Barbara Jwanouskos interviews the man behind a new company and a new opportunity for local writers to get work seen and heard.
In a new feature on this column, I’m setting out to interview theater professionals in the Bay Area to learn more about how they involve themselves in the scene. Eric Reid, the Executive Director and Co-Founder of Theater Madcap, was the first of these interviews. We chatted at the Mission Public about his new playwriting series, Staged!, (the lack of) diversity in theater – and the opportunities and challenges that presents, and upcoming projects at Theater Madcap.
BJ: Tell me about Staged! and how it got started.
ER: Staged! is a ten-week staged reading series designed to develop new work that explores diversity. It happens every Tuesday at Inner Mission. It started because as an actor and a person of color looking for work that explores diverse themes is few and far between. A couple years ago, along with Rob Ready, we’d started a similar series for new work with PianoFight called “Shortlived”. The idea was to produce short plays and have the audience vote on their favorite over the course of three months and then from that the winner was given a full-length production. With Staged! I wanted to take that same idea and select 10 plays to be read over 10 weeks and from that, I select one winner for a full-length production. That way, I can promote and support work I want to see that is exploring themes I think are important.
BJ: What was the impetus to start this new series?
ER: The tagline of my theater company is “Deliberately Diverse Theater” because we’re interested in producing theater that’s deliberately exploring diversity as a topic. I’ve been in the Bay Area scene for 13 years and it was hard for me to find roles. And you have to ask yourself questions about why that is. As a city, we pride ourselves on being ethnically diverse, but the reality is in 1980 about 19% of the population was African-American. In 2000, it went down to 12%. Now, it’s down to 6%. In any other scientific field, you’d look at a sizable decrease in population as a crisis leading towards extinction. There were certainly factors that lead a mass exodus of African-Americans out of San Francisco and when the economy recovered, there was no place for them. With this series, I wanted to try and figure out a way that we could live up to the identity of being diverse. For me, that starts with the writing. It’s in the spine of the story for writers to incorporate diversity of all types.
BJ: Where are you at in the current series? How’s it going so far?
ER: This past Tuesday was our fourth week and so far it’s going well! I recognize that it’s a hard topic. I had high aspirations to have a performance about diversity and then a talkback. And it’s easy to feel, but really hard to talk about. There are so many opinions and no one’s really come up with any good format of how to lead a talkback session about diversity. So, I lead with that. I say that it’s going to be uncomfortable, but that’s okay. And for the playwright, they get to see what the audience truly got out of their piece. The great thing about theater is it gives the opportunity to the audience to empathize with another character who might not be like them. A performance will present events that never happened before or after. Even if you see another performance of the same play and same company, it’s always going to be different. So, it links the audience together into something that’s truly magical. It’s hard to criticize when you’ve had such an intimate experience with one another. And this is what sort of lubricates the gears when we talk about diversity afterwards. How it affected them, what they would like to see, etc.
BJ: Have you had any sticking points with any of the talkback sessions so far or by contrast has it actually brought people together?
ER: Not really, I think if anything it’s brought people together. Because people come to sit and listen. And when you’re in a talkback session, your brain is in listening mode. The hardest thing about the talkback sessions is the fear of feedback. This type of performance then talkback model takes judgment off the table. You’re igniting your listening muscles and it creates a unique atmosphere. The thing that a lot of people don’t realize is that one of the main things for minorities, is we just want to be heard. Everyone wants to be heard. This gives people the chance to express their opinions and that’s the beginning of the healing process. It’s an opportunity to speak and express oneself in a positive way.
BJ: What plays and playwrights have you done so far?
ER: The first play we did was Hedge by Robin Lynn Rodriguez. It’s a play about gentrification. It’s set in Oakland and these two well-meaning hipster couples move into a new neighborhood and want to change things for the better, but experience some obstacles with the community. It’s about what happens when pure intentions and the reality of going into a place that is unknown.
Then, we did Don’t Be Evil by Bennett Fisher. In that one a government agency kidnaps a programmer responsible for creating a search engine that implicates the government’s misdeeds. It’s exploring our understanding of technology and the possibilities of its use, since we don’t quite know what all things like the internet can be used for.
