AD World: Trinity’s Curt Columbus

This continues a series of interviews where Epic artistic director Kevin Broccoli interviews other ADs in the area to create a more in-depth conversation about theater in Rhode Island. This month’s interview is with Trinity’s artistic director Curt Columbus.

Kevin Broccoli: Trinity opened their season this year with two shows in rep, Skeleton Crew and Death of a Salesman. I’m so excited that you’re doing Skeleton Crew. Is it exciting to you to get to introduce a theater community to somebody like Dominique Morisseau, who’s already so well-established in other parts of the country?

Curt Coumbus: Totally. That’s part of the reason why I wanted to do it in rep with an established play. It feels like our audience will be led through a conversation with Dominique Morisseau. And you know, we were thinking about what the world is going to be like and imagining the kind of world that we’ve got going now, which is all about how we pressurize difference. And these are both plays in which the people pressurize difference within this very similar group of folks, and that that is one of the driving reasons that they can’t figure out a way forward. We had such a great success last year with To Kill a Mockingbird and Blues for Mr. Charlie, which are literally the same subject matter told from two perspectives, and this is similar subject matter, which is the American Dream and the ways in which it is a dream, a fallacy, and the ways in which that struggle is what makes us who we are as Americans. So it felt really important to put Dominque Morisseau’s play next to this iconic American play as a way to give people an entrance into that. How does the experience of watching these two plays sit with an audience? How does it get audiences of different races to consider the same thing from different perspectives? And so that’s why I wanted to have the plays speak to each other. When you have two very different plays, and you’re going to have two very different directors, and you’re going to have one set-up, how different can those productions be? Because when you have two directors, you’re going to have two very different visions. It also really pressurizes the conversation about the plight of the American worker, which I think is going to be a big story.

KB: Speaking politically, in terms of choosing a season, we live in a blue state with some deep red pockets. How do you put together a season of work that isn’t just preaching to the choir, that is socially relevant, but that also helps people laugh and entertains them?

CC: When we did Grapes of Wrath, it was right in the middle of the housing crisis. Now we didn’t know that was going to be coming. That play hit people right in the solar plexus. We did all this work that forced our artistic collective to really consider its role. These plays, I hope, will do a similar kind of thing. Both of these plays are wildly entertaining. You can show up on the level of entertaining and catharsis and all of that other stuff, but they’re also really talking about what’s going on. The promises made to the American worker.

KB: Do you feel that when Trinity is doing shows in rep that it’s sort of flexing its muscle? Sort of like — this is what we’re designed to do?

CC: Our audiences, in the best version of the relationship that we have with them, are in an ongoing conversation.  So we’re not just selling a single ticket. We’re selling a long conversation. So part of my responsibility is to be a good conversationalist. And we’re planning to bring in folks to talk about labor issues and to build conversations around the two plays. So that’s all part of it as well. There’s a desire to make the bigger picture happen, while at the same time, all of these plays in this season are about overcoming difference, or not overcoming differences.

KB: And by pairing the plays together, it really creates an event.

CC: And my hope is that people will see it like an event. That they’ll see two in one day or two in one weekend. And that people will participate in the event of it.

KB: You have two new works in the season.

CC: A world premiere and a show that’s new, but that’s been around for a little while.

KB: And is it fair to say that they’re both the comedic offerings of the season?

CC: They are. George Brant’s play In the Breeches is, at its heart, a backstage comedy. And it’s really funny. He wrote it for the acting company.

KB: You were saying it’s driven by the female characters?

CC: It is, which is what makes it politically interesting. It’s about what would happen if all the men left. What would women do given that they needed to play men’s roles. And understanding that that’s the sort of thing that happens all the time, but we don’t necessarily turn our historical lens on it. And it’s all about the people who don’t go to war.  It’s about not participating in the battle, but keeping civilization going.

KB: Whenever Trinity announces a season, it seems like there’s always one show that everyone who works at the theater is excited about, but isn’t necessarily that well-known — and this year everyone I know who works at Trinity is talking about Native Gardens.

CC: It’s so good. And hilarious. It’s a farce. We read it a couple of years ago, and it seemed like ‘just a farce.’ By the way, farce is the hardest thing to write. But it’s a farce with teeth. It’s about a Latino couple that move next to a white couple in an up-and-coming neighborhood in DC. They’re taking an old mansion and renovating it. Both couples decide they hate the chain-link fence that’s separating their yard, so they decide to build a new fence. Now, even that turn of phrase—

KB: A new fence.

CC: That meant nothing to the general public a few years ago, but now there’s a lot of heat around that image.  What’s great is that we’re going to be able to premiere this work right now when I think it’s going to have the most impact, and as I said, it’s really funny. It’s really smart. I think it’s also worth mentioning that two of our playwrights this season are women of color. Ragtime has lyrics by Lynn Ahren.

KB: And you have four shows being done by female directors this season.

CC: We have three women of color directing. We have four women — out of seven plays — directing this season.  These kinds of statistics are meaningless unless they’re motivated by the project. This isn’t diversity for the sake of diversity.

KB: These are also artists who you’ve been building relationships with over time.

CC: And that segues into the Othello conversation. Whitney [White, the Director of Othello] went through our program. I think she’s one of the best young theater artists I’ve met in a really long time. Whitney is somebody who does Shakespeare in a really interesting way. She has a really profoundly unique take on it and why she wants to do Othello. It’s one of those plays that’s always requested by schools. The single most requested play for Project Discovery by schools, students and teachers.

KB: Is there a moment where you’re going ‘Ugh, Othello?’  Not because there’s anything wrong with it, but just because of how much it’s done?

