Oral Fixation Series Joins Forces with Soluna Festival for Immigration-Themed Storytelling

Director Nicole Stewart with Greek storyteller Basil Sideris with SOLUNA producer Muriel Quancard and Vietnamese storyteller Linh Matthews looking on.
Director Nicole Stewart with Greek storyteller Basil Sideris with SOLUNA producer Muriel Quancard and Vietnamese storyteller Linh Matthews looking on.
Monte Laster

The curtain has closed on the core of Oral Fixation's fourth season of storytelling, but there's one special show to go, Destination: America, and it's dear to Oral Fixation creator Nicole Stewart's heart. The cast of storytellers for Destination: America is made up of immigrants who will share their experience coming to this country and becoming American citizens in a performance at the Dallas Museum of Art's Horchow Auditorium on Saturday.

Oral Fixation hosted their first immigration-themed show, developed to celebrate naturalization ceremonies, at the DMA last year. But this year the show will be part of the Dallas Symphony Orchestra's inaugural Soluna Fest, bringing in elements of music and art that will amplify the powerful subject matter. We chatted with Nicole about Destination: America and Oral Fixation's involvement with Soluna this year.

Where did the idea to do a show about immigration come from? It was actually a wonderful, synergistic moment. One of my favorite type of moments in life where magic just happens. I'm a pilates instructor -- that's what I've done as my bread and butter since I graduated from Northwestern. It's a wonderful job where I get to help people connect with their bodies, and I love it. A gal that I had instructed in pilates was at a luncheon with Carolyn Bess, who's the director of programming of Arts and Letters Live at the [Dallas Museum of Art]. For some reason this woman said to Carolyn, "You've got to meet Nicole Stewart."

We met at Stephan Pyles, and over flatbreads we just started talking. There was no specific agenda. But she mentioned to me that Max Anderson [director of the DMA] had instituted these naturalization ceremonies. I said, "God, I would really love to talk to those people and to find out why they came to America and what it's like to go through the citizenship process -- what it's like to leave their friends and family, their culture and their language behind." Carolyn said, "We would love to have you do that show as part of Arts and Letters Live."

When they booked you for the DMA this year was that prior to Soluna being attached? We were going to do it in June, and then, on a personal note, I was pregnant and I was due the same day as we were planning the event, so I called Carolyn and said, "Do you think we can move it to May" ... [The DMA is] doing a couple of other events with Soluna, and she told me about [it] and that the theme was Destination: America, and we were like, "This is perfect." We moved the event. I ended up having a miscarriage, but we might not have thought of it otherwise. Anna Sophia van Zweden loved the idea and they're really adding a lot. They're providing La Rondalla, the acoustic youth guitar outfit out of Oak Cliff to perform. They're a program of Big Thought, which I'm a huge fan of, and they're going to be performing right before the show in Horchow and they'll do a 45-minute set during [a] reception [afterward]. They're just lovely ... and they just won a huge award [for being] one of the 50 most prominent, best arts education programs in the country. I'm really excited to connect with them, and that sort of brings in the music aspect of Soluna.

And then Anna Sophia also told me they have a couple of resident artists. One of them is Monte Laster out of Paris. He actually grew up west of Fort Worth and left the country at age 19. He's been living in Paris for over 20 years. He does what's called social sculpture art. What he's doing particularly with Oral Fixation is, we had all of our storytellers -- we cast them well in advance this time -- and we had them all come to the museum on a Monday when it was closed and we all walked the galleries of the permanent collections together and each of them selected a piece of art that either was from their home country or that evoked memories of the time before they came to America. Monte brought with him his filmographer, Antoine, from Paris, and I really didn't know what to expect in this interaction.

I couldn't have anticipated the chemistry and the power that art would have to make these storytellers feel. More than one of them choked up in tears as they interacted with the pieces and shared with us on camera why the piece that they selected was important to them. So that was one aspect of the film that Monte's creating. The other aspect is that he went on location to each of our storytellers' either home or work and filmed them in their world. I can tell you from seeing some of Antoine's footage that it's just breathtaking. Goosebumps all over the place. Instead of having the behind the scenes videos that we normally have at the beginning of the show, it'll be a 5-minute video that's created by Monte, and I just think it's going to give more of a 3-dimensional aspect to these people's lives. Most of the stories are about what their life was like at home and why they came to America, so I think it's sort of an interesting epilogue to see them here and what their life is like now.

