Episode 89

St Pete X features business and civic leaders in St. Petersburg Florida who share their insight, expertise and love of our special city. An initiative of the St. Petersburg Group, St Pete X strives to connect and elevate the city by sharing the voices of its citizens, and to bring awareness to the opportunities offered by the great St. Petersburg renaissance.

02/04/2023 | Episode 89 | 37:07

Helen R Murray - American Stage

Helen Murray is an award-winning playwright and director. Murray joined St. Pete’s American Stage as Producing Artistic Director in October 2022. Previous to her current role, Murray has notably worked as Executive Producer for the Aurora Fox Arts Center in Denver and as Artistic Director of the Hub Theatre in Virginia, which she also co-founded. She has authored over seven plays, and has directed over 19 productions. She has received multiple awards for her work, including the Puffin Foundation Award for Outstanding Emerging Artist and the Washington Canadian Partnership Award for Leadership in the Arts. In this conversation, Murray and Joe Hamilton discuss theatre’s place in the community, the relationship between artistic risks and sure-fire hits, and loose plans for the 23-24 season at American Stage. Murray recounts how her experiences led her to American Stage, and what she hopes to accomplish while she is here.


Joe   00:06

You’re listening to St. Pete X Today’s episode is brought to you by Cityverse. Cityverse brings the community together on a new civic platform powered by Catalyst News, St. Pete Cityverse is launching soon. You can learn more and reserve your Homespace at Cityverse dot life. Now, enjoy the conversation. Joining me on SPX is the newly-minted Producing Artistic Director for American Stage, Helen R. Murray. Welcome. 

Helen  00:56

Thank you so much for having me. It’s awesome to be here. 

Joe  00:58

Let’s start with first impressions of St. Pete. It wasn’t on your radar, the opportunity came to you, and you said, Okay, let me check this place out. And let’s talk about through the St. Pete lens, what has that journey been like to get to know the city? 

Helen  01:10

Well, I think the folks who live here kind of already know they have a little treasure that maybe not everybody knows about. And I don’t know if they want to keep it that way or not. But those who come here are loyal for a reason. I mean, it’s a really great city to knockabout in. So when I came here, I was immediately drawn to the area. It’s got a high level of depth in its cultural landscape, it’s got a lot going on, it’s right on the water. I mean, there are so many cool little spots and places and coffee shops, and you guys have constant festivals. I feel like, every weekend, there’s some other festival going on. So there’s always just something happening. And so it’s a great environment to make art. And I was immediately drawn to that.

Joe   01:50

Given the probably nowadays mostly untrue stereotype is that we’re an older community, a retirement type of community, which, again, maybe an unfair stereotype, might be more conservative in their tastes. As far as the kind of plays they want to see and the kind of work they want to see, the kind of art they want to absorb. You like to push boundaries, and you have some specific places you’d like to go. And what about concerns there? And how have you found that as far as being able to really spread your wings and be you?

Helen  02:17

Well, so we haven’t seen me spread my wings yet, truly, because I inherited the current season, which is great. And I’m excited to be producing the work that we’re producing right now. So, next season will be the 23-24 season where you’ll really start to see what my programming looks like. And I never thought of myself as boundary pushing or edgy, but I’ve been called that before. And I think it has to do with the fact that I really care about newer work. I care about the Bards of our day, and bringing forward the stories that are very relevant to how communities are going through things right now. And I like really human stories. I love a love story. I love a story about family. And so maybe that’s where that moniker comes from. But first of all, I don’t think St. Pete is generationally where it used to be even 10 years ago. There’s a lot of youth here. And I felt that right when I visited the first time. I was like, oh, okay, there’s a really good span. And I did a lot of demographic background look into what St. Pete was before I moved here and before I took the job just so I understood the community a little better. So I think first of all, we have a real opportunity to bring in younger audiences and to bring in different communities that maybe haven’t necessarily thought of either American Stage or, just in general, the theater as a place where they are comfortable. And so I would love to shift that perspective. And so when it comes to those things, I will say that we welcome those audiences, and I am excited to be able to do programming that welcomes them in. But I find that older audiences are just as excited about new things as anybody else. And the amount of times I’ve heard from older audiences how thrilled they are with newer work, it has outweighed the amount of times I’ve been asked to produce something that’s been done 1000 times. 

