Maybelle Wallace and her daughter Sonya met me at the Starbucks in the new main library downtown. After some back and forth about this and that, we got down to some pretty interesting stuff: the challenges of a black theatre company in Tulsa, money, color blind casting, the future of Theatre North, and even a little politics.
FG: When did you start Theatre North?
MW: Well, I didn’t start it. I started working with them in 1977. I started out as Treasurer, then in 1980 we got our 501.c.3. In 1982, I became the business manager. But I found out that some people didn’t want to talk to the “Business Manager” about various things, so my title changed to Executive Director. For a long time, we had an office down in the Greenwood area. We don’t have it any more.
SW: This was a real grass roots group. Mother didn’t have a background in theatre, she learned on the job. It’s amazing to me that she came in, and had the fortitude to build what she did.
FG: You’re basically the African-American company in town. [There’s also a new group started by some black actors out of ORU, Certain Curtain, that is sporadically active]. With that in mind, what are some of the challenges you’ve faced?
MW: Well, it’s always been about money. When we started out, there was no [African-American] company. At one point we had excellent funders, the Williams Co., Amoco. Amoco gave us $5,000 a year for three years.
FG: That’s a fairly substantial amount of money.
MW: There were other companies who gave us that much or more. We are still funded by the OK Arts Council, the National Foundation for the Arts. But it’s a pittance. We’re not getting a lot of money, just enough to produce, to stay alive.
FG: Are you still getting grants from companies, like you did before?
FG: That seems to me to be one of the major issues in the theatre community in general here. Corporations don’t support the local groups any more.
MW: I’ll tell you one of the reasons. Well, we didn’t have Greenwood Cultural Center when we started out. After that was built, it started to receive some of those donations. I think some people thought that if they’d given to a black organization, that they’d taken care of that part of the community.
SW: The "black slot." When we started, we didn’t have competition, no other black arts organizations competing for money. We got a lot of attention, as an identified black group.
SW: There are challenges within the community, and some of it’s on us. It upsets me when I hear that “black artists are able to do quality theatre” because of … I don’t know, it’s hard to ... Look. We’re like any other company. We do good shows, we do shitty shows, pardon my language. This company has been here a long time and I wish that there were more people who would come and work with us. That’s not happening right now. Now that I’m back home , I want to get more involved, start working with the company, try to take it to the next level. If there is such a thing.
MW :I want to say something. Most people who give out money are white. Because they own the corporations, the television stations, they are owned by white people. I don’t know if you can relate to this, me being black and you being white. But racism exists, and it exists in everything. And we’ve found a lot of that. I would say more in individuals rather than foundations. Some people are friendly and some not.
FG: Where would you like to see Theatre North.
SW: We need more funding. We need a staff. Mother does everything basically. Her and Keith Jemison, who’s President of the Board. That’s not to take anything away from what anyone else is doing, people are doing great things, but the majority of the work is done by these two people. I’m going to start learning how to do grant writing myself, so I can do more grants. I would like to see us become an Equity theatre, but that’s far down the road. The next thing we’re planning on doing is youth theatre …
SW: We don’t have an office anymore, I’d like to see that happen. I’d like to see us have our own theatre space. I know a lot of people who don’t want to come downtown, which I think is crazy, the PAC is a public building, we citizens of Tulsa, and people from North Tulsa should be able to be comfortable, because it’s our space. But a lot of people who don’t want to go to the PAC, and they don’t want to come to Guthrie Green either. Because they don’t feel like it’s theirs. But it is ours. But it would be good if we had a building over in our side, in North Tulsa. We need to have more dollars coming from the community, but because it’s economically deprived in North Tulsa, those dollars are very competitive. I’ve had friends who won’t pay to see one of our shows. But you can’t comp every ticket. There are so many things.
MW: And I want to mention Dr. Rodney Clark as well, someone who works with us as well.
SW: Our Artistic Director.
MW: He’s directing “Court-Martial at Fort Devens,” which is our next show. We used to bring in people in from out of the city, out of state, to direct the shows, that’s just not feasible any more. Dr. Clark is very busy, running a school, and a bed and breakfast. The time he can give us is a blessing. Not everybody knows this: He wrote a play for Theatre North, “Reverend I’m Available.” We did that show at the PAC, it went over so well, he was able to take that show on the road.
