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 Burbage’s artistic director Jeff Church.
Kevin Broccoli: Burbage has been producing theater for a while, but you’ve only been at your resident home Aurora for a little over a year. What’s it been like having a home base?
Jeff Church: We’ve been around for about six years now, and we’ve worked in some wonderful spaces run by some equally wonderful people, but we couldn’t be more thrilled to have a home base, let alone to be resident theater artists in such a progressive and welcoming institution.
Our home, Aurora Providence is committed to furthering the artistic discourse in downtown Providence regardless of medium. On any given night you could see one of our plays, a concert, burlesque, a fashion show, live poetry, even the occasional wrestling match. The staff is miraculous. The bar and its tenders are top-notch. It was serendipitous, our coming together, and we’re thrilled to continue strengthening our bond with Aurora.
But most importantly, for our purposes, Aurora is an empty space for us to play and grow into, a space where innovation and development doesn’t have to be on a play-to-play basis. The venue is malleable, which allows for an infinite number of stage configurations and also for a large amount of technical capacity. 276 Westminster Street is the former home of Black Repertory Theatre, and as such its architecture and spirit are still that of a theater space. Having a home allows us as artists to sit down and hone in on the task at hand, which is, at once, to make great theater and to get the word out without having to worry about where we’ll be next.
KB: Earlier this year, you produced two plays under the heading “This Winter’s War.” Last summer, the theme was “Loving the Ghost.” Are you attracted to certain themes when it comes time to select shows?
JC: I certainly like the idea of a thematic through-line traversing a series of plays, whether it be a season of plays or a pairing of two. If theater gives us insight into perspectives that are either incomplete or nonexistent in our minds or presents circumstances we may never have imagined, then why not present multiple variations on a single idea, multiple perspectives regarding something relevant to all of us?
We spent our first season at Aurora approaching the extremes of Love and War, examining how circumstance can force a character’s hand, how life can sometimes throw you a devastating blow that needs to be overcome. Our sixth season is about a connection between people that is often inexplicable, often incommunicable. We want to hone in and see what is remarkable, what is beautiful about the simple relationships between people.
The specificity of this representative idea, whatever it may be, is inversely proportional to the number of plays in question (a common idea over two plays will lend itself to being more specific and less broad than, say, over four or five plays), but an ideological theme keeps our audience and performers within the realm of one discourse over the course of a year. To me there is nothing more exciting. It keeps me wanting more. I hope our audience will share that opinion.
KB: This is your first full season in the new space. What was it like putting together a full season? How collaborative is that process in terms of speaking to other artists within the company?
JC: I’ve been excited to put a full season together for a long time, and I’m thrilled with the one that we’ve got. The first step is to read a lot of plays and then to try and decide between the shows that are right for us and our style of theater, the plays that go well with each other as a season, the plays that will work in the Aurora space, and, most importantly, the plays with roles appropriately suited for the active members of our acting company. This narrows it down quite a bit. It’s a long process and a delicate balance to strike, but when you’ve got a company of actors such as this one and a group of directors who are open and willing to throw everything they’ve got at a script, sometimes the choice isn’t as difficult as it might seem.
KB: What made you arrive at Desdemona for your season opener? I know you’re passionate about producing Shakespeare. Was this a way of having him represented in the season?
JC: Desdemona is one of those plays that I’ve wanted to produce for a while. Allison Crews and I have had a dialogue about it for a few years now. Irreverence in the theater is essential to its perpetuation as a relevant art-form. Period. Paula Vogel’s richly dark and comic feminist masterpiece is as irreverent as it gets.
By impiously reimagining Othello, Vogel shakes a stick at male-dominated society and examines what liberation means and where empowerment can be found when men hold the reigns. A theme that is palpably resonant today, and especially important to keep in the forefront while we are continually fed the fodder of the orange misogynist-ignoramus running for president.
We found a truly incomparable trio of actors (Valerie Westgate, Christin Goff and Rachael Perry) to make it happen. Everything fell into place. (And, yes, I do sleep better at night knowing the Bard is alive and well at the Burbage Theatre Company. Vogel’s narrative is quite different, highly compelling and imaginative, but the derivative scratches my Shakespeare itch, yes.)
