A quartet of artists muse on the state of Broadway

A quartet of artists muse on the state of Broadway
The Lyric Theatre, home of "Harry Potter and the Cursed Child," with a set designed by Christine Jones. Photo: Manuel Harlan.

With Broadway on the cusp of reopening after a long shutdown, four artists — a director-choreographer, an actor, a playwright and a designer — reflect on what one of them has called a “hibernation,” how that has affected them and what that may portend for the future of the American theater.

Camille A. Brown is the artistic director of her own dance company, Camille A. Brown & Dancers, and is the founder of the school Social Dance for Social Change. On Broadway, she has choreographed the revival of “Once on This Island” and was Tony-nominated for “Choir Boy.” She is the director-choreographer for Ntozake Shange’s “For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide / When the Rainbow is Enuf,” which is aiming for a 2021 premiere.

Camille A. Brown. Photo: Josefina Santos.
Camille A. Brown. Photo: Josefina Santos.

Building anew

I hope when Broadway re-emerges, it [will] look a lot different. That more people are given the opportunity to call up their own stories so that the voices of the marginalized are heard and celebrated. I always wanted to choreograph on Broadway, but I didn’t think it was possible because I didn’t see a lot of reflections of myself. It’s a white-male-dominated industry. When I did work on Broadway, it was jarring to find that I was the only woman in the room. It was like, “Wow, this is really deep!”

This is true not just for Broadway but the whole landscape of theater in America. A friend said to me: “I’m not interested in rebuilding the theater because what was built before was not so great.” We need to build anew, to look at dismantling the status quo, which has oppressed a whole set of artists.

Valuing the work

We need to ask ourselves: “Who is telling the story? Who is able to write the story? And who is placing value on the story?” It’s important to me that Black writers write about my work. It’s not about getting a good review. It’s about getting an informed review — a review that doesn’t reduce the authenticity and dimensionality of Black people.

My choreography for “Choir Boy” was inspired by South African gumboot [a social dance form]. The critics translated that into “stomping and clapping.” It’s a reduction of what I was trying to do. Just as it was important for audiences to see Black men standing in their power in “Choir Boy,” it’s also exciting to see Black women standing in their power in “For Colored Girls.”

The healing begins

Being at the helm of this revival is a tremendous honor and a great opportunity. But there is so much more to do. I stand on the shoulders of artists who have come before: Dianne McIntyre [choreographer of 1991’s “Mule Bone”] and Marlies Yearby. Marlies was nominated for a Tony for “Rent,” and when I was nominated for “Choir Boy,” it had been more than 25 years since a Black woman had received that honor!

It’s going to be exciting to see the kind of artistry that emerges in this new era. Not just an openness and freedom from the creative point of view, but from what the audiences will bring into the theater. Because we’ve all been inside of this trauma. They say that art is healing. That has to come from everybody — from the artists, the audience, the orchestra, the stage management. Everybody. We all have to work to heal.

Patrick Page is a protean Broadway actor who was Tony-nominated for his role of Hades in the much-acclaimed musical “Hadestown.” His solo show “All the Devils Are Here,” a study of Shakespeare’s villains, was recently streamed, and he also starred in the title role of the Shakespeare@ Home radio play of “Julius Caesar.” Among its most famous lines: “There is a tide in the affairs of men.”

Patrick Page in "All the Devils Are Here."
Patrick Page in “All the Devils Are Here.”

The slow return

We watched the tide going out, and out, and out, and wondered if it would ever come back. We all had those despairing moments when we thought: “Is this it? Is live theater done? Can this model withstand this kind of body blow?” But now we’re seeing a tremendous appetite for people to return to the theater. No matter how good movies or television are, there’s nothing that can be a substitute for gathering in a theater with hundreds of people while other living human beings act out a story for you. It’s a tide, however, that will come in slowly. And some shows will not return, which is devastating.

Finding meaning

With the world seeming to spin out of control these days, there is a hunger for a sense of meaning that theater can provide. Even a show that might be dismissed as pure fluff — “The Music Man,” or “Grease,” or “Oklahoma!” — involves deep archetypes and narratives that help us find meaning in our lives. We have been alone for the past 18 months, and theater tells us that we are not alone.

There was a wonderful study in Great Britain where everyone in the theater was hooked up to a heart monitor, and as the show progressed, after 20 minutes, everyone’s heart began to beat in unison. There’s an actual coming together of the audience. Any actor can tell you that. We talk about them like they’re one person: “The audience is quiet tonight.” “The audience is distracted tonight.” When Broadway comes back, the audience will be yet another “person,” changed and unique.

The main lessons

Broadway’s return is linked to the pandemic, but not directly. It has mostly to do with the events of last summer and has to do with diversity and inclusivity. We’re now acknowledging the elephant in the room: the systemic racism that exists in our industry. And we need to be alert to it. I don’t mean to diminish the gains that have been made in that area over the last couple of decades. But I’m grateful that there is a lot more awareness of that now and that we can meet the challenges going forward with equity.

Another lesson of the pandemic is that there have been a number of video representations of theater that have been quite successful — chief among them, “Hamilton.” Every theater ought to be thinking in real, practical terms that, “When we do something remarkable, how do we preserve it?” It’s being done at the National Theatre and the RSC [Royal Shakespeare Company] in Great Britain; it’s being done at the Stratford Festival in Ontario, Canada. I really hope that the producers, and especially the unions, will work together to make that happen in the United States. There’s an appetite for it, so we should get on it.

Another lesson? It can all disappear again. Just because we’ve had a pandemic doesn’t mean we can’t have another in three or four years. We’re vulnerable now in so many ways. The biggest lesson of the pandemic, I think, is gratitude for what we have.

