For the past five years, JAGFest, a festival celebrating Black theater, has brought a group of artists to Vermont in the middle of winter to develop, workshop and perform new works. This year, as with so many things, an in-person workshop and festival were not possible due to COVID-19. So, the producers adapted by tapping into another medium.
JAG Productions — a Black-owned Vermont and New York City-based theatre company — are the creators behind the festival. This year's iteration of JAGFest takes its shape as a series of radio plays based around the theme of love stories. The pieces debuted on the new social, audio-based app Clubhouse last week.
VPR’s Henry Epp spoke with the co-producers of the festival, Jarvis Antonio Green and Raven Cassell. They first explained what the event looked like in past years. Their interview is below and has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Jarvis Green: It's a weeklong festival. You know, 30 to 50 artists descend on White River Junction, Vt., and then they begin this sort of incubation process to start developing these new plays.
And during that week, it's a really cool opportunity for community engagement. So, folks get to kind of engage with the artists through a series of panel conversations and various different events throughout the week. And then it culminates into stage readings, four to five stage readings, over the weekend. And then from those readings, there’s a panel conversation afterwards to kind of give the playwrights feedback.
And oftentimes the playwrights and artists go back to New York City, invigorated, excited, and they continue to develop the work. JAGFest is generally a place where they can begin the process of generating these new ideas.
Raven Cassell: As a participant in JAGFest, I think a huge component that I've experienced is the community aspect, and the isolation that happens.
When we're working in New York City — oftentimes with theater artists, we're, you know, working a day job and we're doing [theater] at night.
That week that we're at JAGFest, I remember the excitement and the gratitude I had — to feel like just a theater artist, where every day that was the work I went to.
Henry Epp: Yeah, well, so adapting theater to a virtual format is a challenge. So, I'm curious how you decided to go with radio plays this year, as opposed to something, say, with a video component?
Green: You know, I've been kind of going back and forth with this whole Zoom plays, Zoom readings [phenomenon] — never really feeling super excited about the idea of producing virtual plays.
Raven and I were working on a project last fall called The Black Joy Project. While we were working on the project, I was letting her know that I'm going back and I'm going to be working on JAGFest and I'm really sort of like, dragging my feet on: how are we going to produce it this year?
Raven came up with this idea with me to kind of do audio plays. And I think it has a lot to do with this new platform that is being tested right now, called Clubhouse, and I'll let you take it from here Raven.
Cassell: I [have] engaged with Zoom plays, and there were interesting things being done there, but I still wasn't excited by them so much. Also, I thought radio plays was a form that we would be turning back to, as opposed to forward to, a new thing. I thought it'd be interesting to see how we could use all that we've learned over the decades of evolution beyond the radio and see what could happen if we were to turn back and use that format again. It was a challenge not to be able to have a visual, you know, and what would that bring, what would that invite into the playmaking space?
I thought Clubhouse was interesting as well, because it was live. I thought that energy could be captured on Clubhouse because there was that live component and there was that audience response component, which is integral for JAG, as it's a process-based workshop festival. I thought it'd be really interesting to be able to have folks respond in real time.
I want to talk about this year's theme of the festival: Love stories. How and why did you choose that theme?
Cassell: I think it felt like the most appropriate thing to do. I think this past year has been a very rough and isolated year, and I think [it felt right] to indulge in love, in whatever that may look like; because it's a very broad theme.
I'm also a playwright on the project, so I wanted to invite myself into that space and ... my producing space usually comes from the artist self. So I think about, you know, what do I as the artist want to experience and what could be a really useful feeling experience.
I think love has always healed. And I think when we are intentional about being in that space, we can create our own magic. We can conjure what it is because we kind of know what we need to heal. And I think JAGFest has historically — since I've been a part of it and looking at the past years and the work that has come from it — it's usually change-making artists who are thinking about healing.
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