It’s all very well being inspired by the people’s stories you tell, but what of your own life you choose to live?
As Langston Hughes, 'Harlem' poet and friend of our Audio Drama protagonist, Ada, said:
What happens to a dream deferred?
Amanda Huxtable, Co-Director at Vanitas Arts, talks about her career, work, and inspiration.
I could no longer wait on a world to catch up on what I could or could not be. Having worked as a Theatre Director for over 25 years, using every opportunity given to advocate for social change in the cultural industries, my world like many others in the Covid lockdown years changed abruptly and forever.
Film, television and theatre journey
Truth be told, film and television was my first love. I directed theatre with film and television in mind. When I directed Mike Leigh’s Abigail’s Party at Hull Truck Theatre, it was because it was one of the very first pieces of theatre I had seen from off the telly. Me and my mum and dad, had enjoyed the character led story with the two couples, as they played out their messy lives, wrapped up in cling film, crisps and chaos.
As part of an audience workshop offer, we invited audiences to get on to the Abigail’s Party theatre set, to get to know the work in a deeper way. They saw the detail of the house lived in by Beverley and her husband, Laurence. On the marital dining table was a placemat set for one, for a reason. The fancy turquoise and gold St Moritz’s cigarette case made with research and precision by the Stage Manager showed us who Beverley thought she was, and served as an ode to my mother at the same time!
Many years before that main stage directing debut at Hull Truck Theatre, theatre had demanded my attention. I know the craft of theatre from many angles, as an actor, director and producer, I’m proud of all what I have achieved and all the plays and teams I ever led and collaborated with over the years.
Many of my past colleagues and new acquaintances have asked me over this last year if I’m still working in theatre, and the answer is:
“I work in story and the production of story and spirit willing I always will.”
Digital storytelling and immersive theatre
I am a Company Director at Vanitas Arts alongside Shirley Harris. Together we are building a Digital Storytelling Production Company. I am seizing every opportunity to deliver and learn every day.
We have produced, devised and written an immersive story experience creating a jazz club called Chez Bricktop, based on Ada ‘Bricktop’ Smith’s real-life jazz club. We produced an R&D earlier this year with the support of Factory International and invited industry colleagues and friends to Sheffield Theatres to immerse in the experience and share their feedback.
The extracts of Chez Bricktop consisted of pushing the boundaries of storytelling. We travelled across time and countries. At one point, our guests were guests of Josephine Baker’s at her Dordogne Chateau De Milandes. Practically everyone in the room as guests helped set the table with fruit, bread, cheese and wine passed along a chain of people.
Guests were given refreshment in glass flutes to join in the glamour of Ken ‘Snakehips’ Johnson’s life, set in the backdrop of London’s exclusive Embassy Club and followed by the Café De Paris which included a live jazz band, choregraphed company ensemble dances as well as social dancing with guests.
Our guests rode the wave of witnessing people seeking refuge and the bravery of Josephine Baker in distracting the soldiers from finding her guests hidden in her cellar. Listen here to the Audio Drama that inspired this version of the story written by myself and Shirley Harris.
Please let us know what you think, as we continue to build our plans towards the full immersive production.
Writing and producing Audio Drama
This brings me to the inspiration of our next and final episode of our Persons of Interest Audio Drama series ‘Brickie You’re The Top’, written by me as a reimagined story about Ada ‘Bricktop’ Smith, a Jazz Club owner, entertainer and entrepreneur. An extraordinary woman of her time, she used her talent and connections to build her place in Jazz Society hosting one of the finest and most influential Jazz Clubs in the 20th Century, inspiring the likes of Cole Porter, F. Scott Fitzgerald and dearest of friends, the great poet, Langston Hughes. I referenced his poem about a dream deferred called Harlem in the opening of this blog.
The story opens with Ada ‘Bricktop’ Smith concerned about the whereabouts of their mutual friend Josephine Baker. I imagined the frustration and sadness felt by Ada watching her closest friend and ally as she put it, ‘throw her life away’ on a hustler who Josephine eventfully enters the club with. Famous women in music have been the subject of predatory and unhappy relationships, from Billie Holiday to Mary J Blige, we all wanted better for them.
What intrigued me about telling this story is that Josephine Baker’s son Jean-Claude Baker shared years later that Ada had told him that she and Josephine had had a brief affair.
The times they were living in to be a free independent Black woman must have been hard enough, living as a free Black Queer independent woman would have been a challenge to say the least, and due to the social laws and prejudices at the time, near impossible. What has been written here leaves room for the debate to continue about what could have been.
Listen now to our latest Audio Drama series, Persons of Interest.
At Vanitas Arts we smash through expectations using our imaginations to power the stories we are compelled to tell. Despite all the rumours of change, people including ourselves continue to place limitations on what is possible based on who they think we are. It’s our job to push towards our own instincts and beyond the boundaries and barriers placed in our way.
There are still so few of us Black and White working-class women in charge of our own production companies in the creative industries, people are still looking for our boss at Vanitas Arts…
It’s us, we’re the boss, we run tings. Enjoy!
If you want to know more about what we do at Vanitas Arts, take a look at our infographic, and that’s just the tip of the iceberg.