A Healing Remembrance: Granite Theatre presents Readings from Tower Stories

On the 19th anniversary of the September 11th attacks, the Granite Theatre in Westerly will be presenting a one-night only virtual event. “Readings from Tower Stories,” collected by author Damon DiMarco, chronicles the experiences of six different people who escaped the World Trade Center on that tragic day, and what transpired in the weeks that followed.

Motif’s Kevin Broccoli spoke with the director, Chelsea Ordner, about the virtual production.

Kevin Broccoli (Motif): How did you first become involved with this project?

Chelsea Ordner: I joined the Board of the Granite Theatre in June, and we began our online productions just a month later. When discussing what we might consider doing for our September show, I had suggested doing a 9/11 tribute. People tend to “remember” on big anniversaries, and next year will be 20 years. That shocked me, that it was already 20 years ago. I knew I wanted to do something reverent, and 9/11 as a national trauma really resonated with me in these days of COVID, as we undergo another national trauma. It was up to me to provide my theater with a cost-effective show, and pretty quickly. We don’t have the budget for Come From Away, or things like that, so I did some research. A friend of mine, Vinny Lupino, suggested I read Tower Stories by Damon DiMarco, and as soon as I did, I knew that this was what I was looking for. In the weeks and months following the events of September 11, 2001, Mr. DiMarco interviewed people about what they saw and felt on that day, and those oral histories were compiled all together into his book. It took me a while to read it, honestly. I had to keep putting it down to process what these people had gone through. After reading it, I chose six people (three men and three women) from the book, and I edited their stories together into a series of monologues. 

KB: Even after all these months, we’re still learning to navigate the digital performing arts realm. Did that present any issues as you were putting this piece together?

CO: This is my first time directing, and while Zoom has proved a wonderful way to keep us relevant, it did take away some of what I’ll call rehearsal magic. I didn’t get to see my cast all together in the same room, and really for this play, it’s better that way. None of the stories we are sharing on Friday night are by people who know each other. All the same, there’s something to be said about the creative, collaborative spirit that erupts when you get a group of passionate, determined people together. The main issue I get crazy about is the sound — I like to have things just so — and there’s a level of letting go that has to accompany online productions. You just can’t have the same control. Ha! Isn’t that a lesson from this year? 

KB:  I was a high school senior on 9/11, and I remember it being the last time that most of us felt compelled to contribute to a sort of collective kindness. With the country being in the midst of a worldwide crisis and still so divided, do you think looking back on this tragedy might help people remember the moments of compassion?

CO: That is one of my primary goals, yes. The timing of this show is important for me, not only to commemorate the events of that day. I was struck by how the collective loss of 9/11 and COVID-19 have had such a different response from the public, and I’m not sure what to attest that to. Is it because it’s an election year? Is it because of social media? I could see so much of what we are experiencing emotionally on the pages of Tower Stories, and in the words of the people who witnessed two planes fly into the World Trade Center. I’m hoping that seeing the hard truth of how these men and women were affected will make us more likely to acknowledge that we are being affected. I have seen some very ugly things come out of the past year, some things I thought just couldn’t be possible. But! There’s a natural balance to that, and there have been some outstanding moments of human connection and a societal urge to turn back to a simpler life — Reconnect. Community Theatre has a duty to provide a space for their patrons to have difficult conversations, grow and process complex emotions. I want to show everyone that it’s ok to have uncomfortable conversations and talk about the things we don’t want to, because that’s how we begin to heal. And boy, do we need some healing right now. 

KB: How did you assemble the talent for this project? Is it easier to be able to pull from a wider geographic area since in-person rehearsing/performing isn’t a factor?

CO: Yes, I was very lucky in that I got to call on actors I haven’t had a chance to work with in a long time, and mix them in with people I have only just started working with. We have actors in this production from Brooklyn, NY, and Portland, OR, as well as here in Rhode Island. I made the conscious choice to cast everyone under the age of 40. There’s a generational quality to this show that I think is important, and ties into our understanding of history. I’m a historian by profession, so I’ll try to keep this concise. When people stop talking about it, or stop telling stories, historical events just fade into history, and they become inaccessible to us in a way. We can read about them, but we’ll never know what it was like for people, it will always be this misty enigma, just out of reach. That’s why I believe oral histories are so important, and why I was so keen to use this script in particular. These are real people. So back to my original point, there are people who very clearly remember 9/11, and there are people coming up in this world who may not have even been born yet. It’s easy for that younger generation to say, oh that happened to old people, because it was 20 years ago, when really, at the time, those people were young professionals — just like the people I cast in the show. I think it makes it so much more real and accessible to a younger generation. And again, draws the parallel to the essential workers in our current pandemic. 

KB: What’s it like for you working on a production that is this emotionally potent? What about it has resonated most with you?

CO: I was very worried about my cast’s emotional well-being because this is asking a lot of people who might not have that much to give, emotionally, right now. I mean, does anyone? It was imperative to me that everyone was comfortable and had the head space to contribute. This is a tough show, and I made it that way on purpose. Memory is an odd thing, and I think re-exposing ourselves to exactly what happened might give us some perspective. There are graphic descriptions of what people saw, and I do not want to ever undermine the catastrophic loss of life that day. I’m hoping that the audience feels something — and whether it’s good or bad — they sit with it a while. There are a few lines in the show that give me whole body chills every time I hear them, but my favorite is one that belongs to Nicole: “I was astonished to see what came out of me, and what came out of other people. Especially when we got to the Pit.” I find it so heartbreaking and inspirational at the same time. This past year has been so frustrating and confusing. I can’t understand where our humanity went, so in a way, this show was also a bit therapeutic for me. 

KB: Do you feel a heavier sense of responsibility helping create the portrayals of people connected to a real event?

CO: Absolutely, but I find that it is a great motivator. I want to be respectful, and give the proper gravity to these events, while still making it something people want to watch. I’m honored that Damon DiMarco, the author of Tower Stories, was so encouraging and such a pleasure to work with. He and I have the same goal in mind — sharing these experiences with a wide audience so that people truly never forget what happened on September 11, 2001. Tower Stories also shows that everyone copes differently, and they are all valid. Some people are livid, some people are detached, some people are full of sorrow or regret. There is no one right way to handle something like this, so hopefully that resonates with the audience. 

KB:  Next year will be the 20th anniversary of 9/11; is this a project you’d be interested in bringing back?

CO: Originally, I had hoped to do something for the 20th anniversary. I’ve had a lot of people reaching out to me, wanting to talk about their 9/11 experiences, which really blew me away. I didn’t expect that from people so long after the fact. Now I’m hoping that next year I can do something similar, but use all local people’s stories. I know a number of firefighters from Rhode Island and Connecticut volunteered and went down to help with the relief efforts — others had family members or close friends who worked in the World Trade Center. And this is exactly why I wanted to do this — to start the conversation, and it’s already happening. 

Readings from Tower Stories, collected by author Damon DiMarco, directed by Chelsea Ordner, will be presented or one night only on Friday, September 11 @ 7pm.

VIEWER DISCRETION ADVISED: Some of the content used to portray witness accounts is violent and graphic and is not suitable for children. Use the following link to register and reserve your spot at Eventbrite: 

A portion of proceeds will go to the FealGood Foundation (FGF), named for first responder John Feal. FGF provides assistance to first responders as well as education regarding the medical plights of 9/11 first responders. For more information, go to fealgoodfoundation.com

The Show Must Go On: Wilbury and WaterFire’s Decameron, Providence tells new stories for a new era

Providence playwright and spoken word artist Christopher Johnson presents a new work in collaboration with violinist Big Lux in Decameron, Providence. Photo courtesy: Christopher Johnson.

