Tonight, the nonprofit professional theatre company On Q Performing Arts, Inc. is hosting a fundraiser featuring the theatre legend Lou Bellamy. I serve on the board of On Q and am ecstatic to share this recent interview by Anne Lambert with Lou Bellamy on my blog. Enjoy!
Respect, Love and Space: A Culture Revealed
An interview with theatre legend Lou Bellamy, founder and artistic director of the renowned Penumbra Theatre Company
By Anne Lambert
Summer 2012, Charlotte’s Quentin “Q” Talley, founder and artistic director of On Q Performing Arts, Inc., became one of only six theatre professionals nationwide awarded a Leadership U fellowship. Made possible by The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation and Theatre Communications Group, the 2012-13 fellowship provides Q a residency at Penumbra Theatre Company in St. Paul, MN and professional mentorship from Lou Bellamy, Penumbra’s founder.
An Obie Award-winning director, accomplished actor and sought-after scholar, Bellamy has led Penumbra in producing 23 world premieres, including August Wilson’s first professional production. Penumbra carries the proud distinction of having produced more of Wilson’s plays than any other theatre in the world. In addition to his theatre company, Bellamy has been a faculty member at the University of Minnesota for 32 years and is currently associate professor in the Department of Theatre Arts and Dance.
Bellamy is traveling to Charlotte this week to participate in a dinner event, benefiting On Q Performing Arts. On the eve of his arrival, Bellamy generously responded to a series of questions I posed. My interview with him is below.
Q: How did you meet Q? How did you first learn about the Leadership U fellowship funded by the Andrew Mellon Foundation and Theatre Communications Group?
I first met Q at a reception at the JCSU president’s residence. I was in Charlotte at Dr. Carter’s invitation. Dr. Carter and I were exploring ways to bring some of Penumbra’s programs to Charlotte and to JCSU. Dr. Carter introduced me to Q as a leader and representative of the theater community. Q and I hit it off early on. Being a founder of a mid-sized arts organization, I understood immediately the challenges he was addressing. As Penumbra and JCSU’s relationship evolved, so did my relationship with Q and On Q Performing Arts. We began to speak about making PTC’s educational programs available to JCSU students and to artists associated with On Q Performing Arts. Those discussions led to students from JCSU and from Davidson College coming to Minnesota to participate in PTC’s Summer Institute. At the same time, Q learned of the Leadership U fellowship and asked me if I would be interested in mentoring him if he applied and was accepted to the program.
Q: How is the fellowship structured? How do you and Q work together? Does he have ‘homework’ or assignments? Or is your partnership more loosely structured? How does the financial aspect of the grant work? Do you have benchmarks that you also have to reach?
The fellowship is structured to allow Q to explore and participate in both the artistic and administrative aspects of running a company. As we continue to structure the relationship, it is important that Q choose the areas he wants to develop. Once he chooses an area, we begin to chart out a strategy that will allow him to participate and/or observe that activity in a working professional company. He is an integral part of PTC’s administrative staff, complete with desk, computer, etc. He attends staff and production meetings and follows the process of creating art for the stage from the germination of an idea to full production. He is also a part of all other aspects of running a theater company (e.g. marketing, personnel, education, technical, audience development, granting, and production). He also assists me in direction and has assisted and traveled with me as I’ve directed plays at Denver Center for the Performing Arts and Oregon Shakespeare Festival.
Q: What are the benefits of the fellowship for you? What are some of the unexpected aspects of the project and your relationship with Q? What advice would you give to artists who seek a mentor or a mentee?
PTC’s programs and approach to production have been developed over thirty-seven years of continuous production. The company is now in the position where it is important that this body of knowledge be shared with those interested in engaging their communities in similar manners. On Q Performing Arts and PTC are exploring ways that our programming can be shared in the other’s community. This could mean PTC programming in Charlotte and On Q Performing Arts programming in Minnesota. One of the unintended consequences of our interaction has been the refinement of my own artistic philosophy and practice. When I am forced to examine and explain actions and choices which have become almost instinctive for me, I begin to reexamine my own approach. I think the process has reinvigorated and expanded my repertoire.
Q: While you’re working with Q, I imagine you have thought about your own career path. Can you tell us more about how you got to where you are, where you went to school, how you broke into the world of directing, how you founded Penumbra Theatre, etc?
