Before taking the intermission season, PSF welcomed Christopher V. Edwards as director of our upcoming production of August Wilson’s Fences. Although we were not able to continue with that production this summer, Chris’s insight still proves invaluable. In this interview, PSF’s Education Director Anelise Diaz talks with Chris about his view of the future and the effects of our current climate as an artist and artistic director in the theatre industry.
Anelise Diaz: How has the pandemic affected you/continues to affect you as an artist?
Christopher V. Edwards: I am the artistic director of a theatre company, so there’s that level: the cancellations we’ve had to make and the public quotes around postponement. We are all assuming that most of these are going to be postponed and no one really knows what’s going to happen, as far as large groups of people coming back. That in itself has had a professional effect and a personal effect because running a company, you feel the element of having to put people on furlough, stealing people’s livelihoods, not to mention your own livelihood, but it’s a huge weight that you feel; the feeling that you have to come up with the idea or the “secret sauce” to make this all work. We are on new ground, to some extent, we are on pioneering ground. As far as my creative life, one of the things I’ve been thinking about and trying to apply to the company that I run, a predominately white organization, is that the American Theatre, just like our society, has some issues with equity, diversity, and inclusion as it applies to the amount of BIPOC onstage, the amount of BIPOC in administration, the writers, the designers, the directors, the technical crews. All aspects of who we are as an industry has had some serious challenges of equity and inclusion. One of the things that I am doing is taking the time to address who we are as a company and reassess who we were originally, who we’ve actually been and who we would like to be. As an artist, I am looking at what I really want to be engaging with. Sometimes as an artistic director, there is an assumption that you can do whatever you want when and how. But 9 times out of 10, I tend to the do the project that we think will sell well. So those projects aren’t always a creative choice. I feel a responsibility to the company to do some shows that may be a little more challenging. My point is that I am really looking at things that I want to do, and exploring them in a little more methodical of a way than I get the opportunity to do during the year. On a personal level, it has made me question a lot of things, Shakespeare in particular, as it applies to the world right now, and what voices need to be heard right now. Our industry, the Shakespeare industry, takes up a lot of space. In English literature, Shakespeare takes up a lot of space. I am often wondering, “What are the voices that aren’t being able to be heard because Shakespeare is taking up so much space?” So I am having those conversations with my company, my staff, and myself. Then there is dealing with the personal mental health of it all. The days of depression and days of joy and how they kind of ebb and flow for me right now.
Diaz: What is it about live theatre that you miss the most?
Edwards: I can’t pin it down to one exact thing. One thing is, being in a room with people and I think that is an issue for a lot of people. In the theatre and in acting, the relationship between the director, the actors, the stage manager, is a live and organic process. Being able to vibe off each other and look into someone’s eyes and see what they’re feeling, thinking, or trying to say. To then try to collaborate with that and try to harmonize or coalesce and create a piece of work based on just communication and some of that communication is nonverbal. One of the things that I miss is the uncertainty and the “danger” of theatre that you don’t know what is going to happen at any time because it is live and it is happening right now in the moment and the moment that happens is a moment that will never happen again exactly the same. I really miss that.
Diaz: Do you feel that there is a void in that people have not been able to gather at the theatre? How can we address that?
Edwards: I think we are all trying to figure that out. It may be that we have to find new forms which is what it is, and that is cool; new forms of communication, what we consider or call theatre, and how we relate to an audience. We are struggling like everyone, to find out what that is. Is it a virtual play? Is it we all meet in a park and stand 10ft apart and talk? Is it just doing it outside? There are so many options and there are no real best practices for this stuff yet. We are at the forefront where a lot of us who run companies, if we do survive the pandemic, are going to have to become a new type of curator. Part of the concern is what segment of the audience will come back? People will have underlying conditions, be high-risk, or be older. Which the older folks tend to be our audience for theatre in general, but also for us as classical theatre practitioners we tend to have older audiences so who is going to come back?
Diaz: In our current climate, what role does Shakespeare and storytelling take in how we move forward?
