In March of 2011, I saw a magical piece of theatre called You Are Now The Owner Of This Suitcase. It was staged in the cafeteria of a primary school in Queens by a company called Theatre 167, and it was unlike anything I’d seen in years. The energy of this collaboratively devised play, its mash-up of styles and the calibre of its performers, made me miss the kind of DIY work I did years ago at the Experimental Theater Wing. So when artistic director Ari Laura Kreith asked me to help write the final installment in their epic Jackson Heights trilogy, I jumped. Now just weeks away from the premier of Jackson Heights 3am, I spoke to Ari by phone during our holiday hiatus from rehearsal. As I've also taken a role in the show, I should have been learning my lines. I typed up our conversation instead.J.Stephen Brantley Having done a few of these shows, I guess you’ve got it mastered by now. It’s all clockwork, right? Easy as proverbial pie?Ari Laura Kreith There are those moments - trying to coordinate twenty-one actors, some flying in from LA, and seven writers working on a single script, and we’ve got holidays and two venues and Equity rules - when it all seems a little impossible! But one of the things that’s amazing is that it really is an ensemble effort—there’s something about this sort of project that really draws in people who think of making theater as “our production” rather than “this is my piece.” So you made the posters, which are amazing, for example, and Jenny Lyn (Bader, company playwright) has done so much to bring our huge unwieldy script into legible and unified form. And finding a TD, Ross DeGraw, who really embraces this adventurous sort of process, has made so much of this possible.JSB I am totally having a bromance with him.ALK Ross is great! And so many other folks like him have helped out. Even relative strangers hear about the project and offer to help out. Plus the logistics do get easier—this time we know how to light the space, which was a huge challenge at first. I knew I wanted to work in three-quarters, and in a found space, because it feels really important for the audience to see one another as they’re sharing this experience. But figuring out how to bring lights into a low-ceilinged venue in a way that didn’t blow circuits and blind the audience and still allowed for creativity and control in the lighting realm was huge. That’s a challenge that Nicole Pearce solved beautifully last year, and knowing how to do it this time, feeling like we have a bit of a rep plot, makes it easier now.JSB Not that you’re replicating what you’ve done before…ALK No, but it’s certainly easier to explore a few new elements at a time, so this year we’re incorporating Andrew Lazarow’s amazing video work, and that feels like a new-yet-manageable piece.JSB Found spaces, shared spaces, non-traditional spaces – I think we’re going to see more and more of that, but it comes with its own challenges.ALK Yeah. Last year we bought chairs, which was crazy—transporting seventy chairs from IKEA. And yes, I brought my kids to IKEA with me to buy the chairs, so I was rolling them on a dolly with a two-year-old and a four-year-old…so anytime I get overwhelmed I focus on things like that, and remind myself that this year all we have to do is bring chairs up from the basement!JSB The trilogy is like an epic love poem to Jackson Heights. How did it begin?ALK Almost as soon as I moved to Jackson Heights, I started thinking about how to express some of the magic of the neighborhood in theatre. I love the way so many cultures come together here, and I wanted to celebrate and share that magic, both with people in the neighborhood and people outside it. For a while, just after Dashiell was born, I was artistic director of a company called Jackson Rep, and I developed and directed two solo shows that felt like they explored specific aspects of the neighborhood—one was Leslie Harrell Dillen's piece about a white woman who traveled to India for her stepdaughter’s wedding to a Sikh man, the other was an interactive show by comedy writer Carl Kissin where he involved members of the audience in his storytelling. And I was really interested in the ways each of these writers explored something specific about the neighborhood, and so I wondered what would happen if more writers got involved and if it became sort of a conversation. That summer, I was in Boulder, Colorado, trying to describe what it feels like to live in Jackson Heights, and it started to feel very urgent to me to create a piece that captured some of these things. So the first piece we created this way, 167 Tongues, was while I was still with Jackson Rep. Such a clear artistic ensemble coalesced around that project, and such a passion for a particular way of working, that it felt right to build a company dedicated to this kind of work. Though we’re ever re-defining what ‘this kind of work’ actually is! So that’s how Theatre 167 was born.JSB There’s something inherently dramatic