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Dana Pellebon: How Lucky Are We!

Dana Pellebon

Luck is the residue of design. That’s a saying by Branch Rickey whose fame as being the first courageous general manager of a Major League baseball team in the 1940s to integrate the game through the addition of Jackie Robinson to the Brooklyn Dodgers squad of 1947. Many other figures of that day are forgotten but Rickey persists in the popular imagination to this day as an example to all of us to have the courage to lead change, to design our lives so that we will have the luck we need. My luck is very much in my friends. And the design that produces that luck of companions may seem inconsequential until we have the opportunity of retrospective. We meet a lot of people when we are young, but choosing with whom we continue to be friends represents a channels of choices, choices that we made. Who we have as friends is not accidental, the way in which we continue to stay in touch with them, to attend to those relationships, to be a giver and not just a taker, is a kind of design.

The linkages among friends accounts for how we now enjoy the extraordinary good fortune to have Dana Pellebon as Director and Co-producer of Genealogy nearing its opening on November 5 at Broom Street Theater in Madison Wisconsin. How so? Through a lineage of friendships that stretches back half a century. I first met John Clay over 50 years ago in the Players at Manhattan College in the Bronx where John was a few years ahead of me and an outstanding actor and director. Our friendship continued through lots of changes in our lives so that when Joe Queenan and I wanted a director for Alms, our first Equity showcase production at TheaterLab in May, 2018. John was the obvious and… lucky choice.

That meant that when I decided to stage a reading of Within the Context of No Context, the seminal 1980 New Yorker essay by George WS Trow, I asked John not only to be part of that cast but also to suggest other actors. He introduced me to Quanda Johnson. My connection to Quanda was so immediate and rich that I dared to ask her to read our play Genealogy and consider playing the part of Aaliyah. She said yes and when I told her I really needed to find a director who could help us to bring this work alive in a dynamic but sensitive fashion she introduced me to Dana Pellebon, whom she described in our first joint email as “a force to be reckoned with in the world of Madison theater.” Understatement alert!

The design part of this luck is putting myself in a place where I get to meet wonderful artists and establish links to their lives and work. The luck part is Genealogy gaining the perfect director for this play where secrets in family trees surprise two couples appearing on a ‘reality’ ancestry podcast. Again and again since that first email introduction, I’ve had the opportunity to thank my blessings in gaining Dana as a collaborator for a ‘problem comedy’ in which the characters manage audaciously to conjure a few shocks for each other and their host while also confronting some key culpabilities in our country’s heritage.

One bio describes Dana as “a Madison, WI based activist, artist, and educator.” Even with my acquaintance being fairly recent, I find this description insufficient. Her work in  Madison is already legendary including such important innovations as helping to make a  Black Theater Festival happen there. The breadth of her work encompasses achievements such as directing the powerful Dominique Morisseau play ‘Detroit ‘67 ‘ and being part of the Peach Pies Caburlesque group. She has been a regular director and producer with StageQ and other local theater companies including our wonderful host theater for this production Broom Street. Dana acts sometimes, too, as in in StageQ’s 2018 production of “A Lady and a Woman,” about two Black women who fall into a romantic relationship in a small, late-1800s town.

More recently Dana was one of the organizers of the Loud ‘n Unchained Black Theater Festival. She has served as Chair of the 2020 Magic Pride Festival planning committee and a member of the Outreach board. I have to stop and just say luck is the residue of design and we can’t believe how lucky we are to have Dana Pellebon not only as director but as co-producer of Genealogy. Another piece of luck that we recently heard from Doug Reed , Artistic Director of Broom Street, that we will be able to have a live streamed performance of genealogy available to people all over the country and indeed all over the world as was the case with earlier Knowledge Workings Theater productions. That means everybody else will get to see how lucky we are to have followed the connections to Dana Pellebon.

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Quanda Johnson is Aaliyah in Genealogy

Quanda Johnson

There are three women without whom this play, Genealogy, doesn’t happen. Joe Queenan and T.J. Elliott had worked on Genealogy for well over a year, but as one of their relatives had opined, “What are two white men doing writing a play about race, slavery, and reparations?

