Poet, playwright and performance artist Lenelle Moïse MFA’04 believes in using all five senses to engage an audience.
Her communications style is evident on first meeting. As Moïse—who is this year’s Lucille Geier Lakes Writer-in-Residence at Smith—describes her work with students, she perches on the edge of her chair, face animated, arms and hands gesturing gracefully as she speaks.
Moïse draws on her Haitian-American heritage in her writing and performance. Her debut collection, Haiti Glass, won the 2015 PEN Oakland Josephine Miles Literary Award, and she was recently awarded a 2017 Artist Fellowship in Dramatic Writing by the Massachusetts Cultural Council.
Smith’s Lakes writer-in-residence program is designed around intensive workshops and small classes taught by visiting playwrights, poets, novelists and journalists who come to campus for a semester each year.
Moïse and her students will share the results of their collaborations in “Tomorrow We Save the Planet,” to be performed Thursday, May 4, at 4 p.m. in Theatre 14, Mendenhall Center for the Performing Arts.
Here’s what Moïse had to say about being at Smith this semester.
What’s it like to be a writer-in-residence at your alma mater?
Lenelle Moïse: “It’s a thrill! I chose Smith for graduate school because I knew this was a fiercely intellectual community. Teaching here feels like coming full circle. I overhear inspiring conversations wherever students gather—in classrooms, after lectures, on the steps of the library or in the Botanic Garden.”
What have you been working on this semester?
Moïse: “I’m writing a screenplay, which is something new for me. I’m also teaching a class called ‘Prompt and Circumstance: A Creative Lab for the Performing Writer.’ I believe in full body writing—writing for tempo, duration shape and gesture. As humans, we grunted and gestured we before we spoke. The philosophy that drives my classes is ‘if you can’t say it, point to it!’ I give students writing prompts that they then present to the class as performance. It’s been amazing to walk into my class a half hour early and find students are already there, preparing. In that way, working with Smith students feels like working with professionals.”
What was your journey to becoming an artist?
Moïse: “I was born in Port Au Prince, Haiti, and moved to the U.S. when I was 3. I grew up in Cambridge, Mass., surrounded by great storytellers. I soaked them up! I’ve been writing poetry since I was 5. I fell in love with theater in the 7th grade when a teacher took us to see Macbeth in the round. In high school, I had the same acting teacher as Matt Damon—Gerry Speca. He ran our little black box like a professional theater. In college, I realized that roles were limited for people like me—I kept getting cast as ‘the help.’ I wanted to write stories where black women had agency, and I wondered what Macbeth would be like as a black woman. Today, I’m committed to creating leading roles for women, people of color and folks across the LGBTQIA spectrum.”
How did Smith help prepare you for what you are doing now?
Moïse: “Growing up, I felt a cultural pressure to become a lawyer or a doctor. When I chose the artist path, it felt important to get an advanced degree. I had good instincts as a writer, but I wanted to hone my skills. Smith’s MFA Playwriting program is very intimate, so I got a lot of one-on-one coaching from professors like Len Berkman and Andrea Hairston. I left school with a confidence that I could write a strong story.”
What advice do you have for Smithies pursuing careers in the arts?
Moïse: “Befriend your body, and tell your body’s story. That’s important now, more than ever, when our nation seems so divided. It’s a challenging moment for all of us, but also a clear opportunity to raise our voices, to tell our truths, to show each other who we are. I also encourage folks to find out who is doing the type of art you love and support them. Introduce yourself to your sheroes and heroes and keep showing up—be it as an audience member or as an intern. Theater is about knowing yourself and showing up for each other’s stories.”
Smith College Medalist Amy Ellis Nutt ’77 is next year’s Lakes writer-in-residence. A Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist who writes for The Washington Post, Nutt will teach a narrative nonfiction workshop on campus in 2018.