The show must go on… That’s how theater troupes felt in the 14th century during the bubonic plague, and that’s how it’s playing out now in the face of COVID-19. Written by Giovanni Boccaccio in 1352, post Black Death plague of 1348, The Decameron has again become an inspirational piece for creative performing artists. The book, just as this play, is structured as a frame story containing tales told by a group of seven young women and three young men sheltering in a secluded villa just outside Florence, Italy in order to escape the Black Death, which was afflicting the city.

Actor Shaffany Paigét presents a new work in Decameron, Providence. Photo courtesy: Shaffany Paigét.

Josh Short, artistic director for The Wilbury Theatre Group, struck up a conversation with WaterFire’s managing director, Peter Mello, to see how they might collaborate on an original work that would adhere to social distancing protocols. It was Wilbury’s resident playwright, Darcie Dennigan, who suggested they look to Boccaccio’s The Decameron for inspiration. “I had never read the book, pretty sure I had never even heard of it,” says Short, “but the more we looked into it, the more it seemed to not only offer a structure that would work well within our socially distanced guidelines, but it inspired an urgency and relevance that spoke not only to the obvious bubonic plague / COVID parallels, but to the social justice issues surrounding the Black Lives Matter movement and our current political moment. When I went back to Peter and Barnaby [Evans, WaterFire executive artistic director] with this idea, they went for it enthusiastically. Barnaby knew the book extremely well, and his enthusiasm for the original work has helped us grow the production into something that is grounded solidly in the framework of the original, while still very much about this particular moment in time.”

Bassist Desmond Bratton (pictured) and violinist Ashley Frith of Community Music Works debut a new work in Decameron, Providence. Photo courtesy: Desmond Bratton.

Short says they reached out to a few artists they had collaborated with before, and it snowballed from there. Soon, other artists were reaching out to them. “It was important to us that we were creating space and supporting those voices who were being most affected by the COVID pandemic, Black Lives Matter and social injustice, and our goal has been to provide them with whatever support they need to tell their stories.”

Shey Rivera Ríos (pictured) and collaborator Saúl Ramos curate a sequence of performances by local artists reflecting on ritual, identity, home and queerness in Decameron, Providence. Photo courtesy: Shey Rivera Ríos.

Audiences will see traditional storytellers, film, visual and mixed media artists, poets, classical musicians, ukulele musicians, spoken word artists and everything in between. “We asked them for a piece that reflects their personal visions of an idealized world through whatever mediums they chose,” explains Short. “I expect each of the 10 performance spaces to be its own unique experience every night.” He goes on to say, “It’s an exercise in public health, social justice and idealistic futurism, but our ultimate goal with this piece is to remind people, in this time of both divisiveness and physical distancing, of what it means to have a shared experience and a sense of community.”

A photo from the work of Don Mays / AFRI Productions’ mixed-media presentation of These Truths, presented in Decameron, Providence. Photo by Don Mays. 

The Wilbury has had a great relationship with WaterFire for years — they’ve co-produced the Providence Fringe Festival since 2017 — but this is the most closely they’ve collaborated. It’s a great marriage of art and efficiency. Short says WaterFire “is an organization that routinely goes into downtown Providence and completely transforms it into a living art piece within a few hours, and then breaks everything down as if it never even happened. There’s a lot of work that goes into a theater production, to be sure, but to be able to see the amount of care and consideration that the entire WaterFire organization puts into every detail of their work has been inspiring.” 

Post COVID, what will the new normal look like? “The reality is that learning how to operate safely in a pandemic is something that we need to learn how to do, and this is a production that is so deeply rooted in the best practices of public health and safety that it shows us how theater can continue to survive. And the truth is that artists should always be growing and innovating anyway. It’s a shame that it takes a pandemic to shake some of us out of our complacency, but if we can look at it with some optimism we’ll see that this is our opportunity to create work that transcends that which we have settled for. The artists involved in this project, the teams from Wilbury and WaterFire and all of the volunteers helping us make the production happen can see that there is no point in waiting and wishing for the world to return back to normal. Our normal was filled with inequities. Our normal is where George Floyd and Ahmaud Arbery and countless other Black lives are lost, children are put in cages at the border, and despite it all, theater companies continue trotting out one mundane play after another. We don’t have to go back to that, we can create a world that is better, and I believe that it’s the artists who will imagine that new world and we need that, now more than ever.”

The performance spaces are all outdoors, spread out across the grounds of the Waterfire Arts Center and the American Locomotive building in Providence. Audiences will walk in separated groups from one stage to the next. All of the spaces are fully handicap accessible. 

For more info, call 401-400-7100 or 401-855-2460, or visit The Wilbury Theatre Group on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. Tickets must be purchased in advance at thewilburygroup.org. Decameron runs thru August 22 at the WaterFire Arts Center, 475 Valley St, Providence.

Making Magic: An interview with Ricardo Pitts-Wiley

Mixed Magic Theatre is a non-profit organization in Pawtucket with a mission to create more literate and arts-active communities. Mixed Magic often combines expressive artistic forms, such as poetry, acting, singing, dancing through plays and open mic. I recently spoke with Ricardo Pitts-Wiley and we delved into the importance of artistic expression, discussed what’s happening in today’s society and talked about the importance of understanding language and the craft and inner workings of Mixed Magic.  

Mr. Orange Live: I’d like to start this interview by thanking you for all that you have done for this community! I know you personally and have shared the stage with you a few times, but for those who don’t know you and Mixed Magic Theatre, can you give a brief introduction? 

Ricardo Pitts-Wiley: I have been a theater artist for almost 50 years. Apart from being an actor, director, playwright, composer and teacher, I am also co-founder and past artistic director of Mixed Magic Theatre

MO: How does Mixed Magic Theatre stay relevant and crucial in these changing times? 

RP: We stay relevant by staying focused on our mission “to build more literate and arts-active communities by presenting a diversity of ideas and images on stage.” We also stay committed to developing and presenting African-American talent.

MO: What were the hardest challenges you’ve faced and overcome as a nonprofit?

RP: Lack of funding resources and no dependable feeder system for theater artists, administrators and technicians.  

MO: You’re so amazingly talented. You’re a singer, poet, author and more. Can you talk more about your own work?  

RP: I think of myself as a natural artist in the sense that as an actor, writer or composer, I don’t worry about rules our conventions as much as I seek to tell the truth.

MO: Thinking about George Floyd’s death and the resulting protests, what do you think about what is happening? How we can rise as a community and people?

RP: More now than ever we have to prepare ourselves for the loud, demanding and dangerous road that will lead to real and lasting change. We have to make a place for everybody to protest in their own way.

MO: What do you want to pass on to the next generation?

RP: The belief that you are entitled to everything the world has to offer. To prepare themselves and be ready to manage the benefits of committed work and an unleashed imagination.

MO: How has Mixed Magic Theatre adjusted to the COVID-19 pandemic?

RP: We began early in the pandemic to prepare for a new and better future.

MO: When social distancing ends, what can we look forward to from  Mixed Magic Theatre?

RP: A new and exciting brand of performance events celebrating the human experience. We will not delve into spectacle as much as not be afraid to be spectacular.

MO: Let’s talk about poetry and acting. Some of the best poets I know also are some of the best actors I know. How would you explain this?

RP: Poetry and acting both demand that you put a value on language — what you say, how you say it and what you mean.

MO: Do you believe poets are the voice of the community and why?

RP: All artists must be voices for and in the community.

MO: When did you fall in love with theater and poetry?

RP: Age 15 — the first time I stepped on stage.

Theater on the Fringe: FRINGEPVD goes virtual!

The time for a summer of theater is here, and it can all be accessed through whatever screen you feel the most comfortable with or even through an exclusive performance on your front porch — but stay tuned for more information on that with the 2020 Providence Fringe Festival. 