about the mix of cultures in Jackson Heights. We all felt it that first night when we hit the streets for raw material.ALK I’m in Maryland right now, and it strikes me that our life-on-the-streets and subway time in New York is really a gift.JSB I’m in Texas. The population here is so diverse, and yet people still don’t ‘mix’. I think it has everything to do with cars. With drive-thrus.ALK Right. But in a place like Jackson Heights, we see one another’s lives so constantly and with such taken-for-granted intimacy. We overhear each other’s most intimate conversations. How can we fail to grasp everyone’s fundamental humanity? And I don’t think of that as just a question about cultural difference-or-not, but that we have the opportunity to see deeply into the lives of others on a daily basis.JSB This installment is much darker than the previous two. In some scenes, we see an uglier side of the neighborhood. How do you think it will be received by local audiences?ALK Certainly we deal with some really dark topics—sex trafficking and drug-fueled violence are two of the most obvious. But we aren’t telling those stories in a gratuitous way—we’re looking at the need for connection and love, which are pretty basic and beautiful human impulses. And we’re exploring what happens when those needs aren’t or can’t be met, and how that can twist people.JSB What we kept talking about in meetings was loneliness. I think it was important to all of us that we portray that kind of desperation honestly, but that we also transcend it somehow, that there is connection or at least the potential for it.ALK Ultimately, I think this piece takes us to a place where, for the most part, those needs are met, often in unexpected or unlikely ways. And that will hopefully inspire the audience to think about the humanity of people they might otherwise choose to ignore, and possibly think about how they might have some sort of deeper connection to people they would otherwise look away from. So the journey to those dark places is necessary, I think, so that we can explore ways of moving toward the light.JSB I think people will get that, whether they live in Jackson Heights or not.ALK It’s funny, I guess I haven’t thought too much about how the story will be received, with the exception of clarifying that it’s not appropriate for kids.JSB Yeah this is definitely not You Are Now The Owner Of This Suitcase.ALK No. But these stories need to be told too, and hopefully even if someone is offended – and I imagine we will have a few walk-outs – they will be inspired to think about these things and explore why they were offended and what it is about that particular story that they think is untellable or unhearable. Part of our company’s mission is to give voice to people whose stories often go untold, and sometimes I think those stories aren’t told because a few vocal audience members are afraid to hear them or are offended by them. And it just seems like an obvious and necessary choice to honor our commitment to the people whose stories are often hidden out of deference to a few.JSB Many directors would balk at the notion of wrangling ten overlapping storylines by seven different playwrights – as would many playwrights. In fact, there’s one who visibly shuddered when I told him about it. So what do you love about working this way?ALK It’s like a huge party with amazing artists! Really! I love working with writers, and I think there’s something beautiful and challenging for writers in this process. When I first became interested in working this way, it was about the stories being told in the piece and how important it felt to truly reveal multiple perspectives on an event. But I’ve really fallen in love with the way it inspires writers to work out of their comfort zone, to explore things that they’ve never written and possibly felt they wouldn’t be allowed to write about because of people’s expectations of their work based on race or culture or sexual orientation or previous style-JSB Or language. I never would have done anything in Bengali were it not for this show, that’s for sure. I was really nervous about writing characters outside my own cultural sphere. It took a lot of help and encouragement from other members of the company, a lot of mutual trust all around.ALK And it takes a particular kind of writer—or a writer at a particular point in their relationship to writing—to embrace that process. It’s about being very generous with one another, being flexible with each individual piece in the service to the whole. We have one character who has changed ethnicity three times as he morphed to contain characters from several scenes. We have central events that have disappeared or moved offstage to allow the overall plot to build. We have scenes that have been written by three people together, with elements and characters from everyone’s stories. And I’m really grateful that everyone allows me to muck about and ask questions and suggest relationships. It’s