The (Socially Conscious) Plays the Thing
Class of 86 | It hasnt been easy. But Seth Rozin C86 wouldnt have it any other way.
To do theater at all in the last 15-20 years has been a risk, and particularly theater with a fairly specific mission like ours, says Rozin, the producing artistic director of the InterAct Theatre Company in Philadelphia, which he co-founded in 1988. The challenge is two-pronged, he adds. One is the social-political content. The other is the fact that were doing new work. Put those two together, and youre talking about a fairly risky venture.
Despite the formidable odds, InterAct has survived to become a serious, albeit small, player in the Philadelphia theater scenewhich was his idea all along.
I never wanted to run a big, mainstream theater, he says. That involves making certain necessary compromises, and its not the direction I wanted to go to. Weve been very vigilant about holding very closely to our mission and providing challenging, thought-provoking theaterwhich we could not have produced if we were trying to fill a 500-seat house and appeal to a more mainstream audience.
InterActs most recent offering was Thomas Gibbons Permanent Collection, a theatrical roman ý clef about a small, prestigious art museumvery much like the Barnes Foundation in suburban Philadelphia. At the heart of the play is the conflict between the museums African-American executive director and its white education director over a proposal to replace some of its famous Impressionist exhibits with African artworks that had been relegated to a storage area. A review in the Philadelphia City Paper by David Anthony Fox, a lecturer in theater arts at Penn, called it thought-provoking and literate, and well-served by Seth Rozins fine production.
Permanent Collection, like many of that playwrights works, deals with race and the racial divide that continues to inform a lot of what goes on in this country, says Rozin. It addresses the inability and unwillingness to talk to each other across the racial divide in any meaningful way. At the end of shows every night, people leave talking about it.
Starting a dialogue is one of Rozins goals, and the two upcoming productions are likely to do the same. Naomi Wallaces In the Heart of America (February 13-March 14), about two American GIs who fall in love serving in the first Gulf War, is, in Rozins view, incredibly relevant now, while Dick Goldbergs God of Desire (May 7-June 6), a really passionate play about a man whose religious faith conflicts with his sexual desire, is likely to ruffle a few feathers.
Thats fine with Rozin, whose interest in theater goes back a long way.
My family was very encouraging of the arts, and I grew up in an environment that was very arts-oriented, says Rozin, whose father is Penn psychology professor Paul Rozin and whose mother is a writer. Having acted and directed in high school, he continued to do so at Penn (especially such extracurricular troupes as Penn Players), even though the theater program was considerably less expansive then than it is now. He thrived under the mentorship of Catherine Kaki Marshall CW45 and others, and because of the small, laissez-faire nature of the program, he learned a lot about the entrepreneurial side of theaterhow to produce and publicize shows, raise money, and run production meetings. By the time he graduated, he pretty much knew that he wanted to start his own theater company.
The original idea for InterAct was to promote cultural exchange at the global level taking American plays that highlighted or represented different aspects of American culture abroad, or bringing back similar kinds of plays from other countries to the United States. But financial realitiesand the uncertainty of touring at a time when the Iron Curtain had just fallen took the wind out of the companys sails.
To pay the rent, Rozin took a job at the University Museum as arts director of a program for homeless children and mothers. That job awakened his dormant social conscience.
work changed very strongly as a result of that work, he says, and
cites two turning points. One came in 1993, when the company put on
another Thomas Gibbons play: 6221: Prophecy and Tragedy, about
the City of Philadelphias lethal bombing of the MOVE house in 1985.
Opening night was such an electric evening, recalls Rozin. The
discussion afterwards went on for 45 minutes. People were standing
up and really venting. It really put
But despite the success of 6221which earned Rozin a Best Director award from The Philadelphia Inquirer and another Inquirer citation for the productionthe next five years were still really a struggle, because political is still a dirty word in the arts, he says. We had to fight and stick to our guns that we were doing valuable work.
It wasnt until 1999 that InterAct hit pay dirt with Israel Horovitzs Lebensraum, which won three of the citys prestigious Barrymore Awardsone for Rozin as Best Director, another for Best Production, and a third for Best Ensemble. Since Lebensraum was running during the American Theatre Critics Associations conference in Philadelphia, it ended up getting national press.
Lebensraum got us a lot more critical notoriety, and seemed to get us over the hurdle of recognitionthat we could be both political and highly entertaining at the same time, says Rozin. Everything seemed to click into gear after Lebensraum. We havent looked back since.S.H.
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