Indeed. We had the same nervous thought occasionally and wanted to reach out to others we respected to get the opinion of those whose heritage IS the major subject of this work. Cheryl Aaron , a dear friend and former colleague, was the first reader to encourage us to keep on going, and that allowed us to believe in our own work in a different way.   Then  Quanda Johnson,  who first connected with Knowledge Workings Theater in the Zoom production of within the context of no context by the late George W.S. Trow in November 2020, read the script and encouraged us to mount a production of Genealogy. One of our heroes, Seamus Heaney wrote of writers that “we must teach ourselves to walk on air against our better judgment.” But when someone like Quanda emboldens us with her support, that walking on air comes more easily.

Anyone looking even casually at all of the superb things that Quanda has done and accomplished will understand the joy that we felt at her acceptance of our work. (The third woman giving us courage, of course, was our marvelous director and co-producer Dana Pellebon to whom Quanda introduced us, but more about Dana in the next post in this series.)

Quanda  is a Fulbright Scholar and a current doctoral student in Interdisciplinary Theatre Studies at UW – Madison, pursuing a doctoral minor in Afro-American Studies. She is now at the dissertator phase. As a Dean’s Graduate Scholar at New York University’s Gallatin School (MA 2017), she presented her work, In Search of Negroland: a different study of the negro race and The Ballad of Anthony Crawford: a love letter to america at the Gallatin Art Festivals 2016 and 2017. 

From Broadway to grand opera, Quanda seeks ways to utilize performance to disrupt and consequently alter entrenched, cyclical conversations about Blackness and the African Diaspora.  Awarded the Fulbright Community Leadership Program Grant, she wrote, edited, and directed Beyond the Veil of the Sorrow Songs, which examined the Underground Railroad related to Atlantic Canada, Quebec, and current Maritime racial issues. Performed in the spring of 2014 at Nova Scotia’s Dalhousie Arts Center (Halifax) and Alderney Landing Theatre (Dartmouth), it was welcomed at New York University (February 2018) at the Skirball Center for the Performing Arts. 

Quanda earned a MFA in Acting from New School University and a Master of Music degree from the Conservatory of Music at Brooklyn College.  An AUDELCO Award nominee for her portrayal of Marian Anderson, she appeared in Broadway’s Tony award winning Ragtime and made her New York City Opera debut in The Mother of Us All with Lauren Flanigan.

Her work is dedicated to the memory of the first artist in her life, her mother, Vernetta. We hope that many of you will get to see Quanda as Aaliyah Levin-Wilson in Genealogy November 5th through November 20th at Broom Street Theater or (as we are working to arrange) in a live stream of one of these performances. She brings to life with passion and intelligence a woman intent on gaining for her people what they deserve. Tickets are available for purchase here.

Quanda Johnson
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Genealogy Opens November 5th at Broom Street Theater!

artwork by Kelly Maxwell

Broom Street Theater and Knowledge Workings present A Satire of Inconvenient Family Ties:

“Genealogy”

