Great Art is Local

Playwright Deborah Salem Smith Interviews Curt Columbus, Artistic Director of Trinity Repertory Company

Man and women smiling at camera
Curt Columbus, Artistic Director of Trinity Rep and Deborah Salem Smith, resident playwright, 2012. Photo courtesy of Photo Flash.

In January of 2006, Curt Columbus became the fifth artistic director to lead Trinity Repertory Company in Providence, Rhode Island. I sat down with Curt to hear what is on his mind as he steers Trinity Rep towards his tenth season.

Deb: Trinity has the last long-standing, large resident acting company—sixteen actors—and also has directors, designers, and a playwright (myself) in long-term residencies. Why is having this ensemble of artists living locally important to you?

Curt: One of the liabilities of the American theatre is the way in which we try to be national first and local second. If you think about theatre historically, London in Shakespeare’s day was a city of about 250,000 people. That is basically the size of Providence, Rhode Island. Molière was writing for the Paris of his era, which was a city of about 600,000 people. Those were not cities of twelve or more million people. Those writers were not writing to address a giant range of people. But now we have moved away from writing for the local as a guiding principal. So the liability of course is you then get all of these commercial impulses that are privileged over the local impulses. Great art has always been local. Arthur Miller, a year before he died, said: “I would have written more plays in my life if I had been writing for a company of actors.” And Chekhov’s writing did change forever when he began to write for a company of actors. You can draw the line after Seagull—see how Three Sisters, Uncle Vanya, and The Cherry Orchard are changed and shaped by the resident company for whom Chekhov wrote. This is why we have resident artists. The great art of Western theatre is about sustained collaboration.

Deb: You have continued and even expanded Trinity’s tradition of having a resident acting company—what are the advantages of having actors in long-term residence? 

Curt: There is a fiction that has been driving getting rid of resident acting companies. That fiction is that it is more expensive. Having resident artists certainly costs you more time and sweat, because you have to think carefully about how you deploy the actors. But it’s not more expensive. We don’t pay a casting director. To cast our plays, we don’t go multiple times a year to New York––spending money on travel, housing, and renting space. We save all of that money and then pay our actors more.

Deb: Are there other fictions that discourage theatres from having a company?

Curt: Yes, that it limits you. It can drive your programming in weird ways. There are certain plays I really cannot do because they are not right for my company. But it also frees you in other ways. My resident artists are available. Available to be cast. Available to teach. Available to attend board meetings and fundraisers. They support and interact with the theatre much more effectively than they would if they were artists from out of town. So I am spending my money and resources locally, investing in the community, which helps strengthen my local economy, which then ultimately circles back and helps my theatre.

Deb: How does art-making change if you have resident artists?

Curt: We know what kind of collaborators we can be in the room together. We can be blunt, forceful, and we can say things to each other that only family can say. You have seen my work develop over time. I have seen your work develop over time. As collaborators we have a shorthand we can use to engage with each other. We don’t have to negotiate a new relationship each time. All of my artists know that I make a commitment to them. So we can have real dialogue—that makes us very unique.

Deb: What does “real dialogue” mean to you? 

Curt: The gestational period for developing plays does not have to be nine months. You have time to develop work deeply. Over years. We can build a unique process for each show. Great art making is anti-capitalist. The anti-capitalist urge is not for product but for process. And process allows for a long-term conversation.

My resident artists are available. …They support and interact with the theatre much more effectively than they would if they were artists from out of town. So I am spending my money and resources locally, investing in the community, which helps strengthen my local economy, which then ultimately circles back and helps my theatre.

Deb: I’ve always been intrigued by the process the artists experience in creating a show versus the ultimate production that a typical audience experiences. Because we have an ensemble of artists at Trinity, there is a longitudinal process that unfolds over years as the same artists keep showing up to work. It is not about a single show. The Trinity audience has a richer perspective on the through line of these productions.

