As a part of Playbill's Juneteenth series, in partnership with Black Theatre Coalition, all throughout this week, we're celebrating BIPOC theatre-makers you need to know! Today's spotlight is on Matthew Johnson Harris, who last year worked as a directing apprentice on the Broadway play Hangmen through his BTC Fellowship. He's used the experience from his BTC fellowship to propel himself forward. Now, Harris serves as the associate director for Hippest Trip: The Soul Train Musical, and is the co-associate director for the Tony-winning Broadway revival of Parade.
Harris notes that in the past, because he didn't have a theatre-related degree, his talents were often overlooked. "That has been one of the reasons I have been turned down for various directing fellowships and assistant positions until this apprenticeship, even though I had an impressive choreography resume and directed plenty of my own productions and concerts featuring Broadway performers," he explains. "I don’t know many other gay, Black men, from a single parent home with eight half siblings, and no BFA/MFA working in the industry. Not because we aren’t talented. Not because we don’t have the goods. We just don’t have access."
The Black Theatre Coalition was founded by T. Oliver Reid, Warren Adams, and Reggie Van Lee in 2019. It works to dismantle the systemically racist and biased ideology in the theatrical job space. As part of its mission, BTC has launched the Black Theatre Coalition Fellowship, which immerses young talent in various areas of theatrical production, including producing, general management, directing, choreography, and other important jobs offstage. The fellowships immerse the fellows in the industry, allowing them to work alongside current professionals.
Now that Harris is working on Broadway after his BTC Fellowship, he shares that it offered an invaluable stepping stone. "Working on a Tony-nominated Broadway show gave my resume the credibility that people in our industry value," he says. Learn more about Harris' journey to Broadway below.
Where did you grow up?
Matthew Johnson Harris: Lewisville, Texas.
What was your first experience/memory with theatre?
My elementary school took us on a field trip to see the traveling Alvin Ailey Company when I was in kindergarten. Shortly after that, I was exposed to musical theatre while watching Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Cinderella, starring Brandy and Whitney Houston. Having those experiences back-to-back really opened my eyes to the possibility that I, too, might have a future in theatre.
In high school, I finally got the opportunity to perform in musicals, including the chance to play Booker T. Washington in Ragtime which changed my life. Being in a musical where the subject matter highlights social justice issues informed my passion for using art as activism. I recently got to meet Lynn Ahrens and Stephen Flaherty and I was able to share with them the impact of their show on my life and of course, I totally geeked out.
Where do you work currently?
I am currently the associate director for Hippest Trip: The Soul Train Musical and most recently the co-associate director for the Tony-winning Broadway revival of Parade with the extremely talented Emilio Ramos. I also have a few more opportunities that have yet to be announced.
Tell us more about your work/fellowship, it can be a typical day-in-the-life or a specific great memory or project you worked on.
One of my favorite memories of working on Hangmen on Broadway was the day I was asked to be on book for the actors as they were rehearsing scenes. I was extremely intimidated to be in the room with them. It was my first time working on a Broadway show, let alone working on a play where I was having a hard time fully understanding the language. The show was set in 1965 England, and all of our cast members were from the UK. There is very specific slang used in the show and I had a hard time understanding the actors as we were having small talk during breaks. Being on book was terrifying, but I didn’t allow myself to let fear get in the way.
There was a moment when actor David Threlfall called for a line, and I tried my best but struggled with the text. He couldn’t understand my Texas interpretation of his line and called for the line again. After a back and forth, I finally said, “Look, I’m from Texas, and this is the best you are going to get.” David and the whole room burst into laughter and went out of their way to let me know that I was accepted. I instantly felt relieved.
Imposter syndrome tricks you into thinking you have to have a level of perfection before you can show up to the party. That day was a career defining moment. During my time in Hangmen, I built beautiful relationships with the whole company. I want to give a special shout out to Matthew Dunster (Director), Gabriel Weissman (Associate Director), Scott Rollison (Production Stage Manager), and Veronica Lee (Stage Manager) for creating an environment that I could learn, grow, and thrive, while being my authentic self. Special shout out to Danielle Saks (General Manager) and BeSpoke Theatricals for partnering with BTC.
How did your fellowship experience impact your career?
It completely changed my life. Working on a Tony-nominated Broadway show gave my resume the credibility that people in our industry value. Due to economic hardship, I do not have a BFA or MFA in Directing. That has been one of the reasons I have been turned down for various directing fellowships and assistant positions until this apprenticeship, even though I had an impressive choreography resume and directed plenty of my own productions and concerts featuring Broadway performers.
I am all for people receiving an education but that is not economically feasible for everyone. Especially people from marginalized communities. I would argue the amount of time Gabriel Weissman and Scott Rollison spent mentoring me and showing me how a Broadway show is run, my unique life experience, and my lateral creative work is worth more than any degree. In our quest to create more diverse rooms, I think we need to examine the ways those in power find and vet talent. If we want to do something different, then we have to do things differently.
