Interview by Jamie Yellen with Paige Hernandez
Paige in Full is a one-woman performance piece, fusing poetry, theater, movement, and hip-hop to tell an exciting and inspiring coming of age story that explores intense emotions and complex identity questions through comedy, music and rhyme. Paige in Full is the story of Paige Hernandez, a Baltimore, MD native with a diverse cultural background and a passion for hip-hop and dance. Paige explores universal themes of love, cultural pluralism, bullying, growth, identity, place and passion in her show, which debuted in a small theater in Washington, DC in 2010.
Paige has taken Paige in Full on the road and tours the country performing for varied audiences. She has found a niche working with youth audiences as they discover and relate to her performance and workshop their own pieces with her. Paige will be performing for the public at BAM, on March 14, 2014 at 7:30pm, after workshopping with students during the day. We reached out to Paige to explore how the show has developed since its debut.
CATALYST Review’s Managing Editor, Jamie Yellen, interviewed Paige Hernandez, writer, creator and star of Paige in Full: A B-Girl’s Visual Mixtape to find out how the show has developed and to explore the role culture plays in this unique performance experience.
Catalyst: Explain Paige in Full and the role that culture plays in the show.
Paige: Paige In Full is a B-girl’s visual mix tape. A B-girl is another term for a girl who break dances— a break dancing girl. It also represents someone who embodies hip-hop from head to toe. They’re not just a part of the music but they’re a part of the culture as a whole.
And then a ‘visual mixtape,’ because I am theater artist first and foremost. I wanted to create something that was a bit different from the normal theater that we see… something that wasn’t necessarily linear and just dialog. A ‘visual mixtape’ represents a combination of things: poetry, music, dancing, and multi-media design. All of those things keep theatre fresh, current and relatable to a younger audience.
At its core, Paige In Full is a coming of age story. It’s my personal story. It’s 100 percent autobiographical about growing up in Baltimore in the 80s, being of mixed race, having all those tough kinds of obstacles- with family, with love, of being bullied, but then always being grounded in hip-hop.
Culture plays a huge role in the show because of my background, which is Black, Cuban and Chinese. But the major question that I ask in the show is ‘Am I enough?’ Growing up, I never thought that I really fit into one of those three ethnicities. It’s like a Venn diagram- there’s some overlaps but not until I was an adult that I realized that I don’t have to be defined by those categories. I could just be the makeup of all three, which is something new.
The great thing about hip-hop for me is that I was able to combine those different cultures, use them, and have them on display in a way that I couldn’t anywhere else. For me, hip-hop is a great vehicle for culture.
Catalyst: How did you create Paige in Full? What was the creative process and where did the inspiration come from?
Paige: The pragmatic explanation is that I have a great friend, Danielle Drakes, who has her own theater company, The Hegira. She contacted me and said she wanted to do something exciting in her season and she knew I was sitting on something but was afraid to really dig in. She got a grant through the Mead Corporation, which is based in Washington, D.C., to develop a show. From there, we were able to create an awesome team which included herself as director, a dramaturge, yourself as set designer, sound design, projection, all of the pieces began to come into play.
The artistic explanation is that I wanted to create something that I wanted to see on stage. I felt like there was a big void in American theater when it came to stories of women of color who were proud and confident and not hyper-sexualized. So when I sat down to write it, I was like, ‘what do I want to see?’ It ended up being that I wanted to see this story that is about this strong woman, who finds hip-hop and theater -– Someone who goes through the same things as everyone else, but overcomes them with the aid of hip-hop.
Catalyst: Can you explain the roll that music plays in both the show and in your creative process?
Paige: Music helps tremendously in my creative process. Actually, I had a hard time writing the show until my little brother, Nick tha 1da– who is the original sound designer for the show- provided me with a CD of instrumental hip-hop beats. That CD really spoke to me. I listened to one track and it sounded like my grandmother’s funeral; and another track sounded like, you know, the music I would hear when I would see my crush in the hallway in elementary school. Nick’s music really inspired me. I’m also instinctively a very movement based actor. I love using movement to help me to convey a story. So for that reason, music means a lot to me.
Catalyst: When you travel do you bring in local DJs?
Paige: Not normally. I’ve only been able to do it in New York and Chicago. For the shows at BAM I’ll be working with the Brooklyn-based DJ Reborn.
Catalyst: What’s it like collaborating with new people on the show as you tour it?
Paige: It’s actually been pretty rewarding. Everyone who’s been new to the process has been another woman, which I really dig. Many people think there aren’t many strong women in hip-hop but we’re here to prove them wrong. I try to find people who are working in hip-hop, who believe in the same things I do. And that’s what Reborn does. She’s really dope, and very skilled. She goes to work on those turntables! You don’t see DJ’ing with actual turntables anymore, and then to have a woman do it is great. It’s really girl power up on that stage.
Catalyst: There is particular emphasis on Baltimore and Washington DC. Explain the role of place in your show. How has place shaped who you are?
