For the downtown theater cognoscenti, Blessed Unrest hardly requires an introduction. The perspicacious theater ensemble has made a name for itself owing to its boldly physical interpretations of theatrical classics as well as incisive takes on new writing, garnering awards along the way both in the U.S. and abroad. And over the years, the company has solidified a reputation for its commitment to working with multicultural ensembles—way before intersectionality became part of the 21st-century American vernacular.
Now nineteen years old, the company, for its 2017 – 2018 season, has managed to pull off a feat that is virtually unthinkable for a small, independent, downtown organization of their size: to present a New York season of three fully-produced works. Blessed Unrest kicked it off during the holiday season with the family-friendly Snow Queen (praised by BroadwayWorld as “a pleasure to watch”), then proceeded to heat up the winter with a smoldering, contemporary adaptation of Chekhov’s Platonov, which Emily Cordes of Theater Is Easy described as “fierce … [the play’s] social and sexual dynamics strike eerily modern chords.” And now, Blessed Unrest is preparing to top it all off with what is likely to be its season’s most provocative offering: the New York premiere of This Is Modern Art, a 2015 play that prompted two of Chicago’s chief theater critics to make racially insensitive remarks, which in turn ignited a nation-wide controversy and ensuing debate.
To discuss this bold new work, as well as the season at large, I caught up in early May with Jessica Burr (the director of all three productions, and a co-founder of Blessed Unrest with Matt Opatrny) and Idris Goodwin, the co-author of This Is Modern Art (with Kevin Coval) and the winner of 2017 National Blue Ink Playwriting Award, via an exciting, intercontinental Messenger chat session.
Ivan Talijancic (Rail): Idris, I was wondering if you could share—or perhaps I should say “recap”—the origin story of This Is Modern Art, which is based on real events. How did the decision for you and Kevin to dramatize it come about?
Idris Goodwin: Seven years ago, in a snow storm, a faction of a larger graffiti crew threw up some pieces on a fifty-foot wall—an entrance to the new Modern Wing of The Art Institute of Chicago. Mayor Daley’s graffiti blasters sprayed it off the very next morning, but some fragmented pictures circulated, the news covered it, and civic-minded hip-hoppers like Kevin and I were instantly curious and interested in having the conversation this crew was sparking about art and access and class.
The perpetrators immediately went underground while the heat was on. Kevin, through various back channels, managed to connect with them and began to get the story of not only why they did it but how they did it and what unfolded. The scouting, planning, and calculating—not to mention the interpersonal negotiations of the group—felt like the stuff of a heist movie. So, based on these interviews, we crafted this hybrid docu-drama slash heist stage play sprinkled with agitprop and educational tutorial.
Jessica Burr: Just to weigh in about how the play is structured: by the time we get to the real exposition about how it's done, we are so madly in love with these people, and the stakes are so high, that we're hungry for it, and as audience we're being let into this underground heist—very exciting!
Rail: Then, the play goes into production in Chicago, and out come those infamous reviews from the two major local critics admonishing the play. [Chicago Sun-Times’ Hedy Weiss called the play “irresponsible” and “potentially damaging”; while Chicago Tribune’s Chris Jones bemoaned: “all that was missing was handing out spray cans to the audience.”] When you were writing the piece, did you at all imagine something like this would happen?
Goodwin: Honestly, no. We suspected not everyone would “get it,” but we also assumed we were living in a post-Banksy world and that the last person any arts journalist would be was the “fist-shaking” conservative about graffiti art.
Rail: The response from the theater community nationwide was swift and furious. Did you feel vindicated by the outpouring of support?
Goodwin: Absolutely. It was really encouraging. And since then there were other similar incidents involving one of those critics [Weiss]—she has since been fired.
Rail: Jessica, how did you discover This is Modern Art? What compelled you to want to stage it?
Burr: We fell in art-love with Idris first, and then started reading his work. This play feels to me like a lyrical love letter to younger artists. It moves so fluidly, and there's a lot of room to play and move inside of it, which is something that I always look for as a director. There are a lot of “impossible” moments to stage inside of it which always thrills me. I love being forced to solve big spatial problems with actors instead of tech. We received a grant to work with a graffiti artist—I guess you are going to have to come and see the show to see how that collaboration manifests itself.
