Q&A with Cohesion Theatre Company’s Brad Norris in advance of ParityFest
ParityFest is about to enter stage left at multiple theaters around town. The Cohesion Theatre Company has organized the festival to bring awareness to inequality in theater and the arts, specifically as it relates to gender. Their partner organization, Los Angeles based group The Kilroys, compiled 2015’s list of “the most recommended new and under-produced plays written by female playwrights.” For six weeks, from July 1-August 9, there will be multiple performances of plays from that list as well as workshops and discussions with community leaders.
Bmore Art: Tell me about the genesis of Cohesion Theatre. When did you form? How did an observation of the inequality in theater become a full fledged theater company?
Brad Norris: Cohesion began out of a working partnership formed by Alicia Stanley and I during a production of Edward II at Spotlighters Theatre in the Summer of 2014. The cast and crew of that show just clicked so wonderfully and had all experienced the same disparity of real community in the Baltimore theatre scene and felt a desire to be a force to change that. So by the end of the run of that show, there’s was no doubt we were going to be striking out on our own.
Alicia and I formed Cohesion with a goal of not only producing inventive and exciting work, but also always striving to build relationships with other companies and artists and do everything in our power to foster a sense of theatrical community and support. This can be anything from cross-promotion of shows and sharing marketing with other artists, to full fledged co-productions like the one we have running right now with The Strand Theater Company: The Pillow Book by Anna Moench.
Bmore Art: Can you speak about the theater community here in Baltimore? What excites and inspires you? What are some challenges? What is unique about the community here?
Brad Norris: I worked in Chicago for many years before moving to Baltimore and one of the great things about Chicago is that artists don’t really compete with each other, they support one another and grow together like one big family. I see that same community minded ideal at work here in Baltimore. Everyone knows each other and everyone would like to support each other’s work. Sometimes it’s harder to pay attention to others because we can be so focused on getting our own art out there, but the desire for partnership is there right beneath the surface of what we do everyday.
Sometimes we just need pushing to remember that we can all achieve greatness together. A rising tide mindset. I get excited about the vitality and brashness of the theatre we are capable of presenting here in the city. There is an older audience base that at first you might think only wants to see things like Oklahoma or Our Town, but the truth is they’ll turn out right next to the 20 something crowd to see a new and experimental piece at Single Carrot Theatre that pushes them way out of their comfort zone. Baltimore’s theatre goers are in it for the art and the experience, and they’ll go far with you if you let them. That’s a huge benefit to the level of new work that can be grown and nurtured right here in Charm City.
Bmore Art: There is quite a large, diverse group participating in ParityFest. Did you approach each company with a specific show in mind or did they have a choice?
Brad Norris: We’re all artists. I don’t think you could force any of us to do anything we didn’t want to. So yes, there was a lot of choice and flexibility for each group involved. Once a group was on board to participate we asked that they give us some guidelines for what kind of work they wanted to do. For example, Pallas Theatre Collective was interested in a musical and Arena Players have a mission of producing African American works, so there were some clear narrowing factors that helped to get the selections down to a manageable point.
After that, we presented companies with plays from The List that we thought fit their criteria and asked them to read them and let us know. If there wasn’t a fit in the fist few, we’d go back and get more. The ultimate goal was to find work that each company would enjoy producing, and then we gave them free reign to put it together with whatever level of production they felt comfortable with. So I think you’ll see not only representations of new work by female authors, but also a good look at who these companies are and what kind of work they enjoy producing.
Bmore Art: Can you highlight a couple of performances/scripts that you are particularly looking forward to?
Brad Norris: The first one out of the gate on July 1st is a play called Feathers and Teeth by Charise Castro Smith. I’m directing it at Theatre Project at 7:30pm and I’ve described it at a Brady-Bunch-esc nightmare. It’s funny and horrifying and I couldn’t put it down when I started reading it. I immediately told everyone this was mine, and then I tweeted at the playwright to tell her how much I loved the ride. So I’m a bit excited about that one. I really haven’t read a bad script yet, which has been really exciting.
Interrobang Theatre Company and UMBC Grrl Parts are partnering up to stage Tall Skinny Cruel Cruel Boys by Caroline V. McGraw at the Mercury Theater on July 9th, and I’ve been looking forward to that one for a while now, because there’s a “red clawed monster” that lives under the main character’s bed. Then on July 10th Rapid Lemon Productions is putting up Lottie in the Late Afternoon by Amelia Roper at The Fred Lazarus IV Center at MICA. I love Amelia Roper so I’m not going to miss that one. There are so many more I could talk about how long is this article? How about The History of American Pornography by Hilary Bettis, which Cohesion is producing on July 31st at Michael Owen’s Home Gallery. It’s six weeks of shows, I can’t pick a favorite!!!!
