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Abelson artist Regina Taylor encourages the creative life

Regina Taylor, the 2009 Hope Abelson Artist-in-Residence, in conversation with Northwestern University faculty member Harvey Young, Jr., Nov. 19.


When actress, playwrite and director Regina Taylor visited Northwestern University's Evanston campus this fall, students and other guests she met with got more than advice on how to break into television and film—they got advice on how to live a creative life.

Taylor, the 2009 Hope Abelson Artist-in-Residence, spoke to a standing-room crowd in the Annie May Swift Auditorium Nov. 19.

The Hope Abelson Artist-in-Residence Program began in 1990 with a gift from Hope Altman Abelson, who studied theatre at Northwestern and became a Broadway producer. Abelson Artists-in-Residence spend a few days on campus working with and talking to students. Abelson artists have included playwrite Tony Kushner, actor and director Brian Bedford and actors Cherry Jones, Meryl Streep and Bill Irwin.

During her residency, Regina Taylor led a monologue workshop with senior acting students and met with small groups of students who interested in acting, writing and directing.

Taylor's constant message was for artists to engage with who they are.

"Regina Taylor lives a fiercely open-minded creative life, one that constantly questions the received wisdoms about how one should behave as well as the habits of generalization that drive people to categorize each other unjustly," said Billy Siegenfeld, professor of dance and chair of the event's planning committee. "She lives this kind of life because of her constant engagement with the question she referred to at least a few times: 'Who am I?'"

Taylor talked about her past projects, including the first role she was ever offered. Her lines were trimmed down to a single utterance, but, Taylor said, she embraced that line with all she had.

Taylor also reminisced about her award-winning work on the TV series "I'll Fly Away" and her first attempts at playwriting, which landed her a long-time role at Chicago's Goodman Theatre, where she is a member and artistic associate.

"I've been very fortunate in that relationship to find a theatre where I could work on my writing, a place where I could take risks," Taylor said. "And that's what artists have to do—take risks, stretch, grow. Own your own voice."

Taylor's play "Magnolia" premiered last spring at the Goodman. The play was directed by Anna Shapiro, a Tony Award-winning director and associate professor of theatre at Northwestern. The play also featured the talents of Caitlin Collins, a Northwestern senior acting student.

Collins served as a student host during Taylor's visit and was thrilled to get to spend more time with her.

Regina Taylor talks to senior acting students in a monologue workshop.

"One of the ideas Regina passed onto us which will stick with me is the notion that others may try to label you as one thing or another, to name you, but you have the power to name yourself and to follow your own inspiration," Collins said. "It's inspiring to know that I really do have control over the kind of person I want to be and the spirit with which I want to live my life."

Students took to Taylor's message, said Harvey Young, Jr., Northwestern assistant professor of theatre, who led the conversation with Taylor at the evening event. "I received at least two dozen e-mails from my students who met Regina Taylor during her visit. Consistently, they told me how they found her to be inspiring and announced their similar desire to 'live a creative life.'"

The idea of a creative life was freeing for at least one student.

"Most of the time, my focus is on being productive," said Gabrielle Fulton, a student in Northwestern's MFA program for Writing for the Screen and Stage, also a student host for Taylor's visit. "I want to crank out as many scripts as possible in this short, two-year period that is dedicated to writing. Meeting and listening to Regina, I took away the idea that maybe I should be concentrating on being creative in as many ways as I can find to do so at this time. I learned that it's about living a creative life."