Below is an interview with three Artistic Directors, from three different states - PA, NE, IL - to discuss elements of theater from their perspective.
Artistic Director James Jordan | Touchstone Theatre | Bethlehem, PA
James has called Touchstone Theatre his artistic home for its last thirteen seasons. He has helped produce over seventy productions since arriving at Touchstone, serving in multiple capacities including director, designer, composer, actor, and playwright. Some of James’s most notable contributions were his leadership as Project Director for Touchstone’s last two community-based productions A Resting Place and Journey from the East and his original series of musical comedies under The Pan Show title, which chronicles the misadventures of the Greek God Pan as he is placed into modern day America, co-written with Touchstone Ensemble Affiliate Christopher Shorr. Both projects have brought accolades in the form of awards given by Bethlehem’s local press; notable amongst these honors were “Producer of the Year” and “Best Original Play.” Before coming to Touchstone, James worked at the Zoellner Arts Center on Lehigh University’s campus. During his five-year tenure as Zoellner’s Stage Coordinator, he helped in the production of hundreds of events – from lectures to Broadway musicals to some of the best ballets and orchestras in the world. While at Zoellner, James freelanced with many production companies and as a sound and lighting designer. James holds a BS in Telecommunications (video production) with minors in both Theatre and Music from Kutztown University, an MA in Performance from the University of Chichester, and an MFA in Creative Practice from Plymouth University’s Transart Institute.
Artistic Director Beth Thompson | Shelterbelt Theatre | Omaha, NE
Beth Thompson is a director, actor and has been the Artistic Director of the Shelterbelt Theater in Omaha, Nebraska since 2013. She graduated with a BA in Theater, with a focus in acting and directing, from the University of Nebraska-Omaha in 2012. Favorite directing credits include Neighbors, Lovers and All the Others, Revelation, The Singularity, In The Jungle You Must Wait, The Other Sewing Circle, Abby In The Summer and Psycho Ex-Girlfriend for the Shelterbelt as well as Tigers Be Still and A Bright New Boise for the Omaha Community Playhouse’s 21& Over reading series. Favorite roles include Nan Carter in Exit, Pursued by a Bear (OCP's 21 & Over), Dale Prist in 5 Lesbians Eating a Quiche (Shelterbelt), Mom/Ms. Speigel in Dark Play or Stories for Boys (UNO), and Mrs. Hermannson in Eric Hermannson's Soul (Lone Tree Theater Project) which toured to both the Kansas City and Edinburgh Fringe Festivals in 2011. Beth, and her work, has been nominated for both Theater Arts Guild and Omaha Entertainment and Arts awards. She is proud to head the “Before the Boards” reading series, at the Shelterbelt, which presents staged readings of local plays to assist in their development. Her love of storytelling, collaboration and development of new work keep her striving to improve with each new project and learn a little more about herself and the world around her in the process.
Katlynn Yost | Artistic Director | Chimera Ensemble | She/Her/Hers | Chicago, IL
Katlynn Yost is proud to be the Artistic Director of Chimera Ensemble. She is an actor, producer, and arts administrator originally from Nebraska. She has worked with numerous non-profit organizations including: Hearts to Art -- an arts summer camp teaching children who have lost a parent; R.E.S.P.E.C.T. -- an educational touring company seeking to end bullying and raise mental health awareness to kids of all ages; Project Harmony -- an organization seeking to end child abuse and neglect; and Nebraska Shakespeare's Educational Tour, teaching and performing Shakespeare to young people in grades 7-12. Some of her favorite acting credits include: Sister Cities (Chimera Ensemble), 33 Variations and GNIT (Blue Barn Theatre), The Heiress (Brigit Saint Brigit) The Complete Works of William Shakespeare, As You Like It, and The Tempest (Nebraska Shakespeare). Katlynn holds a degree in Acting from the University of Nebraska-Omaha, and is a graduate of The 2015 ACADEMY at Black Box Acting.
In your opinion, is the director suppose to adjust to how actors take direction or is it the actor's job to adjust how the director gives direction?
