Providing the Platform: Politics, Authenticity, and Self-Determination

by Ralph Remington

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?

RALPH REMINGTON: The British site-specific company, Punchdrunk’s SLEEP NO MORE in New York City. I had never had that kind of deconstructive experience with Shakespeare before. In this case, MACBETH. Firstly, the cue was wrapped around the block and while intergenerational, it was a much younger demographic than I typically saw attending the theater. The price point was $100. But no one seemed to mind. Everyone started out in a nightclub from the 20’s or 30’s. Then we all were given white, kind of non-descript Italianate masks to wear. Then we were led into an elevator and all of us had to get off at different floors. Each floor had different scenes from the play going on. And then there were scenes that weren’t in the play at all. We could go through rooms and rifle through drawers and go to other floors. At the end of the evening we all spilled back into the nightclub, had drinks and shared our very different adventures. The experience felt dangerous. You never knew what was going to happen from one minute to the next. It was experience-driven, not text driven. Everyone had a different evening depending on the path that they would take through the hotel. Just fabulous.

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

RR: Amiri Baraka. Especially when he started the Black Arts Movement. He was a seriously dangerous and authentic political artist, in a country that has been narcotized and pampered to the degree that they don’t even recognize real danger anymore. We are a society where people can say that they feel unsafe if a raised voice is in the room, or if elevated passions are expressed. Baraka was the voice of fury in a country that had grown soft with its own self-indulgence. He taught me to be fearless in the face of opposition and apathy. He taught me that theater should always be connected to its community. I took his example along with Jack Reuler’s at Mixed Blood Theatre in Minneapolis, when I founded Pillsbury House Theatre. Pillsbury is a multicultural theater that’s not only rooted in African American culture but in all cultures.

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

RR: Diversity and inclusion. Racial /ethnic and gender diversity in our senior leadership roles in the American theater. This also includes diversity and inclusion in the composition of board leadership. We are already addressing it somewhat. But we need to hit it harder. Maybe address it as far as obtaining membership at TCG or inclusion in American Theatre magazine. Some organizations are addressing the issue and obviously it is very complex with many layers. But I just don’t know if there are enough incentives in place, currently, for people to change. Some leaders in the American theater still consistently say that it’s a pipeline issue but as the former Director of Theater at the NEA I can unequivocally say that it’s more of a glass ceiling issue. Of course we still need more people of color and women (who can also be people of color) in the pipeline but there’s definitely a glass ceiling issue.  I had an artistic director interview once, where a white board member asked me how my blackness would change their theater and basically asked me to explain and convince him that my blackness wouldn’t offend or “dominate” their culture. He essentially wanted to know how I could make him comfortable that he would have the same experience that he was used to, given the fact that I am Black. The word “dominate” was actually used. That would never be asked of a white candidate. And the fact of the matter is that the culture should be shifted somewhat. That’s the purpose of diversity. Diversity and inclusion shouldn’t just work for cosmetic purposes. It should be real. It shouldn’t be focused externally but it should also be focused internally. Bill Rauch and the folks at OSF are doing an amazing job working with Carmen Morgan in this area and even they recognize that there is still a long way to go. I’ve directed just as many white plays as African American plays, maybe even more. Because I’m an American. People of color have to learn about all types of theater, whereas many white directors only have to work from a Eurocentric palette. So it’s a HUGE discussion that I have been a part of for the last 20 years or more. There isn’t a simple answer.

JL: What is the most significant challenge—or opportunity—facing the world, and what difference can theatre make?

RR: How do we build a global community? Understanding and giving voice to the power and pervasiveness of the politics of race in the 21st century. From Western and Northern Europe, South Africa, Latin America, and from Israel and Palestine to the United States. Theater is uniquely positioned to pursue the mission of the theater that I founded, Pillsbury House Theatre in Minneapolis: To provide a platform for marginalized people (women, people of color, LGBT, the disabled and the economically disenfranchised) to have their muted voices heard to engender their self-determination.

Our very future depends on it.

Ralph Remington is a director, producer and playwright. He is also the former Western Regional Director of Actors Equity and the former Director of Theater and Musical Theater at the NEA, where he was responsible for oversight and administration of the division’s grant making processes and development of partnerships to advance the theater industry as a whole. His play Penetrating Whiteness Causes Bleeding After Sex was a semi-finalist this year for the Eugene O’Neill Award.

Remington founded the Minneapolis-based Pillsbury House Theatre, an Equity theater, in 1992. Under his leadership, the company began a longstanding policy of non-traditional casting and diversity in its hiring practices (both onstage and backstage). As an Equity member, Remington has appeared in dozens of shows.  He has also directed numerous productions, including 14 world premieres. Under Pillsbury House, Remington formed the community youth outreach program, “Chicago Avenue Project,” helping children create and perform in plays based on their own life experiences.  The program was awarded the 2005 “Coming Up Taller” award, presented at the White House by First Lady Laura Bush.

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.