CTC leaders, actors discuss personal politics of theater

Throughout Week Five, Chautauqua’s lectures focused on how art and politics interact. Friday’s Interfaith Lecture, however, offered that same insight from a different perspective: the artists’.

Speaking from the Hall of Philosophy, four different members of Chautauqua Theater Company delivered their combined lecture, “Having Faith to Make a Difference: The Politics of Making Theater in the 21st Century.”

“One of the incredible powers we have in our field is the ability to help,” said Vivienne Benesch, CTC’s artistic director and the group’s first speaker. “When we do work that reflects the global community around us, audiences get to walk in the shoes of people that are unlike them. There’s a bigger level of understanding to experiences that are not our own.”

Explaining the company’s newfound focus on tackling issues of diversity and race relations, Benesch said that true artists can never stagnate or they’ll become irrelevant. Thus, as society faces these pressing issues, artists must adapt with the times.

Pointing to specific CTC changes, such as conscious efforts to increase diversity, the transparency of those efforts, and producing topical works such as A Raisin in the Sun, Benesch said the only direction for the company to go was up.

“If CTC wants to thrive and be relevant, all this is just the beginning,” she said.

After Benesch, CTC faculty member Diego Villada explained his understanding of the inextricability of art and politics. Art is inherently political, even if it’s not about politics, he said. Before working with a company, Villada uses a system to determine its message and artistic direction.

“I never work for a company that doesn’t ask the questions that I have of my art form,” Villada said. “Whose story are we telling? For whom? By whom? And why?”

Villada adheres to productions that foster difficult conversations and lead to growth and healing, he said. He offered one step for how directors can make productions that start these conversations.

“Be brave, because it is only when those in a position to begin the conversation do so that others may find voice to explain how they have been excluded,” Villada said.

CTC conservatory actor Kate Eastman spoke next.

She shared her perspective on growing up with the privilege of being a white woman attending a prestigious theater school, Juilliard, while issues of international terrorism, domestic police brutality and poverty proliferated elsewhere.

One of the most important things Eastman has learned to do through her work and training as an actor is to listen — deeply and attentively — to better understand the suffering going on this world, she said.

“I am no better than any other person,” Eastman said. “I am not — despite the tremendous privilege that I enjoy. There is nothing stopping me from listening with an open heart. There is nothing stopping me from helping to move conversations forward.”

Despite the nation’s racial tensions, Eastman said, it is a great time in America because of the prospect of change, which she strives for both as a person and as an artist.

The final lecturer, Jonathan Majors, is another CTC actor. He shared some of his experiences as a black actor in the field today. This experience inevitably becomes political, he said.

“Where do politics live for me as an artist? They are me,” Majors said. “I am a walking billboard — quite literally. I am a spokesperson at all times. I am a confidant to my brothers and sisters. I am a channel for confused and angry white folks. I am a punching bag for upset black folks. These are my politics every day because, for me, there is no separation. My artistry is not separated from my personhood.”

Majors continued the thread weaved by all the lecturers, saying his hope is that art focused on uncomfortable issues will produce uncomfortable — but necessary — conversations. Growth will only happen if the discussion will happen, he said.

In closing, Majors shared a metaphor of how he understands the immediate need for change today.

“We are on the top of a hill sitting down, and the waters are rising,” Majors said. “The only way to make it now is to stand up.”