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 Ocean State Theatre Company’s artistic director Amiee Turner.
Kevin Broccoli: I ask all the artistic directors about the community they’re operating in. Right now, Ocean State is the only organization producing independent theater in Warwick. Can you talk about how working in and with the Warwick community has affected your company over the past few years?
Amiee Turner: Warwick has proven to be a spectacular home for us. Mayor Avedisian and the city have been very supportive privately and publicly. It is wonderful to be able to not only serve Warwick from our location on Jefferson Blvd, but also the entire “Ocean State.” Free parking, easy access to the interstate, and being within 20 minutes from almost anywhere brings us patrons from every ZIP code in the state. Our goal is to first make Warwick proud, but our mission is to be sure professional theater, including musical theater, and professional family and kids shows are available and accessible to the entire state.
KB: As a theater that offers programming year-round, what do you find the challenges to be that perhaps a theater with a summer break might not run into?
AT: Staff fatigue is by far the biggest challenge. OSTC produces about 200 days of programming a year plus, on top of our own programming, we work with any number of other organizations throughout the year that utilize our space, which adds anywhere from another 10 to 20 events annually.
We proudly employ 21 to 22 year-round, full-time arts professionals -- and they are each and every one AMAZING — but a typical organization that is our size and doing this much programming, would have a staff of 35 to 40. Hopefully we will continue to grow and increase staff, but, we are a long way from that right now. That being said, our patrons are always wishing we had even more events!
KB: When you’re choosing a season, what helps a show make the final cut? Are there certain elements you’re looking for that inspire you to tackle a project?
AT: For me, it is always, “the audience comes first.” I guess it is probably my Broadway background to blame, but I never forget that the show is for the audience. Next I value our subscribers beyond compare and think about them to the extent that I try to make a 90 degree turn each time they come to the theater that somehow tells a hidden story of it’s own. Of course, the rights to many titles are restricted to us as a professional theater in a way that local community, educational, or semi-professional companies don’t have to contend with. This can often present a significantly larger obstacle to programming. Sometimes I want the “perfect show” and I am told it is unavailable for professional licensing so, I usually end up going back to the drawing board many times before a season is secured.
KB: Ocean State offers an almost equal number of musicals and plays. Is it more difficult choosing musicals or choosing plays? Coming from a musical theater background, do you feel more at home when you’re directing or acting in a musical?
AT: Interesting question — for me the answer is no to both questions. As a professional actor, I was fortunate that almost every performance experience was approached by the director and/or choreographer as story first. So, it’s always about the storytelling. Every show has a rhythm and pace that you have to find, some just have music you are responsible for following as closely as the words. I just try and find the best actors to tell a non-musical story and the best actors who can also sing and dance REALLY well to tell a musical story!
KB: I’ve heard you speak about mentoring and how important it is to you, but I’ve never seen anyone give you the opportunity to talk about it in print, so I wanted to use this as a platform for you to do that. Can you talk about what mentoring means to you and how it’s part of OSTC’s mission?
AT: It is an interesting question because the arts in general, certainly the performing arts, are really based entirely on the philosophy of mentoring or “passing down knowledge.” So many people have chosen to share support, guidance and knowledge in helping me along the way. I am very lucky to be involved in a workplace that admires, and even demands, that we all approach everything that we do as either mentors, mentees or future mentors! So, this gets into a very lengthy conversation about arts education and other hot button topics, but basically I will say this: For me, live theater is a craft. It is passed from artist to artist. Up, down, and sideways and ultimately only through its actual practice. The same way you have to apprentice to really be a skilled plumber, you need to apprentice to really be a skilled performer. This is what I was taught and this is what I believe. You never stop learning because you never stop experiencing. Of course the elephant in the room is that you have to be hungry enough to want to learn and humble enough to be taught — and there is never a goal line. No true artist ever knows everything.
KB: I’ve noticed that either you or Joel are present every time I see a show at OSTC. Can you talk a little bit about the importance of presence as it relates to leading a company? Has that been something you’ve always believed in?
