and I just really wanted to be up there. I started acting in high school. I went to UNO for a couple of years and then was unsure if going to school for theatre was what I wanted to be doing, whether it was worth my time or a worthy profession. So then I left and was a horticulturalist. And then after a couple of years of taking a break, I was like, okay, I like to make art, I’m an artist, I love the earth and I love growing things, but it is not my career path. Then I went back to school and finished my degree in theatre.
AJ: How have you grown as an artist in your experiences in undergrad and professionally? Or, were there one or two specific projects or roles that you feel really shaped you into the artist you are today?
BL: The two most transformational roles I’ve played were Joan of Arc in [Henry VI trilogy adaptation] War of Roses and Marie Antoinette in The Revolutionists. Both of those characters are just inside me like all the time. They were really transformational to me as a person, which is why I love acting in general, just because I think it’s the greatest act of empathy that a person can do. Taking out everything that you think and feel and believe and entirely embodying someone else. And not only that, but fighting for them, you know? And taking them into these complex situations and not judging them for what they’re doing. And the people that you play that you think are not like you at all, by the end, you’re always like, this person really isn’t so far from me.
To me it always comes down to love. And how we need it or lack it or go about it. We as people find so much meaning in our relationships with people.
So now that I graduated, I’m trying to experiment and explore and try being a producer and a director. Which has been really fun. A lot of work for sure, but awesome, because the most frustrating thing about acting is you don’t have any control over what’s going on.
AJ: Yeah, it’s very much your own world, whereas big picture is kind of the director’s job.
BL: Yeah and you just kind of have to hope people put up projects that you care about, and hopefully you’re getting paid. Which is really frustrating. I just thought I’d try it out with a play that I really liked.
AJ: You did The Revolutionists which is by Lauren Gunderson, and I am currently doing I and You, by the same playwright. How does Lauren’s playwriting speak to you and how did that particular experience, I mean you kind of spoke to this before but how did it really revolutionize, if you will, your art?
BL: Lauren Gunderson is awesome. She writes very masterfully. Specifically, every line in her plays means more than one thing in all of her work. There’s multiple stories going on at all times. And if it’s not multiple stories, it’s a whole commentary on the world outside.
AJ: On a global scale in like a very specific human situation.
BL: And Revolutionists was very much that way. Revolutionists is a dream play that all happens to Olympe de Gouge as she’s walking to the guillotine. As she’s about to die she imagines having had a relationship with Marie Antoinette and Charlotte Corday, who died on that same spot, and Marianne Angelle. She gains strength from them to be able to get up, say her last words, and die. There’s always heavy themes about life and death. The words, you never get tired of hearing them. It’s like listening to Shakespeare.
AJ: You’re so right, I really feel like Lauren Gunderson is a contemporary Shakespeare in a way. Her playwriting is so poetic, and like you said there are so many layers, and you can find so many different things with every reading of it, or every hearing of it.
BL: It was so interesting playing this character that was the most powerful person in the entire world, but who also had no say in her life at all, and to give her that voice. It was really fun to just have a little part in writing [Marie Antoinette’s] history. I’ve gone much more towards being non-binary, I use they/them pronouns, I really like that. So it was really confusing at the time to be playing an ultra-feminine character. Playing someone who has that much power, like when she walks into the room…
AJ: Like she claims the space?
BL: Yeah, and everyone automatically gives it to her, like they’re not mad about it.
AJ: As opposed to Joan?
BL: Oh yeah, I couldn’t have played Marie without Joan.
AJ: In a way, they’re two sides of the same coin of like, a woman who is that much more feminine, and then being a woman who is maybe a little more traditionally masculine, but also embraces that femininity.
BL: That are both just like, “yeah, this is what I’m doing. You can’t tell me no.” They’re just with me at all times. Do you have characters like that?
AJ: I do, I do, I think Scout from To Kill a Mockingbird. And I think Caroline from I and You is totally in there. Because she’s the closest to myself that I’ve ever played, which is scary and weird.
BL: That’s how I feel right now about Bright Half Life.
AJ: Great segue! Can you tell me a little about your next project?
BL: Yeah, Bright Half Life is about the romance of two women over 55 years, it’s non linear. By Tanya Barfield who is a queer Black woman who lives on the west coast. It’s about an interracial lesbian relationship specifically, spanning from the 1980s to 2030. And it’s nonlinear so it’s constantly switching so much. It’s really hard to memorize to be honest (laughs). It’s so conversational, which I’m sure that you’ve had experience with…
AJ: A two hander, super conversational… (laughs) And you are wearing lots of hats for the show—so you’re actor, director and producer. How has that been working? How did you get into it and what inspired you to get into this?
BL: I decided I wanted to produce this play, and it just felt like the only way to do it was to do it myself. Initially I was just going to direct and not act. But one of my other primary goals was—I want to produce this play because its really wonderful representation for women who love women, as well as being a story about love. It’s so relatable to everyone. When I first read it I was married to a man, and was so impacted by the script because it felt like everything that I had felt.
I started working on this last May where I was talking to Philip [Kolbo] at OutrSpaces about this play that I wanted to do, and we started working from there. We got two other people, Regina [Palmer] and Haley Clark the stage manager. It’s a team of 3 queer femme individuals which is great.
AJ: As an actor, how do you have an objective eye on what you’re doing? Is it difficult to direct yourself as well as another person?
BL: It kind of is, it almost feels like acting class where you’re doing this piece and you just put it up—do you know Maire Creegan?
AJ: Oh yeah, she’s brilliant.
BL: She’s kind of my mentor. She came in last week or two weeks ago, and just watched our full run through and then she gave me notes. So that’s been helpful, and she’s going to come in again before we go up. Because it is really difficult! I’m used to being an actor, just being able to go out and try anything and everything, just be silly and creative and then have someone there to tell you do this, don’t do this, let’s take this this direction. So doing both [acting and directing], you kind of have to have a split mind, where you’re always seeing it objectively. And so now as we’re getting more into it, I need to be able to let that go and just go into character and then once we finish working through a scene, then we step out and look at it from the outside. It’s definitely difficult, but I’m really excited about it.
AJ: And then producing on top of that, what does that look like?
BL: Producing is a lot of work. In the future I definitely will not do all three of these roles at once (laughs). Learning how to produce has been huge. It’s fun because its hard and fast, it’s really straightforward. It’s a lot of work, but it’s straightforward. Producers get the money to pay people, you get the space, you hire the people, you do all the marketing. I’m actually really enjoying it. The producer is the advocate for the project. You’re the one who goes around and is talking about it, as a producer the show is your responsibility. And I’ve really enjoyed it. It’s something I definitely want to do again.
Bright Half Life, by Tanya Barfield, runs March 15-16 and 22-23 at OutrSpaces. Performances at 7:30pm. Tickets are $25 and available here.
Regina Palmer as Vicky
Be Louis as Erica
Director and Producer - Be Louis
Stage Manager and Lighting Designer - Haley Clark
Costume Designer - Regina Palmer