Wednesday, February 29, 2012

A Complete Guide to the NYC Black Theater Revolution

Contributed by Guest Blogger of the Week, Christopher Burris.

We are amidst a revolution. The world at large may not be aware yet, but they will. As prophesied by our dear brother Gil Scott-Heron, this revolution will not be televised, but it is being staged in theaters throughout NYC. Black theater artists all over the city are taking control of their own stories. They are no longer looking to institutions headed by those outside of the community to produce their work. They want their stories told their way, with their artistic sensibilities so that their cultural and social livelihoods might be expressed in a more authentic, relevant way.

I can't tell you when it started. I don't know if there was a specific event or date that sparked this theatrical awakening. I can, however, tell you the exact moment I became aware of it's existence. August 14, 2011 at about 8:11 or 8:12. A group of Black producers, Harlem9, (Spencer Scott Barros, Sandra A. Daley-Sharif, Bryan E. Glover, Garlia Cornelia Jones, Eric Lockley, Jonathan McCroy, Erin Michelle Washington, Erin Cherry, and Deborah Goodwin) put on an evening of new short plays written, directed and acted by some of the best and brightest Black theater artists on the NYC scene.

The event, called 48 Hours in Harlem, was a sold out, standing-room smash. Yet even more important than the evening's monetary success was it's artistic accomplishments. When I went to sleep the Friday before the event, there was nothing. I awoke on Saturday morning with the red light of my phone indicating that there was a new play waiting for me to read, and later that morning, to direct. I believed in our play and the late night efforts of our writer. I also would have trusted my cast with my life, so I was thrilled to share our work with the world that Sunday. Yet, it wasn't until I saw the other plays that I realized that this evening would live well beyond it's two hour running time. 

Were you there, dear reader? It hurts me to think that had I not been involved, I too might have missed out on this night that I now know changed the artistic lives of so many young professionals. I wish that I could replay that evening so that you might be able to witness the same brilliance that I witnessed. I wish that I could describe the energy to you in a way that's not trite or simply anecdotal. I wish that I could have bottled up some of the magic in that room so that it might be preserved for future generations of artists. I can't do those things. What I can do, is tell you whose talent touched the stage that night: Ayanna Maia, Dominique Morisseau, Keith Josef Adkins, Derek Lee McPhatter, Mfoniso Udofia, Harrison David Rivers, Tamilia Woodard, Melissa Maxwell, Russell G. Jones, Nicole A. Watson, LA Williams, Bruce Lemon, Laura E. Johnston, Axel Avin Jr., Chanel Carroll, Heather Alicia Simms, Crystal Dickinson, Gillian Glasco, Jamie Lincoln Smith, Jocelyn Bioh, Elain Graham, Samuel T. Gaines, Willie Teacher, Tamela Aldridge, Marcus Naylor, Gerald Joseph, Ayo Cummings, Alano Miller, and Charles Browning.

August 14, 2011. The night I was awakened to the revolution. Since then have noticed that the Black theater community has hung a little tighter. I have made an honest effort to support the work of every artist from that night and feel that they have done the same for me. We are working to stay connected to each other. We have finally moved past politeness and into the kind of open and honest critique that helps us grow as artists and as beings. We have started to recognize the power we possess when we come together. When we take the energy spent trying to be accepted by White institutions and refocus it on ourselves, then we are truly shining a light on the gifts we have been given.

We're not just dreaming bigger. We're dreaming Blacker.

Since that night in Harlem, I have been more aware of other artists that are a part of the movement. I can't list them all. I can't know them all. (Feel free to respond by naming those I have missed.) Nevertheless, these are the writers, directors, actors and organizations that should be on the tip of the theater community's tongue. These names should be spoken, for they are worthy: Bridgit Antoinette Evans, Jesse Cameron Alick, Dennis A. Allen II, Kelley Girod, Germono Toussaint, Camille Darby, Kevin R. Free, Tracey Conyer Lee, J. Holtham, Hazelle Goodman, Bianca LaVerne Jones, chandra thomas, Clinton Lowe, Nedra McClyde, John-Andrew Morrison, Suzanne Darrell, Ione Lloyd, James Halloway, Lisa Strum, Lexi Rhodes, Johnathan Payne, Lynette R. Freeman, Donnetta Lavinia Grays, Erich McMillan-McCall, Shaun Neblett, Stephen Hill, Toccarra Cash, Lori E. Parquet, Freedom Train Productions, The Movement Theatre Company, Under the Spell Productions, Liberation Theatre Company, ActNow Foundation, A Cherry On Top Productions, Take Wing and Soar Productions, and The New Black Fest.