by T.J. Elliott & Joe Queenan

Directed & Co-Produced by Dana Pellebon

Presented live at Broom Street Theater, Madison, WI

November 5 – November 21, 2021

[Madison, WI — October 18, 2021] Broom Street Theater and Knowledge Workings present a new play by T.J. Elliott and Joe Queenan. The playwriting team’s third and latest effort, Genealogy, explores how a shocking ancestral connection revealed during the taping of a reality podcast which incites a series of surprising negotiations and unanticipated antics among its participants. The host of “Chasing the Dead” is Glenn Weber, a former “influencer” and erstwhile MTV emcee who attempts to finesse his guests – two high-profile, straight married couples, one black and one white – while wrestling with the demands of unseen supervisors in the Control Room. When Mosiah Wilson, a former all-star pro football player and his wife, professor and activist Aaliyah Levin-Wilson, meet home-maker and former prosecutor, ‘Muggs’ Moriarty Hunt and her husband, Hamilton Hunt, a high-profile lawyer whose presumably illustrious family tree is under scrutiny, a power struggle ensues. Individual allegiances seem to sway and shift over culpability for the legacy of slavery and the debate over reparations. For Director and Co-producer, Dana Pellebon, “The play, while a comedy, doesn’t shy away from issues of history, trauma, and paths moving forward. We need more conversations on reparations. We need to voice the pain caused by slavery and how to repair the enormous damage of the current and past history of white supremacy. Art is an important outlet to start conversations. Genealogy does just that.” Genealogy stars Donavon Armbruster, Atticus Cain, Jamie England, Quanda Johnson, and Jackson Rosenberry. Genealogy runs for three consecutive weekends: November 5, 6, 7 November 12, 13, 14 November 19, 20, 21 Tickets available at this site: /

More information available at Broom Street Theater’s Site

Audience members will be required to show proof of Covid-19 vaccination at the door and remain masked at all times while in the building.repair the enormous damage of the current and past history of white supremacy. Art is an important outlet to start conversations. Genealogy does just that.” Genealogy stars Donavon Armbruster, Atticus Cain, Jamie England, Quanda Johnson, and Jackson Rosenberry. Genealogy runs for three consecutive weekends: November 5, 6, 7 November 12, 13, 14 November 19, 20, 21 Tickets available at: https://genealogy.brownpapertickets.com/ More information at http://www.knowledgeworkings.com and https://bstonline.org Audience members will be required to show proof of Covid-19 vaccination at the door and remain masked at all times while in the building. Dana Pellebon has acted, directed, written, and produced for a variety of community and professional theatrical troupes in the Madison area since 2001. She performs in/produces the Madison-based Caburlesque troupe, Foxy Veronica’s Peach Pies. She also produced three shows for the New York International Fringe Festival and is a co-founder of the Loud ‘N Unchained (LNU) Black Theater Festival. In 2021, she co-founded LNU Black Theater Festival and directed Good Bad People for LNU Black Theater Festival, directed 2 pieces in “Network Playwright 10 Play Festival” for Chicago Dramatists, and directed in Forward Theater’s Monologue Festival “Within These Walls”. She produces LGBTQ+ events for OutReach and other local not for profits. This is Dana’s first show with Knowledge Working Theater Company.

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You Can Quote Us

While Theatre isn’t just about words, those things that characters say usually matter a great deal both to the group presenting them and to the audience experiencing them. Unsurprisingly, a theater company with the name of Knowledge Workings does pay special attention to the words of others. Hence this post including a link to our commonplace book, a rather extensive list of quotations. T.J. Elliott began this commonplace book in 1990 and continues to add to its quotations. What is a commonplace book? According to the Oxford English dictionary, it is “a book in which ‘commonplaces’ or passages important for reference were collected, usually under general heads; hence, a book in which one records passages or matters to be especially remembered or referred to, with or without arrangement”.

The version that you have through this link is on a Google drive. If you are looking for that killer saying or just ‘le mot juste’, perhaps you will find this collection, which generally captures quotes that are not found in the usual collections, to be of some value. To draw upon just one of our thousands of quotes in the word document, Sextus Empiricus in Fragment 2, as quoted in Against the Mathematicians reminds us that, Though wisdom is common, yet the many live as if they had a wisdom of their own.”

A commonplace book acknowledges that wisdom is common if we only take the time to look to those who offered it in the past and even those sharing it in our present. For for those of us at Knowledge Workings Theater, our work begins with the text, but there is no illusion that whatever text we create is completely original, lacks connections to all of the many texts we have read and heard. One way into the creation of theater is to swim in the words of others, refreshed and challenged, submerged and afloat, until you reach your own spot, your own place where what you think and feel merges with what others have offered. As Tom Stoppard once wrote, “Words are sacred. They deserve respect. If you get the right ones, in the right order, you can nudge the world a little.”
Nudge nudge!
Enjoy!

