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On Collaborative Evolution with Friendship at its Core

Playwright Carlyle Brown and director Noel Raymond have been collaborating in their respective roles for nearly thirty years. Now, they are exploring working together as co-creators of a theatrical work in which they will both perform. Something new is about to begin.

Carlyle Brown: You've always been the interpreter of my work, the director, and I've always been the guy who created the thing. Now we want to do something different, which is making something together.

Noel Raymond: Yes. We're both finding it difficult to find a place to start. The way that we would generally be working together is a path we know. We're trying to find a whole new path.

Carlyle: I have my own way of working alone until the script turns over to you, and then we work together in a different way. But now we're talking about the two of us co-creating something, so we've been hashing through stuff. I didn't think we would get as emotional about it as we did.

The idea is to find a series of little truths about friendship that explore its mystery and magic.

Noel: My impetus for trying to make something with you is just the longevity and the depth of our relationship, both as collaborating artists and as friends, ultimately. There's something to be mined in that. I don't know what that is, and not being a writer, I don't know where to start. But I have this instinct and impulse that there's a story there.

Carlyle: I am not comfortable with the idea of a story being about our friendship because that already exists. I'm suggesting that we use ourselves as a context and start our story from there.

Noel: Totally, and I think we've wandered around the block a few times and found maybe a way into a story that both uses our history and our actual relationship, but busts it open a little bit, too.

Carlyle: And the core of the thing is friendship.

Noel: Friendship!

The idea is to find a series of little truths about friendship that explore its mystery and magic. They might come from our own lives and our own experiences, or they might come from a completely abstract notion of what friendship is. We can put these together in a way that is surprising and beautiful and invites people into the conversation.

Carlyle: And then there’s an opportunity to show the opposite: what friendship is not.

Noel: Part of it, too, is that I feel like I'm a different person than I would've been if I hadn't been your collaborator and friend. Who I am is not defined by it, but completely shaped by our long history of working together and being in each other's lives.

It's, in some ways, kind of improbable. In 1994, I was invited to read a role in your play Masks of Othello when you were a visiting artist at Penumbra Theatre in St. Paul, Minnesota, and your play, Buffalo Hair was on the stage. So, you invited me after that experience to come see Buffalo Hair, which I did. Then we went and hung out afterwards and had this great conversation about theatre and art, which was really inspiring to me at that time, just out of grad school. I don't even know what the next step was after that, but somehow, I ended up in your kitchen talking to you about your play The Negro of Peter the Great.

I was newly out of school, and I was like, "Why would he want my opinion?" This is this famous playwright who's doing all this stuff...

I mean, that's what matters most in the theatre: hit people where they live, the internal thing.

Carlyle: I didn't think I was famous then.

Noel: I've been telling you—

Carlyle: I don't think I'm famous now.

Noel: I've been telling you for thirty years, you're famous. I think you could accept that at this point.

Carlyle: Yeah, maybe at this point. But back then it wouldn't give me two wooden nickels to rub together. It didn't mean anything.

Noel: Well, to me you were accomplished. You were a working playwright. You had a show on a stage at a professional theatre. You were brought in from somewhere else. You were exploring all kinds of interesting ideas. So, I felt really flattered to be invited into a conversation.

Carlyle: Well, you always had something interesting to say, something from the heart. I mean, that's what matters most in the theatre: hit people where they live, the internal thing. When we work together, the whole thing about the character is the internal workings of the character.

Noel: In my mind, our friendship skips many years ahead until I'm working at Pillsbury House, and you did—

Carlyle: Talking Masks.

Noel: Talking Masks with Louise Smith. Then we did lots of work on Are you now or have you ever been... which was just so wonderful. It was very artistically satisfying.

Carlyle: Well, not always for the actor though, because it was—

Noel: It's a lot of work. Yeah.

Carlyle: It's a lot of work.

And looking at the script, sometimes you just don't really see it. The Langston Hughes character has got to type and do all these other things, and the typing has to coordinate with the screen that is displaying the poem in text form.