These are the soldiers on the frontline of this revolutionary moment in our theatrical times. Google one. Google them all. Donate to their projects. Most importantly, go see their work. The talent and skill are undeniable, and there is a new sense of empowerment that saturates everything they touch. Each one carries a torch that, united, will set the entire NYC scene ablaze.

Sunday, February 26, 2012

The Godfather of Black Theater

Contributed by Guest Blogger of the Week, Christopher Burris.

Today, I officially proclaim Woodie King Jr. the Godfather of Black Theater and I advise you all to attend a party in his honor. Though not as recognized outside of the Black theater community as many think he should be, Mr. King has provided an artistic home for hundreds of actors over the years, and has been influential in launching the careers of some of our most cherished and famous theater artists. The evening will begin with a wine and cheese reception followed by an intimate conversation with Mr. King about his personal and professional journey. Kamilah Forbes will moderate the conversation, with champagne and photos to follow. Godfather expects to see you all there...

Honoring Excellence in Black Theatre:  A Night with founder and Artistic Director of The New Federal Theatre, Woodie King Jr. Monday February 27, 2012 from 7:00pm until 8:30pm. ADMISSION $10

Saturday, February 25, 2012

Guest Blogger of the Week: Christopher Burris

We would like to thank Derek Lee McPhatter for posing such an important question for us last week.

We are excited that this week's guest blogger is Christopher Burris.

Christopher Burris: New York directing credits include Kevin R. Free’s A Raisin in the Salad: Black Plays for White People, which was a FringeNYC 2010 hit. He also directed Dennis A. Allen III’s The Mud is Thicker in Mississippi, a winner in the 2010 Samuel French Off-Off-Broadway Short Play Festival. He has directed several short plays for Sticky at the Bowery Poetry Club, including Life's Terms, ... in Which Bishop Eddie Long Loses His Battle with the Demons, and Gaga of the Dead. In addition to a series of staged readings for Freedom Train Productions, (including Derek McPhatter's Bring the Beat Back) he has directed numerous projects for Phare Play, Unconscious Collective and The Fire This Time Festival. He holds a BA from UNC Chapel Hill, and an MFA from UC San Diego. @christopherbnyc

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

What does Diversity mean to you?

Contributed by Guest Blogger of the Week, Derek Lee McPhatter.

Indie Theater is, in my opinion, the artsy, gutsy creative, risk-taking counterpart to more mainstream and institutionalized Theater. 

As such, the Indie Theater scene enters the “diversity” conversation on different ground from Broadway.  And in terms of diversity, its been my experience that many of the movers and shakers in Indie Theater are there precisely because the kind of theater they are doing, or the sort of background/perspective they bring to the table isn’t being supported by the Big Shots…

The force behind diversity is a commitment to INCLUSION.  So, as a person of color and whatnot, I have some questions for the IT Awards crowd…

What does Diversity mean to you? And how would you think about diversity issues if there was no such thing as a Black History Month?,  Women’s History Month, Gay Pride, etc. etc.? 

Also, what sort of Perspectives/Communities do you feel are NOT included in the Indie Theater community?  What should/could happen to change that?

I’m sitting here at my computer trying to answer these questions myself, and I’ll be interested to see what you all have to say.

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Guest Blogger of the Week: Derek Lee McPhatter

We want to thank Kelley Nicole Girod for kicking off our discussion about diversity on NYC's indie theatre stages.

This week's guest blogger will be Derek Lee McPhatter.

Derek Lee McPhatter is a dramatic writer, producer, recently relocated to Los Angeles as a member of the 2012 Guy Hanks and Harvey A Miller Screenwriting Program (The Cosby Program).  He is part of the leadership team for The Fire This Time Festival in New York City, which completed its third season in January 2012. Plays include: Undercover on Another Day of Absence (featured in Harlem 9's 2011 48 Hours in Harlem Festival); The Lattice Crashes (The Tank / Harlem Stage), Bring the Beat Back (Freedom Train Productions), A Better Destiny for Bethany (Horse Trade's The Drafts Fest); and two Fire This Time Festival plays, Citizen Jane and On Troubled Waters. He is a Harlem Arts Alliance/Columbia University Dramatic Writing Fellow, in partnership with New Heritage Theatre. He holds a BA in English from Morehouse College, and a Master's in Humanities from NYU. He is a native of Pickerington, Ohio.

