by Miryam Gordon -
SGN A&E Writer
Wouldn't it be such divine fun to have one of our local musicals headlined by Mario Cantone as the lead? Alas - I've been informed by a close source that Mario would rather not work that much and if he does work, he goes for big bucks to make it 'count.'
Who's my 'in the know'? Why, it's his husband, the new artistic director of Village Theatre: Jerry Dixon! He's a pretty good source!
SGN got to sit down with Mr. Dixon to have an extensive and wide-ranging chit chat about the shape of Musical Theater and what might be coming down the pike. Mr. Dixon is a powerfully intellectual thinker with deep appreciation for the collaborative art that is theater and few limits on visions for the kinds of people he'll meet as a new ambassador for Village work in the future.
SGN spoke to Dixon.... OK, I'm switching to 'I' and 'Jerry'.... Here is a little primer on Jerry Dixon: Wikipedia says he is an 'actor, director, lyricist, choreographer, and composer best known for his work on the Broadway stage.' He married Mario Cantone in 2011, having been constant companions for 20 years by then!
While Jerry was born in Chicago, Illinois, he spent most of his formative years in Kalamazoo, Michigan. His mother wouldn't let him be in the first play he auditioned for in junior high, but by high school, he was in plays all the time.
He reports that he took piano lessons, but the family wasn't particularly musical. Nor theatrical. He did like being taken to theater in Chicago by his aunts. But his piano playing was good enough that he was able to accompany singers when they asked him for help.
Jerry said that it began dawning on him in high school that some people around him might be Gay. He doesn't report having crushes on people, but he felt a strong love for his best friend. 'I loved my best friend but he had a girlfriend,' says Jerry, '... we were just inseparable. It was interesting to feel that way for a man and not be attracted to him. He was the one who led me to my Gayness. He'd say, 'I see you looking at that guy.' He could tell that I was interested and kind of pushed me to be Gay.'
After high school, Jerry continued to work in theater, but still didn't consider it a real 'career'. He went to work in a department store. The owner was a patron of the arts. Jerry says, 'He saw me in Pippin and called me to his office. 'You're really good,' he told me. 'If you're really interested in musicals, you have to go to New York. This is what I'm going to do for you. But promise not to tell how much and who.' And he wrote me a fat check! I went to New York to do my thing and I was able to get an apartment, go see shows every week and to choose acting jobs. Most young people don't have those choices.'
Jerry never felt like he had to 'come out' to his family, though he never really introduced anyone to his mom until Mario. 'I suppose I was letting them guess at it, until I met Mario,' Jerry says. 'I was 30. I did my first Broadway show, Once on This Island, and met Mario. Someone said about me that 'You always know what you're getting with Jerry.' And I decided that I had to live up to this and wrote my mother a letter to be clear. But it was during the AIDS crisis, so I started the letter that I was writing as a 'healthy gay man'! Just so she would know that I was healthy! And also to share really great news that I'd found a really great man. She was so happy that I wasn't sick! A lot of parents found out that their children were Gay and dying at the same time at that time.'
He's performed in several Broadway shows, done some TV and a couple of films, and began his association as a director with Village Theatre about 10 years ago, when he helmed their production of Show Boat. That production was a critical hit and allowed for a special sensitivity toward - and a spotlighting of - the lower-deck/servant characters.
Jerry reports that he was the first African-American in the country to direct Show Boat! Show Boat, itself, was a boundary-breaking creation by Rodgers and Hammerstein that dealt with racism directly. It still 'holds up' despite being decades old and focused on a historical phase of riverboat entertainment.
He's returned over the years to direct more mainstage shows like The Full Monty and also for Festival of New Musicals to direct a few of those developmental concerts. His connection to the company is very helpful to making a transition to filling the big footsteps in the sand that remain from Mr. Steve Tomkins.
One Coast or Two?
We clarified if this job title meant that he was now going to be ensconced in our fair environs all the time. Jerry replies, 'We're still learning how much time I need to spend physically here because a lot of things I need to do are not dependent on being physically in the office. Since I've taken over in June, I've been away every month for a period of time. I told the board that in order to forge relationships more effectively, you have to be in front of a person where they can see, touch, smell, and [know] the meaning of you and how you want to work with them. So they needed to allow me to travel to meet people.
