A Q&A Interview with Playwright and Director Annie Loui

Professor of Acting Annie Loui is a director, choreographer, author and playwright and is the Artistic Director of CounterBalance Theater. She has taught for the Brandeis Theater Arts Department, the Institute for Advanced Theater Training at Harvard, and now at UCI, where she Co-Head of the acting program and runs the movement program for the M.F.A. actor training. Loui has trained, performed and choreographed internationally with renowned organizations. She is also the author of The Physical Actor, published by Routledge Press, now in its second edition. She sat down recently to share some of her process and story about making the upcoming Department of Drama world premiere production of her play, The Story of Biddy Mason.

Q: What inspired you to create the play, The Story of Biddy Mason?

AL: A writer friend came over for dinner on an evening in the summer of 2021 and gifted me a bottle of wine and a book of short stories by Dana Johnson. When I got around to reading the book (I tend not to like short stories as a literary form), I was hooked. The stories were interwoven tales of Los Angeles characters, and many juxtaposed historical and contemporary LA. But when I got to the last piece, The Story of Biddy Mason, I was more than hooked, I was moved. I called and told my friend that I wanted to turn this story into a production, asking if he knew the author. And he said that, in fact, this was his motive for giving me the book, hoping to see The Story of Biddy Mason become my next performance. And so introductions were made, and using Dana’s lovely text, the scaffolding was established for our production.  

Q: What prompted you to produce the show in the Experimental Media Performance Lab (xMPL)? Are there any advantages or disadvantages?

AL: I love working in the xMPL (our Experimental Media Performance Lab), it is a fully equipped performance space dedicated to experimentation in media-infused performance, and so it is a blank slate waiting for experimentation. The projection opportunities (we use three projectors in this production), as well as the sound and lighting possibilities, are fabulous. In a space so full of potential, there is a need for designers to imagine with me how we can best tell the story, and that further pushes everybody’s skill set. More technology means a high learning curve to implement the designs. It is not for the faint of heart. The disadvantage is the advantage – there is no backstage or cross-over space in the back, so unless a full set is moved into the space, you are working in full visibility to the audience. I personally enjoy the challenge.

Q: You are producing this piece under your signature style used for your CounterBalance Theater works. Where did your love of movement and devised works come from?

AL: I trained as a mime and then as a dancer in Paris at the beginning of the dance/theater era, when dancers started infusing their choreography with text. Theater productions suddenly had large segments of symbolic movement where metaphors were made flesh. It was a thrilling time to be making art, and I think I never left the place on the edge between dance and theater. When the idea of “devised” work began to infiltrate theater practice, the people I knew who had trained in classical mime in Paris said, “Well, this is what we have always done, told stories through our bodies, using movement that is both literal and abstract.” So I think we all were delighted that the way we generated performance was now considered trendy.   

I have always been invested in “devising” – as more and more text came into my work, I realized that most of my performance pieces were based on novels that had moved me. It was only when I started my company CounterBalance Theater that I formalized the creative practice with our mission statement, “making physical theater based on great literature.”  

Q: As this is a devised piece, how has the text and movement changed throughout the course of rehearsals? Do the actors, or designers have input in the evolution of the final production?

AL: The performers and designers are an integral part of the creative process. The atmosphere must be collaborative – we are all working towards telling the story. I begin with a scenario of imagery (and sometimes sounds) broken down into scenes. I usually give this to the designers along with the source text early on in the process. I then create a full script with text. After that, we move into the rehearsal hall with the performers – a typical rehearsal will begin with a short collective warm-up and a movement improvisation that will feed into a scene I am working on that day.  For instance, the day we began creating the wagon train, I had all of the actors go away for 20 minutes and come back as cattle, then wheels, and then horses and riders. We all look at the improvisations and see what works. And then, I incorporate bits and pieces of their cattle and wheels into the larger choreography.

Q: How do you go about setting movement?

AL: CounterBalance Theater, my physical theater company, is a fully incorporated non-profit company that is an umbrella under which most of my work is presented. I teach an improvisatory dance form called “contact improvisation,” which is based on an energy and weight exchange. The freedom it engenders to lift and be lifted and to work without self-consciousness in the room is the basis from which we begin creating.

Q: How does the movement of the piece further a story show such as The Story of Biddy Mason?

AL: We work with imagery as a basis. When it comes to casting the play, I look for actors who are both talented at acting and can also move. When I think about the wagon train, I think about what was most important in that wagon train from Mississippi to California. I think part of what was most important was the religious aspect of the journey as a spiritual pilgrimage to a new home and then the lengthy walking. They walked! And they walked, or pushed wheelbarrows, or rode in a Conestoga wagon for months on end. Depending on the terrain and the weather, it was probably exhausting, boring, dangerous and exhilarating. And I think those images can tell us about the journey in a really visceral way – for me, more effectively than text. So in that way, movement tells the story.  

Q: Do you have a favorite scene?

AL: I love them all – but I will say that this project will continue to be in development until we open. We are now in technical rehearsals where we integrate projection, music and light. My favorite scene might happen in retrospect.  

Q: How do you want The Story of Biddy Mason to impact audiences? What can a contemporary audience glean from this piece?

AL: I want them to feel moved, as I did when I first read Dana Johnson’s short story about Biddy Mason. It is such a good story.

Biddy Mason, an enslaved person in Mississippi, walks with her Mormon owner’s wagon train across the country to California in 1848. She works as a midwife, a nurse and a herder. On arrival in California, she finds herself living in a state where slavery is illegal. She continues working as before, but is now paid and saves her money. After ten years, she buys real estate in downtown LA – on Spring Street. She becomes a business woman and entrepreneur, giving to charities and building schools. She feeds and houses the people in her city and is known by all as “Auntie Mason.”

It is a positive story about the origins of LA, where a formerly enslaved black woman was a significant player and a positive influence on many people. The narrative highlights Biddy’s faith and her resistance to being defined by her enslavers. From the research I have done, it is pretty clear she was smart, personable and generous: She took care of “her people” and she defined “her people” as those in need – more important than origins, nationality or race.   

Q: The Story of Biddy Mason is part of the UCI Department of Drama’s themes season, “Healing.” How does this story fit in the representation?

AL: Biddy’s profession was healing and delivering babies, “new life.” The last lines of the play are taken from Dana’s book; a Biddy Mason voice present in modern times says, “I have been called, once again, to deliver you into your future.”  This voice of inclusivity and empathy reminds us to embrace the wonderful mix of people who we are in the LA area, to “take care of our people,” and to move forward.