Getting Out of the Living Room

by Tom Quaintance

in National Conference

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(This post is part of the blog salon curated by Jacqueline E. Lawton for the 2015 TCG National Conference: Game ChangeThe following questions will inform the final plenary session, “Artistic Leadership: How We Change the Game.”)

JACQUELINE LAWTON: What was the most game-changing production you’ve seen or created, and why?

TOM QUAINTANCE: I’m going to go with two examples: one that got me in the game and one that changed it. I was an usher at the Guthrie Theatre in 1985 when I saw Liviu Ciulei’s stunning A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Before that I had literally no idea what a director (or designer, or actor, or any artist) could bring to a production. I was living in a world where there was essentially one interpretation of a play that everyone was striving to bring to life onstage, and if it was Shakespeare it probably looked like a Zeffirelli movie. I saw that Midsummer at least a dozen times that summer, and it is the reason I became a director.

A few months into my tenure as Artistic Director of Cape Fear Regional Theatre (CFRT) I was in the audience opening night at PlayMakers Repertory Company’s world premiere performance of Mike Wiley’s The Parchman Hour: Songs and Stories of the ’61 Freedom Riders. Somewhere in the middle of the first act I began to shake. I couldn’t figure it out. The story of the Freedom Riders, told with exquisite theatricality, was riveting. Why was I crawling out of my seat? At intermission it dawned on me. This is the reason I moved my family across the country, for the opportunity to produce a play like this in a community like Fayetteville.

In her blog post Devra Thomas referenced “The most segregated time of the week in America is Sunday morning.” Hoo boy is that true in Fayetteville. It is a majority-minority community that is incredibly self-segregating. To do a new play with a non-linear story structure by an African American playwright about a diverse group of people putting their lives on the line to fight against racial inequality was not projected to catch fire at CFRT, a theatre located in what was once the “whites only” movie house in town. The production wound up as one of the most successful in the theatre’s 51 year history, and was the catalyst for a sea change in the organization’s commitment to diversity.

JL: Who was the most game-changing theatre leader/artist you’ve met, and what do you carry forward from their example? 

TQ: Garland Wright was incredibly influential to me as a young artist. I was a directing intern in 1990 on Candide and the astonishing History Cycle, co-directed with Charlie Newell. To watch Garland paint with bodies in space was a privilege. Whatever I know about composition was learned from Garland Wright.

Garland was also a visionary leader when it came to building a company. Richard II, Henry IV I & II and Henry V were mounted to bring the rep company back to the Guthrie. More than two months of rehearsals and previews – a staggering investment of resources – and the result was extraordinary. It is by a large order of magnitude the most important theatre experience of my life.

As a grown person Joe Haj has been the game changer. He had faith in my leadership long before I did, and the way he makes everyone around him better without making everyone more like him is exactly how I aspire to lead. Liviu is why I’m a theatre artist, Garland is why I am any good at all, and Joe is why I’m an Artistic Director.

When I took over CFRT Joe sent me “Thirty thoughts for a new artistic director.” It is on the wall over my desk, and I refer to it often. Some days I need to remember #4: “Nobody in the history of the world has ever taken a rental car through a car wash. If you want people to care for the theatre they have to know that it belongs to them.  This means your staff as well as your community.” Other days it is #6: “The fact that you are the artistic director does not ever give you permission to be an asshole. Or at least no more of an asshole than you were before they offered you the job.” It is always #14 “When in doubt make the moral choice. Even if it fails, it was what was right.”

JL: What is the most significant opportunity—or challenge—facing the theatre field, and how can we address it together? What is the most significant challenge—or opportunity—facing the world, and what difference can theatre make?

TQ: These two questions are intricately related. We are living in an increasingly isolated and polarized society. More and more people live in echo chambers where their political views and moral beliefs are not only unchallenged, they are pushed to extremes.

Much is made about a generation of young people growing up on their cell phones and social media, and how it tolls the death knell of live theatre. I don’t buy it. As long as we embrace important material, theatre will survive just as houses of worship will survive, because there is nothing more powerful than a shared experience in the search for meaning. If we artists do our jobs right, our communities will be more integrated for our efforts.

Theatre, at its best, is where we come together to gain perspective on our own lives and to grow our empathy for people unlike us. In Lisa Kron’s fantastic Tony acceptance speech she talks about the Big House that is this Broadway theatre season. Her call to the NY community should serve as a call to the field – “Our house is so big, please let’s not just all go back into the living room.”

Tom Quaintance joined Cape Fear Regional Theatre (CFRT) as Artistic Director in 2011 at the top of the theatre’s 50th anniversary season. Tom created the Community Engagement Initiative with the intention of making CFRT a place where the entire diverse Fayetteville community could come together. The initiative’s first project was The Parchman Hour, for which CFRT received its first ever NEA grant. CFRT received a TCG Audience (R)Evolution grant in support of Voices from the Homefront, a community engagement project designed to transform outreach to the vast military population by placing them at the center of the artmaking experience.

conf13_jacqueline_lawtonJacqueline E. Lawton received her MFA in Playwriting from the University of Texas at Austin, where she was a James A. Michener fellow. Her plays include Anna K; Blood-bound and Tongue-tied; Deep Belly Beautiful; The Devil’s Sweet Water; The Hampton Years; Ira Aldridge: Love Brothers Serenade, Mad Breed and Our Man Beverly Snow. She has received commissions from Active Cultures Theater, Discovery Theater, National Portrait Gallery, National Museum of American History, Round House Theatre and Theater J. A 2012 TCG Young Leaders of Color, she has been nominated for the Wendy Wasserstein Prize and a PONY Fellowship from the Lark New Play Development Center. She resides in Washington DC and is a member of Arena Stage’s Playwrights’ Arena.