KB: You’re one of three smaller theaters that are now resident companies downtown (Out Loud and Counter Productions being the other two). What’s it like being able to perform right in the heart of Providence? Does that location inform the work you do?
JC: Being downtown is a thrill, and we are privileged to be in such great company. Providence is as diverse as it is thriving artistically. To be in the heart of the creative capital, a stone’s throw from Trinity Rep, AS220, Movies-On-the-Block and Fed Hill, and to bring to the table a new artistic perspective and to be welcomed as we have has been a dream come true.
One might think that such close proximity between organizations may breed rivalry or some kind of theatrical dissonance. This is certainly not the case downtown. Kira Hawkridge (artistic director of OutLoud Theatre), Ted Clement (artistic director of Counter Productions), and their respective companies of actors are making wildly innovative and provocative work downtown, building their audiences and doing the good work. They have been nothing but supportive of us since we’ve moved in. The creative capital feels warm and welcoming, and is a hotbed of creative energy.
KB: Burbage is unique in that many of the core artists who founded the group are still involved with it. Collaboration plays a significant role in every good organization, but what’s the process like when you have a group of founding members who have been committed to the company for a decade and counting? Is there a specific way you integrate everyone’s viewpoint?
JC: I would venture to say that collaboration is an absolutely necessity in a theater organization. There are a few people calling the shots, an inevitable few who need to take up a management position, but at the end of the day, without the collaboration and input of the artists who make up our ensemble at any one time, we’d be doomed and would have no promise of growth.
All of us are actors. First and foremost. And we’re all of the mind that it’s better to make the opportunities for ourselves than to wait for the opportunities to come. To have the actor be the main agent of storytelling is and always has been our goal with Burbage, and for this reason we’ve all been on the same page. The responsibility is equal, everyone contributes. The result is that we are a living and breathing ensemble that, having the same motive, can move as one.
KB: How do you choose which shows you’ll be acting or directing in? Are there specific projects that appeal to you as a director? As an actor?
JC: There is no set rule or guideline in this regard. Before I can make that decision I have to find plays that are right for what we do. Plays that slide nicely into our irreverent aesthetic and that speak to the discourse of the time. Then it becomes a question of which director is right for each production, and then a question of which actors are best for which director/production. There are roles that call to me, just as there are roles that call to other members of our company. Again, it’s a balancing act and all in the timing.
KB: You’re workshopping a new play this year. How did that come about? Do you plan on having more new work present in your season?
JC: I have met a couple of people in my life who I was convinced possessed a genius. Bennett Fisher, the author of our workshop play Don’t Be Evil, is one of them. I had the privilege to act for Ben in his thesis production of Vaclav Havel’s The Increased Difficulty of Concentration at Connecticut College in New London. The experience left an indelible mark on me. The political bravery and irreverence of Havel’s writing and the deep intelligence and insight of Ben’s direction are progenitors of my theatrical personality and have, as a result, seeped into Burbage’s underlying theatrical current. Since our conception, we’ve produced Havel’s Largo Desolato (adapted by Tom Stoppard) and a one-act play, Refacilitation, written in honor of his memory.
Ben ended up getting his Master of Fine Arts in playwrighting from one of the top playwrighting institutions in the US at the University of California at San Diego. I reached out to see if he had any plays he might consider letting us produce, and he sent me Don’t Be Evil. The play is highly relevant, particularly resonant in a post-election season, and a touch absurd, with shadows of influence from the political dissident turned president, Havel himself. It was a no-brainer.
As for more new work, our director of new works, James Lucey, is working on a play right now. I’ve just read the first draft and it’s wonderful. We have high hopes for a staged reading by the end of our season.
KB: I ask every artistic director this: Do you have any regrets?
JC: We haven’t been around for too long, and fortunately we haven’t made too many mistakes in that time. But there are some regrets, none large, but little things that occasionally flare up in my mind.
