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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. 

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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

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