Curt: Yes! We are about to produce our third Sarah Ruhl play—our audience now has a conversation going about her work. Deb, we will do your new play [Faithful Cheaters] in an upcoming season, and it will be the fourth Deb Salem Smith play that our audiences will have seen. So there is a conversation that develops and evolves within the audience about these authors’ works.

Deb: What do these long-term artistic relationships mean aesthetically? 

Curt: You come to Trinity and you can watch a Brian Mertes production, or a Curt Columbus production, or a Brain McEleney production—none of us direct alike. They are all valid voices in the season. We have a broad range of aesthetics—from super traditional to crazy avant-garde to a Brechtian-open-hand-to-the-audience style. We can produce Barefoot in the Park and premier Jackie Sibblies Drury’s zombie play.

Deb: In terms of regional theatre programming, we hear in the industry how some theatres get criticized for “not having an aesthetic” if they program a diverse selection of plays and produce those plays each with a unique aesthetic point of view.

Curt: Absolutely. We are back to the problem with the idea that there is a prevailing national aesthetic. You should not be able to show up at one of our sister regional theatres and experience an aesthetic sameness between their shows and ours. When that is true, it is unfortunate and dangerous. I see that even in New York. A dangerous aesthetic sameness. Here at Trinity we have built a community that embraces our range. We celebrate our different voices, and our uniqueness.

Actors in rehersal
Curt Columbus in rehearsal for Flea in His Ear, 2015. Photo by Katie Leeman.

Deb: What has surprised you most about your journey of leading this institution?

Curt: Candidly, it’s only within the last year that it feels like my theatre. And that is of course year eight of leading it! I feel like I can now look back over a body of work that we have co-created as a company. And I think of us all as a company—there is the acting company, and the ensemble of artists, and the people who make the marketing and the people who hang the lights—everyone. We are together a company of people who devise theatrical experience. Further, we are a community-based company. So the big surprise to me has been just how community-based I have made this theatre. You and I have talked about this before, we value as qualities in our lives longevity in relationships and home-building. As artists, we are so often unmoored from anything that feels like home. The quality that I have been trying to play forward is home. One of the things my husband said to me when we moved here is that I had to make this a place for families. You have to make space for your employees to create their own families. And so we’ve had a baby boom since I moved here! 

Deb: And even simply the opportunity to be present in one’s marriage—

Curt: Yes, present in one’s marriage. Modeling that behavior and holding that as a quality for younger artists to witness. Brian McEleney and Stephen Berenson, both acting company members for decades, have been a couple for thirty-eight years. Art-making is not only about booze, broads, and a one-room apartment with a hot plate!  

[Laughter]   

Curt: The theatre is a guild craft. It is passed down from one person to another. It’s not something that you can distance-learn. So we are and must be artists and teachers. Each of us works in the theatre and we are teachers and mentors in the classroom. We bring challenges to our students and they work through those challenges and then their work inflects our work as we return to our own projects.

Deb: What do you value about Trinity’s past?

Curt: Most important to me has been to uphold and further company, community, and education. We have stretched the acting company to grow and find new parts of themselves as artists. We don’t assume that they are in a fixed state––even if they are sixty-five years old, we assume they want to learn and grow. Our education program, Project Discovery, is now forty-seven seasons old. We have done much more complex education programming around our season of plays. Our initiatives are for all ages within our community. I call it cradle to grave programming––wait, let’s call it cradle to rocking chair! 

[Laughter]   

Curt: So our education program has become more inclusive, and more vibrant. And our community partnerships are invisible to most people but essential to our roots in the city. For example, every year during Christmas Carol, Scrooge steps out and does a speech for the Rhode Island Community Food Bank encouraging people to give pocket change as they leave the theatre. Since we started doing this, we have raised over a quarter of a million of dollars for that organization. Also, we dedicate our final dress rehearsal to a host of community organizations––battered women’s shelters, Direct Action for Rights and Equality, Sisters Overcoming Abusive Relationships, folks in transitional housing––they all come and get free tickets and see our plays. Groups have even developed their own stories through our education department. We are now truly our community’s theatre. It’s a great moment for us.

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