Heal the Divide: Spotlight on Mikki Russ

Blog, Heal The Divide, Playwrights

I grew up in Prescott, AZ – a small mountain town that has made the national news a few times in the past couple years.  Some of the news was wholly embarassing (like locals being incensed about a boy’s skin tone being “too dark” in a school mural, FFS!), sometimes it was tragic (the death of 19 hotshots in 2013), but always it was my home-town… A popular retirement community rich with passionate artists, run by a “good ‘ol boys” club, and struggling to understand its divided politics.  Prescott, like most of AZ, runs decidedly red – but there is also a strong contingent of progressives working to better the political balance here.  And so, although it’s been going through some pretty serious growing pains for the past several years, there is a lot of pride, love, and energy here that gives me hope that we can start working together on some of the big issues currently dividing us/our nation.

I knew right away that I wanted a Prescott playwright to participate in our Heal the Divide Initiative.

I also immediately knew who I wanted that playwright to be:  Mikki Russ

I met Mikki a few years ago after she was cast in Fly Girl, Fly a play by 2014 ONSTAGE playwright, Brigitte Viellieu-Davis.  I immediately hoped Mikki would work with us again.  Fortunately, she has!  In fact, Mikki has been in every festival since, and this year even participated as a playwright – her play, Full Circle, was a 2017 ONSTAGE finalist!

Not only has Mikki worked with me through LBDI, she also helped read and log plays for Protest Plays Project since its inception – a time-consuming task that she tackled with buoyant enthusiasm.  So, she’s not only talented, but a serious joy to know and work with as well, and I consider myself all kinds of lucky to know and get to work with this passionate and creative person!

I asked all of our Heal the Divide playwrights to reply to some interview questions in order to help our audiences get to know them, their community, and why they’re writing for us.  Mikki’s answers are below.  I hope you’ll visit us again July 1 when her first piece gets posted!


What about our Heal the Divide project captured your interest/why did you decide to participate in this initiative?

There have been some interesting protest pieces that PPP has collected. I was able to access some of them. I appreciate the many voices that surfaced and their multi-faceted approaches to storytelling. When Heal The Divide was opened up to me, I leapt at the chance. I had been ruminating on ideas for healing projects that different communities could embrace.

So far, I have only landed on one wacky idea. A few months ago, a friend of mine invited me to “The Gnome Roam”. A concept the girl had brought with her to Prescott from Portland. The idea is, on the full moon, you grab a bunch of people, dress as gnomes (yarn beards and all) and just scavenger hunt all over the town square. It was hilariously disarming to everyone we encountered when women in full yarn beards, strange hats, goofy pants, pointed shoes and knapsacks casually asked a stranger if they knew where one could find a pink balloon. I thought, “What an amazing thing if people did this across the country and just laughed together.” I don’t know how I am going to get the United States to collectively dress as gnomes and hang out together, but honestly, I think it would be a step in the right direction. (Hurry! Start one in your neck of the woods!)

I understand that people are looking for very practical ways to implement a peaceful unification model in communities far and wide, but sometimes it’s the little things that make change. The involuntary positive experience with a person vastly different than ourselves always pays off. While I believe that we are more divided than we have been since the 1950s and 60s, I also sincerely believe we have more in common than not.

What areas of concern in your community do you find yourself curious about or interested in considering for this project?

Prescott, AZ is a really wonderful place for a variety of reasons. That said, it has an insular vibe about it. Sometimes that manifests in ways that are not helpful to humankind in general. When people are not exposed to folks they might consider different or “other”, it can create this tendency for people to withdraw or lash out. I have had some mind-blowingly great encounters – and other encounters – as a black woman, that have left me aghast.

One of the more elevated interactions I had was with an LGBT advocate who works with our community of LGBT who are absolutely marginalized in this small town. She inspired me with her strength and resolve to make life easier for LGBT at large, but specifically the youth. I realized that whatever race relation issues, discrimination, etc., that are present here, many people want to see it reconciled. I want to stress that there are mostly fantastic, warm, good people in this town. I have just been wildly taken aback by some challenging scenarios that should not be ignored. That was a long winded way of saying I wish we could all just get along.

There have been a lot of discussions lately about what artists can do to “make a difference” in light of our current political spectrum.  What do you think we can (or should) do?  Or are there pitfalls we need to avoid?

