Theatre may be dark, but we are turning the spotlight on! NLT wants to celebrate theatre creators and change makers that we admire, that inspire us, and that we think are acting as a light in their community. Join us each month as we uplift the voices that are working to positively impact our industry and our fellow humans.
Yannick is a graduate of NYU Abu Dhabi and a Philadelphia based performer, theatremaker, and creative hand for hire whose delightful face you may recognize from NLT's production of Othello and reading of A Christmas Carol. Yannick is a Project Specialist with Monument Lab, a public art and history studio that cultivates and facilitates critical conversations around the past, present and future of monuments, and serves as a performer and frequent collaborator with Alterra.
During the pandemic, Yannick created The Telelibrary, a unique, intimate, interactive program experienced via phone by an audience of one. Part theatre, part game, and part self care, since its debut The Telelibrary has reached over 650 users from at least 10 countries through 850 phone calls, bringing meaningful artistic connection in a time of isolation and social distancing.
NLT: When did you first get involved with theatre, and when did you know it was going to be something you devote your life to?
YTO: When I was young, my family moved across the country, and the first friends I made did theatre, and convinced me to join them. I felt far too shy for it at first, and even though I gradually grew to enjoy it, it wasn’t until late in High School that I really felt like performing was the path for me. I was in a Shakespearean Monologue Recitation contest (a statement that efficiently tells you a lot about what I was like in High School), and I fell into the chance to go to the national competition. I found myself really ignited in a way I had never been before, and I asked friends and teachers to help me practice every day. When the time came for the big competition, I bombed - didn’t even make the first round of cuts. And as I sat in the crowd trying to feel sorry for myself, I kept getting distracted by the other performers, and the text. Even feeling totally miserable, I couldn’t help but feel a hunger to do it again, and to explore all of these roles. Eventually this one thought sort of landed on me like a truck; “you could do this forever, and you’d never be done.” And so I stayed lit up.
NLT: What have you learned about yourself in the past year of creating theatre from home?
YTO: After experiencing The Telelibrary, many of my friends have told me the same thing: “it’s so you.” And I’ve had that experience as well; I’ve never felt more parts of myself present in a performance, even when I was doing Storyslams and telling stories from my own life. And so there’s a way that doing the piece has helped me to be a little kinder to myself, and a little more accepting, because I can see how even the parts of myself I struggle with — my impatience, my insatiability, the tendency for my mind to wander off, chase cars, or go to seed — even those things are part of what makes it possible for me to perform the piece as I do. So I’m gentler with myself. And through interacting with so many people, and watching them take care of each other in the piece, I’ve come to learn how important Gentleness is to me. It’s something that I really believe in, and will go to bat for: Gentle is powerful.
NLT: Is there a part of yourself that you see recurring in your work?
YTO: I think the best thing that could be said about me is that I’m incurably curious. And in anything I am doing, if I can find a way to ask “what if?” then I can make it work. Sometimes it’s curiosity around a topic, or a single question, or something people “don’t talk about.” My piece in Fringe this year, IF WE WIN, is all about imagining a way for 4 strangers to talk openly about money, and reckoning with what we wonder and choose to know (or not know) about how money works in our lives and our world. Other times curiosity manifests as a general outlook; The Telelibrary is born out of a belief that any pile of books is a reminder that the world is infinitely interesting. I’ve always seen art as the way we negotiate between the incomprehensible bigness of all the things that could be and the practical limitations of how small any given life is. We grow to be comfortable with our smallness - in a lot of ways it protects us, serves as a necessary filter, stops us from burning out. But we can also start to feel incomplete, or restrained by whatever choices we make, however right or good those choices are. Through art we open ourselves up just a little bit to the Everything again. I find it a really joyful thing, and also sad, and so I think a lot of my work comes out as a kind of Cheerful Melancholy. It’s a flavor I really enjoy, and it’s always a good thing when I can access and explore it in my work, because it makes me a little less insufferable as a person in my day to day.
NLT: What is your creative process for devising and honing one of your shows?
YTO: Normally I get stuck on an idea, and then all my friends in turn have to suffer me talking their ear off about this idea, and then those conversations start to find a structure, and then I keep testing that structure through repetition. It’s one of the things I love about small audience work: there’s more capacity for each participant to really change the tone and shape of the piece, so I get to discover a broader sense of what any given piece could be. I find that building a piece through iteration and playtesting is really exciting - and it’s also a cheaper and more sustainable way to build something really large, detailed, and ambitious. I could never have built The Telelibrary all at once - the development time would have been too expensive, and I would have sat on my hands for most of it anyway. I can only make things in conversation. I have to talk to think.
NLT: You describe yourself as a “Creative Researcher.” Tell us more about what that means to you and how it influences what projects you work on.
YTO: Well first off it’s tactical, because it describes (and hopefully invites) the kind of paid work that has absolutely sustained my livelihood and fed my curiosity. When I’ve worked with organizations like NYU Open Arts under Mary Bitel, Guerilla Science, Al-Bustan and Monument Lab, they’ve been exploring really refreshing and exciting approaches to taking in data and creating meaningful archives of new knowledge out of interactions with an audience or the general public. The questions being asked and problems being solved can vary wildly, but I find I can bring the same approach to each, and it’s the same approach and ideals that I love to use in my own work.