really magical!JSB There’s been a lot of synchronistic thinking from the very start. I think it’s because we all appreciate each other enough to allow that ‘magic’ in.ALK The respect that everyone has for everyone else as artists, in building and developing and changing…it’s really about finding, together, what works for the piece. And the fact that there’s a shared perspective about how theatre can be a catalyst for a deeper cultural perspective and true compassion is central to allowing that to happen.JSB I love your certainty in that. In fact, you seem pretty fearless, all the way round. Does anything about this work ever frighten you?ALK I suppose I should feel scared bringing everyone into the room together for the first time and being the person who stands up in front and says, “In ten months, we’re going to have a show.” But I’m mostly just curious and excited about what’s going to happen. I tend to be very intuitive about who the collaborators for a particular project need to be, our collaboration being a case in point: I knew you understood and had an affinity for this kind of work and had read some blog entries you’d written, and I knew you were someone who brings great collaborative energy into a room, but I really didn’t know anything about you as a playwright, except that I just knew. And John Keller, who is one of our core actors, he and I laugh about how when he came to audition, he was in and out in three minutes and thought “Well, that did not go well,” but we ended up casting him and creating a role around what he’d brought into the room that day.JSB I thought you’d known him forever. It seems like your sudden instincts lead to long-term collaborations.ALK Yes, balancing out those intuitive, seemingly reckless choices are some truly amazing artistic relationships that developed over time; Jenny Lyn Bader and I have worked together almost since I arrived in New York, and I feel like she knows what I’m thinking better than I do sometimes, or like I can be in rehearsal with one of her scenes and know what she’d say about something even when she’s not in the room. And there are people like Rajesh Bose and Arlene Chico-Lugo, for example, who have been in all three plays in the trilogy and I just can’t imagine working without. It’s been so exciting on this particular project to be able to create roles for them that are really inspired by them as people, and I feel like their depth as people and as actors have really led us in creating that arc.JSB I wanted to write for Rajesh right from the start. And I am just in love with what Arlene is doing as Adela. As a playwright, it’s so exciting and gratifying to have such amazing actors saying your stuff. I know, for me, it’s much less scary when that happens.ALK If there’s one thing that scares me about these projects, it’s just the moments when I think about the hubris of it all—trusting my gut to know who belongs in a particular piece before it even exists, and then as the project evolves, shaping the stories and trusting that ultimately we will be telling something that needs and deserves to be told. Except that I really think the work has its own magnetic pull to it, that it draws the right people and stories together, and truly I’m just another person drawn to serve these stories in some way.JSB How do you get there? What in your background prepared you for making collaboratively devised pieces like JH3am?ALK I did my undergrad at Yale, and really struggled with the town/gown divisions—being at an Ivy League school in the midst of a decaying inner city. I spent my senior year creating an interactive theatre event, working with Yale actors and non-actors, as well as actors and musicians from the New Haven community. We created all these scenes that audience could walk through, exploring ideas of work, play and ritual, and staged the piece off-campus so it would be accessible to all. The experience was amazing: two hours of interactive theatre culminating in a huge dance party with an African dance band. The heartbreaking thing for me was that not one of my professors came. And then, when I did talk to a faculty member, he read me a list of names including Gandhi, Martin Luther King, and Jesus, and told me I was walking a dangerous path because I should look where they all ended up.JSB Um, yeah, cause those guys all totally wasted their time…ALK Looking at it now, it seems pretty ludicrous, but as an about-to-enter-the-world college senior, it terrified me about my identity as an artist making community-based theatre and made me question whether there was a true home for this kind of work or, indeed, for me, in the theatre. After that, I was an actor for a while, did my MFA in Acting, and while I was in school I started a summer theatre company because I felt like my classmates weren’t being challenged in the ways I thought they should be. And so I started directing there, really to encourage friends to take artistic risks. We did new plays, because I thought