'When I travel, I'm doing so in a general way, not for a specific project, not for hitting deadlines and certain points to meet. I call it dream talking: what are you thinking about doing with theater? That kind of conversation is quite different from 'I have a project.' It's very different from being an actor and a director. This is much more broad with a new set of possibilities.
'When I was offered this job, Steve took me to lunch and asked me, 'What scares you about taking this position? And if you can answer that then you'll be okay.' I could not verbalize it [at the time] but I had one. My artistic fear has always been stasis. I don't want to look at my life five years from now and be the same. It's everywhere, personal, professional, my interests even. For a job like AD where you're in charge of the vision, you certainly don't want the theater to look the same as on day one.
'I was hired to be a bicoastal director, so I have my home in New York and my home on Capitol Hill. I'm to expand the theater and use my connections to artists. I will concentrate on that more than being onstage as an actor, I will direct one show a year [at Village] and look to direct outside the theater. I'll maybe do short term readings or film as an actor.
'That's built into the job: time away. I'm also a Tony Voter, so I have to go to shows throughout the year. Also, I'm pursuing areas like the Edinburgh Festival that we [Village] haven't explored before. Then there is exporting Village in a different way: if we're interested in doing a three-person Medea [for instance], but we don't want to do it on First Stage or Main Stage, can we find someone to do it with as a co-production? Or take it to different places as Village Theatre Presents?
'One aspect that is unique to our company is that we have Issaquah and Everett that allow us to see how shows work on different levels of recognition, escapism, or challenge between the two cities. It's one of the things I use as a selling tool for producers to work with us, because they can get a sense of how a tour would work because of the two different audience pools.
'I'm excited about taking one of our Festival [of New Musicals] shows internationally. Or to do a play because we love it and not limiting ourselves to our four brick and mortar houses. Do we ever want to do a new play festival? Straight plays. You can support plays without putting them in your season. Maybe there is a new [writing] voice that needs support. Artists need support. If we have infrastructure on how to do new work, which we do - we know how to raise money for new work - I don't want to limit us or our possibilities because we haven't done it in the past.'
Jerry has, of course, acted on Broadway. He's performed and worked on Off-Broadway shows. He and Mario have created cabaret type shows. He's written productions. Jerry is also black and Gay. A person with all of those varied experiences is going to have to bring different perspectives to bear. It's impossible not to.
A lot of times we hear that Seattle shows are 'Broadway quality.' We have certainly become a pipeline for musicals to develop here and end up on Broadway eventually. But what about the quality of our productions here? How can we be assured that our shows stand up to that level of quality? Since Jerry intimately knows what Broadway Quality is, he's a great person to ask.
Jerry says, 'There is a wow effect to Broadway musicals. Even when shows are exported here from the East End of London, their musicals get better. In NYC, you've got 8.5 million people and the talent pool is huge. The talent pool is making that happen. You have access to the most creative people and can audition 300 people for a principal role. It's choice. You can have five designers submit work on spec.
'The thing that Seattle has, in a different access to talent, is a large pool combined with this level of work ethic that is not necessarily the ethic of other regional pockets. [Other] regional theater productions can look great, but the access to talent is not necessarily going to be there. There are very few regional theaters that can say 'most of the actors are right from here.' Also, there's access to a lot of local designers, choreographers.
'But there is a level of preparedness that you don't get even in NYC. It's so thrilling to walk into Day One [of a Village rehearsal] and 3/4 of your cast is ready to go [memorized] with the show. You have 4 or 5 weeks of rehearsal [instead of 8 in New York], but you're not losing at all because the actors are coming in at a week 2 or 3 process and they're doing that on their own. I don't email the cast and ask them to know their script before they get to Day One. I don't know any other pocket of regional theater that has that.
'I get why some actors go to New York and come back and some realize what they've given up leaving Seattle, with a high quality of life in the PNW and a life in theater. In NYC, it's shocking that they have to shrink the quality of their life so much, down to one tiny little apartment for way more money and compete with so many more people. And their craft is improved and so when they cycle back, the talent pool level rises.
'It's not just being proud. There is a level of talent here that, when they bring their skills back [from going to New York], it's infectious. People who haven't had the experience in New York look at them as shinier and smarter and people [here] learn from their experience. And from guest directors and guest choreographers.
'Village [also] is one of the few companies that mostly builds its own musicals [creates its own sets, costumes, lights, sound]. Village builds, designs, and crafts. Audiences get something made for Village Theatre. It wasn't trucked in. There's something special about that.'