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Second Annual Virtual (Not Necessarily Virtuous) St. Patrick’s Day Celebration

Remember last March?

We do.

On March 12 of 2020, Knowledge Workings Theater had scheduled auditions at the studios of Alliance of Resident Theaters in Manhattan for a staged reading of Grudges. Joe Queenan and I exulted at the prospect of hearing many talented actors read our work in the second of our ‘problem comedies’. (Our first was Alms, which as an Equity Showcase off-Broadway at TheaterLab, enjoyed a sold-out run in May 2019) We were ready to start the collaborative journey to get our new play upon the stage by early summer. We were psyched

You should have no difficulty guessing what happened.

Grudges did make it out to the world via Zoom as that staged reading in May and subsequently as a full production live but digital last July. Our company also managed in November a staged reading of George WS Trow’s seminal 1980 essay Within the Context of No Context on the occasion of the 40th anniversary of its publication in the New Yorker. Then in December, we had a rollicking good time debuting to delighted audiences Keeping Right, the mostly phony Swedish screwball comedy. Obviously, that play had to be performed on Zoom as well, but it helped us live up to our motto #maketheaterlive.

But before we did any of these productions, we celebrated St. Patrick’s Day virtually by getting friends and acquaintances to sing and recite pieces that evoked the warmth and fun and lyricism of that day. The Elliotts have hosted St. Patrick’s Day parties for well over three decades starting with a kind of seisun in Irene Elliott’s one-room apartment on W. 10th St. right next to the Sixth Precinct in 1987. Knowledge Workings Theater couldn’t let St. Patrick’s Day move by silently.

Those 27 videos from last year are still up for viewing on our YouTube channel here and we decided to repeat the experience this year only grander and gaudier. We hope never to repeat the experience of celebrating St. Patrick’s Day online for the rest of our lives, but as Spring approaches and many of us think that we can make out the outlines of that proverbial corner that we all hope to be turning celebration seems an apt activity.

How will this virtual Saint Patrick’s Day fest work? 

  1. You don’t have to be a professional singer; just listen to the guy in the video to the left for verification of that statement
  2. Videotape yourself and/or others singing a St. Patrick’s Day song or reciting an Irish poem. (You don’t have to be on screen if that makes you uncomfortable; you can have the camera looking out the window or some other image.)
  3. Just send us one video, please. We want to involve as many people as possible and there are only so many hours in St. Patrick’s Day.
  4. Need inspiration for a song?  https://www.irishmusicdaily.com/top-20-st-patricks-day-songs Another collection of lyrics is here: https://drive.google.com/file/d/1WhBPtUwxZDbhfXqIc061otjYJcYsw_Ge/view?usp=sharing  
  5. And Irish poems? WB Yeats put a collection of good old stuff here Poetry.com offers a wide sample at this search link We recommend Heaney, Kavanagh, Eilean Ni Chuilleanain, Eavan Boland, and, of course, Paul Muldoon.
  6. Post it to Facebook or YouTube. Or save it to Google drive using the hashtag below
  7. Email Knowledge Workings with the link to your video
  8. We will post it on this YouTube channel   so that they are all in one place

Oh, and that hashtag…Nowadays everything virtual has to have a hashtag and I’m proposing #virtualpaddysongs for this campaign. Again.

By now, some of you may be asking what’s the catch? There must be a price tag to participate. Not at all. We just crave your company for the celebration.

However… If you’re looking for a good cause on this day of Celtic heritage  make a donation of whatever amount to Irish Rep. Buy a ticket to one of their online shows, drop a few bucks in their general fund, or donate to the capital fund for the refurbishment of their 22nd Street stages where we all hope to be very soon again sharing the superb dramas and comedies they produce. Their work during the last year entertained and edified so many of us. Our own motto is #maketheaterlive and Irish Rep did that splendidly. (We have no connection to Irish Rep whatsoever; we don’t even know the good folks except by their work. We just think it’s a good thing to give them money on St. Patrick’s Day.)

