Milwaukee artist and storyteller Della Wells inspires new theater production, "Don't Tell Me I Can't Fly"

By Mithra Ballesteros, First Stage Children's Theater
Milwaukee artist Della Wells is a master storyteller who, at the age of 42, embarked on a path as a collage artist. Ms. Wells' work is evocative -- begging questions that sometimes the artist answers with folktales she writes to accompany the collages.  Visual and verbal storytelling allow Ms. Wells to make sense of her life and some of the challenges that she has overcome.

Last month, Ms. Wells, storyteller, became Ms. Wells, audience member.  She experienced the unique sensation of witnessing a read-through of a play based on her own childhood.  The play, DON'T TELL ME I CAN'T FLY, was commissioned by First Stage Children's Theater to explore the life of a young girl who can't help but burst the seams of a difficult homelife that includes a mentally ill mother and a repressive father.

Ms. Wells joined First Stage directors Rob Goodman and Jeff Frank, playwright Y York, and director Mark Lutwak in Washington D.C. to workshop DON'T TELL ME I CAN'T FLY through the New Visions / New Voices program at the Kennedy Center for Performing Arts.

The journey of Ms. Well's story to the stage involves chance aquaintances and a strong connection between artist and writer. Years ago, Ms. Wells told her story to Anne Basting at the University of Wisconsin - Milwaukee. The story inspired Ms. Basting, who contacted her childhood friend and First Stage Artistic Director Jeff Frank.  "Anne told me about Della Wells", said Frank. "She believed that inside Della's story was a play that she couldn't tell, but that I should."

Frank then introduced Ms. Wells to playwright Y York, who, according to Frank, "is open to flights of fantasy and writes with a lot of heart, but grounds everything in reality." In that first meeting, Ms. Wells and Ms. York clicked. Frank, too, noted the immediate connection between the two women: "Y and Della are a lot alike. Bubbling under the surface of all their discussions was a strong creative kindred spirit." The end result of that meeting was a script titled DON'T TELL ME I CAN'T FLY.

First Stage sent the script and an application to the Kennedy Center in Washington D.C. for consideration in the prestigious New Visions / New Voices workshop. Thanks to richly drawn characters and a funny yet challenging story, the script was extremely well-received and the Kennedy Center invited First Stage and its artistic team to Washington. 

After a week of work, local actors performed a reading for an audience that included Ms. Wells. The artist was moved: "I didn't know what to expect. It was very emotional for me to hear the read-through.  It spoke the truth."

When Ms. Wells returned from Washington, she took up her pastels and dove in to new work.  She said, "I loved learning how theater works, and seeing a different creative process.  Now, I'm busy making work in response to the play."  To which First Stage director Rob Goodman delightedly quips, "art, which is inspired by art, is inspiring more art!"

"DON'T TELL ME I CAN'T FLY" is slated for production as part of First Stage's 25th anniversary season in 2011-2012. First Stage Artistic Director Jeff Frank intends to make Ms. Wells' story the cornerstone of a new series of plays rooted in the history of Milwaukee and Wisconsin.

Photo by permission of Della Wells

1 comment:

Brianna said...

I saw the staged reading at New Visions New Voices and it was the most sparkling, brilliant, and touching new play for young audiences I've experienced in a while. I hope that I can make it to the production in the 25th anniversary season. Kudos to First Stage for working on such an amazing project.

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