Monday, September 10, 2012

Panda Diplomacy

Panda Diplomacy

Or Why A. Zell Williams doesn't like pandas

I am the new guy in town, sort of.  I had the pleasure of having my play, In A Daughter’s Eyes, premiere at InterAct in the spring of 2011.  I spent a few weeks in town for rehearsals, interviews, and the occasional visit to Pat’s.  And just as I began to develop a crush on Philly, I was torn away to finish grad school in New York.  So it is a thrill to spend the next ten months living in the home of The Roots, Billy Paul, and Terry Gross.

I know the importance of making a good first impression.  But I also I know that great relationships are built on foundations of truth and honesty.  So while this declaration may distance myself from a few of you, I say it to display my conviction:

…I can’t stand pandas.

Never have liked them.  Never understood why other people seemed to be endlessly enthralled by a creature whose main hobbies include sitting, stick-chewing, and not mating.  The scientific community will not even fully classify the panda as a bear or a raccoon, which I find insulting to the cunningly sly, scrap-sorting, sexual dynamo that is the noble Trash Bandit.

According to today’s sole source of knowledge, Wikipedia, the concept of giving a panda to foreign countries has been looked upon as an act of diplomatic graciousness since the days of the Tang dynasty in the early fifth century.  Chinese leaders would bequeath the “bear” upon unsuspecting diplomats, calling it a show of friendship and admiration.  But I ask you in all seriousness, what did the recipient country really receive in this exchange?  An animal the recipient country would have to take care of all for something that was not only a laggard, but that the children could never interact with.  China got others to pick up the check for their pet care bills.

Those of you who have heard of theatre companies hosting playwrights-in-residence may have noticed some overly harmonious similarities between that position and the description of the day-to-day life of the semi-comatose “BEAR.”  You hear that your local theatre is paying a writer to come into the office and... be writer-y, or whatever.  The same institutions constantly soliciting you for donations is hiring someone whose work - or even presence - you may never see?

Well, Philadelphians, today I make you a promise: There will be no pandas in InterAct.  I am not here to be stared at from a safe distance, nor am I meant to be a photo op for the company’s website or donor events (though I am more than happy to take a picture with you, should you drop by.)  I am here to learn about and from you.  Yes, I have thoughts, concerns, and non-panda related opinions that I hope to share during my tenure.  But I want my residency to be a period of exchange, not of exhibition.

The company’s Artistic Director, Seth Rozin, and I have begun to outline events to welcome in both the current InterAct audience, but the surrounding community.  I will be seeing shows by and visiting other theatre companies in Philly and asking them to share in conversations around issues affecting the cultural landscape.  I will also be presenting new plays and partaking in the celebration of the company’s twenty-fifth anniversary and the fifteenth anniversary of the National New Play Network.

I have nothing against the existence of lackadaisical, quasi-ursidae.  I understand that the numbers of patrons that visit the San Diego, Memphis, and D.C.’s National Zoos simply to observe the wanna-bear make me an outliers amongst a great deal of Americans.  Nor do I harbor any ill-will toward playwrights-in-residence who are rarely seen or heard.  The act of writing alone is emotionally taxing, life-consuming, and often undervalued.  Both the panda and the dramatists-in-hermitage are what they are.  But so am I.  And my goal for the season is for us to show each who we are.

Wednesday, September 5, 2012

The Big 2-5!

The Big 2-5!
Producing Artistic Director Seth Rozin reflects on 25 years of InterAct

As we get set to kick off our 25th Anniversary season here at InterAct, a lot of people have been asking me what I am proudest of.   And while quite a lot of things have vied for my consideration, the accomplishment for which I am proudest is having served our community with a distinct and unwavering mission, despite tremendous pressure to cut corners and/or compromise over the years. 

The truth is that when I co-founded InterAct in 1988 I hadn’t yet developed a clear theatrical aesthetic or a coherent vision for the kind of plays I wanted to produce.  Our original mission was to use theatre to foster international cultural exchange.  In fact, it wasn’t until our fifth season (1992-93), when we produced the world premiere of resident playwright Thomas Gibbons’ 6221, that I understood, at a deep level, the kind of theatre experience I wanted InterAct to offer.   