Questions? Just email Knowledge Workings and we’ll get right back to you.

See you in the ether! Slainte!

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Keeping Right Tix Going Fast

On September 3, 1967, five people in Stockholm with romances and resentments, deals and dilemmas, secrets and second thoughts are in charge of Högertrafik**, this switch from driving on the left to driving on the right.

What could go wrong?

** Don’t worry if you don’t know Swedish; neither do our actors!

See Atticus Cain, Winnie Stack, John Blaylock, Lynn Kim Do , and Ed Altman in Keeping Right the new play by T.J. Elliott. For FREE tix to one of our seven Live Zoom performances, just click here.

If you can, please donate to our GoFundMe effort. During this time of great crisis for those in the world of theater, actors face two daunting challenges: being able to practice their art in some way while stages are dark and dealing with the displacement of their ‘straight jobs’ that allow them in better times to keep body and soul together. We will split all monies donated for Keeping Right equally and exclusively amongst our five immensely gifted actors listed above Just click here to give: $1, $10, or whatever seems right for you.  

Virtual St. Patrick’s Day Celebration — Yes, Again!

Come sing, versify, or just listen
on March 17th, the Feast of St. Patrick,
Patron Saint of Ireland

Last year as the pandemic was new, Gifford and T.J. Elliott of Knowledge Workings Theater put out a last minute call for singers and speakers to create a virtual St. Patrick’s Day cóisir, a party, much as we are used to having for many years on 17 March with friends and family. More than a few generous and talented souls responded and we ended up with 27 videos on our YouTube channel here. Happy St. Patrick’s Day indeed!!!

Now the pandemic is old — and we pray going to leave the stage very soon with all of us giving it a hearty push — yet in its viciousness still requiring us to celebrate this special day at a digital distance. Knowledge Workings Theater intends to accomplish two things with our asynchronous ceili: spread joy and support Irish Repertory Theatre of New York City. We can score the first goal by gathering together those who have a song or a poem or even a dance they wish to share commemorating St. Patrick and Irish heritage along with those who wish to listen and watch. We bag the second goal by getting folks to make a donation of whatever amount to Irish Rep. Buy a ticket to one of their online shows, drop a few bucks in their general fund, or donate to the capital fund for the refurbishment of their 22nd street stages where we all hope to be very soon again sharing the superb dramas and comedies they produce. Their work during the last year entertained and edified so many of us. Our own motto is #maketheaterlive and Irish Rep did that splendidly. (We have no connection to Irish Rep whatsoever; we don’t even know the good folks except by their work. We just think it’s a good thing to give them money on St. Patrick’s Day.)

If you wish to be a part of our celebration or have questions, just email Knowledge Workings On March 16th, we will open up the YouTube channel with your new contributions as well as last year’s offerings. Sruthóidh an ceol agus na dánta gan deireadh; the music and poems will flow without end!

Need a laugh? OK, Multiple laughs? Keeping Right opens Live & FREE on Zoom on December 3rd

On September 3, 1967, the Swedish people are set to change from driving on the left to driving on the right. At that same time, a North Vietnamese delegation is present in Stockholm.*

Five people in Stockholm with romances and resentments, deals and dilemmas, secrets and second thoughts are in charge of Högertrafik**, this switch from driving on the left to driving on the right.

What could go wrong?

* Except for those facts, everything in this play is likely to be inaccurate, untrue, or wholly invented.

** Don’t worry if you don’t know Swedish; neither do our actors!

See Atticus Cain, Winnie Stack, John Blaylock, Lynn Kim Do , and Ed Altman in Keeping Right the new play by T.J. Elliott. For FREE tix to one of our seven Live Zoom performances, just click here.

If you can, please donate to our GoFundMe effort. During this time of great crisis for those in the world of theater, actors face two daunting challenges: being able to practice their art in some way while stages are dark and dealing with the displacement of their ‘straight jobs’ that allow them in better times to keep body and soul together. We will split all monies donated for Keeping Right equally and exclusively amongst our five immensely gifted actors listed above Just click here to give: $1, $10, or whatever seems right for you.  