Edwards: I have a struggle with Shakespeare and how much space he takes up. That said, there will always be things about Shakespeare that people love. For me, it’s that Shakespeare deals with epic stories, big problems, and huge linguistic challenges. For instance, there are a million different ways you can do Hamlet. In choosing one of those ways, you inevitably lose out on the other 999,999,999 other options. You can do a really great production of it you just can never really get all of it. What that does is create analysis in the watcher. You watch things and you see interpretation and hopefully when you sit in the audience, you get to view the play through the lens of the director and that group of actors which essentially is very different from the lens of the play of the last Hamlet you saw. So the possibility of doing the play in so many ways creates an idea. When the audience watches that, they begin to question the ideas as they apply to you. It makes for intelligence and self-growth particularly in one’s brain. It opens places in your brain. It makes you adjust to other points of view. A slew of ideas creates dialogue and dialogue creates debate and listening to debate makes us better people because we are hearing different points of view. Inevitably, if there are ideas, dialogue, and debate, then we have a better democracy. I think with partisanship, people are starting to close themselves down and not listening to what the other side’s issues are. People are complex and I think Shakespeare does a really good job of showing that. As a society, we could open ourselves up a little bit more to other’s ideas. It doesn’t mean that we have to agree with them but just because Person B believes this and you don’t believe that, is it worth completely and utterly cancelling all the other ideas that they may have? I think we are too quick to do that right now in society, the idea of disregarding someone because of one particular belief they have. Shakespeare helps us look at different points of view, question them, and have a conversation about them and inevitably hopefully solve issues and problems that come up as a collective.
Diaz: This summer had our season not been cancelled, you would have been directing Fences at PSF. In what ways are stories like that meaningful to our country at this time?
Edwards: Generally speaking, most stories and narratives by BIPOC writers, directors, actors, are not seen a lot in the American theatre. We have racial challenges in this country and problems with cultural and racial acceptance and equality. One of the great things theatre does, if it is done well, is it makes people have empathy towards other folks and the way humans do that is through storytelling. When those stories aren’t allowed or we are just not seeing them, there is less of a possibility for empathy and particularly around these narratives of BIPOC because those narratives are rarely seen in the American theatres.
Diaz: How does missing those stories affect us?
Edwards: We continue to do what we always do. We continue life as it is, how it’s been. I think our society and American Theatre needs to change. I think we continue as “business as usual” and “business as usual” in this country has been one of inequality. One of the things I keep saying is that I feel there is no middle ground. You are either Anti-Racist or Racist and the thing is people don’t want to admit to that. I think it’s so embedded in our culture that most people in this country are racist and don’t even realize it. We have to find a place to reboot the system because that to me says that you are going back to the previous system but you find a new “software” for the system: a new way of operating. Without that happening, you literally just go back to the way it was. I am not suggesting that Fences is the most progressive play right now, but maybe it is for PSF. With the BLM movement and new Civil Rights movement is that people now invest more in what that means for their company, their communities and the shows that they are doing.
Diaz: In what ways do you see the theatre industry changing moving forward?
Edwards: I think the virtual theatre world will remain and be an aspect of theatre companies moving forward. Ironically, it allows for more inclusion geographically. I think theatres will have to put money where their “EDI-mouths” are because people will start to get called on it. What happens is that you start to see the funders responding to that. No longer can you be a company that just writes a good grant proposal. Funders want to see action and what has evolved. Other theatre artists will start to call people out. BIPOC actors will become a little “bored” with things and take a little more of their power when it comes to their advocacy around this stuff and dealing with the fear with not being asked back. BIPOC will be a little stronger in their points of view without the fear of retaliation. These are all good things. A lot of people will also end up leaving the industry and we will lose some amazing people and we will lose some folks who would’ve come into the theatre; young people who are just in college or coming out of college or in grad school or coming out of grad school. I think it’s going to be tough for folks and we are going to lose a lot of wonderful folks who could have made a difference.
Christopher V. Edwards is an actor, director, fight choreographer and educator. He is currently the Artistic Director of Actors’ Shakespeare Project in Boston. Prior to ASP he was the Artistic Director of Nevada Conservatory Theatre (NCT) in Las Vegas and the Associate Artistic Director, Director of Education and Apprentice Training Program with The Hudson Valley Shakespeare Festival in New York. As a director some of his favorite shows include: Equivocation, Pride and Prejudice, Othello, Romeo and Juliet, The Three Musketeers, Around the World in 80 Days, Hamlet, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, A Winter’s Tale, Water by the Spoonful, The Bomb-itty of Errors, How to Break, and Venus in Fur to name a few.
Chris has worked in London’s West End, Off-Broadway, The National Theatre of Oslo in Norway, John Houseman’s The Acting Company in NYC, HERE Arts Center, Dorset Theatre Festival, Edinburgh Fringe Festival in Scotland, The Helix in Ireland, Chicago Shakespeare Theater, Ubu Rep., The Flea Theater, Cleveland Playhouse, Hip-Hop Theatre Festival, Utah Shakespeare Festival, SOHO Rep, Penumbra Theater, the Guthrie Theatre and Cincinnati Shakespeare Company.
Terms: BIPOC: Black, Indigenous, People of Color; BLM: Black Lives Matter; EDI: Equity, Diversity, Inclusion