BCTR!

From Friday, September 25th until Sunday, October 4th, the quiet woods of Salem, Connecticut were filled with the song, movement, and energy of the company of the Bingham Camp Theatre Retreat’s inaugural year.  From the bustling streets of New York City to star-filled skies and home cooked meals, nine actors and six production team members lived and worked together for 10 days in the beautiful town of Salem to put on an original musical.

The idea for the retreat, started by my second cousin and Broadway director and choreographer, Devanand (Dev) Janki, is to promote diversity through new works of theater: “With an emphasis on non-traditional casting, multi-ethnic participants and bold theatricality, it offers a unique opportunity for theatre-makers to develop new plays and musicals that encourage dialogue between cultures.”

The musical for this year, “Call It Courage,” was written by actor, playwright, and director Adam Overett and is based on a book by Armstrong Sperry.  When I asked Adam where he found the inspiration to write the musical, he said “I read the book when I was a little boy and was instantly transfixed.” Since his early infatuation with the main character, Mafatu, the story stayed with Adam throughout his life.  When I arrived at the retreat on the first day, my Dad was exploring the bookshelves in the main wing and pulled out one of the first dusty scripts of “Call It Courage” — the very one that Dev and Adam discussed at the Bingham Camp over ten years ago, dreaming of the day when it would come alive at the Bingham Camp.

And it sure did.

The company, most of whom live and work in New York City, hail from countries all across the globe, including China, Singapore, the Philippines, Thailand, India, and several others.

I had the honor of being the assistant stage manager for the production, and was able to get to know the actors on a personal level and learn about their lives in the theater industry.  The topic of race often came up, and I learned some insight about what it’s like to be a non-Caucasian actor in the highly competitive — and Caucasian-dominant — world of theater. When Tobias (who plays the lead, “Mafatu”) and I were talking one night after dinner, I asked him if he faced any criticism for going into the performing arts as an occupation, to which he replied: “It’s mostly personal obstacles that I have to overcome as an actor.  Sometimes I’ll feel apprehensive about auditioning for a certain role and decide not to audition for it at all– just because of my race.”

Jeigh (who plays Mafatu’s loyal dog “Uri”) had a similar response about what it’s like to audition for roles when one’s race doesn’t fit into the specific categories of casting calls: “We go to audition calls and they’ll say ‘Caucasian’, ‘Caucasian’, ‘Caucasian’, ‘African-American’, ‘African-American’, ‘African-American’, and ‘Open Ethnicity.’ And that’s where we fit in — ‘Open Ethnicity’.

 

Though race plays a significant role in New York City theaters, the Bingham Camp Theatre Retreat erases these boundaries and allows artists to create within a safe, secluded space that is free from distractions and racial standards.  The musical itself portrays a recurring theme of bravery and addressing both one’s fears and social expectations.

It tells the story of Mafatu, whose father, played by Graham Stevens, is Chief of Hikueru, a Polynesian island. When Mafatu was a young boy, his mother, Anne Fraser-Thomas, drowned while she was teaching him to fish, and the tragedy has haunted Mafatu since.  He refuses to go out on the sea with the others, and stays home to weave nets.  Because of his timidity, he is bullied by the people of the island, including his father, who says Mafatu is not fit to be the next Chief.  Viri, a brave fisherman and hunter, played by Hansel Tan, harasses Mafatu because of his timidity, and threatens him that he will bravely take the role of Chief.  Kana, played by Kelsey Ryan Moore, is Mafatu’s close friend (and eventual love interest) who encourages him to face his fear, but with little success. Mafatu’s confides in his loyal dog, Uri, played by Jeigh Madjus, and together they venture out onto the sea to conquer Mafatu’s fear.

The company members’ journeys to the world of theater are also diverse.  One night around the campfire, Tobias explained how theater grounded him while his family moved around a lot as a child: “I felt like I had to be funny and entertain people in order to fit in with my surroundings and make friends, because I was always moving.  I eventually joined my high school’s theater program and was in my first musical and realized, ‘Yeah, this is awesome.’ So theater for me became something more than being funny.  I knew I wanted to pursue it seriously.” While Tobias discovered his love for theater, Hansel described his experience in a different way. “Acting found me. And when you realize that, you’re screwed,” he said with a smile.

Through this experience, I not only am more educated on the concept of race in the theater world, but I was able to hear about life as an actor in general, and the role theater plays in the company’s lives.

Theater forces us to ask questions– questions that don’t necessarily need an answer: “‘What is a state of paradise, and what does it mean to exist in one? What is it like to be a human in a nonhuman world?’” were some of them that came up when Hansel and I talked about what theater meant to us. “It forces us to face the emotions that are uncomfortable for many people. And in that sense, it serves a great purpose in our lives,” said the Artistic Associate, Dennis Corsi.

While being an actor is complex enough, living in the city adds a whole new layer to the profession.  “In order to live in New York, you have to want something much more than a wife, a house, and three kids. There has to be a passion that drives you,” said the playwright.

Through the experience, I’ve learned that theater not only explores emotion, but rather the spectrum of our emotion. It challenges us to not view our experiences as black and white, but to appreciate the complexity, even the ambiguity, of how we feel.  “People tend to use one word for an emotion, like ‘sad’” Hansel explained, “But there’s always a range. There’s 5 million shades of sad.”  It helps us confront our lives in their purest form, and teaches us that it’s ok to be human.

Looking forward, the company is planning on performing the show in New York City early next year.  In terms of BCTR, this was just the start of many more years to come.

To learn more about the retreat or make a donation, go to:

http://www.binghamcamptheatreretreat.org/