The third play was by Garret Groenveld called The Serving Class. And that was about an affluent family planning this extravagant wedding for their daughter and the people they hire to serve their needs for this endeavor. That one’s a comedy that’s about the reckless use of privilege and what people are consumed by.
Then, we had an African-American playwright, Richard Kevin Cartwright’s play, Drapetomania, which was a condition under the eugenics theories manufactured by the medical society to describe slaves who wanted to run or tried to get free. And this was a real thing used to identify and solve those who had this “condition” with testing in very gruesome ways. In addition to going into the history, this play really shows how we can be duped into believing anything.
And this coming Tuesday, is The Subtenant by Daniel Hirsch and it’s about a father who is estranged from his son who finds his old laptop and discovers things he never knew. It’s about the connection we have to our family and the denial of who they are when they act in ways that we don’t want them to, and then the regret for not having a chance at reconciliation.
So, really with all these plays we’re tapping into the human condition and discovering that the conditions we have are universal.
BJ: How can people get involved or submit their plays?
ER: Well, all the plays for the current season have been selected, but I actually ran into a problem that I didn’t expect that I could use some help on.
BJ: What happened?
ER: Well, it was really surprising actually. I ran into it on the last play we did, Drapetomania. I needed two African-American male actors and I was surprised by the lack of actors that were actually available. It’s only one rehearsal and one staged reading, so it’s not a huge time commitment, but you do end up having to work for free. A lot of actors I reached out to were in other shows and I just wasn’t getting responses to the calls I put out. It brought up the question, how do I widen my pool of actors? So, I’m thinking of ways to cultivate that. Perhaps offering acting and directing talent in addition to supporting writers. It’s great to support plays about diversity, but then the idea was to create more roles for actors and directors from a diverse range of backgrounds. Because it wasn’t for lack of trying with putting the word out on Drapetomania. It was like pointing to something else…
BJ: A systemic problem?
ER: Yes, exactly! It goes back to what we were talking about before – that only 6% of the population here is African-American. It’s all connected. Which is why it’s so hard to talk about in those talkbacks. The obstacle course for the night gets kinda tough. And I think it can be easy to choose not to take part in that. But I’m hoping that people have a stronger muscle for this and that we can continue to develop it. Whenever plays are cast with diversity in mind or are about topics relating to diversity, they do really well in the Bay Area. So, how do we do more of that?
BJ: Remind me again, how long does Staged! run?
ER: It’s every Tuesday night starting in July and running until September 2nd.
BJ: And what’s after that?
ER: After that, I’ll be staging Sam Shepard’s True West, but re-imagining the cast to be people of color. We’re not changing the text at all, but we’re hoping that by casting it a certain way, it raises questions and adds some nuance to the story. Then, we have the winner of Staged! in February. This summer has been our inaugural season. And then, that’s it. We’re a small company. We’re only staging three plays.
BJ: How do people connect with you and Theater Madcap?
ER: We’ll have a Kickstarter campaign to fund our season of programs. I really want to keep the Staged! series free for the public. They can also go to the website, our facebook page, and come out to see the next play in the series, this Tuesday, July 29th, 7 PM, at Inner Mission (2050 Bryant Street in San Francisco).
BJ: Any last thoughts/words of wisdom for aspiring artists?
ER: We have a real opportunity to explore diversity in a new way, for actors to gain new understanding of each other and a desire to add more to the tool kit by exploring diverse roles. It leads to greater empathy as human beings. I used to get angry when I heard the term “post-racial” because what does that even mean? At first, I understood it to be a term invented by those in power to stop any kind of discussion about race and ethnicity, but since starting Theater Madcap and the Staged! series, I wondered what if we challenged ourselves collectively to truly define what that term could mean. What if we tried to define what that means? And what could it mean if there was an actual desire to get past it? With a theater company that is trying to explore diversity, I think it’s something I’m interested in as a challenge. To start, I’m looking at San Francisco and trying to figure out ways that theater available matches its perceived identity and that there are more opportunities for minorities on stage. Words of wisdom? Keep exploring more ways to make diversity a real thing in what you do.
You can see The Subtenant by Daniel Hirsch, the fifth play in the Staged! series by Theater Madcap on Tuesday, July 29th at Inner Mission.
Barbara Jwanouskos is a local playwright and blogger. You can follow her on twitter @bjwany.