by Laura Shamas
The Naked Expedition Theatre Project is a new theatre company in New York, co-founded by Laura Bray and Celestine Rae. Its mission is specific and significant:
“To challenge the perceptions of women and the underrepresented through the voice of theatre and to serve as an advocate for their stories…TNEP strives to inspire writers of all ethnicities, backgrounds, and gender by providing a space for them to develop and share their work. We believe that artists thrive within a community that embraces exploration and the many stages of development and process. Our goal is to provide a platform for non-traditional stories and voices that will ignite conversation, understanding and investigation into the core humanity of women and the underrepresented within the local and global community.”
I was lucky enough to be part of the first evening of their new Reading Series, held at the beautiful Theatre Lab on W. 36th on September 15, 2014. There were five short plays read, all written by women: Femme Noir by Allie Costa; God Don’t Exist For Girls in Brooklyn by Yani Perez; my play The Cumin Guard; Got a Light by Tanya Everett; and Color Blue by Alexis Roblan. The directors were: Tiffany Greene, Julio Monge, and Derrick Anthony. It was a thrilling event; the bright talent of all involved was dazzling. How terrific to see five shows in a row by talented female writers! Personally, I was amazed by the performance of my 10-minute show that evening; all kudos and credit to director Tiffany Greene, and actors Erin Cherry, Suzanne Darrell and Lori Lang! The TNEP Reading Series will continue in coming months.
The atmosphere in any theatre company is fostered by its leaders; the ambience surrounding The Naked Expedition Theatre Project was palpably positive. So I wanted to find out more about Laura Bray and Celestine Rae, and learn about their insights and future plans; I asked them a few questions via e-mail. Check out their inspiring answers, and please don’t miss the announcement of a new submission opportunity at the end.
Celestine Rae and Laura Bray, photo credit: JP Photography NYC
1) When and where did you first become involved with theater?
Celestine Rae: “I was very aware of the need for self-expression at a young age. I was terribly shy as a child but ironically, I was drawn to performing. I began my life in the theater as a dancer. Dancing was a vehicle for me to not only express myself but to tell my own personal story through movement. I was always creating and seeking out new avenues for performing. I began choreographing my own dances, creating my own skits, performing in school plays and dance recitals, and directing all of the children in my neighborhood in productions of my own. I was blessed to dance and train in Philadelphia at dance studios, including the renowned Philadanco (where I also performed as an apprentice company member), under some of the dance masters of our time who were former dancers of the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater and the Martha Graham Company. These choreographers and teachers were the storytellers I looked up to. They were my August Wilson, Lorraine Hansberry, and Shakespeare. I watched documentaries on the lives of Alvin Ailey, Carmen de Lavellade, and Geoffery Holder and heard them speak of the importance of telling stories that were of their culture and background. And I saw and felt the enormous impact it had on a generation of dancers who were given the platform to share a part of themselves with a world that might not have shown interest were it not for that art form. I recognized what dance and theater did for the artist and for the audience. It was, and is transformative. When I decided to focus primarily on acting, it felt like the natural progression of my career and artistry. I trained at the William Esper Studio under Terry Knickerbocker and began working in off-Broadway theater productions soon after. Continuing my patterns from childhood, I began taking interest in creating my own work and began writing and directing my own plays.”
Laura Bray: “Being in a theatre is one of my earliest memories. My dad was a classical musician with our state orchestra so I remember spending hours in a huge 1000+ seat theatre with no audience and a full orchestra playing and just loving the feeling I had there and feeling really at home and connected with it. My mum is an English teacher so I think that’s where my love affair with words and how they worked together came from. From both of those things stemmed my love of the theatre. Of live connection with an audience and of story telling. I started performing stage as an actor back in Australia when I was about 15, but I really think my love was more with the scripts and hence I left acting for writing and haven’t looked back.”
2) When and why did you decide to form your own theatre company?
“We both initially began as actors and met at The William Esper Studio in NYC. We connected as friends and fellow artists but we definitely shared a desire for more diverse portrayals of women in theater and in entertainment and the media across the board. We came up with the idea to start something… we weren’t sure what… at the beginning of last year. After many meetings and cups of coffee, we came to realize that beginning our own theater company was the direction we wanted to go. We saw a great need for this and began to build it.”