The Future for Musical Theatre
Companies in Seattle, like most companies in the country, are grappling with concepts of 'diversity' and 'inclusion' and making sure that the actors on stage reflect a wide range of ethnicities and differences. This helps invite audience members who may not have seen themselves on stage before. I talked with Jerry about that trend and also where Musical Theater could and should go in the future.
Jerry says, 'We're finally starting to believe it can go anywhere. We're often told Musical Theater can't do serious subjects, shows about mental illness, or an anti-hero story. Then you have Dear Evan Hansen - a completely flawed individual, and you have next to normal. There's really not anything we can't touch, but any tender topic needs high levels of skill.
'It's the same as using violence and nudity in live theatre. Your skills have to be so finely honed to make it work in live theater, so the audience doesn't feel assaulted. There is a trust factor going into live theater. 'I'm sitting down and [I've] paid maybe double to quadruple [as I'd pay] for a movie ticket. Please give me something that is worth the time and the cost.' There is vulnerability because it's so immediate. [An audience member] might be exposing personal parts of yourself by how you're reacting. That's how theater is not like a film or concert. Everyone is or should be invested in what's happening.
'We theater artists have a responsibility to take care of that person. We should assume someone in that house is going to have mental health issues or know someone who is transgender and struggling with their identity.
'Theater takes advantage of that trust because the audience gives us the trust. You can do things in theater no one wants to see in movies. Musical Theater, with the added tool of music, tends to crack people open in a different way than spoken language.
The 'D' Word
'Diversity, inclusion, equity. I've been aware of these issues before they became buzzwords. If there are subjects that are sensitive in any given work, are my sensibilities going to be a truly great match to mitigate those issues? As a performer, I have gone into a room of complete insensitivity, complete unawareness of what actors have to go through to say certain things to each other on stage [plays/scripts where the 'N' word is used like The Scottsboro Boys]. The economics might drive you because you need the job, and you go on and do the job and go onstage and suffer because of it.
'Something happens when a director cares about all those things. The play is still sharp and potent, it's still tough to say [those words], but you leave every night as colleagues. It's very different when things are taken care of. Not a safe space, an aware space, an awareness of saying terrible things to another actor, and because you're playing the part and it's not to be taken personally, it can damage you if people are insensitive.
'Kidstage is already looking like what we want to look like. It's the most diverse, the most dynamic. Kidstage does not have the same bottom line so they can risk and they do. Mixed race and transgender and disabled people - and backstage is the same thing and the orchestra. Kidstage also has new work written for it. Even the new work, you'd think it's like High School Musical. No! They're writing things about Rosie the Riveter, teenage suicide, sexual awakening, broken homes. They know the musical can be anything.
'I can hire directors, designers, stage managers. I want to tell people that everyone is invited. It does not happen overnight, but we're being proactive. None of it gets done by accident. We must recruit responsibly. Not by quotas but toward the end of what we want. If we want the theater to be an enriched experience, get everyone in the room. Just by showing up looking like I do, there are people who will join us who may not have a year ago.
'There are so many writers writing the new stories we're going to be telling in the next 5, 10, 20 years. A lot of my job is to find those writers. Writers and artists are sometimes steps ahead of the practitioners of their art. The largest part of my job is to seek those artists out. Who is thinking in a way I'm not capable of thinking but also creatively advanced that I can see and recognize that that is what the theater needs? You bring them in and you stick with a few creative teams or minds, writing-wise, and your theater will be brand new season after season. Not just writers, the choreographers, designers, directors.
'You can put most types of subject matter in front of [Village audiences]. They have a curiosity about people who are different from themselves. In the works [for example] is Southern Comfort based on the documentary about a small group of transgender folks living in the Appalachian Mountains and they want to be left to themselves but someone has to have a medical procedure. Our audiences are accepting of seeing that.
'When we do Southern Comfort, there is not a promise that everyone [on stage] is going to be an actor who is transgender. That isn't the point. We need them back stage and in the box office. Everyone we fold into the Village family, we want to keep them there.
'The 'practitioner' component is so far behind. [Someone will produce] a work like The Scottsboro Boys and everyone behind the scene is white. Not a black publicist. They do a revival of Pacific Overtures, and no one on the creative team is Asian. How does this happen?
'We constantly think of diversity that we can only SEE. Diversity is a tool, not an end. It's connection. That's the end goal. How do I connect to a person? It's diversity of mind. I see: Humanity is up on stage.'
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