Studio IX: Who are you?
Denise: I'm Denise Stewart.
Studio IX: And what do you do?
Denise: I'm a theater artist. I do playwriting, acting, directing, devising. I'm also a coach, I coach people on wellness and creativity, and I coach businesses on using improv skills and public speaking. I'm also an instructor. I teach at UVA in the drama department.
Studio IX: What are you passionate about, and does it play a part in the work that you do?
Denise: For sure. I think I'm passionate about creating, and it seems that that is ... that seems to then manifest in lots of different ways, so whether it's creating bonds within a classroom, and then, also creating a stronger love for an art form, say, something like improv. So creating an atmosphere where people can work freely, and really release, or even get back to a place where they're more, just, a time when they were more freely creative, and didn't feel so self-conscious. I really take it seriously to provide those spaces and show myself as somebody who works like that, as a way of giving permission to students of any age, giving them permission to create.
Denise: And the same thing happens when I'm talking about, when I'm coaching with somebody one-on-one — creating an atmosphere where somebody could talk about what they really wanted, or talk about what they really hate, or talk about that ... something they really need to change, and then we could share stories and strategies. And that's an environment, too, that's why I'm creating that ability for somebody to say, this is gonna be ... this is what my life's gonna look like going forward.
Studio IX: I see that. What do you love most about the work?
Denise: You know, I love all ... there's ... I just love all the moments. There are so many indelible moments in my life in theater. When I've looked back at a production that I was in, no matter what I was doing in it, it's less about that whole thing and more about these really particular moments throughout all of it, that are very clear images to me. And so, watching students... just, for instance, I'm directing a piece with teens at Live Arts right now, and we haven't been able to get together very often because they are very busy in their classes and their extracurricular activities.
Denise: But when we do get together ... and then, we're working on something, and then I ask for a change, or I say something else, and maybe we all have a big laugh, or, there's just that, something about that moment. It's just so perfect or so funny, then I think we all remember those. We all leave every experience with a little catalog of moments, and I love that, no matter what I'm doing. So I think about that for my whole life, like, the catalog of moments. That's what makes it so fun.
Studio IX: I see.
Studio IX: I love that. Well, that's a good segue. What's a memorable story that you could share from the work?
Denise: Hmmm ... a memorable time is working on my one-woman show, Dirty Barbie and Other Girlhood Tales. So it was a process that ... I had never worked solo like that. Of course, I’m a playwright, but I had never worked on a solo show in any capacity. And so, working on that solo show, eventually, there came time where I had to start to show it to people. I was showing it to my coach, who was really wonderful with me, Bree Luck.
Denise: And then, I started showing it to my son, and then to small groups of friends who saw it and gave me feedback. I brought in people that I trusted, and when they would say, do this, or do that, I just did it. I did whatever they said because I was hungry for collaboration at that point. And then, I remember the week I took it down to North Carolina to open it, and I still had about four days left where I could rehearse, and I brought in other people that had worked with me years ago to see it and then made little tweaks. Whatever they said, I just did it.
Denise: Every one of those, I think ... I think everything anybody told me in those days became part of the show. And that’s really wonderful, because sometimes when I’m rehearsing a moment, I remember the exact moment between that trusted audience member and me. And opening that first week in a town that was only 20 minutes from the town that I grew up in, and having a lot of people that had known me and my family that ended up showing up, that I didn't know were coming, and I didn't know the word had spread about the show, and that it worked, that that show worked.
Denise: I cried a lot in the bathtub when I was building that show, not knowing, what have I got? What have I got? What is this? And then, gradually, when I was rehearsing, I knew it was coming together, but it wasn't until really that first week of that run, and I was like, oh, shit, I really made something. And I've been touring off and on for nine years, that show. Maybe I'll be 80, and I'll still be playing my seventh grade self, throwing tantrums onstage
Studio IX: I hope so.
Denise: There have been so many memorable moments from that show, that I think have encouraged and shaped me as an artist in ways I couldn't have predicted.
Studio IX: Yeah. What's an aspect of what you do that might surprise people to know? I think that's the hardest question I ask, because it's all like nose on face, because we know everything that we do, but other people don't.
Denise: So the question is, what is an aspect of what we do that might surprise people.
Studio IX: To know.
Denise: I guess an aspect of something I do is I record a lot of things, and that I only wish I could record more. I think it would surprise people that I read the Daily Progress every day. Some articles or tidbits I find it so hilarious and ridiculous, but every ... other, you know, more lofty papers are so scrubbed free of what really a town is, and it's a town paper. And I've always been fascinated by town papers. I think people would be surprised is, maybe surprised to know that, if I'm riding in the car, and there's a commercial like, Charlie Obaugh Chevrolet, I strive to get that accent right for that commercial and see if I can do the whole commercial with him with his accent. Maybe people would be surprised about where I go in terms of the grotesque or the ridiculous or the everyday super regular moments. That stuff's really ... that's really interesting to me. I just tear out stuff. I find pictures, and I don't know what to do with 'em. I stick 'em in my notebook, I keep a daily journal. I only wish I ... I get mad, 'cause I'm not doing it more, and I feel like all this is leading to the next show, but I've been keeping a journal since I was nine years old.
Studio IX: So good. Where do you see yourself in your work, like, in the next five, ten years?
Denise: I see myself with two more solo shows coming out, and a stronger coaching and writing business. A writing business sounds weird…what I mean by that is more ... that I’d be writing, publishing, and performing, and creating workshops…maybe on autobiography, helping people work with their own stories to create whatever it is. I created a one-woman show based on true stories, but maybe people want to create something else — I think I could be of help with that.
Studio IX: Okay. Last question.
Studio IX: What do you enjoy about being here at Studio IX?
Denise: I love being here. I feel I'm the most productive here than where I am anywhere else. And I love coffee, that's really important to me, actually is really important to me.
Studio IX: I'm gonna put that in all caps.
Denise: COFFEE!!! And I love the friends that I've met, and the people that I’m not friends with (yet), but we nod at each other in the hallways, and I love that we don't work together, so we don't bug each other. So we can be friendly, and I can watch them working, and their work inspires me to work harder, and we have wonderful conversations, but we don't bother each other. Right now I'm really into how I can create more deep work…spaces of time where I can work longer without worrying about the clock, because I haven't set my schedule up very well that way, and yet, I know my work needs that. So that's what I'm really working for in 2019, is to have bigger chunks of time, and I think Studio IX can give me that.
Studio IX: Rock on, sister.
Denise: Yeah, thank you.
Studio IX: That's that.
Denise: There are more things to love about Studio IX, but ...
Studio IX: No, that was ...
Denise: ... that was good. It was good-