6221 was an epic, three-act, 15-actor docu-drama chronicling the MOVE tragedy in Philadelphia.  Gibbons’ script was based on court transcripts, newspaper articles, police reports and a host of meetings with many of the people who played key roles in the real-life drama (including MOVE members, police officers, former Mayor W. Wilson Goode, journalists, West Philadelphia residents and others).  The incredible two-year process of developing 6221 culminated in a riveting 2 hour, 45 minute production that garnered tremendous critical acclaim and had audiences on the edge of their seats.  Most performances were followed by electric talk-backs featuring some of the real-life players (the MOVE organization made it a point of participating in nearly every discussion!).   

 [On October 1st, we’ll be kicking off our season with a 25th Anniversary Story Slam, including a few stories about 6221]         

The experience of commissioning, developing and producing 6221 crystallized, for me, the three pillars of our mission:  (1) To engage diverse local audiences in a dialogue about the stories, issues and ideas that matter most (Tom Gibbons used to say “I’m not interested in telling you what I think; I’m interested in asking you what you think”); (2) To champion new plays by living writers (the “chroniclers our times” as I’ve often called them); and (3) To maintain a substantive, dynamic relationship with our community.   
And it’s a good thing I was still young and na├»ve when I gained this clarity of purpose, because had I been a bit wiser and more cautious I probably would have opted for an easier road to travel!  At the time I had no idea how challenging it would be to raise money, garner favorable media attention and generate audiences for the mission I had so passionately embraced.

Indeed, we have weathered many a storm over the past 25 years:  Extraordinary financial challenges due to dramatic swings in the economic climate; Increasingly fierce competition for funding, media coverage and audiences; and, at times even, crises of faith. 

I believe that we have endured, and thrived, because time after time, in spite of all the pressures to change, we have trusted in the currency of our mission, and in our ability to carry out that mission at the highest level.
There are dozens of professional theatres across the country dedicated to producing mostly, if not entirely new plays.  And there are a handful of theatres dedicated to producing plays of social relevance.  InterAct may be the only theatre in America that is explicitly and exclusively dedicated to both. 

So that is what I’m proud of most.  Here’s to another 25 years!  

Thursday, August 2, 2012

Kittson O'Neill & MFA Playwright's Workshop

Artistic Associate Kittson O'Neill's Reflections on the MFA Playwright's Workshop

Last week I got to take a little vacation to Theater Land. Theater Land is a magical place where you don’t worry about taking out the trash, getting your kid to school or rushing to a last minute audition. It’s a place where you think only about the play you are working on. Where your brain can be in the rehearsal room and NO WHERE else all day. Where you go for beers after rehearsal and talk about all the other plays you love and then go back to your hotel to dream about them all jumbled together. It’s a lovely place. This time Theater Land was the Kennedy Center, where I was taking part in the MFA Playwrights Workshop. The Workshop is a weeklong exploration of six plays by current MFA playwrighting students and is also sponsored by the National New Play Network & Stanford University's National Center for New Plays. InterAct is a proud founding member of the NNPN so I always jump at a chance to work with them.  In addition to the MFA plays, an alumnus of the workshop is also invited to attend. This year it was Jennifer Fawcett and I was asked to dramaturg her play. 

            Now you might be wondering, “What the heck is a dramaturg?” When I first read this title in a program I certainly wondered. I decided they were probably some sort of gnomish editor who showered the playwright with date corrections and grammar adjustments. Well, that might be some dramaturgs at some theaters, but at InterAct my job as the ‘turg is to help the playwright make the play as powerful as possible, to bring it closer to their vision and to always make sure that vision is going to come across to the audience.  If you watched any of the Olympics lately, you can think of me as that stoic coach on the sidelines watching every back handspring with my heart in my mouth. It’s not my body on the line and I won’t win a gold medal, but when a new play soars, sings and sticks its landing it's bliss for the dramaturg too.

At InterAct my work as a dramaturg is often done on the fly. In addition to working on the play in rehearsal, I’m reading submissions, making lobby displays and arguing with Seth about why Richard 2 really does fit our mission. I’m also a full time actor subject to all the vagaries and challenges of that mad profession. Oh, and I have a kid. He’s four and a certain amount of every day must be dedicated to pretending to be a Transformer.

          When I met with Jennifer in DC she had 70 pages of a play set in the 17th Century and three scenes from a play set now. She knew her story about the demise of midwife at the hands of an ambitious doctor had modern resonance, but she couldn’t make the two stories work together. So, very bravely, she decided to set her modern tale aside and focus solely on the epic world of London in 1606.