Joe   04:08

And so in that regard, then obviously, your programming is an expression of this philosophy as putting more your your business and marketing hat on, then what will be your efforts to position the theater and use your coms channels to get that message out there? Will that message be really heavily about change, or will it be about diversity, or what’s the thing you need to put forward to accomplish that goal? 

Helen  04:31

So I’ve always programmed diversely. That hasn’t ever been sort of something I had to check off the box with, just because I love work from many different voices and I prize work that’s different from my own. So those things happen very naturally. You’ll see more music on our stages with me as Artistic Director, whether that be a musical or play with music, which actually I really love plays with music. It’s a different structure than a big musical. So you’ll see more of that from me and you’ll see plays with a lot more whimsy, magic, wonder. I like work that feels really hopeful and unifies audiences. And even if it’s challenging work, even if the discussions we’re having are thought-provoking and challenging, I really care about that connective tissue. And I do find, you know, putting on my producer revenue-making hat as you said, I do find that great art wins. Great art makes people show up. I think it’s a mistake that we make, or an assumption that is really unfair that we make of audiences that somehow unless they know the title already, or it feels really safe or comfortable, they’re not going to show up. But I would rather help a community understand the evolution of how to fall in love with something new. I mean, people go to a new movie all the time, they go to a new restaurant all the time, they know how to do this. So for me, it’s about in a season hitting a really good balance of voices that we’re bringing forward, whether it’s in age, ethnicity, faith, gender, all of the many things that are in there, when it comes to programming diversely. So whether it’s that or if it’s, “is it a comedy? Is it a musical? Is it a, you know, that we’re hitting something, that there’s something for everybody?”, and then doing our best to show them when they show up at the theater that really all of it’s for them, that they can find representation of themselves in everything, because it’s all about them as a community, and then to work with our ancillary programming to do things that are not necessarily only central to American Stage, doing things at other places around town and doing a lot of talkbacks, community engagement. Our education department is continually growing, so that we’re creating our theater goers from a young age. Maybe we create theater artists, but I’m also good with us just creating theater goers, too. But we’re not a community theater, we are a professional theater, but I hope to be and hope that we are always a theater for our community. 

Joe   06:59

Sure. That makes a lot of sense. It seems the challenge today is, you know, it may be the incorrect stereotype, is that they don’t recognize the name, they don’t come. But it more so in feels like the challenge is just getting their attention and having folks say, “Hey, this is an option”. You know, movies, people grew up more going to movies, movies have the benefit of known stars, movies have the benefit of trailers that they see multiple times. And to some extent, restaurants, you know the quantity, it’s food, you’re going to get a meal out of it, you have to eat. It seems to be somewhat of a more unique challenge to hit the masses with going to the theater, because it’s just, you know, folks are not used to it. And maybe there’s where you slide into the folks that are used to it, like the names that they know. And so really to find a way to get folks to consider theater as an entertainment option, and then get to see all this cool new stuff is a one-two punch, but maybe the attention part is the hardest of it. 