JP: I think it depends on the circumstance. If a director is working with an amateur cast than they better be prepared to find out what those performers need to be successful. That’s not to say a director working with professional performers shouldn’t also be tuned in to what the actors need to succeed, but I think in a professional setting a director when casting can say to performers “this is how I plan on directing this show, can you be down with that”. All that being said, the question kinda presupposes that a director is a necessary or integral part of the process. Good actors are some times better off without them.
BETH: That is a phenomenal question! Mostly, because you would get a different answer from each director you ask. I can only speak to my approach, which is meeting somewhere in the middle. I expect, and in some cases require, a lot from my actors and am clear from the beginning of the process what those exercises are and how they will be utilized to the benefit of the story later on. Actors require different things from you and I do believe a good director will pick up on those signs and direct accordingly. For example, my last show had 14 actors ranging from ages 14-31 with varying levels of experience. Some of the younger actors called for a more reassuring, confidence inspiring and back to basics approach to their character work while the more veteran actors found their voices through exploration and being encouraged to fly freer and give us some choices to work with. I prefer to collaborate on creating characters with my actors as I have cast them for a reason. Something about their artistic expression through this character intrigued me so why would I want to squash their voice with the performance that might have been in my head for a few months. While I hope to cast someone who shares my take, I am often pulled in by an actor who sees another side that I may not have seen and the idea of melding these together excites and inspires me. Actors are artists, not robots.
KATYLNN: I feel the director and actor(s) need to find a balance between each other. A common language should be found within the first few weeks of rehearsal. Speaking as both an actor and director, I will say each person should be confident in the way they work, should both bring professionalism while also being adaptable to change and play. Ultimately the director is the one with the vision of the world of the play and assumably the experience to be the one leading from off stage - I would hope any actor would be able to adapt and be open to learning from their director. Through my eyes a director is meant to lead, inspire and create. An actor is meant to be inspired, taught and moved to live in a new world the director/playwright has given them.
Is it important to work with other theater's and why?
JP: When I was growing up playing music I went through a phase of thinking that I didn’t want to listen to anyone else’s music because it might affect the way I was writing and playing. In retrospect, that was ridiculous. Plants can’t grow in a vacuum and neither can creativity. Creativity needs input from the world around it to ingest and abstract. Creation comes from finding the relationship between things and having partner theater’s to play with is a great way to get those juices flowing.
BETH: Yes, it is important to work with other theaters if given the chance. It’s an opportunity for fresh eyes on your work via the designers and audience. While working with the same people creates a shorthand, collaborating with new designer, actors, crew men members allows you to grow in unexpected ways.
KATLYNN: Oh yes, yes, yes. It’s important to not only know your community and work with them but to gain support from them in any way you can. Co-producing, sharing resources, scripts, artistic producers...it’s all one more step in making theater available and open to everyone. There is too much competition in theater, it’s an art centered around love and passion - we should embrace that with each other rather than fight it.
Why do you think theatre is not as predominate in a community as it should be and what can we do it fix that?
JP: Theatre sometimes strikes me as a somewhat antiquated term. It feels like something stuck in time. I prefer to think in terms of performance. Performance is all around us, it makes up the fabric of our everyday lives. From lending someone a friendly smile to flipping someone off while we are driving, to holding protest marches, we are constantly in a state of performing and those performances have the ability to change a person’s day just as profoundly as sitting in a darkened auditorium. We’ve moved into a DIY shorter attention span YouTube culture and theatre as an art form has not evolved along with the zeitgeist. Art needs to be immediate, accessible and participatory. Flash mobs, processionals through the streets, random acts of performed beauty in our parks, these are the types of things practitioners need to focus on. Meeting the people halfway. The grand facade of theatre has a time and place but it is not the modern every person’s everyday art.
BETH: Access is the biggest road block, especially in the Midwest where sports is king. Changing the mindset of those who decide what children will have access to is key and I do see it happening but Omaha is very separate from the rest of Nebraska. My sister and her family live in a small town in the north central part of the state and my nephew and niece were cast in a production of Mary Poppins last summer and I was THRILLED. The program that produced the play is amazing and run by 1 woman, a teacher, who dedicates her entire summer to getting this show up. She casts kids from kindergarten through 8th grade and these kids learn so many life skills through their experience. It is women like this that are keeping the arts alive in small rural communities and sparking interest in kids. Women like this are my heroes.