Paige: There used to be a line in the show that said ‘It’s not where you’re at or where you’re from, but where you’re going,’ which has been reinvented a lot, but I really believe that. You can’t deny places that are a part of your make up. Those places inform how you interact…how you connect. My hometown, Baltimore, has had a huge impact on me that way. I was raised around a lot of hard knocks in Baltimore and I wouldn’t have had it any other way. I don’t regret it at all because it’s made me who I am.
I also talk about DC, which is my current, artistic home. DC has been very instrumental in my development as an artist. In the show, I also talk about the places where my identity is represented. So I talk about Cuba and China. I even talk about how as a child I looked for places that served as a safe, creative space. My favorite place as a child was in my basement.
Catalyst: How has the show developed since you’ve taken it on the road?
Paige: I had to adjust some of the content for the younger audience. I also made the scale of the show bigger. I’ve got a travelling set that can fill a huge space and I’ve got some updated projections. The show was raw when it opened. I think you’ll still see a lot of that now, but it’s definitely a bit more polished. It has to be on that bigger scale and I have to reach someone all the way in the back of a 1,000 seat house with just my body.
Catalyst: How do you use Paige in Full as an educational tool with children when you travel? What are you trying to teach students?
Paige: When I was writing it, I didn’t intend for this to be a show for young audiences. But the more I did it, the more I found that it really resonated with a youth audience. There are a lot of adolescent themes including bullying, acceptance, trying to find love, getting caught up in the wrong crowd, making the wrong choices etc.
The whole show is based on the mixtape— a lot of these students in the audience don’t even know what a cassette tape is. So it’s kind of nice to bring it to a new generation.
For the most part, on all of the engagements, I do talkbacks as well as weeklong residencies and workshops. So usually the students get to see the show at the beginning of the week with a talkback. And then later that week, I visit their schools or programs and do workshops, master classes, residencies, etc. I have workshops in poetry, play writing, hip-hop theater, hip-hop dance. It’s been great working with a younger audience. The whole experience has really been full circle.
I mostly work with public schools in the Title I, underserved community. My show and workshops are not something that the students get to experience often, so they’re usually super charged up. My show validates who they are but also aligns with the curriculum and the Core Standards. It’s a win-win situation for everyone involved.
Catalyst: How are these schools finding out about Paige in Full?
Paige: I have a booking agent, and he’s able to book me on different regional conferences and festivals where a lot of these presenters and schools attend. And then from there: word-of-mouth. I can’t believe it. I’ve been touring for five years. I’ve been back to some places three and four times.
Catalyst: Paige in Full is a one-woman show. Can you speak the role that community plays in this type of show? How has your creative community developed since you first began this process?
Paige: I know for sure that this show wouldn’t be possible without the people who helped to develop this show. I really believe in aligning yourself with artists who have the same vision and who are from the same cloth. These same artists understand that art can be used as not just as entertainment, but as a true catalyst for change.
The messages that are in the show is something that I want my community to be able to experience. They have the opportunity to see someone who looks like them and talks like them and walks like them. They also feed me and I grow from them.
Catalyst: What is your favorite part of performing and what’s your favorite part of the show?
Paige: My favorite part of performing is definitely the audience interaction. I love when a younger audience is so engaged that they dance in their seats.
My favorite part of the show is the dance that I do for everyone who has fallen in hip-hop. The dance is also homage to my grandmother. I look forward to it every time I perform it. It’s a way of communicating with those who have gone on, so it’s really special to me.
Catalyst: How do you think you’ve grown as a person as a result of the show?
Paige: Oh, my goodness: Exponentially. When I first started the show, I was terrified to share my story and the personal moments within it. It started out as a confession that turned into therapy. But touring is where I got to truly see the impact sharing my experiences. Afterwards, people would tell me how much they were inspired or empowered by my story. It’s a humbling experience with such a huge reward.
Catalyst: How do you think the show impacts audiences and how do you think people feel when they leave the theater? What do you want them to take away when they leave the theater?
Paige: First- I hope they walk away feeling inspired and empowered about their own life story. And then secondly, I hope they walk away with a positive feeling for hip-hop. It’s easy to lose sight of why the culture was born to begin with, so I would love to see people walk away with a positive hip-hop experience.
Paige is a multifaceted artist, who is known for her innovative fusion of poetry, hip hop, dance and education.
As a master teaching artist, Paige has taught throughout the country, to all ages, in all disciplines. To date, she has reached approx. 10,000 students, from Pre-K through college, in over 100 residencies, workshops and performances. She has been recognized in many organizations including the Wolf Trap Institute for Early Learning through the Arts and Arena Stage where she was awarded the Thomas Fichandler award for exceptional promise in theater education. The Huffington Post also named Paige a “classroom hero” because of her outstanding arts integration and work with STEM initiatives.
With her company B-FLY ENTERTAINMENT, Paige has written and performed several original works including Liner Notes, The Nayika Project, 7th Street Echo and All the Way Live! To date, she tours her children’s show Havana Hop and her solo show, Paige in Full: A B-girl’s Visual Mixtape throughout the country.