Teaching Artist Leah Reddy spoke with co-director Jeffrey L. Page about his work on 1776.
Leah Reddy: What is your theatre origin story?
Jeffrey L. Page: When I was a little boy, I did hip hop dance. In Indianapolis, Indiana, hip hop dance was extremely prevalent and I wanted to be a big hip hop dancer. This was when I was maybe eight, nine years old. I was walking down the street and I saw a placard that said "Auditions for hip hop dance troupe." It was at the school that I attended, which was right down the street from where I lived. So I went. And it was not auditions for a hip hop dance troupe. It was auditions for an African dance troupe. And I was the only boy there. But I stayed and I liked it. And I balanced it with baseball practice and basketball practice and football practice, and all sorts of things. And that kind of ushered me into theatre. And so, as a little boy, I was a member of Asante Children's Theatre in Indianapolis, Indiana.
That was my first awareness of what theatre was. From there, I went to the University of the Arts and got a little bit deeper into it. I was a member of the American Cabaret Theatre in Indianapolis before leaving to go to college. And here I am. That's a pretty truncated theatre origin story.
LR: I know you pursued higher education a little bit later in your career. Can you talk about that?
JP: Sure. So after years and years of leading a professional life as a choreographer, I was living in LA at the time, and I got deep into choreography for television and film and live shows and different things. I moved back to New York to go to Broadway, to do a show on Broadway called Fela! on Broadway. I got into NYU. I turned NYU down because it was a choice between staying in Fela! or going back to school to get an arts degree. Something inside of me just wanted to pursue that, to learn more about theatre. And at NYU, it was an MFA in dance. At the time I was interested, but I wasn't extremely interested. I think really what excited me was theatre directing.
And so years after I finished Fela!, I started to apply to grad school, and right in the midst of me actually [choreographing for] So You Think You Can Dance, I got into grad school and I had to kind of drop everything in order to pursue it fully, and went to grad school. I was kind of the dinosaur in my cohort at Columbia. I went to grad school for theatre directing under Anne Bogart and Brian Kulick. And it taught me so, so much. It taught me the ability to be self-assured, and the ability to find out information by myself. Because I was pretty far behind the other students in the cohort. So I spent a lot of time in the library, learning about Shakespeare, learning about Brecht, learning about Chekhov, and so on and so forth.
I just spoke to some kids at Jacob's Pillow, where I'm the director of the musical theatre program. I gave one of the kids a particular assignment. I said, “When you go to school, write 10 essential questions that will sustain you for the entirety of your time at school that you need to have answered.” And I think the reason that [graduate school] was so impactful for me is because I had specific questions that I needed to get answered. That tends to happen when you're older and you're going back to school rather than, you know, you being younger and you're just kind of going because of tradition or legacy or whatever. So I went back to school, and I absolutely loved it. And it kind of led me to where I am right now.
LR: You've directed opera, choreographed for Beyoncé, you've started a nonprofit, you've worked on Broadway, and you've done some strategic leadership work. What's the thread? How do you choose what projects you want to work on next?
JP: My foundation lives inside of three anchors — research, teaching, and doing. As in doing the work. And so inside of those three pillars is where I feel most excitement, the most thrill. When I'm in West Africa and doing research, when I'm teaching, when I'm doing the work, it feels like a circle. Like I'm connecting all of the dots, I'm sharing the things that I'm learning through my research. And at the same time, I'm creating clear gestures from my research, and the things that I reckon with, with respect to teaching. And so it makes sense for me. And I think the throughline is shifting people. Like, transforming people into bigger and better versions of ourselves.
I think it starts with me. I'm always interested in shifting and transforming myself. And then in the shifting and transforming myself, when I get excited about a road of research, I want to share it. And in me sharing it, in me teaching it, I get inspired to create my own artistic and creative gestures from how it happens. And so I think that's the thread.
