Sanctuaries of Communion

by Greg Reiner

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 informed 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?

GREG REINER: One formative experience for me was back in 1998, when I worked for what was then called Shakespeare Festival/LA to produce Julius Caesar on the steps of the Los Angeles City Hall. SF/LA’s Artistic Director Ben Donenberg and the director Andrew Tsao conspired to create this spectacular, site-specific Caesar that took full advantage of the scale of LA City Hall, filling it with a rocking, modern version of Shakespeare that was completely accessible–and unforgettable. It was a game-changer for me to see how Shakespeare really could be for everyone; the entire city of Los Angeles was reflected both onstage and in the audience, and all 1,000 people were hanging on every word spoken during the performance.

My job that summer was to figure out the logistics of everything, from setting up 1,000 chairs every night in the middle of Spring Street, to getting enough power to run our lighting system; all in the middle of what was a construction site as the building was under renovation at the time. Let’s just say I learned more about Porta-Potties that summer than I will ever need to know for the rest of my life!

As a side note, the Opening Night Gala for Julius Caesar remains one of the coolest fundraising events I’ve ever been involved with for a theatre. Our genius Director of Development at the time, Joel Kimmel, managed to get Sid Caesar to be the guest of honor, so the evening was named “An Evening of Caesars: Sid Caesar, Julius Caesar and Caesar Salad.” I wish I still had the invitation.

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

GR: I’ve been fortunate in getting to meet many artists who have inspired me throughout my career, so it’s hard to single just one out, but if I had to I would say Stephen Sondheim, who I met when we did Passion at CSC. Having been a fan since my high school years, I don’t think I ever even dreamed that I would get to actually work with him directly one day. Anything that can be said about him and his game-changing legacy to musical theatre has already been said, but I don’t think it’s a stretch to compare the depth and breadth of his work to that of Shakespeare. And just to bookend that to the man who seems poised to pick up the torch from Sondheim, I got to briefly meet Lin-Manuel Miranda when I helped him get tickets to see Moisés Kaufman’s 33 Variations when I was with Tectonic Theater Project. It was an encounter that lasted all of five minutes, but even in that brief exchange his generosity and magnanimous spirit showed through.

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

GR: The biggest challenge we face right now–competition for people’s time and attention in a world where we are all hyperconnected all the time–is also our greatest opportunity. With all the kerfuffle about cell phones in the theatre recently, the flip side of this discussion is that we are able to offer our audiences something that is an increasingly rare commodity: the opportunity to disconnect, spend a few hours away from our devices, and connect with other human beings in a communal act of ritual that goes back to our primal roots as a civilization. When else can you tell the world, I’m sorry, but I will be unreachable for the next two hours? Even airplanes have wifi now. So I think the more we can talk about the obligatory turning off of cellphones at the beginning of a show in terms of giving a gift to our audience, rather than a scolding, the more people are going to realize that the theatre is one of our last great sanctuaries of communion.

Greg Reiner will begin his position as the director of theater and musical theater at the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) on September 8, 2015. Reiner was executive director of Classic Stage Company in New York City, where he launched CSC’s Musical Theater Initiative, the organization’s largest fundraising campaign, and implemented new education programs such as a Teen Council and a Shakespeare scene and monologue competition. Prior to that, Reiner was founding executive director of Tectonic Theater Project in New York City, where he received a Tony nomination for Best Play as one of the producers of 33 Variations. At Tectonic, Reiner also designed and managed the simultaneous opening of The Laramie Project: Ten Years Later in 150 theaters in all 50 states, DC, and eight countries, on the same night, with livestreaming and social media outreach. Reiner has also served as managing director at The Actors’ Gang in Culver City, California, and at the Shakespeare Festival/LA.

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.