I’m so excited to share the first of our Stages of Pages for Stages project (not sure what that is? Read the intro). The first actor brave enough to share her page is Jalissa Fulton. Huge thanks to her, and to the Anthropologists, the theater devising the show we talked about.
Jalissa Fulton is a NYC-based actress. She received her BA in Theatre at the University of South Carolina. There she studied devising, classical acting, and the Alexander Technique. She received her MFA at The Actors Studio Drama School, where she studied the Stanislavsky Method. Jalissa’s diverse artistic background and training has given her a firm artistic foundation and an ability to approach work with a unique perspective. Her work and practice has led her to become the Artistic & Community Programming Creative Partner with The Anthropologists. One of her favorite voice over productions was in A Christmas Carol for Standby for Places Podcast. She can be heard on Spotify and/or Apple Podcast voicing characters: Belle, Broker #2, & Charity Solicitor #2, and more. Some of her all-time favorite theatre credits include Shylock in Merchant of Venice, Catherine in Proof, and Mildred in The Anthropologists’ axes, herbs and satchels (ahs). Jalissa was interviewed for and featured in The Theatre Times, for her role as a performer and Lead Divisor in ahs, alongside Co-Directors Melissa Moschitto and Sandie Luna.
This page is from axes, herbs, and satchels, an on-going project by The Anthropologists, about the history of Black midwifery. It’s a devised piece that examines the staggering maternal mortality crisis in the United States—where birthing people have three times the mortality of those in similar countries, and Black and Indigenous people are particularly at risk. As is the Anthropologists’ practice, the devising builds from deep research including first-hand accounts, medical textbooks, and ethnographic studies. I was particularly curious to talk with Jalissa because she’s the lead deviser for this project, and I don’t know much at all about how devised work is made. Jalissa has been doing devised work since her college days at the University of South Carolina.
Jalissa describes devised theater this way: “You come together, and you make something out of nothing. Similar to writing a play, except there’s movement involved, and there’s a collaboration element involved, and everybody’s working together.”
In this scene, “Birthing Silos,” Jalissa plays a doctor who is moving between three different hospital rooms, where three different people are giving birth. One person is alone. Another has their partner for support. A third has a doula. Each of these rooms has their own story arc and power dynamic. Each character type (birthing person and/or partner, doula, and doctor) has a set of words that they can say (and only they can say these words). It’s a structured improv, where the story beats are mostly the same from one performance to another, but the details change. Jalissa, as the doctor, is trying to get the people in each room to consent. In the room where one person is alone, she demands it, and receives it. In the one where the birthing person has their partner, the doctor asks and receives consent from the partner. In the room with the doula…things do not go according to plan (more on that later).
This all will make more sense if you see the scene—here’s a short clip of it.
Because this was a devised project, I asked Jalissa both about the typewritten content on the page, which the Anthropologists developed together, and also about her handwritten notes. The page has two scenarios: At the top, “Birthing Silos,” and at the bottom, “Future.” We focused mostly on the first one.
At the beginning of the process, Jalissa was meeting weekly with Melissa Moschitto, the founding artistic director of the Anthropologists and one of the show’s co-directors, and producer Mariah Freda, to review research material provided by Dr. Haile Eshe Cole, who is a literal, actual anthropologist (!), serving as anthropologist-in-residence for this project. This is the Anthropologists’ first time working with an actual anthropologist!
They didn’t know what the play would be—they had some idea that it would be about maternal mortality, but it was through reading journals, scholarly articles, letters, and other documents, they began to develop some idea of where this play was going to go. “We talked about what captivated us, or what moved us, or what was the most interesting, and that’s some of what the performers eventually got in their rehearsal.”
After a month or so, they started having “labs”/rehearsals: “Melissa, the director, would give us different prompts. We would create gestures, we would create sequences, we would pick out words—and this went on for maybe a month to a month and half, multiple rehearsals of us coming together and creating things based on whatever research we had. We would do improvs—all kinds of things. All of this was being documented, the rehearsals were being recorded.” Co-directors Melissa Moschitto and Sandie Luna cataloged everything that developed during the rehearsals, creating a database of movements, words, and ideas, including who was in them, who created them, what material it was based on. Eventually Melissa and Sandie worked with Devyn Wray, Co-Writer and performer, to mold this material into the beginnings of a script, seeking the story. Some of the script had defined scenes, but substantial sections, like the one we’re examining here, are structured improvs.
“When I first wrote this, I needed to make sure that wherever the actors of the birth silos entered, I needed to be entering from another place. I was told by my directors to do this, but not given a set place where my entrance would come from. Because we were preparing for this performance to be staged ‘in the round.’ So, wherever they were coming from, I needed to make sure I didn’t come from there.” In the real production, she ended up not even really having an entrance; instead she had a moment during the end of the prior scene where she was directed to stand, and pretend that she was reviewing her assignment board as the doctor. This blocking note is from before that development.
“We have movements from the devising process that we feel like are important and indicative of, and representing, midwifery. Melissa and Sandie were clear that they wanted us to keep those movements, to not lose track of them. One of the words is ‘scooping,’ so all of us have a movement that we create for that word. Or ‘dabbing,’ is another one. All of these come from movements that you might see midwives do. Like, you dab the forehead, if they’re sweating or you’re sweating. Or ‘pressing,’ what if you’re pressing to check the baby? Before I come into this scene, each of the rooms are there. My counterparts might have been pressing, or squatting and waddling. When they gave that note [about using the movements], I was like, ‘I’m the doctor, so I wouldn’t do any of those movements.’ They’re different from that. I thought of the movements we had, and I said, ‘Oh, yeah, we have cutting.’ So that was a reminder to me that if I did any movement—if I found time, if I remembered to—that’s the move that the doctor would do, because that best fit, out of that collection of movements, cutting would best fit the doctor.”
