The Interfaith Lecture podium is normally a platform for outside perspectives, but today audiences will hear an insider’s view of the politics of theater on both sides of the gates.
Chautauqua Theater Company Artistic Director Vivienne Benesch will give a lecture titled “Having Faith to Make a Difference: The Politics of Making Theater in the 21st Century” at 2 p.m. today in the Hall of Philosophy. Benesch will be accompanied by CTC faculty member Diego Villada and veteran CTC conservatory actors Jonathan Majors and Kate Eastman.
Benesch said she was invited to speak after a series of meetings that discussed issues of diversity and inclusion at Chautauqua after CTC’s 2013 production of Clybourne Park and 2014 production of A Raisin in the Sun.
“There was certainly an intentionality about raising issues of race, class, gender, et cetera,” Benesch said. “Last year, because of Raisin in the Sun, our conservatory was a majority non-white for the first time ever. I think they, as a conservatory group, had a lot of different reactions about being here, both good and bad, and it brought up the necessity of these meetings.”
Though those meetings were specific to Chautauqua, Benesch said the same kinds of issues are part of the discourse surrounding theater in the rest of the country. Even so, she said moving those conversations from the meeting room to the Bratton Theater stage requires a shift in perspective for the audience.
“As Chautauqua plans to be relevant in the 21st century, it is our job to make sure that we are reflecting the world in the arts as it exists outside of this gated community,” Benesch said. “The issues of race here at Chautauqua, in a white, gated community, it’s uncomfortable. It’s just uncomfortable, but we need to be uncomfortable for a while. We have to struggle through being uncomfortable to get to somewhere new, and there’s really no avoiding it.”
As artistic director for CTC, Benesch said she feels a responsibility to not only help create a safe space for her actors of different ethnicities and socioeconomic statuses, but also to hire a diverse company and choose plays that deal with issues of diversity in some way.
“Very fundamentally, diverse theater is better theater because it’s more interesting,” Benesch said. “The next step is a diverse company that is going to bring us better theater because there are more voices in the room. I think that’s one of the things that’s hard that’s very much on the national scene.”
In addition to her own comments, Benesch will open the conversation to Eastman and Majors, who will share their experiences as performers at Chautauqua as a woman and an African-American man.
Benesch said while such conversations might be uncomfortable or difficult, she feels that Chautauqua is an ideal venue for such discussion.
“I love working here specifically for the fact that the audience is such a supportive audience, but also curious committed to lifelong learning and dialogue,” she said. “There is an opportunity here to shake things up and change the discourse.”
Ultimately, Benesch said, the creation of better, more diverse theater can inspire change in the wider world.
“In the way a great sermon will make us go and want to be better people, you hope that great theater will do the same,” she said. “And also [tell us] that we’re not alone, that the dilemmas we struggle with are shared in other people’s and other cultures’ stories.”