Tarell Alvin McCraney does not shy away from the toughest — and what he calls “provocative” — question facing theater-makers today: Who’s going to the theater to help them stay afloat?
Theater as an art form has stood the test of time — but times have rarely been as existentially daunting for the business as they are today. The last year has seen programming suspensions, layoffs and rounds of emergency fundraising at such rock-steady institutions as the Public Theater in New York City, the Oregon Shakespeare Festival and Los Angeles’ own Mark Taper Forum. Per a July report from American Theatre, 35 regional theaters and counting have closed since March 2020.
And so it’s in the midst of historic, industry-wide downturns since COVID that McCraney — the Oscar-winning screenwriter (and original playwright) of Barry Jenkins’ “Moonlight” and creator of OWN’s “David Makes Man” — took the reins as artistic director for Geffen Playhouse in September to bring in new works and reenvisioned classics “with a focus on innovative storytelling, community engagement and audience experience.”
“Even in the moments where we at the Geffen need to do work — we need to make sure that people can sit with difference, and be engaging in its aspirational place — I felt like I could help that,” McCraney told TheWrap.
That begins, in part, with a shift in perspective while looking at what can and can’t be done about a changing industry and its audience.
“We have a tendency to look at that 40% of subscribers who are not back in the theater and go, ‘Oh, man, we’re really missing out,’ instead of going, ‘Wow, 60% of those people still get up, still say, Hey, how many plays you doing? Sign me up,'” McCraney reflected. “‘I’m going to do my diligence and very best to come in as healthy as possible and engage this tradition that is centuries old with other folks.’ We should be celebrating a little bit more.”
McCraney also told TheWrap he envisions a future at The Geffen — which he humorously coined the city’s “friendly neighborhood playhouse” — that centers its storytelling on L.A. artists with local heart to show and stories to tell.
“I really want to make sure L.A. artists or artists who call L.A. home feel like they have a place,” he said. “It really bothers me as a person from Miami that never really had a space where I could be like, ‘Well, I’m from here, born and raised, third generation, and I have a place where I can do my theatrical art.’ That shouldn’t be the case for folks in L.A.”
You have quite a longstanding relationship with the Geffen Playhouse. What makes this institution special in your book, and why did you want to continue that relationship by joining the team here?
Well, I think it anecdotally starts when we opened “Choir Boy” starring Jeremy Pope at the Geffen about 10 years ago. And in the audience were so many folks who were in the music industry, the film industry, television, visual artists, producers, right? And it was one of those moments where I was really excited that I was in the company of artists, watching art, engaging art and being in conversation with it. That feels special, it feels particular, and it feels like there’s a certain kind of playground that we get to be because our audience, our makeup is so full of folks who work in imaginative industries. We want you to come in and be engaged, yes, be challenged, sure. And also just have that space where you feel like you’re really digging into the aspirations of yourself.
That always felt like the tenor of the space. When Cast Iron Entertainment took up its residency there, we sort of felt that. And again, even in the moments where we at the Geffen need to do work – we need to make sure that people can sit with difference, and be engaging in it’s aspirational place. I felt like I could help that.
I have some ideas. I have some room, also, to listen to ideas and synthesize some of the practices that they’re doing, to make them better, to go forward, to make some space for those 30,000 audience members across the street [at UCLA] who will one day be our future audiences, be our future artists, be our future writers and columnists, be our future technicians. I feel like I could help make room for that. And that felt necessary. It felt like a call. I need to make sure that there’s room for the next generation or for those we cannot see just now.
One of the biggest questions facing theaters of all kinds in all places today is: Who is going to the theater and who is going to be supporting them? Especially in regional theaters and subscription-based business models. How are you considering those questions now as artistic director going into the new season?
It’s a very interesting and provocative question. Because I think one can kind of look at the news and think that is the kind of history of what regional theater is. So allow me to be a little boring and just reach back a little bit and say, you know, the models of regional theaters were created so that communities would have access to world class theater and plays, but also theater education. Those two things were a part of the sort of Zelda Fichandler-Arena Stage, the Alley in Texas and the Alliance in Atlanta – I mean, those theaters were created so that the community around the theater would have its access to a platform where it could tell its stories to each other in a true township, old “our town” way of working, and also be educated in that storytelling tradition. And I think Geffen is uniquely structured to do that. We are literally in an educational capital and a cultural capital, so we can do both.
So the second part of that is for those of us who have been working in the theater for a long period of time – I graduated from grad school in 2007 right on top of the economic crash of that moment, right? And so everybody was like, “Theater is in danger, it’s all going down! What are we going to do?” And so these moments sort of steel you, because if we’ve been paying attention since 2017, the number of subscriptions were going to keep falling in this way for the next 10 years anyway. What the pandemic did was hasten that. It pushed us to now look starkly at the moment that we were going to be losing subscriptions — and we lost it at the pace that we were going to lose it three years faster, four years faster. So now what do we do? Well, it’s the same thing we should’ve been doing the whole time, which is going, “Who is coming back?”
We’ve just had three years and still of some pretty incredibly scary moments as a nation in our physical, personal, social, spiritual being. The fabric of democracy has been looked at and turned over. Our personal space has become volatile and scary. And some people, even after that, wake up and go, “You know what? I want to go see a play.” The fact that we don’t celebrate that more is really scary to me.
It means that we have a tendency to look at that 40% of subscribers who are not back in the theater and go, “Oh, man, we’re really missing out,” instead of going, “Wow, 60% of those people still get up.” We should be celebrating a little bit more.
And then we also need to take on the responsibility of raising up future audiences in the way of going to the theater. Right? We don’t make space for young people. The theater can allow a lot of things. The theater is nimble enough to make space. And what are the ways we can make space? That’s what we have to be up to courting – and again, you want an audience? You have to train them up, you train them up from a young age. If they don’t feel that genuine love for sharing that, they don’t want to come back.
How do new works get on your radar for programming, now that you’re in a position to lift up new and younger artists?
I call it ‘early career’ artists because there have been artists that I’ve met who are new to the career who were in their 60s and 70s who, you know, for a long time wanted to write a play. What I’m excited about is there are folks who are well-known names, who are actors, who are like, “I wrote this play. And I kind of just want somebody to read it for me.” And we go, “Yeah, we do that here.” There are going be recording artists who go, “I kind of have this one-person show that I’ve been trying to do.”
And yes, I want those student artists at UCLA to feel like they have a place where they can showcase their world premiere. I will say, and maybe this is showing my bias, but I really want to make sure L.A. artists or artists who call L.A. home feel like they have a place. It really bothers me as a person from Miami that never really had a space where I could be like, “Well, I’m from here, born and raised, third generation, and I have a place where I can do my theatrical art.” That shouldn’t be the case for folks in L.A.
Going into this next season, what role does lifting up minority voices play in your decision-making?
It’s wildly important. I never wanted to create a space where my voice was the only voice. And I think democracy is so important because it is the one way of thinking of governance or political being and social contracts where we say to each other, “Hey, out of many different voices, we agree to live in some kind of peace or relative harmony together.”
It feels less democratic when we don’t have as many corners or aspects in the room. It feels less like the aspirational place we want to be. We can’t get to that aspiration if we don’t have as many in the room as possible. And again, I really do want to prioritize the fact that Los Angeles has myriad origin stories. Where are the stories about L.A.? Where are the stories about Compton? Where are the stories about Brentwood? Where are the stories about Downtown, about Skid Row? Where are those stories? It’s going to be really important for us as your friendly neighborhood playhouse to make sure that we have L.A. artists working on plays, working on works that reflect what they’re interested in.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
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