Community Theater & Artistic Freedom: An interview with Leena Devlin

Academic Freedom, Banned and Challenged Books

By: Lisa Rand

Leena Devlin
Leena Devlin

Vibrant local arts organizations are critical for nourishing and protecting freedom of expression. In smaller cities and towns, when residents seek access to performing arts, community theater programs fill a critical need. If censorship comes to a small town, there might be few alternatives available to local residents. To learn more about the ways that community theaters protect creative expression, I spoke to Leena Devlin, Managing Artistic Director of Steel River Playhouse in Pottstown, Pennsylvania. 

Lisa: Do you have any first thoughts to share about freedom of expression and the positive impact of community theater? 

Leena: As a performing arts organization, Steel River Playhouse is protecting the space of free expression, especially for young people, but also for artists in the community. We have to protect the space to share with an audience, a safe space where risk-taking can happen.

Lisa: You do a lot of work with new and emerging artists.

Leena: Yes. The last weekend in October we had The Refinery. I put out a request for new plays and we got 600! I did not expect that kind of response. These plays had to be unpublished and not yet had a professional production. We staged readings in Spring, they were cast and directed, and we invited dramaturgs. They suggested improvements, changes, and the last weekend in October they staged readings of the reworked pieces for a panel of adjudicators. 

The Refinery winner You Must Meet My Wife, is a comedy thriller by Whitney Ryan Garrity, and it will be produced in mid-April.

One of the things that’s a constant struggle, especially this time of year as I’m putting together our season, is money versus art. I have to keep the doors open to the theater. I have to choose pieces that will bring people through the door. Generally speaking people don’t come see works they don’t know the name of. But if you want it to continue as an art form, you have to embrace the new work.

Lisa: What is the process of selecting material at Steel River? 

Leena: I will consult or collaborate, but it’s a primary part of my job to choose the season. I talk to lots of people. Political climate is an influence. Sometimes I will try to think of a continuity or thematic thread. I’m very interested in accessibility and diversity, and I’m trying to think about how I can reflect that in the season. 

Steel River Playhouse in black letters with a splash of blue

If it were up to me I would do all new things, or things few people have heard of, because I believe theater is there to broaden your mind, to really look at the way you view the world to explore the idea that maybe you’re not looking at it as widely as you can. Many people think theater is just entertainment. Trying to get people in the theater, to get the word out, is not easy. 

Lisa: In the Winter you are producing Fun Home by Alison Bechdel. Her comics are a personal example of the power of diverse representation, from when my friends passed them around in college. Now, working in libraries, I am familiar with challenges to Alison Bechdel’s writing because the censorship of GLBTQ voices in the US right now is at an astonishing high. 

I’m hoping that the house will be packed every night. That’s where I stand with Fun Home.

Leena: It won’t be. I would love that, too, but it won’t be. We’re doing Fun Home in the smaller space. We have a better chance because it only seats a hundred. But it won’t be packed. That’s one of the shows that I’m doing because I need to do that. That’s part of who I am as an artistic director, that’s part of who Steel River is, but it’s not the one that will make any money.

We have had shows that surprised me. When we did Clybourne Park it was a runaway hit and it was shocking and surprising and lovely. And one of the things I’ve learned about Pottstown is that when we do pieces that deal with issues of racism we do really really well. Not with diverse audiences. It’s still with white audiences. But white audiences are interested in plays that deal with issues of racism. To Kill a Mockingbird did better than many of our musicals, and certainly better than any non-musical play we’ve produced, ever.

Like many theaters, our audience is 98% white, and that is an issue I am trying to deal with for next season. I recently had a meeting with a group of African American community leaders through the local Chamber of Commerce. One of the things that seems so obvious once they said it was that African Americans aren’t interested in pieces about racism, that’s not all that enlightening. African American audiences are interested in pieces where they can see people who look like them in empowered positions. 

For example, later this season we are doing a piece called Silent Sky, about Henrietta Leavitt (1868-1921). Henrietta Leavitt was an astronomer and worked at the Harvard College Observatory with a team of women. She did some of the groundwork for the Big Bang theory. I want to find empowering pieces like this that highlight stories of and by African Americans.

Pottstown is 40% non-white. There is a disconnect there, and that’s a disconnect I am trying to bridge. White people also need stories about different people. Self-education is the place we need to start from, and theater has a way of helping people to think about things in new ways.

Lisa: In your theater career, have you ever needed to manage a censorship challenge from the community?

Leena: Not exactly censorship, but the way the audience reacts to something. We did a production of Spring Awakening several years ago and the community reacted really passionately, and not always well. We got letters calling us pedophiles. This is a rock musical by Steven Sater and Duncan Sheik about teenagers discovering their sexuality. There are many, many, many people who don’t want to deal with the fact that teenagers are human beings. We did the show with teenage actors and I think that’s what annoyed people, because they were seeing teenagers in sexual situations. Seventeen year olds, that’s who the characters were. Of course the parents were involved, they knew what the play was about. There were a lot of conversations.

And instead of just choosing not to come, they had to make sure we knew we were “bad” people. One of the reviewers really had a problem and took us out pretty hard. Interestingly, that same gentleman years later was in our production of To Kill a Mockingbird. A story that has consistently generated controversy.

Lisa: Can you share a philosophical statement about your vision for theater?

Leena: For me, it really has to do with providing a place in the community that is open and welcoming to people of all kinds. A space that is collaborative, safe for self-expression, And learning, not only about the arts, but about each other and ourselves. We are an educational facility, and that’s a big piece of what we do. 

The really cool part is that your experience there is educational. For example, someone worked on the technical aspects of lighting design, and realized this was not the best role for him. He came back later and stage managed and was brilliant. 

The whole point of this theater is to learn. That’s unusual. In many theaters when you walk in and screw up a job, people wouldn’t necessarily welcome you back. That’s exactly what we do. We say, let’s try something else. We’ve created an advocate for theater, for risk, for learning, by doing something that simple. That can only ripple out into the community and make things better. That’s what I want to do, to make concentric circles of learning, acceptance, and risk-taking. Acting against your fear is risk-taking. That fear could be something as simple as talking to someone who is gay. That’s a risk for some people. I want people to be able to take that risk and know it will be ok.

That’s not a two-minute elevator speech, but that’s how I look at the world and how I’m hoping this theater can continue to manifest. That’s not something that you can use in marketing!

Steel River play advertisements

Readers, I hope this conversation will encourage you to investigate and support theater in your home community. For those in southeastern Pennsylvania, maybe I will see you at a performance of Fun Home, The Diary of Anne Frank, or a new play yet to be discovered.

Lisa Rand

Lisa M. Rand is a youth services librarian in southeastern Pennsylvania. She exercises her commitment to equity and access for everyone by serving on the Intellectual Freedom Committee of the Pennsylvania Library Association. Lisa has studied at Simmons University and Kent State University. Whenever possible she travels, visiting libraries and walking in the footsteps of favorite fictional characters. Find her on Twitter @lisa_m_rand.

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