(This post is a part of the Diversity & Inclusion blog salon led by Online Curator Jacqueline E. Lawton. Check out further Diversity & Inclusion interviews on Jacqueline’s blog. If you are interested in participating in this or any other Circle blog salon, email Gus Schulenburg.)
Maura: Great, let’s get started. Introductions for posterity, please?
Zell: I’m A. Zell Williams, the writer of Down Past Passyunk.
Seth: Seth Rozin, Producing Artistic Director at InterAct Theatre Company.
Maura: Maura Krause, National New Play Network Producer in Residence at InterAct. So, Zell, do you want to give us a little history about your relationship with InterAct, and how Down Past Passyunk came about?
Zell: Sure. InterAct produced my play, In a Daughter’s Eyes, in 2011. Since that time, I’ve stayed in touch with Seth and the company. In 2012, InterAct applied for and received support for a playwriting residency through NNPN. I lived in Philly for a year, working with the company and writing. One of the pieces that came out of that time is Down Past Passyunk, which is set near the South Philly neighborhood I lived in.
Maura: Both In A Daughter’s Eyes and Passyunk are inspired by pieces of Philadelphia history directly relating to race relations. Seth, can you talk a little about what draws you to those stories?
Seth: I have always been drawn to plays that offer multiple, unexpected and/or surprising points of view, especially on stories or issues that are well-trodden in the media and the arts. Both of Zell’s plays take a fascinating look at something we Philadelphians are intimately familiar with, asking us to put aside our assumptions for a couple of hours and consider something(s) we might not have considered previously.
Maura: Zell, you describe your work as usually dealing with perceptions of the black community, but Passyunk has no African American characters. Instead, it depicts the Italian and Latin@ communities in South Philly. Do either of you have any hopes or concerns about how people who identify with those groups will respond?
Zell: My hope is that with everything that I write, the audience has a response long after they leave the theatre. If they don’t feel compelled to talk to one another, I haven’t done my job right.
Seth: I am particularly delighted that Zell took on this play that has no African American characters. He spent a year listening to people in South Philly and has successfully brought a world of Italian Americans and Latino immigrants to life. It demonstrates something I believe in, deeply: that it is talent and imagination that account for telling a good story, even a story of people who are different from yourself.
Maura: I completely agree with both of you, but have to ask: Zell, have you ever encountered backlash when you write about non-black communities? Seth and Zell, why do you think people care when a playwright tells a story outside of their race?
Seth: Despite the fact that identity politics is a big (and I think insidious) issue in the American theater, I don’t think audiences care very much. In my experience at InterAct, if the story is told well, audiences don’t care who wrote or directed it.
Zell: No, never. And even if I did, I’m the kind of writer (person, really) who would still write the story if I could tell it well. I have had a number of white friends who’ve expressed pressure to not write about issues of color. And I’ve always told them to write about them anyway. It’s important to see the outsider’s view of things in order to understand where someone else is coming from.
I would say, however, that any writer writing about an experience they’ve only witnessed and not lived through should be sure to tell it well. I’ve sat through so many plays with “Magical Negros” or black characters who lacked any humanity and cringed through it. Characters should have CHARACTER. They should be flawed, well-rounded, and go on a full journey no matter their ethnicity.
Maura: Do either of you have any theories about why identity politics loom so large in American theater? And is there a possibility that the resultant pressure contributes to plays about communities of color being less represented on stages in this country?
Zell: Regarding Identity Politics, I would say that is connected to the lack of access given to people of color in regards to leadership in theatres. When you have a group of people in charge making decisions about what should and shouldn’t be explored in communities they aren’t a part of, it’s discouraging to the artists who are in and creating work about that community.
Seth: I couldn’t agree more, Zell. The point is to tell it well. I think that one reason this thinking happens is because of the old adage “write what you know,” with the assumption being that to know something is to have had direct personal experience with it. But we know that there are many other ways to know something: we observe, we study, we listen, we research, etc. For example, a playwright of Algerian descent, who was born and raised in the U.S. may not be more knowledgeable of what it means to be a contemporary Algerian than a playwright of another ethnicity who spent five years living there.
Plus, no one is an expert in ALL THINGS that have to do with their ethnic, racial, religious, cultural, historical background.
Zell: To address your second question, Maura, I wouldn’t say the pressure itself is responsible. I think that – for the most part – there’s limited interest in the broader theatre world for challenging these communities the way they challenge their established audience base of white audience members. If you stick to tried-and-true tales that simply reinforce what people already believe, you don’t rock any boats. But you also aren’t engaging with audiences of color as intimately as you are your white audience when you make that decision.
Maura: That’s a great point, Zell. I do think that InterAct has actually made a fairly concerted effort in its 26 years to engage specifically the African American community. Can you speak to that a little, Seth?
Seth: It’s pretty simple, really. We have made a serious commitment, over time, to consistently produce plays that feature African American characters and explore issues of race in the contemporary world. If you make that kind of commitment, audiences will come.
Zell: Seth, I’m curious to know how you would evaluate work about a community that is written by an outsider to that group. And I use the term community widely, i.e.: men writing about issue that face solely women, straights writing on queer culture, etc.