it was really amazing that you could do new plays!JSB It is! ALK And I assumed I would stay there building that company and doing that. But then Jeffrey Carlson, an actor who had been one of the original company members before moving to New York to go to Juilliard, he came back and we did a season together and he pushed and challenged me. I loved it, and I realized that was what I needed to grow artistically, was to be in an environment where my collaborators were pushing and inspiring me like that. I never really thought of it that way til this moment, but there are all the things I loved then – community-inspired theatre, new plays, and truly collaborative and challenging artistic relationships – in the work that Theatre 167 is doing now. JSB What’s the most challenging part of running a company like Theatre 167? ALK I think it’s all the stuff that’s challenging about running any small theatre, really. The boring stuff. Where does the money come from, how to find affordable rehearsal space, who wants to go out and hang posters in the cold. Really not worth complaining about. JSB Duly noted. Next question: Your two adorable kids frequently end up in rooms full of all kinds of people, from various countries and of many ethnicities, speaking multiple languages, all getting along. They don’t think it's normal, do they? ALK Of course they do! Don’t you? JSB Well, now, yeah. ALK Part of raising kids in New York is that they get exposed to so much—when my daughter was three, we found a man lying in the street on a freezing cold night and called 911 and she talked about it for weeks after. Sometimes it scares me. But I think it makes them more compassionate people when they understand that life is complicated, that they’re lucky to have a home, that sort of thing. And one of the things my kids are lucky to experience, both growing up in Jackson Heights and growing up around this particular theatre company, is a really glorious, very diverse and joyous culture. JSB Now for the important stuff: Is my horribly offensive, half-naked performance as Leo going to cost you donors and get you banned from using PS69? ALK I’m sure we’ll offend someone. JSB It’s what I do. ALK But your performance isn’t offensive! And Leo is very important. As we look at people whose stories aren’t told or are ignored, Leo is a prime example of someone we want to look away from because he’s in so much pain and doesn’t know what to do with it. It’s so easy to judge people like that, and yet the trajectory of the play reveals the ways that we’re all truly connected. And isn’t that something that we want people to think about, and want our children to learn? I don’t want to give the story away, but things might have turned out very differently if someone had been able to see and reach Leo that night. And I have a deep interest in the Leos of the world, and how we can pull them back from the void. JSB I do too. And it seems possible in theatre, in that arena of what-if. I know bitchy, cynical plays are very fashionable right now, but I still believe in the power of theatre to bring people together. ALK So do I. JSB I mean, this show is hardly sunshine and roses, but if seven playwrights can all get along… ALK And, not to be melodramatic or cheesy, but I feel like there’s something about walking the streets of Jackson Heights that expresses how we can live together as a global community—how we can be celebrate cultural difference and experience commonality. When Elodie was four, she was looking at a photo on the cover of the New York Times magazine; it was an article about a principal who had turned around a low-performing school in the Bronx, and he had been photographed with a number of his students, who were all African American and Latino. Elodie was very curious about the picture, and when I asked her why, she said, “These kids are all different from me.” There was a pause and then she said with admiration, “They’re older.” I love it that this is her world. Theatre 167’s Jackson Heights 3am opens January 13th at PS 69 in Jackson Heights Queens. It will also play two weekends at Queens Theatre in Flushing Meadows Park. For tickets click here.
Alternatively: Gorgeous Torture, or, "I love the smell of White Shoulders in the morning."
In David Adjmi
’s Elective Affinities
, a resplendent Zoe Caldwell
as Mrs. Alice Hauptmann welcomes guests into a beautifully appointed parlor as a Chanel-clad spider might a fan club of flies. It's not merely a show but an afternoon tea
, gorgeously produced by Soho Rep
, piece by piece
, and Rising Phoenix Rep
. It was absolutely one of the highest lights of my 2011.
‘Staged’ in a brownstone on the Upper East Side, this is sight-specific performance at its most intimate. There was some wonderful, powerful, alternatively-spaced stuff this year - The Tenant
and Sleep No More
especially. Complete with Earl Grey and candied ginger, Elective Affinities
appears on the more naturalistic side of that spectrum, delightfully so.