SW: How many years?
MW: Seven years.
FG: Oh my Lord! That’s incredible. How many people were in this show?!
SW: Huge cast. Plus a band.
FG: Jeez. That’s so expensive. Amazing that he could pull that off. What are some other shows you’re particularly proud of?
MW: We won a state championship (OCTA), with “For Colored Who Have Considered Suicide / When the Rainbow is Enuf.” Then we won, what was the name? The two 104 year old women, we won the state festival with that. “Having Our Say.” That was the title. We won a regional festival (AACT) with “Who Will Sing for Lena.” Vanessa Adams, she’s still doing it around the country. I think she’s going to be doing it in New York. By our organization being here, we gave this person, and others, the opportunity to do what she’s doing now. We don’t get credit.
FG: But you know it. You feel that pride in sending that person out to do what they do.
MW: We have had a lot to do with the, I would say, cultural climate in Tulsa.
SW: We’ve had an impact. And I think we’re important still. We’re important to the community and to Tulsa overall. When we started this company the only time I saw black people in the theatre was the old, tired cliché. “Yes ma’am” and open the door. You didn’t see our stories. We’re the only ones who can tell OUR stories. Granted there are other companies coming along, not just ethnic companies, but the foundation is there. Foundation that we helped to lay. I see Tulsa growing, and with the city growing I see the theatre community expanding exponentially. I know there are going to be great things happening, I believe it.
FG: What are your thoughts on color blind casting?
SW: It depends. Being an actress, I want to play everything. I’ve always wanted to play a man! I feel that there’s universal truth, we’re all human beings and the basic things we can all identify with. I think the color blind casting is important. But there are instances when you have to have a black actor, or you have to have an Indian actor. They did a show recently where they had a white Martin Luther King--
SW: -and a lot of people were upset about it. I understood the reasoning, why they were doing it, it was an experiment. But I would not say that usually you should have someone white play Martin. There’s a fine line.
MW: They had a white guy playing Obama.
SW: Anyway. (Laughter) And he was your favorite too.
MW: Yeah, I liked him.
FG: Where was this!?
FG: Ah, of course.
MW: He did a good job. But back to color blind casting. We’re in all walks of life. Starting with the President of the United States.
SW: If it’s not race specific, there’s no reason why. You know, that’s something where people should be able to think outside the box. But there are instances where it wouldn’t make any sense. A gang in a black neighborhood, whites might not be able to relate to the language, or relate to the experiences. It’s not truthful. As long as it’s truthful, you should be able to play any character.
FG: That’s an interesting criteria. It cuts to the heart of the issue. I’ve done plays that cut both ways. I cast black actresses in a production of “The Effect of Gamma Rays on Man-In-Moon Marigolds.” Which is usually done with white actresses, but there’s nothing in there that a black woman couldn’t relate to. And when Clark and Theatre Tulsa partnered on “Up the Down Staircase”, it was absurd that we would do this play set in an urban high school with nothing but white kids. I worked with Lincoln Cochran at Booker T. to bring in some black and Hispanic kids, so there would be some sense of truthfulness. And I think that in large parts of the country, color blind casting is becoming more and more common. I’m not sure about locally.
SW: Half the country is insane, and half’s the country’s ok. (General laughter) It’s true!
FG: I’ve said the same thing. You gotta quick reaction on the current political scene?
MW: This is ridiculous. (More laughter) You know what I’m afraid of? I’m afraid we might have a war.
MW: Maybe. But I’m talking about externally, a nuclear war with another country.
SW: I think there will be violence if he loses. Which I’m sure he’s going to.
FG: It does seem insane, that his supporters are so violent in supporting him.
MW: I think it’s a group of people who think they’re losing out . . .
SW: And they are.
MW: And they are. And they don’t want to give up.
SW: Power’s changing hands. The culture’s no longer being male and white dominated. The demographics are changing. There’s so much upheaval. People having to deal with gay people having the right to marry, and all these things are happening so fast, they’re scared. The only way they know how to react . . . They don’t care what that man says or what he does, they just want him, because that’s something they can identify with. But I have hope. There’s hope for us because … I feel like it’s growing pains now, that we’re at the beginning of something that’s going to happen that’s going to be wonderful. That’s just what I believe. The last vestiges of all of those dark things that we had in America are just trying to hold on with everything they’ve got. But they’re not going to win.
