When you think of theatre in Asheville, Different Strokes Performing Arts Collective, founded in 2010, is one of the stand-out companies. But when founder Stephanie Hickling Beckman moved from Atlanta to Asheville she wasn’t looking to start a theatre company. “I came here for the same reason I think everybody moves to Asheville to reinvent yourself. You come to Asheville and you become who you were meant to be from the beginning.” How has it worked out? “I think I’m about 90% of who I want to be at this point. So, it’s pretty cool.”
Coming from a business background as a manager in the health insurance field, Stephanie says she “was neck-deep in corporate America. Then I moved here and started doing the same thing.” She had done some stage acting in high school and loved it, so she thought about returning to theatre. “And so, I started auditioning.”
Things did not go well at first. “I wasn’t really getting cast. I felt like I was as good as anybody else, but the feedback I started to get was, ‘We would really love to cast you, but we can’t match you on stage,’ or ‘No other Black people auditioned, so we really can’t use you for this role.’ I got really tired of hearing that after a while.”
Even when Hickling Beckman was cast in a show, the color of her skin was still front-of-mind for many in Asheville. “I [played] Karen in ‘The Children’s Hour,’ and the review that came out said, ‘There’s this dynamic new face on stage in Asheville. And suspend disbelief if you will, that a Black woman could be the head of an all-girls school in Connecticut in 1920.’ What does it matter what race I am? In the review, they manufactured an interracial relationship between [two characters] that doesn’t exist in the script. That stuck with me. If we’re telling the story and race is not pertinent to the story, why do we have to mention it?”
Stephanie did have some great experiences in the Asheville theatre scene, especially with the Montford Park Players, where she was first cast in the role of a French princess in Shakespeare’s Love’s Labour’s Lost. She says that the Montford Park Players continue to hold a big place in her heart. Outside of a few roles like this one, however, she was still left feeling frustrated by the lack of opportunity and representation on our local stages.
She spoke of this frustration to her mother who told her, “You don’t get to keep complaining about it if you’re not going to do something about it.” Stephanie realized, “If I’m going through this, then there are other people that are having to endure this as well, [being assessed] based on their race, their size, their whatever, not on their talent.”
At that time Stephanie was serving on the Board of Directors of the Western North Carolina Aids Project (WNCAP). Board members at that time were required to either donate or raise $2,000 as part of their Board service. “I didn’t have $2,000, and I didn’t know anybody that had $2,000. So I decided that I would do a play. And I chose, “Love! Valour! Compassion!” She self-financed the show and raised the funds for WNCAP.
After the success of Love! Valour! Compassion!, WNCAP’s Executive Director at the time asked Stephanie about her next show. “And I laughed and said, ‘What next show?’” But later, talking with her now-wife, Trish Hickling Beckman, she reconsidered her answer. “I thought,
‘Why wouldn’t we have a next show? Why wouldn’t we make this a thing?’ Because if I want to promote diversity in this town, I’ve got to commit to doing that, consistently.” For 11 years now, she has.
“One of the things that attracted me to Asheville was how diverse people said it was. That’s what all the advertisements say. But reading about the “diversity” and living in the “diversity” were two entirely different things.”
“I wanted to continue to create more opportunities for People of Color, or at least to do plays which projected diversity. So, no matter what play we chose, I was going to represent diversity either in casting or in the play itself.” Over the last 11 years, the company’s mission has continued to evolve. “It became important to promote diversity of all aspects, not just racial. There are people in our community who are marginalized for other reasons.”
As Different Strokes became a more visible part of the local theatre community, Stephanie realized it wasn’t enough to produce the shows without commentary. She made the decision to include talk-back sessions and panel discussions as part of every Different Strokes production. “The only way to fix something is to have a discussion about it in which both sides can be open. There has to be some kind of community feedback session. If we’re going to raise the issue, let’s talk about how to fix it.”
Knowing DSPAC would need experts for these panel talk-back discussions, Stephanie recruited leaders from other non-profits across WNC. This led to something else that sets Different Strokes: their model of selecting a local non-profit organization to benefit from the proceeds of each production. Much like their initial outing benefitted WNCAP, Stephanie, the DSPACBoard and their volunteers knew they could do even more.. Non-profits including My Daddy Taught Me That, the YWCA, Youth OUTright, Asheville Writers in the Schools, and other local organizations have benefitted from these partnerships. It goes deeper than money. “I call it theatre for the community,” says Stephanie.
In 2018?? 2019?? Different Strokes was invited to be the Company in Residence in the Tina McGuire Theatre in the Wortham Center for the Performing Arts. When the COVID-19 pandemic shut down theatres across the nation, DSPAC was in the middle of rehearsals for their 10th anniversary performance of Love! Valour! Compassion!
With no idea how long the lights would be out, Stephanie began to think creatively about how they could continue to create meaningful theatre in new ways.
