Art Works Blog

Art Talk with Ryan Rilette of Round House Theatre

“I think, inherently, storytelling and the arts as a whole are our way of understanding the world and they are essential to being able to be alive and for us to be able to continue to better ourselves as humans.” –- Ryan Rilette

Round House Theatre, a fixture on the greater Washington, DC theater scene, was founded in 1970 initially as an offshoot of local government in the Maryland suburbs. As described by the theater's current Producing Artistic Director Ryan Rilette, "It was a program designed by June Allen to take theater into the community. It was a combination of actor-educators and they were teaching classes but also starting to produce a couple of little plays on the side." Originally called Street 70, the theater severed its government ties (though it was still housed in a government building for a number of years) and incorporated as Round House in 1977. These days the theater presents a six-play season in a 400-seat theater in Bethesda, Maryland, just outside of DC proper.

Rilette, who joined Round House in 2012, initially trained as a journalist. He became involved in theater, in part, as a way to process the death of his father. Rilette eventually went on to train at the A.C.T. Conservatory in San Francisco where he and several classmates formed their own theater company. He quickly realized, however, that his fellow company members "were very interested in 'what roles should I do that would show me off well to my agent' and I was much more interested in what was the niche of our company in the downtown market and how do we carve out an identity for ourselves and what is the brand and trying to build the company for the long term." As we learned when we spoke with him at the Round House administrative offices in Silver Spring, his journalism training and work as an actor very much inform how he approaches his artistic director duties. He's also very influenced by a childhood spent growing up in New Orleans amidst the annual spectacle of Mardi Gras. "It's a family event. It's an event where you go out and everyone in your neighborhood is there on the corner hanging out together. There's something sort of beautiful about that sense of community that's engendered by it that I think has always stuck with me." Here's more from Rilette on how he brings that sense of community to his work in theater, his way of looking at failure in terms of running a theater company, and why the theater is particularly invested in its programs for kids and teens.

NEA: Can you tell us about the mission of Round House Theater?

RYAN RILETTE: The two things that really separate us and drive everything that we do are making ourselves into a home for outstanding ensemble acting and lifelong learning. Lifelong learning because the difference with the Round House and a lot of educational institutions is that a lot of theaters focus on pre-professional programs for young kids. We have programs from age 2 to 92, I mean, truly to 92. It is truly about  finding a way to educate our audience at every single level and even within the work that we do.

And then, the plays that we do, what we've always been known for in addition to ensemble acting is pieces that really move you emotionally and demand conversation, pieces that really make the audience want to stick around and talk about the work that we're doing. I always say, I'd rather the audience leave angry than leave going, “gee, what's for dinner,” and not having thought about the show. One of the things that I've brought to Round House is a real commitment to using local artists. I believe very strongly that some of our local theaters have lost the sense of what it means to be regional and we are trying to really commit to using local artists unless we just can't find what we need locally, that's the only time we tend to go out of town. [We are also] creating a theater that reflects the community that we serve so we made a commitment when I got here to gender parity--in terms of playwright selection, in terms of artists on stage. We're also making a big commitment to racial diversity both in terms of the kind of shows that we're choosing but also the conversations that we're having with our audience. So, I would say that's the easiest way to describe who we are right now. We do a six-show season of modern classics, new plays, and musicals with that sort of diversity and commitment to local artists all baked into it.

NEA: Can you talk about your philosophy of theater in terms of what is it that theater can do in a unique way from other arts disciplines?

RILETTE: I think the big thing that theater does that other art forms do but maybe don't do as successfully is foster a sense of community and empathy. I really do think it's true that we are moving more and more into a world where we are isolated into our own little silos [with] using computers, always being on our phones, isolating ourselves with headphones. The technology that we use to connect with each other through virtual communities is, in many ways, putting up a barrier for us talking to each other directly.

All tickets for high school students are free to our show and we did that purposefully. You can look at a group of teenagers and they're all together but half of them are on their phones and they're not actually talking to each other. And I think, within that, what starts to happen is, you stop seeing people as people….To me, that's what theater does: It teaches us, it reminds us that that we're not individuals, we're part of a community and to sit in a room with other people and experience the world through someone else's eyes and experience something that is fleeting like life itself, that's something that theater can do that no other art form really does the same way. It's why, when people say with all the modern technology theater is going to go away, it's never going to exist, I think there's always going to be a need for people to get into a room and act out stories with each other. It has been something that has been true from the time we were cavemen and I think it's going be true throughout our history.