Laura: “I know for me personally, I didn’t often feel that I got to see much of our humanity on stage. I think that is a big driving force behind not only deciding to work together but also to form a company with such a specific mission. Another reason (and this is another important one to me) was to create a community. A community of like-minded artists and thinkers. Dreamers and doers. I think that surrounding ourselves with others that strive and think and challenge is hugely helpful and inspiring. This is something that we would love to achieve with TNEP.”
Celestine: “Humanity is definitely our buzz word. Our desire to show women and other underrepresented people as complex human beings as opposed to stereotypes is at the center of our work. As former actors and emerging writers, we share the desire to tell stories about women, all kinds of women from all kinds of diverse backgrounds. I believe in the cliché motto ‘If you build it, they will come’ and I wanted to move from a place of feeling reactive to proactive. I wanted to stop feeling helpless and disappointed with the limited opportunities for women and begin to empower myself (and others) by building our own platform. I’d say empowerment is another one of our buzzwords for sure.”
3) What are your future plans for The Naked Expedition Project?
“Our long term goal is for TNEP is to expand into a full functioning theater company with a diverse pool of talented, inspired & driven artists. A company that showcases the underrepresented voices so that eventually they will become REPRESENTED. We want to assist in providing opportunities for artists who are struggling to be seen. Our plans for TNEP include producing full productions that reach audiences of all backgrounds and ignite conversation, leading to education, change & unity.
We are incredibly excited about our October reading series as we feature the work of an incredible woman and playwright, Cori Thomas. We are thrilled to be hosting a reading of her play, My Secret Language of Wishes on Monday, October 13th at 7:30 pm at THEATERLAB in NYC. 357 W 36th St.”
4) What is the genesis of your company’s name?
Celestine: “I really love our name! The Naked Expedition Project. It’s provocative. I’m actually really proud of our name. As an actress working in film & TV as well, many of the roles I have been auditioning for have begun to require nudity. The nudity of women on screen is so prevalent and such a complex issue for me. I’d like to believe that the female body is celebrated for its beauty on screen and in the media, however more often than not it is being objectified instead. Being naked, both physically and emotionally is such a vulnerable experience. My acting teacher (Terry Knickerbocker) used to tell us that we had to be willing to be publicly naked (emotionally)– without skin– to be an actor. That stuck with me. I think the same is true for artists of all disciplines and especially in the world of theater. Sharing your voice and art with the world is extremely vulnerable. So- there was a bit of a play on the objectification of the female body and the vulnerability of being naked in an emotional and artistic sense.”
Laura: “Our name really derived from our desire, I think. The desire to find, experience & reveal work that required us to expose & to be exposed. To be naked and truthful. And to be taken on a journey. Or not even on a journey. Something so much bigger than that. An Expedition… I think whatever kind of artist you are, you are required to be bare and naked. With yourself and with your audience. This is kind of work I want to create myself as a playwright & produce within TNEP. The name felt right when we created it.”
5) Are there any upcoming submission opportunities for women playwrights with TNEP?
“We’re excited about February 2015 and the opportunity to be inspired by the great Maya Angelou. We’re seeking submissions from playwrights that are inspired by the works and life of Ms. Angelou. This submission opportunity is open to all playwrights until December 1st, 2014. Short plays 10-15 pages maximum. All submissions can be sent to: firstname.lastname@example.org.”
Thanks, Celestine and Laura, for taking action and leading the way. You can subscribe to their “Spotlight Series page” to stay up to date on everything going on with TNEP via their website. You can find TNEP on Twitter – @NakedExpedition; on Facebook – The Naked Expedition Project; and on Instagram – TheNakedExpeditionProjectNYC. Donations needed: The Naked Expedition Project is fiscally sponsored by Fractured Atlas. Please visit their website for more info on how to donate to TNEP.
Final words from Celestine and Laura: “Show us some love. We’ll love you back.”
Celestine Rae, Laura Bray, TIffany Greene, Yani Perez, Alexis Roblan
September 15, 2014 – Photo Credit: JP Photography NYC.