Alice’s house is gorgeous, of course. Crystal. Lilies. Nineteenth century portraiture and an appropriately somber staff to take your coat and serve your tea. You’re also greeted by an enormous abstract sculpture, black and roiling, that I’d liken to a giant lava foot. It dominates a mahogany-paneled living room, dwarfing a marble fireplace and a grand piano. From the start, the whole thing is at once lovely and sinister. I was all in.
Upstairs we were greeted, one at a time, by Mrs. Hauptmann herself. When it came my turn, she took my hand and leaned in, looking a bit concerned. ‘I don’t know
you,’ she purred. After I’d introduced myself, she proclaimed my surname a very
I’m fascinated by the idea of the savage inside, and how deeply a surface need be scratched to release it. Alice Hauptmann is certainly the picture of gentility. But one need only introduce the subject of government-sanctioned torture (or a bit of Animal Planet, which Alice gleefully proclaims ‘almost pornographic!’) to bring out her inner brute.
David Adjmi’s script is so sly. The way in which his Alice rationalizes brutality, the coolness with which she excuses, even embraces cruelty, sneaks up on you. It’s seductive, and by the time you realize you may share more of Mrs. Hauptmann’s world view than you’d care to admit, it’s too late. You’re pinned. When she rhapsodizes about the moment in which a gazelle gives up to a predator, she may as well be talking about the audience seated about her, well within striking range. Before I knew it, the teeth of Adjmi’s script sank in deep and I was done for. (I wanted to tell him so afterward, but he has such a smile that I turned shy, sure that I’d say something stupid.)
Mrs. Hauptman talks of having resigned herself to a certain fate. Her Germanic husband thinks her monstrous, as does her (possibly alcoholic) friend Dierdre, simply for speaking her mind. She might have you believe that she’s a doyenne in a doll’s house but I think she’s more like the big savannah cats she admires on the television. She’s patient that way, practically welcoming prey to a watering hole she’s secretly stalked for decades. Alice lacquers her nails blood red.
I was so lucky to have seen this piece, and to be there for a closing night toast. Ms. Caldwell spoke movingly about the passion and dedication of the team behind Elective Affinities
, and it was obvious that everyone involved had tremendous love for the project. Hearing her speak, and talking with people from Rising Phoenix and piece by piece, I was inspired by the generosity with which this show was built. This is no-agenda artistry - no one is out to elevate themselves above anyone else. Instead it’s about creating something meaningful, building and sharing something really special. Ms. Caldwell asserts that it’s not really up to us to designate ourselves artists anyway, that it’s not our call to make. The opulence of the surroundings in which she spoke these words pointed up the willingness of a hardworking team of theatre craftsmen to muck in for the greater good of live performance. For me it was humbling and hope-filled. In a year that brought us ego-driven debacles like The Spidish Play
, I say more power to artists
And it is the power of art itself on which Elective Affinities
finally hangs. The play begins and ends with Alice talking about that hulking sculpture she’s commissioned for the second floor. Her husband thinks it’s growing, and Alice has to admit that it does have a certain terrible power. It lurks and looms, always there like a desperate measure, just the other side of a beautifully paneled pocket door. It’s like survival. Whether a Manhattan dowager or a doe in the jaws of lioness, some instincts simply will not be denied.
Alice eventually admits the sculpture is horrible, but asserts that it is art, nonetheless. It is, paradoxically, beautifully cruel. As with war and torture and plays like Elective Affinities
, you can but define your own life in relation to it, and take your lumps.
One or two?
