Theatre: The Face of Our Ever Evolving Nation

by Seth Gordon

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?

SETH GORDON: The most game changing production I ever directed I wrote about in last year’s TCG Salon, so I’ll mention it here briefly. It was the Arabic premiere of Our Town, produced in Cairo. This took place in 2004, while the United States was in the early stages of its Iraqi occupation, and there was tremendous mistrust amongst our respective nations. It was an amazing testament to the healing power of theatre, and an affirmation of why I’m in this rather crazy business.

More recently, here at the Repertory Theatre of St. Louis, I directed Todd Kreidler’s recent adaptation of Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner? The production had already been planned when Michael Brown was killed in nearby Ferguson, but the selection of the play was in part due to an understanding that St. Louis is quite bad at talking about race, and was overdue for a frank and honest conversation about something as simple as a family of one race having the family of a different race over to dinner as their guests. The play of course became about much more than that. Our audience response was alive and a little volatile, and the discussion was positive and open in a way I haven’t seen previously in my five years living here. Again, a lovely affirmation.

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

SG: Well, I’ve met so many people who have revolutionized our field but many only briefly. I had dinner once with Zelda Fichandler, which I’ll never forget. Perhaps the most memorable of these is a phone call I had some years ago with Lloyd Richards. I was with Primary Stages in New York at the time, and we wanted him to direct a play. He was largely retired at the time, and we had heard that his health was not the best. He didn’t mention that, though, when I spoke to him, he simply took out his date book and started ticking off the honors, the dinners, the trip to Russia, and numerous other things that might stand in the way of the rehearsal dates we had in mind. Then he paused for a moment and said, “You know what? It’s nothing a really good script wouldn’t solve.” I won’t soon forget that, nor will I forget my brief brush with greatness when I spoke to him on the phone.

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

SG: I think it’s two things that are very related- one is building the audience for tomorrow, and the other is making sure it’s far more diversified than the current generation of theatre goers. The nation is moving in a very specific direction, and while the theatre community has always had an obligation to be inclusive, it’s now a practical imperative as much as it is a moral issue. That means finding playwrights, other artists, leaders, and marketing and development staff of all races and inclinations, so that theatres become the face of the ever evolving nation, as much as it means making sure that everyone feels invited to attend.

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

SG: As long as such a large scale question is being asked, I’ll answer it with equal scale in mind- I think the U.S.’s evolution into a far more racially diverse country, along with other nations growing into economic world powers along with the U.S., opens up a greater opportunity to achieve peace on earth. The less we’re seen by other nations as the major world power to be feared, and the more we see ourselves as a nation that truly reflects all the world’s people, the more the world as a whole will see the need and the sense attached to cooperating economically. That will, I hope and believe, lead to an increasing desire to end all wars.

Seth Gordon is Associate Artistic Director of the Repertory Theatre of St. Louis, where he created and produces Ignite!, a festival that commissions, develops, and produces new plays. Notable directing credits there include the world premieres of Rebecca Gilman’s Soups, Stews, and Casseroles: 1976 and Ayad Akhtar’s The Invisible Hand. He has also directed plays off-Broadway- most recently the revival of Bill W. and Dr. Bob- and throughout the United States, at theatres including The Cleveland Play House and Syracuse Stage, among many others. His production of The Unexpected Man runs at Shakespeare and Company through Labor Day. He considers himself a lucky man.

Jacqueline Lawton_headshotJacqueline 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.