What is the Fringe? Founded by The Wilbury Theatre Group, Providence Fringe (aka FRINGEPVD) began in 2014 to help produce emerging and established artists on stage through their own works. In the past there have been beautiful pieces of theater, clowns and magic, and you could see it all in a whirlwind two weeks of performances. This year’s Fringe is once again brought to you by the Wilbury Theatre Group in collaboration with the WaterFire Arts Center, but it’s looking a little different than in the past. 

Typically, in a non-pandemic world, there would be multiple venues across the city where artists would perform, with their productions rotating so you could see as many as possible. Due to COVID-19, FRINGEPVD has been incredibly resourceful and brought all their performers completely online. The artists who had already agreed to perform in this year’s FRINGEPVD were kept on. According to Olive Godlee, the marketing manager for FRINGEPVD, “We had a lot of changes to our lineup this year, but once we committed to putting on a virtual festival, we reached out to the artists who had already applied to see who would be interested in adapting their show for streaming in order to participate. We now have 21 great shows by performers who were up for the challenge!” Artists typically submit their ideas for a production at the beginning of the year and they are chosen through a lottery to perform. 

This year’s fringe will run from July 19 through August 1, and performances will be streamed on both the Fringe’s Facebook page (Facebook.com/FringePVD) and the Wilbury’s Facebook page (Facebook.com/WilburyTheatreGroup), and you can find out about each performance on the FRINGEPVD website at FRINGEPVD.org. The cost? There are two options. All initial performances that are livestreamed will be free, with the option to tip the artists (please tip the artists) or you can buy a Fringe All-Access Subscription for $20, which gives you access to all of the shows after they have aired. That means if you do happen to miss something you were dying to see, it’s not a big deal. All proceeds from these passes also go to the artists, which is the greatest thing about FRINGEPVD besides its wonderful performances. This artist-based and artist-centric festival always supports its artists, even in the time of a global pandemic. 

If your heart has been aching to see some kind of in-person theater, or you maybe have had one too many Zoom calls, FRINGEPVD is offering a brilliant, and quirky, additional option. This year, Front Porch Performances, sponsored by TROOP, feature dinner and drinks for two and a socially distanced live performance, all from your front porch (or yard, what have you). There are only three of these performances left, and to get them you must bid through the FRINGEPVD website. Olive says, “We’re super excited to be able to put on these small scale and socially distanced live shows, especially because they will directly support artists in a time when performers and gig-workers have been hit hard economically.”

Plus, the annual Family Fringe Day will be digital this year and will provide entertainment for everyone you’re stuck inside with, with performances on Saturday, July 25, streamed from 3pm to 6pm. It’s brought to you by Providence Community Libraries and will be streamed on their Facebook at Facebook.com/ProvComLib. 

So please, if you’re like most of us and feeling heartbroken about not seeing theater or arts performances of any kind, get your screen out and watch some FRINGEPVD. Not only are you helping yourself, but you’re helping our community of artists continue to thrive. 

For more information, go to fringepvd.org/index.html

Bringing the Arts Home: FirstWorks’ virtual summer camps keep kids creative

Syncopated Ladies

When Rhode Island schools closed in March, cutting students off from in-person arts education, FirstWorks, a nonprofit that works to ensure equitable access to the arts, stepped in to bring their educational opportunities virtual.

Kathleen Pletcher, artistic director of FirstWorks said, “We are always concerned about students’ access to the arts because the arts do a variety of things. We’re trying to train kids as artists and create new ways into learning. Learning to work collaboratively, empowering kids to express themselves and be civically engaged. The arts can really address some of the issues in the education system. They are a strong asset that can be not measured as precisely as math scores or literacy, but level the playing field in terms of income, and they give students a boost in succeeding.”

After the success of their virtual learning series, Pletcher and her team began thinking about how to conduct live workshops with students over the summer. “What do kids want to do this summer?” Pletcher asked herself. “Students like to be able to move and do things and build things.” So FirstWorks answered that student need by developing two virtual summer camps — one devoted to dance and the other devoted to theater.

Jillian Davis of Complexions Contemporary Ballet

These free summer camps run for one week in July, for 90 minutes a day. Pletcher says that the time commitment allows for a lot of variety of activity, spontaneity and social interaction in the programming, while also leaving kids plenty of free time in their day to play.

Pletcher says the camp instructors FirstWorks invited exemplify the organization’s commitment to diversity. “We invited artists we have relationships with — some of the leading artists in the world — but we did it with a consciousness of the diversity of students in RI schools.” They chose instructors with experiences and values that would mirror those of their students in order to provide kids with role models. But students’ needs aren’t FirstWorks’ only focus. “We, too, recognize that this is a really hard time for artists, and we are conscious of our role in sustaining and strengthening their work,” Pletcher says.

The Summer Moves Virtual Dance Camp is designed for students in grades 3 through 8 and will feature Shake It Up classes with Syncopated Ladies, an all women dance squad from LA. Pletcher says of the group, “They’re very cool and committed to history and empowerment.” Also? They worked with Beyonce. Students also will learn hip-hop and storytelling with Sokeo Ros, modern dance with performer and educator yonTande, and movement workouts with the principal dancer of Complexions Contemporary Ballet, America’s first fully multi-cultural ballet.

The Virtual Theater Arts Camp is for students in grades 5 through 7. Pletcher says, “Students will imagine creative worlds and characters, write those worlds and characters, and then manifest them from home.” They’ll do this under the guidance of theater educator Sophie Siegel-Warren, puppeteer Heather Henson, costume designer Machine Dazzle and spoken word artist Chachi Carvalho, who believes in empowering young people through self expression. Pletcher says of this team of artists, “These are artists, from both the world stage and the Rhode Island stage, who really care about paying it forward.”

Chachi Carvalho

What can students who join these camps expect? “I think students can expect to have a really fun time!” Pletcher says. “Anybody who’s curious and excited to learn will be learning from some of the best.”

To help the artistic young person you love learn from the best this summer, sign up by going to first-works.org/education/firstworks-virtual-summer-camps. Summer camps run from July 20 – 24. The dance camp takes place each day from 10 – 11:30am and the theater camp takes place each day from 1 – 2:30pm.

Bringing Back Theater: How the independent theater community plans to keep you safe and entertained

Station 11 is one of my favorite books. It’s about a pandemic called the Georgia Flu that wipes out most of the world’s population. It’s probably not the best time to read it if you haven’t already done so, but I do recommend it in the future when we’re vaccinated and feeling safe (or safer, depending on your outlook). The book goes back and forth between the present and the future – 15 years later as society begins to rebuild – and features a storyline about a troupe of artists and musicians who travel around to the various encampments to perform Shakespeare and classical music. This storyline highlights the importance of the arts on society, our well-being and our connection to one another.

The arts have been inaccessible for the past few months, as theaters, museums and concert venues have been the last to open. As we enter Phase III of re-opening, many of us are cautious but excited about once again dining at our favorite restaurant, spending the day at the beach, even going to a movies, but what about our access to the arts, in particular, the theater? Where are they in the plan, and what are the guidelines for keeping us safe in such crowded spaces?  

I spoke to Kevin Broccoli, the artistic director of Epic Theatre Company in Cranston (and Motif contributor). He is part of the newly formed Rhode Island Theater Coalition (RITC), a group of independent theater companies brought together to be a collective voice in Rhode Island’s plans to re-open.  The theaters part of the coalition, in addition to Epic Theatre Company, are the Academy Players, Burbage Theatre Company, The Contemporary Theatre Company, Head Trick Theatre, Mixed Magic Theatre, The Players at the Barker Playhouse and WomensWork Theatre Collaborative. The larger theaters, such as PPAC and Trinity, have been part of the conversation, but, as Kevin explained, the independent theaters had been completely left out. He realized that this oversight was not intentional, but rather due to a lack of awareness. “They seemed to have no idea we even existed.” Hence the RITC was formed, with the main goal of becoming part of that conversation.

