This spring was supposed to be a busy time for director Taylor Reynolds. On March 12, the day that New York City shut down because of COVID-19, Reynolds had directed Noah Diaz’s Richard & Jane & Dick & Sally, which had just closed at Baltimore Center Stage and was getting ready to open in New York City at the Playwrights Realm.
Reynolds (who blew many minds last year when she directed Will Arbury’s Plano) also helps run the Movement Theatre Company. The theater was getting ready to remount their hit play What to Send Up When It Goes Down Off-Broadway in the summer (which would have been so much more relevant since it’s about anti-Blackness and collective healing). But then the call came. “I was like, in Columbus Circle, and everybody’s walking around. I was like, ‘Everybody, theater just shut down, what is happening!?” Reynolds exclaimed.
But since being at home, Reynolds hasn’t been idle. The Obie-winning Movement Theatre has started a new initiative: 1MOVE: DES19NED BY…, where they commission designers who then present their work digitally (since if there’s no live theater, designers aren’t getting work). They’re also currently presenting a new online work by What to Send Up… playwright Aleshea Harris called soft light.
Below, Reynolds talks about why she considers art a form of activism, and why we might need to burn everything down. This conversation has been edited and condensed.
Can you tell us a little bit about how the Movement Theatre was founded? Because from what I know, it’s not hierarchical. It’s very consensus building and it was founded by young people of color.
So in 2007, a group of recent NYU grads and NYU students of color met in the Astor Place Starbucks—it’s such folklore. And they essentially formed a collective. In 2007 it was really like, you can play the drug dealer in a movie or you can write the text for the drug dealer. So it was founded on the idea that artists of color could come together and create their own spaces and allow for the exploration of various artistrys. And then about five years into the company’s existence, they were doing strategic planning sessions where they were like, “Well, this model of hierarchy doesn’t really work for us.”
And so the model that we’ve had since then is the producing artistic leadership model. So there are currently five of us who run the company collaboratively. So that means we’re making all of the decisions collectively, from big, top-tier decisions (like what artists to support, what plays to produce, all of that down), to me making an e-blast and sending it to everybody and be like, “read this.” Over the last like two years, we’ve started to expand our staff positions or more specific, task-oriented positions, so that we can step away from doing so much of the every day that takes our energy and capacity away from being able to dream bigger and focus more on the leadership part of our title, rather than the line-producing part of it.
Right now, with Movement Theatre Company, you’re commissioning pieces from designers, and you’re gonna do several movements like this. I love seeing how adventurous, how original, and how inventive all the work that so many people are doing right now. And I would love for you to talk a little bit about this movement and how this came about.
When the theater first shut down, we had a meeting that first Monday. One of the first things that we talked about was really just, how we were doing as people because that’s the most important, and then also just a weekly check in about how we wanted to use our voice and use our platform during the pandemic. The first week after theater shut down, there were artists individually putting things out. There were theater companies just throwing things out and making digital content. But we didn’t have the emotional, physical, or mental capacity to really do any of that. And we didn’t want to just put things out into the space, out into the digital space, unless we knew that it was going to have a purpose, and that it was going to fulfill us in some kind of way, or fulfill the artists that we were working with.
We noticed that a lot of the content was either playwright-driven or actor-driven, which makes sense, because you can write a thing, e-mail it, somebody can say it, put a camera up and then you made art, which is awesome. But there was not really a public representation for the other aspects of theater workers—directors, stage managers, producers, and designers.
And just through our check ins, reaching out to folks seeing how they’re doing, we were hearing a lot specifically that immigrant designers were having many issues. Because they’re on F1 or O1 visas that are work based, where you have to prove consistently that you’re an extraordinary artist that deserve to be working in the United States of America. So the entire industry shut down, and suddenly there’s nothing that you can do, because it’s also not like you can go out and get a different job—it has to be specific to the work that you stated that you were coming to the US to do. And so what we really wanted to do is just give the designers a platform just to work to prove that they were still working.
We also paid them and gave them a budget. And also making sure that the weight of finding or providing their own kind of like creative materials wasn’t just on them. Because if you want to buy a certain light that costs $25, but like you don’t even have $25, then you’re not gonna be able to make the art that you were hoping to make. So we did all that. And we also were introduced to a lot of new designer through co-curators Clint Ramos and Cha See. They’re all so incredible. And so now we’re gearing up for the second round of 1Move, which is going to be focused on all Black designers, which is really exciting. And our co curators for that are Dede Ayite, Stacey Derosier, and Paul Tazewell, so it’s like a dope ass group! And so those videos will be launched in mid July. And then past that the Movement is taking a sabbatical in August, which I suggested because I’m exhausted at being alive.