MW: Well, I think it’s time we had a woman president. It’s time. They say the hand that rocks the cradle rules the world. You ever hear that?
FG: I have, and I couldn’t agree more.
MW: I think it would be good if we would take that verse in the Bible, Love thy neighbor as thyself. I think that’s what’s going to heal us. Without love we don’t have anything.
And that interview couldn’t have ended any better if it had been scripted.
The last time Whit Hanna posted here, he talked about the need for cooperation among the theatres in town. Of course, we’ve always had a certain level of cooperation among the theatres. After all, most of us are friends. But there’s an element of competition that has existed and will continue to exist as well. That’s only natural, and not necessarily a bad thing; competition sharpens our edge, inspires us to excellence. You know how you can tell when that competition becomes a problem? When people stop being friends because of it.
No, actually by that point it’s probably too late to do anything about it. When we stop talking to each other, or when we’re reluctant to pick up the phone, that’s when we need to reevaluate what we’re doing and how we’re thinking. We should see silence as the warning sign. It tells us something’s not healthy in the community, and we’re likely hurting ourselves.
All this imho, of course. And what do I know?
But allow me to be the bearer of good news on this front. In doing my design work with T.Pops “All the Way,” I ran into a couple of pretty cool examples of companies working together. Pops was short a cast member; they needed a Ralph Abernathy for this historical drama. Abernathy was the former head of the Southern Christian Leadership Council, the civil rights organization that Martin Luther King headed up before his assassination. That’s his picture at the top. Well, lots of actors out there. So no problem, right?
No one wants to admit it, but yes, there's a problem, and that problem is called "history." How can you overcome history? Maybelle Wallace found an African-American actor who was eager to get onstage, and he was matched with a company that was eager to have him. Connections were made that aren't normally made. And Lee Roach Jr. Joined the cast. And in producing a play that spoke eloquently about history, maybe we made a little along the way.
One more. Everyone knows that finding tech people certified to work in the PAC is an issue. T. Pops suddenly found itself without a lighting designer just a couple of weeks before opening. I agreed to do it, but told Meghan and Angela up front that I only had two nights I was free. The whole design would have to be finished by Wednesday. By the way, there are over 150 cues in this show, it moves more than a freaking musical. Sara Phoenix and Isaac Holton, who were striking "Glengarry Glen Ross" on the Sunday before, agreed to coordinate a couple of things with us that allowed me to finish the design on time. They didn't have to do that, but it made a difference to me that they did.
And with that in mind, this:
Theatre North Tulsa is holding Auditions on October 29th from 1-5pm and October 30th from 2-5pm at the Rudisill Regional Library for the play 'Court-Martial at Fort Devens.'
Roles are reserved for FOUR African-American Women, TWO Caucasian Women, TWO African-American males and TWO Caucasian males to portray adult roles.
For more information please contact Theatre North Tulsa.
Full disclosure, I will be designing and running lights for this play. Come join us.
The TATE’s. What can be said about them that hasn’t already been mumbled under the breath by one of the ‘losers’? I don’t know, but we’re going to find out. Welcome to SL918’s special TATE Awards Edition! First, the quick list of shows nominated by their respective theatres:
'All New People'- Theatre Pops
'Bad Jews'- Heller Theatre Company
'Waiting for Godot'- American Theatre Company
'Great Gatsby'- Theatre Tulsa
'To Kill a Mockingbird'- The Playhouse Tulsa
'Cowboy'- Nightingale Theater
'Don't Dress for Dinner'- Theatre Tulsa
'Steel Magnolias'- The Playhouse Tulsa
'Why Tourture is Wrtong and The People Who Love Them'- Theatre Pops
'Mothers and Sons'- American Theatre Company
'I wish you actually liked me (and other familial impossibilities)- Heller Theatre Company
'Fuddy Meers'- Nightingale Theater and Odeum Theatre Company
'Catch Me if You Can'- Clark Youth Theatre
'Our Town'- Clark Youth Theatre
I missed Heller’s ‘Bad Jews’ and Theatre Tulsa’s ‘Dress for Dinner,’ so unfortunately there’s no way to consider those shows in what follows. I also worked on two shows, doing the lights for ‘Great Gatsby’ and directing ‘Why Torture is Wrong and the People Who Love Them.’ That said, all of the following is just my freaking opinion, ok?
