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Jonathan Eigenmann 0:00
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Theatre might seem like a dying art in this era of online videos and movies, but there are still places where the art of performing in front of a live audience holds strong. The struggle to make plays innovative, critical, complicated, yet entertaining is tough and not a lot of theaters try it either because they won't be as profitable or just a waste of time, but it hasn't stopped the Burning Coal Theatre Company. Now this company is entering its 25th anniversary season and producing literate visceral, affecting theater that is experienced and not simply seen. These artists from all over the world and produce place to tune of overlook classics, modern classic and new plays that address important ideas to the community of Raleigh with minimalist production values and high energy. Today I'm sitting down with Artistic Director Jerome Davis. He is the founding artistic director at the Burning Coal Theatre Company. He studied with Landry acting teacher huzzah Hagen for seven years and also study with Nicos Micropolis and Julie Vasa while in New York City. He is joining me today to talk about the upcoming 25th season of the company. And its progress from how it started to its sustainability as it continues to entertain and impress the masses. Artistic Director Davis, welcome to Eye on the Triangle.
Artistic Director Davis 1:30
Hi, thanks for having me.
Jonathan Eigenmann 1:33
My first question, I would like you to tell our listeners more about your role as it stands currently
Artistic Director Davis 1:37
My role as artistic director of Burning Coal Theatre Company Sure. Well, as it stands currently, nothing is is assured, you know, and I'm sure you're having that same experience, our plan of action is to go forward. With a season of plays. as we always do, we have selected three of the four plays that have small casts so they can be rehearsed more safely. And the fourth show, if we get to next April and, and the pandemic is still with us, as I suspect it may be, then we will do the fourth show outdoors. It's a larger cast show, but we'll rehearse and perform it outdoors. And that should provide a level of safety that will help people to feel feel better about the process. We're also going to make each of the productions live streamed as well as live so you'll have the option of being with us in person or in two dimensions, which is not quite the same but but it's something and so we decided to make that option as well. And then we're doing a lot of little events like we have a play over in the Oakwood cemetery that we do every year. And we are doing that this year. It'll be outdoors obviously. And I like to say about the Oakwood cemetery plays it's a grave undertaking. But people are dying to get in so sorry, I can't resist those puns.
Jonathan Eigenmann 3:16
No, that's good to hear actually, uh. So obviously this is your 25th anniversary season graduate. Congratulations, by the way, that's that's a good Feat.
Artistic Director Davis 3:24
Thank you. We're still walking up, right?
Jonathan Eigenmann 3:28
Could you tell the listeners more about how it began because from what I understand you're a founding member of the of the theater, and just what innovations and changes were made to help it grow to where it is now.
Artistic Director Davis 3:40
Sure. My wife and I met in New York City, we were both living there. I had been working since I was really a teenager toward having a career in the theater as an actor, and a director. But I knew that eventually I wanted to start my own company. And I knew that the cost of real estate is so prohibitive that someone of my you know, somebody who isn't named Rockefeller, or Trump is not gonna be able to afford a building in New York City. And so the choices were rent, you know, all the time and spend all your money on rent and none of your money on the art or move somewhere else where perhaps the art was less in abundance and more needed. And so we decided to do that. And we got very, very lucky. In that sense. We got here, people started saying, oh, there's this, this great old auditorium at the Murphy school, you should go take a look at it. And we did and we were told that nobody had ever turned it into a theater recently since the school closed back in 1977, because the building was full of asbestos. But the building was built in 1908. And they didn't have as best as back then. So we were like, asbestos. That's interesting. And so we looked around and sure enough, with one very small exception, a part of the place that had been renovated, there was no asbestos at all. And that made it cost favorable to us. So we started raising money, it took us seven years to do it. But we raised a million and a half dollars in cash. And probably just about that much again, in in kind contributions from people like Greg Paul, who was our contractor, Louis Cherry, who is our architect, Curtis K. Spang, who was the consultant who helped us figure out where everything went, you know, and that sort of thing. And so, with people like that Mary Hart, Paul, Greg's wife, who also worked on the architectural team, all of those people, and many, many others, pitched down and allowed a company who at that time, had a budget of about $300,000, to raise a million and a half dollars in cash and that much again, in in kind contributions. So we raised about 10 times our annual budget in order to, to achieve the space and it's beautiful, you know, people walk in, and just their jaw hangs open, you know, when they see it. So we got really lucky that there was such a space, and we got lucky with all the very talented people who were willing to pitch in and help us turn it into what it is today.
