M. Bevin O’Gara is The Kitchen Theatre Company’s Artistic Director. She sat down with Geva’s literary fellow, Gabriella Steinberg, to talk about The Kitchen’s production of Smart People, by Lydia Diamond, on stage at Geva Theatre Center from October 5th to the 22nd.
Gabriella Steinberg: Kitchen Theatre’s mission is so brilliantly summed up as the following: “Important conversations happen in the Kitchen.” What kind of theatre are you passionate about producing?
M. Bevin O’Gara: After speaking with many different institutions, I was excited by The Kitchen’s mission because it matched the work I do perfectly. I love to make plays that leave people wrestling with more questions than answers. I love it when my audience leaves the theatre and has that deeply personal feeling they can discuss with their circle of friends or family. I feel very strongly that we as human beings have a lot more in common than we realize. So my personal artistic mission, to tell stories that bring us together as a society, is very much in line with The Kitchen’s. The only thing I ever want an audience to do when leaving a theatre is question themselves and society. And to see and understand from a perspective that may never have occurred to them. Because of the intimate nature of The Kitchen Theatre, that endeavor to explore different perspectives is a possible direct exchange, and I’m sure the same experience will translate perfectly at Geva with our production of Smart People. And of course, I still want the audience to be entertained. It’s hard to do thought-provoking theatre without an element of entertainment – and the definition of entertainment can take on a variety of meanings. There’s a big distinction between thinking about the lesson of the play and the emotional experience of the piece. I would actually prefer the audience to feel something than to fix something. After they see a show, then an audience can use their emotions elicited by the thought-provoking piece and put their feelings into action.
GS: You’re new to the Kitchen team, coming from Huntington Theatre Company, where Smart People was originally developed. How have your first few months at Kitchen been?
MBO: My first few months have been great! I’m fortunate to be working with a really wonderful team at The Kitchen. I am challenged and learning new things every day. Ithaca is a really exciting place – with a great rhythm and a very welcoming community. It has been an incredible experience, so far.
GS: Smart People takes place in 2007, but presents so well for our current issues. What do you hope Geva audiences take away from your company’s iteration?
MBO: I was the producer on the world premiere of this show at Huntington in 2013, a time very different to our current political experience. The first iteration of Smart People brought certain issues to light, but at the time the production was received with much more levity due to the time period politically. Producing a production of Smart People in 2017, we now have a chance to explore the trajectory from our first Black president to where we are now. When putting together the new season at The Kitchen Theatre (which kicks off with this production of Smart People) I put together a series of stories and plays that invites the audience to see our world from a multitude of perspectives, and to provide them with the structure that there are no two characters in a play taking the same stance. What Smart People in 2017 can provide is a chance for the audience to see themselves differently; to think back to when we elected President Obama – and to think presently about their own role in our current presidency. I’m so glad to bring in Summer Williams as director. She worked on the play when it was just in workshop before it premiered at Huntington. She intimately understands where this play began and the junctures Smart People was created to explore. It’s deeply interesting to be in conversation with both Summer and Lydia Diamond about what the meaning of this play was then, and what is it now. I think they both agree that Smart People was representative of its moment when Lydia started writing it in 2007 (and again in 2013 when it first premiered) but actually it’s written to explore moments like the political turmoil of the last year.
GS: As a woman in this role of leadership, what would you like to pass on to other women in the arts field – and to female theatre-goers?
MBO: I don’t think of myself as a woman leader, but as a leader. My top priority as a creative producer is to create community and strengthen communication between artist and audience. My goal isn’t to have the greatest talent or the best idea in the room, but to be able to recognize the winning idea in the room. We as women already have had to overcome so much, but sometimes we are our own worst enemy – until we stop taking each other down, and spend more energy lifting each other up, we will never be able to move into the next phase of our progression. It’s so important that we find a way to support art made by women – and not just ciswomen, but trans folks and other artists outside the ‘norm’ often perpetuated in our culture. It’s important to recognize this need for perspective – especially in this moment. As a director and now artistic director, it’s always a joy to get artists and art producers on the same page working toward a common purpose like a production or a theatre company. I’m going to take this metaphor for my goals as a leader into pop culture territory: I am very inspired by Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Specifically at the end of the series, where Buffy realizes that she thought she was the only slayer – that the world was meant to fall on her shoulders alone – but ultimately the greatest lesson she can ever learn is that we all gain more power by passing our skills down to others. The only way to conquer the vampires of our society is to pass the power!
Click here to get tickets to Smart People.