The American Theatre is Not Built for Us

Theatre can be a world of contradictions. It’s a space, it’s an experience. It’s a service, it’s a product. It’s a community builder, it’s a gentrifier. It’s a means of education, a townhall, it’s just entertainment.  As a writer-director, I’m looking to connect to an audience, engage the local community, express myself and entertain — so how come I measure my success by ticket sales, sold out crowds and glowing reviews? How come my success as an artist can be measured at an end of quarter board meeting? The American Theatre exists under the umbrella of American Capitalism. Its survival has always depended on ticket sales and various forms of investment from the upper class. With the relatively recent advent of the non-profit theatre, we’ve convinced ourselves that the non-profit and the commercial worlds are separate when, ultimately, they abide by the same rules of capitalism. We’ve convinced ourselves that the non-profit is a safe space for the artistic, the creative, the developmental, but the systems in place were never built to support the artist or the financial failure that can come with further exploring the New.

The system was not built for us artists. However, this blanket statement hasn’t always been true. There have been many attempts to democratize the American Theatre, only for artists to be washed ashore by the tidal wave that is capitalism. There were the repertory companies of actors and director/managers that toured the country in the 1800s, and the revelatory Federal Theatre Project of the 1930s. Then, there was the Regional Theatre Movement that modeled itself off of European theatre models in the 60s that largely influenced our administrative models today. Aesthetically, we can trace how we got from one artistic moment to another, but what’s lost on us is the Economic History of the American Theatre and how its affected Artistic Development today.  Right now we live in a moment of the in between. We have a lot of folks, purists, waiting for everything to go back to the status quo without knowing where we came from. On the precipice of societal change, now is the time for artists to look back at history, question our models, examine the possibilities, and imagine a new future.

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Chicago Artists Shine in Virtual Staged Reading of BLACK LIKE ME at The Repertory Theatre of St. Louis

The Repertory Theatre of St. Louis invites audiences to witness the new play development process firsthand on September 10th with a virtual staged reading of Black Like Me by Monty Cole, based on the memoir of the same name by John Howard Griffin. This entertaining noir docu-drama examines the fine line between allyship and appropriation.

In 1959, a white journalist sought a doctor’s help to temporarily darken his skin so he could “pass” as Black. He traveled the segregated South for three weeks and published his experiences in 1961. Griffin’s journal has been celebrated by many as an indictment of racism, while others have described it as patronizing or offensive.

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Behind the Curtain: In Conversation with Playwright-Director Monty Cole

On June 4th, as we reported, the four playwrights slotted for this year’s Ignition Festival at Victory Gardens published an open letter withdrawing their plays. On the evening of June 5th, as the Black Lives Matter demonstrations in Chicago drew thousands of marchers to the streets, I sat down (virtually) with Monty Cole for a wide ranging discussion of his project-in-progress, BLACK LIKE ME, that had been slated to headline Ignition. We spoke about the play, his progression from director to playwright, and how Radical Empathy is at the core of his work.

The following is a distilled transcription of our wide ranging conversation (minus many minutes of me fan-girling about his recent projects including his flawless BROTHERS SIZE at Steppenwolf for Young Adults, his triumphant INCENDIARY at Goodman New Stages, and the deceptively soapy ‘til it wasn’t KISS at Haven.) 

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