And then, on May 25th, 2020, George Floyd was murdered by police in Minneapolis. “It was interesting, after George Floyd was killed. I had this huge hole, because when I look around, though I have friends everywhere, I don’t really have a community of people that look like me. So it felt really, really lonely trying to navigate all the stuff that was happening between the protests, and the pandemic, and the murders —all of it.”
So she did what creative people do. “I put together a group of Black actors and spoken word poets. I said, ‘Y’all, let’s just get together and find some way for all of us to navigate this,’ because none of us really had that community, because Asheville is so segregated. It was just really hard trying to navigate that.”
In addition to finding words to express the emotion and pain felt by Black and Brown people, they were also having to create theatre using technology that was never meant to handle that task. They used Zoom to place their faces and voices front and center.
“We created a piece called “…while Black”. It was dynamic, and [it showed] what Zoom could be used for. It put the performer right on your screen, as they looked directly into the camera and spoke from the heart. That was a more personal connection that we were able to create.”
Since the production of ‘While Black,’ Stephanie has continued to find new ways for Asheville’s made-marginalized voices to be heard. “I just directed a show at UNCA called ‘Hindsight 2020’, which I also created in the same vein that I did “…while Black” because I like Spoken Word poetry. We also had singers, we had dancers, we had monologues…we opened it to the entire college community.”
Hickling Beckman is also active in soliciting more voices from the community. “I ran a survey online called “Conversations on Race” and asked particular questions about each person’s response to race in America. Your feelings about it, what you grew up thinking, what you think now, all those things. And we’re going to put those together and come up with a series of scenes, monologues, and spoken word pieces about conversations people have in private about race.”
Stephanie hopes to use this survey to explore the ways in which people experience the world differently. “There are so many conversations that we would benefit from if we could be a fly on the wall. I think about the conversations Trish and I have as an interracial –and gay– couple, and how they’re different from the conversations you and your husband might have as a white couple.
I want to put these different combinations of people together to see what they talk about when nobody’s around.”
She also sees ongoing changes for Different Strokes coming out of the pandemic. “I haven’t 100% been able to do the kind of shows that I want to do. I think when we talk about getting People of Color to come out to the theatre… why would they come out if it’s not about their lives? White folks get to go to the theatre and 100% of the time see something that they can relate to, even if it’s about people who don’t look like them. It’s still about people who look like them.”
A growing part of her mission with DSPAC is to expand the company’s diversity beyond what people see on the stage. “There’s so many hidden gems in Asheville. Black folks who write, do set design, do costumes and makeup, and other artistic work. So I decided it’s time to reach out and find them. Before I just looked for actors, but now I want to find the carpenters who can translate that [artistic vision] into building sets. There may be a hairdresser here who can translate that into doing hair for a musical. I think there are a lot of opportunities there that I want to open up further and dive into.”
The types of Black stories she wants to tell is also evolving. “I’ve made a commitment to myself that I want to tell more Black stories, and not just the ‘trauma porn’ that we’ve gotten so used to, all those stories where Black people try so hard but never succeed. So, all those classics that we love, right? They’re traumatic when you look at them, because it reminds us of where we are in history. And it revitalizes that trauma that lives in our body as Black people. I want to tell stories about Black Joy.”
Searching for those stories of Black Joy has become one of her primary creative missions. “In finding those places, I think that’s going to allow me to produce new playwrights. I’m looking on places like New Play Exchange, where people just upload their plays.. And I found a couple [of plays] already. So, I’m really, really excited about doing that kind of work.”
Stephanie elaborated on Black Joy, telling me about a recent workshop she attended online through the Racial Equity Institute. She asked me not to give away any spoilers because she hopes others will want to participate in workshops through REI, but I can tell you the conversations she told me about sounded amazing, and I highly recommend checking out their work!
Different Strokes is coming back to the live stage in July with the World Premiere of ‘BLVCK BRILLIANCE: A Celebration of Melanin,’ a production partially funded by a grant through the Asheville Area Arts Council. The show is described as a unique and joyful evening-length production, performed by a talented and supercharged cast of local Black dancers and a violinist. ‘BLVCK BRILLIANCE’ uses a variety of music and movement styles to celebrate and elaborate, not just on the trauma and struggles of being Black, but on the strength, resilience, and pride Black people possess.
Their 2021-2022 Season includes a slightly delayed anniversary production of Love! Valour! Compassion!, the Pulitzer and Tony Award winning August: Osage County, and Roe, a play about the landmark 1973 case that legalized abortion. Also in the Season is Oxalis, the second play by local Asheville playwright Travis Lowe to have been produced through UnderDevelopment, Different Strokes’ Playwright’s resource program. Through UnderDevelopment DSPAC hopes to foster new playwrights in the development and production of powerful new plays that not only entertain, but also inform, enlighten, and deepen audience awareness of socially significant issues.