In selecting Tarell Alvin McCraney as its new artistic director, the Geffen Playhouse has made a commitment not just to playwrights and playwriting but to the future of American drama. It has shored up its identity as a playhouse — a showcase for writers with artistic mettle.
In appointing a Black queer dramatist, the Geffen Playhouse has acknowledged that the pursuit of artistic excellence depends on the widest possible talent pool. A theater must live up to its ideals of equity and inclusion not just in its programming but in its administrative headquarters. A diverse audience, the professed goal of nonprofit theaters, will not be achieved by half-measures and lip service.
McCraney received an Oscar for adapted screenplay with director Barry Jenkins for the film “Moonlight,” which was derived from his drama “In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue.” He is the author of, among other works, “The Brother/Sister Plays” and “Choir Boy” (produced at the Geffen Playhouse in 2014).
An ensemble member of Chicago’s Steppenwolf Theatre Company, he is professor of playwriting at the David Geffen School of Drama at Yale University and has earned a reputation as a passionate mentor. He will continue to teach at Yale while leading the Geffen Playhouse and said he’s eager to start working with writers in Los Angeles.
McCraney’s appointment is surprising not just because he’s a playwright and these positions tend to go to directors and creative producers. It’s also because he is a trailblazing dramatist in his prime. He is also a screenwriter whose work (“High Flying Bird,” “David Makes Man”) has won plaudits for its lyrical sensitivity and fearless witnessing.
He has been in residence at the Geffen Playhouse to develop projects with Cast Iron Entertainment, a cohort of leading artists that includes Sterling K. Brown, Glenn Davis, Brian Tyree Henry, Jon Michael Hill and André Holland. McCraney said that he was drawn to taking on a leadership role to be part of the change that’s sweeping the American theater at a time of stark economic challenge.
Ever an innovator, McCraney is looking for ways to revitalize not only his own writing practice but the creative practice of theater artists like him who are hungering for new models, new modes of inspiration and new mechanisms of support.
In a conversation that took place at the Geffen Playhouse, McCraney reflected on what motivated him to become an artistic director at such a tumultuous moment, and the values that have sustained his artistic journey. This interview has been edited for clarity and length.
I didn’t know you wanted to be an artistic director. Has this been a long-held ambition?
Candidly, it’s been there my entire life. I grew up in Miami, as you know. And there was a theater called Coconut Grove Playhouse.
Where Samuel Beckett’s “Waiting for Godot” had its American premiere!
Yes, that’s right. It was built in 1926 as a film house and later turned into a theater. José Ferrer, the actor and director, was the artistic director in the ’80s and turned it into a leading playhouse. But what most people don’t know is that it’s a block away from where my grandmother was born in 1926. And I’m a big believer in that sort of timing. My grandmother, who died two years ago, always said that I was going to run that theater one day. That’s because it’s literally in our neighborhood, which is the oldest Black neighborhood in Miami, and she had a grandson who was a writer in the theater.
And then as I got older in my education, I was basically a co-artistic director of a young improv troupe that would go out and do guerrilla theater. I always loved being in connection with an ensemble and running a theater. I loved being in a community and leading folks artistically most of all. It’s one of the reasons I went to Yale and became a chair of the playwriting program. I literally went to school with [Center Theatre Group artistic director] Snehal Desai and [former Baltimore Center Stage artistic director] Stephanie Ybarra and sat in classes discussing the founding visions behind regional theaters. We’re at an inflection point right now. And it felt selfish to sit on the sidelines.
Artistic director appointments have tended to go to directors. Writers have reason to be protective of their solitary creative time. Were you at all hesitant to put your hat in the ring for a job that will no doubt eat into your writing practice?
I hope to create a space where I can be more innovative. I think directors sort of trick people into believing that this job is for them specifically because they’re used to dealing with folks. But it’s also a space for them to do their work and program things that they’ve always wanted to direct. There are plays I’ve always wanted to write. There’s innovation that I’ve always wanted to do. Selfishly, I want to do it here. My hope is to create an ensemble of writers and directors who are connected to the Geffen in a nourishing environment that I know as a playwright I can set up.
