New Perspectives Theatre Company does not just want to change the way you look at the world. It wants to change the world you look at. Melody Brooks, the founder and Artistic Director of New Perspectives, speaks of theatre’s primary job in the world as promoting social change. It does so by asking the audience to look at the world in a new way, “to rethink their own prejudices, their own fears or how they judge other people.” And this company, on the verge of its twentieth anniversary, is taking one more step towards that goal with its latest production, Mother of God, set to open on March 10th.
According to their website, the three part mission of New Perspectives is to share the vision of marginalized and under-represented artists by developing new plays written and directed particularly by women and people of color, to present classics in a way that “sheds new light on our lives and work” and to present theatre to under-served audiences to increase participation in society.
Since 1994, one of New Perspectives’ major vehicles towards this goal of social change has been the Women’s Work Project, in which female resident playwrights develop plays to production quality, while building their tools and practicing their craft. In 2008, following the loss of their black box theatre to a developer’s wrecking ball, the Women’s Work Project reinvented itself as the Women’s Work Lab. Instead of reducing its quality and output, New Perspectives turned this challenge into an opportunity. Now working with 4 to 6 women a year, with the same supports and one-on-one guidance as the residency program, it creates “a larger collaborative group from which members can draw inspiration and energy.”
It was at the Lab that Michelle A. Miller’s Mother of God began taking shape in 2009 and now is about to begin the final stage of its developmental journey in a few days when it opens at the Richmond Shepard Theatre. But this “daring new take on the greatest story ever told” and the mission of New Perspectives has become, in a way, only a small part of a much larger project that had its birth that same year, called 50/50 in 2020. New Perspectives Theatre Company is one leg of the trinity of organizations, including the Women’s Project and League of Professional Theatre Women, that is spearheading this movement towards parity for women in professional theatre. The aim is for equal representation for female theatre artists by the centennial of women’s suffrage in the year 2020. It’s an exciting movement and these companies were named by Martin Denton on his list of 2009 People of the Year. To find out more, including tips, facts, and upcoming events, check out the 50/50 in 2020 Facebook page.
Brooks is a powerful activist and advocate for this initiative. You can hear a rippling undercurrent of passion in her voice as she decries the current state of affairs: the under-representation of women in professional theatre and the over-representation in off off Broadway, unpaid theatre. She’s ready to bust through the glass ceiling she and her peers have been bumping up against for decades. Programs like the Women’s Work Lab are creating a gateway for women to cut their teeth on professional quality work, build up a body of skills and experience, and gain the much needed exposure off of which to build their own careers. Alumna of the program include Tracey Scott Wilson (Exhibit No. 9) and Ann Chamberlin, whose Jihad was named Off Off Broadway Review’s play of the year in 1996.
Miller is one of the latest women to graduate from this program. Her Mother of God is “written by a Jewish mother about the ultimate Jewish Mother” and promises a both “profane and profound” fleshing out of the birth of Jesus. Taking on this subject matter in a provocative way promises to draw both praise and cries of blasphemy, especially when Brooks, who is also directing the production, describes it as a vaudevillian, burlesque farce that calls into question the notion of the virgin birth. At the heart of this reworking of the Nativity Story is the message that, according to Brooks, “If we treated every child as if it were divine, we would have heaven on earth.” That’s the kind of blasphemy I can get behind -- blasphemous and beautiful!
After speaking to Brooks, it is hard to imagine that anything she creates could be devoid of a strong political voice and sense of theatricality. Her upcoming play is no exception. Two elements that sold her on Mother of God back in 2009 and are retained in the final product are that the man purported to be Jesus’ father is a Roman actor and that it uses the historical record of the political conflicts between the Pharisees and Sadducees and “the political strategies of accepting the child as the messiah.” Mother of God is both timely and eternal, broadly appealing and piercingly witty. Or as Brooks puts it, “using historical information to get at the underpinnings of human behavior” in a theatrically dramatic or comedic way is the recipe for a New Perspectives play.
Later this year, for the start of its twentieth season, New Perspectives will be producing Hamlet, which promises to parallel the Book of Revelations, just in time for 2012. This company has a history with Shakespeare and its no surprise to hear that Brooks likes turning the Bard on his head in both its theatrical conceptions and social messages. One example is her ninety minute production of Romeo and Juliet that asks whether we should really be glorifying two angst-ridden, pubescent teens who throw their lives away on love, without know what love really is. They are producing this at The School for Classics, a public school where they have taken up residence with an aim of helping “build community of healthy, self-aware, self-expressive individuals.”
For all of New Perspectives’ advocacy about the primacy of social change, they are not about making function over form. Provocation is always the goal, Brooks says. The company produces plays that are “big and bold and in your face about serious issues...challenging people’s assumptions, not just about the plays that we do, but about everything connected to their own lives, shown through what we put on the stage.” Whether taking on Shakespeare, the public schools, promoting new works or tackling the gender gap, New Perspectives is sure to make you sit up and open your eyes.
Mother of God opens Thursday, March 10, 2011 and runs through Saturday, March 26, 2011 at the Richmond Shepard Theatre, 309 East 26th Street at 2nd Avenue. Tickets are $18/$15 seniors and students with ID. For more information, visit newperspectivestheatre.org Purchase tickets at theatermania.com.