Aside from being outright preachy, I don’t think there are pitfalls when we embark on exploring what art can do to heal. I think protest plays are good medicine. I believe sharing thoughts and ideas with one another is how we discover a breakthrough. Only silence can stop us.

What questions, as a playwright, are you most drawn to explore in your work?

How we relate to one another. I am endlessly fascinated by the interpersonal dynamic. I like to watch how people deal with one another at work, at play, with lovers, with adversaries. I find the microcosm so steadfastly attached to the larger picture that I am determined to discover the bridge between both worlds where the antidote to our ills exists.

Are you engaged in any other organizations fighting for change or progress that you want to give a shout out to?

I wish I were. PPP is my only recent effort at peace-mongering.

Do you have any other additional thoughts/ideas you want to riff on that pertain to this project?  

I am extraordinarily grateful to be able to participate in this project. It gives me a sense of hope that individuals and artists are eager to engage one another on the subject of healing. I hope that the moments of being discouraged because Facebook vomited up something vile about the other side’s view, or because truly awful words get used in the media do not bombard us into inaction. Forward is the only way.

A little more about Mikki:

Mikki Russ lives in Northern Arizona, and has a background in broadcasting. She was on the air in major markets under a couple of stage names in both radio and television. She wrote for morning show segments as well as pop-culture segments and delivered them during her various incarnations. She has settled nicely back into her original identity and is delighted to be exploring theatrical avenues for her writing. She was a finalist in this year’s LBDI Female Playwrights ONSTAGE Festival. Mikki intends to focus on writing in many different capacities going forward. She is grateful that Little Black Dress Ink is such a vibrant platform for female voices to resonate from and looks forward to participating in future endeavors.

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Heal The Divide: A Protest Plays Project Initiative

Blog, Heal The Divide

Here at Protest Plays Project, we’ve been working hard to figure out how we can best make ourselves useful.  It began with a drive to just do something in the face of a whole lot of political divisiveness: “Let’s identify and share short protest-related pieces from playwrights via the New Play Exchange!” Soon after, we decided to initiative direct calls for performative texts that supported March for Science and Bad and Nasty’s Flag Day Event.

Now we’re moving forward with Protest Plays Project’s  phase 3: To create a monthly short play series, posting plays by playwrights around the country.  We’re calling it Heal the Divide.

The idea is inspired by my own experience writing for Daniel John Kelley’s Here & Now Project on HowlRound.com five years ago.  The goal of the project was to engage playwrights in bringing to light stories representing the whole conversation happening in this country.  I was one of four playwrights selected for the project, and it was a seriously cool experience.

First, as a playwright, I hadn’t really written plays about my hometown before. Thus, this project helped me look closer at my own roots and community as a writer – and the experience was not only enriching but personally cathartic as it helped me develop a deeper understanding of a city and state that I loved, but was also in disagreement with in some pretty big ways.

Second, I loved reading the other pieces.  Getting a peek into the worlds of my fellow Here & Now writers was awesome and helped me to connect with their communities in ways I otherwise wouldn’t have been able to.

Third, readers enjoyed reading the plays focusing on these less-frequently dramatized cities/communities – and that was genuinely awesome.

Considering how successful the Here & Now project was, and considering how divided much of our country now feels, it seems like a really good time to put forth a similarly inspired project aimed at bridging some of those gaps.

The Heal the Divide initiative has invited five playwrights from different parts of the country to write a short play or monologue inspired by their community’s concerns for each of the next three months.  The issues or topics covered are up to the playwrights, and their own perspectives will color how they approach each piece – which is just as it should be.

I can’t wait to share these playwrights and their work with you!

And I hope that you will find inspiration in what they write!  I hope that the opportunity to read works from playwrights writing from a community perspective will help you feel more connected, and perhaps help you consider and open yourself to stories you may not otherwise hear or consider.

It might also just be a really nice way to connect with like-minded playwrights from different parts of the country and maybe bridge some of your own creative gaps, as Protest Plays Project in general has already done for me.

Whatever your response, we hope you’ll stick with us and share your thoughts with us and our playwrights as their plays are posted.  Connect with us on Facebook and Twitter so you don’t miss a post!

And if you, like us, believe that theatre can cultivate empathy and inspire change, and want to be a part of the Heal the Divide Project, don’t be afraid to reach out!  We’d love to see these plays shared in a reading series, and we’d love to connect with new playwrights in the event we’re able to do this again once our first round of playwrights complete their online Heal the Divide residency.

Up Next: Meet our Heal the Divide Playwrights!

 

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