This meant an enormous amount of research for me and my assistant: Where did Doctors get cadavers for dissection? What did midwives call the placenta? How do you address an Archdeacon in 1606? It also meant that each day was a vigorous and exciting conversation about science and mystery, about the paranoia of King James 2, about fear and how people use it. Never before have I been invited to be this deeply involved in the formation of a play; to see the writer change the course of her plot, flip our sympathy with a character and then change it all again the next day was thrilling.

It was a productive and exhausting week in Theater Land. I left the Kennedy Center with dozens of questions still buzzing in my head. Jennifer left with 25 new pages and, probably, even more questions. I was proud of her, proud of the progress we made and now, like that nervous coach, I just have to see what she does out there on the parallel bars. I’m sure she’ll stick her landing. 

Friday, February 24, 2012

Seth Rozin Reflecting on 24 years of InterAct

"Seth Rozin, 47, InterAct’s producing artistic director, standing in the Adrienne Theater next to a collage of stills from 15 years worth of the company’s plays. (Josh Fernandez /"
Check out this article where InterAct's Artistic Director, Seth Rozin, reflects on his 24 years as a theatre professional.

“Almost everyone who goes into theater starts out on stage at some point,” Rozin, 47, said. “I was active in theater – acting, directing, writing – from the end of my elementary school days, all the way through college. It hooks you and you have to do it...

To date, InterAct has presented 78 main stage productions, including 32 world premieres, more than 30 regional premieres and two premieres in the United States. Rozin, the company’s producing artistic director, was named “Best Director,” by the Philadelphia Inquirer twice for the premiere of the 1993 play 6221 and Lebensraum. (Inquirer Theater Critic Howard Shapiro’s reviews of Rozin’s recently directed play,The How and the Why and the musical he wrote, A Passing Wind, can be found here and here.)"

Read more about Rozin's journey here!

Thursday, February 23, 2012

Villanova's Controversial Decision to Cancel Acclaimed Artist Tim Miller's Workshop

Check out these excerpts from Kathy Boccella's article in the Philadelphia Inquirer on Villanova University's decision to cancel Tim Miller's workshop:

"Villanova University abruptly canceled a weeklong workshop by a gay performance artist whose stage shows are often laced with nudity and simulated sex but who has taught and lectured at numerous colleges, including the nation's largest Catholic university, DePaul, in Chicago.
While the cancellation was not "unimaginable", he [Tim Miller] noted that Villanova once staged Angels in America, the groundbreaking, Pulitzer Prize-winning play about the AIDS epidemic.

Times have changed," he said. "We're in a much more coercive, censorious time."

By Monday afternoon, the university put out a statement that read:

Villanova University embraces intellectual freedom and academic discourse. Indeed, it is at the very heart of our University and our Augustinian Catholic intellectual tradition. With regard to the forthcoming residency and performance workshops by Tim Miller, we had concerns that his performances were not in keeping with our Catholic and Augustinian values and mission.

Therefore, Villanova has decided not to host Mr. Miller on our campus. Villanova University is an open and inclusive community and in no way does this singular decision change that."

You can sign the petition to have Tim Miller's Workshop reinstated here: President, Villanova University: Reinstate the banned workshop by performance artist Tim Miller.

Tim Miller's LAY OF THE LAND will be featured during our Outside The Frame Festival. As the newest of Tim Miller's internationally acclaimed solo performances, LAY OF THE LAND is a saucy, sharp-knifed look at the State of the Queer Union during a time of trial. Careening from his sexy misadventures performing in 45 States, to Marriage Equality street protests, to the electoral assaults on gay folks all over the country, to his life as a grade-school flag monitor, to choking on cheap meat caught in his 10 year old throat, LAY OF THE LAND friskily gets at that feeling of gay folks being perpetually on trial, on the ballot, and on the menu.

As previously scheduled Tim Miller's Performance Workshop will be taking place April 9 - April 15. You can find out more info about how to get involved on our website.

Learn more about Tim Miller's Performance and Workshop by visiting our website

President, Villanova University: Reinstate the banned workshop by performance artist Tim Miller: Click here to sign the petition to have Tim Miller's Workshop reinstated.