For the 25th National Conference in Cleveland, TCG is highlighting the current recipients of the Fox Foundation Resident Actor Fellowship and the SPARK Leadership Programs. These programs are unique to the field, and provide critical support and mentorship for the future leaders of our art form. In honor of our longstanding commitment to professional development across the field, we feel the time is right to expand the Spotlight On brand beyond the Conference. With this in mind, we are excited to be hosting the Spotlight On Series throughout May and June—all content leading up to the Conference.
TCG: When was the moment that you decided to take on an executive leadership role in the field?
Godfrey: During my son Samuel’s first six months we developed a routine where I would walk around our apartment with him in my arms while jazz was playing on our stereo. Sam would alternately doze off and fight sleep while listening to Miles Davis or Fats Navarro or Buena Vista Social Club. During those apartment walkabouts, I’d dream of the theatre company I’d start and the things I wanted to change in the American Theatre. I knew I wanted a an inclusive theatre company that would actually produce new plays by or about women and people of color and not just develop them. I knew I wanted to remove the dividing line between “mainstage productions” and “community-based theatre” and build a context for a community to see that the mainstage is community-based theatre and vice-versa.
I also thought about what kind of legacy I wanted to leave for my son. I’d been mostly an actor for 25 years. Acting by itself was not enough for me. I needed to at least try to leave the field of theatre better than when I entered it. By creating a theatre company I might be able to give my son the example of engaged citizenship and lifelong learning that he can pass on to his family and friends.
TCG: As an executive leader what issues in the field do you hope to address? How would you like to do so?
Godfrey: People in the United States no longer see theatre as necessary for their lives. It’s the era of Smartphones, cable television, twitter, and coffee, but not theatre. Look, it’s not rocket science. In any business, if you keep providing a product of which there is a glut in the marketplace, you won’t survive. The continuing demise of major resident theatres tells us that continuing to do plays written mostly by (dead or alive) white men is a bad business model, as is doing plays for an audience consisting solely of people who can afford to pay 30-100 dollars for a night out. So why do theatres continue to do this? I don’t know the answer, other than it’s safe. What I do know, is that I want to change this.
I want to make theatre indispensable to all of our communities and remove barriers to participating in theatre. My belief is that theatre is everyone’s birthright, both onstage and off. It would be great to have a major institution that places the same importance on a world-class production of Piano Lesson that it does on a community-based play featuring non-theatre practitioners in all of the roles. Those non-practitioners are part of communities that want to see art that is relevant to their experiences, the same communities that will have a different connection with an institution once one of their own has created something with that theatre. Yet often, “civic engagement” is set off in a corner, basking in grants and goodwill but rarely prioritized or connected to the larger narrative of a company’s season or its history. There are a few major institutions, such as Oregon Shakespeare, The Public Theatre, and Pasadena Playhouse, that are trying to change this dynamic. There are also culturally specific theatres such as East West Players and Penumbra Theatre Company that have been doing civic-engagement work for decades.
I also want to get rid of institutional theatre’s version of development hell. Let’s do away with piling up commission after commission on emerging and mid-career playwrights and just produce their damned plays. I want to be the theatre leader that tells a playwright I trust, “Write us a play and we will produce it. Period. We won’t do three readings and a workshop of your play (unless you want us to) and then not produce it.” This development hell is particularly tough for women and writers of color. Major theatres often have an automatic slot for a dead white guy or two (Shakespeare, Chekhov, Shaw, etc.) and anywhere from 2-4 slots for alive or nearly dead white guys. There are often compelling reasons for this that has a lot to do with name recognition and ticket sales. So there’s a slot or two open, and often, theatres can get a two-for-one by producing a woman of color. These are tough odds to face for living playwrights trying to place their work. My company, Civic Ensemble, will soon be announcing a new Non-Commissioned Playwright program that would indeed replace commissions with productions by emerging and mid-career playwrights who will also participate in our core civic engagement programs. The lion share of these writers will be women and/or people of color.
I want to develop a company of artists and administrators that not only make great art, but participate in the civic life of the community, helping to come up with solutions to the community’s long-standing problems—showing up at hearings, city events, and civic upheavals as civic, not just cultural, leaders.
So much of what I want to do has begun to happen in the last few years. I think we’re right at the vanguard of the next theatre revolution. The Regional Theatre Movement is dead. Long live the Full Service Theatre. I don’t think a theatre can just make beautiful art for the middle class anymore. Theatre must bring the disparate parts of our communities together in a conversation that goes deeper than a tweet or a Facebook thread. I co-founded Civic Ensemble because my life’s work is to engage in these tough, necessary conversations—conversations I hope to share with larger institutions in the future.
TCG: Talk about a game changing moment in your career – a “big break” where you felt you could create a lasting legacy through your work as an executive leader of color?
Godfrey: When President Obama won his first election, I knew I needed to take some action as an artist and a leader. I kept thinking to myself, “Why do people think anything is going to change now that a black man is president? Will anything change for me?” So, I hooked up with a dear friend and colleague, actor and teaching artist Brandt Adams, and traveled throughout the South interviewing people about the election to find out what the election of a black man as President of the United States meant to them. The plan was to turn these interviews into a piece of theatre called Dispatches From (A)mended America. Eighteen months later, Epic Theatre Ensemble presented a reading of the first draft of the play to a full house at Irondale Center in Brooklyn. The response of the audience to our documentary play was illuminating. Although this was a few years before starting Civic Ensemble, Dispatches made me feel like I had a sense of the questions that our society was struggling with and could come up with meaningful ways for theatre to grapple with them. It also made me feel that, in collaboration with others, I could build a broad coalition around a piece of theatre. Epic Theatre Ensemble ended up producing the play Off-Broadway, and the incredible journey of Dispatches informs much of what I bring to the table as an executive leader of color today.
Godfrey L. Simmons, Jr. is Artistic Director of Civic Ensemble, a community-based theatre in Ithaca, NY co-founded with Sarah K. Chalmers and Jennifer Herzog. For Civic, he directed Eugene O’Neill’s All God’s Chillun Got Wings and co-produced Judy Tate’s Slashes of Light. Godfrey was Producing Artist in charge of New Artist Development for Off-Broadway’s Epic Theatre Ensemble, appearing in A More Perfect Union, Widowers’ Houses (which Godfrey co-adapted with Ron Russell), and Measure for Measure, among other plays. At Epic, he also co-wrote and starred in a documentary play about the election of President Barack Obama, Dispatches From (A)mended America. Godfrey is a 2012 TCG/Fox Fellow and a participant in the SPARK Leadership Program, funded by American Express, The Joyce Foundation and The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation and administered by Theatre Communications Group. He is a lifetime member of Ensemble Studio Theatre.
Photo Credit: Kristin Hoebermann