Kevin Broccoli: So much of being an artistic director is about projecting confidence. What general worries or fears do you have looking ahead at the future for both your theater and theater in general?
Jonathan Pitts-Wiley: There are so many stories to tell and my honest concern is having enough performers to tell them. Mixed Magic prides itself on telling diverse stories and putting diverse images on the stage, and that mission takes a deep talent pool. While the talent is there, the sheer numbers are not and while we pride ourselves on cultivating new talent, I’d be lying if I said it was not a labor intensive process. Still, we embrace the challenge.
KB: Mixed Magic is a family company in the truest sense of the word. How do you think having your family involved with the company helps differentiate Mixed Magic from other theaters?
JP: I can’t really say how much it helps differentiate us from other companies — at least any more than we already are — so I can really just speak from a selfish perspective and say it’s pretty cool to not only create an extended family atmosphere, but also exist in a space with a sense of legacy. I grew up around theater, I met my wife at the theater, my daughter always wants to come to rehearsal … I’m lucky to have that kind of experience.
KB: Mixed Magic has a really warm feeling to it. When you walk in the door, there’s a definite sense of comfort and home there. How do you cultivate that? Does it happen naturally or is it something you create?
JP: I think it’s a blend of things. First, we really are a family business that encourages the participation of families. So at any given moment, several people are actually related to each other. More important than that, my mother and father founded a company that has a “No Bad Spirits” policy and I think that attracts the right kind of people and repels the wrong kind. Theater is an intense experience and emotions can run high, but negativity? Intentional hurt? No, we don’t deal in that.
KB: MMT is known for being a place where a lot of actors get their start. How have you managed to find so much talent over the years? Have they sought you out or is putting fresh faces onstage something that’s built into your overall mission?
JP: Some of it has to do with embracing the spirit of collaboration, but I think more has to do with luck and the spirit of belief. I like to think that when you try to earnestly go about doing right by people, the universe will throw you a bone and bring people in your life that needed you as much as you needed them. Moreover, we actively believe that there’s talent in a lot of places and in a lot of people — even if they don’t quite see it when we do. Over time, I think word and energy spreads in such a way that performers start seeking you out because they know there’s the potential for an opportunity.
KB: Can you talk to me about the business side of running a theater? I hear people outside the theater world (and some inside it) asking how all these theaters keep their doors open. Because you’ve been around so long, do you have a strategy when it comes to business or does that change depending on things like the economy?
JP: Once you decide to survive a nuclear winter, a lot of other things fall into place — though they fall into different places and in different ways constantly.
KB: What’s your relationship like with critics? Everybody says they don’t read reviews, but most of the time that’s at least a little dishonest. Do you find criticism to be helpful or do you try to steer clear of it?
JP: I respect what critics do while remembering they don’t dictate what I do. I read reviews once. If I think the critique is constructive and potentially useful, I give it some thought. If it’s thinly veiled shade, I deal with it accordingly. As a director, I try to remind actors that you’re rarely as bad or good as a review says and that their job is to capture the imaginations of the next audience.
KB: Do you think there’s a particular challenge that faces people who do theater in Rhode Island that maybe other people in other theater communities don’t face?
JP: I think there can be a certain provincialism that can lead to people staying within their communities and circles. I’m a Rhode Islander, so I’m not immune to it myself. People aren’t necessarily taking flyers on unknown quantities, so the pressure to be known, trusted and good is pretty high.
KB: I’ve asked this of the two other ADs I’ve talked to as well, because I think as artists we’re conditioned to hate this question: Do you have any regrets?
JP: I don’t trust anyone who doesn’t. Still, I try to remember that rearview mirrors are small and windshields are big for a reason.
KB: You have a daughter and a child on the way. Do you see MMT being handed down to another generation within your family one day? How did growing up around the arts shape who you are as a person and an artist?
JP: My hope is that when the time comes, my kids will know the arts are not a world that’s been foreclosed to them and that involvement in Mixed Magic is something they can choose to do if they feel so moved. Growing up around theater is to grow up around language and wonder — to be around stories and storytellers. You learn ways to think and feel about the world around you and to recognize the humanity in others. So, I think the arts — and having artist parents — helped me become a decent human being (I hope).
KB: Is there a person or group of people that inspire you? It doesn’t have to be theater-related.
JP: Cliche as this may sound, it’s my wife. As you’re fairly aware, I’m not a person who lacks in a lot of confidence or sense of self and I can confidently say I that her combination of gifts as an artist and her other professional interests staggers me. You ever just look at a person and say, “Damn, you’re just better than me?” I’m thankful to have her in my life as a partner and source of motivation.