I don’t like blackouts. Most often, they’re unnecessary, time-consuming, and not actually black. They’re usually bluish, and feature the moving about of set pieces in less than theatrical ways for long enough that I can come up with a number of much more compelling ways the director might have transitioned from one scene to the next. In my own work as a playwright, I’ll allow myself one blackout per ninety minutes, and it better come at a crucial moment: the death of a major character, or a significant shift in plot or theme. There is a moment n Theatre 167’s new show You Are Now The Owner Of This Suitcase when the stage goes well and truly dark. And when the lights come up again, the audience is treated to one of the most delightful surprises I have ever experienced in a theater. It’s just one of many magical moments in the play directed by Ari Laura Kreith and written by Mando Alvarado, Jenny Lyn Bader, Barbara Cassidy, Les Hunter, Joy Tomasko, Gary Winter and Stefanie Zadravec. The playwrights’ pieces are inspired by locally told folktales originating from around the world and intertwined in a single play with overlapping storylines. Very cool."If art reflects life, it does so with special mirrors." - Bertholt BrechtYou Are Now The Owner Of This Suitcase (or YANTOOTS) takes place in the enchanted land of Jackson Heights, Queens, NYC. It is in many ways an old fashioned fairy tale, even as it makes mention of the most contemporary of objects and issues, including the very building in which the show is performed. Magic takes public transportation. It arrives in suitcases, sits on park benches, and dwells quite literally in cell phones. Early on, there’s a speech by an electronics store owner (Rajesh Bose) who gives a hilariously over-the-top hard sell of a mobile device. His phones will actually transport you to any nation on earth and enable you to converse in its native tongue. To a cynical New Yorker, it seems at first a send-up of storefront shysters hawking overpriced, sub-par products with outrageous claims. It’s not. YANTOOTS is creatively mounted in the cafeteria of PS 69. Being assembled in the lunchroom of an elementary school put me and my friends in a playful mood (even if the tiny urinals in the restroom made us feel a little funny). The ripped storybook pages and twinkling lights of the set evoke a decidedly urban fairyland backing into ‘wings’ of upended cafeteria tables. Staging a devised piece in this space speaks to the mission of Theatre 167 to create and promote art for and about the local community. The audience surrounds the action of the play, and actors enter through the impromptu ‘house’ created by sectioned seating. The whole set-up seems microcosmic of the neighborhood around it. The play is a wild pastiche of styles, sometimes naturalistic, in other moments quite avant-garde. Subtly nuanced performances give over to charmingly garish puppetry. Many scenes combine simple contemporary vernacular with heightened, even poetic dialogue. The fourth wall comes and goes. Somehow, it’s all done with great precision, ease, and speed. The whole thing is remarkably dynamic. I don’t think there’s a moment of stillness in either act. What makes it all work is a group of highly skilled and absolutely committed actors who seem to really love what they’re doing. Saying of a show that it ‘has heart’ is often code for ‘good-try-A-for-effort’. But in this case, the company’s skill and talent is matched only by it’s passion for the material. Every member of the cast seems completely given to creating something magical and meaningful. They also happen to have some real chops. Don’t think for a second that all the great acting happens in Manhattan. (Aside from blackouts, the other thing I find boring onstage is watching people talk on the phone. But John P. Keller made a truly moving moment of it.) If you go see YANTOOTS, give yourself enough time to have dinner first. There’s all manner of great food in Jackson Heights. We went with Indian at a neighborhood classic, The Jackson Diner. Don’t let the name fool you, they do a delicious and authentic curry. (At 6:30 there was plenty of room but by the time we left for the show, the place was nearly packed.) I have a thing for Indian sweets so I stopped off at a shop for burfi and patisa and chamchams. Pink coconut chamchams are the perfect intermission snack for this show. It didn’t occur to me until the train ride home that the one thing you don’t really see depicted on the multicultural platform that is Theatre 167’s stage is racial tension. Yes there are villains in YANTOOTS (Ross DeGraw’s Hector is pretty vile) but racism doesn’t seem to factor into their agendas. Characters of every color, from every continent - yes, even Antarctica - seem to get along just fine here. Of course, it is a fairy tale… Or is it? The audience at last night’s show was the most diverse crowd I have ever seen at a play. Not a huge crowd, but a very happily