Everything We Plant Grows

You can walk across Durham proper in two hours, east to west, along Main Street. I frequently do. It’s nicer than driving because I get to say hey to all of my neighbors out on their porches, and also, the Carolina climate is a fine wine indeed.

I moved here by chance. After I left a scientific career, my sister volunteered her guest room. Durham seemed like a sleepy university town where I could ponder my next move. The day I arrived, my brother took me on a long motorcycle ride through old neighborhoods, past southern mansions and red gardens, down long leafy avenues like green cathedrals. It felt like a place where I could rest.

That was seven years ago. Durham is still a city of green avenues and red gardens, but it’s no longer sleepy. Now I keep my eyes open so that I don’t miss anything. It seems like every other day I hear about a new artist, a new gallery, a new theater company, a new gourmet food truck, a new urban garden, a new performance space, a new restaurant, a new social media venture, a new artisinal café, a new salon, a new installation, a new organic farm, a new small press, a new celebration, a new festival, a new protest, a new parade. The very soil is humming. Everything we plant grows.

Durham is one-third of the Triangle, the heart of North Carolina, whose other points are Chapel Hill and Raleigh. The 2009 U. S. Census identified the Triangle as the fastest-growing metropolitan area in the country. Local business was exploding even in the worst of the recession; the Triangle is consistently ranked one of the best places in the country to launch a small business. Due to the presence of Duke University, the University of North Carolina, North Carolina Central University, North Carolina State University, and Research Triangle Park, the largest biotechnology campus in the country, we have the fourth most highly-educated population in the United States. Our state arts council is legendary for supporting individual artists—to whom they hand out eighteen $10,000 grants a year—as well as county arts councils that administer smaller grants. Definitive festivals of two art forms, the Full Frame Documentary Festival and the American Dance Festival, are held here. The Durham Performing Arts Center is the fourth most-attended theater in the country.

I think of us as ancient Greek city-states, allying when necessary and competing when not. Athenian thespians were preoccupied with defining themselves as not-Other—not Thebes, not Sparta, not Corinth.

Each city in the Triangle also has a strong identity, strong opinion about its identity, and strong opinions about the others’ identities. Snarking is a local sport. I oblige whenever I go to Chapel Hill (“God, I have to wear a handkerchief so I don’t inhale the twee”) or Raleigh (“oh, roundabouts, cute”). There’s an edge to these jokes, a healthy animus. I think of us as ancient Greek city-states, allying when necessary and competing when not. Athenian thespians were preoccupied with defining themselves as not-Other—not Thebes, not Sparta, not Corinth. The same energy exists in the Triangle, including in the theater community. Each city has a reputation for a different style: Chapel Hill, for academic theater; Raleigh, for traditional and musical theater; Durham, for avant garde theater. The more the scene explodes, the more exceptions outnumber the rules; however, reputations still inform our choices. The result is strongly evolved microcultures, all of whom support new work in their own ways. Because I belong to the Durham microculture, that’s the one to which I’ll speak.

In 2006, I saw an adaptation of Cymbeline in a drafty warehouse by the now-defunct Single Shot Productions. They were high school kids. It was a ragamuffin show, steampunk on a shoestring. The production was ecstatic, inventive, and deeply weird. I have a vivid memory of watching the cast warm up in the rain, a small army of youths posing and flexing like wrestlers in an Athenian gymnasium. I realized, No one has ever told them what they can and cannot do.

It was the beginning of my education in the Durham aesthetic.

Six months later, I introduced myself to their director, Lucius Robinson. I asked (practically digging my toe into the ground) if maybe I could work with him sometime, maybe be in one of his shows, even though I had no credentials to speak of. To my surprise, he was warm and gracious. We exchanged numbers. We met later at a bar, but we had to go elsewhere, because—I didn’t realize—he was only nineteen. He cast me in his adaptation of Othello, never having seen me act, just because I was eager.

Three months later, I had a parallel experience: I’d seen Lucius in a production of The Pillowman at Manbites Dog, a Durham theater that had been producing new work for twenty-five years. The character of Katurian was played by one Jay O’Berski, the Artistic Director of Little Green Pig Theatrical Concern. Again, I approached him and asked if I could work on one of his shows. Again, to my surprise, he was warm and gracious. Again, he cast me even though he’d never seen me act, and it went well. So a couple of years later, when I wrote my first play, Jay asked to see it. I thought it was way too weird and dark even for Durham. But not only did he love it, he produced and directed it, and it sold out its entire run. I haven’t wanted for opportunities since.

