I created Theatre Beyond Broadway as a platform for the many independent artists that invest everything into their craft because they love it. They have an experience, they create, and then they share it with the world.
When I reached out to Megan Minutillo about writing for her site, The Write Teacher(s), my intention was to share theatre that are beyond the bright lights of Broadway. What transpired was a course of study in the world of theatre beyond Broadway. Over the next month, I will share my writings and my interactions with the many artists I know and will know.
My first professional directing gig was Robert Harling’s Steel Magnolias
with a local theatre group called Beari Productions. I loved the movie when I first saw it and fell in love with the play. I enjoyed being a dramturg on the piece as well as creating the world of Louisiana in Queens, NY. I immediately became a little obsessed with the history of the state and of course, wondered about the theatre scene there. Besides, Steel Magnolias, my knowledge was limited to their Jazz Fest
and Mardi Gras. I recently caught up with award-winning playwright, fellow alum and friend, John Patrick Bray about his studies and work in Louisiana.
Malini: So I am very interested in knowing what your experience was like as a published playwright leaving New York to move to Louisiana.
John: I think I should start off by saying I have never actually lived in New York City. I was born in New Jersey and lived in Bergen County until I was eight, and then my parents moved us to the Hudson Valley where I more-or-less stayed until I was 29. I commuted to NYC from Poughkeepsie most mornings. I was a bagel baker at New Paltz Hot Bagels (now, New Paltz Bagel Café; same owners, different name), and worked as a means of affording the commute, books, etc. Toward the end of my MFA work at The New School, Dennis Wayne Gleason (who directed my thesis) introduced me to Akia Squitieri, the Artistic Director of the Rising Sun Performance Company. I’ve had a relationship with the RSPC ever since. I got engaged while in a RSPC production of HELLCAB at Under St. Mark’s Theatre. My fiancée, now my wife, was a graduate student at UL Lafayette. So, the move seemed really sudden to a lot of folks, and once I got there, man, it was definitely a culture shock. Even though I was from the Hudson Valley and not NYC, the pace was very, very different. The food was different. The idioms, jargon. It took me a bit to adjust, but because I had attended grad school in NYC and had some plays produced there, folks were eager to have me on board. I ended up getting a commission to write a documentary-style play for Keith Dorwick, an English professor at UL who used to be a part of the indie theatre scene in Chicago, and I directed William Gillette’s Sherlock Holmes at UL, where I became an adjunct for a year. From there, I was accepted into LSU’s PhD in Theatre program and my academic life took off from there.
I moved to Louisiana in 2006 which was just after [Hurricane] Katrina and Rita . I ended up getting more productions in NYC because I had a Louisiana residence. One company even called me a “Louisiana playwright” which was really bizarre for me. I had Louisiana calling me an NYC playwright on one hand and NYC folks calling me a Louisiana playwright on the other. I always think of myself as a New Paltz townie!
Malini: You have a PhD in theatre from Louisiana State University. Why did you take those next steps and how did it forward your career?
John: Louisiana State University is a one, research-one state school (although Bobby Jindal is sure working hard to dismantle it). When I applied, I was an adjunct teaching a 6/6 load plus two independent studies, serving on 4 committees and directing two shows. I don’t regret, nor do I feel I was taken advantage of; I had a great time! But, listening to my wife and her dissertation adviser (Dr. Dorwick again) made me realize that there was this other conversation that I desperately wanted to take part in. I knew that I wanted to teach at the university level, and it seemed like a PhD would help me achieve that goal. I met with Dr. Leslie A. Wade, who was then the head of the PhD program at LSU, and we hit it off! We had a great conversation about playwrights we admired and where our own writing had landed us. Funny enough, after graduation, I learned that he has an MFA in Playwriting from the University of Georgia where I now teach dramatic writing!
When I started my doctoral work, a former teacher of mine from The New School, Dr. Gary Vena, told me that once I earned my doctorate that people would talk to me a little differently. He’s absolutely right!
