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Artist Spotlight: Ian A. Askew ’19

Ian Askew
A photo from Ian Askew's show with Harvard Black C.A.S.T. "loveconjure/blues."

Ian A. Askew ’19 is a senior in Quincy House seeking a joint concentration in Theater, Dance, & Media and History & Literature. In 2017, he founded and directed the first edition of the Harvard Black Playwrights Festival. On Nov. 10, he premiered his thesis, “: A Story Project.” He has also worked on “The Black Clown” at the American Repertory Theater and “Clairvoyance,” a yearlong residency at the ART by Diana Oh. The Harvard Crimson sat down with Askew to chat about his thesis, his artistic work, and work at the ART.

The Harvard Crimson: What made you interested in the arts growing up and how did that influence your decision to come to Harvard?

Ian A. Askew: I wasn’t raised in a family of artists. They’re absolutely creative people, but I wasn’t playing instruments or anything. I grew up in Takoma Park in Maryland, which has a pretty nice community arts scene, so I was encouraged pretty early on to pick up percussion by friends and family. So I was playing drums and playing in bands my whole childhood, and I still do. I started doing theater in high school and always found it to be a useful way of getting my energy out and expressing myself.

THC: Could you talk about your previous artistic work on campus?

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IAA: Before this year, when I came to Harvard initially, most of my artistic happening was with the Renegade collective, which was a group founded by Jennifer A. Gathright ’16 and Kimiko M. Matsuda-Lawrence ’16 the year before I came to Harvard. Through that, I got an introduction to art as a kind of advocacy on campus. I was asked to help write the show called “Black Magic,” which is very much in the vein of Renegade. I really didn’t expect to be doing music and theater on campus as much as I did when I got to college. I kept doing things with BlackC.A.S.T. I did a show called “love conjure/blues,” I sound designed a show called “Bootycandy,” and by that time I realized I wanted to be studying performance, so I added TDM to my concentration at the end of my sophomore year.

THC: Your thesis, “: A Story Project,” went up this weekend. What was that process like?

IAA: Instead of focusing on a final project, I was interested in focusing on the actual process. So what that ended up looking like in the final iteration, which was really influenced by some advice from professors, was essentially getting a group of people together once — and then twice — a week to share stories with each other and try and generate something. The first few sessions we just kind of did writing exercises and shared stories with each other. The next sessions we tried movement. We tried devising some dance, and then we started talking about what kind of performance we want to put up with these ideas we’ve generated. And that then rolled into formulating what was “: A Story Project,” the performance, which was a series of parties and get-togethers in which people entered a room, were offered food or invited to bring food and share it with each other, and for the most part were asked to share stories, some based on prompts, but mostly based on each other’s reactions.

THC: It sounds somewhat similar to what Diana Oh was trying to do with her “Clairvoyance” residency. What has that been like?

IAA: Working with Diana has been really incredible. I think her ethic of audience experiences was really influential to this project. A small detail, but something that’s emblematic of Diana’s relationship with her audiences, was that for the culminating performance for “{my lingerie play},” the bathroom was behind the stage, and she had marked out a path on the stage for the audience to go to the bathroom whenever they needed. Just the idea of prioritizing audience’s comfort and being able to be a whole person in this space was super influential for what “: A Story Project” ended up being.

THC: I’d also love to talk about the Harvard Black Playwrights Festival, which you founded and directed last year. What was the inspiration behind that project?

IAA: That was founded and directed by myself as well as Madison E. Johnson ’18, who graduated last year. The two of us were in Sam Marks’ playwriting class. Sam Marks ended up being an enormous asset and the faculty advisor to the festival. I think both of us had a similar ethic coming into my thesis, and this Black Playwrights Festival was kind of related to “love conjure/blues” and related to my thesis in that it’s a reaction to how student theater was happening, is happening, and the ways in which that didn’t feel right for myself and Madison. I think we saw that there was so much creative energy and so much creative content coming out of black theater-makers on campus, but because students felt a responsibility to take everything to the final stage — meaning from writing the script to putting it up on stage with lights and choreography and everything — and oftentimes it can feel like that’s making things more difficult than they need to be, and you cut off the amount of creative energy. We figured that the format of the reading allows you to bring something to life in a way that’s not intensive, but that is collective and generative and helps you improve something and build a sense of community.

THC: Were there any challenges to running the festival in that format, or in the formation of the festival itself?

IAA: Off the top of my head, I think that the main challenge was expectations. It was trying to wrap our minds around — and trying to encourage other people working on it to wrap their minds around — the idea that the intention of something to be unfinished was only to be very simple and expressive, and that you didn’t need to try and control every piece of the reading because it was a demonstration. It was a bringing-to-life, and it’s not intended to be the polished presentational product that more intensive or elaborative theater focuses on.

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