Special FeaturesIt’s Their Time: 4 Breakthrough Theatremakers on Creating a Post-Pandemic BroadwayThe producer of Slave Play. A starof Six. The Pulitzer-winning composer of A Strange Loop. A site-specific visionary. Theatre may be on pause, but their careers are decidedly not.
February 03, 2021
“Don’t you know? We’re the movers and we’re the shapers. We’re the names in tomorrow’s papers,” sings a young Franklin Shepard, circa 1957, in Merrily We Roll Along, after we’ve already seen his artistic rise play out in reverse. Today’s generation of movers and shapers aren’t on rewind, but rather, perhaps, on pause. Still, as the industry weathers a hiatus a year long and counting, many theatremakers have avowed that their art—and the artform at large—won’t dim alongside the marquees during the continued shutdown. In fact, this is their opportunity for not a rewind, not a pause, not even a resume, but a restart.
Producer Greg Nobile echoes Franklin’s optimism when discussing his peers, who, like him, are still relatively early in their careers but nonetheless already making waves. “We are of an age and experience level where we want to have long careers, and we can put our power, our money, and our influence behind things to affect meaningful change,” he says. “It’s this generation’s responsibility to make sure there’s a Broadway in the next 100 years.”
With a plausible reopening in play, questions still outnumber answers as task forces and think tanks navigate the countless factors the industry must contend with before the curtain rises. The four individuals below—Nobile, composer Michael R. Jackson, director Sammi Cannold, and performer Anna Uzele—don’t have the answers for every remaining question. But they each have the insights of a theatremaker facing uncertainty at an especially formative time in their craft and career. They will be among those to inherit an industry in the aftermath of a pandemic, and they will be among those to move and shape it as necessary.
“We spent so much of 2020 expecting things to go back to normal and expecting things to go back to how they were, and that we were going to hit resume on an old lifestyle, failing to recognize that there's no going back,” Uzele says.
Read on for excerpts from Playbill’s recent conversations with Jackson, Cannold, Nobile, and Uzele, as they contemplate reopening, restructuring, and artistic rebirth.
Michael R. Jackson
Hot off a hit run at Off-Broadway’s Playwrights Horizons, Jackson’s A Strange Loop had lined up its next steps: an out-of-town engagement at D.C.’s Woolly Mammoth Theatre, and with a commercial producer (Barbara Whitman) attached, a subsequent Broadway bow. Both are now on hold, but the autobiographically inspired exploration of a queer Black artist hasn’t stopped bringing in accolades for Jackson, including the 2020 Pulitzer Prize for Drama. Over the past year, the composer has continued to work on his in-development musicals, such as White Girl in Danger and a stage adaptation of the cult horror film Teeth.
Time to listen “I have been working on a new show called White Girl in Danger with the Vineyard Theatre. We were supposed to have gone to New York Stage and Film last July, but then that got canceled, so we ended up doing two different Zoom book workshops. We just did it online, and much to my surprise, it was really helpful, because it forced me to really listen. It was 95 percent more listening and literally hearing the words. I actually think that there are changes that I would not have figured out if I hadn't had to just literally listen to it. It made me even more of a convert into doing book workshops of musicals specifically. I think a lot of musicals tend to have a lot of book problems, and maybe something that could come out of this is a re-emphasis on strengthening the book and dedicating time to the structure, the story, to asking those questions about character arcs, tone, style—all the things you would learn if you only were just focusing on the words.”
A Strange Loop loops back “I'm fundamentally a hopeful person, but I will say sometimes, gremlins creep up in my soul, and I start thinking, ‘Maybe the culture will move on without me, and A Strange Loop will be old hat. Something will happen, and people won't like it anymore.’ I think things like that just because time is elapsing, but then I say, ‘No, I think we did good work, and I did good work.’ So I'm not necessarily looking at it differently. I started working on A Strange Loop in 2002. The essence of it was always the same, so to me, there's nothing fundamentally different. But I'll be curious to see whenever we're able to do it the next time, how will the audience perceive it? Will they have a different relationship to intimacy, or trauma, or truth?”
Do what you want “It's important that young artists feel it’s important to choose to develop their work in the way that they think is going to be helpful to them. I don't think it is as helpful for lots of outside people to go, ‘Here, do it this way, do it this way. Here, you're BIPOC, you can have this, you can have that.’ There are going to be people who do well with that, but that, in my experience, wasn't the thing that was helpful. It's going to sound contradictory, but the struggle actually helped me. Even though there were moments during the struggle where I was like, ‘Oh my god, this is the worst thing ever,’ I wanted to do it more than the worst thing ever. The thing I would hope is that if they don't want to do it, then they won't. Feeling like you have to do it just to feel something is a kind of poison in you. Sometimes saying no is going to save your soul. You can also say that the struggle is worth it, and that is also valid.”
