IMAGE ABOVE: Director Mitchell Greco with Xanadu actress Holland Vavra, Stages Repertory Theatre, through June 29. Photo by Bruce Bennett.
On stage, screen and in popular culture, Millennials tend to be depicted as a set of negative and often contradictory stereotypes. They’re entitled, social media-obsessed hipsters and slackers who are also overly ambitious while living in their parents’ basements. In real life, not only have many of them not been handed easy opportunities in their chosen fields, but sometimes they have needed to create whole new fields within which to succeed. In the arts world, many have had to make up their own story as they go along, instead of following the often-told tale.
When it comes to Texas theater, some Millennials have sneaked, or crashed, through the backstage door to find or create leadership roles for themselves. Recently, Arts + Culture sought out seven of the most innovative young Texan theater leaders: Kelli Bland, producing director for Paper Chairs in Austin; Mitchell Greco, artistic associate at Stages Repertory Theatre in Houston; Jordan Jaffe, founder and artistic director of Black Lab Theatre, Houston; Jacey Little, Horse Head Theatre artistic director, Houston; Brandon Weinbrenner, resident assistant director at the Alley Theatre, Houston; Chris Weihert, member of Austin’s Reckless Youth Theatre Collaborative; and Kelsey Head, co-artistic director of Second Thought Theatre in Dallas.
These seven are working in creative positions behind the scenes and directing the scenes, instead of solely acting in them. We asked them how they are bringing Millennial insights to established theater companies and how they are creating new spaces in which to tell their stories.
ON PLAYING ROLES OFFSTAGE INSTEAD OF ON:
I studied directing as my emphasis in college, mainly because I thought I was a terrible actress, honestly. I was rarely cast. I suppose though, simply, I had ideas about things I wanted to see, messages I wanted to share. I liked being in charge, and I liked how hard it was. The responsibility of it always scares me at least a little, and I like that feeling.
I don’t think there was one specific event that made me want to move into a leadership role, but more like an ongoing feeling of not having control over my life. Which is kind of a silly thing to say—do we really have control over our lives? But as an actor, there’s so much you can’t control, and that made me uncomfortable.
In the spring of 2011, it hit me that if there was a play I wanted to work on I just had to figure out a way to do it myself. I was getting absolutely nowhere as a freelance actor, and I was sick of my dreams being solely dependent on what someone else thought of me. Since starting the company, my passion for producing and directing has grown to the point where acting is going to be more of a once in a blue moon type of thing. What I really enjoy is the work of putting it all together.
ON THEIR RECENT PROJECTS:
For the next few months, Horse Head’s energies will be devoted to producing Abbey Koenig’s world premiere play Spaghetti Code; although, we are developing a long range plan for the company. My primary goal is to begin producing two plays a year, although this may not be possible until 2015.
I’m directing Xanadu, which runs through June 29 at Stages. I think I’m really lucky to get to work with a group of people as committed and in love with the show as I am, on a piece that actually has a lot to say about the creative process, why we create, how we love, and what art really is. Plus, it’s on roller skates and set to the pop rock tunes of Olivia Newton John and ELO, so it’s practically a guaranteed good time!
I’m collaborating with a visual artist to create a mixed-media dance installation that will incorporate both film and live performance. It’s a very thrilling project to be gearing up for, as I haven’t been as involved with dance and choreography since arriving in Dallas.
Currently I am assistant directing Jonathan Moscone on Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike, the last play on our Hubbard Stage before the big renovation next year. Expect an uproarious comedy.
I will be working on organizing Black Lab’s 2014-2015 season. Our flagship project next year will be the production of the Off-Broadway hit Bad Jews, which Black Lab is organizing with Stages Repertory Theatre and the Jewish Community Center of Houston.
In June, I will be heading up a cultural experiment, a collaboration with Paper Chairs and UT grad student Daniel Carter to create a unique way for the public to interact with the current exhibition at the Harry Ransom Center. In July, Paper Chairs will be performing our raucous musical Murder Ballad/Murder Mystery in Austin, San Antonio, and Lawrence, Kansas.
About a month ago on a whim, I acquired an extremely rare and out-of-print French copy of the original La Cage Aux Folles by Jean Poiret. I discovered that a copy of the original play had never been published in English. I want to be the one to get a translation published! Aside from that, I’m writing a sassy cabaret about the life and times of Greta Garbo and how Hollywood tore this beautiful, talented woman to shreds and then abandoned her.
