Jonathan Pitts-Wiley, Artistic Director
Jonathan has been Mixed Magic’s Artistic Director since April 2010. A 2007 graduate of Yale University, Jonathan has been involved with many of the company’s productions as a director, writer and actor. Some of those credits include: The Spirit Warrior’s Dream, Moby-Dick: Then & Now, The Tempest, Art of Attack, King Lear and Misery’s Fiend: Frankenstein.
Jonathan also wrote and directed the critically-acclaimed When Mahalia Sings, a play dealing with the life and times of gospel great Mahalia Jackson.
In August 2010, freelance journalist Ashton Lattimore had an opportunity to sit down with the newly-appointed Artistic Director and pick his brain on MMT and where he sees the theatre going in the future.
Q: First off, how did Mixed Magic come into existence?
A: My father and mother [Ricard and Bernadet Pitts-Wiley] founded Mixed Magic in 2000 in North Kingstown, RI. After working in theatre for thirty years, I think they were pretty tired of people talking about putting diverse images on stage and not actually doing it, so they took it upon themselves to “first think diverse.” We moved into our current location here in Pawtucket in 2005 and have been cranking out work ever since.
Q: How does that focus on diversity impact the work the theatre does?
A: I think the most important way is that we do not allow a lot of the factors that can be considered “limitations” in the world—age, race, gender—to keep us from telling a story unless it is integral to the story. In a lot of theatre, there seems to be the assumption, whether or not it’s supported by evidence in the script or not, that certain work should be done a certain way and to deviate from that is an attempt at being “cutting edge”. We don’t cast a black Lady Capulet and a white Capulet just to say, “See what we did there?” In a discipline that is far more auditory than visual, we cast actors and actresses who can get the job done and convey the material to an audience. While some stories certainly require very particular elements, we’re of the belief that stories that with the human condition, the struggles and triumphs we all go through, have a transcendent quality. We certainly like to challenge standards, but that challenge is secondary to the company’s mission of creating more literate, arts-active communities.
Q: How has Mixed Magic worked toward that mission thus far?
A: Well, a lot of our productions have become project-based in the last several years, and those projects are centered on page to stage adaptations of great works of literature. I should mention that the brains behind our project-based focus is Ricardo Pitts-Wiley, our current development director whom I also call “Dad.” Our production of Moby-Dick, which has garnered a lot of attention from the New Media Literacy field at schools like MIT and USC, is a pretty great example of that work. We preserved and honored Melville’s work while also applying the central themes of the novel to a more modern story geared toward young adults. And that’s the key here: We believe in developing literacy–and the love of literature–across all ages. So many programs are geared only toward young people which, while admirable, is undercut by having no adult guidance. We don’t just want kids to read a novel; we want the adults in their lives reading and discussing it too.
Q: Where have audiences been able to see Moby-Dick?
A: We’ve taken it all the way to the Kennedy Center in Washington, DC and performed it at several sites locally including the New Bedford Whaling Museum and MIT.
Q: What other projects exemplify the work you’re doing?
A: We’ve applied the same production and teaching model to Frankenstein, Frederick Douglass’ autobiography, The Red Tent and are in the very early stages of developing a piece on Achebe’s “Things Fall Apart.” Outside of literature, we’ve developed plays on Bessie Smith, Martin Luther King and, most recently, Mahalia Jackson. As lovers of history, I suppose we’re guilty of being in something of a history cycle. Some might want to classify it as Black history and, to a degree, that’s true, but I prefer to think of it as American history that’s relevant to all of us.
Q: How do the productions function as educational tools?
A: Using Moby-Dick as an example, the process of creating the show and preparing it to be performed is extremely informative with regard to how to teach the novel to young people. Given the complexity of Melville’s work, this is certainly not work you can fake your way through. You have to do it all the way, discussing, asking questions, making sure everyone is on the same page. The only thing worse than being on stage and not really understanding what you’re saying is seeing people on stage who clearly don’t get what they’re saying. So how do you teach it? Do you treat it as a relic or do you treat it as a living, breathing creature relevant to your life and times and adaptable to your life experience? Rather than take a greater-than-thou top down approach which, increasingly, turns potential readers and audiences off, we do the latter and I think we do a pretty job of saying, “Here is this novel and here is how it’s relevant to you and you are relevant to it.” We incorporate technology, we use digital visual imagery to illuminate the story we’re trying to tell with the story Melville already laid out. So the process is the teaching tool. There’s a neat packet and everything, and it’s structured in such a way that some kids in New Mexico could do and learn from it just like the students who initially performed it.
