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A scene from NORTH: The Musical. Photo by John Clayton

Featured Article

Ashli St. Armant

Chandler's New Artist-in-Residence on Her Show, Next Project, and Helping the Community

Ashli St. Armant is the playwright, composer, director and tour manager of the show NORTH: The Musical, which is currently on tour. She’s also the bandleader and vocalist of the group Jazzy Ash and the Leaping Lizards, and author of the Audible Original mystery series Viva Durant. On top of all of that, she was recently named the new Artist-in-Residence for Chandler Center for the Arts, which is a three-year post. Oh, and this busy woman is also a PTA mom of two teenage boys with her wife, Pam Rocker.

You were just named Chandler’s Artist-in-Residence! Can you tell us a little about that?

I am so excited about this partnership! What has continued to wow me about Chandler Center for the Arts (CFA) and the City of Chandler are their dedication to engaging diverse communities through the arts, and the creative, expansive ways in which they do this.

For me, this residency it’s an opportunity to get the support I need to develop new work while

learning about how to engage new audiences from this incredible community of artists and arts administrators.

And for the community of Chandler, I’m designing workshops and communal arts experiences for residents of all backgrounds to discover new ways of engaging with the arts, their own personal culture, and each other.

How did this come to be?

The leadership team of Chandler CFA approached me about the opportunity, and I said yes right away! The more time I spend in Chandler, the more I fall in love with it. The folks at Chandler CFA are incredibly supportive of my work and of me as a person. I’m excited to dream some big things with them.

Over your three-year residency, what are some of the ways you will be working with the residents of Chandler?

As I’ve developed my musical, NORTH, which is heavily steeped in Black American history and culture, I’ve had the unexpected joy of developing a deep connection with my own personal ancestry. The discoveries I’ve made along this process have changed the way I think about myself, my culture, and the way I interact with others. It’s been really beautiful and life-changing.

Now I want to develop workshops and community events that help all people—not just artists—find meaningful ways to interact with arts and culture. In other words, how can we use folklore, music, and storytelling from our own communities as a catalyst for understanding ourselves and each other? My plan is to create opportunities that do just that.

Also, since the City of Chandler is chock-full of folk artists and creative young people, I’ll be engaging with community members to learn about their art-making processes, and to get feedback on the projects I’m currently working on.

Any projects you are most excited about?

Yes! My next big project is Ordinary Folks. I’m doing a deep-dive into the canon of Black folktales and folklore from the 18th and 19th century to find eight to 10 stories. Then, I’m going to turn those stories into story-songs, and weave those songs together into a cohesive, interactive musical. This project will be supported by Chandler CFA as part of my residency, and will be directly tied to the community engagement I’m doing in Chandler.

Your show, NORTH was recently performed in Chandler again as part of its national tour. It premiered here last year. How does it feel to see it on the stage in Chandler again?

It was thrilling! And a little intimidating. Haha! As I said, Chandler has been incredibly supportive of my work and was the only performing arts center to bring NORTH back for a second season—on their “big stage” this time! While I was reworking the script, designing new set pieces, and creating new costumes, I always had it in the back of my mind, “Will the audience in Chandler love this? I have to wow them!” I knew I had to get it right. I hope I did!

What inspired you to create the show?

Several years ago, after a conversation with my sons about their experiences learning about Black history in school, I realized that their experience wasn’t much different from my own:  The learning period was limited to February, they only learned about a handful of people (Martin Luther King, Rosa Park, Harriet Tubman), and everything they’d learned about was steeped in trauma (slavery, segregation).

I realized there was an opportunity to tell the story of early Black Americans with more color and depth. And because I’m me, I decided to tell this story through a musical.

What has been most rewarding part of show?

When I see audience members allow themselves to laugh, dance along, and engage with characters set in the southern United States circa 1850, this is proof to me that the audience has found themselves in these characters. And then I know I’ve done my job; I’ve made my ancestors feel seen.

Book, show, or song that has most inspired you?

My biggest musical influences are Harry Belafonte and Ella Fitzgerald. I love the musicals The Color Purple, Fela!, and Once On This Island for their unique approaches to storytelling. And I love the world-building of Roald Dahl.

In five years you hope to be …

The proud mama of a Broadway musical … and a Tony.

One thing we’d be surprised to know about you?

I secretly aspire to be a beekeeper :)

  • Ashli St. Armant
  • Cast members from NORTH: The Musical. Photo by John Clayton
  • A scene from NORTH: The Musical. Photo by John Clayton
  • A scene from NORTH: The Musical. Photo by John Clayton

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