Two actors nearly embrace in the foreground, two pairs of perfomers are behind them
Little Green Pig's production of Tarantino's Yellow Speedo by Monica Byrne. Photo by Alex Maness

My story is something of a fairytale. I see Durham through rose-colored glasses; not everyone has as easy a time getting new work produced. But still, these stories illuminate the heart of Durham theater: we say yes to each other. It doesn’t matter where you trained or where you studied. What matters is if you have soul, spark, duende. Passion is rewarded; pedigrees are not. A person’s résumé has no relationship to whether or not she can tell the truth.

Willful ignorance of the larger national scene does have its drawbacks. Speaking for myself, I end up asking dumb questions on Twitter like What is a LORT? and worrying about what I don’t know. Durham has its own norms. The more I learn about the national theater scene, the more I’m baffled, even angry: There’s categorical resistance to producing new work? Why? Women and people of color have a hard time getting produced? Why? Plays are workshopped endlessly without ever being produced? Why?

Because that’s not the way it has to be. We’re proof of that.

I don’t want to give the impression that Durham is All Elysium All the Time. We have our issues. For example, nobody makes a living just doing theater—maybe one or two artistic directors, but no playwrights or actors, certainly. I freelance, others teach, and others have day jobs. And though DPAC is a major international venue, and Playmakers usually mounts a production of whatever was big in New York last season, hoi polloi usually can’t afford tickets to either, so both are only marginally relevant to local artists making new work. And like Vincent Delaney noted in his column on Seattle, though we’re thick with wealthy biotech companies like IBM, SAS, and GSK, their investment in local theater is glancing.

I see Durham through rose-colored glasses; not everyone has as easy a time getting new work produced. But still, these stories illuminate the heart of Durham theater: we say yes to each other.

It’s their loss. The Triangle is hungry for art, and hungry for mirrors that reflect how fast we’re changing. Durham is on the cusp of a vast demographic shift: whites are a minority, Durham being the historic capital of the Black middle class; meanwhile, the Latino population is ballooning. The state at large is also in the midst of a huge sociopolitical shift: North Carolina went blue for Obama in 2008, but then passed Amendment One, which did profound violence to North Carolina families. It pained me to see so many artists declare that they’d boycott North Carolina. On the contrary, this is exactly why we need you: to help us build the new age.

In talking with a friend about writing this article, he asked what I hoped would come out of it: “So do you want playwrights to start sending their plays here?” My reply was immediate and vehement: “No. I want playwrights to move here and make new work. I want to see new work every weekend.” I thought of all the buildings I pass in downtown Durham, and for that matter, in downtown Raleigh and Chapel Hill—dozens under renovation, filling up one by one—and how I keep hoping that one or two or ten of them will be colonized by some enterprising theater artists, sent by the Muse and filled with duende, who got sick of being told what they could and couldn’t do, who have a dream of making new work in a community, for a community.

No one’s telling us no. We’re only beginning.

At the end of the classical era, the Greek city-states had fallen to in-fighting, weakening themselves into irrelevance while to the north, the Alexandrian empire was a glimmer in young warriors’ eyes. Maybe the Triangle is not the Greek city-states after all. Maybe we’re Macedon.

Thanks to Professor Carol Dougherty of Wellesley College.

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Thoughts from the curator

A series featuring voices from in and around the theatre communities of Durham, Chapel Hill, and Raleigh.

North Carolina "Triangle" City Series

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I think there is also a larger question at work here: what role should LORT companies play in the ecology of the community? Regional theaters live in a nebulous space somewhere between touring houses like the DPAC, which have no interest in the cultivation of art from within the community, and semi-professional companies such as Manbites Dog, Little Green Pig, Haymaker, and Burning Coal, which rely predominantly on the talent of local artists.

LORT companies certainly have budgets and facilities that cannot be equaled by non-equity houses. The question is how best should they use these resources. Should they do the same kind of work that our semi-professional companies are doing, but simply do it on a larger scale? One can reasonably make this case, arguing that it would allow many more local artists to earn a living wage and have their work seen in houses that can accommodate upwards of two, three, four, or five hundred; however, I am not sure if that is necessarily the best use of resources. Communities benefit from diverse voices, be it diversity of season programming or the diversity that comes from bringing in out of town artists. Playmakers and other LORT companies, because of their size, are in a unique position to bring work and artists to the area that no other company can. I for one am ecstatic that artists such as Rinde Eckert, Steven Epp, Dominique Serrand, and Taylor Mac are coming to the Triangle next year. These are some of my favorite people making theater in the United States, and if it were not for PRC, I wouldn't get to see their work. It's important that we have a company in the area that can provide this experience for local audiences, even when it means diminishing opportunities for homegrown talent.