Helen  07:48

It is. I sat in on a really interesting a study. I guess I’ve took part in it with the “Triple Play Network”, I think is what they were called. And this was a few years ago, more than a few years ago now, probably six, seven years ago now. And it was a really interesting study, they wanted to know what made people go to a new play beyond “Why do you go to the theater?” Why do you go see a brand new play? A world premiere? And the single biggest reason that people showed up to new work was because of the little blurb that we write the description of the play. And I was like, “You mean not the reviews or the marketing or that?” Nope, they want to know what it’s about. And if it sounded cool, they would go, even if it got a bad review. The second biggest reason they went to the theater to see something was if a friend told them it was good. Once again, we’re spending all this money marketing things and waiting and you know, waiting for a good review to come out. And they just want to know does this sound interesting, and did a friend like it. And so I think it’s good when a lot of your marketing goes toward the be the friend that tells them what’s going on and tells them how cool it is. But I also have to watch the evolution in American theater, especially being in Denver these past five years. And so maybe my journey from DC to Denver to here was so that I could really experience this. I’ve seen the evolution go far more toward immersive and experiential theater. And I have gotten to see some really cool stuff where you’re no longer just sitting in a seat, watching them talk at you. But you’re now walking in and out of the performance. And I mean, I’ve been in performances where I’m digging in dirt, and I’ve been in performances where I’ve asked to dance with another person in the audience or eat something that they just handed me. I went to an immersive performance where they sat me down in a wheelchair and blindfolded me and took me into the next room to listen to a monologue. And it’s amazing how they got you to trust in that moment where you’re like, Okay, you can do this to me and I still feel safe. But the fact that people are experimenting in those ways, I think it’s drawing out the younger audiences for sure because they’re up for that. But I don’t think it’s limited to only younger audiences. I think watching great art makes people feel alive and young and I don’t think that is only something… that it is an attribute we can only give younger audiences. I think feeling alive and feeling really excited about where you are at that moment. I think that’s something that every human can connect with. 

Joe   10:11

Absolutely. And you mentioned, great art wins. And you talked about some pretty original takes on work. So how important is it to take chances? Do you have to, to throw in a baseball analogy, miss a few pitches to hit a homerun? How do you walk that line? 

Helen  10:29

I always feel like if at least I’m in love with the show, then I’ve done my job. I’ve also found that when I think I’m programming for a big hit, I’m not always right. It’s usually the weird, random shows that all of a sudden did better than I did one season, where we put up a holiday show that I thought, “This will pay for the whole season, because everybody knows the name of that show. And they’re very used to it.” And it was okay, like it the attendance was okay, it wasn’t great, anywhere near what we thought it would be. But then we put up a world premiere about a trash Golem. Do you know what a Golem is? It’s a monster. But a trash golem comes out. And there’s two people who are chasing a hat that’s floated away. And like, it’s the weirdest piece. But we sold out that entire run. And it was just because people wanted something interesting and different. And so it was a big lesson too, because that was fairly early for me as an artistic director in my career. And it was just such this thing where I realized, you know what, if you really believe in the art, that means trust your gut, that you know what good art is. Tell people why it matters, tell people why they should show up and let them know how cool it is when they’re going to be there. So I’ve actually found great success with a lot of work that pushes the envelope. In fact, I found better sales around newer work than I have found with work that has been around for a long while. 

Joe   11:51

And when that happens, given that you think you’re not going to program it if you don’t think it’s good, like you said, If you love it, then that’s the first step to getting it put out there. And then when some of those take off, and some of those don’t. Do you go back and say, here’s what they loved about the work? Versus, I mean, it’s not either or it’s some combination of both? Or is it just often about the right people set it in the right places, and it got the right virality, and it hit for that reason? Do you feel like when you look at successes versus less successful plays, how much of it do you attribute to your choice of the work, to the performance, or to kind of the luck of what gets hot? 