ON BEING A YOUNG THEATER LEADER AND A WOMAN:
I don’t think anyone—young or old, male or female—should wait for leadership opportunities to present themselves. I am a woman in her late 20s who tries not to waste her energy on imagining how my gender and age could hold me back, or how others may attempt to keep me down because of it. There will never be a shortage of antagonists, naysayers, and misogynists. Is this an obstacle for young women to acquire, keep, and function effectively in leadership roles? Absolutely, but obstacles can be overcome.
Being a woman in our society has its hardships, but our community here is open and supportive of the voices of women. But I think starting out as a young woman artist, getting your voice heard and respected, is difficult. I worked at establishing relationships by acting for the first few years before I directed my first professional play. It seemed easier than strutting into town and telling everyone to listen to my ideas. I don’t know if that is because I am a woman, that I must be self-deprecating and accommodating, instead of confident and bossy.
ON THE DIFFERENT TEMPERAMENTS OF TEXAS THEATER COMMUNITIES:
I find that there is such a vibrant theater community in Dallas that always talks to each other and depends on one another to support the art. I would actually argue that the theaters in Dallas have done a better job defining who they are as organizations. You have the avant-garde theater, the new play theater, the classical theater, the big regional house, the children’s theater, the African American theater, the LGBT theater, etc. Theaters in Houston do have unique mission statements, but I find that most have similar interests and therefore produce similar plays. It’s not a bad thing, just a different thing.
Houston is the wild west for theater. The potential here is limitless. We all need to dream big and work every day toward building a larger and more vibrant arts scene that is commensurate with the size of our population. The key though is people need to want it. You can’t say, “Yes, I want Houston to have a theater scene like NY,” but go to the theater once a year. Millennials have to be willing to go to a show before hitting Washington Avenue, Montrose, and Midtown, and the Houston philanthropic community needs to respond by expanding its horizons, as well, to support edgier material.
Austin’s theater community is wonderful. It is very open to new works. Over time, any person in the community is accessible and willing to collaborate. It is forgiving of failed experiments. I think the most challenging aspects of navigating the community are a lack of rehearsal and performance spaces and a lack of criticism. Theatergoers are often not critical enough with each other. Maybe it’s a fear of backlash or just that everyone is friends or that perhaps we have an inability to objectively look at our work. I think making work in a bubble is dangerous.
ON BRINGING MILLENIAL AUDIENCES TO THE THEATER:
The plays we do need to be able to compete with the edgy work being done in other mediums like TV and film. The days of doing three-hour plays are coming to an end. I find that for young adult audiences, the theater is just one stop of a full night out that may include dinner and post show barhopping. It’s important to understand the work that we do in the context of our audiences’ daily lives. I’m going to continue exploring initiatives where the audience does more than just sit in a seat and watch a performance. I’m trying to put out the idea that theater doesn’t have to be a “stuffy” or “a special, once in a while” experience.
One of my favorite aspects of being a young artist in Dallas is the amount of cross-disciplinary collaboration I’m starting to see, and I think that’s what a young adult audience craves. They may come to your theater because you’re featuring the local band they love or a local artist they follow provided the art on the walls.
I make it a priority to act my age. I am 29 and want to represent 29 year- olds. When my age group sees a leader at an organization they admire who speaks the same language that they do, lives the same lifestyle, is interested in the same things, they respond. All of a sudden the theater becomes more accessible to them. Even [when directing] Venus in Fur, I knew I wanted a young, sexy cast with cool music and hip costumes. After all, it’s a hot show with and for a younger audience.
ON WHY THEATER MUST REMAIN AN IMPORTANT CREATIVE EXPERIENCE FOR THE SOCIAL MEDIA GENERATION:
What’s funny is that technology used to be the alien. Now, the alien is social interaction, is witnessing a live performance, or really even just having a face-to-face conversation with somebody. Somehow, we’ve managed to make our own flesh-and-blood existences theoretical instances that require electronic validation. But, if this is all true, then that means that theater, live performance and communal storytelling might hold even more power nowadays. The theatrical space is a beautiful sociological phenomenon. Everybody gathers to behold. It’s understood that everyone needs to ‘behave’—to shut up and sit still, and then the actors get to enlighten, inspire, educate, maybe vomit; it depends. It’s not just a show, another replay on Netflix; it is an event, an event that has never happened before, and will not ever happen again. Theater is important these days simply because it is so immaterial.