Monday, February 13, 2012

Two snaps and an Amen

Contributed by Guest Blogger of the Week, Kelley Nicole Girod

Three years ago when I started The Fire This Time festival at Horse Trade Theater I did not consider myself a producer.  The truth is that I also didn't consider myself a playwright even though I had just graduated from Columbia's MFA playwriting program.  When people asked me what I did for a living my response was something lengthy and slightly apologetic, "Well, I nanny right now to pay the bills and I do some writing. I just graduated from Columbia's MFA playwriting program so, you know...." Yes, answering that question had become more cringe-worthy than answering the question of my ethnic background. That one, I have gotten down pat- "Cajun/Creole French, mix of French, Italian, Native American and Nigerian." No further questions needed.  But it took me a while to get that explanation down, to articulate my ethnic background without a question mark on my face or a tinge of apology for not being able to say it in a way that didn't confuse people further.  For years I just accepted what I was told I was without questioning. I still remember my confusion when my father told me that his father was white. "Wait a second," I thought, "for sixteen years I thought my grandfather was black. Ok, so what does that make me now?" 

I never thought that my journey as a playwright and now producer would mirror my journey of actually knowing and understanding my ethnic background. I know what you're thinking "Uh duh, isn't that what artists do?" Yes, but it didn't turn out to be that simple.  Just as racial identification on a birth certificate doesn't automatically make you who you are, neither does an MFA automatically make you an artist (no matter how much money you paid, ouch!) This was the hard truth I had to face and why at the end of the day when people asked me what I did for living I was just as confused about saying I was a playwright as they were about what it is that a playwright actually does (Oh, so you write films? Yeah, I have some great ideas for a novel but I haven't started writing it yet.)

So when did everything change? I can honestly say it was right after graduation when I started to intern with Horse Trade Theater.  I was not familiar with the world of indie theater, but I knew right away that I loved the genuine community and support of the people around me.  Everyday in the little office on E. 4th St was exactly what I imagined theatre to be - young, hip theatre companies squeezing around each other prepping for meetings or rehearsals.  Interns huddling around the heater while they read script submissions.  People climbing up and down ladders from the tech booth to the office.  Jokes and stories being shared over cups of coffee. Loud music from a rehearsal in the Kraine drifting into the desk space where I counted the box office cash and entered in the numbers from the previous night's shows into spreadsheets. It was glorious! And probably the only time I'll ever love walking into a space at nine in the morning to drunken conversations still being had in the KGB that have being going since the night before.  

But the best part of being a part of this theatre scene was the freedom to do the work you wanted to do without explanation or apology. In my mind, this is what made Horse Trade such a wonderful and supportive place. They support young theatre companies that put up incredibly unique and original work.  They actually want to see new things on stage and I remember Erez Ziv, managing director, say "How would we have the standards that we have now if no one had given those artists a chance?"

It was this freedom that I needed to explore myself as a theatre artist, just as I had needed the freedom from my childhood home to explore my own identity.  And it wasn't long after beginning my internship with Horse Trade that I began to ask myself questions about black theatre, my role in it, what it meant and where my stories fit in.  Up until that moment I had accepted that there were things expected of me as an artist of color. But just like my ethnic background, it got harder for me to simply accept it without questioning. I figured that if I had questions about my place as an artist of color there must be others who have them as well. I brought this up to Horse Trade's artistic director, Heidi Grumelot, and she and Erez were more than happy to give me a space for a week to put up a group of plays by artists of color in which to explore this.  And that was the birth of The Fire This Time festival which has just completed it's third and most successful year.

So now when people ask me what I do for a living I say "I'm a playwright and producer." Period. No further questions except the occasional requests from a family member to have me right them a cameo in my next play.  Asking questions is a great thing. Finding the answers is even better.  But having the space and security to do it is priceless and this is why I love indie theatre.

Sunday, February 12, 2012

Guest Blogger of the Week: Kelley Nicole Girod

Kelley Nicole Girod is a 2008 graduate of Columbia's MFA playwriting program where she was named the Stein and Liberace scholar as well as the John Golden fellow for her artistic merit. Kelley hails from Louisiana where she attended Louisiana State University and works extensively with the artistic community of Baton Rouge, most recently serving as a panel judge for Louisiana's artist in residency program. She has had plays produced in Los Angeles, New York, New Orleans, and Columbus, Ohio and has had readings at Primary Stages, the Labyrinth Studio, and Horse Trade Theater Group (NYC), which produced her play Parabolas as part of their downtown theatre festival. She is the founder and executive producer of The Fire This Time, an annual festival that challenges the definition of black theatre. She was also named "Person of the Year 2011" by for her work on the festival. 