What is WTCONC? A momentous and powerful essay celebrating its 40th birthday with a ZOOM reading. Want FREE tix? Scroll down to links

The November 17th 1980 issue of the New Yorker magazine contained a single essay: George W. S. Trow’s Within the Context of No-Context.  That was where and when I first discovered Trow’s keen study describing how the media had come to dominate and distort our experience of reality. Reading my borrowed copy (no way as an actor ‘at liberty’ could I afford the New Yorker in 1980), the sparse paragraphs entranced and edified me. My amazement and admiration at WTCONC placed me in excellent company. Novelist John Irving wrote that the essay was “essential reading for anyone interested in the demise, the terminal silliness, of our culture.” Laurie Anderson included it in her Top 10 Books to take to a desert island because it was “hilarious and dangerous”.  Ariel Levy praised how “Stylistically, it was remarkable, a hypnotic procession of aphorisms…” Lorne Michaels of Saturday Night Live said, “Trow has it right about everything.”  

And writer after writer has continued over the years to note its power and prescience. Like them, I believe more people should read (and reread) and enjoy Trow’s work. And thus Knowledge Workings Theater is offering three FREE live readings of an abridged version of WTCONC; running time is about 75 minutes, which is shorter than any Judd Apatow movie but longer than most Lesley Stahl interviews.  

You can buy the full essay in book form here from Grove Atlantic, which includes a sparkling introduction by the late author.

Subscribe to the New Yorker and read it in the original version via their archives. 

But why not let our voices reading WTCONC take you to the beauty and grace of Within the Context of No-Context? And did I mention that our limited seating Zoom reading by John Clay , Quanda Johnson , Meghan Cox , and Aaron Long is free? Scroll UP to get your link for one of these live readings on November12th, 13th, or 14th

These immensely talented actors honor and emphasize how vital and profound the words Trow wrote four decades ago remain today. I hope that you will join us.  Knowledge Workings in our summer Zoom production of Grudges stressed the need to #maketheaterlive 

Please donate to our GoFundMe effort. We will split all monies donated for WTCONC equally and exclusively amongst our four extraordinarily talented readers: Meghan Cox, Quanda Johnson, Aaron Long, & John Clay. Just click here to donate  whether $1, $10, or whatever seems right for you.  
And do feel free to forward this message to anyone else interested in seeing actors make text come alive. 
Good Luck & Good Health — and stay tuned for a free Zoom production of our new screwball comedy, Keeping Right, coming this December.

Just click below at the LIVE reading of your choice to receive a return email with your Zoom link to Within The Context of No Context (WTCONC):

To attend the live Zoom reading on:

  • Thursday, November 12 7:30 PM reading, click here

(Running time = 75 minutes; all times EDT)

Admission to any of the three performances of this reading is free because it is more important than ever for us to consider the insights that George WS Trow offered forty years ago. 

However, during this time of great crisis for those in the world of theater, we invite you to donate to our GoFundMe effort. All monies donated will be split equally and exclusively amongst our four extraordinarily talented readers all alums of the late Wynn Handman’s classes: Meghan Cox, Quanda Johnson, Aaron Long, & John Clay. Just click here to donate  whether $1, $10, or whatever seems right for you.

Two Fall Projects from Knowledge Workings

The stages are still closed and predicting when we will be able to put placed upon them again remains difficult. But Knowledge Workings remains dedicated to #maketheaterlive With the help of a squad of talented and determined actors KW will mount two productions on Zoom this autumn: a reading of Within the Context of No Context, the enduring essay by George WS Trow that celebrates its 40th anniversary of its publication this year, and Keeping Right, a new comedy by T.J.Elliott set in Stockholm Sweden on September 3, 1967, the day drivers stopped driving on the left, but otherwise inaccurate, invented and possibly untrue.