Jonathan Eigenmann 6:28
How many actors do you have currently employed at your company?
Artistic Director Davis 6:31
You know, a thing theaters typically don't do that. There are a few companies, in quotes companies still in existence in America. One is the Trinity Repertory Company in Providence, which I had the good fortune of working at, for a season when I was when I was acting more. But very few others most companies hire, they do what's called jobbing in. So they bring in an actor for this show. And then they, after the show's over, they say goodbye, and hopefully bring that actor back sometime in the future. But it's not a full time capacity. And so now we have a small staff, and then on a show by show basis, we are actors. And it depends on the show, obviously. But we do everything from one person shows to you know, we did, we opened the building here at the Murphy School back in 2008, with a production of Inherit the Wind, which had 24 actors in it. So so we have we have done pretty big projects and pretty small projects and everything in between.
Jonathan Eigenmann 7:34
So I'm interested to know what makes this theater company and its place something that it's experienced and not simply seen, as seen as one of your your slogans that you put on your site, and what inspirations did you take into consideration as you try to think about doing this and turning into reality?
Artistic Director Davis 7:51
Yeah, that's a that's a really good question. And it's, it's not easy to articulate. But I want to start with the building itself. We do plays in what's called a thrust configuration, which means there's an audience on three sides. It's not an audience on one side, and actors on the other side, it's you not only watched the actors, but you also watch your neighbors, watching the actors, right. And so that creates more of a sense of community, I think, I also fought very hard to make sure that we had a balcony in the space, we have a very high ceiling, the lighting grids at 17 feet. And so we had just enough room to put a balcony in on those three sides as well. And so when the theater is full, and it often is, you will feel like the the audience is almost hanging over the edge of the balcony, listening to the play, it's it's almost like being at a boxing match or something like that. And it creates a very dynamic experience for the audience. One of the one of the problems with film or television or digital media is that you know, no matter how artfully those things are created, and I love film and television, but no matter how well they are created or good they're created, you know that the actor is never going to come closer to you. Right, the actor is always going to be separated from you by that screen. And in the theater, an actor can be 20 feet away, and then walk toward you and now he's five feet away, or he can go sit next to you in the chair, tap you on the shoulder, whatever. We don't do much of that during the pandemic, but it is possible to do and you as an audience member know that it's possible you know that, that you are literally in the same room as the actors and I think that creates more of a sense that that act The actors are part of the human race, and not some exotic animal from some other place. You know, when we watch the films, we sort of have a tendency of thinking, well, that's, that's those people over there, you know, but when you're, when you're in a in a theater, especially in a thrust theater, the it is very clear that the actors are part of the same group that the audience is part of. And frankly, that is how theater was done for most of human experience. If you go back to the, to the ancient Greeks, they had an amphitheater, which kind of wrapped around the stage to the Globe Theatre in London, and the other theaters that Shakespeare worked in, all had audiences on three sides. Sometimes I would even sit on stage, and, and on and on, until we developed this thing called electricity. And we were able to move the theater indoors. And then for some reason, we started wanting to put it in a box, you know, and so a lot of what you grow up with in high school, or college is, is what's called proscenium theater. And it is a box in the distance, you sit in the dark, you don't look at your neighbors, you look only at the actors. And, and it creates a sense of distance that I don't think is helpful, frankly, in our industry. I think it would be much more helpful if the audience thought of the actors as part of their community in the same way that they think of the barber, or the butcher or the baker as part of their community.