Q: Is there anything in particular that people can look forward to this upcoming season?
A: Geez, I think people can look forward to everything we’re doing this season! But if you’re gonna twist my arm, I can say the company is very excited to bring back “When Mahalia Sings” which had a pretty successful first run and is, I think, even better this time around. The show opening our season is “Art of Attack” by an up and coming playwright by the name of Asa Merritt. I was involved in a reading of the play in New York and thought it would be an interesting departure for Mixed Magic—two Russian brothers trying to reconcile over chess in a Brooklyn apartment. In the spring, we’ll be doing Five Flights by Adam Bock and giving a young director by the name of Gabby Sherba a chance to show her stuff. And I would be remiss if I didn’t include our Exult Choir’s performance season, which is nothing short of tremendous. Oh and I almost forgot–We’ll be bringing back “Waiting for Bessie Smith,” which audiences have been asking us to bring back for a few seasons now. That’ll open in February hopefully.
Q: Time to talk about you a little bit. How did you get involved with the theatre and ultimately become artistic director?
A: (Smiling) Seeing as my parents have been involved in theatre so long, I guess I’ve been involved my whole life. With Mixed Magic in particular, I started doing some script editing work while I was still in college. At school, I caught something of the directing bug and had an opportunity to train at Mixed Magic. The artistic directorship kind of fell into my lap. My father and mother wanted to take the company in a certain direction and had the confidence in me to hand over the reins. I often tell people it’s only nepotism if you blow it.
Q: What attracted you to directing?
A: As far as the attraction of directing, I think I like to put the big picture together. I enjoy being on stage, but I’d rather cultivate performances and help along the storytelling process, keeping people from bumping into the furniture and seeing what comes of it.
Q: What exactly is the role of an artistic director?
A: When I find out I’ll let you know! Having sat down with a few people who’ve done the job before, it’s a little while before you really get the hang of it. What I do know is it’s my responsibility to steer the artistic vision of the company and hopefully build upon it. I build the season, choosing plays I think are a good fit for Mixed Magic and its audience.
Q: What do you enjoy most about theatre?
A: I enjoy the escape and immediacy of it. Boiled down, theatre is playing make-believe for a few hours and hoping the people watching enjoyed themselves at the end. Along the way, you’re sharing space with your audience and feeding off of them while they feed off of you. There are no takes; it’s a right-now medium and that pressure keeps you spry.
Q: Do you have any plans to make your way onstage in the near future?
A: Thankfully, I can use my directing schedule as an excuse for not getting up on stage, but I wouldn’t be surprised if I made my way on stage this season.
Q: What about writing plays of your own?
A: This season, “When Mahalia Sings” is the project I’ve put my name on. I’m kicking around a few ideas for plays in the future. I’m really interested in the local Asian communities and the stories they have to tell, but I need to do my homework on that front. For the stage outside of ‘Mahalia’, I’ve written a few one-acts–it’s still a craft I battle with regularly—and am determined to figure out the story of a musical my father wrote almost 25 years ago. As a writer, I think my interests lean more toward the screen for whatever reason and a lot of my focus has been on developing that skill.
Q: Where do you get inspiration?
A: I always tell people I’m horrible at making up stories so I’m glad that life does a lot of that legwork. I think the human animal is a terribly fascinating creature and spend a lot of time just watching people. I currently spend a lot of time just watching my newborn daughter as she tries to wrap her mind around this thing we call the world. It’s something else.
Q: What do you think you stand to gain or learn from the time you spend as artistic director?
A: Well, I certainly think it’s an opportunity to leave a creative mark. The “gain” is all the things that come with having done that well. But it’s more than that. This is a company my parents built. I met my wife at the theatre. We bring our daughter to rehearsals at this theatre. I’d be lying if I said the gain wasn’t centered around the feeling you get when you’ve honored not only a craft that you love, but your family as well. As far as learning, outside of sheer management skills, it’s a good look into how business gets done, how theatre is created and all the things that have to happen before actors even get scripts in their hands.
Q: What direction do you hope to take the company in?
A: Under my leadership, I hope to build upon our current mission while returning to an elemental part of theatre: telling stories that people can relate to on some level. In my mind, theatre comes down the feeling it gives you, the visceral reaction you feel as you escape for a few hours. I can go on and on about what a play makes me think about, but that’s not more important than how it makes me feel.
Q: What do you feel you bring to Mixed Magic?
A: Besides my good looks? I like to think I bring a creativity tempered by the exposure I’ve had to the various parts of theatre growing up. I’m a history guy; it was my favorite subject and school and still one of my great interests. And what’s history besides someone’s version of a story?