Thinking about what you’re doing right now with the designers, where you are literally using art to save people’s lives, you’re giving them the opportunity to keep their visas and save their lives in a way. As an artist, who’s also by default I would say an activist, I wonder if you could talk a little bit about where those two meet and how they intersect.
I think for us at the Movement, we are very much identifying as a social justice organization just as much as we identify as a theater company. We’re just more focused on creating change and transformation with the work we’re doing. And that doesn’t mean that it can’t just be a two-person play where people are talking on a park bench, but it just means that, you know, there’s something underlying or overt that is going to push and engage audiences to start conversations, but also hopefully to just take action. Even if that action is like Googling, “racism.”
Even with our production of And She Would Stand Like This by Harrison David Rivers—that production featured Black trans women on stage and put them in lead roles. And even with Look Upon Our Lowliness, which was also written by Harrison, putting nine gay men, most of whom are of color, on stage and just letting them live their fullest, most emotional lives. And representation without pandering to white people. Honestly, I think a lot of our work is successful because it’s not really pandering to anyone—it’s not made for the white gaze, it’s not made for an audience that would feel great under a white supremacist structure.
And that’s not necessarily just white people. There are plenty of people of all intersecting identities who just want to go and see a play or a musical, you know? They just want to see The Music Man (The Music Man shouldn’t be on Broadway and it’s upsetting). Our acknowledgement that we are both a social justice organization and a theater company is really our guiding light when we’re talking to artists. I think it’s part of the reason why we operate the way that we do. It’s not just about one person going out and being like, “This is my voice. These are my ideas.” It’s about uplifting the community and uplifting all of us so that we can destroy these terrible systems that we all exist within.
That’s the thing I’ve always loved about the Movement and your work. It’s the fact that you all created something because what you needed wasn’t within the systems that were present. I have a lot of conversations with leaders of theaters for people of identities that aren’t white, there’s always a common theme that comes up of, why are we trying to change these white institutions instead of supporting the institutions that have been doing the work in these communities? And so when you think about the future of the American theater, do you think right now we’ve been focusing on the wrong thing and trying to fix it, rather than just destroying everything and starting a new thing?
I think it’s a little bit of both. That question makes me think about when all of these like different theaters were putting out their like, “We love Black people” statement. I’m sorry, I don’t mean to phrase it like that. Although it’s like, cool—some theaters that I know and support put out really heartfelt statements. Some theaters put out like what I thought were well-written statements where I was like, “Yeah, but I didn’t like expect you to say this. You’re not like overtly against Black people but also you don’t support them. And that’s chill, you do what you do, you know? I honestly don’t want you to produce this Black person’s play ’cause you’ll just ruin it and then I’ll just be mad so like, it’s fine.”
My personal hot take is like, yes, destroy everything, unseat all the Gregorian mammoths. But if they want to keep existing—honestly, there are some audience members who I don’t want to come see my work ’cause like it’s not for you, you’re not gonna have a good time. It’s fine, there’s a lot of stuff that I don’t go see it because that’s not for me. So why would I go and spend this money and take a seat from somebody who wanted to be there?
I think that there needs to be systemic change, absolutely. If the traditional sense of theater is to continue at all. But I’m also not interested in that. Like, I don’t really care. I don’t really honestly care what Broadway does. Just don’t actively hurt people, stop taking money from smaller organizations that could really use it. And produce The Music Man if you want. I’m not going.
I think that where I’m interested is in the sort mid-range smaller companies, that are already making the change, that are already more flexible because they likely have smaller staff. But the goal is not like, “Oh, I hope people enjoy this. I hope people like remember this forever.” No, the goal is to come and engage with what’s happening on stage. The goal is to come and be transformed in some way—whether that’s the planting of a seed, and then a year later, a global uprising happens and they’re like, “I remember when I saw What to Send Up When It Goes Down because it was in the New York Times. And at the time, I thought, ‘What a nice play.’ And now I’m like, ‘Oh shit, what they were saying in the play was correct!'”
Listen to the rest of the conversation with Taylor Reynolds on the Token Theatre Friends podcast.