Creative Writing & Music

Conjuring Transcendence — Zones, Borders, & Spiritual Visibility (Walker Art Center, Citizenship Series: 2019): a poem and musical performance written and performed by Rebecca Nichloson with accompaniment by Adrian Noffzinger. The piece is a kind of summoning of the qualities that transcend what divides, a call to recognize the impacts of culture, race, economic status and politics on our lives, while celebrating our “human” heritage, our spirits and souls, our auras.

Creative Work:

Performance Poetry, Playwriting, Music (2008- Present)

  • Multicolored Musings: Jewels of Love, Loss, & Triumph (2020), The Cedar Cultural Center in Minneapolis. Mara, Queen of the World (2020). Jill, Jack, and the Martian Lady (2019),  Minnesota Opera youth workshop. The Wild, Bold Enlightenment of Velvet the Mistress (2018). Cooking with Keisha (2014), workshopped at Signature Theatre Company, as part of Columbia University New Plays. Remnants (2015). Collision with Cake (2012) Staged at Manhattan Repertory Theatre (MRT) and directed by Kimille Howard. Staged at Schapiro Theatre and directed by Carl Cofield. Hello, I’m Eve (2012) Directed by Carl Cofield at Schapiro Theatre. Chocolate Barbie (2011) Harlem Classical Theatre (Playwrights Playground). Staged at The Fire This Time Festival.
  • Rose Out the Pavement (2011) Harlem Classical Theatre (Playwrights Playground). Staged at Horace Mann Theatre, directed by Rebecca Nichloson. Staged by the Black Theatre Ensemble (BTE) at Barnard College, Columbia University. Blue House (2010) Staged at Pillsbury House Theatre/The Chicago Avenue Project. Pocket Watch (2010) Directed by Rebecca Nichloson and performed at Bedlam Theatre.
  • Prodigal Children (2009) Developed at The Playwright’s Center of Minneapolis. A Splendid Spell (2008) Staged at Pillsbury House Theatre/The Chicago Avenue Project. Morningside (2012), Human Behavior (2014), Rainbow Baker (2014), The Adjunct (2015). 

Sesame Street Writers’ Room Fellowship (2017)                                                         

  • Created and wrote pilot for Sasha K. Jenkins, Kid Scientist. The script, titled “Decoding Hamad’s Dream,” is an animated children’s television series focused on STEM methodologies and problem-solving. Additional episodes include: “The One, the Only, Cloud Racer!” and “Brainy Bot X7000.”
  • Learned about children’s media and child development from a variety of esteemed professionals, including: Ken Scarborough (Sesame Street, Head Writer), Ligiah Villalobos (Go, Diego! Go! Head Writer), Erica Branch Ridley (HITN Learning, VP of Development and Production), Janice Burgess (The Backyardigans, Creator), Adam Peltzman (Wallykazam! Creator), Dr. Rosemarie Truglio, PhD. (Sesame Street, SVP of Curriculum & Content), LaToye Adams (researcher in media and education technology), Chris Nee (Doc McStuffins, Creator), Maria Perez Brown (Gullah Gullah Island, Executive Producer), Ron Holsey (Odd Squad, Writer), and more.

Merit-based writing awards and fellowships (2008-present)               

  • Workshop Fellow, Sesame Street Writers’ Room
  • NBC Universal’s UCP Pitchfest 2017 (Alternate/Finalist)
  • Jane Chambers Student Award, ATHE Performance in Theory and Practice
  • America-in Play Fellowship, America In Play Dramaturgical Project
  • Miller Scholarship, Columbia University School of the Art
  • Liberace Award, Columbia University School of the Arts
  • Howard Stein Fellowship, Columbia University School of the Arts
  • The Matthews Fellowship, Columbia University School of the Arts
  • Many Voices Fellowship, The Playwright’s Center of Minneapolis
  • DRA Comms/Events Fellowship, Columbia University School of the Arts

Studied WithLynn Nottage (mentor 2013-2014)–winner of the 2009 Pulitzer Prize For Drama for Ruined. Charles Mee. Jr.—playwright and recipient of the gold medal for lifetime achievement in drama from the American Academy of Arts and Letters. Frank Pugliese— Showrunner for House of Cards (Netflix). Kelly Stuart— playwright and author of The Interpreter of Horror at the Padua Hills Playwrights Festival, The Square Root of Terrible (a children’s musical) at the Mark Taper Forum, and Mayhem and Homewrecker at the Evidence Room. Anne Bogart— Artistic Director of SITI Company and recipient of a Doris Duke Artist Grant, a USA Fellowship, a Rockefeller Fellowship, and a Guggenheim Fellowship. Anthony Weigh—playwright and Associate Artist at the Donmar Warehouse under commission to the National Theatre. Gregory Mosher—TONY award-winning director and producer in New York City and London. Professor Arnold Aronson— theatre historian and author of Exhibition on the Stage: Reflections on the 2007 Prague Quadrennial (2008); Looking into the Abyss: Essays on Scenography (2005) and American Avant-Garde Theatre: A History (2001).