Helen  12:29

Yeah, everything you just said is “yes”, there was no “no” in there, because I’ve had some of my most beautiful work have almost nobody in the audience. And it’s so hard to watch those moments because you know, what you made and you also know from the few people who were there, how much it affected them. So I do think so much of it is about marketing. And we do talk about marketing in a sense of like, sell, sell, sell. But the best formula for marketing theater is about helping people understand what their experience will be, I don’t quite know the true answer to it. Let’s put it this way. Every season, I try to program a few ones that I know will sell 100%. These will sell well. I’ll put at least one really big commercial piece in there that I know, okay, people will come to this. And then there’ll be a variety of things that have had former success, are super brand new, and some maybe even world premiere brand new. So there’ll be a good cross section in there. And I also tried to make sure that the communities that are really representative in the area are being spoken to. So yeah, especially coming to St. Pete, you guys have a really healthy pride community here. You know, you have a healthy LGBTQ plus community. I think there are communities here that have not been reached out to; your bipoc communities, your Latino communities that aren’t showing up in droves to our theater right now, I would like to see that shift. And I think that there’s a lot more we can do there with programming so that they feel like they’re being seen on stage. And quite frankly, there’s incredible writing coming out of those communities. So it’s a joy to get to share it. It’s not a task. It is exciting for us to get to do that. And some of my favorite writers come from marginalized communities. They write in a narrative that is not in the same dramatic structure we’ve been listening to for hundreds and hundreds of years, right? They’re writing their own way. And I find that exhilarating to get to do their work. 

Joe   14:23

And along those lines, you have some pretty thoughtful and robust views on diversity. There’s obviously the boxes that you check on the forms, but you go way beyond that when you think of what diversity means to you and how you program. Can you give us a little insight into the elements of diversity that you see, that a lot of other people don’t immediately gravitate towards? 

Helen  14:43

I think one of the biggest things for me, you know, and I’ve been asked to talk about it before and in the beginning, I would have just said “oh, well because they’re cool plays. Why wouldn’t we do them?” But I think it has to do with my attraction to stories and storytelling that is unlike my own. When you grow up in a community that has its own cultural diaspora then all of a sudden, you’re looking at the way you tell stories differently. I find work by certain South American writers to feel dreamlike and lush, they use so much more animal imagery, and there’s just a different color to what it is. And I don’t mean color as in skin color, but color as in what they’re shaping their piece with. Or when I go into work from our South Asian, or Asian writers, and the heritage that they’re pulling from comes in differently. The way they even see the normal structures that we write — like, if you look at the big writers, right, they’ve written… Well, I mean, everything’s based on the Bible at some point, probably, but you know, their faith is different than ours. So they’re gonna write very differently. And they cast off the three act dramatic arc that has been born of the Greeks and gone through Shakespeare and been sort of the predominant structure of all work that’s gone forward. And so when all of a sudden you have people breaking down these old structures and writing with a level of poetry, or a level of language that is shifting to specific communities, that has its own musicality to it, when they’re attacking narratives, histories, stories that are not the ones we’ve heard over and over again, there’s just something very electric about it. And at least for me, because obviously I grew up hearing a different story. And so for me, it’s just always just so exciting. And I love the big risks that the writers of the day are taking. In fact, I’ve been extolling this play, “Fat Ham” that just won the Pulitzer. And it’s heading to Broadway. When I first read this script, I was like, “I would in a heartbeat produce this show”. It’s so wild. It’s a riff on Hamlet, which usually when people hand me those, I’m like, oh, there’s a million riffs on Hamlet, but but written by a black writer, who’s actually got quite a great track record. But he just swings for the fences, with the style of writing, with the comedy, with the narrative itself, with how he breaks Hamlet apart. I mean, he just took all the risk in the world. And I’m like, good for you. And it got you a Pulitzer. I don’t know that that would have happened 20 years ago. I think that the community is now ready to read work that is that risky and accept and love it. But yeah, it’s work like that. Because people always ask me like, what’s next season, what’s next season, I can tell you work I love but I’m obviously not ready to announce that yet. But I do love it when writers just have such bravery in their writing and break the norms and move forward with language that grabs you, story that grabs you, and an experience that makes you not look at your watch, and forget about your day, and forget that you’re just a person in the world that has to go to their job the next day. Like, I want us to be taken away.