Noel: But that was so fun, the first time at PlayLabs in Minneapolis when the filmmaker came and helped make the words live as a character in the play.

Carlyle: That kind of thing was a risk, and you were just so open to that kind of weird idea.

Noel: I love weird ideas.

Carlyle: And you don't say no right away. It's like, “Let's try it. Let's see.”

Noel: The only thing you're ever going to make if you don't try something new is something you already made before.

Carlyle: Boring.

Noel: That's one of the reasons I love theatre. It gives you an opportunity to step into the unknown in community with a group of other artists and try some stuff.

In a mirrored rehearsal room, a man stands next to a projection screen while a woman sits with a laptop and manages the images being shown on the projector.

Carlyle Brown and Noel Raymond in rehearsal for Acting Black, written and performed by Carlyle Brown at the Southern Theatre. Directed by Noel Raymond. Lighting design by Mike Wangen. Produced by Carlyle Brown & Company. Photo by Barbara Rose-Brown.

Carlyle: That's what this new project is: an unknown. Exploring friendship as friends and finding—

Noel: A theatrical way—

Carlyle: A process in which we do it and hope that we're still friends when we're finished.

Noel: Well, I'm not worried about not being friends. I'm worried about finding the time and space to actually do it.

Carlyle: We just started today, and we got really far. I think we found the question, and now we get specific.

Noel: The question we've been circling around for, what? A year or so now?

Carlyle: It's been busy after the pandemic and stuff. It's been really...

Noel: Yeah, it's been busy for you even during the pandemic. You've had a couple of big projects in this last year if you think about the Cultural Diaspora Program with the Camargo Foundation and the production of A Play by Barb and Carl at Illusion Theater.

Carlyle: It has been super busy, yeah.

Noel: Because you're famous.

Carlyle: Because the National Playwright Residency Program through the Mellon Foundation was just really a boon to me right at the right time. I'm in the third act of my creative life. I feel a renewal in my writing, so there's no time like the present. It's been totally fruitful because of collaborators like you who support me.

Noel: It's really fun to see you move into this phase and have some resources and support.

Carlyle: One of the greatest things about it is to be able to say no. When your situation is dire economically, you tend to say yes to everything. Then everything is late, and there's just more anxiety; your focus is not total and complete. Now, I feel like I'm really a working artist, and I enjoy it. I can do what I want.

Noel: And what do you want to do?

Carlyle: Well, I want to do something with you, right? To co-create, where I'm not the boss. And your idea is that we write a piece for us perform together.

Noel: Yeah.

Carlyle: Scary, scary.

Noel: You've done a bazillion solo shows!

Carlyle: That's different.

Noel: How is that different?

Carlyle: I don't know. It just is. It's just me and the audience. Over time, I've gotten comfortable with that.

Noel: This will be a dive into the deep end of the pool, which I'm looking forward to. I need that to not get too comfortable.

Carlyle: Yeah, yeah, yeah.

Noel: It's terrifying at the same time though.

Carlyle: Yeah.

Noel: I mean, there's this thing I learned this in grad school, the notion of a “daily act of courage.” You have a circle of what's familiar, and you want to be forever expanding that circle because every act of courage makes having courage more possible.

Carlyle: Doesn't mean it makes it easier.

Noel: It doesn't make it easier. And like you just said with your solo work, the first time you venture out onto that stage with your mind full of an hour's worth of content that you created—that you're going to bring to life yourself—that was terrifying in a way that it isn't for you anymore because you have made that part of your circle of the familiar.

Carlyle: When you come on stage alone, particularly, there's nothing else to pay attention to but you. So everybody's sort of looking at you, and then they see that you're alone, vulnerable—

Noel: And they want you to be okay.

Carlyle: They want you to be okay, and you can feel that. That's your cue. That's that thread that you're going to keep taut until the end of the performance.

Noel: But that's a compact they're also making with you, in which you are also committing to do something that will keep them engaged.

Carlyle: Right. There's an exchange, a participation.

Noel: That is something else that we've been talking about: what is the audience experience of this?

Carlyle: This friendship thing?

Noel: Yeah.

