An Interview with Chris Simpson, Contemporary Theater Company Artistic Director

Kevin Broccoli (Motif): What would you say is your biggest challenge when it comes to producing theater?

Chris Simpson: Audiences have access to infinite modes of on-demand entertainment, and are often reluctant to commit time and money to a theatrical experience. In addition, legions of mediocre productions across the history of live performance have dulled the appeal of attending the theater. These factors combine to make it an increasingly unlikely decision for any given audience member to make. We’re always fighting an uphill fight against technology and our own collective past failures — it’s a nightmare and a delicious challenge!

KB: How does the South County community factor into the work Contemporary Theater Company does?

CS: We have a small-town feel to our operation. We have to value every audience member, because we don’t have an inexhaustible supply of new folks coming through town. We also have the laid-back and friendly vibe of South County in our rehearsal process. For us, the summer is the busiest time — we have the reverse schedule of most of our peers up north.  That, as you might expect, changes everything.

KB: Education seems to be a key component of your organization. What does education through theater mean to you personally?

CS: Our culture is obsessed with individualization, convenience and instant gratification. As a calcified 29-year-old man, I am appalled at our dwindling communication skills, work ethic and attention span. Theater education challenges all of those. It requires focus, commitment and discussion of difficult and abstract ideas. It necessitates vulnerability, person-to-person connection, presence and a willingness to deeply consider viewpoints and ideas that are unfamiliar. It requires hard work. I consider it one of the best tools for challenging people to sustain their mindfulness and humanity in the face of endless opportunities to relinquish it.

KB: Your work and the work that the CTC does tends to have a very physical aspect to it.  Does that play a part in choosing your projects?

CS: We hear this all the time. I wonder about this “other” theater happening out there that is somehow devoid of physicality. I think we find stories that are important to us, or that have a specific niche in our season that we’re trying to fill. From there, we approach them in the most well-rounded or complete way that we can, and let the rest take care of itself. I think a better way to consider it is that we pursue projects that have a strong ensemble energy to them. We don’t treat the “leads” or the “stars” any differently than we treat everyone else, and we expect a lot of difficult and committed work of everyone. It results in a strong relationship to one another, and a desire to learn from and support the fellow performers.  From this dynamic, a cohesive physical style is almost guaranteed to evolve.

KB: The word “play” comes up a lot. Your tagline is “Here to Play,” but the CTC’s work is also very playful. Even when you’re taking on serious subjects, it’s always through a unique, slightly surreal lens. Is that a conscious choice on your part?

CS: It’s a silly word. Theater is joyful. It is epic, it is elevated, it is immediate, it is imaginative. Somehow, “play” has come to be a shorthand for all of that. It’s essential that there be passion for the story in the minds and hearts of the performers and production team. You have to approach things joyfully, committedly and with a willingness to be utterly wrong without any fear of the consequences. Playfulness captures that fairly well, I think.

KB: One of the things I notice about you is that you’re very present at your theater. You’re always in the lobby before and after shows greeting people. How has that been valuable?

CS: Creating a cultural institution is hard. You have to be physically and mentally present all the time. You can’t fake it, you can’t mail it in. It is a trade or a craft. Masons and carpenters can probably churn out mediocre work without being particularly mindful, but anything worth their talent requires a full presence of mind and body throughout the process. Theater is the same way. When I’m not willing to be 100% present anymore, I’ll have the option of churning out mediocre work, or moving on. We’ll see what happens — I’m not there yet.

KB: What themes do you want to see CTC explore in the future?

CS: We’ve built a team that has a lot of skill and a lot of experience. We’re getting pretty good at telling stories in innovative or engaging ways. It’s important that the work directly asks questions pertinent to our community. Sweeney Todd talks about regret, revenge, the ways we influence and betray one another. Those are themes that are always relevant — and those stories should always be told.