To address the youth shows first, both of them come from Clark, my former home, so I don’t have to worry about being prejudiced one way or the other on that score. I don’t believe in reviewing kids’ performances, the whole Honesty-in-reviewing-community-theatre thing breaks down a little at that age. But from a different perspective, Clark’s ‘Our Town’ was truly an original approach to the play that was implemented just about seamlessly. The original spirit of the play was not discarded, but reinterpreted in such a way that made it contemporary, relevant, and fun. Though the concept was director Whitson Hanna’s, the young cast and crew were the ones who implemented it in performance. Their contribution was substantial and integral to the whole. This would be my pick, based on originality and the communal approach.
Onwards. No, wait. Before we get to my picks, let’s pull back for a minute and talk about this event from a meta-standpoint. No, wait. Let’s look at it from two, no, wait, three, no, an undermined number of specific standpoints, each with its own priorities.
From the standpoint of the GKFF, (purely my speculation here of course) the TATE awards are a way to get some much needed money to the local theatre arts scene. Reward excellence with cash. I base my speculation on GKFF’s history of supporting the community in myriad ways, including the arts. My reaction? Bravo, and a million thanks. Your help and inspiration (money can be very inspiring) have borne fruit in many ways, most directly in more and better shows. So, hopefully, from their point of view, the TATE’s have been and continue to be a success.
Now, here’s my own personal perspective (no speculation needed): “Free wine and I hope we win.” Simple, direct, no angst, never any disappointment. Because the wine’s always free and at least one show I’m associated with wins (more on that aspect in just a minute).
What about people from other theatres? More speculation here, but it’s based on solid observation, and it goes something like this: “We desperately need the money, but they’re probably going to (screw) overlook us again.” Did you notice the difference? It’s subtle, but if you look carefully you might detect how our viewpoints diverge. The question then becomes, why do they feel differently about the TATE’s than I do? Well, it might be that ‘free wine’ is just higher on my list of priorities. Or, maybe it means that I’m more enlightened than all those other folks. I’d like that. But that shit ain’t the truth. The truth is, the theatres that I was a part of, Heller and Clark, didn’t really need the money. We were city supported theatres! The next show was already paid for. We ourselves got paid every week whether anyone came to see the shows or not. We had dental! In short, we didn’t have as much riding on the results as everyone else, so no angst. And in addition, because we were a city supported theatre, with our own space, and where money wasn’t really that big a problem, our shows had a little bit of a natural advantage anyway, and so tended to win more often than not. (Now that that advantage has disappeared, the secret can be revealed.) Plus, we were the only youth theatre active enough to submit most years, so that pretty much guaranteed at least one win. And finally, between Erin Scarberry, Julie Tattershall, and myself, we had three kick-ass directors, which didn’t hurt either. So we were in the enviable position of not really ever being disappointed.
There’s at least one other perspective that I’ve noticed. I have no idea whose, but clearly this point of view exists out there somewhere, the evidence is unmistakable. And it goes like this: “The TATE awards are all about bringing a Hollywood celebrity into town and making a big to-do over him/her.”
OK. Breathe. Let’s go to our happy place. I’m, uh, I’m just going to pause for a moment of silence here. Remember to breathe. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
I’m sorry, that drug on a lot longer than I intended. I teared up a little in the middle, wanted to get myself under control before I went on. I’m alright now.
DAMN! DAMN! DAMN! Has no one noticed that this has become incredibly disrespectful of the entire Tulsa Theatre Community? Is anybody paying attention here? How have we been reduced to performing as a bit player in a show that’s all about how important someone from Hollywood is, and by simple extension how unimportant we are? Yeah, and what about the times we’ve simply been passive and unwilling enablers of whatever ego trip our celebrity chooses to engage in onstage, present only because there’s a slender chance there might be some money in it for us at the end of the night? Or that maybe our celebrity will throw some nickels so he can watch us scramble for them?