mixed one. Black, White, Asian, Hispanic, gay, straight, old, young. From where I was seated, I could see two families enjoying the show together. One family was Caucasian, the other Indian, and both included kids no older than eight. All were delighted by a work of art that is decidedly optimistic, refreshingly so in our cynical times. “Art is not a mirror to hold up to society, but a hammer with which to shape it.” – Bertholt Brecht Brecht felt that artists must pay close attention to the possibilities their work promises. He said that the greatest thing that theatre could do was to provide the pleasure of knowing the world could be remade. While the title of Theatre 167’s latest play refers to a mysterious note discovered in a lost valise, ‘You are now the owner of this suitcase’ is actually a very loaded statement. To me, it’s a reminder that we have a responsibility, as both artists and citizens, to shape the world in which we live. Putting something onstage conjures up a potential reality. Audiences may even replicate in the real world what the encounter in art. In YANTOOTS, a Roumanian bruja (it is Jackson Heights) played by Kim Carlson advises recent Equadorian émigré Patricia Becker to take seriously her charge of a lost piece of luggage. To think carefully about how she’ll fill it. It turns out that our baggage touches the lives of others in ways we can hardly imagine. If YANTOOTS reflects the community that inspires it, it also reminds its residents of the magic that makes urban geography meaningful for its inhabitants. It urges us to cherish our interesting differences even as seek to create a unified whole. Of course we can all get along. Why in the world wouldn’t we want to? My friends and I walked out into the twinkle and color of bustling Jackson Heights with smiles on our faces. It was one of those great evenings that inspires you to look at New York City with a fresh perspective. And one of my favorite things about YANTOOTS? Kreith and company take us from one part of Jackson Heights to the next by simply whisking in a table, a window, or a couple of chairs, playing the scene even as they set and strike its elements. No blackouts! Like the neighborhood around it, You Are Now The Owner Of This Suitcase is a work of constantly shifting light, always moving, transforming, reinventing itself. Absolutely delightful.YANTOOTS has been extended through April 3. Get your tix here.
I must be mad.
Completely insane. Absolutely certifiable. Starting a theatre company is risky business no matter the economic climate, but in times like these? It’s nothing less than demented. And yet that is exactly what I've done in creating Hard Sparks
My goals for Hard Sparks
are lofty (read: insane) indeed, at least by most local standards. In addition to offering high-quality productions of edgy new plays for an Off-off Broadway audience, I have three primary objectives:
Affordable tickets. I’m interested in interesting the next generation of theatre goers, young people who don’t have a lot of discretionary cash. And, let’s face it, I make art for artists. So whether I am co-producing with a company like Horse Trade
as I am on Eightythree Down
, or working in a great big fancy place with multiple bathrooms and everything, there will be a way for everyone to enjoy a Hard Sparks show.
Paid personnel. It’s astonishing how little and how infrequently theatre artists are paid for their very difficult work. Very often, the best paying Off-off Broadway gigs work out to less than minimum wage. Money gets poured into venue rental, festival fees, and expensive sets but the whole point of performance - live people sharing meaningful experiences - gets lost. Hard Sparks
can’t pay its companies much, but I am absolutely determined that everyone in our shows get something. In addition to respect, admiration, and gratitude, I think artists deserve a bit of dignity and at least one good dinner as well.
Charitable partnerships. Now here’s where it really gets bonkers. As a not-for-profit organization, I want to partner with other not-for-profit organizations for mutual benefit. I’m talking about raising awareness of, and money for, community-based organizations working to improve people’s lives in very direct ways. Whenever possible, Hard Sparks
will mount issue-oriented plays and donate a portion of box office receipts to a local CBO working on that issue.
Every time I tell someone of my harebrained scheme, they smirk. Their eyes either narrow (producers) or widen (actors) and they ask me if I have an angel, a DeMedici, a secret backer who’s as much a nutter as I am to contribute to such an obvious debacle. I don't. But this doesn’t concern me. I see miracles happen every time I walk into a rehearsal, and I have absolute certainty that these goals are obtainable and sustainable.
Interesting new works of theatre, created by fairly compensated artists, that make an appreciable difference in the local community?