Jonathan Eigenmann 11:37
And then, could you talk a little more about the plays that you're doing this season, as one that I saw was I and You written by Lauren Gunderson about a teen stuck at home with debilitating illness? So I'll let you go more into it. But could you talk more about it,
Artistic Director Davis 11:52
I don't want to give too much away because it's it has a it's one of those plays that has a sort of a spoiler alert thing if you if you give that away, you give away a lot and so I don't want to go too far into it. But I will say we started rehearsal on Tuesday of this week. So two days ago, three days ago. What day is it? It's Thursday, isn't it? And we have a wonderful young director from London, Lucy Jane Atkinson, who has come over to work on the show with us. Lucy is a very experienced and talented director. It's a two character play about two teenagers, two high school kids. The girl is very sick. And one day while in her bedroom, you know, sort of trying her best to stay connected to the world through digital media. A boy from her school shows up a member of the basketball team, a young African American guy who she doesn't know he they've never had a conversation even you know, she knows who he is because he's on the basketball team. But but that's basically it and she's like, you know, why are you here? And how did you get past my mother You know, my mother doesn't let boys into my bedroom. And, and he tells her that he's there to help her with a homework assignment. And the play evolves from there and it's very beautiful, very funny. As Lauren Gunderson supplies tend to be and, and ultimately just incredibly touching, moving piece of theatre. It's about 90 minutes long, a little bit less than that. And people will weep they should bring Kleenex for this one because it's a real tear jerker. But it's also remarkably light and funny and I think a good play for now. Then we're going to do my one of my two favorite plays ever is a play called the Road to Mecca by Athol Fugard, the South African playwright. That's another lovely small cast play, set in, in what's called the K Ru, which is a desert in South Africa. And it's basically about a true story about a woman who, very late in her life after her husband died, decided that she wanted to be a sculptor. And she started sculpting and creating these bizarre bizarre objects that she started putting all over her house and all over her yard and, and held the community that she lived in the small rural community reacted to her artistic expression. So another beautiful, funny and ultimately touching play. And then we're gonna do a rare thing at burning coal, which is a comedy, a play called Art by the French playwright Yasmine Reza, and Art is we're gonna, we're casting it with three African American men, middle aged men who are members of our company. They've all acted with us before, but they've never acted together in something and and it's very, very funny. And it's it's about three friends, three middle aged friends, one of whom decides on the spur of the moment to buy a very abstract piece of art. It's just a white canvas. And you would think this might be good for a few laps or whatever. But it causes their friendship to do things that they didn't expect it to do. And so it's a very interesting play. It's about art. But it's also about friendship. And I think it's going to be really interesting to see what what that story is like if you if you put it into the African American community of the 21st century, so so that's another play that I'm really looking forward to. I love those three actors, One Istler, Preston Campbell and Byron Jennings are their names. And then we're gonna close the season with the life of Galileo play by Bertolt Brecht the German. So we've got a German, we've got a French, we've got a South African and we've got an American playwrights a quite a diverse group of writers. And, of course, Galileo is about the great physicist and inventor who dared to butt heads with the church and the state. And it's, it's a really interesting and important piece of theater. And we're probably going to do that when outdoors if the pandemic stays around.
Jonathan Eigenmann 16:31
Well, I hope you can do that. So from what I understand, though, is most of these plays are not like something that you would see at a more main theater, like some of them are overlooked. Some of them are just like stuff you, you probably find, like if you really started reading about that play writer, that author, or maybe that actor, for that matter. So, um, what is like, how do you have what is the allure of doing some of these plays in a new way that maybe, and maybe like showing them the people who maybe have never experienced this kind of play before?
Artistic Director Davis 17:02
No, I think that's that's right. We try to do two things. Jonathan, we we try to either do new plies, and tell new stories that people are not familiar with, or we try to do stories that they are familiar with, but do them in a new way. And I think it's just a question of empathy. You know, you know, Bob Dylan has a had a guitar that said, this machine kills fascists. Well, I think theaters ought to have a sign on them that says, this machine builds empathy. And that is what they do. They, when you walk into a theater, you you are entering another world, and you're meeting people and having experiences that you wouldn't otherwise have. And so, we've never, I've never been that interested in plays that, that talk about my life, or the lives of people who were like me, I've been more interested in plays that look at the lives of people that aren't like me. And certainly these these plays really fit that bill. I was a teenager once, but I can't remember. You know, it's been so damn long ago. Pardon my swearing. But, but you know, to go to 1600s and visit Galileo's World, and just ask yourself the question, what would I have done if I had been in that situation, you know, that's how empathy is, is built. To imagine yourself one of those three, middle aged, African American men dealing with abstract painting and art, you know, that's a that's an extraordinary the building of a muscle, the muscle of empathy, that, that human beings need to build and uh fear does not happen in two dimensional form in digital form, I doubt that there's much empathy building. You know, when you're staring at your phone, or looking at a computer or something like that, because you know, again, you know that you're not in the room with those people. And the closer you can get to being in the room with them, the more likely you are to be able to imagine yourselves in their footsteps.
Jonathan Eigenmann 19:32
So now I'm going to turn the clock back a little bit and going back into like the middle of the pandemic. And as one as you may expect, many businesses had trouble staying open. Many people kind of had trouble finding jobs or out of jobs and, you know, everybody was just stuck at home kind of like wondering what what's next. And then what I was curious about, especially with your Burning Coal Theatre Companies, like what did the company do specifically to help both its stability and the stability of his actors in order to keep afloat during this unpredictable time?
