In the Future, April Matthis Wants Less Tokenization in the Theater and Better Pay

Photo: Christine Jean

If you miss seeing April Matthis on the stage, then you’re in luck, because this spring and fall, you’ll be able to hear her voice. Matthis is an Obie-winning stage actor whose star turn in Toni Stone (where she played the first Black female baseball player) by Lydia Diamond earned her an acting nomination from almost every single New York theater awards this spring. Her acting resume includes healthy doses of both weird experimental theater (like the six-hour Gatz from Elevator Repair Service and the Pulitzer-winning Fairview by Jackie Sibblies Drury) and classic plays like Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure at the Public Theater.

While in quarantine, Matthis has been doing some voice acting. She recorded two episodes for Playing on Air, a podcast where playwrights create original short plays. Matthis appeared in Night Vision by Dominique Morisseau, about a Black couple who witness a crime, and G.O.A.T by Ngozi Anyanwu, about tennis star Serena Williams. She says she’ll be doing more with the podcast in the fall. Below, Matthis called into the Token Theatre Friends podcast to talk about acting remotely, Zoom theater and why actors are undervalued in the American theater. The conversation has been edited and condensed.

We’re talking to you today because you just did two podcast episodes with Playing on Air: Night Vision by Dominique Morisseau and G.O.A.T by Ngozi Anyanwu. When did you record it? Because it just came out like right after we all got locked up, at the most convenient time.
We did it a while ago, maybe sometime last year. Because I think I was doing Toni Stone and would do these during the day. I hear Dominique Morisseau and I’m like, yep, here. Ngozi Anyanwu, yes please. It was just fun to do and to be in the room with them. These are really quick and dirty, like you might get a version of the script beforehand. Then you basically read it with the people you’re going to read it with that day and meet them that day if you don’t already know them. They’re just great to do. I like reading. I like reading plays and like doing readings, that’s kind of how I’ve gotten most of my theater jobs, not so much through auditioning, but through doing readings and workshops that turn into full productions.

Have you been consuming any like of the Zoom theater experiences? Do you think it’s a stop gap or you think that’s like a potential future for the art form?
I think it’s a stop gap. Of course, nobody wants that to be how it’s going to be—everybody wants to be back in space together. I haven’t been consuming a lot of them. I’ve watched some of the 24-Hour Plays because they’re a little easier to watch: look at this one person. The ones that I’ve been a part of, I feel like maybe it is more for us. You know, maybe it’s more for those of us participating. The act of doing it is satisfying, because you’re not scrolling, scrolling, scrolling on your phone. You’re not obsessing about the news. You’re not putting hazmat gear on to go buy some oat milk or whatever. You’re doing what you used to do, which is acting, saying words with folks in real time. So that’s something that I’m hanging on to in the meantime—the immediacy of theater that we can maybe approximate for the time being.

As someone who has lived for so long in the experimental theater world, are you seeing things right now that also excite you, things that you’ve learned in that kind of work that you want to see apply to streamed theater or to Zoom theater?
I have conceptual ideas, and I’m like, should I share them? With Elevator Repair Service, we work on things for years, you can see that in the work—it’s not just something that somebody threw on the wall. The dumbest little moment will be something that we have worked on for weeks to get perfect, to get the timing perfect. When somebody has been like, let’s make this perfect, because this dumb thing is essential. And it must be done this way to get the maximum perfect dumbness out of it. Like you have to be that nerd serious about it.

It’s interesting about this moment, about responsibility and safety. And how art, especially experimental art, is not always responsible or safe. And what does that look like right now? Can we be transgressive? Folks are going outside in large numbers in close proximity, because they must, but is it 100 percent safe? You can’t say it is but, I don’t know what to do with those thoughts right now. What do we say is essential? What in our work as artists is that essential that we say, I’m gonna risk it anyway? How do you do it in a way that’s not harmful? What does outdoor performance look like? What does performance that’s distanced look like? Do you ventilate the theater? My artist brain just has a lot of ideas and trying to find receptacles for those ideas and testing them out, while at the same time being where we all are, which is like: Where are you today? Where are you right this second? Do you need to take care of your body right now? Do you need to go lie down right now? Do you need to scream and make make some stuff happen? Those are questions that I feel like we’re all kind of asking.

April Matthis in “Toni Stone” at Roundabout Theatre Company

Lately, I’ve just been wondering, what does that look like in a new environment when we’re also trying to navigate like physical health safety? And we’re asking actors essentially to risk their health in the future in order to do the art form. How do you ask people to do that while trying to have these conversations that we’re having around around representation and diversity?
You pay them what they’re worth is a very easy answer. What I will say is, maybe week two or week three after we shut down, I got a lot of things coming into my inbox from institutions being like, will you do a Skype version of this or do a video version of that? And no mention of pay. And this was right when unemployment was crazy—I spent my full 72 hours calling the line non-stop just trying to get through. You’re asking me to perform out of the goodness of my heart and put on makeup and look good and be chipper and dive into characters. What? I don’t know where I’m going to get groceries. So I start with that because when the dust starts to settle—and I’m not talking about just theater, I’m talking about TV and film—let’s support small businesses. I’m a small business as an independent contractor. I think there’s this idea that because you love it, you’ll just do it. But we all have a bottom line and we all need to eat. And we can win awards. And those awards don’t come with monetary benefit, you know. So I would say that first and of course, health coverage.

And when I was dreaming beyond those things that should be basic, I was thinking: What would it look like if I could be in a show with five of my favorite Black actresses? Instead of us in the room, being nice to each other being like, “If I don’t get it, I hope you do.” What if there were room for all of us in the cast? I would like that more and more and more and more and more and more and more and more and more. There’s just so much talent out there and this idea that there can only be one or two. I have issue with the white institutional theater and the tokenism that’s in there. There can only be one or it becomes a Black play. Well let it be a Black play. And plus, can that be the default? Can that be the universal default story? Instead of just, “Okay, we’re going to do Raisin in the Sun or we’re going to do one of August [Wilson]’s plays.” There’s so many people writing out there. Kirsten Greenidge is one of my favorite playwrights on the planet. I would love to do a season of Kirsten Greenidge. That is what’s exciting to me.

Listen to the rest of the Token Theatre Friends podcast featuring April Matthis here.

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