Jalissa’s handwritten notes are colorful; she writes in different colors because she’s neurodivergent, and her notes all blend together when they’re all the same color. It’s not a color-coding system, it’s just “What color pen do I have today?” On the first day with this script, she was writing in orange, so you can see that the first things she needs to figure out are:
- What is the story arc for each silo?
- What words can she use?
In the scene, all of the other actors were stationary, staying in their “room.” They each were able to look at a wall of giant sticky notes and see what words were available to them—each character has words that only she/they can use, and she/they can’t use other words. But Jalissa had to move from one room to the next. She couldn’t make use of that wall in the same way. “So that ‘my words?!” is a reminder to me—’Girl, you got to get your words. Where are you going to get your words from?’ Eventually, I realized, ‘Jalissa, you’re going to have to write your words down.’ So these lists of words are some of the words that I am allowed to use…Some of them, like ‘insurance,’ I circled because that is a word that I say repetitively.”
In each of the rooms, Jalissa has a note about how much power she, as the doctor, has in each room. In the first one, she has “most power.” “I could treat them however I wanted. Who’s going to stop me? Because they’re by themselves.”
There’s a line that separates Jalissa’s words from what she needs to be prepared for in each room. “Skeptical/pushback” refers to what she is going to encounter from the birthing person and doula in room #2. It’s a reminder to be ready for resistance from the other actors. It’s also where she has the least power, as the doctor.
The notes to the right of each room are about the blocking that Jalissa can expect from her scene partners. The person birthing alone will always be sitting or laying down, but the others might stand or move around, because they had the freedom to do that. “If they wanted to shake it up and surprise me, I would go further and put them where they are supposed to be.” This is a room, but the structure and relationships of the world are important and relevant. “There’s a fine line between playing the scene, and pushing it to be something that is not the scene.” The performance was ‘in the round,’ so there are no clear door frames or entrances for each room. For room #2, one of the notes reads, “Asha in front of Jayda,” as a reminder that Asha, the actor playing the doula, is defending her patient (a birthing person played by the actor, Jayda). Jalissa—as an actor—can help Asha with their blocking by making sure that the doctor always enters the room by coming in front of Asha, instead of making Asha adjust.
The box that has “authority” in a box is a reminder: “I am the authority.” The one that says “face back” is a blocking note—it’s connected to “power/indifference,” the attitude she’s bringing into room #1. “I need to make sure that I give Naz my back when I talk to them to show that.” For the third room, Jalissa circled “happy/patronizing,” “because that’s the vibe that I want to give off in that room, towards Sandie and Devyn.”
In this three-to-five-minute scene, Jalissa has to switch rooms nine times. She initially was going to each of the three rooms, three times, in sequence, but over the course of the play development, it was discovered that her character has a different amount of interest in each room, and that more structure was needed in this improv; the directors gave her a sequence, which is recorded in the numbers to the immediate left of the list of rooms. This is her track.
“I needed to write out my sequence. In this section, I wrote this right before we performed. Literally, house was open, and I knew I had to write it down. I can’t keep everything in the moment in my brain, if I don’t write it in order. I said, ‘Actually, it will help me look like a doctor.’ It was my chart. Those checks literally happened in the moment, and I would check it off. So I knew, ‘Okay, first I went to Sandie. Check! Going to Jayda next. Check! Going to Sandie next. Check! Going to Naz. Check!’ I wrote ‘consent’ in those boxes because that is the visit where I need you to consent to whatever I’m going to do to you. I drive the scene, so I have to be the one to let them know that they are consenting this time, to force them to consent. But one of them doesn’t.”
“Energy <-> Efficient” is a note Jalissa wrote to herself about how she wanted to come off in room #2, specifically—the one where her request for consent is denied. “That particular room is already skeptical of me and giving me pushback.”
Because Jalissa’s line, “Consent,” in room #2, on her 9th visit in this scene, is the cue for the line that ends the scene, she has to track whether everything that was supposed to happen in the scene has happened, before she says it. This is why there’s kind of a checklist by it, making sure she’s said it in two other rooms, before she says it in the room where the birthing person has a doula—because that person does not consent. “‘Witness’ is a response to my line, ‘Consent,’ and I have to be very careful of that line, ‘Consent,’ because once I say, ‘Consent,’ and she says, ‘Witness,’ that ends the scene for all of us actors, and I give the kickoff for that line. I have to be ready to move.”
“‘Witness’ is spoken by another actor. I need to remember to freeze. I stop speaking, I breathe, I exit upstage right.”
Things I noticed about Jalissa’s process, from her pages:
- She keeps a record of where she’s been. There’s nothing erased or scribbled out, so she remembers what series of choices and circumstances led to the final product.
- Jalissa pays as much attention to what her scene partners are doing, and how to help them do their work well, as she does to her own work. I bet she’s a wonderful scene partner.
- She thinks ahead and identifies problems, then solves them creatively.
- I desperately want to see this show!