Now they have a seat at the table with regard to re-opening. The problem, however, is that guidance for theaters is virtually non-existent.   Restaurants have clear guidance, but theaters have been told to follow the general guidelines for Phase III: public gatherings should be limited to 66% capacity with 6-foot spacing. What does that mean for an independent theater that may have a successful performance with an audience of 30? Is it safe? What about the actors, who must be in close proximity both on and behind the stage? With no clear guidelines, the theaters are left to make these critical decisions on their own. 

One concern for the RITC is perception. Restaurants have been given a lot of air time and leeway, while theaters have been one of the last entities to get the green light to re-open. But is a restaurant really any safer than a theater? During a theater performance, it’s quite easy to sit 6 feet apart wearing a mask. Not so while dining in a restaurant. As Kevin explained, “opening restaurants while theaters remain closed makes it seem like going to a theater is more dangerous than going to a restaurant. That could cause long-term damage to the arts.” This provides further impetus for the RITC to get it right when it comes to reopening. 

Fortunately, artists are creative, so unlike restaurants with limited options, the sky is the limit for independent theaters. The RITC is working collaboratively to channel that creative vision and come up with protocols and safeguards for theater-goers and cast alike. Kevin suggests the state can learn from the example the theater community will set. So many other facets of our lives are akin to a theater performance: church, college classrooms, even elementary schools. There is a performer and an audience. What works for one might work for all, so this is definitely something worthy of attention. 

By forming a coalition, the RITC has solidified what had already been a relationship of respect and cooperation. Now they are sharing their knowledge, protocols and ideas, working as one entity toward one common goal: safely bringing the arts back to Rhode Islanders. Kevin shares the concern that many of us do: While life feels pretty good right now, the fall brings much uncertainty as fears of a larger, more deadly second wave loom. While we certainly hope that’s not the case, Kevin reminds people that “hope is not a plan.” Fortunately for all of us, Rhode Island’s independent theater community has both hope and a plan.   

Navigation and Innovation: A conversation with Francis Parra

Francis Parra

Those of us in the performing arts are finding ourselves facing a new reality. As a member of the theater community, I’m lucky enough to be able to speak with leaders of artistic organizations all over the state about how they’re coping and what their plans are for the future, and I think it’s important that we start having those conversations in more open forums, which is why I’m grateful to speak with Francis Parra this week. Parra is the founder and artistic director of Teatro ECAS, Rhode Island’s leading Latino theater that’s been operating since 1997 in Providence.

Kevin Broccoli (Motif): First off, how are you doing right now?

Francis Parra: Considering everything that is happening in the world, I am okay. There are so many people suffering as a result of this pandemic, the economy is struggling and long-standing racial inequities have once again raised painful issues that need to be addressed right away. So many people have lost loved ones. My family has not been directly impacted, but we have lost friends, and watching people go through that is very difficult. The theater has been closed for months now, so there’s that. It has made me think a lot about being at peace with the world and with myself. 

KB: Can you talk a little bit about the projects that were affected by the shutdown and whether you plan to bring them back once it’s safe to do so?

FP: Teatro ECAS closed on March 13, causing us to suspend the two remaining plays in our season: La Dama Duende (The Phantom Lady), a classic Spanish masterpiece by Pedro Calderon de la Barca, and the contemporary comedy Soltero, Casado, Viudo y Divorciado (Single, Married, Widowed and Divorced), by Roman Sarmentero. We were really looking forward to ending the season with these two remarkable and very different stagings. 

KB: I know that you recently hosted a virtual conversation about racism and theater with Dominican playwright and sociologist Haffe Serulle. Do you plan on having further conversations on your social media platforms?

FP: Yes! We started a virtual interview series called ECAS en Casa (ECAS at Home) featuring prominent Latin American theater leaders. Serulle gave a fascinating exposition about the history of racism in theater and answered more than a dozen questions from people watching on Facebook Live. This past week, we had a great conversation with Cuban actor Francisco Gattorno, who is a renowned theater, television and film star and who was a leading Latin American soap opera star for more than two decades. Our next guest for ECAS at Home will be Marco Antonio Rodriguez, a director out of New York who adapted and directed Junot Diaz’s Pulitzer Prize winning book, The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, as a very successful play in Manhattan’s Repertorio Español theater.  

KB: How much of you work do you think could be moved online as we see more and more theaters pushing back their reopening dates?  Is expanding your digital offerings something you’re interested in?

FP: We are being innovative under the circumstances. We have developed a series of dramatic readings that will be broadcast via radio and online simultaneously. The first will be La Lupe, Exito y Gloria, a musical play that I wrote about a very famous Latin singer from the 1970s. The reading will also feature vocal and musical performances by the very talented singer Violeta Cruz del Valle and singer-songwriter Czesare Santana. We have also moved our youth theater classes online and have had a lot of success with those. However, there is no substitute for being in a room full of creative energy watching a live performance. So, we are working on a variety of projects to develop virtual performances as well as prepare for a future where live performances will be possible, despite serious restrictions to conform with social distancing and other measures. 

KB: How is Teatro ECAS doing financially while not doing in-person programming? 

FP: Teatro ECAS is suffering due to loss of earned revenues, such as ticket sales and advertising. However, we have been nimble and creative and are taking some of our shows to the airwaves to Radio Drama and Radio Comedy thanks to longtime supporters, Power 102.1 FM Southern New England’s Spanish language radio. We are able to give our actors opportunities to continue to work with us. Both La Lupe, Exito y Gloria and Tributo a Tres Patines will be on the air shortly. Our educational programs, Improving Young Lives Through the Arts in Providence/Pawtucket (ILAP) continue first through a Virtual ILAP and a six-week two sessions of Summer ILAP.

Many of our donors and funding partners have come to the rescue so that these educational programs can remain free. We thank the NEA, the Cares Act, PPP, RISCA, The Rhode Island Foundation, the City of Providence, the Champlin Foundation, and many others for their financial help. 

KB: What are your own feelings about being inside a theater again? Do you worry for yourself and the other artists you work with?

FP: It’s painful to walk into an empty theater that routinely welcomes 250 people every week yet has been closed for the past four months. Every day I hear from actors, patrons, volunteers and others and they always greet me with the same question: When will Teatro ECAS reopen? During the height of the pandemic, we held a weekly get-together on Zoom for our actors and collaborators, and I think that served as a valuable outlet for us all. We remain in constant contact over text messages and social media, and that has kept our spirits high and looking forward to getting back on stage whether in person or virtually. 

KB: Can you talk about the community impact of not having Teatro ECAS available to audiences right now? I know your theater is such a vital part of the lives of those who go to see your shows. Have you heard from them as all of this has been transpiring?

FP: We like to say that Teatro ECAS tells stories that aren’t being told anywhere else. We have developed a very strong following in the community, from the children and teens who take part in our education programming to senior citizens who have their own dedicated performances of our plays. We also have a growing number of schools that are interested in learning more about the many facts of Latinx cultural expression through theater. Last year we started offering English-language super-titles so that non-Spanish speaking patrons could follow along, and this helped expand our audience even more. We have heard loud and clear from the public that Teatro ECAS is missed and that people are anxious to catch one of our performances. This is very gratifying, yet it also represents a serious responsibility that we must continue to fulfill as we navigate the “new” normal. 

KB: Theaters all over the country are at this reckoning point where they’re being asked to consider who they want to be when they return. Have you had those organizational identity discussions as well? How much thought have you given to what kind of work you want to make on the other side of this crisis, and how different is it from the work you’d been doing before if at all?