Just so we’re clear, it’s not like this every time. Peggy Helmerich, Tim Blake Nelson, and Mary Kaye Place, to name the examples that come immediately to mind, belong up there for reasons that have nothing to do with their celebrity. And you could feel the difference on those nights. There was a connection to the community, a connection to what it’s like to be an artist that’s not doing it for the money (cause that’s us, baby), a mutual respect that could be felt on both sides of the lights.
Besides the disrespect, you know the worst thing about this misplaced emphasis? Missed opportunity. Because what do we need as much as, maybe even more than money? Glad you asked, I’ll tell ya. More recognition from the public. A lot of the money problems we have could be alleviated if we had 50% more butts in the seats. And the TATE Awards are a perfect vehicle to help with that! The public loves award shows! Best actor, best comedy, best technical design. Publicity, Glamour, Suspense! Ok, I may be reaching a little, but at the moment any opportunity in that vein is completely wasted because the only people in the story are/ is, the celebrity. The actual Tulsa theatre artists don’t rate a footnote. Couldn’t a little money be spent promoting the event, acting as if it’s important enough to take note of, creating a little buzz about the fact that we’ve got this really active, talented, vital and varied theatre community? Maybe that could be accomplished by taking some of that money that was going to pay the out-of-towner to come slumming?
Well, I seem to be in the mood to rant lately.
Whatever, it’s my blog, I get to write what I want. And I got one more thing to say about the TATE’s before we move on to my picks. Thinking about the four different perspectives I’ve explored here, which one is the healthiest for the individual and the group, which one leads to the best evening’s experience. Well, clearly mine. “Free wine and I hope I win.” Right? No argument there. So how can we restructure the awards so that everyone can share this joyful if somewhat inebriated perspective?
First and most importantly, break the strict connection between money and the awards. Award money to deserving theatres based on their contribution to the Tulsa community and their need. Award statuettes to deserving shows and actors. And not on the same night. No more going to the awards gritting your teeth, as your lack of money is brought up in the most painful way possible—by watching another theatre take home the thousands of dollars you really need, and feel you deserve. No more false applause, while you whisper “Damn” under your breath. Competition, yes, of course, but no more weird conflicted feelings as you resent the fact that a close friend won. Take the money, or most of it, out of the equation. It kills the buzz.
(Secondarily, I personally would prefer a more ‘dress up’ event. And more food. And more awards. And more publicity. And take home bottles of wine.)
“How does that work?” you ask. I’ve got a couple of suggestions. A panel of judges sees a bunch of shows, basically like they do now. But instead of rating the shows, they rate the theatre groups. The criteria would have to be worked out, but could include things like filling a niche that isn’t filled by any other company, overall quality of productions, level of talent the company can attract, and ability of company to utilize any financial support to sustain itself long term. That would determine how that year’s financial support from the GKFF would be distributed.
A larger group, that could include the initial group but would also incorporate a much larger slice of the theatre community, would vote on the TATE awards, which would be expanded to include standout acting performances, technical design, and directorial approach, as well as best shows. There might or might not be a much smaller financial award to go with these.
Perhaps it’s presumptuous of me to suggest what other people should do with their money. I don’t mean to be. I’m just brainstorming. I'm acutely aware that it’s the George Kaiser Family Foundation that is actually putting its money where its mouth is, whereas all I have is my mouth, and it's the committee that’s doing the leg work, while I just lie here on my couch, tap tap tapping with my skinny little fingers, as“The Mummy” plays on Netflix. I don’t mean to seem ungrateful for all the time, energy and money that have been spent over the years, especially since Heller and Clark have been among the primary beneficiaries. But I think the experience has revealed that some things could be improved, to do more to help theatre in Tulsa, and these are my suggestions.
What about my picks? Ah, that was just a clever ruse to get you to read to the end of the article. Don’t spoil it for the next guy. And read the next post, because that's when I’ll actually tell you who I think should, and will win this year’s TATE’s. I promise.