Finally, I am not sure if you have lived in the Triangle long enough to remember what Playmaker's programming was like before Joe Haj arrived, but I can assure you that it was not as friendly to local artists as it now is. Before Joe, Playmakers, to my knowledge, never used local directors such as Ellen Hemphill or Emily Ranii. It is also not a coincidence that it was under Joe's watch that Playmakers premiered a local author for the first time in twenty years, and while I could be wrong, I expect it won't be the last time that Joe chooses to produce the work of a North Carolina writer.

All this is to say, I think there is a much bigger picture that needs to be taken stock of here, and it starts by looking for a way to balance LORT companies' obligations to local talent with its capacity to bring national talent to the local area.

I'd like to chime in. I think there's room for many different kinds of theatre, or indeed any art form. Professional theatre of all sizes and bents ought to be focused on moving their audiences. If their work moves their audience, they are successful and meaningful and thank God for them. If they are focused on impressing their inner circle of fellow artists (this happens at all levels), then I dare say their value is minimal. One point in favor of larger theatres: they have, historically, been incubators for young, emergent companies that orbit around them. A great example is Providence, RI, where the Trinity Rep, founded by Adrian Hall in the early 1960s, has given birth to dozens of small, emergent companies over the years. The same is true of PlayMakers. Without them, I daresay many, many of the artists living in the Triangle would not be here because there would have been nothing to draw them here, no community of cultured citizens to welcome them and little chance of the artists achieving a living wage once here. Also, more mainstream theatre draws in powerful , influential people who might never set foot in a garage or warehouse space. Once they are there, their minds begin to open to the idea of theatre as a useful social tool (I've seen it happen!). It is then the responsibility of the emergent companies to grab them by the lapels and do the serious work of advocating for innovative art. In Raleigh, a major foundation's executive director came here a few years ago to see the much larger Carolina Ballet. She stayed an extra day and came to see our little company's work, and has been supporting us ever since. Would she have come just for us? I doubt it. Thank you, CB! If we are talking about the relative value of traditional versus innovative art, I think it is also worth asking what exactly those words means. Saying that a work of art is innovative is a bit like saying that aspeech is long. It depends entirely on who the audience is and what thecircumstances are. If a work of art is innovative, then I hope that means it has a particular effect on its audience. If the audience has spent years atthe figurative knee of Simon McBurney's Complicite or Arrianne Mnouchkine and her Teatro du Soleil, then a work most ofus would deem innovative may not have much impact - may not seeminnovative at all. If, on the other hand, the audience has never stepped foot in a theatre,then something you or I perceive as conventional might just make theirsocks roll up and down! - might actually move them and broaden their worldview. Adrian Hall said "You are in the theatre to change the world. And if you aren't, get out of my way, baby!" I hope that all of us whoaspire to a life in the theatre are of a like mind. But I daresay that different peoples, different audiencesare impacted by different levels of what we insiders might think of asinnovation. Give me an artist who moves their audience, every time, over onewho smugly adds another notch to their pistol, so to speak, in the innovationwars.

I'd love to have a conversation about this, Monica. While this column is clearly marked as an opinion piece, I feel compelled to respond to what I feel is a misrepresentation of facts.

You say that that the "hoi polloi" can't afford a ticket to PlayMakers. Do you know that our average ticket price last season was less than $20 a ticket?

We DO support the work of local artists and have not failed to support our colleagues with resources along the way; whether by giving space, loaning props, costumes, or lights, hiring them to work in or on our productions, or producing their work. We saw a student production of local artist Mike Wiley (THE PARCHMAN HOUR) and gave it its professional premiere. 14 actors, 4 musicians, choreographer, video projections, music director, etc.--many of them local artists---all of whom were compensated for their work. PlayMakers invested enormously in the work of that local artist. And we commissioned a new piece from Mike (WITNESS TO AN EXECUTION) a couple of years prior. Not sure how that doesn't count.

We do much, much more than produce the latest play from New York. With support from the Mellon Foundation we help incubate the work of devising companies who are making some of the bravest new work in the country. (SITI, Pig Iron and next summer Taylor Mac and The TEAM). And we have opened our doors to the community to invite local artists to workshop and participate in the work of these companies. We have two premieres in the coming season. We have David Ball (a local playwright!) and Dominique Serrand teaming on a new IMAGINARY INVALID, and we have co-commissioned a new piece from the hip-hop theatre ensemble UNIVERSES.

The ecosystem of theatre in the Triangle is as you describe. It is broad and deep, and the work we are doing at PlayMakers is broad and deep (and affordable), and can stand up to much of the best work going on in the country let alone the Triangle. You don't have to speak disparagingly or dismissively about other theatres and regions in the Triangle in order to speak proudly of the incredible work that you and our colleagues in Durham are doing.