Joe   17:56

Along those lines, always juxtaposing the things that you’re talking about bringing against the community against your board, and what levels of discomfort are the right levels of discomfort, because at the end of the day, you have to keep the theater afloat, so it got me thinking about your relationship with money. You know, as someone who creates themselves and has won awards for creating, you’ve chosen to walk a path of being responsible for both sides of the operation. Do you find joy in maximizing revenue for the health of the theater along the lines of not only filling seats, but looking for, you know, ancillary monetary monetization options, like merchandise or recordings or virtual experiences, all that sort of thing? Or do you see it as a necessary evil to keep the work flowing? 

Helen  18:44

I don’t see it as a necessary evil. I see a balanced budget as a creative prompt. I think that it’s just part of it. Because I’ve always walked both roads, I almost would not know how to imagine my productions without somebody telling me… Because if that somebody said, “Oh, you can do this show”, I’d be like, “Well, how much can we spend?” That would be my first question, just so that my imagination as a producer can help guide. And I think we need to move away from the idea that economy and resources somehow begets lackluster art. I have made some of the best theater I’ve ever made on a teeny tiny budget. And then some of the most visually arresting stuff I’ve ever made has been on a teeny tiny budget. So it makes the ingenuity engine start going. And so I do care about all those things. I’m watching it all the time. There’s never a week that goes by that I don’t want to know what our cash position is, or where we’re going. There’s never a moment that goes by that I don’t want to know how much donorship we’ve been bringing in where the grants are what I mean, it’s always on my mind, and I think it’s partially because I started my own theater. That was the first leadership role I had was a theater I started and we started with, like, I think we had like a budget of $25,000 our first year. I mean, it was so tiny, but our first year was one and a half shows, but it was still even producing on that. And so I think about it now, and I’m thinking, how would I produce $25,000. It’s been so long since I’ve had to. But when you’re in those realms, you get so smart about how you make things happen. And it taught me really early in my leadership career, how to be thoughtful about what moves forward when, and how to be thoughtful about cash flow, how to be thoughtful about how I ask for money, because I think that it’s another pitfall that people can trip into if they’re not careful. But I don’t see donors as a place where I go with my hand out; I see them as part of the fabric of what we’re creating. Which is why I really do want to know what they think of the art. And they’re not going to always agree with me, and I don’t program toward whether or not the donor is going to love it. But I like hearing from them. I like knowing what they care about. And I certainly want them to feel like they’re part of creating the great art because they are so important and integral to it. So yes, I’m always mindful of it, I just don’t think that you need to sacrifice taking big artistic chances and making big artistic choices, in order to achieve those financial goals. I think they’re one and the same. And when it comes to the board, or the staff or donors to get the job, I had to meet with so many stakeholders in the community, I met with the staff, I met with the board, and I did pitch a draft season. And I went really big with it, I went like not big budget wise, but like, I’m going to really push it with each of these titles. So they know where I might go. I don’t want to hide that. I don’t want to have to somehow crowbar my artistry into their way of doing things, but rather find a place where I’m a good fit. And they were very excited about the possibilities of what I might create here. So I don’t feel hemmed in, in any way. And when I first met with the staff around programming, we talked about it. I did several exercises with them that made me understand that there was a harmony and there was an allyship in the work that we wanted to create. And so I know that when we move forward, not only is there buy-in to that overall goal, but that they’ve been a part of the process and selecting the work so that there’s true harmony in all of us walking together to make this art. So I feel like that has not been a challenge coming here. But ask me again next season when when people have been seeing the work that I create. That’s truly from my sense of programming, and then maybe I’ll have a different answer.

Joe   22:33

It sounds ideal so far. So that’s great. As theater evolves, what are your thoughts on revenue beyond ticket sales, other types of revenue? Are there going to be merchandise or unique opportunities that aren’t the traditional “pay for ticket and sit in the seat”?

