An Interview with Trinity Rep’s Conversationalist-in-Residence, Christina Bevilacqua

I had the recent opportunity to speak with Trinity Rep’s conversationalist-in-residence, Christina Bevilacqua. Our conversation follows:
Alison O’Donnell: What does a conversationalist-in-residence do, and what brought you to play that role at Trinity Rep?
Christina Bevilacqua: I kind of made up the title! In the 11 years I spent producing humanities-based conversations at the Providence Athenaeum for the Salon Series, which I founded in 2006, I came to appreciate how much impact frequently held community-based discussions can have, especially when they feature a mix of people across disciplines. In fall 2016 when I began meeting with Trinity Rep’s artistic director Curt Columbus, associate artistic director Tyler Dobrowsky and artistic associate for community Rebecca Noon about Trinity Rep’s commitment to community engagement, I proposed working as the conversationalist-in-residence as another way to bring attention to the theater’s increased focus on its relationship to the wider community, enhancing the important, inspired work that Rebecca had been doing for several years. Trinity Rep has an incredible asset in its audience — some of whom have been loyal subscribers for over 40 years! That audience is very knowledgeable about the company and the world of the theater in general, and they love the talk-backs with actors and directors that have long been a feature of Trinity’s productions. What we began to talk about two years ago was Trinity’s potential for cultivating conversations outside of the theatergoing audience, using the works that Trinity was presenting on stage to create conversations about issues going on in our local and national communities, and centering those conversations within the local community. So I began to work very closely with Rebecca to think about how to bring the themes and ideas from the plays to a wider audience.
Then last fall I began working full-time as programs and exhibitions director at Providence Public Library (PPL), where my charge was to create humanities-based programming in arts and culture that was open to the diverse public that PPL serves. So as a collaborative endeavor, Trinity Rep and PPL piloted a program series called Context & Conversation, where we looked at the themes and ideas at work in each of the plays in Trinity’s season, then thought about places in our city and state where those themes and ideas could be found in real life, and then invited people from these real life settings to see the play and then join us for free, open-to-the-public, moderated conversations in which we could use the play as a springboard for discussion of issues and ideas. We  made sure to hold the conversations in places that connected to the themes of the play, so for instance when Trinity Rep was producing Death of a Salesman and Skeleton Crew last fall, our Context & Conversation event took place at the Amalgamated Transit Union’s offices in South Providence; when Native Gardens was on stage last spring, Context & Conversation happened in a greenhouse in Cranston. We learned a lot in doing the pilot, and this year we have another wonderful series lined up, in settings from Wage House (an improv theater in Pawtucket), to Butler Hospital, to the Sophia Academy, to the Herbarium at Brown University. And each conversation will include at least one artist, one scholar and one community practitioner among the participants, to make sure that we get a wide range of perspectives from which to view and discuss all our topics. [See the full schedule and lineup here: trinityrep.com/context-conversation]]
AO: What are your beginnings, and how did you develop your interest in theater?
CB: I grew up in a military family and moved nearly every year and went to lots of different schools, which I think gave me a sense of curiosity, taught me to celebrate different ways of life and gave me an ability to weather and even enjoy a certain amount of uncertainty and change. I went to high school and college in the 1970s, a time experimentation and creativity were in the air, and in both of those experiences I had a lot of freedom and independence to create my own path. I studied literature and creative writing at Bard College, then moved to New York City and got a job in a giant publishing firm, where I pretty quickly determined that corporate life was not for me. I was doing volunteer work at the time and realized that my volunteer work was more interesting than my paid work, which eventually led me to a master’s program in social policy at the University of Chicago, followed by two years working to support survivors of domestic violence and sexual assault who were going through the criminal justice system. I then moved back to the East Coast and in a story too long to tell, I spun a childhood love of sewing into spending the next eight years as a custom milliner, making hats for customers in Boston, Washington D.C., New York, Chicago and San Francisco. I would travel to each city and set up an open studio in someone’s home, I’d bake tiny cookies and serve wine, and for two days women of all ages would come and try on hats and place orders. I loved gathering people, and also loved watching the way that a hat could in some cases underscore a person’s identity and in other cases totally transform it — very theatrical! Other obvious connections to theater were through my parents, who always subscribed to the local theater wherever we lived, and I grew up with them playing the records from the musicals of the day, somewhere in my brain are stored all the songs to Wonderful Town, Fiddler on the Roof, etc! And I was an avid ballet student from 5 till around 20, including performing a lot in high school; I still find myself humming the mazurka from Coppélia every now and then. As an adult I became actively interested in theater when I moved back to Providence in 1997, the mix of productions and plays was very rich, and I think I came to appreciate the way that theater helps us ask questions about our lives and times and see them in new ways. And of course my interest in conversation and dialogue is utterly engaged by theater, which takes its energy not only from the dialogue between the actors on stage, but from the communication between the actors and the audience, and then the conversation that the audience members have with one another as soon as the lights come up. The theatrical experience is also conversational in that it happens in real time and carries that sense of uncertainty — unlike a movie, where the performances are set, one of the great pleasures of theater is to see a production on two or three or five different nights and have each experience be different, because it’s live, and happening in a moment and living only in memory in the next moment. There is nothing like it! And in a world where there’s so much trashing of the humanities, the experience of being in the theater makes clear how important the humanities are to people’s lives. Theater gives people a way to work through difficult issues. It’s not like a political debate, which is more like a boxing match, where you’re defending a position and the stakes are high. In the theater, and in conversations about what we’ve experienced in the theater, we can consider issues from different angles, and there doesn’t have to be a winner or loser. People can go away considering different ideas than those they were certain of when they came in. That is something very important and increasingly rare these days. 
AO: What are the accomplishments that mean the most to you, and what are you working on now and for the future?
 
