by Melissa Griegel
Theatre Forward held its 17th Annual Broadway Roundtable on Friday, January 31st at a luncheon in partner UBS’s Manhattan office. This year’s topic of discussion was “How does theatre mirror society?” Panelists included Celia Keenan-Bolger (To Kill a Mockingbird), Blair Underwood (A Soldier’s Play), Jacob Padrón (Long Wharf Theatre), Lois Smith (The Inheritence), and Jack Viertel (Jujamcyn Theaters).
Greg Hurst, Board Member of Theatre Forward and Senior Vice President of UBS Wealth Management, welcomed the guests and introduced Bruce Whitacre, Executive Director of Theatre Forward, who moderated the panel. Theatre Forward is a network of 19 prominent theaters around the country such as the Manhattan Theatre Club and the Long Wharf Theatre in New Haven. Theatre Forward just launched the Bank of America Activate Awards which will award four $50,000 grants annually for at least the next two years to member theaters to expand equity, diversity, and inclusion.
Whitacre asked Jack Viertel, Senior Vice President of Jujamcyn Theaters, if theater mirrored society differently today than in past decades. “I think theater is a reflection of the audience,” he replied, “At the moment, the offerings on Broadway are nothing like they were when I was growing up.” He said that most shows were about white people, for white audiences, and many of them came from London’s West End. He said that has changed dramatically today in terms of the stories and the actors, but more work needs to be done to have more diversity behind the stage.
Lois Smith, who is currently starring in The Inheritance, talked about the multi-generational storyline of her show. She likes how the writer Matthew Lopez “tells the story with a responsibility enshrined in kindness, that it seems to me, is a pretty great recipe for passing on our knowledge we have gained in each of our lifetimes.” She is thrilled to be in a show inspired by her favorite novel Howards End by E. M. Forster.
Formerly from The Public Theater, Jacob Padrón is now the Artistic Director of the Long Wharf Theatre and the Founder and Artistic Director of The Sol Project, a national theater initiative established to give voice to Latinx playwrights and artists of color. “Diversity is a fact,” Padrón said, “inclusion is what you do with that fact.” He is working hard to build partnerships with the surrounding communities of the theaters. “Great art comes out of great relationships.”
Blair Underwood was asked about how theater differs from television and film in terms of the impact it can have. He said that although other media can instantly reach a much larger audience, live theater had the ability to create magic. “We breathe the same air,” Underwood explained, “Electricity happens. We have a communal experience that happens after the play where we talk about it, think about it together. That is the magic that happens.”
Tony Award Winner Celia Keenan-Bolger discussed how she combines acting and activism in her life. “Telling stories is such a huge part of amplifying voices that are maybe not always part of the conversation.” Keenan-Bolger was recently honored with the Michael C. Friedman award by the ACLU for her dedication to social justice. “We are in a moral and spiritual crisis and we have to examine what it means to be relationships with one another and how we treat the least privileged among us, and how we repair harm. I actually believe that one, that of the only places to sort of engage with those questions is a theater.”
After the formal panel ended, the floor was opened up for luncheon guests to ask their own questions. The members of the panel each joined a different table for lunch to continue the discussions on theater and society.