My nonprofit has to do with research. It's Movin' Legacy, an organization that I founded because I didn't see how Black dance was being archived. I started to accumulate tons and tons of research with respect to Black dance, from African structures to the diasporic structures, and so on. I started to accumulate so much research that I became really curious about creating a system of archiving that research. But at the same time, in the archiving of the research, how do I make sure that I'm cultivating new ideas? And that comes in the form of artistic gestures. And it also comes in the form of conversations and teaching. So I think, for me, it all wraps around research, teaching, and doing.
LR: You talk a lot about patterns and repeating structures and riffing in your work. It strikes me that this production of 1776 is kind of, in its ethos, a riff on an existing structure or a pattern. I'm curious how you see this production following or breaking a pattern.
JP: I think we repeat things because we are attempting to cast a spell. I think that's the reason that we repeat things. The repetition of something, it does not stay the same. It grows and it grows, and it starts to transform into something else. But essentially we're attempting to cast a spell. We're attempting to make something in the world change.
And so it happens, most definitely, inside of folk culture, ethnic cultures, if you will. People don't fully understand folk cultures because for some people, it feels boring. It feels monotonous. It feels repetitious. But when you really start to understand what it's doing, you start to understand the repetition of it is making room for creative gestures and art. And I think that's extremely important.
Also, I believe that the transforming of a thing through repetition, the incantation through repetition, has a lot to do with Bertolt Brecht and his ideas of Verfremdungseffekt, which is “the alienation effect.” It's this idea of looking at something that is familiar and finding a way to make it strange. And if we can see something as familiar and find a way to make it strange, we can start to give distance to the thing, and therefore start to look at it anew. You know, start to look at our children in new ways, start to look at our romantic relationships in new ways. Start to look at our relationships with our moms and our dads in new ways. Start to look at our life in new ways. If we can distance ourselves from it, we start to have a non-biased relationship to it. Anne Bogart likes to call it soft focus. It's when you allow the world to come into your brain, rather than forcing your opinion onto a thing, you're allowing the world to come into your mind.
The doing again and again and again, it's an effort to make the familiar strange, but then also make the strange, something that you don't know, familiar. And I think that is the essence, that's what Bertolt Brecht says, the essence of causing shift and impact inside of people. So for me, repetition, repetition in jazz, repetition in hip hop, repetition in the blues, you know, what is it? They repeat one thing over and over again, over and over again, and you start to feel something different about the repeating of the thing. August Wilson does it a lot in his plays. I think that it's magical. I think that it causes us to reevaluate the thing. And in us reevaluating the thing, we are in effect reevaluating ourselves, therefore causing some kind of internal shift, some kind of internal rearranging of furniture. So I appreciate that. And that's kind of how I approach my work.
With respect to 1776, it's interesting that in 1969 [when the musical premiered], there were the protests of the Vietnam War. In 1969, people were desperate to say something to the powers that be. And I believe that Peter Stone and Sherman Edwards, they thought to themselves, “What if we used the metaphor of the founding of our nation in order to get people to understand something different about this world that we live in, about the Vietnam War?” Now, I could say, you know, [the story spoke to] what was happening in Harlem, and what was happening in various Black communities throughout the country, with racial injustice and race politics, and I could also speak to gender politics. So they said, let's use the founding of our nation as a metaphor in order to protest the things that need to be fixed in our particular day and age.
And here we are. We're repeating something again. Perhaps because there's power in the repetition. Perhaps because there's something about it that has withstood the test of time. Perhaps because it's magical. Perhaps because it will deeply affect us in many ways. And so I'm interested in that. I think that we do that in 1776. And then it could get as deep as the grievances in the [text of the] Declaration of Independence and what the repetition of these grievances mean. He has. He has, meaning King George. All of these various grievances. What incantation is being attempted by the repetition of these grievances?
I feel like repetition and incantation is all wrapped up inside of 1776. And especially with respect to us doing it right now. It's not an attempt to go back and lift up something from the past, I don't think. I think it's an attempt to look at it as another kind of metaphor. Now it has three legs. We're looking at it through the lens of 1969, and how they were looking at the founding of the nation of 1776, inside of our year of 2022. So how does all of this speak to, for instance, Roe v. Wade? How does this speak to George Floyd? How does it speak to Breonna Taylor? And so I think it's magical. And it gets at this idea of making the familiar strange that Bertolt Brecht talks about.