CB: I loved the work I got to do at the Providence Athenaeum in curating and producing the Salon Series, in part because I’ve had the opportunity to work with so many fascinating and varied people and organizations, and in part because it was such a laboratory of experience. I feel like I am still analyzing what I learned and thinking about how to apply it in new settings. The PPL is currently undergoing a major building renovation that also heralds a new era for the library in terms of mission and reach. The role of the public library in American history and culture is so foundational, the opportunities that it has represented and continues to represent for people of all different ages, backgrounds and identities really has no parallel; it’s essential in our democracy to have this kind of civic space. PPL’s incredible collections staff has also carved out a unique role in working with local artists through our Creative Fellowship, and also with acquiring, cataloging and making available to the public the archives of important local arts organizations like AS220 and UPP Arts, and both of these endeavors provide great resources for programming. I’m thrilled to have the opportunity to think about how we animate our collections and our civic space with humanities-based programs, both in the newly-configured library (when it’s finished!) and out in the community. Context & Conversation with Trinity is one such program, and we’re also working collaboratively with many other individuals and organizations in the city and state, including Stages of Freedom, Community MusicWorks, Southside Cultural Center, the Pond Street Project, the Rhode Island Council for the Humanities and others, so given the great collaborators we have lined up, I’m optimistic about new accomplishments to come. Finally, this summer I was very fortunate to be a fellow in the month-long National Endowment for the Humanities-funded Munson Institute of American Maritime History at Mystic Seaport, where I met many legendary as well as soon-to-be legendary scholars, and since PPL’s Special Collections include many maritime-related items (including not only whaling logs, but actual whale teeth!) I now know a host of scholars who can help us bring the stories of these collections to our audience in new and lively ways.

AO: What is your sky’s-the-limit dream project?

CB: I’ve never been good at definitively deciding where I want to be and then heading directly there, I’m better at starting out with a kind of vague idea and sense of curiosity and then learning through experience where I want to go next. I’m very interested in getting people together, across differences, for shared experiences. I’m keen on cultivating interest in the arts as a way to make sense of the world, whether that means creating your own art, going out of your way to experience the art created by others in your community, or both. I’m dedicated to bringing the meticulous work of scholars out of the academic halls and into our community, where their ideas can help us see our lives in new ways, and where they can engage a non-academic audience in discussion and maybe see their work in new ways. I think that knowing some history can help us be more creatively and resourcefully responsive to our own time, so I like putting together events in which a historical context gives us new understanding and opens our eyes to possibilities. So some combination of those things would be my dream project, and in the work I get to do at PPL and Trinity Rep, I am engaged in all these endeavors. Plus, after a lifetime of living in different places, I absolutely love Providence, and its mix of people, its beauty, its complicated history, its deep commitment to arts and culture, and its idiosyncrasy and eccentricity make it endlessly inspirational. So despite never having known what I wanted to do when I grew up, I think I have found it — even if I can’t totally explain exactly what it is!

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