This article first appeared in The Alt on August 27, 2018.

Photo by Kevin Greene

Twenty-one-year-old Morgan Heyward always knew that the stage was where she belonged, but as a woman of color, she struggled to find a voice in the local theater community. So she turned her senior project at Russell Sage College into a platform for her to use acting as a way to discuss her struggles as being an African-American woman, actress, and college student.

At the time, she did not realize that her performance was the beginning of a journey toward creating the Illuminate Theater Series.

Heyward founded the group after a one-night-only performance with a small group of actors at Troy Kitchen last year. She had planned on moving to New York City to pursue a career in acting, but after the success of the show, her plans changed. Heyward and a tight-knit group of actors have performed every month at Troy Kitchen and recently brought their work to the African American Cultural Center in Albany. Illuminate is approaching its one-year anniversary at the end of August.

“I remember going to her senior showcase and being so inspired by her drive and her creativity and when Illuminate began, I was excited for what was coming to the Capital Region,” Karyn Dyer, a full-time leadership educator at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute and cast member since February, said.

The name “Illuminate” came to Heyward from her mentor, acting coach and theater teacher Noelle Gentile, as they were brainstorming possible titles. They did not want the name to single out people of color. As they started talking about the many occasions where they felt left in the shadows, they came up with Illuminate and the tagline, “where actors who have been silenced stand in the spotlight.”

Heyward said she created the group because she felt that there weren’t enough opportunities in the Capital Region for actors of color to audition for lead roles or build their resumes.

“A lot of times people will fulfill their diversity quota or qualify as diverse by casting one black actor or by doing that one black [television] show in the past five seasons. And it’s really not about that,” Heyward said. “It’s not about diversity, it’s about inclusion and it’s about not only having a seat at the table but having a room in the house,” she said referring to a quote by fellow actor and Illuminate cast member Aaron Moore. 

Each performance has a different theme that can range from comedy to tragedy. Illuminate focuses on acting, so actors typically perform a monologue, poem, song or speech by acting it out. Heyward puts an emphasis on plays written by African American playwrights, but the actors also write their own monologues, which allows them to expand on a variety of sensitive subjects and personal experiences that resonate with the audience.

Moore said that the performances are “impactful because it gives voices to the silenced and it gives art to people who never had the chance to express themselves.”

After each performance, the actors hold a “talkback,” opening a conversation with the audience to discuss topics touched upon in monologues. The discussions can be emotional because the performances often prompt audience members to share their own stories.

“When you go and see a show that reflects your life, all of these things are unlocked,” Heyward said. “You start to see parts of yourself in a character that you’ve never seen before and a lot of times right after, which is why I think talkbacks are so great, you’re moved to share all of these things you didn’t even know were in you before.”

Illuminate has open auditions, so anyone who wishes to perform—regardless of whether or not the person is a professional actor—can have an opportunity to shine in the spotlight.

“Illuminate provides such an outlet to those who would have not considered acting, who would have not considered their stories to be important,” Dyer said. “I have acted with people who work nine-to-fives, students, entrepreneurs who are all from different walks of life.”

Heyward said two to three new people join Illuminate each month. Over the past year, it has grown to a network of about 40. She said that many of the new members are inspired to become a part of the group after attending previous performances.

Although Heyward is experienced in theater, she is still trying to figure out the business side of Illuminate and is thankful for the support of community members like Noelle Gentile and Troy Kitchen owner Cory Nelson. She is deciding whether the collective will be an LLC or a nonprofit because right now it does not fall neatly into a specific category. Heyward said she is interested in collaborating with other sponsors, donors and partners as well.

“I’m really lucky that I have a lot of mentors and community people that see something in what I’m doing and want to help me figure out where the business aspect is in it,” Heyward said.

Illuminate is looking toward a bright future. Moore said the work the actors do is educational and beneficial to the community, and they deserve recognition for their hard work. He hopes one day Illuminate can gain as much attention and exposure as bigger theaters in the Capital Region, like Park Playhouse and Proctors.

Heyward hopes to eventually have a five-show season that would include three original pieces, one published play and one published musical. She would like to continue the monthly cabaret-style performances so people can have consistent exposure to theater. Heyward said that she would also like to start a program to work with children and young adults to help them become professional actors by teaching them how to write resumes, find monologues and provide them with headshots.

Illuminate will be continuing their monthly performances at Troy Kitchen on the fourth Tuesday of every month. Information about auditions and other details can be found on Illuminate’s Facebook page.