Also, I love how dangerous this play is in so many different ways. And the fact that there are young people at the center of it, particularly young men of color, who just want to make their art. They find a way to do what they need to do—a way to communicate with the world around them—but ultimately are not accepted.
Rail: In the aftermath of the events surrounding the Chicago premiere, and the ensuing controversy, what do you think is going to happen with your New York audiences?
Goodwin: They’re going to all run out, quit their jobs, and pursue graffiti art full-time. The streets of New York will overflow with graffiti. Oh, wait—
Burr: Well, considering that the 5Pointz artists just won their lawsuit, this feels like a great time to be staging this piece. As this country becomes more conservative, bigotry gets louder by the second, and as this city becomes just a playground for the rich, this story just becomes more important.
Rail: Did you have concrete ideas in mind around that kind of engagement? If so, what might it look like?
Burr: I’m interested in tapping into other underground arts scenes happening in the city and starting conversations around the show. I think we can really lean on the questions that are inside the piece. As theater artists, we need to always be questioning our process, where we’re making art, and with whom, then we have to push against the why. Also, post-show talkbacks and hangouts will be very important, I think.
Rail: Idris: this is your first collaboration with Blessed Unrest. How has that process been for you so far?
Goodwin: We have known each other a while, and deeply respect each other and each other’s work. So, to finally get to do something together is really dope. I was just out there in New York, and we spent a day just talking about the play—I know they're going to honor it.
Burr: This cast is brilliant, so smart, insightful, and also profoundly in love with this script, and in awe—in a good way—of Idris and Kevin. Finding nuances.
Rail: This has been quite an extraordinary year for Blessed Unrest. Doing a season of three fully-staged productions is a massive feat for a small company such as yours. Now that you are approaching the tail end of it, I am curious to hear what that experience has been so far?
Burr: Yes, it is massive. But three brilliant opportunities arose, and we leaped upon them.
For me, as a director, it’s been profound—creating three completely different universes in six months has forced me to question my own preconceptions about each piece. My greatest fear is that I won’t have the spark—especially heading into the last piece—that the muse will have wandered away, or fainted from exhaustion. But being surrounded by this brilliant cast and designers has kept inspiration and love for the work strong and in the room. My brain is being stretched in new ways, and it feels good.
Ultimately, the piece is not about me. I facilitate a space where other artists are free to create, to question, and take risks, and at the same time are safe and taken care of. Remembering that, and looking at the extraordinary people who will ultimately be performing this, makes everything OK.
Rail: How do you think this season stacks up against your trajectory as a company? Do you feel like you are experiencing a growth spurt, or is this kind of endeavor more of a one-off?
Burr: This has been a season of partnerships with larger organizations. We developed The Snow Queen at the New Victory, with immense support and wonderful feedback, the Platonov at the New Ohio, and now, This is Modern Art with New York Theatre Workshop. It’s been amazing to feel so supported by other theaters, and as far as our trajectory as a company goes, we will definitely seek further partnerships. It allows us to be greater than the sum of our parts.
Rail: Can you share some takeaways from this extraordinary flurry of production activity? What have you discovered from doing it, and how might it impact your future endeavors?
Burr: These have all been scripted plays, which have been really fun, but the two new pieces we have in development: Refuge, our next collaboration with Teatri Oda of Kosovo, based on the harboring of Jewish refugees by Albanian families during WWII, with the New York premiere planned for our 2018 – 2019 Season; and Reparations, a new play digging into the legacy of slavery in America—they are both pieces that will be developed and devised by us.
Rail: You are forging ahead with bold new material!
Burr: Well, now’s the time. We cannot afford to waste resources on shallow work right now. No one can. Now more than ever, we must question the context we have constructed for ourselves.
Rail: What does it feel like to run a small, independent theater company in New York City in 2018?
Burr: Honestly, it’s really scary. Increasingly, we live in a time and place where theater is not valued. At the same time, this is an opportunity for audiences to have a very real and also boutique experience. Theater creates a space where important conversations can be had. Community is very important right now, and we have that. In this age of perpetual screens, this is a chance to be in a room in real time with other humans. And when you leave, you leave changed.