AT: I was told by a very smart person a very long time ago that ultimately people don’t ever decide to invest in products, they always invest in the person. I think a lot of theater creators underestimate the investment an audience makes in coming to the theater. Not just financial, probably least of all financial, but in all the other physical and emotional ways. I don’t ever want to take that for granted. So I try and be there as often as possible to show them that I appreciate their investment, I am working hard to earn it, I care deeply about their effort, and it won’t be taken for granted.
KB: This summer, you’re presenting Avenue Q, which is one of the racier musicals out there. Was there any concern with choosing that title about pushing boundaries, or do you feel like you know your audience enough after all these years to know that they’re going to enjoy it?
AT: It’s funny, one of my most conservative, traditional patrons has been hounding me for four seasons to produce Avenue Q. He loves it! I hope it stretches the audience a little, but to think that I haven’t pushed boundaries until this choice is actually a huge compliment to my very conscience programming choices for the last four years. Some might not see it but, boundaries have been pushed from the very first season, which included Santaland Diaries, RENT and David Mamet’s Race. All three are considerably racy. The second part of your question intrigues me on many levels; I don’t look at it as knowing my audience, I hope every audience gets to know me just a little bit better. I don’t pre-judge the audience. Introduce the opportunity, make sure they know what they are getting into, and trust them that they trust you. Our first four years have been all about trust building, and the next four years will continue along that path.
KB: One of the things your productions are always praised for are the gorgeous sets for your shows. When you’re working on a production, how important is it to have a set that makes an impact knowing that your audiences have seen some really amazing ones onstage at your theater?
AT: It isn’t ever really the goal, but always the hoped-for outcome. Meaning, everyone reads the script first. It always starts with the storytelling. I personally believe the art form is best fulfilled when it includes visuals that can support and enhance the storytelling. We have certainly told good stories with minimalism — the set for The Meeting, for instance, was black legs, borders, headers and floor with eight pieces of furniture and two door openings, which ironically, was called out by many as an impressive set design. We have also had elaborate sets as well; My Fair Lady comes immediately to mind. The interesting thing about My Fair Lady was that it used two devises that are probably as old as theater itself: a slip stage and forced perspective, to make the set seem far more elaborate than it actually was. The creativity and engineering that goes into a fully realized set is part of the art form. We work very hard to fully realize all the potential visual, auditory and sensorial components in support of the story. I am thrilled that our professional set designers have received so much praise, but without lighting design, costume design and sound design supporting the production, it won’t succeed. They all have to work together.
KB: Music itself — and not just musical theater — are a big element of the work you do at OSTC. What goes into planning special events like concerts and cabarets?
AT: Our motto is, and always has been, “Fill the void.” Rhode Island is rich with art and we constantly ask ourselves if what we are doing is complementary to what already exists. That was the crux of everything we do. Even the design of the space thoughtfully created a performance space that didn’t exist. So whether it is partnering with Catch a Rising Star after they lost their previous venue or bringing in Betty Buckley to perform because she had never performed in Rhode Island before, we always consider, “Does it fill a void?”
KB: I ask every AD this: Is there any decision you’ve made as an artistic director that you regret?
AT: The short answer is no. The long answer is I never really thought about it. Regret looks backward and if I take a moment to look back on my career I see a career being propelled by creative collaboration and a responsive process, not decision-making. I’m a pretty thoughtful person so I guess I don’t take decisions lightly. If it was earnest, it can never be remorseful and if the outcome is “regrettable” it is an exceptional opportunity to improve.
KB: Where do you see the company in the next five years? What would you like it to look like and what kind of work would you like to see it doing?
AT: For our 10th anniversary my dream is that our venue has launched a push for installing large scale public art along Jefferson Blvd, that we are creatively finding ways to collaborate with both city and state level government entities to ensure every student in Rhode Island has access to the theater arts, that OSTC is producing at least one original work each season, is close to closing a successful capital campaign to add fly-loft space and a third performance space to the existing building, and has long-since completed every upgrade imaginable to make our facility not just accessible, but an easy experience to any patron regardless of the extent of their disability or capacity.