Working with Artists Outside My Comfort Zone

by Seth Gordon

in National Conference

Post image for Working with Artists Outside My Comfort Zone

(This post is part of the 2014 TCG National Conference: Crossing Borders {Art | People} blog salon curated by Caridad Svich.)

As the associate artistic director of a mainstream theatre that has experienced success attracting and maintaining a loyal local audience, I know how dangerous it can be for a theatre like the Rep to rest on that success. I’ve worked for theatres where attracting an audience- anyone- was a constant struggle. I know how easily these good, educated, theatre loving people can disappear. And of course it’s always both rewarding and sobering when someone comes up to me after one of our plays and says that this is the first time they’ve ever been to a play (it happened just the other day). It makes me always aware of what I can be doing to attract new people and continually engage our community in our work.

As it happens the project I’ve done which engaged the community the most in my career is the one in which I worked the farthest outside my comfort zone.

In 2004 the U.S. State Department arranged for me to direct what I believe was the Arabic premiere of Our Town at a midsize theatre in Cairo. I’d been to Egypt once before, as a tourist, but never for an extended stay as a theatre artist. This production took place a year after the American invasion of Iraq and there were few Americans working in Cairo. While I found the casts’ take on Our Town fascinating, the cultural differences in how we saw the play, how they worked, how they were paid by their government a monthly stipend to pursue their art, how the official sensor came to our dress rehearsal (he gave the whole thing a thumbs up), and how challenging it was to translate Wilder into another language, the real challenge was navigating the political implications of being an American directing Egyptians at a time when an American waltzing into any cultural situation and telling Arab artists what to do was fraught with double meaning.

Ultimately I was able to put the extreme amount of doubt and suspicion (and the overwhelming reflex on the part of my hosts to share their anti-Semitic views with me, without knowledge of my religious background) about my being an American aside and simply work with people and answer their questions as honestly and accurately as I could. I discovered that beneath the suspicion of why I was there (especially having had my trip arranged in part by my government) was a tremendous curiosity about who I was, how I thought, what I thought about theatre, but most particularly how theatre functioned in the community’s body politic, and what role Our Town would play in the community. I must say that in all my years in the United States working as a theatre artist I’ve never been seen as anything but an artist, and mostly as an entertainer. In Cairo, I was seen as someone who truly played a role in how my community engaged politically, even as a guest there. Despite the suspicious nature of many of the questions asked of me there, I felt like I was treated more respectfully as an artist than I have been anywhere in the U.S.

I would further venture to guess that I engaged that community with my work more effectively and immediately than I have anywhere else. Somehow my being a stranger in a strange land, where I knew no one, was more effective than anything I’ve done at the resident theatres where I’ve worked in this country. I think that must say something about how conscious we need to be of our community as we work, either inside or outside our comfort zone.

Seth Gordon is the Associate Artistic Director of the Repertory Theatre of St. Louis, where he has directed Next Fall, The Fall of Heaven, Good People, Venus in Fur and the world premieres of Ayad Akhtar’s The Invisible Hand and Rebecca Gilman’s Soups, Stews, and Casseroles: 1976. This season for the Rep he will direct A Kid Like Jake and Todd Kreidler’s stage adaptation of Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner. He has also created Ignite!, a new play festival dedicated to commissioning, developing and producing world premieres for St. Louis and beyond. Previously, he spent nine seasons in the same capacity at the Cleveland Play House. At the Play House, he produced FusionFest, a performing arts festival, and the Next Stage Festival of New Plays. His Play House directing credits include Dinner with Friends, Proof, Forest City (world premiere), Vincent in Brixton, Tuesdays with Morrie, A Christmas Story, RFK, Of Mice and Men, The Chosen, Doubt, The Lady with All the Answers, Inherit the Wind, Bill W. and Dr. Bob and A Soldier’s Tale, which featured a rarely produced libretto by Kurt Vonnegut. He has directed in Cleveland for Dobama Theatre, the Cleveland Shakespeare Festival and the Beck Center for the Arts. Elsewhere he has directed for Studio Arena Theatre in Buffalo, Syracuse Stage, American Repertory Theatre in St. Petersburg, and Stages Repertory in Houston, among many others. He recently directed the Arabic premiere of Our Town in Cairo. Previously, he served as literary manager and then as associate producer of Primary Stages in New York, where he produced and/or directed countless productions, workshops and readings of new plays by this country’s leading playwrights. He has also directed at many other New York theatres, most recently the long running off-Broadway production of Bill W. and Dr. Bob. He received the 2004 and 2006 Northern Ohio Live Award for Excellence in Theatre. He currently serves on the advisory panel for the Regional Arts Commission in St. Louis. He considers himself a lucky man.