OnStage Connecticut Columnist
In the past few months, we’ve seen an influx of articles on this site about using theater as a way of political activism. In his beautiful note on the 2016 election “The Way Forward,” C. Austin Hill wrote about making theater is a great catalyst of social change. “Ours is an art form devoted to the creation of empathy, compassion, and humanity,” he writes. While many companies are now taking up this mantle, New Haven’s Collective Consciousness Theatre [CCT] has been doing that since 2007.
Founded by a collective of artists, actors and writers from the New Haven area, CCT produces established work, original plays and hosts workshops. Their work has toured schools and theaters across New England. To find out more about how CCT combines art and activism, I talked to its executive director and one of its founders Dexter J. Singleton. A professional actor, director, playwright, producer and teacher, Singleton has worked with Long Wharf Theatre, Yale Rep, Hartford Stage, Elm Shakespeare and other companies both nationally and internationally. He also served as the Chair of Theatre at Regional Center for the Arts in Trumbull and an Adjunct Professor of Theatre at Housatonic Community College in Bridgeport.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity. For more on Collective Consciousness’ 2017 season, which begins in January, visit: socialchangetheatre.org.
What is the goal of Collective Consciousness Theatre?
It is CCT’s goal to help change the world with theatre. We know that’s a very big goal and nearly impossible to achieve, but we believe if you start with just one person, it is possible to create social change. We want CCT to inspire people. All of our work tackles important social issues in our society. In our nine years we’ve created more than a dozen new plays and presented many others written by internationally known playwrights. Most of our productions deals with issues around race, class and culture. With every project, we want to create the highest quality production with the best talent from our community.
We have open auditions for both community and professional actors for every production in our mainstage and touring season. We also need many stage managers, board operators, designers, carpenters and painters each year. Our events are always affordable and accessible to all members of our community, offering free or low ticket prices ranging from $10-$25 and Pay What You Can Nights every Thursday for every production.
How do you choose what shows you produce?
The plays in our mainstage seasons focus on social issues around race, class and culture. In staying with our mission, we choose work that is multicultural and has strong roles for artists of color and women. We are now in our third season of mainstage work. We like to produce new contemporary plays, most are Connecticut premieres. Because we’re still very small and our space has many limitations, we often don’t choose plays with more than eight actors or those that call for huge technical effects. We pick plays we love and think are fantastic, ones that will challenge artists and audiences alike. Our third season opens in January with “The Mountaintop,” a beautiful newer play that was on Broadway a few years ago starring Samuel L. Jackson and Angela Bassett. It is a fictional retelling of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s last night on earth before his assassination on April 4, 1968.
Our second show, “Stories of a New America” is a revival of a play we toured for several seasons years ago. The play was created through hours of interviews with refugees from IRIS [Integrated Refugee and Immigrant Services], a fantastic refugee resettlement center in New Haven. Our final show of the season, “Milk Like Sugar,” is about a group of high school girlfriends whose lives are altered after making a life change pact between them. It is a beautiful play that is as hilarious as it is heartbreaking.
Why is it important to create politically-charged theater?
We use our plays and workshops to help spark dialogue about important social issues affecting our community. The theatre is a gathering place of many walks of life of varying socioeconomics, races and lifestyles. It is one of the few places where all of these individuals will sit together and experience something that makes them feel. They can laugh, cry and think together. It’s important for theatre to be socially conscious so that it is relevant to today’s society. Theatre can be a great way to help the world be a better place. Our nation is very tense right now, there is a greater lack of tolerance and understanding. Theatre helps individuals learn about people and experiences outside of their own.
What advice do you have for other companies who want to start producing these kinds of shows?
Don’t be afraid to create new diverse stories. The theatre is always in need of a fresh perspective. If you don’t see the kind of theatre that inspires you, create your own.