I’m Uncomfortable

Gabbing about the importance of facing the awkward, the awful, the upending and the just plain weird in the theater with special guest Paul Potenza, artistic associate with Jobsite Theater.

This week Caught in the Act caught up with Paul Potenza, 30-plus-year stage veteran in the Tampa Bay area and artistic associate with our resident theater company, Jobsite Theater, to address a delicate issue: a trend in audiences finding subject matter “objectionable” that didn’t used to bother folks. What’s going on? The conversation led to the bigger topic of theater’s role in provoking audiences towards some greater understanding, some bigger revelation, and why being uncomfortable can be very beneficial despite living in a world dominated by traumatic and uncomfortable content on social media.

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Paul J. Potenza in Sex, Drugs, Rock & Roll, the first play ever performed in the Off-Center Theater (now the Shimberg Playhouse). Circa 1994. (Photo: Steve Widoff)

PAUL POTENZA: I have this vivid memory of working with my friend and director at the time, Jeff Norton … I was battling with a scene, and, at a certain point in the rehearsal I said, “I’m not really comfortable with how this is going.” Jeff simply replied, “I’m not overly concerned with how comfortable you are right now.” It was fantastic! We worked our way through it, and we moved the play forward. There was progress. It’s important to me to be challenged, whether it be onstage or as an audience member. It’s how we can grow, how we can get better. Better at listening, better at learning and simply sitting next to one another.

CAUGHT IN THE ACT: This title of this blog is “I’m Uncomfortable.” The topic came up after a national conversation about certain theater customers complaining, asking for money back, boycotting shows or writing nasty grams on social media because they didn’t “want to pay good money for [that kind of language], [that political view], [those kinds of characters],” etc. Jobsite typically goes for a least a few of these types of shows on their season, with 1984 being next in line. Will you share your thoughts about why socially and politically challenging theater upsets people so much and why you think it’s necessary (or not) as a part of Jobsite’s mission?

PP: I suppose, historically, arts patrons have, at times, had their way or their “$ay” with what is being done artistically, based on their comfort level, at their venue of choice. People not showing up for shows because of content … well, that’s also been going on since the beginning of time as has being part of something “you just must see”—something trendy and fashionable. If you’re uncomfortable, truly uncomfortable, then I respect that as an individual, but to make it corporate policy? Not so much. I love hands on, open palms, open ears and eyes, face to face. “Those kinds of characters” the anti-heroes, are at the nucleus of the greatest stories ever told onstage. Jobsite, the company, has obligations to its mission statement. Jobsite shares and surveys so many plays among its associates – it’s amazing and exhausting. We’re trying to find great plays. Period. As much of a fan I am about holding hands and happy endings, there is a whole lot more to do onstage. Theater that challenges and upsets might just move you to think, to feel something or see a person or situation or idea in another way. It’s absolutely necessary.

CITA: Over your span of time with Jobsite, what would you rank as the Top 5 “most uncomfortable” works—works that pushed the envelope for audiences’ social, political, and moral assumptions? What value did these pieces have for Tampa audiences and the company itself? Where does 1984 fit compared to these?

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PP: So, the play Blackbird by David Harrower immediately comes to mind. It’s the story of a shocking visit between 27-year-old Una and 55-year-old Ray at his workplace. Fifteen years earlier, he sexually abused her when she was twelve. They had unsuccessfully attempted to run off together. Ray was arrested, found guilty and jailed for three years for statutory rape. After serving his time, he tries to establish a new life for himself with a new career and a new name. Una discovers his whereabouts and tracks him down at this workplace in the break room. And this is where we find the two characters at the top of the play. Very uncomfortable. Why the hell would anyone want to do this play or see this play? It would be much easier to stay at home and watch comfort programing on Netflix. But where is the payoff? The conflict, the energy, the insight into these two people “involved” seems like an insurmountable situation. There’s a door in the room—but why doesn’t either just leave? Because that isn’t what this story is about. It is very easy to simply decide that one person here is the guilty one (and he is), but what would make this now young woman come back to confront him, to experience … god knows what?