Saturday, February 4, 2012

Where is the diversity on OOB stages?

In 2010 the Innovative Theatre Foundation released the report "Demographic Study of Off-Off-Broadway Practitioners." Among many other statistics we examined the racial breakdown of those people working OOB.

Here are our findings:

Compare this with the racial breakdown of New York City.

 NYC statistics recorded Hispanic/Latino separately as part of ethnicity. They note that 26.98% of NYC residence are Hispanic/Latino.

The Indie Theatre Community more closely resembles the National racial make-up.

Indie artists perform in theatres and neighborhoods through out NYC. How can we increase the diversity both on stage and off? How can we be more inclusive of the people who live in the neighborhoods where we perform? How can we make connections with other community organizations that serve diverse audiences? How can we be more a part of the communities and neighborhoods where we perform?

This month we will explore some of these questions among many others.

Please join the conversation.

Friday, February 3, 2012

All good things…

Contributed by Guest Blogger of the Week, Hillary Cohen.

Thank you guys so much for stopping by the IT Awards “back office” / behind the scenes land this week! I promise we will return to artists talking about art – as it should be – next week. You all totally hung in there with my nuts-and-bolts process posts and I can’t tell you how much I appreciate it.

It is always a unique privilege to serve such an entertaining, driven, and varied community. Off-Off-Broadway artists never fail to inspire me, on and off stage. You keep New York City vibrant. I look forward to your next production and I’m grateful for your continued participation in Jason, Shay, and Nick’s little experiment.

I feel lucky to be a part of IT; especially when I think, “I have skills the New York Innovative Theatre Foundation leadership might actually still need.” I mean, who wouldn’t want to give out free tickets to the theater each week?

As usual, I welcome your questions, comments, and feedback. I'm going to try to be back with something sexier to say my next Guest Blogging visit. In the meantime, I wish you and yours a hearty “Break A Leg!”

Thursday, February 2, 2012

Homework suuuuucks.

Contributed by Guest Blogger of the Week, Hillary Cohen.

I can only assume that there are literally millions of blogs in hundreds of languages that start this way. It just might be the Internet Age equivalent of “It was a dark and stormy night….” That does not, however, make it any less true. Homework isn’t any fun and, when it comes to the New York Innovative Theatre Awards, I sometimes feel like I’m the cause of it. Or some kind of Bill Collector who you let in when a bunch of cool party guests you actually invited rang your e-mail doorbell.

Making theater is fun! Celebrating your talented community is fun! Hearing from theater luminaries is fun! You know what’s not fun? Scheduling time to see 3 assignments, remembering your JAIN and password, and coming up with charitably constructive feedback for a painfully unsuccessful production of The Sound of Music staged in College Point that you knew wasn’t going to be good even before you schlepped out past Flushing. I get it. I do.

Highlights from the Judge’s Area
There is a whole section of the IT Awards’ site aimed at you, my precious constituency. It features our Judge's Manual, Judging Criteria, a link to the Judging Process slideshow, “Thoughts on Judging” by Martin Denton, and -- if you’re logged in -- you can view your previous assignments, cast your current ballot, and edit your IT Awards account. That’s great and all but it’s still over, like, a dozen pages of reading material. Single spaced.

To cause LESS homework (because I know I wouldn’t have read this stuff if I wasn’t the Judge Co-Coordinator), I’ve pasted some highlights below. They are some, not all, of the information available. If they peak your interest, please read them in entirety here.

Judge’s Manual
If, for whatever reason, you find that you are unable to complete the 3 adjudications, please notify…the IT Awards immediately. …[T]hen make arrangements to… replace[ yourself] in the judging pool, thereby ensuring eligibility for your production and its participants.

In situations where a producer's records show that the judge was not in attendance and the judge claims to have attended the performance, we ask the judge to produce a receipt, ticket stub or program as proof of attendance. As a precaution, please keep any handouts or related materials.

As a courtesy, each production offers a ticket for you to bring a guest. We would also like to encourage your guest to go online and vote as an audience member. Please instruct them to go to, click on “Vote” and select the audience ballot.

Our scoring system is based on a scale of 1 – 100 (1 being poor, 50 being average and 100 being flawless/extraordinary).  Some people find it easier to think of this scale as a percentage.