Artistic Director Davis 20:00
Well, last year, you're right. That was a significant concern we had last year we had a one person show scheduled for our opening slot. And so we didn't have to change that play. But what we did do is we limited the audience to only four people a performance. So it was a real boutique sort of thing. And people felt safe doing that, you know, if they knew there, were only going to be three other people in the audience. And then they felt safe. One actor three or four people, and we tripled the number of performances, we did 36 performances instead of 12, which is our normal thing. And then we had two shows after that they both had large casts and we cut those shows out of our season and replaced it with to one person shows by the African American writer Dale Orlander Smith. And we did those live each night in the theater, but we didn't have an audience. We just streamed them, you know, so they were being done every night here live. And if you wanted to watch them, you could watch them on your television and but you would know that, that it was happening over at Burning Coal three blocks away or wherever, you know, wherever So, so that helped to cut our budget of this line, but also help to make the actors, the stage crew and the audience's felt feel safe. And then we closed the season outdoors over at the Dorothea Dix park with a production of Avita the musical Andrew Lloyd Webber musical and we did that over over at the Dorothea Dix park in an abandoned prison for the criminally insane which seemed like an app setting for something like that and and we had a huge response people came out in droves to see that see that production so so we're possibly going to do that again with Galileo this year so so basically just being safe with our our own people but also with the audience and then finding ways to spend less money on the productions of course the bad part of that is that there are fewer jobs for actors you know, if you cut a cast of 10 down to one obviously nine nine people don't have a job at that point that did have one otherwise so there was good and bad in that but it did allow us to stay afloat and not have to close our doors.
Jonathan Eigenmann 22:36
So I guess one question I have is kind of important and kind of abstract is uh how important is social interaction to you especially in a profession where you basically you're you're on a stage and you're interacting with people obviously so in a time when you know basically it's kind of hard to interact with people you have to live stream how is that lack of or maybe need for social interaction either enhanced or are limited?
Artistic Director Davis 23:02
Well, I think it's why people come to the theater you know, it's a lot easier to stay on your couch you know, and see what's on Netflix or Amazon or whatever tonight it's much easier to do that. But but people still do it you know, you can see just to pick a different venue a football game, you can see a football game much better on television than you can in the stadium. Especially if you're sitting in the seats that I can afford you know what your way up high. But but people do it anyway people buy those tickets, they traipse out there they spend an hour and a half waiting to get in and two hours waiting to get out of the parking lot. They pay ridiculous amounts of money for a hotdog and soda and they do it because they want to be there you know they want to be in that space with other people and I don't know why that is but I know that it is you know I know that that's a fundamental human need to be with other humans and in the theater is one of the few remaining venues where that can be done you know it restaurants are great but you don't really have a dialogue with everybody in the restaurant you know if you're watching a play you're even though you're not talking you know hopefully, but you're you are having a dialogue with both yourself your partner whoever came with you and and the rest of the audience as well and and I just think people need that I think they they need it because because without it you know we're kind of lost you know, it's the way you you know, we don't know anything you know, we don't know why we're here. We don't know what we're supposed to do. While we're here, you know, we're just sort of on this rock floating around in space. And, and, and maybe we get a little closer to those answers when we engage with other other people.
Jonathan Eigenmann 25:14
And then as you as we enter back into more normal interactions between audience and the actors, as we entered more like normal society or back to where we used to be, is there anything you're looking forward to the most? And then like, what would you say is the importance of actors interacting with the audience after the play? cuz I've noticed that when reading your site that you had like luncheons, and like you have backstages, where you had like, you actually talk to the audience about the play. So what do you think is the importance of that?
Artistic Director Davis 25:42
Well, people are curious. I ultimately, I think that a work of art should stand on its own, you know, that, that if, if you need a program or a lecture or a video, in order to understand the play, then we haven't done our job fully. But what you need and what you want are two different things. And people are curious, you know, I'll give you an example of the kinds of things we do, we have a series called our lobby lecture series, and we bring in people who are kind of either people who've worked on the play in the past, or maybe just experts. And so for instance, we had, we had Jerry Friedman, at our production of hair, Jerry Friedman was was teaching at the School of the Arts over in Winston Salem at the time. And Jerry was the director of the original production of hair in 1967, when it opened at the Public Theater in lower Manhattan. And so he had a lot to say about the play and about the history of the play. That really just helped make it more educational, I guess, for people. We've had authors, we've had college professors, we hit a scholar, when we did Henry, the fifth, we had a scholar come in and talk about how the, you know, Henry the fifth ends with this miracle, you know, it's you have to describe it as a miracle. They killed 10,000 of the French and only lost 26 of their own soldiers, even though they were outnumbered three to one, and apparently this really happened. And so this historian came in and said, Well, here's here's how that happened. You know, he explained, what what the circumstances were of the Battle of Agincourt, you know, the play doesn't explain that it just shows you that it happened, but it doesn't explain how it happened. So So those kinds of things are helpful and interesting. But ultimately, I think the most important thing is what what happens on stage.