Bmore Art: Aside from events like ParityFest, what can the theater community do to support equality and diversity of voices?
Brad Norris: Baltimore’s theatre community does a lot of supporting already. That’s partly why we knew a festival like this would be something a lot of companies could get behind easily, because social and artistic equality are already staples of the theatre and artistic community of Baltimore. The next steps after producing female plays are things like hiring female directors, making sure there are good female roles in your season, and keeping the balance in mind when planning. I think in order to correct inequality, you must first be mindful of the scope of the problem.
Beyond parity for women, there are things like parity for African American authors, actors, and directors; Asian and Hispanic artists, LGBT artists, and on and on. If you look at the shows you’re doing, and all you see is white men, then you have a problem. Baltimore is full of artists with so much diversity of voices that it seems silly to not be as inclusive of as many of those voices as possible.
Bmore Art: What is the best way to experience ParityFest fully?
Brad Norris: Clear your calendar for the next six weeks. Okay, I’ll give you Monday and Tuesdays, but that’s it. There are performances and panel discussions about parity in the arts and theatre, women in science, and more Wednesday through Sundays until August 9th. The best way to do it is to jump in with both feet. Come to the opening on July 1st at Theatre Project and if that doesn’t whet your appetite for more, then I don’t know what will. Every reading is pay-what-you-can, so you’re not going to be out a lot of change for the quantity and quality of work you’re getting.
Check out the schedule online, cause that’s the best way to know up to the minute what’s happening, and then pick some companies you know, or plays that sound interesting and go for it. Bring some friends, get some drinks, and know that you are experiencing work that is brand new, highly recommended by theatre makers from across the country, and has the potential to rock your world. Also, don’t worry about seeing it all, you can’t. You actually won’t be able to because some readings overlap with others. But that’s okay, because we’ve just solved the riddle of “what should we do for the next six weeks.
You’re welcome! Visit www.cohesiontheatre.org/parityfest-schedule to get up to the moment info on what’s happening every day.
Bmore Art: Tell us a little more about ticketing.
Brad Norris: All performances are pay-what-you-can at the door, no reservations needed or available, so get there early because there also aren’t reserved seats and some of the venues are going to be packed — like The Chicken Box or Liam Flynn’s Ale House, or especially Dangerously Delicious Pies new store in Hampden. Pie and theatre, can’t be beat. Every dollar you spend goes directly to the playwrights and theatre companies putting on the festival. We have been very fortunate in the generosity of our venues and companies, so we can say that a lot of your dollars support these artists directly, not some festival administrator like me.
Bmore Art: How can Baltimore get involved and support your mission of “the unity that underlies much of what we consider separate.”
Brad Norris: If you support art and artists, you’re doing exactly what we want you to do. If you have a favorite theatre company that you go to all the time, like Fells Point Corner Theatre or Spotlighters Theatre, that’s fantastic. Keep going there, and then go see something at Glass Mind Theatre as well. Or if you see stuff at Single Carrot all the time, go see a show at Vagabonds as well or look out for folks like Small Batch Theatre Company coming fresh out of Townson’s MFA program. We all do this together, so the best thing Baltimore can do is support all of us, and know that great work is being done right here in Charm City every single day. Who knows, you may see something you fall in love with or something you hate, but that’s what art is. It’s valuable and vibrant, and it connects us all together even if the picture is too big for us to see all of it all the time.
Bmore Art: What’s next for Cohesion Theatre Company?
Brad Norris: Well, The Pillow Book is running until July 12th and that’s pretty awesome. Happening at Church on the Square, 1025 S. O’Donnell Street. Info for that is one our website at www.cohesiontheatre.org. After that and the festival we take a deep breath and head into Season 2, which features 4 mainstage productions and a season long project called The Trans* Voices Workshop Series, where we’ll be working to develop three new works by Trans* authors or about the Trans* experience. So we don’t really ever stop going, but it’s an exciting time to be making theatre in Baltimore.
Rebecca Juliette is the Events Editor at Bmore Art. Send her your calendar requests! [email protected]