Given the gravity of the subject matter, do you think this show will have the same blend of humor and tenderness that Oral Fixation has become known for? It's a lot harder to find the humor ... I've used the [moment of] becoming a citizen as the turning point in all of the stories in the editing process. So I would say this is more of a heartstring puller than certainly "Happy Camper" [the theme of Oral Fixation's last show], which, you know, my cheeks hurt from laughing so hard. I think laughter is the best medicine, it's so healing and wonderful, but for me as a director, I'm a sixth generation Dallasite and I don't know what it's like to leave my home behind and to learn a new language and to start over.

We interact with folks who have done just that every single day, in so many different ways -- working at your dry cleaner, or driving your Uber or at the grocery store ... One of my storytellers is from Mexico and she came to the United States at age 30. She had been working in education, she had a degree in education, but she didn't speak English. So when she came here she started working in a restaurant making burritos. She'd never worked in food service before. And it was really humbling for her and it was an important step in her getting settled here and getting grounded. She's since moved on and gotten her master's, and she's working in education again.

Ultimately, my goal in sharing these stories is for the citizens of Dallas to give our immigrants more compassion and respect for the journeys that have brought them here. We have a very diverse cast this year. We have several refugees I learned last year from working with a Bosnian refugee; she was very clear with me, she said, "NIcole, an immigrant is someone who elected to come to this country and leave their home, a refugee did not want to leave their home. They were forced." I think that's a really interesting distinction.

As far as how the association with Soluna and the DMA will affect this production -- I know you've mentioned the musical performance by La Rondalla and the artworks selected by the storytellers -- it also sounds like there are a lot of artists in the cast. That was another wonderful contribution from Soluna. Francisco Moreno is a resident artist with Soluna this year and he's a local Mexican American artist who studied painting at RISD. He's incredibly talented and he came to the United States from Mexico when he was 6. A lot of his work deals with this tension between wanting to fit in and assimilate and wanting to maintain his Mexican heritage. He's just a lovely guy and he's going to be sharing his immigration story and also some insights into how that affects his work.

Was there a language barrier with any of the storytellers, or because of the subject matter was your process working with the storytellers different in any way? I learned last year that I needed a lot more time with each storyteller than I normally do. I typically work with editing folks over the phone for ease of scheduling and that kind of thing doesn't work for the most part with immigrants. They want to meet with me, they want to connect with me, and for some of them it's harder to understand. I did have to make sure that I could understand them speaking English so that onstage the audience is able to understand them, and also that they felt comfortable reading their story aloud in English. But I've been so impressed by the language skills.

One gentleman, Ghazwan Altaie, who grew up in Iraq and lived there until 2003 until he received a death threat and he became a refugee in Jordan for 10 years, he's only been in this country for three months, and he has perfect English. He's just the most phenomenal person. I never thought that I would have such a close connection with someone from that part of the world. It's just been so refreshing. So yes, it adds extra challenges, but for me personally, the rewards of being able to intimately connect with folks from all over the world, and the rewards of being able to share them with our community are even greater than the shows I work on during the regular season.

How did you field submissions? We have some amazing organizations here in Dallas, like DFW International and the International Rescue Committee. I reached out to a bunch of Hispanic organizations, because we have so many Hispanic immigrants in Dallas and North Texas. I wanted to make sure that they were well represented. So we have two in this year's cast and we also had two last year. The museum has a wonderful network as well. So Maria Teresa Pedroche, who I believe is the community director at the museum, she put me in touch with a lot of people. So it was a lot more of reaching out.

I heard about a guy who was a former lost boy of Sudan who was working at the Albertson's in Snider Plaza ... I ended up getting put in touch with an organization called Friends of the Lost Boys DFW, which I never knew existed. So I've just been finding these amazing organizations and it's so fun to be able to bring them to the public eye ... I did receive some submissions, but by and large those were not the stories that were selected. I was really intentional. It's impossible to represent the world in seven people, but I tried ... I think this may be what I'm most proud of in my career so far, this one evening.

Catch the show at 7:30 p.m. Saturday at Horchow Auditorium in the Dallas Museum of Art (1717 N. Harwood St.). Tickets are $35 online at TicketLeap or at 214-922-1818.

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