CEDAR COMMISSIONS SPOTLIGHT – REBECCA NICHLOSON written by Alana Horton

Over the next few weeks, we’re featuring the six artists of the 2019-2020 Cedar Commissions (taking place Friday, February 21st and Saturday, February 22nd) in a series of interviews on our blog. The Cedar Commissions is a flagship program for emerging Minnesotan composers and musicians made possible with a grant from the Jerome Foundation.

Since September, artists have been composing, exploring new ideas, and assembling musicians to bring their work to fruition. Over the two nights of The Cedar Commissions, audience members will hear music inspired by family legacies and histories, traditional Ethiopian azmaris, women of the Holocaust, immersive Afrodiasporic sounds, Black America, collective action, and so much more.

Next up is Rebecca Nichloson, a prolific playwright, poet, fiction writer, singer/songwriter, and performer. Though she’s written over 100 plays, music is Rebecca’s newest area of exploration as an artist – she began singing only two years ago. Now, voice is the driving instrument behind her new piece for the 2020 Cedar Commissions called “Multicolored Musings: Jewels of Love, Loss, & Triumph.” Rebecca spoke with Alana Horton, The Cedar’s Director of Marketing and Communications, about how she’s weaving together many stories and genres into one, the links between playwriting and songwriting, and her desire to bring more “liveness” into live performance.

“That’s what I was thinking about when I put the piece together; this idea of taking all of these wonderful jewels of wisdom that I’ve gotten from all of these areas of my life, and then putting them into one performance.”

— Rebecca Nichloson

Alana Horton: What is your piece called, and what is it about?

Rebecca NichlosonRebecca Nichloson: My piece is called Multicolored Musings: Jewels of Love, Loss, & Triumph. It is a show that takes place in three parts. Part one is called Mara, and it’s inspired by a musical called Mara, Queen of the World I wrote about a girl, a slave girl in 1830s Alabama, who finds a magical quilt, and has to decode the story within the quilt to defeat a warlock. It tells Mara’s story.

Part two is called The Infinite Power of a Human Piano. It’s a poem with improvised music behind it that tells the story of a piano that’s been playing since the beginning of time, and is really representative of our humanity. Later, it ties back to the Black American experience – I sing slivers of these excerpts from well known black songs that align together.

Part three is called Romance Elegy, and it centers songs about love.

I called the full piece Jewels Of Love, Loss, & Triumph, because each of the parts really are exploring those things: triumph, loss, love, and this idea that those are all jewels. Even when they’re uncomfortable and painful, they’re still essentially a gift because they come with wisdom.

“To discover later in life, “Oh, wait a minute, I can [sing],” it’s a very strange feeling, but it’s also feels like a gift to have yet another way to express myself

— Rebecca Nichloson

Alana: What are some of the themes that you feel are driving the piece?

Rebecca: I really view this piece as a jewel box. When you open it, inside are all of these intricate, detailed pieces that are very different, but they’re all in this beautiful box. That’s what I was thinking about when I put the piece together; this idea of taking all of these wonderful jewels of wisdom that I’ve gotten from all of these areas of my life, and then putting them into one performance. I’m not necessarily telling the audience what they’re supposed to think of each one, but they know that each part means something, that these are all jewels, and that these are all things that I prize. There is a magical quality to each of the pieces and in the merging of the different genres. I’ve been working in a very fusion-like genre. It’s classical, rock, soul, and jazz, all mixed up into one. I really like that idea of working in that way.

Alana: You’ve established a career mainly as a playwright and theater artist. Music is a newer mode of creation for you. What has it been like writing music as opposed to playwriting?

Rebecca: Well, I’ve always approached playwriting like music. When I’m writing a play, I consider the way a character might say a line or several lines or or where they might stress the inflection; it’s very much a musical experience.

It’s been interesting to learn what my voice can do. When you go a whole lifetime knowing that you’re singer and having a really good idea of what your abilities are as a singer, it’s very different than only having learned two years ago that you were a singer at all. And then learning that your voice is capable of doing all of these different things…

Growing up, people would ask me if I was a singer and I’d be like, “Oh no, I always wanted to, but I really admire people who sing.” Then to discover later in life, “Oh, wait a minute, I can do that” is a very strange feeling, but it also feels like a gift to have yet another way to express myself. I do a lot of visual art and I do theater, and I’ve written 100 plays and I’ve been a very prolific writer throughout my life. This is the one thing that’s new. And that’s exciting.

Alana: What kind of instrumentation are you using?

Rebecca: Well, one of the things I’ve been really, really interested in is how the human voice without instruments can be used as an instrument, and how voices come together to form sounds, not in these traditional ways of choirs and harmonizing. What is it to really embody an instrument with the human voice? There are parts of the show where I will be exploring that with singers.