Please spend a few moments today contacting your mayor and city council members. It is important to Tulsa. On Thursday, Tulsa’s mayor and city council will finalize the proposed items for the next Vision funding package to be voted on by taxpayers in March.
Currently, Arts Alliance Tulsa has a proposal being considered that would provide annual funds to member organizations. This is an historic moment because, as of today, our city does not provide funds to non-profit arts organizations. Nationally, more than 63% of government funding to arts groups comes from local municipalities. It is time for Tulsa to join the other progressive cities in the nation that help fund their local arts groups.
Not only will this money come to local arts organizations through AAT, it will send a message that Tulsa is a forward-thinking city and help us attract the best and brightest to our community.
Please contact Mayor Dewey Bartlett and city council representatives before Thursday and tell them you support the arts being included in the new Vision package. And, please do the same by forwarding this email to as many as possible. Together, the AAT member organizations serve more than 1 million people per year. By mobilizing our audiences, the arts in Tulsa will finally have a unified voice and a place at the table.
Artistic Director of Clark Youth Theatre
Mayor Dewey Bartlett Dbartlett@cityoftulsa.org
Councilor Jack Henderson Dist1@tulsacouncil.org
Councilor Jeannie Cue Dist2@tulsacouncil.org
Councilor David Patrick Dist3@tulsacouncil.org
Councilor Blake Ewing Dist4@tulsacouncil.org
Councilor Karen Gilbert Dist5@tulsacouncil.org
Councilor Connie Dodson Dist6@tulsacouncil.org
Councilor Anna America Dist7@tulsacouncil.org
Councilor Phil Lakin, Jr. Dist8@tulsacouncil.org
Councilor G.T. Bynum Dist9@tulsacouncil.org
The new Arts Alliance Tulsa is one of the most exciting things to happen in the Tulsa arts scene in years. There's a chance that some serious money may be raised with numerous organizations in line to benefit. After visiting their website at artstulsa.org, I had a couple of questions, to which Chad Oliverson kindly responded. Nothing earth-shaking, but here are his responses.
1. The site says "45" organizations. What are they? Have they already applied, or do they need to apply?
Chad: The 45 are a mixture of visual and performing arts identified by our board. To date, all intend to apply. Most have begun.
2. Deadline is Nov. 6 to apply. Damn, that’s early. Less than a month. Seem like that would make it difficult to get on this year for all but the largest and largest staffed organizations. Question is, is that accurate, and why so early.
Chad: Nov. 6 is correct. Our normal year will run June to June, however, as this was only made official in Sept of this year, we had a choice ... Push so arts will be funded in 2015, or wait until 2016. We felt we must start ASAP to assist out groups. The real burden lies in the hands of staff and board as we have a shortened time to raise your money. In normal years, you will have a bit more time. You can choose to wait until the 2016 cycle with no judgment from AAT. We understand it may take some groups more than a month
3. Last one. Critically important. Why does the website address read, “albertoburger.com”?
Chad: This is a simple answer. Again, as we were in a position to build the base in a short time, we did not have time to fix every bug. Our designers had issue with a server, but we needed the base site up ASAP. It's simply the programmers addy and as the full site is built, those little things will all go away. We are working on it.:)
I wanted to ask what a "programmers addy" was, but didn't want to push my luck. Any input on that from my readers here? Typo? Thanks to Chad for the answers!
A new organization dedicated to supporting the arts in Tulsa was announced yesterday. You can find their new website here. Right now, the website says the deadline for arts organizations to apply for membership (which makes you eligible to apply for grants) is November 6! That's one month away folks. The application form is lengthy, as is to be expected when money is involved. So get on it! The link is here.
I have a couple of questions in to Chad regarding the AAT, as it's going to be known. I'll post the answers when I get them.
Arts Alliance Tulsa
Green Room OK
Tulsa Little Theatre
Tulsa Weekly Roundup
Am. Theatre Co.
BA Community Playhouse
Clark Youth Theatre
G Rated Theatre
Midwestern Theater Co.
Muskogee Little Theatre
Owasso Comm. Theatre
Sand Springs Comm. Th.
Sapulpa Comm. Theatre
Tulsa Latino Theatre
Tulsa Project Theatre
Tulsa Rep. Musicals
Tulsa Spotlight Theatre