In terms of forwarding my playwriting career: in doctoral course work, you have to read so many plays. I read more plays in the first two months of my doctoral work than I had in all of undergrad. It was incredibly intense. On top of that, I learned a host of different theories/ways in which to view our work and our work in the world. It’s challenging to describe the effect; it’s kind of like trying to tell a single friend what being married is like, or what it’s like to be a Dad. You kind of have to be there to get it. What I can say is reading all of the different plays, studying the various movements, it has had an impact on the way I write. I very rarely write Realism anymore; when I do, it’s closer to Naturalism, and a little less protagonist-centered. In the practical world, however, most companies aren’t necessarily impressed by a PhD unless you’re looking to be a dramaturg (and I have been a dramaturg for a couple of companies and have thoroughly enjoyed it!). My research areas are new play development and production. I came in just before Todd London (et.als’) book OUTRAGEOUS FORTUNE was published. While there are a few issues with the book, the authors were able to confirm some of my suspicions vis-à-vis the way playwrights get produced in the US. I admire playwrights who self-produce and create playwrights collectives/production companies. I think once the pressure was off (ie, once I realized that there was no “formula” for getting a play in the mainstream) I was able to relax a bit more and follow my impulses as a writer.
Malini: What’s the theatre scene like in Louisiana in respects to producing new works and standards?
John:I can only speak for Lafayette and Baton Rouge. I know that Ruby Lou Smith (who graduated with her MFA in Acting from LSU) and her husband have started a theatre company in New Orleans, and Southern Rep. is in NOLA, and a few other companies, but I haven’t spent much time hanging out in NOLA (the few times I visited, I ended up going to record stores and book shops – I love the music scene). Baton Rouge has Swine Palace, the professional company in residence at LSU, and a few excellent community theatres, but there wasn’t really an outlet for new work. Lafayette, on the other hand, has a bunch of companies that either strictly produce new plays or produce about half new and half established: Acting Unlimited, Acting Up, Acadiana Repertory Theatre, the Performing Arts Society of Acadiana, The Plastic Theatre; there’s a truly vibrant scene, and some really great spaces including the Acadiana Center for the Arts, Theatre 810 and Cite des Arts, which I called my artistic home when I lived in Louisiana. There are some truly great people in Lafayette: Steven Landry, Keith Dorwick, Marie Delahoussaye Diaz, Sarah Hitchcock, Sarah Roy, the list goes on. The first production I saw at Cite was Paula Vogel’s THE BALTIMORE WALTZ presented by The Foundry, a group of juniors and seniors in high school directed by Cody Daigle, who also happens to be one of the most talented living playwrights in the US. It was with that production I knew that theatre magic could happen in the Southern US. On one hand I feel bad talking about it here because it feels like I’m betraying a secret: great, risky theatre happens in Lafayette, Louisiana. In terms of the standards? I think a great show can happen anytime, anywhere, union contracts or no. That said, I think the standards in Lafayette are pretty high because the folks there bring out the best in each other.
And the music scene. All of South Louisiana has an incredible music scene: blues, jazz, zydeco, Cajun, etc. The arts survive, despite all odds, because the cultures in South Louisiana are all built around music.
Check out these companies and spaces:
Acting Up – The company concentrates on character, story, and our relationship with audience by performing in non-theatre spaces.
Acadiana Repertory Theatre – Focused on the development and production of new works.
The Performing Arts Society of Acadiana
The Plastic Theatre – A place for theatrical and digital productions that make heavy use of technology to create magic and illusion.
The Tea Sippers – A troupe of actors, musicians, and artists who produce theatre of all varieties
Silverbacks Improv Theatre – Theatre company focused on improvisation.
Wanderlust Theatre Company – Dedicated to convening the community to expand imagination and break down the barriers of thought.
The Acadiana Center for the Arts -Serves an eight-parish region with community development, education performances and exhibits.
Theatre 810 – Home to many other local theatre companies, such as Acadiana Repertory Theatre, The Tea Sippers, Silverbacks Improv Theatre, Wanderlust Theatre Company and others.
Cite des Arts – Where cultures connect (où les cultures se rencontrent)