Seth: This evaluation has been going on forever, but of course, primarily by the dominant Caucasian culture. With the incredible, wonderful explosion of talent in the past few decades, a much wider range of stories about a much wider range of people are being written. But sometimes an outsider is helpful in seeing something, or examining something, that an insider can’t or won’t. If we truly believe that the most valuable attribute an artist has is their imagination, we have to trust in that and invest in that. If, on the other hand, we truly believe that no one, no matter how talented and imaginative, can possibly create something valuable or truthful about someone different, then we might as well give up this enterprise altogether.
Maura: Zell, while this is perhaps a step after evaluation, I do think that no matter who wrote a piece, it is important to engage local communities in the dialogue a play is trying to create. Specifically, to find, invite, and consult people who have first-hand experience with whatever the issue may be. That is one way of extending a welcome to the community being written about, which hopefully allows them to feel positive about having the conversations you hope will happen.
Zell: Seth, I think it would be helpful to discuss the challenges of casting actors of color in Philly. I know it took us a while to find someone to play the role of Iggy Guerrero, who’s the only non-white character in Down Past Passyunk.
Seth: I think casting challenges have a lot to do with why so many worthy plays about diverse characters don’t get produced more, or at all. There are many cities that do not have many professional actors of color. In Philly, we have a tremendous pool of African American actors, but precious few Asian or Latino actors. Despite that fact, and despite our preference for casting locally, InterAct has made a commitment to do plays that require those actors and we routinely go to New York.
A question for you, Zell. Do you think that changing demographics are going to have a big impact on the theatre, the way they are expected to impact politics?
Zell: I think we’re coming to a tipping point in regards to the make-up of this country. Simply put, I think theatres that don’t work on inclusion – real inclusion, not just doing a “show of color” every other year – could go the way of the opera. As more and more Americans are non-white, they are going to want to donate and be involved with companies they feel a connection to. If more theatres don’t start reaching out, they will age out with the white majority and see their audiences shrinking rapidly.
Seth: I agree, and the interesting thing will be to see how long this evolution takes. There is a very palpable sentiment among many in the theatre that we need to accelerate this evolution.
Maura: Do you think major regional theatres are aware of this potential for audiences diminishing?
Zell: I think there’s a great deal of fear about disrupting older audience members. But if you don’t do it, you risk alienating new audiences and making yourself irrelevant to their communities.
Seth: I do think they are aware, Maura, but given that the largely white Baby Boomer generation of theatregoers is about to retire, and will have more expendable time and money than ever before, these changes are probably not on the forefront of most theatres’ thinking.
Zell, I think those theatres that have largely older, largely white audiences already are effectively alienating younger, more diverse audiences and artists. And while I am in the minority on this, I think we should stop demonizing them and start concentrating on how we can better support the vast majority of mid-size and smaller theaters that are already engaging more diverse audiences through programming that more accurately represents our contemporary world.
Maura: And everyone here at InterAct believes that Down Past Passyunk does address our increasingly complex world and the issues that surround us, which is why we’re so excited to open it in April! I’m going to wrap us up here, unless anyone has any last thoughts?
Zell: Thanks for hosting this and having me as a part of it.
Maura: And thank you for making the time to chat with us!
Seth: Happy to be part of this conversation!
A. ZELL WILLIAMS’s passion for sparking a dialogue has won him Philadelphia Theatre Company’s Terrence McNally Award, Marin Theatre Company’s David Calicchio Emerging American Playwright Prize, the National New Play Network’s Smith Prize for Political Theatre, New York University’s Rita & Burton Goldberg Playwriting Prize, and Reverie Productions’ Next Generation Playwright’s Award. Plays include In a Daughter’s Eyes, The Urban Retreat and Down Past Passyunk. He was the 2012-13 National New Play Network Playwright-in-Residence at InterAct Theatre Company, and is a member of both The Civilians’ R&D Group and Ars Nova’s Play Group, and currently holds the Tow Foundation’s Emerging Playwright Residency at the Public Theater.
SETH ROZIN co-founded InterAct Theatre Company in 1988, and has since served as Producing Artistic Director. He has directed over 50 productions for InterAct, including Kristoffer Diaz’ The Elaborate Entrance of Chad Deity, and Israel Horovitz’s Lebensraum. Seth is the author of six plays, including Black Gold and Two Jews Walk Into A War. He is the recipient of two fellowships from the Pennsylvania Council on the Arts, the 2007 Smith Prize, and a commission from the National Foundation for Jewish Culture. Seth has served on the Boards of the Women’s Theatre Festival, Theatre Alliance of Greater Philadelphia, and the National New Play Network (President from 2002-2006).
MAURA KRAUSE is a freelance director and dramaturg, and the 2013-14 National New Play Network Producer-in-Residence at InterAct Theatre Company. Maura has worked up and down the East Coast, including at the Samuel French Off-Off Broadway Festival, Woolly Mammoth Theatre, the Source Festival DC, EMP Collective, Walking Fish Theatre, and Wanderlust Collective. Maura is also the Coordinator of the Philadelphia New Play Initiative, a campaign to improve the climate for new work in Philly, and the co-founder of a flexible artistic collective called Foxwife City. She is currently assistant directing We Are Bandits with Applied Mechanics and creating an immersive house play with three local playwrights for FringeArts 2014.