Roger Q. Mason Directs “Breathe” – The Renaissance Man of Today’s Theater

Roger Q. Mason - Photo courtesy of Mr. Mason

An award-winning writer, performer, and educator, Roger Q. Mason has tried it all. As a representative of underserved populations, Roger also does it all. To quote Roger as he describes himself, he excels “as a black, Filipinx, plus-sized, gender non-conforming, queer artist of color.” Roger digs into our history to put the spotlight on the biases that separate rather than unite us. He is a prolific writer who doesn’t consider any topic off limits. Roger has produced at multiple “off the beaten track” theaters across the country – as well as lots of audience-favorite small venues – and has received awards for his excellent work. A graduate of Princeton University, Middlebury College, and Northwestern University, Roger has brought his many interests together while delighting audiences everywhere. His most recent entry into the pandemic streaming world of today is the epic BREATHE, currently airing on YouTube. Roger Mason kindly agreed to interview during this unusual 2020 holiday season.

Philicia Saunders in BREATHE, directed by Roger Q. Mason – Photo by Mike Struna

I LAST INTERVIEWED YOU IN 2016 FOR YOUR PLAY “LIZZY.” WHAT HAVE YOU BEEN WORKING ON SINCE?

Roger Q. Mason: First of all, Elaine, thank you so much for bringing up our interview for “Lizzie.” Though that was many years ago, it is still a conversation I cherish because of the nature and spirit of your questions.  You were really interested in understanding my creative process and the method behind the madness. That dialogue became a gold standard by which I could measure journalistic conversations in the years to come: empathy and genuine, unadulterated curiosity.

Since that time, so much has happened.  When we interviewed, I was returning to Los Angeles from Chicago, where I was pursuing my MFA in Writing for Stage and Screen at Northwestern University.  Upon my return, I reconnected with my undergraduate friend Lovell Holder, which whom I’ve formed an extraordinarily fulfilling creative partnership.  Emboldened and inspired by this collaboration, I’ve made two short films, “Softer,” which premiered at Outshine Film Festival and the Pan African Film Festival, and “Taffeta,” a forthcoming project.  I’ve completed my visibility-championing plays “The White Dress” (which had two Off-Broadway productions, directed by Adin Walker) and “Lavender Men” (which had readings on Broadway at Circle in the Square Theatre and in Los Angeles at Skylight Theatre, directed by Lovell).  Currently, I’m working on a few new plays: “California Story, A Preter-Capitalist Scream,” which looks at the damaging effects of early American capitalism through the rise of fall of Pio Pico, California’s last Mexican governor; “The Pride of Lions,” an excavation of police brutality against queer and trans folks from the 1920s to now; and “Waiting for a Wake,” a post-kitchen sink drama about fallen Black-Filipinx gentry in contemporary America – perhaps the Blasian “Cherry Orchard.”

WHAT IMPACT HAS COVID-19 HAD ON YOUR CAREER?

Mason: To be honest, I’ve never been busier that during these challenging times.  Let me first say that I never take for granted that we are in an unprecedented moment where people are struggling, hungry, sick, or gone from us.  So, anything which has happened during this time is truly a humbling gift and a tribute to our continuing search for hope and joy as human beings even in the face of tremendous darkness.

What’s happened over the last several months is that the world has gotten a lot smaller and more democratic.  Virtual theater and streaming have allowed artists who are oftentimes distanced by geography, creative politics, or accessibility to connect and collaborate with one another.  In these times, I’ve worked extensively as a writer in the virtual storytelling market both locally in Los Angeles as well as nationally (and internationally – there’s an upcoming overseas projects in the works, too).  In addition, I’ve been able to participate as a mentor, workshop host, or respondent to creative processes around the country.  Furthermore, this time period has brought me back to acting.  I’m fortunate to have been featured in quite a few projects as a performer this year.

Finally, this moment has allowed me to expand my creative toolbox to include hybridized projects like BREATHE, A SOLO EXPERIENCE which fuses film, performance art, and theater.

Philicia Saunders in BREATHE – Photo by Mike Struna

WHAT ENTICED YOU ABOUT “BREATHE” AS AN IMPORTANT PROJECT?

Mason: I’ve known Philicia Saunders since she was 17 years old.  Growing up, she was always a dynamic solo performer – it was just in her blood.  When she approached me about a year and a half ago, we were originally talking about performing another writer’s solo show. Philicia was interested at that time in introducing herself to Los Angeles as a performer – particularly a solo show artist, or monologist.  I said, “What about your story?  I know you have a tale to tell.”  She mentioned that she had done a short piece while in graduate school about an activist named “Sweet” Alice Harris and she’d miraculously retained some of the interview transcripts. When she played them for me, I knew this was a character who was begging to be portrayed on stage. Then, when Philicia delved deeper into her personal connection with Alice, how her encounters with her and a Civil Rights cultural immersion trip at her job made her racially awake in a way she’d never felt before, then I knew we had the beginnings of a new, important project on our hands.

Poster for BREATHE – Photo courtesy of Roger Q. Mason

YOU’RE KNOWN AS A PLAYWRIGHT. IS “BREATHE” YOUR FIRST FORAY INTO DIRECTION?

Mason: The funny thing is I was always a director too, but I kept it on the low. And in the room when I’m building work as a playwright, all directors which whom I collaborate know that Roger Q. Mason is going to be all up in their business.  In reality, I started out in undergraduate training to be a director, but I soon became interested in creating my own stories.  I suspect that my interest in directing made me more of a conceptualist when it comes to writing.  A dear friend of mine in Chicago, the Uber-talented drag performer Lucky Stiff, said I was more of a librettist than a purist playwright because I’m interested in using the blueprint of a script on the page as a provocation for a holistic world to be manifested in three dimensions on the stage.

While BREATHE is not my first directorial project, it is a return to the formal discipline of directing after many years of building my life as a playwright (or librettist, whatever your persuasion might be). Creating a project like this requires the skillset of a multi-hyphenate director because you’re working with the artist to develop the play as a second set of narrative eyes onto the work.  Knowing structure, dramaturgical approach, and page-to-stage process as I do, Philicia and I oftentimes called upon my playwriting brain in our development conversations, and in the room.

And I’ll tell you a little secret, Elaine, because I enjoy you so much: the last scene of BREATHE was something Philicia and I wrote on the spot about 15 minutes before filming.

WHAT ARE THE DIRECTORIAL CHALLENGES WORKING ON A SOLO PRODUCTION?

Mason: Working on a solo production during the pandemic required tremendous flexibility, quick problem solving, and trust in my collaborators.  This play started out as a piece of live theatre set to debut as part of the 2020 Hollywood Fringe Festival. What it’s become is nothing short of a marvel of collaboration between willful, determined artists from film, television, theatre, and new media dedicated to getting a story out there to the public by any means necessary. The urgency of the work drove us to get the job done; and we’ve all been edified, changed, inspired, and bettered for it.

WHAT ARE SOME OF YOUR FUTURE PLANS?

Mason: “California Story” will receive a reading directed by Michael Alvarez in mid-January – so check out the Echo Theatre Company website for more info on that. The second installment of my play “The Pride of Lions” will be presented by Theatre Rhinoceros directed by Ely Orquiza featuring some of the Bay Area’s most fabulous queer performers. Look out for “Taffeta,” my newest short film, which is going out into the film festival submission market this coming spring. And get ready for my new commissions, “Waiting for a Wake,” developed with Leviathan Lab in New York, and a new devised work about the (lack of) healthcare system in the US which I’m devising with Courage Theatre Company in 2021.

 

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