Yeah, that’s just crazy.J.Stephen Brantley
Artistic Director, Hard Sparks
On the last day of 2010, I came across an excerpt from a speech given by President John F. Kennedy on October 26, 1963 at Amherst College in Massachusetts, in honor of the poet Robert Frost. In this speech, President Kennedy made clear the need for a nation to represent itself not only through its strength but also through its art and as he said, "full recognition of the place of the artist."
It's a moving and inspiring statement on the importance of art to a country's consciousness and national identity. For me these are words to live and to work by, stuck permanently to my soul's fridge door.
Our national strength matters, but the spirit which informs and controls our strength matters just as much. This was the special significance of Robert Frost. He brought an unsparing instinct for reality to bear on the platitudes and pieties of society. His sense of the human tragedy fortified him against self-deception and easy consolation. "I have been" he wrote, "one acquainted with the night." And because he knew the midnight as well as the high noon, because he understood the ordeal as well as the triumph of the human spirit, he gave his age strength with which to overcome despair. At bottom, he held a deep faith in the spirit of man, and it is hardly an accident that Robert Frost coupled poetry and power, for he saw poetry as the means of saving power from itself. When power leads men towards arrogance, poetry reminds him of his limitations. When power narrows the areas of man's concern, poetry reminds him of the richness and diversity of his existence. When power corrupts, poetry cleanses. For art establishes the basic human truth which must serve as the touchstone of our judgment.
The artist, however faithful to his personal vision of reality, becomes the last champion of the individual mind and sensibility against an intrusive society and an officious state. The great artist is thus a solitary figure. He has, as Frost said, a lover's quarrel with the world. In pursuing his perceptions of reality, he must often sail against the currents of his time. This is not a popular role. If Robert Frost was much honored in his lifetime, it was because a good many preferred to ignore his darker truths. Yet in retrospect, we see how the artist's fidelity has strengthened the fibre of our national life.
If sometimes our great artists have been the most critical of our society, it is because their sensitivity and their concern for justice, which must motivate any true artist, makes him aware that our Nation falls short of its highest potential. I see little of more importance to the future of our country and our civilization than full recognition of the place of the artist.
If art is to nourish the roots of our culture, society must set the artist free to follow his vision wherever it takes him. We must never forget that art is not a form of propaganda; it is a form of truth. And as Mr. MacLeish once remarked of poets, there is nothing worse for our trade than to be in style. In free society art is not a weapon and it does not belong to the spheres of polemic and ideology. Artists are not engineers of the soul. It may be different elsewhere. But democratic society--in it, the highest duty of the writer, the composer, the artist is to remain true to himself and to let the chips fall where they may. In serving his vision of the truth, the artist best serves his nation. And the nation which disdains the mission of art invites the fate of Robert Frost's hired man, the fate of having "nothing to look backward to with pride, and nothing to look forward to with hope."
I look forward to a great future for America, a future in which our country will match its military strength with our moral restraint, its wealth with our wisdom, its power with our purpose. I look forward to an America which will not be afraid of grace and beauty, which will protect the beauty of our natural environment, which will preserve the great old American houses and squares and parks of our national past, and which will build handsome and balanced cities for our future.
I look forward to an America which will reward achievement in the arts as we reward achievement in business or statecraft. I look forward to an America which will steadily raise the standards of artistic accomplishment and which will steadily enlarge cultural opportunities for all of our citizens. And I look forward to an America which commands respect throughout the world not only for its strength but for its civilization as well. And I look forward to a world which will be safe not only for democracy and diversity but also for personal distinction.
Robert Frost was often skeptical about projects for human improvement, yet I do not think he would disdain this hope. As he wrote during the uncertain days of the Second War:
Take human nature altogether since time began . . .
And it must be a little more in favor of man,
Say a fraction of one percent at the very least . . .
Our hold on this planet wouldn't have so increased.
Because of Mr. Frost's life and work, because of the life and work of this college, our hold on this planet has increased.
Text and recording courtesy of the John F. Kennedy Library and the U.S. National Archives.