FP: We’re having a lot of thoughtful conversations internally, with our patrons and with our peers in the greater creative community. However, it’s very difficult to predict the future of live performances in the COVID-19 era for an intimate, 50-seat community theater. Social distancing requirements effectively reduce our capacity to a negligible, unsustainable number. If there’s a second surge, this could adversely impact people’s willingness to attend events where they are in close proximity to strangers. We are making every effort to be innovative, but it certainly is not easy. We have moved our classes and some programming onto the cloud, with success, yet the fundamental questions over live in-person performances remain unanswered. 

KB: As an artist, how do you keep yourself creatively active during this time? 

FP: I like to meditate in the morning and stay very active both physically and mentally. This is how I cope with everything that is happening now. I really enjoy nature and try to make the most of it at every opportunity, even if only by sitting outside and gazing at the sky for a moment. I also find that the music of Nina Simone sparks a lot of emotion and creativity in me. I recently saw the powerful James Baldwin documentary, I Am Not Your Negro, and it really had an impact on me. It helped me think a lot about how the work being done at Teatro ECAS can serve as a catalyst to improve race relations and, more importantly, to teach future generations to treat everyone with dignity, respect and empathy. 

KB: How can people help ECAS? Do you have a donation link and other ways for them to support you? 

FP: If you would like to help pay for the free educational programs, or support actor salaries in “Radio Drama” or “ECAS en Casa,” please use the link here: teatroecas.org/support

On Desperate Measures: An interview with Joseph Hayward and Victoria Casillo

As digital programming begins to explode, one playwright who is continually produced is the always omnipresent (and cost effective) William Shakespeare.

I was able to speak with two artists about an acclaimed adaptation of the Bard set in a unique environment — the Old West.

Desperate Measures is a musicalized version of Measure for Measure, and I had a chance to speak with the associate director of the Original Off-Broadway production and its most recent director, Joseph Hayward, and most recent choreographer Victoria Casillo as the show gets ready to make its way across the country.

Kevin Broccoli: How did “Desperate Measures” come into your lives?

Joseph Hayward: I was the associate director for both New York productions. Our show began at The York Theatre Company in 2017 and, after extending three times, transferred to New World Stages in 2018. The show went on to win the Outer Critics Circle Award for Best Musical and the Drama Desk Award for Best Music and Lyrics.

I could have never anticipated the impact Desperate Measures would have on my life. Shows like this don’t come around often, but when they do, it feels like a miracle. I’m extremely grateful to Bill Castellino (original director and choreographer) for bringing me on board, and who actually introduced me to Victoria!

Victoria Casillo: I didn’t work on the original production of Desperate Measures, but I did happen to attend the opening night performance at New World Stages. I was so blown away by the show that I went back to see it a second time! It was the smartest, funniest piece of theater that I had seen in a long time, and its humor and heart really stayed with me.

A few months later, I serendipitously received a phone call asking if I would be interested in meeting Bill Castellino (director/choreographer of the original Desperate Measures). He was interviewing candidates to be his assistant choreographer for his new Off-Broadway show. I was so excited– I knew that I had to get the job! I so wanted to learn from the people who worked on Desperate Measures how to create that kind of special magic on stage. Not only was I hired for one project, but I have been lucky enough to work alongside Bill (and Joseph) for the past year and a half.

Getting the opportunity to be the choreographer for the production of Desperate Measures at Saint Michael’s Playhouse feels like a full circle moment because I will finally get to work on the piece that inspired me in such a big way. Sharing the experience with Joseph as the director — someone who was with Desperate Measures from the beginning — is very exciting and humbling.

KB: Shakespeare’s “Measure for Measure” seems like an interesting fit for the Western genre. Can you talk a little bit about how the elements of the source material lend themselves to it?

JH: The Wild West was dangerous, lawless and tough, which makes for a thrilling backdrop to Measure for Measure. It’s a fascinating lens to re-examine the timeless themes of this show, such as justice, judgement and God. 

KB: It’s so hard for smaller shows to get attention, but it seems like this one really made an impact. What do you think helps distinguish itself?

VC: The writing of Desperate Measures truly sets the musical apart. Peter Kellogg’s book is so smart — it makes entire audiences cackle, but also causes them to think. David Friedman’s score is one that audiences walk out of the theater singing. The show isn’t based on a TV show, movie or pop star, which feels so rare this day and age. The themes of Desperate Measures – law, virtue, the idea that life itself is a gift — are so relevant to today’s culture. The show is special because it’s thoroughly entertaining, intelligent, heartwarming and topical. I really can’t do Desperate Measures justice by talking about it alone … you need to come see it!

JH: The show has the perception of being small, but the characters and themes are larger-than-life. Desperate Measures could easily be expanded with an ensemble, and I hope to do that one day. I think our audiences really respond to the writing and music. It’s exceptionally smart (it’s all in rhyming iambic pentameter!) and laugh-out-loud funny. Peter Kellogg and David Friedman created a beautiful, original show that grows more relevant by the day.

KB: Can you talk a little bit about your professional histories and how they prepared you for a show like this one?

JH: I was studying to be an actor at The American Academy of Dramatic Arts, when a teacher asked if I’d like to assist her director friend on an Off-Broadway show. I said yes, and my life changed. Since then, I’ve been an associate or assistant to some extraordinary people like Bill Castellino, Ray Roderick, Christian Borle, Carol Kane, James Morgan …  the list goes on (and continues to grow!). They shaped me as a director, and continue to inspire me. 

VC: My work with Bill Castellino has definitely helped prepare me to do Desperate Measures. I have been lucky enough to work with him on choreography for two Off-Broadway world premieres, as well as a movie musical. He has greatly influenced the way I think about dance in terms of storytelling. Every movement in a dance sequence/musical number should clearly establish character, establish setting, or further the story. It is nice to come up with movement that is interesting to look at, but the work becomes deeply satisfying when the choreography propels the story forward. Bill is such a master at clearly telling a story through choreography, movement and stage pictures, and I am excited to bring these skills that I’ve learned from him into our production of Desperate Measures. It is important to honor Peter Kellogg and David Friedman’s story in our production at Saint Michael’s Playhouse, and I want my choreography to do just that.

KB: There are so many Shakespearean adaptations, including musicals. What do you think it is about the Bard that inspires so many artists to try remaking it in their image?

JH: Each production is unique and has its own set of challenges and opportunities. I would never try to recreate a show, because each actor and designer is different. I love to be surprised by new ideas and always keep my mind open to new possibilities. This is what makes each production one-of-a-kind.

VC: The universal themes in many of Shakespeare’s plays are the reason that so many artists want to tell his stories over and over. Another musical that has had a huge impact on my life and career is West Side Story, which is, of course, a retelling of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet. I have worked on six different productions of West Side, and I am always amazed that no matter where the show is done, it sells out and gets extended. This speaks to the fact that a story of unrequited love amidst two battling families is one that registers with audiences everywhere! Shakespearean stories can be told in updated ways, again and again.

KB: What would you say the most challenging elements of the show are in terms of creating and re-creating a production of it?

VC: I think the trickiest part of Desperate Measures is casting. The six characters each have challenging vocal, physical, comedic and dramatic demands. It is such a puzzle to find actors who meet these demands, and also fit together as an ensemble. For example, Johnny must believably read as Susanna’s brother; Johnny and Bella must believably read as a couple; Johnny must also have the range to belt out the end of “It’s Good to Be Alive.” It’s complicated! To my total delight, I could not have been more blown away by the cast that we found. One of the greatest joys of this entire process was watching our actors in their auditions; they came in prepared, sang the material brilliantly, physically embodied the characters and also fit into our puzzle. Both Joseph and I agree that we’ve assembled an incredibly strong ensemble!