I think every artist is a researcher, and we’re all constantly building and expanding our own database. To me, being a “Creative Researcher” is about lifting tools from data science and other practices, and finding out how the considerations and obligations that those tools require can make my own creative work stronger, broader, and stranger.
NLT: Is there a favorite interaction you’ve had through The Telelibrary that has stuck with you?
YTO: It never ceases to amaze me what people will offer when you invite them to share in a piece, especially when you can build a one-on-one space, and do the work to make the space feel safe. I’ve been told a lot of wonderful things, and a lot of heartbreaking things too; it’s been a hell of a year to be human, and I do my best to affirm any part of that mess that someone wants or needs to offer. Over time I’ve had to figure out how to take care of myself in the process, and what I need to do for myself to still be able to show up every day, because I take the work of carrying all of that very seriously. At the same time, the first time my uncle called in from the Netherlands, he interrupted me after about 10 minutes to say that he didn’t realize this was going to be a whole thing, and that he had to go because he had “some really nice fish on the fire.” So I try to hold on to that too, and not take things too seriously.
I’m just constantly blown away by the ways Users have embraced the piece and made it my own. The first time someone showed me some “fan art” I really swooned, and I’ve proudly hung up everything that Users have sent me over the year and half of the piece. A friend joked that my desk has become an altar to the piece - which, superstitious as I am, is maybe not so far off. But I think of it as the physical part of this fictional “place” that so many people have helped me build, and every day that I get to do that show, I get to go there.
NLT: Why did you start The Telelibrary, specifically as a response to COVID-19?
YTO: Well guilt, boredom, and gratitude are a hell of a combo. Travel restrictions hit while I was on my way somewhere, and getting back home was an ordeal that took a lot of people helping me. With everything up in the air and nothing in my calendar, I had this strong impulse to “do something useful.” Because I have a fairly particular notion of what people need but don’t get, I had the idea to read to people on the phone. And because I have a compulsive need to overcomplicate things, I tried to build a structure that could make the process of engaging with that reading feel like something I wasn’t able to get out of all the binge-watching and Zooming I was doing.
NLT: Why is theatre the best medium for what you are curious about?
YTO: Maybe this is just because I have a complicated love-hate relationship with theatre, but I don’t know that I would say it is the “best medium.” It seems like every time I make my own theatre, people tell me they “never thought theatre could be like that.” Some people would argue what I do isn’t really theatre, and I wouldn’t really care enough to debate them. What I do know is the kind of exchanges I want to make with an audience lay somewhere just outside of the boundaries of “normal life.” I think the most powerful thing art can be is a tool someone can use in the process of writing their own story, and understanding their own world. And in daily life doing those things can seem impossible, dangerous, or just totally exhausting. But if you call it “theatre,” cap it at 90 minutes, and sell a few beers, sometimes people will give it a try. So maybe theatre isn’t the best medium—maybe it’s just a useful name.
NLT: Is there a person, cause, or event in your life that you return to when you are in need of motivation to keep going?
YTO: I remember when I got accepted to college, my mother said “remember this; this is your patronus.” And there are some things I’ve used as a North Star in my life, as reminders of joy or inspiration Martha Graham once wrote a letter to Agnes DeMille, and it talks about how to keep going, and that our job is not necessarily to evaluate our work or think it’s the best, but to continue it. “ You do not even have to believe in yourself or your work […] Keep the channel open.”
Ultimately, I’ve found that motivation is overrated. I trust habits more: finding the everyday things that sustain me, and keep me alive. Some flowers only bloom once a year, but you still have to water them every day. I feel powerless when I try to force motivation, or inspiration. But by now, I know the things that nurture me as a person, and when I take care of that, I trust that the inspiration will come. It may be late. It may crash in sweaty and full of excuses, or waltz through the door sipping coffee without a care in the world. But it will come.
NLT: What is the last piece of writing you read that you had to share with a friend?
YTO: Someone very thoughtfully gifted me “Upstream” by Mary Oliver, and now my friends can look forward to suffering me reading bits of it to them as I geek out.
NLT: What was the last song or album you listened to that you had on repeat?
YTO: I just saw “Pigpen Theatre Co.” at an outdoor concert, and it reminded me how much I love their music! That being said, almost a year later I am still listening to and watching Doja Cat’s 2020 mashup from the BBMAs on hard repeat.
NLT: What’s the last television show, movie, or recorded theatre piece you watched that deeply moved you?
YTO: A little while ago I convinced my parents to watch the recording of “In & Of Itself” by Derek Delguadio, which is such an exceptionally beautiful and powerful show. I saw it in person when it was running, and I’m so glad they chose to document and release it, because I have so often reached for it as a point of reference for the level of care, vulnerability, and intimacy a piece of theatre can evoke. Delguadio crafted a number of deeply thoughtful ways to invite the audience into the piece, and the way he repays each of those moments of participation is stunning.