The next time you use the Water Street and Second Street crosswalk, look in the Live Arts window. There’s a light on in the lobby—the theater’s ghost light. It’s small and casts yellow light from a transparent glass shade, and, according to superstition, keeps ghosts from haunting the theater after everyone leaves. Ever concerned with actors breaking legs, theaters have historically left ghost lights on for practical reasons, too. Live Arts’ Producing Artistic Director Bree Luck says empty theaters can be “treacherous,” and she’s seen more than one person fall off a darkened stage.
This ghost light also serves a more contemporary function. It illuminates Live Arts’ participation in The Ghostlight Project—a national network of individuals in the theater community who came together on January 19, 2017, the night before the presidential inauguration, to pledge their commitment to support and advocate for vulnerable communities. Live Arts was invited to join The Ghostlight Project by Moisés Kaufman, founder of Tectonic Theater Project, National Medal of Arts recipient and co-writer of The Laramie Project.
“Lighting our ghost light was just the first step in our process of being truly inclusive. It isn’t enough to say people are safe here,” Luck says. “It isn’t enough to make gender-sensitive bathroom signs. …We needed to look at the work we were doing from a broader perspective.”
Joining the project inspired Luck and the Live Arts team to begin a season-long series of roundtable discussions on diversity, inclusivity and community.
“Our discussions may be uncomfortable, or difficult to grasp,” says Luck. “We may struggle through anger, and brush up against bruises that we didn’t even know existed. But in the end, we want to make our corner of the world stronger, to give our community members a greater voice, and to help us all feel a little less alone in this day and age.”
Last year, Luck approached local activist, writer and theater professional Leslie Scott-Jones for help in initiating the conversations on diversity. Scott-Jones says this summer’s white supremacist rallies—which occurred a month before Jitney, an all-black play Scott-Jones directed at the Jefferson School African American Heritage Center—added urgency to the first discussion, held at Live Arts on October 15.
“If you’re not going to have black directors and producers involved in the process of creating these stories, then you shouldn’t do black theater,” Scott-Jones says. “You don’t understand the story. People in community theater get stymied when talking about inclusion because they think it has to be on the stage. The way to be more inclusive is to attack it from behind the stage first, and to build a group of artists that sees the world differently.”
Like Scott-Jones, Brad Stoller attended the first roundtable discussion and has a long history with Live Arts. Thirty years ago, Stoller participated in the production of Sam Shephard’s A Lie of the Mind at Charlottesville High School’s black box theater—the production that led to the creation of Live Arts. He remembers one rehearsal where John D’earth introduced 19-year-old Dave Matthews, who was so nervous he clung to nearby stage equipment. Stoller agrees with Scott-Jones that change begins behind the curtain.
“We need to include people of color in aspects of direction and design,” says Stoller, who teaches theater arts at PVCC. “We can do plays where people of color act, but that’s a one-off thing. We have to really commit to having people of color be in leadership roles.”
In Live Arts’ next roundtable discussion in mid-January, Stoller wants his fellow theater professionals to make a public commitment to diversity. He and Luck think an interesting challenge would be to have all Charlottesville theaters refuse to present any piece written by a white man.
“It would force us to find the plenty of other material out there, rather than falling back on people who are well-known—who are white men,” says Stoller. “And the fear of not selling tickets, or this isn’t my audience? I don’t have the patience for it anymore.”
On Friday, Live Arts presents Sweet Charity, a musical that features a strong female protagonist. After several recent musicals with male leads, Luck says the Live Arts team was ready for a change.
“Charity embodies a pick-yourself-up-by-your-bootstraps mentality that feels pretty familiar to our community right now,” Luck says. “We may get knocked down, but we’ll keep forging ahead, we’ll keep dancing, and even when the odds are against us, we will still fight for love.”