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!