Wakefield’s Contemporary Theater Company is already looking at post-pandemic life to include a stronger focus on its artistic approaches and on re-building business after a year of significant losses.
This ensemble that offers new-to-experienced actors a chance to perform – with direction on innovation and strong acting – welcomes performer Tammy Brown as its new artistic director, while founder Chris Simpson surrendered that title for a new executive director role.
“We are delegating in a big and critical way to someone ready for it and will take it forward,” Simpson told The Independent this week about this change. It begins for the 2021 season, in which he hopes the main stage theater will reopen in late fall.
Brown, 38, has been the associate artistic director; while Simpson, 35, has run both the business and artistic sides of the theater since its 2005 founding.
A Princeton grad and South Kingstown native, he says it’s time to cut back from 60-hour work weeks to just 40, while also giving his dream theater time to flourish under new – and shared – direction. He said he will focus on business development and other management issues.
Brown, the theater’s second artistic director in its 15-year history, this week explained in a far-ranging interview a little about herself, her plans for the future and the approach to theater that the CTC audience can expect to see under her direction.
- Tell us about your background and early interest in theater.
I was born in Providence, and I started doing theater when I was in middle school as the result of a weird mistake on my class schedule in 6th grade. I somehow found myself taking the performing arts class in school, and until then the idea of performing onstage – or, honestly, speaking out loud in any situation, I was a very shy kid – was terrifying to me.
But I stayed in the class despite the terror, and I found my home. I found my voice. I found myself. Something was unlocked in me that I had no idea was in there! This is why I’m such a proponent of strong arts programs in schools, especially in underserved communities.
Aside from the obvious benefits of exposure to and experience in the arts – empathy, language skills, team work, critical thinking, confidence, etc., I’m a firm believer that there’s a whole population of young artists out there who don’t know it yet. And it’s up to us to give these kids the chance to find their artistic voices, just like I had.
- How and where did you get a first break into theater?
I went to Rhode Island College, eventually double majoring in theatre performance and psychology. Throughout college it was always a struggle to balance my drive to perform with the necessity of supporting myself.
I worked 30-40 hours a week all through college, so finding time to gain experience and grow as a theatre artist was tough, but I did as much theatre as I possibly could!
When I was 20, I was cast in my first professional role – as Tituba in “The Crucible” at The Gamm Theatre. One of my RIC professors – the dearly departed Wendy Overly – recommended me for the role, and I auditioned and I got it!
For about six or seven years after that, I tried to balance working full-time and pursuing theatre at night. Then, when I was about 27, I quit my full-time work for the life of a freelance performer. And that was how I lived, until COVID hit.
- What brought you to CTC and why?
One of my favorite things about the Rhode Island theatre community is that it’s so interconnected. I had been doing shows at Mixed Magic Theatre in Pawtucket for a few years. I was in a show in 2011 called “Shakespeare in the Spirit,” which combined Shakespeare and gospel music.
The show also featured none other than our very own Christopher J. Simpson – founder of The Contemporary Theater and playing Hamlet, no less! So we met and became friends. A few months later, Chris invited me to participate in the 24-Hour Play festival in 2012. It was a wild experience, and I had a great time.
A few months after that I auditioned for the summer season and was cast, and I never left! I immediately fell in love with their spirit of play, and the ambitious way they approached the work. Every play I’ve done here has challenged me, and as a result I’ve grown exponentially as an artist.
That’s something I really value and I feel so grateful to have found an artistic home that fosters growth while remaining such a welcoming and inclusive place.
- What is your forte as a performer, and why?
This might be a personality thing for me, but as a performer I tend to be both a mirror and a sponge. In other words, I try to constantly reflect back the energy around me, while also soaking it in and absorbing it.
I think this is key to making a performance feel alive. I’m also constantly looking at the theatre produced around me with a critical eye, trying to glean what makes it effective and what makes it less so. Then I take that with me into my own work. So, I’m constantly evolving as an artist and as a performer.
- What roles have you played and which do you consider major and why?
I’ve been very lucky in that in my acting career I’ve been able to play a really wide range of roles – from small roles to big leads – and I’m very rarely type cast.
When I was first starting out I just wanted to be in the room; I didn’t even need to have lines. I just wanted to be there and learn and soak it all in.
Then, as I grew as a performer, I tended to gravitate toward roles that challenged me, but that I also found meaningful. To that end, just about every role I’ve played in the last few years has felt pretty major to me. Many of them have marked a significant “leveling up,” so to speak, for me as a performer.
I played Orlando in “Orlando” at Epic Theater – this was my most demanding role to date, and I got to work with the fantastic Kira Hawkridge and a beautiful ensemble of performers.
I played Hera (Queen of the Gods) in “American Strippers” also at Epic, where I really expanded my range and got to work with some of my best friends. We even got to take that one to New York!
Next, I had the honor of playing Rita in “Educating Rita” at the legendary 2nd Story Theatre in Warren. This role was a huge challenge for me in so many ways. It remains one of my proudest and most satisfying achievements as an actor.
Lady Macbeth at CTC was a bucket list role for me, and it was a thrill to get to play her in a way that felt so satisfying. And, of course, playing Hamlet (in the CTC production of “Hamlet”) tops it all off. I’m so unbelievably proud and humbled by what we all achieved with that show.
- Why turn now to being an artistic director?
After Hamlet, I was looking for a change in my relationship to theatre. I wanted to not just perform, but to look at the bigger picture and be a part of the framework of an institution. So this, to me, is the next step in my evolution as an artist and as an artistic leader, and I’m really excited about it.
That said, I’m taking over at a weird time, to say the least. When COVID-19 shut the theatre down, I was basically a contractor (as associate artistic director and performer), so I was only eligible for minimal unemployment benefits. This meant I had to shift gears and get a totally different full-time job to make it through. Since April I’ve been working third shift, six days a week, at a big factory in Smithfield making N-95 masks.
But the challenge now is that the theatre is still technically closed, so we don’t have enough revenue to bring back all of our staff yet.
This means that I’m trying to plan some amount of programming to get us through to when we can do live theatre again, and plan our upcoming in-person season, and strategize for the future – all while still working at the factory.
It’s hard. But I’m so driven by my excitement for this job and my love for this community that I just keep pressing forward.
- Improvements, changes you plan – What are they and why?
Honestly, these last few months have been very consumed with the day-to-day challenges of creating in-person and virtual content in this raging pandemic.
We’re all learning a ton, and I hope to take at least some of what we’ve learned into the post-pandemic world. Chris and I worked hard on a new five-year strategic plan and a whole new mission and vision, complete with a pretty extensive equity, diversity, and inclusion plan – much of which will be my responsibility to execute.
So, I’m excited for that! I look forward to inspiring artistic excellence and even more personal and professional growth within our ensemble. The CTC is already a very community-centered organization, and I look forward to expanding what that means even further. More community events, discussions, artist showcases – it’s all on the table
- The diverse audience today – what can all members expect from you?
Part of our new mission is to use theatre to make the world onstage that we think should exist in real life.
To me, this means exposing our current audience to new images and ideas, in an effort to generate discussion and normalize things that might have seemed unfamiliar or uncomfortable before.
I think this also means expanding our audience so that people from all backgrounds and walks of life feel welcome, and that the space we’ve created belongs to them as well.
So an ideal season for me would have some challenging stuff and some fun stuff and some weird stuff all presented in a whole new way.
- Where do you see yourself in 10 years?
In 10 years, I’d love to still be the artistic director of the CTC and to have expanded my work as an activist in the state. I’m currently also a Board Member of The Womxn Project. So as of right now, I feel like I’m on a great path!