The following address was delivered by the Arthur P. Solomon and Sally E. Lapides Artistic Director Curt Columbus on June 17 at the subscriber and donor 2020 State of the Theater Virtual Meeting.
My dear friends. A state of the theater address.
A state of the theater address seemed… puny to me, when I first sat down to write it, in light of the STATE OF THE WORLD. We have had the most unimaginably difficult spring for many, many reasons beyond our control. And this address would have been so vastly different, it would have been about our box-office-record-breaking season, if we hadn’t shuttered the theater in March. It was a banner year, with lots of triumphs, long before we closed our doors. I started thinking about the plays we had done, The Prince of Providence, a glorious and challenging A Christmas Carol, Fade, Radio Golf, A Tale of Two Cities. It was quite a list of great work, work that is uniquely Trinity Rep.
But upon reflection, I realized that this was what was making a “state of the theater address” seem puny. Celebrating our theatrical triumphs, at this particular moment of unsettlement, crisis, and fear was simply not enough. Looking back, even in celebration, at this particular moment in history, holds no information for us. And so, I’m going to invite you all to look forward with me. And I’m going to invite you all to HOPE.
We have an ongoing pandemic that has stopped all theater as we know it. Yes. It has been unimaginably awful. Yes. But I want you to know that everyone at Trinity has been working tirelessly to make plans for our audience to come together again as safely and as soon as possible. The pandemic has not paralyzed us. No! We have made plans for audience, for artists to function in the same space, safely, so that we can return to performance when we are given the green light. We have even made painful cuts to the organization and to our staff, so that we will have the financial capacity to come back strong when the time comes.
The thing that gives me hope is that, when we can come back together, people will be hungry for live stories in a way that they haven’t been for many years. We will have been in front of screens for what seems like an eternity, and we will want to gather! We will want the interaction with folks in our community, something that theater provides best, a coming together that lifts us up, collectively. Imagine a fall where we start our season with A Christmas Carol, the very story that Trinity Rep has become famous for throughout Southern New England. How much will we need to tell that story, as artists? How much will people need to hear it and its message of redemption after crushing isolation? Thinking about that day gives me great hope.
Then, the string of tragedies over the last couple of months involving our brothers and sisters in the Black community has been another unimaginable catastrophe, and it has been soul-wrenching for any feeling person to watch. These tragedies have uncovered something that has been there all along, and it is a wake up call to white America. We can no longer not see. I have hope that this will catalyze profound change.
Since the events surrounding our production of the musical Oklahoma! four years ago, we at Trinity Rep have been talking about our participation in White Supremacy and cultural imperialism, and we’ve been making small steps to tearing down barriers and better welcoming people of color into Trinity’s spaces. We’ve examined our hiring practices, but there is more work to do. Our front of house staff and our box office are more reflective of folks in Rhode Island and Southeastern New England, but there is the rest of the organization that needs to look like the community we serve. We’ve talked about it at board meetings, in our staff meetings, in our acting company meetings. We’ve done a lot of talking, and we have taken these very small steps forward.
So this work is in its infancy, and the hope that I have is that we can return from our shut down to pursue the goal of truly welcoming all audiences and artists into our family and our home. I’m going to be working with Michelle Cruz, our director of community engagement, to develop tools for welcoming folks at every level of the organization and most importantly, in a lasting way. We want to be at the forefront of this effort nationally, and we are uniquely positioned to make that happen. Not only have we begun the work, but again, the financial prudence that we are practicing right now will give us the latitude to continue these efforts in a robust and transformative way.
I have hope that our company, our board, our staff, and our audience will look more like the community we inhabit. I want us to work together, tirelessly, to make this happen. I want to see a future, when it comes, where the next artistic director of Trinity Rep does not look like me, and that person can open doors to an entirely new, entirely wonderful theatrical conversation.
Because that’s what Trinity has always been, a place that tells stories in a way that you have never considered before. Our first artistic director, Adrian Hall’s idiosyncratic and bold vision founded Trinity Rep’s aesthetic. Working with the great designer Eugene Lee, he told stories in a way that absolutely no one had seen. Every artistic director since then – Anne Bogart, Richard Jenkins, Oskar Eustis, and me – each of us has labored to do the same kind of revolutionary work, work the you have never seen before, work that challenges your perception, so that you can step outside of yourself and really see the world and your fellow humans in a new way.
Because isn’t that what we are trying to preserve? A community resource, a treasure, a jewel, that brings everyone together around stories, that enlivens and enriches our city and our state with the kind of conversation that is only found in a world-class environment like the one Providence, Rhode Island has become. And a resource that is for everyone in our community, that lifts folks up in so many important ways.
This time of crisis and limitation can be debilitating, I’ve felt it, we all have. But Trinity is at its best in a crisis, probably better than any theater in the nation. We have had financial crisis in our drinking water for so many years, that we have a lot more capacity to adapt and to become nimble in times of trouble than most folks. Our long-time staff knows this story, and some of you will as well, but in 2013, when we were producing Jackie Sibblies Drury’s play Social Creatures, a fire broke out in the Dowling Theater on the stage on a Monday night. The safety systems worked, and between the sprinklers and the fire department, the fire was out in less than ten minutes.
But the set was destroyed, flooded and burned to ashes. And this was two days before the first preview, and two days before a New York Times reporter was coming to do a piece on the show. So what did our people do? They rebuilt the entire set, in one day. We cancelled one preview, but otherwise, the show went on, without a hitch. That’s Trinity Rep’s response to crisis.
Throughout our conversations over the last several months, we have referenced the fact that we’ve got the survivor instinct in our DNA. So, we are going to come out of this unimaginable period, stronger, more whole, and doing the kind of work that will make you as patrons and supporters of Trinity Repertory Company proud. I look forward to rolling up my sleeves, along with my partner Tom Parrish, and everyone in the company, and making that happen. Thank you for your incredible support.