JH: Each production is unique and has its own set of challenges and opportunities. I would never try to recreate a show, because each actor and designer is different. I love to be surprised by new ideas, and always keep my mind open to new possibilities. This is what makes each production one-of-a-kind. 

KB: Musicals are, in some ways, the ultimate artistic collaboration. Can you talk about your experience collaborating together on this piece?

VC: I think the exciting part about my collaboration with Joseph is that there is a huge sense of trust and respect between us; we’re not working from a place of ego. I have deep faith in his ideas and intellect, and I know that if he wants to make a change or try something different, it will likely make the work even better. He also really listens to me and takes in what I have to say. I revere his work ethic and his understanding of the piece. I’m not afraid to voice my opinion to him, and I also can’t wait to hear his thoughts when I have a new idea. Having this kind of trust and respect for your partner is special. Joseph also ALWAYS makes me laugh, especially when I become too serious! We work so hard, but we also laugh equally as hard. I hope this joy and humor comes through on stage.

JH: Victoria and I both had Bill Castellino as a mentor, and I think that’s why we have a very similar approach to the work. Our first dedication is to the script, and we study it intensely. We are responsible for telling this story as clearly, creatively and honestly as we can. Victoria’s notes are always very detailed and she is full of great ideas. She’s an incredible dancer and storyteller, with a wicked sense of humor.

Our first big challenge was to find the actors. This is arguably the most important part of our job, and I could not be more excited, or proud, of our cast. I get goosebumps just thinking about it!

KB: As so many artists move into the digital realm to keep producing work during the quarantine, do you think there’s something from his work that speaks to us now more than before?

VC: You know, I really think that the Desperate Measures score speaks to me more during the pandemic than ever before. I would encourage any artists who are looking for a way to connect to their emotions during quarantine to sing and dance to this music. “Life Takes You By Surprise” is definitely apropos – so many things about this situation we find ourselves in could never have been predicted, but it’s important to keep our faith. I’ve been wondering why conditions have come down so much harder on some than others during this pandemic, and it takes me back to “That’s Just How It Is.” Finally, I have been trying to remind myself that even when we feel pain and suffering, life is still a blessing. This could not be more beautifully articled than in “It’s Good to Be Alive.” More than ever, this music is relevant.

JH: Desperate Measures is about fighting to stay alive against all odds. It’s about seeing injustice in the world and wanting to change it. It’s about teamwork. It’s about love and understanding. I think these themes mean more to us now than ever before. It will be enormously cathartic and healing to be gathered in a theater again and hear this story.

KB: Desperate Measures seems like a perfect fit for regional theaters. Do you see it as being a show that has a lasting life in smaller markets?

JH: It already is! In addition to our production at St. Michael’s Playhouse, Desperate Measures will be playing The Utah Shakespeare Festival, Manoa Valley Theatre in Hawaii, The Good Theater in Portland, Maine, Clackamas Repertory Theatre in Oregon, and several others. Hopefully Rhode Island will be next! In the meantime, please tell all your friends in Vermont to visit saintmichaelsplayhouse.org 

VC: YES! For one thing, the show truly is appealing to audiences of all ages – young audience members in their 20s will laugh just as hard at these jokes as will audience members in their 80s. Desperate Measures was originally done with a cast of six, so the show works well for smaller theaters. (We have an amazing cast of six for our production at Saint Michael’s Playhouse.) However, the cast size can easily be expanded to include an ensemble of nuns, salon goers and cowboys, making it a perfect fit for larger theaters. I hope that the show gets produced again and again so that others might feel a bit of the magic that I felt when I walked out of New World Stages. I know the Saint Michael’s Playhouse audiences are going to eat up this piece with our sensational cast.

Reflection Not Reaction: A conversation with Rita Maron from The Academy Players

Rita Maron; Photo Credit: Dual Edge Photography

Those of us in the performing arts are finding ourselves facing a new reality. As a member of the theater community, I’m lucky enough to be able to speak with leaders of artistic organizations all over the state about how they’re coping and what their plans are for the future, and I think it’s important that we start having those conversations in more open forums, which is why I’m grateful my friend Rita Maron was able to speak with me this week.

Rita is the Artistic Director of the Academy Players in Providence, Rhode Island.

Kevin Broccoli (Motif):  First off, how are you doing right now?

Rita Maron: Numb, trying really hard to stay positive and focus on our other aspects of theater, our building, and improvements and constant contact with a large majority of our Academy family.

KB: Academy was about to open Tuck Everlasting when all this began. I’ve started most of these interviews by asking artistic directors if they plan to return to whatever programming was disrupted as the result of the pandemic. Do you plan on revisiting “Tuck,” and were any of the other projects that you had planned on producing titles you’d like to see when the time comes to reopen? 

RM: We are constantly monitoring the ever-changing guidelines with COVID-19, and have tentatively scheduled Tuck Everlasting, which was going to be a fundraiser for Heavenly Gingers, as our first show after we reopen. Heavenly Gingers was created by our friends Frank O’Donnell and John Morris. Heavenly Gingers honors the lives and passions of two fiery redheads and helps Keep Passion for Performance Alive in young people. This foundation is extremely important to Academy Players we were all so saddened when we had to stop the production. Prior to COVID, we had secured the rights to six other musicals and as soon as we are clear to do so, we plan on doing our whole season in 2021, along with some amazing surprises. 

KB: Education is a huge component of the work you do at Academy. What are you hearing from parents right now? Are they eager to return with their children and families to the theater or is there apprehension to do so?

RM: We hear daily from our family of parents, friends and siblings about their want and need to return to Academy. The families want a sense of normalcy, and from what I hear constantly, from phone calls, texts, messages, emails and social media posts, they want to return. I honestly think that many of our families who fall in this category know that we would always have their safety and health as our number one priority. Over the years we have earned that trust and everyone is treated like family so everyone is ready to return home to the family. I miss everyone so much. 

KB: I said to one of the artists I interviewed for Epic that while I could see some ways around producing plays even with social distancing guidelines, I’m not sure how I would undertake a musical with those protocols in place. Do they seem as prohibitive to you as they do to me? As a director and choreographer of big cast shows, can you envision creating that kind of work under these guidelines?

RM: Yes, I do think the protocols in place are prohibitive. Based upon the current guidelines, I do not believe we can responsibly put on a full-scale musical that for me would ensure the safety of our cast, musicians, crew and faithful audience members. With that being said, we have had meetings with our team reaching out to the younger directors and choreographers, allowing them to design a blueprint of virtual rehearsals and performances remotely for now. Dance and choreography is such a huge extension of a musical. It continues to tell the story where the libretto ends. I don’t know how you would complete the story without being able to achieve dancing and close contact.   

KB: Fiscally speaking, producing musicals seems to get more and more expensive. Right now the question everyone is asking is whether or not they can reopen, limit capacity and still be financially viable. Does that seem possible to you?  

RM: Given the math, no, it does not seem possible. We have under 200 seats, and based upon the social distancing guidelines, we have calculated that only 25% of our seating could be utilized. When you then calculate the cost of the rights to a musical, the cost of a live band, costumes and props, it doesn’t add up. When you calculate that math and only being allowed 40 to 50 people in the audience, any musical we would perform would generate a loss at the end of the run. This goes against our model where we normally fill our house at each performance. 

KB: How are you feeling as an artist about stepping into a space again? As we start to see people adjusting to the idea of reopening, do you feel like it’s something you’d be comfortable doing in the next few months or are you in the camp that feels we should wait until 2021 or maybe even beyond?