KATLYNN: I wonder this question quite a bit. Sometimes I think it’s because movies and jaw dropping cinema has taken away the appeal of live theater. Sometimes I wonder if it’s because this is an oversaturated market (at least here in Chicago) and you can only afford to subscribe or commit to one or two theaters when you have over 300 to choose from. But what I like to believe is that going to the theater is scarier - you have to go and actually watch people be vulnerable on stage. Mistake might happen, an intimate scene might happen 3 feet away from you, you might get hit with fake blood, you may be the only person in 100 seat house that laughs at a line. This is all scary and can make anyone uncomfortable. This is one thing I love about theater. It excites me -but it may push some less risky audiences away. I think our goal should be to keep finding work that excites those hard core community members and hope that the rest of the community joins in on the fun.
What is your vision for your theatre?
JP: I hope that any piece of art I create, allows people to connect to the beauty in life. I want joyous celebrations, I literally want people singing and dancing in the streets. This is how I believe a community grows closer and flourishes. That’s what’s important to me! You don’t get that by sitting through three hours of Harold Pinter.
BETH: To find a new home!!! We are on hiatus at the moment but I am working on a few projects that can be done in found spaces. We focus on local new work so the vision is always to facilitate in these voices in being heard.
KATYLNN: My vision is to keep expanding on our mission, and finding out true selves within it - which is ultimately the good in us while asking scary questions. We don’t have a certain ‘type’ of play we produce, but we do have a mission to make our theater accessible for all and to give back to our community of Chicago for every production. So, first and foremost we make sure we provide services for folks who are hard of hearing or deaf for every single performance by offering Open Captioning during each of our shows. We also offer Touch Tour and Audio Description for folks who are Blind/Low Vision. I’m researching into adding Sensory Friendly Programming for folks and young people who are on the spectrum and want to incorporate more ASL performances into our shows. I want to truly immerse myself in this learning experience. I want everyone to be able to experience theater no matter what their abilities are. We are making small, but ambitious steps each show we produce to ensure we are always improving on this mission.
We partner with an Chicago non-profit organization for every show we do and with each partnership we increase our level of involvement and fundraising for it. It’s important to me we know the community around us, even if it’s not theater or arts based. We just partnered with Project Exploration - a non profit that teaches STEM education to underserved kids in Chicago. It was amazing to see how integrating the science and art of theater was to their curriculum. We’ve had partnerships with 8 different organizations over the 3 years we’ve been a company. Our goal is to raise awareness to their mission and better ourselves by volunteering..
As we are currently closing our final show of the season, I’m starting to think about next season, and where I want this company to go. I know I want to keep expanding on our mission but I also want to share a piece of myself a bit better this go around. I want to just say ‘fuck it’ to the scripts that scare me to produce and go for it. I want to stand behind every piece I fall in love with and I want to work even harder to represent the artistry inside me. I’m not sure what scripts lie in wake for that but I’m ready to find out.
Our company is small. There 5 people who do a main chunk of the work. We all have full time jobs outside of this. It can be easy to lose track and sight of what kind of art we want to produce. I want to gain better clarity of my vision to inspire not only my company, but my community and myself. ---Inspiring, scary, beautiful work. That sounds nice.
What excites you about theatre right now?
JP: Anywhere I see a resurgence in the carnivalesque.
BETH: The focus on diversity and TRUE diversity. It is exciting to see more writers of color being produced; directors, designers of color being hired and actors of color telling their own stories. In Omaha, The Union for Contemporary Art Performing Arts program is doing ground breaking work within the African American community led by Denise Chapman. Check out their website: http://www.u-ca.org/performingarts
KATYLNN: I see so much more self produced work which is exciting. In a city like Chicago you are a small fish in a huge pond - it’s incredibly hard (and expensive) to get seen and/or even get representation to help get seen. So this community was like “no, that’s not good enough. I will make my own art and put myself in it,” It’s a huge base for many successful artists in Chicago right now. It’s inspiring because as a producer, I know it’s hard work, it’s your own money, and it’s a lot of your time and it can be isolating at times. It deserves respect. It’s risky - risky theater is all over the place right now and that is also exciting. I’m seeing things I never would’ve guessed someone had the courage to produce. Again, It’s inspiring, scary and beautiful.