I won't speak for other organizations that I feel you have misrepresented, but for my part I wish, in being asked to provide an overview of the work in the Triangle, that you would have reached out and invited a conversation to learn what we are doing at PlayMakers. A conversation that I am happy to have at any time.

Hi, Joseph. I have reached out to you, twice, via email, inviting you to my shows and offering to pay for your ticket, and you didn't reply either time. So when composing this piece, I honestly had the impression that you didn't consider communication with local artists to be important.

I'm glad you commissioned Mike's work. Mike is awesome (and will be featured in an interview later in the week). But as Byron's forthcoming article will point out, his EXECUTION was the first, and so far only, original work Playmakers commissioned by a local playwright in twenty years. When other companies present seasons that are each 50-75% new work, that's not a strong showing. (Even this year, the other mainstage productions alongside IMAGINARY INVALID--itself an adaptation--are RED, IT'S A WONDERFUL LIFE, A RAISIN IN THE SUN, CLYBOURNE PARK, and CABARET.) All of the work you mentioned with Pig Iron, SITI, and Taylor Mac is fantastic. It's also all very recent. Though I'm encouraged by those new directions, I think it's disingenuous to present those collaborations as representative of PlayMakers' cumulative impact over its recent history.

Furthermore, how do you define 'best' when saying Playmakers' work can stand up to the best work going on around the country or the Triangle? Because I would agree in terms of production value, certainly, but not in terms of creative risk or vision. I remember when I started writing plays, I went to my first Broadway show, assuming that the theater companies that had the most capital would surely be using that capital to make the most daring, edgy, thrilling work possible. I couldn't have been more wrong. And I continue to be disappointed by big capital theaters playing it safe.

I disagree that we shouldn't criticize others' work. I think, as a community of theater companies in dialogue about the kind of place we want to be, it is absolutely necessary to constructively criticize each others' records, and even more so that of PlayMakers, when it holds the vast majority of the theatrical capital in the Triangle. So far, in my seven years here, I haven't seen that capital used in a way I feel is beneficial to the local theatrical community. So I'll say so.

I'm nervous about writing all this, because I know you have power. And as Polly has pointed out, in a small field where everyone knows everyone, most emerging theater artists keep their mouths shut for fear of incurring grudges. But when called out as above--and I'm glad you did--the only thing I know to do is speak plainly in return. I'd be delighted to meet and have a conversation about all this. My email is monica@monicabyrne.org. I promise I'll reply.

The power in this discussion actually belongs to the person who is a very early-career artist and has been given curatorial control of a Triangle-wide conversation and is using that power to put forward a narrow (and from my perspective, uninformed) agenda. You don't like the work that PlayMakers is doing. Fine. That's what makes horse races. But it doesn't make you the control group.

To answer your question above about how do I say that PlayMakers work can measure up to any in the country; I answer it this way: We're attracting some of the finest theatre artists in the country to work with us (and believe me when I tell you it is not for the extravagant salaries we're paying). The NEA gave us, for the second year in a row, the largest grant that any producing theatre in the country received. And these grants are evaluated and recommended for funding by our peers in the field, who know the quality of the work we are making. The Mellon Foundation has supported us in a very meaningful way because they think (and they know a little something about the theatre) that we have some very good ideas about what our LORT theatres ought to be doing to support artists who make work in non-traditional ways. I measure it by the quality of our staff who work tirelessly to ensure that we are making a home for our artists and meaningful experiences for our community. I measure it by the thousands of young people, many from under-served communities who participate in our work each year. I could go on and on.

If my not responding to your two e-mails (and though I can't find them, I am confident that you're right) is what you have used as evidence that I don't care about communicating with local artists, and has led you to ignore the fact that I do communicate with local artists (though not with you) and hire them regularly (though not you), you clearly have an axe to grind, and I am disappointed that this is the platform for your grievances.

Joseph, you're not being particularly responsive to Monica's points.

1. She was clearly referring to you having power in Triangle theater, not in this conversation. Your point about power in this conversation is not relevant to her point, and a straw man argument.

2. Her point about PlayMakers measuring up was specifically about "creative risk [and] vision" - issues you pointedly do not address in your response.

3. By way of arguing that you don't sufficiently support local artists, Monica noted that you have commissioned only a single original work by a local playwright in twenty years. You don't respond to this point; indeed, what you say includes the claim that you are "attracting some of the finest theatre artists in the country" - implying that you measure success by means other than support of local artists.

I call general shenanigans on your responses. If you want to have a conversation about this, I'd suggest you start by actually responding to the plain meaning of Monica's points.