What are some of the big social changes that have come about after people across differences were in tighter relationship with one another?

Carlyle: We're not teaching something, but instead raising some truths and some surprises about the truth. It's the idea that friendship is something to be perceived. It’s not concrete.

Noel: Like why are your friends your friends? How did the first encounter with them lead to, in our case, thirty years of work and relationship?

Carlyle: Already some of the research we've done is really interesting. Like Harry Houdini and Buster Keaton were friends; and Colonel Sanders and J. Edgar Hoover were friends. How do those things happen? It seems, at least from those blurbs, that they find a way despite their differences.

Noel: Or maybe even because of them. What you bring to a friendship, if you have different lived experiences and different intersectional identities, is part of the mystery of the world. I can access things through my relationship with you that I can't know in my own self, right?

Carlyle: Yeah, exactly.

Noel: Especially for theatremakers—who are constantly trying to understand human beings, human behavior, human social systems, and what makes people do what they do—that's a huge draw. It’s endlessly fascinating to see the world through your eyes.

Carlyle: And vice versa.

Noel: I think it has really enriched my life, my experience, and my ability to make art, honestly.

A woman helps a man prepare his microphone pack before a performance.

Carlyle Brown and Noel Raymond backstage before the first performance of Acting Black, written and performed by Carlyle Brown at the Southern Theatre. Directed by Noel Raymond. Lighting design by Mike Wangen. Produced by Carlyle Brown & Company. Photo by Barbara Rose-Brown.

Carlyle: The other thing is that we’re not going to try to be linear.

Noel: No. My background is actually movement theatre, so I studied and practiced a lot of non-verbal and a lot of non-linear work in undergrad a long time ago. We were talking earlier about the absurdity and the contradictions of people and the ways they relate to one another. There’s abstraction, absurdity, and contradiction that could be fun to play with.

Carlyle: Colonel Sanders and J. Edgar Hoover, you have to think about that, to pause and... I don't know. A relationship like that is possible: if it has value for them, if it transforms them.

Noel: That's hopeful in some kind way.

Carlyle: Yeah.

Noel: It makes me think about gay marriage. Something that pushed that movement and made the legislation possible was appealing to people in terms of “you know and care about somebody who is directly affected. This is important to them so it should be important to you.”

Carlyle: Yeah, that's... Exactly, right.

Noel: That changed the tide really quickly.

Carlyle: When you talk about it like that, I think about... I have this theory that a lot of the activism in the sixties was generated by reefer because the white radicals had to go to the Black guys for the reefer. They built these relationships. It was like, "Well, that guy's not so bad. He's got some good smoke." You know what I mean?

Noel: Yeah.

Carlyle: "I don't have to hate him. We could be friends." Those kinds of relationships, certainly in the sixties, they built the movement, too.

Noel: That's another strain of research we should explore. What are some of the big social changes that have come about after people across differences were in tighter relationship with one another?

Carlyle: What changes the culture? I think that changes the culture. Certainly, in the sixties, it did change the culture. I mean, the way we talk, the way we dress, the things we do were generated by the movement; and it was a multicultural movement, or at least a Black and white movement. Simply in terms of the ideas, when you think of '64 in Mississippi and Freedom Summer, these white students went down there and experienced what Black people were experiencing. Because they were supporting Black people, then they were treated like Black people by white Southerners, and the white students understood, dramatically, personally and physically, what the cost was to make change.

Noel: Because once you care about somebody...

Carlyle: You put people in a context where they must survive together, and that's the beginning of a kind of relationship.

Noel: Right, and some of them will become friends, and some of them will just honor that relationship for the time that they're in that context together. So, part of this, too, is what's the difference? Why do we end up being friends with the people we end up being friends with?

Carlyle: So, I guess as artists, it's our responsibility to explore the affirmative as well as the corollary.

Noel: Right. But at least our friendship has a happy ending.

Carlyle: This friendship, yes.

Noel: It has been generative.

Carlyle: Yeah, it has been generative.

Noel: Which doesn't mean we don't have conflict, right? It's just that we are committed to navigate it and come out the other side still friends.

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