How The Movement Theatre Company Went From Grassroots Troupe to Off-Broadway Force

Special Features   How The Movement Theatre Company Went From Grassroots Troupe to Off-Broadway Force
 
The company responsible for producing Aleshea Harris' breakout What to Send Up When It Goes Down changes how we make theatre and who gets to make it.
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Members of The Movement Theatre Company Joseph Marzullo/WENN

Do yourself a favor and subscribe to The Movement Theatre Company’s email list. The Movement (TMTC) figured out long ago that a way to a theatre lover’s heart—or anybody’s, really—is through laughter, dancing videos, and glam photo-shoots—all of which you can expect on a regular basis in your inbox. But don’t let the cheeky marketing campaign fool you; The Movement, which is dedicated to developing and producing new work by artists of color, is making serious, brave theatre. And if the success of its most recent production, Aleshea Harris’ What to Send Up When It Goes Down is any indication, the company is also rapidly on the up and up.

What to Send Up, which is currently playing a sold-out run as part of the Under the Radar Festival at The Public Theater, is a play-pageant-ritual-homegoing celebration in response to the physical and spiritual deaths of Black Americans as a result of racialized violence. Directed by Whitney White, the show debuted to critical acclaim in 2018, followed by a 2019 tour, and will be back (again!) this summer for an encore run at Playwrights Horizons.

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What to Send Up When It Goes Down Ahron R. Foster

If The Movement’s shows had a signature style, What to Send Up—with its interwoven text, song, and movement—embodies it. The company is just as invested in how it presents theatre, as who it invests in. “We’ve been passionate about the way in which we present our work and the experience around coming to the theatre,” says Deadria Harrington, one of the four artists who make up the Producing Artistic Team. When you go see a Movement show, you’re not just going to see a play, “you’re coming to be in community with all the folks who are making this work possible.” This is true of Harrison David Rivers’ ball-experience-meets-play And She Would Stand Like This, which TMTC produced in 2017, or the upcoming New Georges collaboration The Cotillionan immersive play with music by Colette Robert that will be experienced as a black debutante ball in real time.

Presenting theatre in an untraditional way, and in unexpected places, began with the company’s birth. When the company first launched in 2007 as a group of recently graduated NYU acting students, their first performances included step routines in Washington Square Park. While this was a grass-roots way of gaining audiences (members handed out flyers for upcoming shows and events), it was also a means of bringing theatre to communities.

“We want the community to feel that we are there for them and with them,” says Eric Lockley, a founding member of The Movement and a current Producing Artistic Leader. While community is a core value, it was born out of necessity. Lockley and the team remember the early days of The Movement, before press reps or marketing budgets, when they would bar-hop in Harlem, flyers in hand, to spread the message about their Harlem Nights theatrical events. “Now [in the American theatre], we have all this language around community engagement and partnership and outreach,” says Harrington. “We were doing it because we wanted this group of people to come [to the shows].”

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Cast and creative team of What To Send Up When It Goes Down Joseph Marzullo/ WENN

In fact, The Movement has been ahead of the curve all along. One of the company’s earliest initiatives was Go Green, an eco-reading series in which the text of short plays were projected, rather than printed on paper. The series, which expanded to site-specific performances, began in 2009—before conversations about art and its role in the climate justice conversation became mainstream. “We wanted to not only talk about environmental justice, but make sure that people of color were included in that movement,” says Lockley, “because it’s something that too-often, looks like something besides us.”

Putting artists of color at the center, has always been the mission of The Movement. The company was founded on the dreams of a group of artists who wanted more than the limited roles available to them. “How do we showcase the complexity of artists of color and not be pigeonholed in historical dramas or heavy, ominous stories embedded in struggle and strife?” Lockley recalls asking, at that first meeting. “We wanted to create interesting, dynamic, complex, bold stories that didn’t keep us in the limitations of a lot of stereotypes that we felt we were seeing.” Part of that has meant nurturing the next generation of writers of color. Since its founding, TMTC has workshopped plays by the aforementioned Rivers, a Relentless Award Winner, acclaimed Pass Over playwright Antoinette Nwandu, and Patricia Ione Lloyd, whose disquieting and powerful Eve’s Song was seen at The Public.

The Movement is also committed to giving artists of color the support to spread their wings. “[It’s about] expanding the idea of what it means to be an artist,” says Taylor Reynolds, the third of four on the Producing Artistic Leadership Team. “Just because you have an acting degree, doesn’t mean you can’t write, direct, or produce, as well. We want to create a space for collaboration and multi-disciplinary artistry.” Each of the producing artistic leaders (the fourth is David Mendizábal) maintain robust careers as performers, directors, producers, and more outside of their leadership and producing responsibilities at TMTC.

The company also prioritizes the creation of spaces where artists of color can lead and focus exclusively on their art. “The majority of the time, artists of color are asked to come into predominantly white spaces and to be the expert on their experience—and then to be immediately questioned or challenged about whether that’s true,” says Harrington. “When they come into a rehearsal room with us, it’s just all people of color. There’s a sigh of relief.” Here, Reynolds is quick to point out that this doesn’t exclude the team from having their own blind spots or discovering room for improvement. “Even within our natural model of Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion, part of that means ‘never settling,’” says Reynolds.

Not settling for less, and far from slowing down, The Movement offers a radically hopeful model for making theatre today.

Join them, at TheMovementTheatreCompany.org.

The Producing Artistic Leadership Team, a non-hierarchical leadership model, was consciously established by TMTC six years ago. Ryan Dobrin is the associate. TMTC’s founding members are Ashley Noel Jones, Carlton Byrd, Chanel Carroll, Christiamilda Correa, Daren Taylor, Eric Lockley, Geri-Nikole Love, Jade Jackson, Jonathan McCrory, Kamisha McLean, Kimberly Young, Rachel Williams, Samantha Wright, Syhaya A. Smith, Xosha K. Roquemore.

What to Send Up is playing at Under the Radar through January 19. The Playwrights Horizons run will be June 24–July 19.

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