Best piece of advice you have ever received in regards to Directing?
JP: “You should cut that scene."
BETH: Two things: 1. Be very particular in your casting; cast a show well and half the battle is won. 2. Actors are not robots so don't try to program what is in your head into their bodies. Allow them to bring what you hired them to bring and work together to create the character. In the end, you will both have learned something and they will take ownership of their character in a much more productive way.
KATLYNN: Table talk can kill the process. As actors, we all have different characters to navigate, when we start the process with table talk it can not only kill momentum of creative workflow but it can also impair other actor’s thoughts on their own characters. Who are we to judge other actor’s view of this world they live in?
How can you make something that is unfamiliar familiar? How do you make an audience feel or relate to the subject matter that they aren't familiar with? How do you get people interested in something unfamiliar?
JP: Simplicity and metaphor. There’s no point in being overly clever if people aren’t going to be able to understand what you're trying to say. You need to explain things to people in terms that they understand and tie those thoughts to something that they have an emotional investment in.
BETH: You have to find the common ground. Why did the playwright write this? Why did they spend months/years/decades creating these characters around this story? They had a purpose and my job as the director is to get at that heart and find what every person in the room has in common. I directed SHE KILLS MONSTERS for the Omaha Community Playhouse last fall and for me, the common ground was understanding the connection between the sisters, Tilly and Agnes, and what one does when that connection is lost. Everyone has someone in their life that has left them in one way or another. We tapped into that. Invest in the heart and all of the fighting, fucking and funny will deepen.
What makes a good script?
JP: I’m delighted when I see scripts that have clever recalls to things earlier in the writing. When the unexpected wraps around at the end. The writers on the old HBO series Mr. Show with Bob and David were geniuses at this. I strive to emulate the brilliance of their technique every time I work on Touchstone’s Christmas City Follies.
BETH: Oooofffff...Art is subjective so this is tricky. For me, there has to be a compelling story that is begging to be heard. With new work, I don't expect it to be polished, hell sometimes it isn't even finished but if the idea is solid I am willing to put the work in.
KATLYNN: In my opinion a good script has at least one thing any person can relate to, even if it’s only relating to the way the characters speak to each other. The last thing theater should be is exclusive in their topics and content matter. We should work to find scripts that are inclusive and expansive on content. However, it’s obvious that not everyone is going to relate to everything - but I find there is always something in a good script - that special tinge of something that hits you somewhere as you’re reading or seeing it that makes you go “wow, I get that.” or “huh, I never knew that.”. If I’m reading a script that doesn’t cause some sort of internal or external reaction, I don’t conconsider it a good script. And normally these reactions are caused by things that we familiarize with or even things we are unfamiliar with...So, basically this whole rant is saying if a script is good (and unfamiliar) it should be relatable in some way to an audience. Scripts are people living in this world in some way. They may be different than you, doing different things but at the end of the day we are all people...
How does personal bias influence how you read a script?
JP: Being that my job is focused around the creation of original work, I rarely sit around considering scripts. My script reading happens in development when I need to give feedback to in-house writers. In this case, I try to leave my personal bias out as much as I can to assure that any feedback I’m offering my partners is helpful in them solidifying their own voice and intentions. Outside of that, the act of reading a script is 100% steeped in my own bias.
BETH: It seeps in no matter how hard you may try to stay objective but I don't necessarily think that is a bad thing. I receive scripts from friends who are simply looking for my first glance reaction to something they are working on. I believe they find this helpful as I, and any others they share their early drafts with, act as the audience who will, most likely, only see their show once so that first impression is important. What is inspiring? What is rubbing me the wrong way? Why? Why? Why?
What life skills can we learn from theatre?
JP: Theatre is inherently collaborative. If there was one thing that we can and should take away from the theatre, it is learning to work as a group.
