What does it take to run a theatre company? How do you program a theatre season when there hasn’t been live theatre due to a nationwide pandemic? These are questions I discussed with Abingdon Theatre Company artistic director Chad Austin as the New York-based company enters their 29th season. It’s a season like no other, where audiences and talent alike are eager for live theatre, and the world just doesn’t look the same anymore. It’s Chad’s job to put all the pieces together, and he explained to me how that happens.
Learn more about Chad, Abingdon and season 29 in our interview—and be sure to check out the videos in the article to see more about the company first-hand.
Brittany Frederick: When you’re programming any season, but especially this one when you’re coming out of a year where there really wasn’t live theatre, what are the things you have to consider or to look for?
Chad Austin: It’s something I’ve been spending a lot of time with. I’ve had a lot of time to think about it. I look at my job a mixture of as an art curator and a forecaster, if that makes sense. I always like to think [of] what the world needs now. I like to think of it as, what would I want to see right now after this year? That’s followed me in my career as I’ve programmed things for a while now.
I think the world needs so much laughter and so much joy. That’s what I’m putting together for the upcoming season. Lots of pieces that I think you can have the best of both worlds and pull at the heartstrings, but also leave people feeling hopeful and honest and a message of joy.
BF: Can you tease some of the upcoming productions for the 29th season? What are the things about them that stood out to you and made you want to put them on the calendar?
CA: They range from a love story that starts as a serial killing, which is a little bonkers. That piece is called Jack & Melissa. It’s a dark comedy that I actually discovered the writer [Matthew McLachlan] during the pandemic, so there was one bright light.
Then one of our main stage productions is called Queens Girl in the World. It’s a coming-of-age story about a young African-American girl growing up in Queens. That I was drawn to for not only the social relevance of being people of color, and making sure that representation matters even more, I fell in love with the piece prior to this and was hoping to bring it to the city. She [Caleen Sinette Jennings] tells the story through the use of the music of Motown. It is not only a political piece that inspires you and teaches you, but it also entertains you with this amazing soundtrack, if you will.
I also have a piece about a young guy’s journey from being a jockey to being a Broadway dancer. He [Robert Montano] describes it as a modern day Rocky Balboa, because he is this Italian guy who, I think he grew up in New Jersey and then he ends up dancing next to Chita Rivera on the Broadway stage. But his biggest dreams actually were to be a jockey. He was a professional jockey. It’s got a lot of heart to it as well, because it’s also about his struggle to stay small. Actually, the piece is called Small. It’s a really interesting look at the world and the pressures of appearance. He went from one occupation, jockey, where you have to be a certain height and a certain way to another world, dancer, where obviously it plays a large part.
BF: Speaking of bright lights in the COVID-19 pandemic, one of the great things about theatre was that a lot of things went virtual, allowing fans to see shows or concerts from around the world. Have you had any talks about staying in that space, even as the live plays open back up, to keep engaging that wider audience?
CA: It’s two parts there. It’s not easy, especially because we all pivoted so quickly and none of us knew what we were doing, obviously. However, last summer I produced a virtual festival of short plays. I just loved the fact that these are free readings of new work. Usually you’re really lucky in New York if you can get a hundred people to see a play that has no stars and nobody knows the writer and all of that stuff. You’re really lucky if you can fill up a house, even though the tickets are free.
The virtual festival, each little piece—we did six—was reaching 800 to a thousand people. Virtually, people were able to send these links out to family members, and people all across the country got to see the work. Around the world, actually. We’re going to continue that. I programmed that to start our 29th season in the fall. We’ll continue the fall festival virtually and I hope to make that an ongoing Abingdon project that I get to do every year.
BF: With the majority of media being digital or on-demand or so immediate these days, where do you think live theatre fits in? Because it’s the complete opposite of how we consume most entertainment now, but that communal experience is like nothing else in any other form of media.
CA: I’m open to the virtual lifestyle, but I also 100 percent agree with you that the theater, for me, is also the shared experience among the audience and the actors. We won’t be able to recreate that no matter how many virtual things that we produce. Nothing is going to replace that thing that you and I both love, but I think it is interesting to see how it does grow virtually.
BF: Is there anything about theatre or about your work as an artistic director that you feel people don’t know and they should?
CA: The thing that people probably don’t know is that artistic directors have to wear a lot of hats. I am basically also the chief executive officer—which is a joy, quite frankly. I don’t mind juggling the money. But I need to decide, what can we do? What is produce-able? Sometimes I have to look at shows in that way. I have to not just look at, I’d love to do this big, huge musical. Because it’s not in our title, people wouldn’t know that about what I have to do.
For more information about Abingdon Theatre Company, their upcoming programs, and how to support them, check out their website. You can also learn more about Chad by checking out the video below:
Article content is (c)2020-2021 Brittany Frederick and may not be excerpted or reproduced without express written permission by the author. Follow me on Twitter at @BFTVTwtr, on Instagram at @BFTVGram.