As a Tar Heel and ex-Dramatic Art major turned off by the UNC-CH theatre clique, I have to say this back-and-forth deeply saddens me. Monica's remarks do sting a bit depending on how you read them, but I wasn't so offended by what she opined: that DPAC and Playmakers can be out of reach for some. For me, this boils down to purchasing power and markets -- the aforementioned organizations cater to a different crowd that still wants for art, even if some consider it safe. I love both a big band Broadway musical and a blackbox workshop piece -- but I'm a privileged audience member.

Great article! Can't wait to be back in the area this fall to get back in the middleo fo all the fantastic collaboration happening around town.

I love finding your writing on HowlRound. Very well written and inspiring article, Monica. How is the music-theater scene faring in Durham and the Triangle's burgeoning artistic climate?

Good question, Dave. I'm aware of a few new musicals, most recently Jude the Obscure at Burning Coal; as for old musicals, universities and RLT are still faithfully producing them, to my knowledge. LGP and MBD almost always use music as an integral part of their productions--sometimes commissioned, sometimes recorded--not the same thing, granted, but we often work with musicians. I'd love to have more people doing actual musical theater!

Interesting piece. For 3 years a constantly shifting group of writers actresses, and actors, going lossely under the name PlayGround, have been meeting once a month at Common Ground Theater to develop new work, as well as give actors a place where they can practice cold reads, try out things, outside of a class or performance. We've staged readers at Common Ground, Burning Coal, the Art Center and had our first full production this year at CG, to a great response. Actors who have participated have also been on stage at Playmakers, Manbites Dog, BurningCoal, REP,.FATE, and, of course, Common Ground. Playground is trying to work as a local incubator for serious, but not humorless, theater people in the area. We are open to everyone. So I invite anyone who is interested to email me. We are anticipating a full production of one acts and staged readings of full acts in the coming year. All new work by NC playwrights. And we will need actors and actresses.richard krawiecrkwriter@gmail.com

I suppose I have been a part of the Durham "art scene" since 1977 -- the year I was graduating from Duke and had my photographs as part of an invitational exhibit at the Durham Arts Council. (The Durham Arts Council is one of the oldest in the country). A couple years later I was renting about 1000 square feet of second floor space right in the heart of downtown Durham for $25/month -- used the space for a co-op gallery and my darkroom. Fastforward 35 years to today and that same space is undergoing complete renovation by a local architect and is being transformed into a few fantastic urban loft residences (I believe they sold for around $250,000+ each). Although the price-points have changed, what still has remained constant is a grassroots-style spirit of "can do" and a general sense of cooperation among the so-called creative class. If you have an arts project that you want to make happen--you can make it happen in Durham! Durham's culture also seems to cherish the strange and unusual (things like the annual "Zombie Lurch," and a come-in-costume-and-join-the-parade parade in honor of a Sun Ra Arkestra exhibit and concert, and the Stranger Festival). In addition to the "world class" events that happen in Durham, we are also home to CenterFest (f/k/a Durham Street Arts Festival) -- the longest running street arts festival in NC, and the Eno Festival every 4th of July for the past 33 years. The Durham Arts Council, The Durham Art Guild (also 50+ years old), CenterFest, the Eno Festival and most of the other arts and cultural institutions here in Durham were truly started as grassroots projects. So far, despite being transformed into somewhat bureaucratic institutions, they still maintain a lot of that grassroots spirit. As with all successful urban areas, the inexpensive spaces are harder and harder to find. It will be interesting to see how things progress and how we meet the challenge of keeping art spaces affordable and maintaining Durham as fertile grassroots ground.

Such a great formulation, Monica: "no one had ever told them what they couldn't do." This is exactly why my first directing gig was one I put together for myself and performed on a beach- with a silly little rap (87 mind you) and a bunch popping balloons standing in for war. And a remote controlled dog that kept blowing over and tourists wandering through the performance. And the final image,of the cast dancing/skipping over a dune and into the sky was only because I couldn't black out the sun on cue. I remember another moment in another play where I borrowed a trick from our circus mentors and did it into a blackout. We performed it beautifully for weeks and then they saw it. "You can't do that into a blackout!" they said. I showed them how we were doing it. They smiled and said, "well, perhaps you can!"

Thanks for you contributions to this week on HowlRound.

Thank you, David! That staging sounds wonderful. The tragedy is, that kind of fly-by-seat-of-pants inventiveness seems to go out the window when budgets are bigger. I've seen exceptions--I remember BLACK WATCH as making especially good use of their money, tech-wise--but so often, it's so unnecessary. My most profound theatrical experiences have all been like the one you describe above.