BETH: Collaboration, Discipline, time management, patience, learning to build new skills off of ones already established
KATLYNN: How to speak to each other. How to take risks. Every day since we are young we are trained to cover up our our inner feelings or tone them down to fit better in society. We can be led by fear rather than courage. In the state our world is in today, it’s so important to learn from theatre. It’s a place where courage and passion live. A place to escape, to belong, to imagine, to create, to love, to debate, to make connections. We need all of these things as humans and I wish more humans would come experience this.
Does theatre have boundaries and should it?
JP: The boundary is when it ceases to be theatre and becomes something else. But it is such a broad thing, from politics to the workplace, performance is everywhere. We can’t escape it. We just need to be aware that what we are seeing and experiencing is to some degree always fabricated, and we have to know how to sort through those things to find the truth. The art form has been used to heal deep wounds as well as commit some of the greatest atrocities in the history of civilization. From Live Aid to Nazi Rallies. We are constantly watching and there is always someone performing.
BETH: Concerning subject matter: No. Concerning safety and a sense of security for the actors? Yes. Concerning safety for audiences? Yes. Concerning a sense of security for the audience? Hmmmmm....Yes and No :) Pushing back on people's preconceived notions through theater is exciting but must have purpose. Shock simply for shock value is boring.
KATLYNN: Hmmm.. this is a difficult question. I think that theater is a place where you should ask difficult questions and challenge boundaries for sure. But, there are times when I’ve seen theater recently where I’ve felt unsafe as an audience member and I don’t think that is a good thing. So, it poses another question - how far can we push boundaries? All aspects of art center around life - my personal view of life centers around empathy, compassion - with that, navigating fear and trauma through both metamorphic and real life experiences. My boundaries are vastly different than someone else’s. How do I push boundaries as a creator, but also respect everyone’s personal boundaries? I’m still figuring it out...
How is creating art different from observing it?
JP: One is simpler but they are both sometimes painful.
BETH: This is a great question! I have found that, since making art, I appreciate the work that went into something even if I don't love the end product. I wish that audiences had more of a connection with the process rather than simply seeing the result of that work. Marketing and social media has the opportunity to show "behind the scenes" moments that are hoping to get audiences excited for shows much in the way that movie trailers can. On a deeper level, as an artist the main difference is putting a piece of yourself out there versus absorbing someone else's perspective. It is the personal versus the observational; both have their lessons to teach and abilities to inspire.
KATLYNN: Woof!! What a question. I love both of these things but, I feel creating it has actually changed the way I observe it (and not in a good way). I’ve created a standard or expectation in my head of what I want to create, what I want to see, and what I feel should be created...this is not a good view to go into another person’s creation with. It takes a strong will and mind to go into observation of outside art with a clean and open mind. With creating there is a freedom to be able to do what your heart is pushing you do to. Even though it instills an incredible amount of fear and vulnerability, it gives a sense of belonging before you crave it. You made it -it’s yours. With observing, you get to see someone else’s interpretation of the world. It may not be your own, but that is beautiful too. For me, the hard part is putting judgement away and enjoying what I observe.
How realistic should a production look?
JP: Depends on the production.
BETH: It depends on what the production calls for but for me the acting has to come from a real place or it is hard for me to connect. Farce needs elements of real moments for the jokes to truly land; if it's all hijinks's I am bored. Laughter comes from pain so dig deeper and it will pay off. Some productions require imagination from the audience, which I love, but not all audience members want to work that hard and that is fair. It can also backfire when a production requires magical elements but the production team wants to ground it in realism; both artists and patrons need to open their minds a bit more for these pieces which can hinder their ability to get produced.
KATLYNN: This is totally dependent on the theater’s style. I personally love realism - I like seeing real props, set dressings, real people doing everyday things but I also love seeing spectacle and avant garde theatre. I love seeing different interpretations of what ‘real life’ is. Keep making me question what is real and I will eat it up.
How does technology influence theatre production?