You can only vote once per production, but we would encourage you to vote for other productions you attend as an audience member.

The credibility and success of the IT Awards relies on the personal integrity of the judges to make any possible conflicts of interest known to the IT Awards. We take these conflicts very seriously. It is your responsibility to notify the IT Awards of any possible conflicts of interest you may have with a judging assignment.

Judging Criteria
[The] Outstanding Actor In a Lead Role… [c]ategory should be judged solely on the merits of the individual performance and the effective use of the craft of acting to portray the character and serve the overall production. Scores should be based on the following criteria:
•    Understanding of and commitment to the script
•    Embodying the character (including physical and vocal traits where appropriate)
•    Giving a performance that is conducive to the production
•    Overall effectiveness of the performance

Outstanding Choreography/Movement – This category should be judged on effective use of choreography and movement in the production. Scores should be based on the following criteria:
•    Creating tone, mood and style that is conducive to the production as a whole
•    Originality of the choreography and/or movement
•    Theatricality of the choreography and/or movement
•    Choreography that effectively expresses the intent or state of being of the characters and the overall production
•    Overall effective use movement and/or dance

[The] Outstanding Performance Art… category should be judged on the overall production. Scores should be based on the following criteria:
•    The synthesis and cohesive vision of all production elements including design, direction and performance
•    Theatricality of the production
•    Effective integration and execution of multimedia elements
•    Overall effectiveness of the production
* Please note that the point of Performance Art is that it is unprecedented art.  Because of this it is nearly impossible to define. However it is generally agreed that  Performance Art should be relevant to today, employ unique forms of expression and illicit a response from its audience. Please take this into consideration when scoring this category.

“Thoughts on Judging” by Martin Denton
The most important thing I can say is this: No matter how terrible or misguided or perverse a show seems to be, always remember: they didn’t do it just to annoy you. …These artists are compelled to tell us something. Try to figure out what it is. Give them room to say it.

OMG lol GTG, but I hope you liked the Cliff’s Notes! They might be "food for thought" if you've never looked at our surprisingly thorough and official documentation. And, as always, contact me directly at the Judge Wangler address if you have an questions; txtspk not required.

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

The One About the Judge Etiquette

Contributed by Guest Blogger of the Week, Hillary Cohen.

One of the best things, in my opinion, about volunteer work for an organization that serves Off-Off-Broadway is that the community is so vocal. (No, that is NOT non-profit management gallows humor. Why do people always think I'm being sarcastic?)

Sincerely: We get year-round feedback. We solicit ideas for making the IT Awards better. The questions and comments that relate most to Judge Coordinating prompted this Full of IT entry. 

In the January Update box announcing this Guest Blogger spot, Shay promised, "Next week our Judge Coordinators take over the blog reminding us all of some good judge etiquette, sharing advise and answering questions." (If you don't get the monthly e-newsletter goodness we call the "Update," you can sign up at the lower left of this page. Display on mobile devises may vary.)

When it comes to etiquette, I'm not going to be an unpleasant scold or a hypocritical bore. In the quest for a more perfect system and in the spirit of fairness, I ask anyone logging into our site:
Please try to treat the productions registered there as you'd like your own treated.

We deeply appreciate everyone's participation in the IT Awards community. This organization wouldn't represent Off-Off-Broadway without you. We want the artists who registered to feel their company and production were judged fairly by their peers and we want judges to feel their opinions and time were respected. To that end:
  • Contact the Judge Wrangler! I really can't stress this enough. If you have ANY questions, concerns, changes of plan, or proposed assignments you cannot accept, let us know as soon as you can.

  • See the whole show!
    If you arrive late or leave early or cannot give a performance your full attention for any reason -- whether because of illness, the frequently benighted MTA, an urgent message, or a scheduling conflict -- contact the judgewrangler account as soon as you can. We'll apologize to the producer on your behalf anonymously and schedule a replacement judge.

  • Attend with an open mind!
    Part of what makes OOB so innovative is its diversity. Expect the unexpected or something not necessarily your artistic style. Try not to let published reviews influence your scores, and honestly determine where between 0 and Flawless each element of this work stands.
Bottom line: I really am here to help. By "here" I mean we are checking Judge Wrangler emails every. single. day. If you need answers to your registration questions, if you need confirmation of judge ticket reservation requests, if you need to take a hiatus for out of town work, or if you need to recruit a different company member to serve as delegate -- "Help me, help you." Whatever it is, shoot the judgewrangler account an email about it. I promise you'll get service...sometimes with a smile.