Securing projects in an insecure time “Teeth is in a different place than White Girl in Danger, which is in a different place than A Strange Loop, and all three have different levels of support available. Once we're able to do stuff together, there are going to be so many considerations that are going to be made that have to do with money and space availability and actor availability—all the same things that were true—plus, ‘When do we feel safe? When do we wear a mask? What's the protocol?’ It's going to be all of that on top of the normal practical and artistic decisions that have to be made every moment as you’re working on these shows.”
A question for the industry “What are your dreams? There’s been these reckonings. But what are your dreams? The reckoning comes. You get what you want. [Singing, a la Into the Woods] ‘Are you certain what you wish is what you want? Then make a wish, and you shall have your wish!’ What happens after that? I want to ask the industry, ‘What are your actual dreams, in the affirmative?’ I feel like I have a solid grasp on what we don't want, but don't have a solid view of what we do want. Show me your work. Tell me what it is. When Martin Luther King said ‘I have a dream,’ he said ‘I have a dream,’ and then he described it.”
In 2018, director Cannold earned a spot on Forbes’ 30 Under 30, having captured the attention of the industry with site-specific productions of Violet (on a moving bus) and Ragtime (a developmental concert played Ellis Island in 2016). In 2019, prior to a lauded staging of Evita at New York City Center, she helmed a (literally) splashy production at American Repertory Theater—the world premiere of Celine Song’s Endlings, becoming the youngest director in the Massachusetts company’s history. In 2020, the play arrived Off-Broadway, opening March 9 at New York Theatre Workshop. Three days later, performances were suspended. As the duration of the shutdown grew from weeks to months, Cannold boarded a project with Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Really Useful Group that allowed her to observe the resilience of theatre industries across the globe, placing her in South Korea and the U.K. (in addition to the U.S.) during the pandemic.
What to learn from South Korea “The number one thing that was most exciting to me was learning that in the now 10 months that their industry has been running—for much of it at full capacity—there has been zero audience-to-audience transmission of COVID. A lot of people try to attribute that to the fact that South Korea has lower case numbers than most other places in the world, which they do, but there still has been traces to Starbucks, nightclubs, schools, churches. That is a really telling piece of information, not only in helping us feel secure in going back to the theatre, but also in terms of the public education campaign that we're going to need to wage. Theatres are uniquely controllable environments: Audiences go to one destination. If we can control the factors in that destination—which Korea has done beautifully. All their ventilation and filtration is up to date, they follow the protocol 100 percent of the time. So if we can follow suit, I think that will not only be wonderful for health and safety, but also for consumer confidence in the artform and getting people back.”
Theatre’s return is a global effort “Andrew Lloyd Webber, inspired by what was going on in Korea, did a test at the London Palladium, where they implemented a lot of the measures from Korea to see what it would look like to use them in the West End. In addition to implementing those measures, they came up with a few of their own, including this idea of a self-ionizing door handle. As clinical as that example is, it's inspiring to me because it says one country learned from another country, and added to the information. And now we as Americans can look at what they did and say, ‘OK, what can we add to what they just did?’ There's an opportunity for global exchange of ideas. We're not alone in this. There are so many lessons we can learn from our colleagues around the world. Everybody is trying to get their industry back on its feet, so we have the benefit learning from what's working and what's not.”
The ramifications of an extended hiatus “Something that we talked a lot about when I was in Korea working with the South Korean tour of Cats was that all of these artists are coming back into the room after having had a traumatic experience that we've all had in different ways. What does it mean to bring that trauma into the room, and to be sensitive to that while making art? That both manifests physically and emotionally: A dancer's body is not going to be the same as it is when they're doing eight shows a week. We're all going to have a climb. But on the whole, the community has stayed creatively involved in our own ways. I lose purpose or focus if I don't do something creatively related every day.”
On the future of immersive theatre “I have a production of Violet that's on a moving bus that was heading into commercial territory, and putting people on a bus with an actor singing to them right across the aisle is not COVD-compliant. In the case of Violet, the conversations that I've been having with my collaborators is actually, ‘Is there a world in which this lives in the space of virtual or artificial reality?’ I think that's something interesting for theatre to consider. It's surprising to me that VR and AR haven't been major parts of theatre's movement into the digital space. You’d have the experience of being a passenger on the bus like you would if you were playing a video game. It's giving you autonomy that you would have in a site-specific show by giving you degrees of rotation of your head. The logistics and finances are intense, but I think it could be an exciting way to say, ‘OK, we can't do this live for another X amount of time, but there is a way to do it in a way that's engaging.’ I think an openness to integrating technology and theatre could be part of the answer going forward. I don't think it's the full answer, but I think there's room for all of it.”