JP: I love low-fi street theatre. People face-to-face interacting. But, I also love me some big tech. While in college I was working at the school’s large auditorium where the guest artists performed and my boss there was once the Lighting Designer for the band KISS. He had this saying, for when all tech elements came together in a moment of perfection with the performance. He used to whisper into the clear-com system “BFT, gentlemen, BFT”. "Big Fuckin’ Theatre" became a personal mantra for me when dealing with tech. Something to strive for. As a director, I feel lucky to have a solid background in all things tech. Having even a small mastery of these elements allows you to communicate with your designers about the magic moments you want to create during the performance. I could go down the rabbit hole of discussing Arduino systems, Max, Qlab and exciting future of tech, but I’ll leave it at BFT.
BETH: They complete the world in which the story lives. Everything comes together once the technical elements are added and the story becomes more clear. A monster becomes a monster, a sword in the hand can transform the way an actor approaches fight scenes and good lighting can create an atmosphere like no amount of good acting ever could.
KATLYNN: Now a days it can influence greatly. I want to incorporate more technology into my theater company because frankly, it’s the world we are living in right now. But I also enjoy the simplicity of a bare bones production. Technology can makes waves in portraying a vision in a production but it can also alter it if not done right. It depends on script and the director’s vision of the world they want to share. I’m a fan of a show with heavy tech and a show with no tech. All is beautiful and none should be considered less than if they don’t have high tech elements included.
How do technical elements influence actors?
JP: At their best, they are invisible to actors. At their worst, they are a show-ruining distraction, pulling the actors out of the moment.
BETH: It changes the way they approach the material and the way in which they see their character. The whole world we have spent weeks living in and trying to imagine comes alive and a certain confidence grows; it's the most magical time for me.
KATLYNN: Again, I think this all depends on the script and direction. With certain shows it can influence greatly, I’m currently in a show where there are ‘space moments’ - a moment that is driven by emotion but expressed through technical elements. They don’t read if there aren’t technical elements to drive the actors into them. But there shows that simply take place on a porch...how much tech do you need on this? A simple warm lighting device would suffice a sunset -nothing complicated to suggest the sun is rising. Also, as an actor I do a majority of my work before tech is even in the conversation so while it can influence later on in the process, it shouldn’t be something we rely on.
About Touchstone Theatre: Founded in 1981, Touchstone Theatre is a professional not-for-profit theatre dedicated to the creation of original work. At its center is a resident ensemble of theatre artists rooted in the local community of Bethlehem, the Greater Lehigh Valley of Pennsylvania and the international community of Ensemble Theatres. The Ensemble: 1. Creates original theatre and re-imagines select texts through a heightened theatrical vocabulary. 2. Tours and presents original and ensemble-created works. 3. Offers educational programs that: – Inspire students of any age to discover their unique creative voice. – Provide high quality training to the next generation of theatre artists. 4. Transforms audiences through community-based theatrical productions and community-building projects.
About Shelterbelt Theatre: Shelterbelt Theatre is Omaha's home for new plays. Our mission is to provide a safe and nurturing environment in which to focus the development of original work and to provide for the practical education of writers, performing artists, creative and technical staff, and the general public in the art and science of moving an idea from the mind to the stage. The objective of the Shelterbelt Theater is to develop, workshop and produce new works by local and national playwrights. We love to present world premiere work that engages and inspires our audience. We are rooted in the belief that theater can make a difference and change the world, no matter how big the stage.We have a diverse reading committee dedicated to finding scripts that fulfill our mission, and inspire and entertain our audience. We host an annual reading series, Before the Boards with four slots that offer local playwrights an opportunity to hear their play in front of a live audience in a staged reading, before it hits a full production. From one-acts to slam poetry, imagination is the only limit.
Chimera Ensemble: Mission Statement: To create a quality innovative theatrical platform. To give back to Chicago organizations that advocate for the betterment of our community. To provide accessibility for all people. Above all, we seek out the good; we question our fears and judgments so that others may question theirs.
Vision: We are unapologetic explorers navigating stories about hope when there is no hope, about levity when it hurts to laugh, about love when it seems damn near impossible. We fight for necessary truths with uninhibited grit.
Mailing List www.chimeraensemble.com