Art and Emergent Technologies Meet Sociocultural Transformation and Liberation

—Interview by Amy Wegener

Actors Theatre immediately began to imagine new ways of connecting with audiences when in-person gatherings became impossible last spring, diving in to create an array of storytelling experiences and conversations for our digital platform, Actors Theatre Direct. As we embarked on rolling out our 2020–2021 virtual season, Executive Artistic Director Robert Barry Fleming shared his thoughts about how Actors’ programming is evolving to meet this moment.

Could you talk about the extraordinary company that was brought together to create virtual content, and why this became the strategy to keep the theatre moving forward? 

ROBERT BARRY FLEMING: It was a pretty organic impulse. Theatres want to keep artists working, and artists want to keep creating. With our Paycheck Protection Program loan, which many nonprofits and small businesses received, we were able to keep the full staff on board for several months—and we had an opportunity to invite other creatives into the conversation, ranging from performers to composers to animators to game developers. We’ve had great artists working with us, and great opportunities to think about how we would tell new stories, reinterpret classics, share music, and more. 

As soon as we saw the situation deteriorating in the pandemic, we knew that there were not going to be live events anytime soon, since public health experts were predicting at least an 18-month timeframe when we wouldn’t be able to gather. So how could we pursue our mission even more fully, while facing meaningful obstacles? How could we create on a virtual platform and continue to share stories? We moved pretty quickly toward working in an agile way, with small teams, to create art that feels necessary and inspired, while continuing to be civic-minded, compassionate neighbors. 

As our nation confronts two interlinked public health crises, COVID-19 and systemic racism, how are you thinking about the role of a theatre in service to its community?

RBF:  Theatres have been conditioned to think that service lives in a community engagement space, not necessarily the artistic space. But for a number of years, I’ve been on a mission to articulate how closely art and service have always been linked, how it’s very difficult to untether the two. I don’t believe there is any “art for art’s sake.” Art is always political, art always has context; it’s always generating a dialectic, a conversation with the audience. So Actors Theatre is being intentional about linking art to social justice at this moment when the nation is confronting systemic racism. Our conversations have been delving into that area for quite some time. 

Figuring out how to do that is an iterative process, because race intersects with gender, with economics, with so many other aspects of social location and identity. So the story worlds that we’re exploring give us a chance to develop more critical consciousness, and to problematize assumptions in a really constructive, forward-looking way.

Actors Theatre is turning the myriad challenges of this time into a catalyst for exploration and innovation. Why do you feel that’s the right approach? 

RBF:  America is a young nation, and we’re at a moment that asks us to trade our guileless optimism for the recognition that we shouldn’t avoid, but must lean into, the challenges we’re facing. Our art will be richer by fully accepting that there are parts of our history that are complicated. And there’s space for hope, but progress follows a winding path. 

Diving into those conversations alongside the technological advancements of this information age is a way of thinking holistically about what human experience in the 21st century feels like. I’m very interested in learning from other sectors, like health care and education, that have been using virtual or augmented reality for decades—learning how emergent technologies can deepen our connection to one another, to our humanity and creativity. That’s one of the reasons I’m excited about this opportunity. In the darkest moments there is usually light, and in the lightest moments there is shadow. And if we’re on a mission to unlock human potential, build community, and enrich lives, then we have to accept life on its terms in order to do that.

There’s such a thrilling, varied range of projects in the 20–21 season. What is fueling this spirit of experimentation across different platforms?

RBF: We’re working on everything from a video game to embracing the intersection of old and new media in our radio plays. Using a dramatic construct on an interactive virtual platform, we also have the opportunity for people to share their own stories with others, across generations. We’re in the midst of a revolution where art and emergent technologies are meeting social and cultural transformation; it’s apparent that this is a moment of enormous change. And I think transmedia storytelling is another way of deciphering life, a way to continue this essential human activity of sharing stories.

How would you define “transmedia”?

RBF:  One definition is that transmedia refers to multi-platform entertainment, telling a story through several delivery channels. For example, Star Wars started as a movie, but the stories kept developing through comics and other media. But transmedia experiences can also be constructed as social enterprises, using various platforms in order to more deeply impact a community. It’s a fluid term that allows digital storytellers to work across different media to share a story universe, and to invent different ways into that universe. The user’s experience of this creative content can be very rich.

Actors Theatre is also hosting conversations about what’s happening in our city and beyond, and amplifying voices that mix art and activism. What was the impulse behind using Actors’ digital space in this way?

RBF:  I think it’s fulfilling the promise of my appointment. The job description asked for someone who thought about art not in isolation, but in context, and that meant also being a leader committed to civic engagement. We’ve deeply considered what that means about our practice. This has been an opportunity to ask, how do we continue to do distinguished and excellent work, while also meaningfully engaging community? And who is defining “quality,” what does that mean? There was a time when we said all men were created equal, but that did not include women or people of color. When you hold distorted paradigms, every aspect of your society reflects that, including the art—whose voice gets foregrounded, and whose lens interprets that work. 

So it’s an exciting moment when the work can be reflective of all kinds of influences. Everything begins to feel more limitless. Platforms like the Unscripted conversation series, our other Facebook Live events, and my Borrowed Wisdom podcast give us a chance to listen and respond quickly, like a daily or a weekly. It’s energizing to mix up a season of planned programming with conversations that surprise on a daily basis.

What have you personally found most invigorating about navigating this time?

RBF:  It has asked the staff to work together as a team in a collaborative way that I think is unusual in a field built on competition and subordination. In order for us to pull together, we really needed everybody rowing in the same direction. You can’t get on the same page without real dialogue as well as constructive, generative conflict, and we’ve worked very diligently to make space for evolution and change.

Given the way Actors Theatre is engaging local artists, and hosting so many conversations, it already feels like there’s such a big, open invitation to participate this season.

RBF : Greater Louisville has proved itself to be as vibrant, complex and nuanced an ecosystem as any in the world. If Spike Lee’s Brooklyn has something to teach us about humanity, then Actors Theatre’s worldview about what literature and experiences should be centered to reflect our time and place is just as viable.

I think participatory cultural practice is really important in this time: this idea that a group of people collaboratively build knowledge, that we’re not looking for magical outcomes to happen on their own, but we will be part of that happening. And this is an exciting moment when the user who’s engaging with creative content has agency, and can impact the story. 

It’s an exciting moment when the work can be reflective of all kinds of influences.

Audiences will be able to join us for old and new media experiences, varied digital visual content in everything from an original concert docuseries, gaming, and interactive narrative storytelling, to audio plays, musical concerts, and adventures that suspend them in explorations of a virtual world. There are so many ways to participate, to build our capacity for critical consciousness through these story universes that allow us to live in our greater potentialities; our fullest selves. I anticipate meaningful cognitive, physical, emotional and spiritual engagement, and a chance to recognize that acknowledging and engaging those quadrants through art can get each of us that much closer to living and truly embodying the three tenets (i.e., unlocking human potential, building community, and enriching lives) of our mission.

Robert Barry Fleming Photo courtesy of Andrew Cenci