What directing looks like in a lockdown “I would say, deceptively, 75 percent of the job of being a director of a musical—or of large productions—is admin and logistics and meetings. And 25 percent is working with actors and having creative ideas. And so during the pandemic, it's become more like 99 percent admin and meetings. I make a deck a week, because I just pitch and pitch and pitch, and then we start working on a project, but the project can't go into rehearsals, so then I just make more decks. I'm so good at making decks now.”
As executive producer at Seaview Productions, Nobile has had his hand in such shows as A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder (earning him a Tony at age 21), Side Show, and the recent London revival of Gypsy. This past theatre season, Seaview produced Slave Play and the double bill Seawall/A Life, both of which received Tony nominations for Best Play. But what perhaps would have been Nobile’s busiest Tony campaigning season came to a standstill with the theatre shutdown. Other Seaview projects, including the Broadway-aimed Lempicka, were put on hold, but Nobile kept busy during the pandemic, providing the producerial arm that catapulted the Ratatouille TikTok musical from viral sensation to virtual blockbuster, bringing in over $2 million for The Actors Fund.
Crowdsourcing and democratizing the creative process “It's impossible for us to see everything. We can't go to every reading; we can't go to every showcase; we can't go to every agent submission. So we do things that reduce the amount of top funnel stuff that comes in, because there's just not enough time and there's not enough support to cover it all. We’re missing millions of other people who are super talented. There's geography that stands in between us; there's socioeconomic barriers that stand in between us; there’s diversity pipeline issues, accessibility issues. We've gotten into bad habits based on realities, though they are not baseless—it is impractical to fly around the country or around the world and meet a 17-year-old songwriter in Australia who wrote an amazing song. So [for Ratatouille] we crowdsourced all of the elements. We used music from disparate artists who don't know each other, who haven't written any collaborations. What does it mean when we completely disrupt and democratize the creative process? I don't think anybody knows yet how this scales to match our business.”
Theatre in the streaming market “I feel very bullish that we have been treating our art for far too long as rarified gems. And they are gems, but they can't be rarified. Because we're actually in the content and media business, and we don't behave like we are. Everybody is running circles around us in terms of building sustainable business models, because they actually act like they have meaningful content, not a rarified tourist draw that lives on 10 blocks of one island in the middle of the world. We have amazing pieces of content, and the world wants to see that, but we haven't found a way to fuse these two business models of digital and live in the right way. Now, we don't have a single project on our slate that doesn’t incorporate digital capture or something cinematic in both the business model and the creative DNA of how we're shaping the show.”
On catering to a new (but familiar) kind of audience “We're being told by companies like NYC & Company that tourism isn't coming back for four or five years. So we are entering the most exciting period of theatrical revolution, which means we're making made-for-New York theatre. We don't really care about what our aunt in Peoria wants to see when she comes. We no longer live under the pretense that we're making stuff for a tourist audience. And I think there's nothing more exciting than making art for our own community. Only 20 percent of shows on Broadway ever recoup, but it's a billion dollar industry. Those two facts don't align. It means that most of the money that's coming in is going to the marquee big musicals. And it means that making plays on Broadway is not an economically sound model. But I think it's our responsibility to figure that out from an economic perspective, because I think that's going to allow us to make more daring choices on Broadway. So that means we have to get the cost down, because we need to be able to put things up quickly. We need to be able to put up a play for six weeks, eight weeks, and that be an economically viable thing, and then it's got to come down, and there should be something else in there. And we also have to have a different revenue model. Because just depending on ticket sales, New Yorkers can't carry the burden of keeping the 10 blocks of Broadway alive; we have to find works through the democratization of access to the art form.”
Necessary steps We need participation from all of the unions, and to work together to actually come back together and stronger and with a shared, unified mission of getting exciting work back on stage. There are countless people who depend on the theatre coming back and coming back in its full form, and far too many people have been out of work for far too long. We need to find ways to get everybody back working. I don't think it is fair for the unions on pay cuts alone, however, it is the responsibilities of the unions and union leadership to meet us at the table to talk this through. We have inherited and inherited archaic union agreements that just operationally don't make sense. I don't think the first place to look for cuts is slashing salaries; that's not a sustainable way for us to keep incredibly talented people in our world. We do, however, need to go in and interrogate those agreements down to every detail to see what's actually operationally needed to actually make these shows gainfully employed.