RM: I hate this question!! Personally, I will continue to listen to the experts and continue to reflect before I react. At the present time I am not comfortable having my staff, cast and audiences come home to Academy.  As time goes on, and as the experts find out more about this virus and how it impacts all of us, that might change. The biggest game-changer there is a vaccine or treatment that will make it safe for us to interact the way we used to. This pandemic has caused all theaters to reassess our health protocols and put those additional safeguards in place prior to opening. We are doing that during this dark period. We all will be better and stronger theaters. If something was to change and there was a miracle, my team and I are ready to open at any moment. Academy is extremely fortunate to have its own building and be able to have the flexibility of opening and closing at our own discretion. We hope when we do open, this will be the last time we close for something this difficult. 

KB: Academy is one of the more impressive arts facilities in Rhode Island, and I know your family runs a construction company in addition to the theater. Your husband Tom is often a great voice to listen to when it comes to things like safety. I know you’ve shared with me that he’s mentioned ideas about changing the physical aspects of a theater, not just Academy but theaters in general, to try and make them safer. Can you talk a little bit about that?

RM: The construction company had to make modifications to some of our safety protocols. These included constant cleaning of work areas, facemasks, social distancing, etc. The construction office was already set up in a way that allowed a safe work environment. With regard to the theater, there might have to be modifications to certain aspects of our theater, which would include designated entrances and exits to the theater. Tom feels it will be a “touchless” society when visiting the theaters and entertainment venues.  More grants need to be available for theaters to implement physical changes to their venues to follow what might become the “new normal.” Academy is extremely fortunate to have the Commercial Construction Company as our partner for many reasons, which include being kept up-to-date with the constant safety and health code regulation changes to ensure safety all the time, even prior to this virus. As we move forward in this unprecedented time, Academy is ready for any and all changes for reopening.  

KB: My theater doesn’t tend to have a lot of younger artists or audiences coming into it on a regular basis since usually the work we do is aimed at the college and above level. You’ve made welcoming audiences of all ages into your space as part of Academy’s mission. Does having to consider a wide range of age groups — from children to their grandparents — present more of a challenge as you try to plan for the future?

RM: I simply do not know enough about this virus to just worry about one age demographic. I am always concerned how it affects our audiences and cast members from  ages 5 to 105. We may design  special performance times for our elderly population as the evidence suggests that this age group are, sadly, the most vulnerable to this virus. We are designing performance schedules that would accommodate all of our audiences, and casts that are high risk or have underlying medical conditions. These were important areas our board of directors and team were working on before we went dark. Once a show is ready for opening and we are in tech, I tell my cast all the time, “You have all the tools to deliver. My concern now is my audience, what they need to be comfortable and happy.” If the audience tells me the music is too loud, the parking lot is too slippery, it is too cold in the building, I can’t hear the vocals, etc, my whole team goes to work and to successfully make our audiences happy at home. This will continue to be the focus as we enter this “new normal.” By the way, I hate the term “new normal.” I’m going to change that to a “better normal.” So this will be our focus as we enter a “better normal.”

KB: What’s your stance on digital programming? So far, everyone I’ve talked to has fallen on a different part of the spectrum. As a social media addict, I dove right in, but I still have a hard time getting used to long-form content, whereas other companies have decided it’s not for them at all. I don’t think there’s a right or wrong answer here, but what’s your feeling on it?

RM: I don’t think there is a right or wrong answer. It’s just not for me. In my opinion, the definition of community theater is interacting with our community on all sides of the stage. This is part of Academy’s mission statement. Live theater is an essential part of our bond with our community and Academy family. Hugging the audience members that we know as they enter the theater is something that I love and to not be able to do that is heartbreaking to me. I love welcoming our community into the space. As I mentioned in a previous response, if our younger and talented staff request to do something digitally during this time, I’d say absolutely. Some of them have already begun doing that. I think it’s important to remember that this will be our younger generation’s reality now. Allowing them to explore, create and learn is again a huge part of our educational mission, which is always extremely important to me and my team. 

KB: How can people help the theater right now? What are the donation links, and is there anything else they can do other than staying home and staying safe?

RM: We are extremely fortunate to have a business manager who always plans for the worst when designing budgets. Although, like every other theater, we are feeling the economic strain and would welcome any contribution and support, I hope that this pandemic would create even more respect for what we do to make people happy on all sides of the stage.  I hope that while people are home staying safe that they look forward to more theater and entertainment and make it a goal to get up and see some of these great theaters we have in Rhode Island. Rhode Island has some amazingly talented people and I love showcasing them. They are moms, dads, lawyers, nurses, doctors, business leaders, and more who have a passion to perform and are so good at it. There are the theaters that many are used to attending, and I hope that Rhode Islanders break some of those habits and seek out all of us and make it a goal with their family to attend some of the smaller theaters, yours included Kevin, as well as Contemporary, Mixed Magic, Burbage, Bristol, Out Loud, there are so many amazing theaters that Rhode Island as a whole should know about and be proud of. It’s such an artistic state filled with those who want to perform and tell their stories. So please remember to support all theaters in Rhode Island. We all want to survive this very difficult time together. You don’t have to give to Academy, but hopefully, you will make it a goal to support arts and theater groups in Rhode Island any way you can.

My hope is that this crisis has done some good with allowing all of us to introduce ourselves to a new audience while learning and promoting our safety protocols. The state leaders that stand before us every day keeping us informed are the same people who love to go to live theater, to be entertained, and forget their stress for a couple of hours. As they exit the theater, that appreciation to continue and support and help should be following them right to the city, state and government floors to ensure we are heard and never ever forgotten. We are a small business, we are a vital part of our economic growth in Rhode Island, as well as a huge part of the entertainment. The relationship between the arts and the economy is one that positively affects people on all levels, especially when it comes to mental health. My younger cast are eager to get back to where they have a place to belong and my adult cast look forward to releasing their anxiety at rehearsal and performance. 

As one of my best friends and Academy Board members has said, “This is our gym. This is our church.” I am always so proud of my board of directors, members at large, our families, and all our volunteers, who care so much for theater, our mission, and why we do what we do.  This is my family and it is a family to so many.

Our link to help support Academy Players:  academyplayersri.org/donate.html

An Adjustable Lens: A conversation with Burbage Theatre Company’s Jeff Church

Those of us in the performing arts are finding ourselves facing a new reality. As a member of the theater community, I’m lucky enough to be able to speak with leaders of artistic organizations all over the state about how they’re coping and what their plans are for the future, and I think it’s important we start having those conversations in more open forums, which is why I’m grateful my friend Jeff Church was able to speak with me this week. Jeff is the Artistic Director of the Burbage Theatre Company in Pawtucket.

Kevin Broccoli (Motif): First off, how are you doing right now?

Jeff Church: Doing alright. Thank you for asking. The Burbage crew is well and healthy, which we’re very thankful for, and we’re brainstorming new content, which is exciting — still thriving under the surface. 

KB: Burbage was just about to open a show when everything shut down, and it was a highly anticipated production of Sarah Ruhl’s In the Next Room, or The Vibrator Play. How determined are you to revive that production in the future?

JC: I can tell you that In the Next Room is a delight. I’m confident our production would bring more than a few smiles to our audience, even in these troubled times. As of now, the set is still up and we fully intend to produce In the Next Room as soon as we are able — that being said, there is still a lot up in the air. Everything is in flux. If extending the run of In the Next Room means moving into what would normally be our next season, or further into the fall/winter months, we will have to reevaluate. We’re hopeful that we can start making some limited, but definite, programming decisions within the next month or so. Time will tell. Updates to come.

KB: Your outdoor production of Julius Caesar last year got an acclaimed reception. Do you think it’ll be possible to do an outdoor production this summer as of now?