CC: Yes! You say ‘Is this really what I should be spending the precious energies on?’ Of course that happens with any of the classics. The thing that’s so extraordinary is that we’re going to be doing Othello with this talented young director at the same time as Into the Breeches. So there’s a way in which I want those two plays to be a conversation as well.

KB: Women and war?

CC: Women and war. That’s exactly right. So here’s the little secret: I’ve constructed three conversations. Because the last conversation is about borders. And nothing is more important right now than this conversation about borders and immigration and Black Lives Matter and women’s rights — and that’s all in Ragtime.

KB: Ragtime is a hard show. People love it so much, and it’s an ensemble where you need heavy hitters for every single role. Trinity doing a musical is a big deal anyway. This is a huge undertaking.

CC: Yeah. A couple of things — we’ve been doing musicals now every season I’ve been here with one exception. And there’s been a range. So now I have all these actors who sing and do musicals. Last year, Beowulf was a musical, Christmas Carol was a musical, Midsummer was a musical—

KB: But it would be an undertaking even if you were a company that strictly did musicals.

CC: Well now you hit on the second point. I’m going to do this like Grapes of Wrath. Like All the King’s Men. Like To Kill a Mockingbird. This is our way of doing classics applied to an American musical theater piece. That’s the goal.  To find a way in which Ragtime is a Brechtian piece. And can be about the range of human experience. When you go back to the book, it’s astonishing. It’s an astonishing piece of literature. So we’re going to go back to the book. I’m going to make everybody read the book. We did this with Oliver. We did it with Oklahoma! When we’re at our best when we do musicals is when we treat them like classical American texts. The thing that I think is important about Ragtime is that it’s about us. It’s about what it means to be American. This is a play about Black Lives Matter. This is a play about immigration. This is a play about a woman making choices independent of her husband. Again, it’s about conversation. About labor. About women and war. And it’s a conversation about the nature of being American. And all of the plays that we’re doing have that at their core.

KB: One of the things I appreciate about Trinity is that there’s always a fluidity and a cohesion. I always feel like you’re using a season to tell a specific story. I wanted to ask a little bit more about what goes into constructing those seasons — and some of these are going to be lighting round style questions. Have you ever thought about doing a play but the title killed it for you?

CC: All the time. And sometimes I’ll produce them in spite of that and I always regret it.

KB: Has there been a show that got away?

CC: Sweat is one, because I really want to produce it, but the Broadway production was happening. I read a first draft of it and said, ‘I want to produce this.’

KB: Have there been plays where you wanted to do it, but the moment just passed?

CC: August: Osage County. That was one of the ones that — when it first came out — I said, ‘Oh yeah, we have to do this,’ but then you couldn’t get the rights for a really long time. And then, the play didn’t seem as current. And I love Tracy Letts, and I love his plays, but—

KB: The bloom is off the rose?

CC: Yeah.

KB: Does a movie affect that?

CC: No. For example, I was all hot about doing Into the Woods because I really wanted to do it, but then there’s the national tour that Fiasco is doing, so you can’t get your hands on the rights. Now that’s one that got away that — thank god it did — because it made me go back to Ragtime, and then I went, ‘Oh, this is the play we need to do.’  That happens all the time. I know other theaters get frustrated, because we get called first. Skeleton Crew was one where I said, ‘We have to be the first ones to do it in this region.’

KB: When does the financial element come into play? How early on?

CC: It goes all the way to the time when we do the budgeting. It’s a constant conversation. Othello is actually a perfect example of something being public domain, which allowed us to spend more money and do something like Ragtime. I’ll say this — you never pick a season in isolation. This notion that you go into a tower and white smoke emerges when we’ve made a decision — I’m in constant conversation with my artistic staff, my production staff, my marketing staff, my development staff, actors — my audiences. There’s a whole way in which what we’re trying to do is shaped by the world around us, first and foremost.

KB: Where do the moments start to happen when you say ‘Something is locked in?’

CC: We try to lock the season by the end of December so we can do budgeting, marketing plans and development plans, and then we try to make a decision. Things can move in and out. Sometimes they have to, because we don’t get the rights. That happens all the time.

KB: How much of a dialog do you have with the publishing companies?

CC: I try to stay out of that as much as possible.

KB: Do you ever find yourself having to go to bat for something?

CC: Sometimes, yeah. I certainly have in the past.

KB: How often do actors bring you stuff?

CC: The actors brought me Ragtime. It was already in my head, but they brought it back.

KB: So are there certain plays for certain times?

CC: Oh yes. I’m so depressed that people seem to be just programming plays. The world doesn’t need more plays.  The world has so much entertainment. What the world needs are conversations. Engagements. There’s a lot of great theater. I know that it’s great, but there are certain moments to do certain plays. You can’t just pick things because you think it’s a good play. Why am I doing it now — urgently?

KB: Do you feel a specific kind of urgency behind this season because of everything that’s going on in the world?

CC: I’m not going to answer that directly. I’m going to answer it this way, which is — I started to get that feeling about three years ago. That the need for urgent stories was getting greater and greater and greater. So, every season I’ve picked for the past three years has been dictated by what I think the world is going to be discussing in six to 12 months. So it’s not specific to this moment, but it’s the larger moment of the last three to five years. As it became clear that the Republicans in Congress were going to do everything they could to stop President Obama from doing good things, as it became clear that we were going to remain in a war that is now the longest war in American history — and expand that conflict, when it became clear that we weren’t ever really going to recover from the Great Recession — not in the way that Americans recovered in the ’40s and ’50s from the Great Depression, it all just started to make the reason for doing what I do more and more urgent. The election last year pressurized a lot, but that’s been coming for awhile. The reason the theater is so vital and so important is because we put ourselves outside of our comfort zone to consider what it’s like living other people’s lives. That’s a big responsibility — to respond to that urge in someone else.

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