Playwright Michael R. Jackson won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama for the Playwrights Horizons’ production of “A Strange Loop.” The musical, which received rave reviews, was in the process of transferring to Broadway when the shutdown occurred. It will resume performances at the Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company in D.C. prior to a Broadway bow.

Michael R. Jackson. Photo: Joey Stocks.
Michael R. Jackson. Photo: Joey Stocks.

Pushing boundaries

It remains to be seen, but my hope is that there can be more boundary-pushing space for work on Broadway. In the theater, there’s a lot of focus on who we see on stage, and I don’t have a problem with that per se. But let’s focus on what the representations on stage or screen are actually saying — the art of it, the form of it.

I’m grateful for the last year [because] it forced my hand artistically. It shifted my focus to work on a piece I’ve been developing at the Vineyard, “White Girl in Danger.” I was learning more information about my own shifting opinions and thoughts about certain things that allowed me to go even deeper into the premise of the play and the complexity of it. I write because there’s something happening in the world that I don’t fully have an opinion about or something I don’t understand, and it forces me to test a theory, to pursue a line of inquiry, to see if my hypotheses about certain things are correct or not correct. When the world presents more information about my theory, then it forces me to really question myself and my characters.

The freedom to speak your mind

I’m disturbed by an attitude that a lot of people now have within the culture that if you are not agreeing with them, if you have any questions about what is being said, that you are racist or homophobic, and I’m just not comfortable with that. Especially if it’s somebody in the arts. I’m disturbed by any lack of distance. It felt, weirdly, like there was this propaganda out there, which all sounds very Big Brother-ish, or McCarthy-like. Yet, it’s an artist’s job to question the status quo and to question any form of orthodoxy. All these things have found their way into culture: EDI [Equity, Diversity, Inclusion], anti-racism, all this jargon and people clamoring to be seen and to be represented.

So in “White Girl,” I am trying to gain clarity about what this all means. “When you get what you want, what do you do with it?” “How will you know when you’ve reached equity?” “Why do you assume that everyone wants the same thing?” I think all these questions are implicit in the conversations that are happening now, and I’m interested in having a more explicit conversation because I think there are things that are being completely skipped over.

Not yielding to cynicism or, worse, fatalism

We’ve just gone through so much angst and pain and agitation this last year that I gave [my] students an assignment: “What are your dreams? Describe your vision of the future in the affirmative.” And many of them had to struggle to do that because we’re so trained to think about the future only in the most negative terms. There is so much in the world today that is “anti-this,” “anti-,” “anti-,” “anti.” What does it mean to flip that to “pro?”

So, I feel like the magical thinking I try to bring to my work is to actually present a vision of what I want to see. That’s part of testing the theory out. Even if that mission doesn’t ultimately work out, I need to see why. I’m not like a Pollyanna in that way. But I don’t think that there is anything wrong in testing Pollyanna out. Put whatever you want to see into the harsh light of day, [and ask,] “Is this what you really want?”

What’s even worse than cynicism is fatalism. I want to empower artists to really understand that, as an artist, you are like a little god. You can put whatever you want on the page, on the canvas, in the music. And that’s a great power, so why not wield it?

Christine Jones has won Tony Awards for her set designs for “American Idiot” and “Harry Potter and the Cursed Child.” A professor at New York University and lecturer at Princeton, she also created the project “Theatre for One,” in which one actor performs for a single audience member.

Christine Jones. Photo: Manuel Harlan.
Christine Jones. Photo: Manuel Harlan.

Solving problems

In the beginning of the pandemic, it was terrifying not knowing if you were safe to go to the grocery store, not knowing whether your income was going to disappear. It did feel extremely vulnerable. Then the pain of the Black Lives Matter coming to fruition and mixing with all that anguish was absolutely heartbreaking. It’s been a time of everything falling apart. But as theater artists, we were in hibernation only in terms of putting on shows. Many of us became extremely involved in social activism. An incredible amount of agitating for change was born out of this heartbreak. It’s been an incredible time of reimagining, reconceiving, slowing down and speeding up. An openness to listening.

I think it’s very exciting that we now get to come back to theater with different priorities. There’s a sincere effort to make improvements that need to be made, and that’s very heartening. We’re all theater-makers. We know how to solve problems. We know how to redesign something when it needs to be redesigned. That’s what we do. I think theater has the potential to be more exciting than it’s ever been.

Keeping busy

I’m impressed with the resilience, patience and integrity with which the theater community has adapted to being in this moment. It’s been a time of reflection. Like so many artists, I realized something about myself: I know how to keep myself busy, how to invent projects and how to stay connected with my community.

This period has allowed me to experiment, to stretch and to explore in ways that I would not have been able to do in the past. I’ve been working in the digital area, curating an art exhibit with Radiohead, consulting on a film and working on a dance piece that will open at the Armory [“Social! the social distance dance club” with David Byrne].

It’s been a time to explore muscles I haven’t had much of a chance to flex. One of the most exciting things about this time is the emphasis on self-care and engaging in joyful communion. That is also a part of being seen, being heard, calling for change. I feel that the human aspect of making theater has been amplified and with that, the sense that we need to amplify everyone’s voices.

The ghost lights

During this time, I kept thinking about the ghost lights — how we leave ghost lights burning in the theater at the end of a show for the ghosts who are there when we are not there. I’ve imagined these ghost lights burning the whole time, just waiting for us to come back. “Harry Potter” reopened in Australia [on Feb. 25, among the first after the COVID-19 shutdown]. It was so delightful to have rehearsal reports in my inbox again. It felt like an old acquaintance getting back in touch. That’s been incredibly joyful!