JC: I do think it’s possible! We’re hoping that our third annual outdoor Shakespeare event will indeed run this August, for free and open to the public. We have tentative dates with the City of Pawtucket, and are hoping to set tentative dates with the East Providence Arts Council in coming weeks. It appears more and more like outdoor events will allow for audiences to appropriately socially distance, as the virus is not as transmissible outside. That being said, this decision will be made over the course of the next few weeks as we track how the process of reopening goes in Rhode Island. Know that in the meantime, we are working to create a plan that will mean the safest possible reopening of our programming sometime this year. 

KB: Every week, you’ve been hosting an online series of interviews with your company members. What other digital programming have you been thinking about curating? Do you think it’s reasonable as we move further into this pandemic to see digital content as a gap until we can have gatherings again?

JC: We pride ourselves on being irreverent whenever possible, so we’re working on some digital comedy — mostly short-form kind of stuff. We could all use a bit of comedy right now (I feel like I’ve said this repeatedly since 2016, but it’s true now moreso than ever). We may even dip a bit into the political — but we’ll see where that goes in the coming weeks. There’s a lot being said about ‘personal freedom’ these last [— well, four years, but — ] eight weeks. Some of it reveals cracks in the system, but the rest is nonsense and in direct conflict with our democratic system. We’re hoping to poke some fun when we can.

Digital content is tricky. I’d qualify it as a stop-gap, but digital content can never fill the gap of live theater. That is the point — it’s live. It’s visceral. Theater happens right in front of you. An act of theatre is an act of communion, where people come together and, whether you be in front or behind the footlights, we collectively commit to a story being told. Digital content cannot replace this fundamental — intrinsic element of the theater. For that reason I can tell you that Burbage will not stage otherwise theatrical work digitally — we’re not bringing our plays to the small screen. It would be a disservice to both content and form. It would betray more our fear of this situation and our fear for the future of of the theater, than to strengthen the theater and bolster our community.  Laughs are coming — we’ll stop the gap with them for now.

KB: I’ve been asking a lot of artistic directors about momentum, because it’s something I think about a lot. Burbage certainly had a lot of momentum this year with a new space and an incredible run of productions under its belt this season. Are the stories you were telling this season similar to what you think you’ll want to return to in the future or does this feel like a reset of sorts?

JC: This is absolutely a reset — I’ve had to throw away a lot of what was planned for our tenth season. The conversation has changed. As we traverse this pandemic, some things that seemed very important at the turn of the ’20s seem much less important, while other ideas are vividly developing on a daily basis. The best plays have something timeless about them, something indelible — they seem to speak to all of humanity, or the human condition, human nature, etc, whatever you’d like to call it. They speak to an aspect of us that is incontrovertible — that we all feel at once independently and together with our fellow theater-goers. These plays will stand the test of time, and will remain with us through these particularly troubling times. I believe we have one such play planned for next season, and it will not change. As for the rest, a reevaluation is underway, as I’m sure it is at most theaters. 

The conversation, now more than ever, needs to be one of support and inclusion. Every person has been affected by this tragedy, some more than others, and every voice will be essential in bringing the theatrical voice back into the world. 

In addition — this pandemic has created such a unique environment — reevaluation is much more than choice of content, it’s about the safety of execution. For example, Junk by Ayad Ahktar (which was supposed to close our this season and is now slated to open next season) is a perfect play for right now, with or without the pandemic. But the cast requires more than 20 actors. Reevaluation becomes less “Is this story right for now?” and more “Can we execute this production and guarantee the safety of its participants?” 

That being said, Burbage will continue to do what Burbage does best — thought-provoking, highly irreverent work. Our lens for viewing humanity is why we continue to thrive — that lens will just have to adjust.

KB: So many of the company’s founding members have stayed with the group throughout the years. Has having a core group, along with more recent members, helped create a support system, and how often do you all check in with each other?

JC: Absolutely. We have a meeting once a week where we check in. We’re keeping tabs.  I’m happy to say that everyone is currently well and healthy and keeping safe. I personally don’t know what I’d do without our team during all of this. In a situation where there could be a lot to worry about. I’m confident knowing that we’re all looking out for each other and for Burbage.

KB: Your new space seems highly flexible.  Do you think that’s going to be an advantage as the assembly limits are raised gradually?  I know you and I have spoken about how even a 50-person limit would still allow for smaller groups to produce shows.  The question is–do you feel it’s worth it, both financially and creatively, to do that?

JC: Our space is very flexible, and we hope that it will be an advantage should we try to socially distance our audience as assembly limits come up.  I’m not worried about the financial implications of opening a production with a smaller audience. We know that we can produce professional quality work on a low budget, the lowest of budgets, even. If we can produce the work, it will be of the highest creative quality we can produce for the time in which we produce it. That won’t change. 
So, yes, I do believe that it would be creatively worth it, outweighing the possible financial hit. 

The real question is: Will anyone come to see the production even with social distancing? 

We can produce as much work as we want, spend as much or as little money as we like, but if no one wants to come out to see a show — it won’t be worth it.

Again, I don’t have the answer to this question. But, rest assured, we’re looking into it.

In spite of all of this, I’m confident that the community will be itching for something and that we can make something happen, in some capacity. 

KB: It seems as though right now most performing artists either feel they can’t create or they have to create, but they’re searching for a way to do that. Did you experience any creative numbness when all this started? How have you managed mentally and emotionally running a theater throughout all of this?

JC: I had my moment of creative numbness — before all of this, making theater, acting and directing occupied my literal every waking hour — and then, the evening of In the Next Room’s first preview performance, it all stopped. Immediately and abruptly.

I’ve since learned two things:
1)  Acceptance is an essential an invaluable tool — the ability to accept things as they are. Employing reason in an effort to acknowledge that a situation simply is what it is can relieve a lot of mental and emotional strain. I’m not a terribly religious person, but I refer to the serenity prayer — “may I have the serenity to accept what cannot be helped the courage to change what must be altered, and the insight to know the one from the other” — wiser words. 

2)  An artist doesn’t need to create to stimulate creativity — in other words: Read a book. Read a play. Read all of Shakespeare’s plays. Use Kahn Academy. Learn another language. Something. Commit to learning something. Strengthen the creative muscle by stimulating it. Use this time to fill your brain with inspiration.

These two things are certainly easier said than done — but just accept that, and do your best.

KB: I know you and I both like checking in with each other and with other theaters in the area to see how everyone is coping and what ideas they have about moving forward. Is there any piece of advice or insight you’ve gotten that you’re holding onto right now, or is there advice you could give to a newer company that might not have as much experience under their belt as they try to handle being thrown such a big curve ball?

JCPatience is a virtue — good one for right now, certainly. 

Otherwise, keep fighting. Find strength in community. Seek out advice directly. And use time productively. 

KB: How can people help the theater right now? What are the donation links, and is there anything else they can do other than staying home and staying safe?

JC: Staying home and staying safe and healthy are of paramount importance right now. 

If you want to help the theater in general, consider making a donation to your favorite theaters. Every dollar given goes a very long way. It reads like a cliche — but right now, it couldn’t be more true. 

Then keep updated with us as best you can. A lot of online content also means a great deal of direct interaction with artists in the community — take advantage of that.

Major theaters across the globe are posting world-class productions online for free — watch some professional theater from the comfort of your home. (It’s also good to note that watching theater on a screen will remind you of the power of live performance in its absence.) Keep engaged.  

But ensuring that the theater survives this ordeal isn’t only about us doing what we can to keep the doors open. Wash your hands, wear your mask, don’t go out unless absolutely necessary. Listen to our leaders.

Theater needs an audience. Staying well and healthy, and doing our part to ensure we don’t jeopardize the health and safety of others is the only foolproof way to guarantee the theater’s return.

Donation link — Burbage Theatre Company