Addison — Leah C. Gardiner is a New York-based director currently at the helm of Bread by Regina Taylor. WaterTower Theater presents the world premiere production of this work based on a family in Oak Cliff.
Regina Taylor, a Golden Globe-winning actress (for TV's I'll Fly Away) and award-winning playwright who was born in West Dallas and currently lives in Oak Cliff, has been seen in film and TV, and her plays have been performed on Broadway and across the country. Bread is a family drama of hopes, fears, thwarted dreams, and dark secrets against a turbulent backdrop of racial tension and social upheaval. Set in early 2017, it deals with a middle class couple, living in a south Dallas neighborhood on the verge of gentrification, with a teenage son and his soon-to-be-born brother.
Bread features the cast of Stormi Demerson, M. Denise Lee, Djoré Nance, Bryan Pitts, Calvin Scott Roberts, and Elliot Marvin Sims, Jr.
TheaterJones chatted with Gardiner about her work as a director, her mentor George C. Wolfe, and her thoughts on Dallas. Below the interview is the schedule for WaterTower's Intersection series.
TheaterJones: You have such a diverse portfolio of theatrical work from premieres to classics to musicals. Tell us a bit about your background and how you got into theatre.
Leah C. Gardiner: I’m based in New York. I’m originally from Philadelphia and I’ve lived in New York for over 20 years. I started out as a poet when I was in elementary school I wrote my first poem. And I was encouraged to keep doing it. In high school, I studied under a woman named Sonia Sanchez who taught poetry at Temple University. I was accepted to the Pennsylvania School for the Arts where high school students spend the summer at a university. They took four poets that year; I knew I loved theater, so I took theatre as a minor. And I grew up around family in the [theatre] industry, but my parents are in medicine.
When I went off to college I started an organization called the Pen Black Arts league more a as a producer than a director. That organization brought plays and art by people of color to the University of Pennsylvania. I received my undergrad in physical anthropology and poetry from the University of Pennsylvania I received my MFA from Yale. And I’ve been directing professionally since 1996.
I couldn’t imagine myself doing anything else. It’s just a joy to make plays, musicals and classics.
While I was at Yale, George C. Wolfe needed an assistant for The Tempest with Patrick Stewart and they sent me and another student down because we had our summers free. We’ve been working together ever since as a long-standing relationship.
He really is my guide and my mentor, much of my it’s kind of like as a painter or a calligrapher, you study someone else’s work. You yourself see elements of the artist you study in your own work. I would say that his work is on the page and also on the stage is the work which I have studied the most. I have assisted him three or four times, as I would say.
In your biography, it’s clear that you have directed a wide array of plays, musicals, and classics. You’ve also mentioned a particular interest in objects in space; do you have a unifying aesthetic that connect your body of work together?
It’s funny with being a theatre artist, because we make plays or musicals, you tend to get pigeonholed or put into a box. I intentionally decided as a woman of color that would not happen. So, I spent the first twenty years of my career directing everything that I could get my hands on. In essence, I became the first woman of color director in this country to have done so. And now other women of color of doing so. That was a mission I sent out to do.
In those 15 years, because I did so much different work, I was having a hard time figuring out what my aesthetic was. Everybody else already seemed to know and did just one genre. I would say maybe in my 16th or 17th year I had a rude awakening one day. Someone asked me that question, a journalist. I said, “I believe I understand. I tend to direct epic shows that are very clean. And the style of the production gets to the heart of it.” And so, I’m asked to do plays that are quite large in scope but have a kind of pulse to it that may be difficult to access. I think that comes from having been taught by George Wolfe. But it was one day I woke up and realized I’m always getting these massive things. I don’t get it. But I love a challenge.
Does Bread fit into that epic and large-scale aesthetic?
Bread is epic in the sense it is challenging. It would appear to be a traditionally family drama, but Regina’s kind of blown it open and allowed it to breathe in new and different ways.
You can sort of do it in a traditional way, but there seemed to be a different kind of texture to the play. The challenge became: how do you make that work in space on stage? How do you have actors find the naturalism that exists in moments that could potentially appear non-naturalistic?
In many ways, I think is where our [current cultural] moment is headed. There’s a swirl of confusion in our country at the moment. We’re trying to find a “way in” and I don’t know if there’s one “way in” that’s working at the moment. That’s why I was attracted to the play.
Had you ever worked with Regina previously?
I knew Regina’s work, and knew of her but I had never worked with her before. Joanie and Regina applied for an Edgerton Grant which gives a theatre an extra week of rehearsal. We did a week-long workshop here because it really allowed Regina to explore the play with actors and with me. We looked specifically at the storytelling and the dramaturgy trying to figure out what the story was.
This play is set in Oak Cliff, a major section of South Dallas with many smaller communities within it. Have you been able to explore that particular area and if so, how has that influenced your work in rehearsal or changed your perspective of “Dallas”?
