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« Art Around Town A Well Fed Evening: CAC's Starving Artist 2012 »

Theater Sat Oct 06 2012

Scenes, Scripts and Samples: A Taste of Theater

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A Taste of Theater will provide Chicago with hearty samplings of both the local and national theater scene; this two-day festival, complete with panels, playwrights and performances, will showcase both established and up-and-coming artists, all vying for the chance to work with legendary playwright Shelly Garrett, who here, talks about theater and his role in the festival.

When did you first know you wanted to be a playwright?

I think it was 1986 -- when I did my first play called Snuff and Mini-Skirts -- and it sold out in Los Angeles in a small 99-seat theater. It sold out in six weeks and I said, "You know, this is kind of fun." So I wrote another one called Beauty Shop and the rest is history.

It goes without saying that you are the trailblazer of a certain style of African-American theater that has been carried on by playwrights including David E. Talbert, Je'Caryous Johnson and of course, Tyler Perry. How does it feel to be recognized for that?

It feels good -- I'm so proud of them. Anyone who is putting out quality work, it makes me very proud. But for those that are just throwing shows together, just trying to get paid, it's embarrassing.

Have you seen any shows that fit that description where you easily detected that?

I don't get a chance to see a lot of them, but I hear about most of them. If they're putting out quality stuff and entertaining audiences all over America, I'm with that, but to just do something... I call it "stealing" -- it's stealing people's money. Just because you're trying to hurry up and get paid and get out of town, I think is unfair.

There are many people, including some in the black community, who have often been critical of "urban theater," saying that it isn't "real" theater. Does this kind of criticism bother you?

I've heard that many times but it doesn't bother me at all. When people are lined up around the block to come and see a play that I'm doing and they absolutely loved it when they leave, that's all that's important to me.

Your work is primarily rooted in comedy; however, you've said "comedy is a difficult art." Why do you think this is so?

Well, it's difficult because of timing. If you're trying to get an actor to not be a comedian, but deliver lines that are funny, that's very difficult because you can deliver a line one way and it's not funny but deliver it another way and it's hysterical. So it's all in the delivery and the timing.

Given that degree of difficulty then, how would you say comedy compares to drama?

Drama is not really hard at all; anybody can be angry or sad on stage, but to get an audience to laugh out loud is very difficult. It takes a lot of rehearsing and it takes the right people on stage to get that done.

Let's talk about A Taste of Theater, where you are participating in several panels and workshops, including the "Scripts Panel." In your opinion, what comprises a good, solid script?

It has to be entertaining -- whether it's comedy, drama, gospel, or whatever, it has to entertain the audience. I think it's the dialogue that is very important; people have to understand what you're trying to portray to them. But I don't think a script should try to teach an audience anything -- I think if an audience wants to learn something, they can go to church or they can go to school. Trying to teach an audience is almost an insult to me -- entertaining an audience is what's important and that has always worked for me.

In other panels at the festival, not only will the "show" side of the industry be highlighted--the "business" side will be explored, too. Do you think some people tend to forget about the business end?

I do. It's show business; they like the "show" but they forget about the "business," which is the most important thing other than entertaining an audience. You're dealing with promoters, venues, radio stations, print media, television and so on, and every entity is different and you have to deal with everyone differently. People think if they buy a lot of commercials they're set -- no -- that's not the way it works. You can go broke trying to buy yourself a sellout [audience].

A selected playwright will win the "A Taste of Theater Festival Shelly Garrett Award," with an opportunity to work alongside you behind the scenes -- what will the person have to have in order to be the winner?

It will have to be something very special. I'm doing a new show now called Shelly Garrett's Fed Up! that's in some markets starting in November and we're going to come out in full force in January. The winner will probably be part of that in some fashion.

A Taste of Theater will be held in Chicago, which is, as you know, very much a theater town. Tell us about your experiences here.

I've played the Arie Crown several times, the Chicago Theatre once and The Regal Theater once. I love the audiences in Chicago; they seem to love theater -- good theater, too.

For all the participants and festival-goers, what do you want them to take away from A Taste of Theater?

I want them to take away all the knowledge they can in whatever field they're in and know that just because you're a performer, you should know what's going on behind the scenes -- know how the lighting works, how the sound works -- learn not only about your craft, but other crafts as well.

~*~

A Taste of Theater runs Friday and Saturday, October 12-13 at the Portage Theater, 4050 N. Milwaukee; tickets are $20. For a full schedule and list of workshops and panels, visit the website or call 312-488-9311.

Zack / October 8, 2012 3:46 PM

Good stuff, LaShawn. A very profound interview about the state of black theater.

However, I must say that we can't equate long lines to whether a play is really making a difference. We live in a society where the appetite for intellect has been wiped out and replaced with "Media Take Out," if you know what I'm saying. :)

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