Ensuring a more equitable future “We've been trying to find meaningful ways to continue the work to elevate underrepresented voices, and also give those artists real producorial voices around the table. That was an important thing for us to do on Slave Play. [Playwright] Jeremy [O. Harris] was billed as a producer above the table, and he was in more marketing meetings with me than wasn't. I think it's important, especially when white producers are touching the work on non-white creatives, that the authorship of that artists' work extends far beyond the words said on stage, because the experience we're creating needs to be authored by those artists every step of the way.”
After making her Broadway debut in the revival of Once On This Island, Uzele was cast in the North American premiere of the U.K. sensation Six, playing an Alicia Keys-esque take on Henry VIII’s sixth and final wife, Catherine Parr. After amassing an enthusiastic fanbase across the pond, the show garnered similar buzz in the U.S., leading to a Broadway bow at the Brooks Atkinson Theatre. The musical would have marked Uzele’s first principal role in an original Broadway cast. But after a few weeks of previews, the production shut down with the rest of New York shows March 12, just hours before its official opening night. In the months since, Uzele has kept in touch with her fellow queens while pivoting to screen work, both for TV and the digital stage.
Returning to Parr post-pandemic “This pandemic has allowed me to fall back in love with the art that I do. Sometimes when you're performing for a long time, you forget that what you're doing is a joy and you're made to do this. So I've gotten to enjoy acting and singing in a whole new way, because it's for me. Something about stripping away the lights and the glitter and the pizazz has allowed me to learn what that looks like and get to do that in a really raw and honest way. I'm not quite sure how I'm going to approach Parr when the time comes, but I'm going to be able to re-approach it from a place of truth as opposed to, ‘I have to sound good; I have to be right here in the spotlight; I can't blink; if they don't cry, I've failed tonight,’ and approaching it from a place of process as opposed to putting on a good final product. My biggest goal is going to be listening to my cast members and every word I say should be a reaction, not just a replication and not a recitation.”
From artist to artist-collaborator “In all of the virtual expressions of art that are popping up, I feel that artists are remembering that they are creators and they have the power to actually make things and that they are far more than just direction followers. When theatre returns, I think artists will feel empowered to speak up for themselves. We're so afraid—at least I was—of asking for anything, even if I knew it was good for me and it would help me do my job better. There was such a fear of being needy, of being a diva, and possibly losing your job because you pissed off a producer. Now, we have realized that we actually have the agency to advocate for ourselves, and that goes twofold. Not only will we have the confidence to speak up, but I hope that the ears and the hearts of those who have the power to change things will be softened, and there will be a tenderness from the white people that hold the power to listen and give BIPOC actors—and all actors—what they need and what they're asking for.”
Reemphasizing accessibility “Representation matters, yes, but it doesn't matter if the people you are representing can't even come to see you. If young people don't see what they can be and what is possible for them, it won't happen for them. Anything musical theatre related is unfortunately quite pricey, so you have less little Black boys in ballet classes. Less Brown girls learning how to hit a high C. I would imagine that 2020 sort of broke this idea that this is a one-time thing and you have to be at this place and this time and spend this much money because of how digital 2020 had to be. So I'm hoping some of what we learned gets infiltrated into the Broadway of 2021, so video footage can go all around the world.”
The continued pursuit of true equity “The amount of times I have talked to an actor of color and they recounted to me how they were unable to call out of their show because they did not have coverage, while they watched their white counterpart call out as many times as they pleased, because there were more of them in the building. I understand that comes down to casting, but why aren't we taking care of everyone equally? The amount of times I heard of actors of color having to perform sick or injured because they had no other option, it's heartbreaking. Often, Black actors, in an effort to be amenable and agreeable, will do the hard thing because they're so afraid of putting their jobs in jeopardy, when that shouldn't be a fear that crosses anyone's mind.”
Returning to a new Broadway “There was a part of myself that had to put Six to rest—not say goodbye to it, but to put it on pause, and let it go, and understand that it'll be back when it's back. But no matter what date is promised to you in an email, you understand that no one actually knows what's going to happen, and no one can predict the future. And so the best thing you can do for yourself is accept the pause and move forward. We spent so much of 2020 expecting things to go back to normal and expecting things to go back to how they were, and we were going to hit resume on an old lifestyle, failing to recognize that there's no going back. We've changed. We've developed. Black lives are starting to matter.