Helen  22:45

So you’re already going to see some of this from us next year. We already have solidified one of the pieces next year that will be done around town in site-specific areas, and it’s an experience that will be different every night, so you may want to buy a ticket to multiple because you don’t know what’s gonna happen the next time. So things like that that will hopefully bring in people from whoever we’re partnering with on site, so that we’re opening up our audiences in that way. I’m really interested in bringing in some family friendly programming so that entire families feel like they can come to the theater together and be really excited about that. And also, we’re just doing a lot of other community programming, I just moved forward our unplugged series, which will be essentially music artists from around the area who are going to tell their story along with their music, and a couple of my staff are the ones actually putting it together. I just check yes. But I’m lucky to have a staff that’s really excited about doing that kind of work with me. And so once I sort of opened the door just a little bit on it, now they’re coming to me with ideas. Now they’re like, “Oh, I think we should do this. I think we should do this.” And so now, as I’m budgeting the 23-24 season, I’m like, “Great. Thank you for all the millions of ideas. Now let’s figure out how many we can afford.” But I really would like to be able to be in our home there and to be all around St. Pete. And I would really love for American Stage to be synonymous with St. Pete and for even if they don’t go to the theater, they know who we are. That’s a goal of mine. 

Joe   24:17

And you’re accomplishing that goal through partnerships. You have an interesting one coming up in a couple of weeks. Can you tell us a little about that? 

Helen  24:23

Yass, thank you for asking. So the Lift Every Voice new play festival is coming up. And that actually is my first programming since I’ve been here because those plays weren’t selected yet. And so we have six plays within a festival weekend that we’re bringing in. And that went through a submission process. There’s a couple in there that were just outright selected. And then the other four went through a selection process where we had a few hundred submissions, and we had a whole bunch of readers reading new work and going through that, and then had a second round of readers read through the finalists, and then we had a small group of people meet around the final selections. So that’ll be coming up, and that we are doing partnership with the James Museum, and it’s really exciting; they have such a lovely space there. So we’ll be having, like the readings are going to be all weekend long, sometimes even at the same time in different spaces. We’ll have a playwrights panel with all the visiting playwrights so they can talk about their writing process. We’ll also have Regina Victor, who is a writer and public speaker and cultural commentator come in to do our keynote speech and sort of be there. She’ll be there throughout the weekend. And we’re hoping that this will not only bring in audiences interested in new plays, which is really my sweet spot, and where I came out of, but I’m hoping we’ll also have a lot of industry folks come out, so that they can look at work that’s being created right now and hopefully take it back to their theaters as well. 

Joe   24:27

That’s great. And I was just thinking about us, as the Catalyst, covering that. I’m curious as to what your experience has been coming to town with regard to media. I’ll speak for us, that we typically do previews versus reviews. And so it’s not that traditional, “hey, you know, thumbs up, thumbs down,” or whatever kind of vibe. And artist coverage has declined in the area. The Times, which, you know, historically has done the most, they don’t do as much as they did. We have Creative Loafing in Tampa, which is still punching above their weight and doing a lot of work. What’s been your experience coming here versus other places you’ve been with arts and the media? And what are your hopes and aspirations for us to be better at it?