How have you found navigating Broadway as a BTC Fellow?
Simultaneously thrilling, gratifying, and hard.
What are some of your career goals & aspirations?
I would love to be a prominent director/choreographer and producer on Broadway. In the future, I would also like to develop and direct content for TV/film. I am currently looking at programs to become certified in DEI practices that will support my ability to create brave and inclusive environments for my own rehearsal rooms as well as for other directors and producers that I work with.
How do you feel BTC helped you reach those goals?
Access. I don’t know many other gay, Black men, from a single parent home with eight half siblings, and no BFA/MFA working in the industry. Not because we aren’t talented. Not because we don’t have the goods. We just don’t have access. Thank you to T. Oliver Reid and Warren Adams for helping kick down that door.
As a former BTC Fellow, do you think your voice is heard in rooms that don’t predominantly look like you?
I do, but I have also felt resistance. I’ve had incredible conversations with creative artists and producers who share values that honor a more inclusive and equitable workplace, but Broadway has been run in such a specific way for so long that issues are still going to pop up during the creative process. I actually expect that resistance to continue for a while before the rooms truly change because a lot of people in leadership positions are choosing to diversify their companies without the added work of continually reading books, engaging in hard conversations, and attending workshops to examine their own relationship with systemic racism and implicit bias.
When I find myself in rooms where things get tense, a sensitive issue arises, or someone gets triggered by someone else in the room because of their specific lived experience, I offer grace to everyone involved because I understand that most people have good intentions. I also understand that intentions are different from impact and no matter your status in the room, I feel it is my responsibility to tell you the impact of your actions from a place of love and be able to listen when the shoe is on the other foot. I have been in rooms where these types of honest interactions are initially unsettling because they challenge the ego. It can be vulnerable and uncomfortable to admit that your actions could be having a negative impact, especially if the impact was unintentional.
I have learned to welcome the temporary discomfort because I know it ultimately leads to healing if all parties enter and leave those difficult conversations by extending grace.
As a BTC Fellow, do you feel like you’re making a difference behind the scenes on Broadway and in what’s represented on stage?
I most certainly do. I am not interested in creating art that comments on the world in which we live but art with the intention to change the world in which we live. I believe that requires us to be deliberate in the creation process. If we are going to tell stories that center themselves in the trauma or lived experiences of marginalized groups, we should also provide our companies and audiences with resources to better understand the specific suffrage presented on stage and practical ways to eradicate the systems in which they are still oppressed.
Most recently, while working on Parade, I got to lead multiple interfaith discussions that I curated with my friends Rev. Dr. Jacqui Lewis and Rabbi Joshua Stanton on the intersections of antisemitism and anti-Blackness for our company, and how even white people are victims of white supremacy. It was a transformative experience. The conversations were uncomfortable, candid, and joyous. I also created a resource page for our audience members and company that can be found on the show’s website. None of this work would have happened if I wasn’t on the team and I know it definitely had an impact on the culture of the rehearsal room and as the show continues to run.
If you could change one thing about the industry, what would that be?
That we sincerely begin to value how the work is made as much as we value the finished product. That includes the way we recognize the work of every person that has a piece in putting it all together and that includes associates, stage and company management, production crew, wigs, wardrobe, front of house, etc. It includes the way we financially compensate everyone below the top billed names and creating schedules that allow artists to do their jobs without the added pressure of a time crunch. Most importantly, it includes how we navigate mental health and self care while we do the work.
How are you celebrating Juneteenth this year?
Audre Lorde wrote: “Caring for myself is not self-indulgence, it is self-preservation, and that is an act of political warfare.”
I will be resting and toasting the amazing accomplishments I have had in my personal life and career. Even with all the work there is to be done on Broadway I feel so blessed and grateful to be a part of the community. Every time I walk into a rehearsal room, I have an unspeakable joy. I recognize the miracle it is that I get to be in these rooms. Thank you, BTC for opening the door.
The Black Theatre Coalition (BTC) is a 501(c)3 organization with the mission to remove the illusion of inclusion in the American Theatre, by building a sustainable, ethical roadmap that will increase employment opportunities for emerging, mid-career, and career-changing Black theater professionals. Through paid Fellowship and Apprenticeship opportunities, BTC opens doors for aspiring artists and creative leaders to have entry into the field, on-the-job-training, mentorship and potential career advancement. BTC's vision is to reshape the working ecosystem for those who have historically been marginalized from these spaces, and provide a pathway to true diversity in the arts.
To celebrate Juneteenth, BTC is aiming to raise $19,000 in support of the organization and future BTC fellows. Visit their Donation Page to help support.