My career path has been largely dictated by the direction, growth and needs of my company. When you are a company like On Q Performing Arts or Penumbra, your personal growth and development is inextricably tied to that of the company. When I came out of graduate school, I had been mainly trained as an actor. I had good directors already in my company, so the best way for me to contribute to the company was through acting and administration. As the company matured and directors began to be beckoned by the rest of the field, the needs of the company shifted and I began to move from acting to directing. Before founding PTC, I first broke into directing because of the demand I had created as an actor. Theaters wanted to hire me as an actor. I made deals with them that I would appear in their productions in their current seasons if they would hire me to direct in their next season. It worked. And I turned out to have something to say as a director. I founded PTC because I knew that there were stories from the African American experience that were not being told with truth and cultural authenticity. This approach to the drama necessitated both craft and textual exploration and refinement. Fortunately, there were available excellent actors, writers, and directors who were similarly impelled. We all felt that African Americans should be in control of the images, stories and iconology that surround and defines their ethos. This authentic approach to the drama has resulted in an increased demand for the work and has irreversibly shaped American drama.
Q: Could you tell us about your professional philosophy and work style? How do you direct? What is important to you as a director? What do you want from actors? What does your experience tell you actors need from you? How do you work with playwrights? How do you work with designers?
My approach is to explore and represent the authentic African American experience. For me, this is best represented in ensemble production. I’ve found that the culture will reveal itself only when it is given respect, love, and space. One has to be intimately familiar with the culture to present it on stage. I want actors who are trained and well versed in the craft of theatre and who have (or want to) stud(y)ied the culture. I love and respect actors and feel a real responsibility to make sure they have clear expectations and a safe and nurturing atmosphere in which to create. I do best working with playwrights by attempting to supply the cultural nuance and rhythms that are the intent of the playwright. With designers, I’m intentionally vague. I want them to have a certain fidelity to the text, but leave room for them to imagine.
Q: Can you recall a specific black theatre production (either one of your own or a project in which you weren’t directly involved) that you have drawn significant inspiration from or weaves a story that you particularly identify with? In other words, what play moves you most? And why?
Three productions come to mind. Two of them I directed and the other was directed by another I acted in. The dramatic presentation and realization in all were instructive and the “whole” that emerged was definitely greater than the sum of the parts. I directed a production of Steve Tesich’s On the Open Road set in an African American post-apocalyptic reality whose images were so strong as to still be inspirational to me. I directed a production of Seven Guitars that was, to me, so well realized that I don’t think I want to ever try to reengage the text. I can’t imagine it ever being more perfect. Probably the most formative in my career was a production of Fences directed by Claude Purdy in which I played TROY MAXON opposite Rebecca Rice’s ROSE. Purdy’s direction continues to shape the choices and style of my directing and Rice’s honesty, beauty, and craft are carried in my heart and are templates for dramatic truth in everything I do. My study of African American culture and history form a context which informs each and every directing choice I make. Texts like The Drama of Nommo by Paul Carter Harrison, From Slavery to Freedom by John Hope Franklin, and Before the Mayflower by Lerone Bennett, Jr. are the bones of the skeleton that hold up the body of my work.
Q: Last fall, On Q Performing Arts hosted you, Joan Myers Brown (founder of Philadanco) and poet and playwright Amiri Baraka for a discussion called “Black Arts Movement: Present Condition, Future Vision.” What makes a play uniquely ‘African-American’ or ‘black’ and not just a work of theater, or American theater? Why is that distinction important to audiences? Or is it still an important distinction as our culture becomes increasingly diverse? Is radicalism or racial identity a required theme of ‘black’ theater? What, in your opinion, creates an ‘authentic’ theater experience?
I feel that the answers to these questions are somewhere addressed above. A black character in a play does not make it a “black play.” I could write, or talk, for days about this. Toni Morrison’s Playing in the Dark is most instructive here. America’s view of “things African” are so colored and pulled out of shape that depictions of blacks in American literature not created by African Americans often bear little resemblance to that which I know to be true. Blacks in this context tend to be metaphors, representatives of the race, portrayed without the community that shapes them, represent bench marks for the development of white characters, provide comic relief or the opportunity to play out extreme violence or sexuality, etc. I’m interested in exposing the “human experience” through the lives and culture of African Americans. I believe that in so doing I can make the world a better place for us all.
Anne Lambert is a professional actress, writer and theatre producer. A longtime supporter of On Q Performing Arts, Lambert organized Lou, Q and You at e2, a benefit dinner event, and contributes generously to the theatre company.