Severin Blake (pronouns they/all/we) is a writer and interdisciplinary artist living in Philadelphia. Their work interrogates language, imagery, and linear time, and as a creator they believe art is not a passive experience but an interactive one. Severin was a 2023 Guest Artist at Swarthmore Theater, and they supported senior Marie Inniss '23 in the creation of her solo show, Sweet Melodies and Salty Air. Publicity and Marketing Coordinator Savannah Reich caught up with Severin to ask a few questions about their solo work, their work with theater company Applied Mechanics, and their collaborative process of working with Marie this February.
SR: I'm a fan of your participatory meditation / soundscape work (Recently seen at the Painted Bride and the 2022 Fringe Festival). How did you begin creating work in this vein? How is the process different or similar to creating a more traditional theater piece?
SB: I feel like the answer is a constellation of beginnings. I was introduced in 2021 to the resonant story and work of recent ancestor Malidoma Some. Malidoma's life mission was to share the traditional healing wisdom of the Dagara People of Dano, Upper Volta, Mali, and Burkina Faso, so that people particularly here in the "west" might find relief from the grief and pain, and find ways to open ourselves to each other, to a greater understanding of the elements of Fire, Water, Earth, Mineral, and Nature as they live within and without us. Part of it is my larger personal healing journey. Some of it has evolved through my work in theatre, over 20 years now--whaaa!?! In my work with Applied Mechanics' new show Other Orbits, I play a whale who I associate with the element of water, the element of calm, completeness, focus, cleansing, and reconciliation. I made an origami whale mobile in 2012. I was interested in guided meditation as a part of healing justice, and that means more voices of the diaspora in the ether, so my friend and collaborator Marina Murayama and I created an embodied meditation of the element of water. I have always held the intention that the work I am doing is a mirror of my personal journey. In lockdown, surprise, I got clear on my need for the journey to explicitly be one of healing. What does that mean in theatre work and work in general? It means I want to make and be involved in work that is doing an explicit form of healing, or is in partnership with an organization that is doing that work in the communities they serve. I am also only interested in helping to develop new works or new authorship. We love that agency. For me, theater, whether that means acting onstage or sitting in an audience, is an act of intimacy and an opportunity for eating soul food. It's important to know what you're digesting.
SR: You've worked with many exciting artists and organizations in Philadelphia, including Applied Mechanics, where you are a company member. How does your collaboration usually function when creating new work?
SB: The process for each show is different based on the needs of artists and the piece. The main consistencies are that we build worlds and we work in drafts. On a micro level, we make and present little bits we share what resonates, we make some more (Disposable Art, we call it, is similar to rapid prototyping). Then we take time to process and reconvene. When we reconvene we talk about what has emerged and what is still resonating, and then continue making. On the macro level, we start with a question, develop a body of research made of various mediums, take what resonates and work with prompts to build a world. From there we each get to create characters, and write the story of the world. Then we build an outline, a map of our story, and make a play, woosh!
SR: Can you talk about your experience of pivoting during the pandemic and making Other Orbits, which I believe has been an album, a board game and a film?
SB: Other Orbits started in 2019 with shared questions around what it means to be in a position of middle management, and how we care for ourselves and the elders and the youth in a world that is rapidly changing . We had just finished an in-person workshop in March 2020 when lockdown began, and the systems and dynamics of the world were suspended and relationships of all kinds shifted. The show felt, for me, like some of the only work I was interested in making. We showed up on zoom and dreamed of a world in the future and we schemed up different ways that beings can exist in that world together. It's sci-fi. It's epic. We created characters on a whole other planet and we pressed go. Let me tell you the lore is deep. Applied Mechanics shows have always been immersive in nature and so we got to be creative with how the shows surround you in your home. We had lead artists and writing teams for each episode, we brought on a bevy of incredible designers, Over the past 4 years we have created: A podcast of the radio stations of the planet, an interactive time capsule, an activity packet for all ages a la Highlights Magazine, a tabletop game, an album of interstellar hits from synthpop-gogo, and an episode of reality TV. Each episode is a detailed stand-alone play. Follow your bliss. All available now online for your enjoyment. --But wait there's more, July 13-22, 2022 we premiere Other Orbits, the live show, the culmination of a whole lot of love.
SR: I would love it if you could talk a bit about the process of making this show with Marie. I saw your sensory brainstorming document- is this a common way into a new show for you? What techniques did you bring into the room to help Marie explore her show?
SB: I came in as a director/doula, and really wanted to make Marie's desires a reality. In order to do that we made a cabaret pinata. We went through the five senses of the world and asked what sense we wanted the audience to walk away with. We knew what the world wanted to feel like, and then we inhabited that world over time. When we first met, Marie knew that this piece centered around black womanhood, joy, visibility, memory, and spirituality, and that the audience would leave with a greater sense of connection to their ancestors. I knew that I wanted to make a tender, gentle ritual of healing that the audience could participate in. There were rituals, improvisation, interviews, breathwork, Linklater technique, dance, visualization, feedback mechanisms, disposable art, boundaries, and fun in the space each day. You may be asking yourself what I mean when I say ritual. Ritual: A set of actions performed according to an established sequence, mainly for their symbolic value. I would sweep the floor to clear out old energy, we would do a check-in to find out our needs, what we were releasing, and what was resonating. We moved our bodies in space to music by Black Artists. We would close out with resonance and gratitude for ourselves, our ancestors, and each other. We knew that the story was a collection of memories and cabaret, so Marie and I had conversations not just interviews; we shared a bit about our journeys with some clear resonance and some clear differences, because the Black experience is not monolithic. We talked and recorded stories, then I would give her writing prompts. She wrote prose. and then I had her make some of that prose into poetry. Then some of that poetry became dance. Then we brought in the music and the other elements of design and I made sure that Marie felt respected and excited every step of the way. What an honor it has been. Marie Inniss y'all, watch out! What a gem.