NEA: You initially trained as a journalist, and I'm curious as to how that has informed how you think as an artistic director.

RILETTE: The biggest thing is I was taught as a journalist is that you have to know your audience, know who you're communicating to. You have to tailor your message based on who you're communicating to and I think that has really informed me as I've moved to different communities. The type of shows I chose in New Orleans, for that audience, are different than the shows that we were choosing in Marin, for an audience in Marin, and those are different than the shows that I'm choosing here.

The hard thing about moving into a new community is getting to know the community…. I don't think I still have a full sense of all of the issues that affect us in DC because it's a very big, complex community in that there are a lot of micro-communities. I believe strongly that plays, unlike something like journalism, plays often don't have answers: they have big questions at the center of them. But I want to make sure that those questions are things that are coming across to our audience. I actually very much care that the central question of the play is something that the audience gets because, without it, why do the show? That's the whole point is that you're communicating that. So, I think it's probably that more than anything else that drives me.

NEA: As a follow-up to that, how would you characterize the DC audience? 

RILETTE: When I was in the Bay Area, everyone said, “We're the number three theater community in the country. It is New York, Chicago, then us based on number of contracts, number of shows, everything.” And I came [to DC] to interview for the job and everybody kept saying, “We're the number three theater community in the country, and I was like, “What? Really? DC?” When I call Dramatists Play Service, when I talk to Samuel French, , everyone [says] DC is… a very big market, it’s a very competitive market. Somehow, the word hasn't gotten out, I think there's just so much other stuff that we haven't made it clear to other people that we are a theater town, that the arts in general are very vibrant and alive in DC.

I would say the thing that I've learned about this audience is that it is a very, very smart audience that you can never really underestimate. I think we often underestimate our audiences and this audience, all of them have more interesting jobs then we do. Generally, if you work in the theater, you have one of the coolest jobs in the room. Here, you know, every time I go and meet a group of people, and I'm talking to them and I'm like "What do you do?"  they respond, "I work at the NIH and I'm in charge of researching this, you know, crazy thing," and "I work with National Security" and "I work with so and so." They're fascinating people who are very busy and are, whether they're retired from great jobs or are still actively working, they are socially conscious, very intelligent audience members. I've fallen in love with this audience. I think it's a great place to do any kind of work.

NEA: At the onset of the interview, you said Round House is also interested in lifelong learning. How does the theater work with young people?

RILETTE: Basically, everything we do for teens is free. We have now underwritten all of the tickets so that they can come anytime to the theater for free and then we have this teen performance program which is totally free… and is the closest thing we have to a pre-professional program. You have to audition or test into it but you can come in as a designer, as a director, or as an actor or you can come in not exactly knowing which [you want to study]. They get classes throughout the year with master artists so they get to meet with me and take an acting class. They'll meet with our former artistic director for an acting class. They might meet with one of the leading sound designers in the city to learn about how sound design works. They will come in and shadow our tech staff and work with our tech staff during the course of our shows. It all leads up to them doing one production on our main stage that they are directing, designing, and acting in themselves.

The idea of this came from Sarah Metzger [who] was an intern who worked here while she was in high school. At the end of her high school period, she produced and directed her own show with a bunch of her classmates and then she went off to college and she died in a car wreck, first year of college. And Jerry [our artistic director] at the time, talked to her parents and said, "look, I want to do something that honors Sarah, memorializes her but at the same time encourages other kids to do the amazing work that she was doing." And that's where that program came from.

The way our programs work is that we have tons of programs for the young. We’re teaching kids to think creatively and we're taking kids who can't actually communicate well or are too shy to get up and talk in front of a group and, by the end of the summer, they are free and open in front of a room. That's a big part of what we're doing: we're teaching kids to think creatively, we're teaching all aspects of theater, not just acting. We're teaching them everything from acting to movement to design and introducing them to the world of theater as a whole. As they get older it becomes more professional to the point where, when they get to be teenagers, it’s at its most pre-professional level. Everything beyond that is training that's available for professional actors. So we have stage combat training that we partner with Casey Kaleba to do. We do master classes for acting. We're exploring doing things like yoga and pilates, but driven for actors. The idea is that it graduates up from a program that is really for creating the next generation of theater goers and teaching people ways to think creatively which will help them in school, to then becoming much more for people who will actually do this for a living as they get older.