I’d say the one regret I have is that I didn’t spend more time building this company in my years immediately after undergrad. The company continues still, and we still produced some great work during that time, but I still think more could’ve been done. But, in the words of the inimitable Kurt Vonnegut, “So it goes…”
KB: Burbage has produced The Bald Soprano twice — once as an inaugural production and once years later at the Artists Exchange. Are there any other shows from the past you’d like to revisit in your new space?
JC: Absolutely. There are few I’d like to retackle. There are some that I’m sure we will tackle again. The Pillowman, The Maids, I probably will direct Titus Andronicus again in my lifetime. I feel like the urge to revisit what’s been done is not because we could do it better now or anything like that, but because we’re nostalgic. These plays leave a mark on us after spending two months with them, sometimes more. They shift our perspective permanently in subtle ways and in this way they never end, they live in the neural pathways they’ve created in our brains. But they do lose their voice. It’s natural to try to beat back ephemera by giving voice to those urges again, but it’s also necessary to acknowledge that the fleeting nature of the theater will always prevail.
KB: You’re the first theater company in Rhode Island to produce The Flu Season by Will Eno. Eno is such a fascinating playwright. How did you come across him and what attracted you to this particular work?
JC: I came across Will Eno when Middletown swept through Rhode Island (both at the Brown/Trinity Conservatory and at Trinity Rep itself). I quickly read everything I could find that he had written. Eno’s dialogue is truly unique. It’s got some sharp corners and strange trains of thought built on top of circumstances that are clearly imagined to be reflections of reality, not just reflections alone. He holds the mirror up to nature, but the mirror is a little warped, slightly distorted. A great microcosm of the theater at large.
The Flu Season made me sit up: Two hospital patients fall in love in a play written before the audience’s eyes. Lovers and their support are subject to the whims of characters who are the direct representation of aspects of the playwright’s mind, or is it the other way around?
Aside from its metatheatrics, this play is rife with simple, yet poignant truths that will resonate deeply and inexplicably in all of us, which makes it a perfect production for director Wendy Overly. Wendy’s graceful and heartfelt direction is a perfect match for a play that enigmatically hovers between the elated and the melancholy.
It’s been said that Will Eno is “Samuel Beckett for the John Stewart generation,” and while this is a broad generalization (there can be seen a bit of Albee, as well, among others) it does have a grain of truth. We’re sure our audiences will agree.
KB: What other artists inspire you? (It doesn’t have to be theater artists.)
JC: There are too many to count, honestly. I find that there are countless reasons for inspiration, awe and grace everywhere, hiding in every aspect of our daily lives. But if I were to name one inspirational artist, I’d be doing a disservice to the rest. As an artist I’m committed to a lifetime of learning about myself and about others, about how ordinary people deal with extraordinary circumstances, and how that action changes and evolves with time. I draw influence and inspiration from everywhere I can, from moment to moment, otherwise I’d be standing still and no longer an artist. (That being said: Marlon Brando and Laurence Olivier were the best actors in the history of the world, and that’s all there is to it.)
KB: What would you say is the Burbage style at this point? Is there a particular kind of theater or approach that you’d like to be associated with?
JC: We believe that acting comes first. We believe the theater’s continued relevance as an institution is best perpetuated by building productions around the collaboration of an expert ensemble of storytellers. We believe that good theater needs nothing more than a strong script, the creativity and dedication of expert actors, and an empty space in which to play. We believe it is the actor’s job to activate thought and inspire inner movement in their audience. But, what really sets us apart is our commitment to irreverence as an integral cog in the theatrical machine (that’s the fifth time I’ve used that word, if anyone’s counting). At Burbage nothing is sacred, nothing is beyond our scrutiny nor our ridicule. We will show you every side and every flaw in what is preconceived to be precious.
I would like to be associated with no ‘style’ but our own. A style that continues to evolve as our company and ensemble grows.
KB: What would you like Burbage to look like five years from now? What kind of projects do you see happening down the road?
JC: We have a lot of plans and plays in the works, but none that I’m ready to let loose just yet. I can say that more new works are coming and that we’re planting the seeds of an education program, I can also say that the role of William Shakespeare will play a significant part in our next five years. Other than that, all I can say is onward and upward from this moment forward and for all the moments that follow.