Who’s Next: Niegel Smith, Artistic Director of the Flea Theater

Playbill Pride   Who’s Next: Niegel Smith, Artistic Director of the Flea Theater
 
As part of Playbill Pride 2016, we set our sights on the next generation of LGBTQ artists. Meet Flea Theater artistic director Niegel Smith.
Flea Artistic Director Niegel Smith
Flea Artistic Director Niegel Smith

WHO:
Niegel Smith

WHY HE MATTERS:
The ambitious 35-year-old director was recently appointed artistic director of Off Off-Broadway’s Flea Theater. His boundary-pushing work, which ranges from the nude interactive piece Selfie, to collaborations with gender-fluid artist Taylor Mac, including the acclaimed Hir at Playwrights Horizons and the ambitious A 24-Decade History of Popular Music.

What is your earliest memory of theatre?
I was in fourth grade in rural North Carolina. Our teacher took us to Charlotte (the big city) to see a production of The Snow Queen. The lead actress was deliciously threatening and icy. The set was this gorgeous amalgamation of shard mirrors reflecting the cold, harsh world around the characters.

Who has been especially crucial in your creative development?
I've been lucky to assist some greats—George C. Wolfe and Bill T. Jones. They both taught me that I had to be incisive in my directing, compassionate to my collaborators and unapologetic about my voice as a queer black man. George also taught me to use entertainment as a gateway to more challenging material, and Bill pushed me to be fearless—to step towards the edge of what I thought was possible.

Who do you regard as a mentor?
Oskar Eustis. Oskar shared with me one key to being an artist leader: to nurture talented brave folks, especially those whose experiences and aesthetics may differ from my own. When I'm in a crunch or wrestling with a decision, I go meet up with Oskar and he opens up options I hadn't thought about.

Why do you think theatre matters?
Because it's a form in which we gather together to practice empathy. The actress for her character. The audience for the communities represented.

What’s one thing that surprises people about you?
I was in a fraternity in college. That still surprises me. But some of my dearest friends are Sigma Nus.

LGBTQ theatrical moment that most impressed me:
The first time I saw Taylor Mac onstage. Judy was presenting their play, The Young Ladies Of... at HERE Arts Center. It oscillated between ecstatic joy and deep loss. I thought, wow here’s an artist who uses the full range of theatrical convention, who mixes the high and the low and achieves both with great craft.

What are the stories you want to see LGBTQ people telling on stage?
All of them. I'm particularly interested in family structures, though. Mostly out of necessity, queer folks have been creating original family structures for centuries. I’d especially love to see a puppy pile of radical faeries in intimate embraces, the conflicts that emerge in a sharing society situated in a “I gotta get mine” culture and the joys of communal living.

Who are the fringe/marginalized voices we need to put center stage?
Poor folks. The disenfranchised. Especially queer folks of color. Folks who have been underserved by a dominant culture that celebrates capitalism and patriarchy. But we also have to ask the question: put center stage for whom? It’s not enough to put voices at the center of culture without also inviting those folks to be in the audience and to take on positions of institutional leadership.

Untapped talent ready to make it big:
Crystal Lucas-Perry

I wish the theatre had more:
Challenges to traditional forms. I'm always engaged by theatre that wrestles with the best way to tell a story. I like to be challenged. I like to have to work hard.

Favorite artist of all time and why:
It's a tie. John Coltrane: When I listen to his music I hear the chaos and dissonance that evokes my experience as a southern man moving through the city. John Cage: Because his compositions are both playful and incredibly nuanced, they’re these wonderful reflections of the beauty to be found in chance and in ready made sounds.

The next challenge I want to take on is:
A participatory musical about current events. There would be scenes, dance numbers and a show-stopping 11-o’clock number, but the lyrics and staging would be created and performed by the audience each night. In this way it could respond to the urgent questions and concerns that each unique audience brings to the theater.

I hope my legacy as an artist will be:
He didn't play by the rules, but the ones he made up were just as interesting.

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