LR: How have you and Diane Paulus approached collaborating as directors on this piece?
JP: With Diane Paulus, she came to me with the idea, she asked me to be choreographer on the project. And after several months of us working together, she invited me to work with her not only as choreographer, but to be her half, which is co-director. And it's been brilliant. This is my first Broadway show as a director. So parts of it have felt like school again. I get to be mentored by Diane Paulus, while at the same time working as her collaborator in the deepest sense of the word. And that has felt like an honor. I've learned a lot.
I have been able to imbue the project with my own thoughts and perspectives, and it makes it extremely meaningful to me. I think that this is an example of how I think that perhaps we should start looking at passing on and delegating power and new responsibilities and roles. You know, I think we've gotten into this trend, especially with respect to Black Lives Matter, we've gotten into this trend of simply putting Black people, Indigenous people, and peoples of color, in positions of authority and power. But we have not given these people the tools to properly navigate sitting in such a role. And so therefore it seems like we're waiting for them to fail. So when they fail, the people in power can say, "I told you so. I knew this wasn't a good idea." Right? And they really didn't put any level of deep investment inside of what it means to hand off, and to mentor someone.
So with my collaboration with Diane Paulus, it feels a lot like me being given voice, or me being allowed to use my voice. And me being with a partner who is able to guide me in a way that feels responsible, and feels like someone has given me the keys to the castle, but has not just thrown them at me, but has actually guided me. Diane is a pro. Watching Diane in a tech rehearsal, watching Diane in meetings, watching Diane lead American Repertory Theater, has been a profound learning experience for me. It's shaped the way I work on my own creative endeavors. It's shaped the way that I think about how I negotiate meetings, and tech rehearsals, and my collaborative experiences with other designers for other projects. So it's deeply meaningful.
In addition to that, what I think that your question is getting at is, in real time what does our collaboration look like? And it looks like a lot of conversations. It looks like a lot of exciting conversations with someone who I consider to be a friend, someone who I trust, someone who will challenge the ideas that I have, but also allow my voice to be inside of the space. And that feels really meaningful. My directing creativity is all throughout 1776. As is Diane's. And I think it has come about in a very, very sincere and genuine way. And I'm deeply appreciative of that.
LR: What advice do you have for young people, or people of any age, who are interested in directing or choreography?
JP: Right now I'm reading this book called the Ego is the Enemy. And this generation, the pandemic, post-pandemic generation, is faced with a heavy load. They're faced with this idea of needing to be seen, needing to stretch out, needing to be. Right? And so I'm really curious about the idea of how they can both be big and make something else, bigger than them, big at the same time. Now, people might see that as being antithetical. But in a weird way, I don't see that as being antithetical at all. I'm going to say that again. How do I make myself big, while at the same time make the thing that I'm working for bigger than me? I think that's the conundrum. That's the question. That's the hard part about all of this, is finding a way to answer that question.
How can you be big, while at the same time fortifying something else that's bigger than you? And again, I think that's a big idea. That's a big question. And many of the students will probably say, "What in the world is he talking about?" But when you're in the process of it, you'll start to understand it. So I have taught many of my students to not diminish yourself, not make yourself small. But how can you do that? How can you not make yourself small, while at the same time being inspired by and making something outside of yourself absolutely bigger?
And so that's the advice that I would give them. And I only give them that advice because that's my conundrum right now. That's what I'm faced with. And so I'm trying to answer that question myself. So slowly but surely. Stick to your guns, but don't stick to your guns. Hold on tightly, let go lightly. You know, it's that kind of thing. Where once you figure out it's time to let go, let go. But hold on to the things that you believe in. Because they might be big enough to make you, and turn you into something. And I think that might be the advice that I would give them.