I am so grateful that every one of my actors is from the area. I was here [in Dallas] before when I directed at SMU some years ago. Working on Bread has been very different.
One, because I’m older, but two, because I am surrounded by one specific community of people who have such fond love for their home town. They are tried and true Dallas folk. We have one cast member who currently lives there and takes the bus every day, because he loves the bus. I’ve learned about their church habits, the food, the landscape, the suburbs. The actors talk constantly about it.
I decided to go down 35 and see the Trinity River and I wanted to see where Sandbranch is. I wanted to explore in this middle upper class black community that lives in this place called Oak Cliff.
But also, the distance is astonishing. You think of Texas as being quite big but you don’t think of Dallas as also being quite big.
Beyond the fact that Bread is set in this area geographically, what other elements of the play seem to speak to our current moment, particularly for Dallas?
The play is very much in my mind about giving birth to the American dream, giving birth the children, to personal independence. It asks: What does the birthing cycle look like? How does it move in space?
I was interested in how that [idea] rotated in space. So, the set is on a turntable and it revolves at various times through the play. There’s an element of the play that examines what happens inside of families and outside of families. How secrets are kept and revealed; how we change when we step out into the world versus in the home. I wanted to have the outside very much surround the inside, so they are in many ways interconnected. That’s why there are no walls [in the scenic design].
I was really interested in the idea of a woman who had a child 18 years ago and is expecting another child now—especially in times like these. I remember 13 years ago, when my husband and I got pregnant, thinking: “Why would I ever want to bring a child into this world?” That outweighed the anthropological desire for legacy and for raising a child of my own.
The issues within the play itself are so pertinent to what is around us. Regina finds a very poetic way to talk about issues that we don’t want to discuss. We’re burnt out. It’s just an onslaught of “breaking news, breaking news!” The polarization that currently exists through the media is very state run. There’s a right; there’s a wrong. There’s a red; there’s a blue. This play asks us to grapple deeply with our perception of ourselves in the greater country in which we live.
What are some observations you’ve had about the city of Dallas through working here over the past few weeks?
We were talking about this last night. Dallas artists are in need of more community. I was amazed when I asked, “Don’t you have artist housing? Subsidized housing so you can be artists in this town?” It’s similar to what we have on 42nd street. Where’s the commitment and support from the local government to build a strong arts community? How is that power distributed so that more people can have a voice? You guys seem to be very fractured on many different levels. And, there seems to be a mother theatre that everyone looks to and reveres but also holds animosity towards for various reasons.
I think what’s so exciting about this play at WaterTower with Joanie [Schultz] and Nick [Even] running it is that you have another important theatre in your town that’s doing exquisite work. There’s another theatre that’s talking about issues that are relevant to you—as a people, as a community.
Below is the line-up for the Intersections series with Bread, happening after the performance:
Saturday, April 14
A Conversation on Inclusion and Gentrification
Demetria McCain of the Inclusive Communities Project and Sandy Rollins of the Texas Tenants Union join us for an important post-show conversation on the current state of housing in Dallas and the effects gentrification has had on people of color in local neighborhoods.
Saturday, April 21
WHAT YOU GOT TO SAY
A Conversation on the Power of Language
Dr. Patricia Cukor-Avila leads a post-show conversation on the vernacular of the African American community, the impact time has had on culturally-specific language, and how communities have begun reclaiming the power of derogatory words.
Thursday, April 26
ASL Interpreted Performance
As part of WaterTower’s commitment to creating accessible theatre for all communities, we are proud to offer a sign-interpreted performance of Bread.
Sunday, April 29
With Denise Lee
We are excited to host another Community Conversation led by local actress/singer Denise Lee featuring other members of the Cast of Bread discussing the themes that arise from the play and the impact they have on our community.
Thursday, May 3
MY BLOOD, MY BONES
A Conversation on Black Motherhood
Four mothers join us for a powerful post-show conversation on the experience of raising a black child in today’s America.
Saturday, May 5 (8:00pm)
BREAD IS LIFE
A Conversation with Playwright Regina Taylor
Playwright Regina Taylor joins us for a post-show conversation discussing her Dallas-based world premiere play, BREAD.
Sunday, May 6
DO SOMETHING THAT’S FELT
A Conversation on Theatre of the African American Experience
Local artists join us for a post-show conversation about the importance of equity and inclusion in American Theatre, and what their experience has been like creating work of the African American experience in Dallas-Fort Worth.
In addition to the above post-performance discussions and panels, WTT will host Conversations with the Artists, a post-show conversation with members of the cast of Bread discussing the themes of the play, the rehearsal process, and their unique experience developing the characters of a World Premiere play.
Wednesday, April 18 – Conversation with the Artists
Sunday, April 22 – Conversation with the Artists
Wednesday, April 25 – Conversation with the Artists
Wednesday, May 2 – Conversation with the Artists