I’ll also have a backing track of my vocals looped, and Jacqueline Zepeda doing improvised percussion on a washboard. For part two, Adrian Noffzinger will be playing piano, and Ashley O’ Neill Prado will be on the violin. And then for part three, Adrian will be doing work on the keyboard, Ashley will be doing bass, Jacqueline will be on drums, and Carlisle Evans Peck will be doing back up vocals.

I wanted to bring in some more artists, but then I was like, “Okay. Maybe that’s another interaction.” I initially had almost 25 songs, and I cut a number of those, because I wanted to make it appropriate to what this experience is.

Alana: What can people expect to hear in terms of genre or sound?

Rebecca: Part one is a very classical music theater type of sound, a touch of jazziness to it. Part two is the poem and little slivers of songs from Black America compiled into one little small piece. And then part three is very folksy and rock-like. There’s this song called Book of Life, which is kind of about Lucifer being cast out of Heaven. Some of the lyrics are, “You can tell by my face, I have fallen from grace / There won’t be a trace of my name in the Book of Life, Book of Life.” It’s very dark and has very much a rock feel to it. In rehearsals, we’ve been thinking about what if it was “heavy metal rock soul,” what does that sound like? I don’t know if we’re actually going to use that, but it was interesting to be able to try these things out in rehearsal.

You can expect to hear operatic type sounds that then go into these acapella pieces that feel very much like declarances, utterances. They’re very big and bold. And there’s lots of story. Every song, most of the songs have a strong narrative basis.

And then visually, just expect to see a lot of people on stage, sparkling. I took this divider, this IKEA divider and bejeweled it with lots and lots of sequins and it’ll be behind the musicians. And I’ve told every musician and everybody who’s a part of it, please wear the most loud, sparkling thing you can find. So, I just wanted to look like a giant disco ball up there.

Alana: What do you hope people will take away from the work?

Rebecca: One of the conversations that we had had in the rehearsal process is the idea of making the performance feel like a glorified version of the living room that we rehearse in. When people perform, it’s often like, [strikes a pose] “And now I’m PERFORMING,” you know? I like how the rehearsal space feels so informal. A lot of times we’ll be shoe-less and we’ll stop and we’ll talk or whatever. You obviously do have to modify performance for an audience. It’s not a rehearsal. But I do like the idea of that free-ness.

In general, I would hope that people walk away from the experience feeling that they had seen something that lives and isn’t just a stiff-performance type of experience. I want people to feel like, “I really saw people on stage living, really being alive up there.” I’m not sure how that works. Maybe it’s just being fully present and not being a perfectionist. I think being present really is the perfection, to be honest. That’s when the genius happens, when you’re just really there with the people that you’re sharing the stage with and not getting to this place of stiffness that happens even in seasoned performers. It’s the difference between when you perform versus when you’re just singing and it’s coming from a place of authentic joy and it’s not for someone. So, I want to be able to do that when I’m on stage as well.

Alana: What else do you want people to know?

Rebecca: Part one of this piece is is very much inspired by a play that already exists, that’s literally almost 200 pages. It was a really interesting experience to be able to create new music for something that already exists and already includes music. It was invigorating to know that I could summarize it in that way.

Alana: I feel like it’s a very powerful tool, to be able to be self-referential as an artist.

Rebecca: It is!

Alana: There’s so many many things in your piece feel like they’re these tiny marbles of worlds and ideas that you could dive into deeper for forever.

Rebecca: Yeah, it’s definitely that. And I think that’s one of the reasons why I wanted to call the piece Jewels, because there are all these little intricate worlds that are then placed into this performance. The way that they connect to one another isn’t in an overt way, but they are related to each other. It isn’t like, “this is about this,” it’s just like, “Well, here’s something beautiful.” And maybe it relates to this other thing that’s beautiful or maybe you just like this one thing, but that’s the beauty of opening up a jewel box. You’re able to examine the different things that are inside of it.

I wrote almost an album’s worth of songs for this experience. I’m not doing them all, obviously, but I wrote like 25 songs. They were all connected thematically and it was really interesting to work in that way. And I do think that even after this experience, I’ve become really motivated to write songs that aren’t necessarily overtly political, but are engaging with things that matter. It never stops being a song, and it never stops being emotional, but it’s also engaging with things that really matter. I would like to continue look at a lot of social issues that I’ve experienced personally in the world, and create music in that way.

“I want people to feel like, “I really saw people on stage living, really being alive up there.” I’m not sure how that works. Maybe it’s just being fully present and not being a perfectionist. I think being present really is the perfection, to be honest.

— Rebecca Nichloson

Catch Rebecca Nichloson performing “ Multicolored Musings: Jewels of Love, Loss, & Triumph” at The Cedar on Saturday, February 22nd 2020 at 7:30pm as part of The Cedar Commissions.