Cast Iron Entertainment, the artistic cohort you formed with Sterling K. Brown and other really incredible talent. So you’ve had an association here, but how connected have you been to the theater?was done at the Geffen Playhouse in 2014. And then just before the pandemic the theater announced the residency of
It’s like when you’re having a conversation with a friend and you’ve been talking to this friend for a long time and at some point you go, “Wait, are we in a relationship?” You have feelings that way. Well, that’s how this felt. I have an affinity for this place and what it does. I also feel like I cared enough to know the places that it needs work. And I can do that from a place of love and care.
How do you see the problem of audience decline? What do you think we’re getting wrong in the conversation about the crisis in the American theater?
The Geffen is doing OK in terms of our subscriptions, from what I understand. But like everywhere, there are folks who were inside for about two, 2½ years who decided that they don’t want to be inside. And that includes sitting in a theater. That’s understandable. I’m going to try not to cry here. We lost so many people. That’s what I think people are getting wrong. People aren’t recognizing that we’ve been in a kind of wartime. We don’t make enough room for grief. And so we’re like, “You need to come back to the theater and watch shows.” But people are still grieving, readjusting. We have a COVID surge happening right now. People are wearing masks again and are feeling nervous.
What else do you think might be holding theaters back?
People are still going to concerts. But many concerts are outside. And there’s a different kind of energy there that we have to plug into. How do we do that here? We tell young people who are connected to their friends through their phones, “Hey, turn that off when you come in here.” Well, if they’re turning that off, how are they going to be connected to their friends to show that they’re at a play? That’s important to them. And we’re telling them that it’s not important. You can’t tell someone who’s built their entire life in being connected in this way that they have to turn it off when you come in here. This is a conversation we need to enter into.
Theaters are desperately trying to reach new audiences while holding onto existing subscribers. How do you see this challenge that carries with it both serious moral and economic stakes?
I think we have to be brave to ask the question. I would add a caveat. I don’t know if the binary of older audiences versus new audiences is necessarily true. There are people who are coming, and there are people who are not. And there’s a gradation between, because there are people who show up once and then might not show up for the rest of the year. And there are subscribers who maybe didn’t show up that night. We have to be careful not to program to an idea of a new audience or old audience. We need to do this across the nexus, programming for excellence and for community engagement. Our programming especially needs to nurture and sustain that engagement. We shouldn’t be just trying to target one or the other of these two extremes. That’s too bifurcated, and it’s not what we do best.
Producing excellent-quality live performance is the goal. We want audiences to feel called to be in our space. To feel that something is happening here that they can’t find anywhere else, that they can’t skip. That even if the work makes them angry, they know that they’ve experienced something they can’t get through their boxes of streaming.
Is there something unique about the Geffen Playhouse’s connection to Los Angeles that drew you here?
I like the cross-section of theater artists in film and television in this town. I love that there are artists on a show like “The Good Wife” who have incredible pedigrees in theater and are such good theater artists. How can they have a place where they can keep their tools sharp? I’d love for that to be here.
I’ve noticed in our conversations over the years that you have a spiritual relationship to the theater. Would you share a little about your background in this regard?
Being in theater is a calling. And I think I can help people remember their calling. That’s always been important to me. I think I told you that one time I was supposed to be a pastor. In my work, I try to reconnect folks to spiritual belief. What is belief? It’s faith in the thing we cannot see. One of my mentors was Peter Brook, who talked about belief and faith all the time. It’s in our heads, rooted in this thing we cannot see. We’re trying to make meaning all the time. On a teaching level, a mentorship level and a leadership level, I’m always trying to inspire people to do that. Dig into that space, that corner of your mind that just wants to see things. And have a little hope past what you can see.