Helen  26:23

I think what you’re going through has been around the country and happening everywhere, because I was in DC for a really long time, and the fight you would have to do to get the Washington Post out to your–because they only have so many folks–to get people out to your show, you’re just pulling to get them out there. And, and they would always find their way, but you want them that first opening weekend so the review is out quick and you can sell on it. But because of how in-demand they are, I mean, they just don’t have enough resources. And so I think, from the Washington Post, from DC to Denver to here, I’ve watched arts coverage just decline because the dollars have not been there in the same way. And so I do understand what you guys are facing when it comes to trying to cover everything all at once. So in comparison, I think you and Denver have actually quite a lot in common in level of outlet and level of resource to it, I always find that you can sort of, after I’m in a place for a bit, I can be like, “Oh, this is the way they do coverage,” either it’s preview or review. And this is the way they review. I have my informational reviewer that comes in, and it’s like “This is what the play is about, and here’s what it is, and here’s what you can expect.” I’m like, okay. And then I have the one who is in between, it’s sort of like, that’s the audience member, right? That’s the way they think about shows that they see. They’re not a reviewer that’s been reviewing for forever, or that is like, I think of as like, “Oh, this is a really hard reviewer to get in front of”. And then you have your ones that are really critical. And not critical meaning they’re negative toward your show, but they’re looking with a real critical eye toward the show. And they’ve seen enough theater around the country to have a sense of where you fall in the national conversation about theater and in the national level of artistry. So I think I’ve seen all levels here, and it’s pretty much on point with how Denver was. DC is just a much bigger market. And because you have a national paper there, it also makes it harder when I premiere shows in DC. If the Washington Post decides they don’t like it, that’s a harder hit because it’s national. But I will say for the most part, press has always been kind to me and thoughtful. And I’ve never found them out for a cheap “stick-it-to-ya”. Like I’ve found that in general, they want to encourage art in the community. And so they’re really doing their best to share what that is with the people listening or reading so that the people listening and reading know what they have available to them.

Joe   28:46

Is it safe to say that there’s probably more art content than ever, from a media standpoint, but it’s extremely scattered in that before you had these singular points of the writer, and now you have 512 bloggers or 512 folks that have many publications or influencers or all that whole gamut, you know, which theoretically, makes it harder to get aggregated attention, but also de-risks it in that a person on a bad mood who’s just gotten a fight with their partner is now reviewing your play. I can’t sink a whole play for the wrong reasons, more just their opinion in general. So you know, have you seen and felt that? How has that changed your strategy moving from those singular points of media to now all the many points? 

Helen  29:31

I mean, I think it went in tandem with democratization of art itself. Now everybody’s making it. Everybody can have their platform. You no longer need to wait for a theater or a gallery to say yes to you, right? You can figure out your own way to get it out in the world. And so with that same democratization of the art came the democratization of its response. And so I think I’m so far past being affected by critical analysis from press because I’ve just been doing it for so long, I can read a review of my own work, and honestly, all I go is, “Where’s the pull quote?” And I’m not bothered if they didn’t like it, I don’t live and die by that I’m sure if you asked young Helen, when I was still in my acting days, I would have been mortified by a negative review. But I’m okay with people speaking up and speaking their minds. And I think it’s about how American Stage also translates that, because with all of these places coming in with their own view of what we’re doing, we can share that in our own way. So we get to put our own spin on it, too. And every theater does this, right? I mean, I’ve watched many theaters have a one word quote from a review. And they found where it said surprising. And they might have said, surprisingly bad, but they just said “surprising”. And then it’s quote from, you know, the New York Times. So I’m not ever bothered by it, but there’s going to be those places where we know our community is looking. That’s where they go for their information about “what am I going to do with the time that I’m not working in my life.” And so those places you really want to build good relationships with, because I want them to share the information in an authentic way. And that’s probably what I care about more than anything. In my entirety of dealing with press there has been once and only once where I have called a reviewer. I mean, I multiple times have corrected the press, like, “Oh, you got that spelling of this name wrong, and I really don’t want to make this artists upset.” You know, I’ve let them know things like that. But there was one time where I called a reviewer and was like, I just want to let you know, you got this so wrong. Not their take, but they took a dig at a piece of direction that was taken in there, and they basically said we copied it. And I was like, actually, we came out first. So they copied us. And I just want you to say that because it was in the Washington Post. And I’m like, that’s gonna go everywhere. And it’s not out to print yet. It came out online first. And she retracted it. She was like, Oh, my gosh, I’m so sorry. I didn’t realize that you guys came out with it before they did. And so that was probably the one and only time, but it was informational. It wasn’t that she had issue with the show, it was that I was like, “no, no, I need the artists credited correctly, they made this, that is their intellectual property. They are not a copycat.” And so I’ll defend those things. But for the most part, people get to say what they need to say, and I’ll utilize it when we can to help our audiences understand what we’re doing. And if I just don’t think it’s going to help us, then I’ll be like, “well, they got their say, and now it’s time to move on.” Does that answer your question? 