Jonathan Eigenmann 28:04
And then, as we head toward the end of this interview, I kinda wanna ask more about the future of the Burning Coal company and that includes like, kids, young men and women who are interested in performing for a living because I understand you do camps. And then you you have people coming from all over the world and you have new people out vowing to submit scripts, so like, what do you think is the future for burning the Burning Coal company and then should other theaters try what you're trying as well?
Artistic Director Davis 28:30
Well, I think a lot of them do. I think the the future for Burning Coal is to continue to develop relationships around the world. It's very easy to get stuck in a rut, you know, in any walk of life, but especially in the arts. You know, it's very easy to do the same plays over and over again, work with the same people over and over again, it's just safe and it's you know, you know, you're gonna have a success if you do this well known play or work with that well known director. But but but growth is not as possible there. And without growth, you stagnate and then the work you do stops being meaningful to people. So what I hope will be the future of the company is continuing to grow relationships, in as many and as diverse communities as possible. And by diverse I mean age, I mean race, I mean geography. You know, all of the above. One of the things we do in this country that's that's got to change is that we exclude most of the people in the country from the creation of art and that's because of economic circumstances. You know, right now, because there's so little funding for the arts, the only people who can really afford to work in the arts are people who have, you know, fairly wealthy parents, you know. And that can give them a foothold in the, you know, in New York or Los Angeles. And so what this amounts to is if you have 100 people in a room and you tell 95 of them to leave, and then you turn to the other five and say, Okay, let's make some art, you know, maybe you're going to come up with something great. And then sometimes we do miraculously, but, but what would it be like if the other 95 also got to participate in that process. And so a thing that I hope we can be a part of going forward is, is providing a nurturing home for people who, who can't afford to go to New York and pay, you know, 2500 dollars a month for a 500 square foot closet to live in, you know, and all that it goes with living in a big city like that all the costs. And then maybe, if they get a foothold here, then then they will know whether they really want to do it or not, and then perhaps they'll be, you know, ready to move on to a bigger city. So I hope that we can be a launching pad for young people and for people who otherwise had not been given or have not had the opportunities to, to work in this most critical industry.
Jonathan Eigenmann 31:40
And then, before you go, could you tell the listeners more about how to contact you and your Theatre Company and what social media they could find you on and learn more about this anniversary season? And the opportunities that you are currently having?
Artistic Director Davis 31:51
Yes, absolutely. Our website, which is new, we just put a new website up is burning coal.org. O R G. We are on Facebook, you can just enter Burning Coal Theater, and you'll find us there. We're on Twitter a little bit. And we're on Instagram. And we also have a YouTube channel. But we have podcasts that we do, which can be found on Pod Beam. You know, we're trying to get the word out as much as we can, using those, those mediums because they're cheap. And they're common, you know, they're ubiquitous, and so so you can, you can post things on them and 1000s of people will see it that otherwise wouldn't be able to know about you at all. And that didn't used to be the case. 20 years ago, you didn't have that option. So that is something that's happened. That's really good. The bad part about that is that everybody else is using it too. So it's a lot of noise, you know that you have to shout over in order to be heard. But, but we're, we're on all those things. But burning coal.org is the website and that's the place I would start if you're interested in our company.
Jonathan Eigenmann 33:11
For sure. Well, I like to thank Director Jerry for joining us today on Eye on the Triangle.
Artistic Director Davis 33:18
It's my pleasure keep keep up the good work and thank you for having me.
Jonathan Eigenmann 33:23
Music in today's episode was Sailing by Delicate Steve through YouTube Audio Library license. Thank you for listening to the episode today. If you want to listen to more episodes go to wknc.org slash podcast as we have new episodes coming out every Sunday. It's Jonathan Eigenmann reporting for Eye on the Triangle, signing off.
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