Does he deserve a chance at a new life? He served his time. Why does she seek him out now? What is she searching for? Redemption? Revenge? A relationship? We don’t know. The characters don’t even know. The theater, this play, gives you an opportunity to be in that room. It creates a dialogue, and it is UNCOMFORTABLE.

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Topdog/Underdog by Suzi-Lori Parks is a play about two African American brothers struggling to make ends meet. Abandoned by their parents when they were teenagers, Lincoln and Booth, now in their thirties, were forced to learn to survive relying on themselves. Poverty, family relationships and responsibilities, honesty, dishonesty—are just some of the themes in this uncomfortable play. To say that the play does not have a happy ending is an understatement. Life and the cards you’re dealt are sometimes inescapable. You are not going to get the whole story in a 60 second news segment. You don’t get the whole story in a 90-minute play. We do gain some perspective as audience members. We can and do learn in the theater.

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Annapurna by Sharr White is the story of a man and woman who were married twenty years ago and haven’t seen each other since the man, in an alcoholic state, was responsible for a terrible accident with their five-year-old son. Now living alone, off the grid, his ex-wife comes to find him sober and terminally ill. Her mission is to prepare him for a visit from his son. Why? Uncomfortable. As the audience, we have to know: after all this history, did love survive? My god—theater is so beautiful to give us the chance to see and feel inside the hearts of those who hurt, of those who hurt us.

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The Guys by Anne Nelson is based on the true story about a fire captain faced with the responsibility of writing the eulogies for eight of his lost brothers, post 9/11. Uncomfortable. The beauty of this play is the humanity shared with a writer to help the captain capture the truth and personalities of these “regular” guys. A tough swallow, a hard sell … but grace and beauty beyond belief. Uncomfortable on the surface—try telling someone to go see a play about dead firemen. Then, go talk to audience members post-show, and you’ll see people at their best. The play creates so much appreciation for the men, for the shared experience of dealing with 9/11 and for the actors who carry the story.

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Rabbit Hole by David Lindsay-Abaire is the story of a young husband and wife who tragically and accidentally lost their son while he was innocently chasing the family dog. To witness the near impossible task of how a couple, a family, can or cannot come back from what many would consider the worst loss any human could experience, the loss of a child … that’s uncomfortable.

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In George Orwell’s 1984, the character of Winston Smith is determined to remain human under rather inhuman circumstances. Although I’m drawing up the plot rather simply, there are many parallels to the other plays I’ve mentioned. A human spirit, a well-meaning human spirit, may not always fare well or best in a human world but the difficulties, the divide and the incongruities of them make for great theater and many valuable lessons no matter where you live.

CITA: The play version of 1984 opens April 25. It will hardly be a jolly night at the theater as the audience watches an average citizen interrogated for Thoughtcrimes in a dystopian (read: alarmingly familiar) society. We’re inundated with traumatic stories on an hourly basis, day after day, year after year, thanks to social media, so why continue to use theater as a space to provoke us in ways that social media now does? Why not have each play be a happy escapist fantasy vs. an artistic rendering of a dystopian reality? Tangentially, where do we find hope in 1984? Where do we find hope in being uncomfortable in the theater?

PP: Yes! 1984 opens April 25th, and it will be a jolly night in the theater—if you are open to it. First and foremost, we are absolutely privileged to be in that intimate space. The Shimberg Playhouse is getting better and better technically and aesthetically. Thank you, Straz Center. So, I know that’s not your question but that’s how I feel there … It’s been my theatrical home since the day it opened. I did the first play in that space, then called The Off Center Theater. Sex, Drugs, Rock & Roll by Eric Bogosian. Again, I digress. Of course I see all the traumatic stories we are inundated with hour by hour, and it’s easy to say “No way I’m going to go see that play.” I see that horror every day on my phone—yeah, I said phone. You ask why continue to use theater as a space to provoke us in ways that social media now does. Because the theater has a heartbeat, it breathes. At its best, it brings people together to share small magnificent stories. In 1984, the hope is the fact that Winston believes that the human mind must be free. He believed this before he was tortured and forced to let go of that belief, that truth. Don’t let go of live theater—I trust you’ll find truth and perhaps comfort there.

See Winston Smith fight for humanity in Jobsite’s production of 1984, playing April 25-May 20 in The Shimberg Playhouse.

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