Joe   32:33

Yeah, I think that’s really good. Because I think that philosophy pushes out to all the people that work in the organization. You know, I’m also thinking about it from the “business challenge” sense. And I think, actually, it speaks to a larger challenge: Not only have your reviews and your marketing levers changed when it comes to that aspect of things, but the democratization of art has also competed for attention. And so now, to your point, anybody who wants to do anything can. I mean, you can go on YouTube and watch people who make things in their basement that are as good as Star Wars, pretty much, because they have the technology now, and it’s readily available and very compelling. And these folks are absolute pros at keeping you plugged into the matrix. So you know, I wonder, how does that bode for the future of in-person events? 

Helen  33:21

You know, try as this world might to make theater obsolete, it just won’t die. And this is not the first pandemic that theater has come out of. So for some reason, people still care about gathering. And I did have this moment, not just because of the pandemic, but even before that, where we were watching the pendulum swing away from live event, and especially I’m like, you know, we’re not gonna have a purpose for theater anymore. But in some ways, I think, well, I’m waiting to see what this next few years… because I think the pandemic sort of doubled down on this “you can do everything at home and just stay home. And it’s so much easier to just…” I unfortunately, am a person who’s like, but I love my couch. So it didn’t hurt me to be like, “I’ll just do things at home, that’s fine.” But I do think the need to gather is innate in all of us. And no amount of the matrix is going to take that away. And so I do think that theater is just going to stay put because we’ve tried so many times over to kill it off, and it just won’t go. And so I think it’s an art form that’s here to stay. I do wish it wasn’t so niche. I wish that people understood that these are places where they can be represented and can be comfortable walking into. I do like that theater has moved a little bit away from its sense of being very elitist. And I champion that over and over again. Like, I don’t care if you show up in jeans and a T shirt, just show up. And that’s part of the effort to go out into the community with your art too. We can take a note from some earlier theater in the world and think about, look, Shakespeare’s plays got taken on the road all the time, because there were some people who were never gonna get to see a show. And so they set up their caravan and they went town to town. And so I think it’s both to keep the theater world going. And I think we need to be mindful and thoughtful of how people intake art. We grew up on movies, we grew up on iPads now. I mean, my kids are of an age where they have always known that kind of access, and the traditional three-act structure where we go to blackout between each scene–we no longer think like that. I mean, we don’t watch movies like that. We are not okay with a long interlude. Our brain is working in a different way because of what we’ve been intaking. And so theater has to be mindful of how we’re approaching staging and how we’re approaching storytelling and our tech and our tech needs. And, yeah, we have to keep up with the savviness of our audiences. And so all of those things, I think, play into why I like new voices because they are writing at the tempo of our day. They are not still stuck in a time where we would be so impatient watching a play from the 1920s. Like, how long is this thing? Why are there two intermissions? Why is there a five minute blackout between each scene while they change scenery? We’re not used to that anymore. I think it’s both, but I think it also goes back to what I said before is that great art wins, and cream rises to the top. We see that natural movement in all art in every part of the art world, I think we see that. So even out of the myriad of things coming out of Instagram, TikTok, and whatever, right? We see the ones that all of a sudden take hold and become phenomena, right? And so we know that even so, sometimes it’s not even great art, but it’s something that is different. And those things will float up. And so I’m looking for the things that will float up. 

Joe   36:49

We’ll look forward to that floating up, I guess, in your first full season of your programming. It’s been a pleasure. I can’t wait for next season. You know, we’re always here to help you and support you and how we can 

Helen  37:00

Oh, that’s so great. Yeah. Well, I expect to see you in the audience, then. You just let me know when you’re on your way, and I’ll make sure to say hi. 

Joe   37:06

Helen Murray, thank you so much. 

Helen  37:07

Thank you. This was lovely.

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