NEA: This fall local theaters are participating in the DC Women’s Voices Festival with First Lady Michelle Obama as the honorary chair. How will Round House participate?

RILETTE: We are doing the world premiere of a play called Ironbound by Martyna Majok. Martina is a recent Yale MFA grad who just won the Lark PoNY Fellowship. The last couple of people that have gotten it have gone on to big, big, big careers, so it bodes well. Daniella Topol is directing it for us. Martina is Polish: she was born in Poland and then moved to the U.S. and lived in New Jersey. She wrote a play about a Polish immigrant woman in Jersey over twenty years struggling to survive amidst an economy that is, especially for people who are poor, an economy that is dying by the minute. When you look back twenty years ago, she's there with her young husband and they're working in a factory job. By the time you get to present day she's working as a cleaning lady because all the factory jobs have gone away and she is doing everything she can to just scrape by. It's a great, great, great piece: we're really excited about that.

As our ancillary bit, we're doing with Casey Kaleba's company Tooth and Claw Combat Arts something called "Belle of the Brawl." It is a festival where we're bringing in leading female fight choreographers from around the world. They’re people who did The Lord of the Rings,  huge movies…. As Casey's described it, there's never been anything like this where you've taken all of the best female fight choreographers from around the world and put them in place all at once. And then, we will also be doing a symposium called "Fight like a Girl" that will talk very much about women's role in stage combat and the changing perception of that. Paulette Beete –

NEA: One of the things we’ve been asking artists to talk about is the role of failure in their art practice. How do you think of failure and success as an artistic director?

RILETTE: I think failure is incredibly necessary because if you're not failing, you're not taking many risks and the lack of risk in American theater is something that is incredibly dangerous. And it's not because people are afraid of taking risks. I think it is because, as an industry, we are undercapitalized. People don't have enough cash on hand, so they're always, constantly thinking, "What can I do that will sell some tickets because I can't have anything really fail? If anything really fails, I'm not going have the money to pay the bills.” I understand that logic and, of course, we all have to think about stuff like that. But I also think to grow significantly as an industry, to continue to expand who we are and to change who we are, the only way to do that is by taking some risks. And risk, I think, is what audiences respond to.

I think it’s a bad word because, when we say "failure," it connotes being dead in the water as opposed to thinking of it as a way to know where the boundaries are. One of the things I often think about with acting is that you have point A where you start the play and point Z where you end the play, and you have all these little points in between them and your job is to fill in all those little points. If you're too methodical with it, sometimes you will never find all of the boundaries, all of the limits to where your character can actually go, and I think the same thing is true with running companies. You need to take big risks and go, "Okay, so the audience revolted with that one, so that's a little too far. So now we know that, for at least right now, where our audience is. We can't go that far.”  Or, “Gee, that was fine and it sold a lot of tickets but that's not really who we are." I think that's important to know who you are and figure that stuff out so I embrace the failures. As much as I might get down when it initially happens, I always find a couple of weeks later, a couple of months later, that the perspective on the failure--why did it fail?--is the big question. And answering that will tell you a lot about who you are.

NEA: Fill in the blank: the arts matter because...

RILETTE: Because the arts are how we define who we are. One of my favorite writers, which is a result of her journalism, is Joan Didion, and Joan Didion has this great quote where she says, "We tell ourselves stories in order to live." I always come back to that because I think it is absolutely true. Without our stories, we die. If you take away everything from a person and you put them in isolation in a prison cell, they don't do math, they write stories. They scribble on the wall, they draw things on the wall, they might tell themselves a story, they might sing themselves a song. They're not trying to figure out electrons and doing math and science or trying to figure out engineering. As much as I love all of that stuff and I appreciate it, I think, inherently storytelling and the arts as a whole is our way of understanding the world and it is essential to being able to be alive and for us to be able to continue to better ourselves as humans.

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