INTERVIEW: MARK STUART, Founder of Mark Stuart Dance Theater Talks About His Riveting New Project WH
Can the act of "seeing" each other without judgment or fear break the cycle of intolerance? Mark Stuart (founder of Mark Stuart Dance Theater) new show When Change Comes is a powerful dance musical that asks that one question, and it just might be the answer to bringing this divided country together. When Change Comes features a cast of world renown dancers, singers, and musicians, When Change Comes transports audiences through a century of music, movement, and human connection in the shadows of our nation's most defining moments.
Mark Stuart is an award-winning choreographer who has been called "smoldering" by The New York Times. His work has been seen all over the world, and most recently he teamed up alongside Andy Blakenbhuler as the associate choreographer in the 2017 Broadway musical, Bandstand. I had the immense pleasure of chatting with Mark about When Change Comes and talking about this compelling show. When Change Comes will perform at Madison Theater at Malloy College Sept. 7-8th and at New York Live Arts Theater Sept. 13-16th.
Where did the idea for When Change Comes from and how was it conceived?
When Change Comes is actually an evolution of our original show and idea, which was called Standard Time, a dance musical, and that show was created in 2012, and our whole idea was, can we tell a story that makes our audiences question how they treat each other, and if we as a society can learn from our mistakes?
We created a show about these three low stories that try to break the cycle of prejudice in this country over the last 100 years, and we did several productions of Standard Time, and it was fantastic and our last run was at The Duke on 42nd Street where we had some great success, and we got nominated for Best Theatrical Experience off Broadway. I started to think about, alright well, can we use the show to inspire and empower people to take like a few very specific actions in the world, and who might those people be? In doing so, can we get even more specific about our show and our story, and show the simple act of learning to see each other, and listen to each other, can go such a long way in terms of moving towards tolerance and equality, because we all talk at each other, and our society is about whoever is loudest at the moment wins. That doesn't change anyone's mind. Right now, our country is moving in the direction of intolerance and fear again, and that will swing back. That's one of the best things about the whole Trump era. It's gonna swing back. Our thought was how can we just learn to see each other, and how can we show that through these love stories in the face of the Great Depression and the Civil Rights Movement, and the LGBT Rights Movement, how can we create this theatrical experience that is moving? And then how can we immediately following that have a discussion about three things that we can all walk out the theater door and do immediately that don't cost anything and don't take more than a few seconds, but can form this army of small acts of kindness that can turn into a tidal wave of change?
(Photo Credit: Christopher Duggan)
It's funny that you actually brought up my next question. How did you decide to focus on these three love stories set against three major themes in our country's history, The Great Depression, The Civil Rights Movement, and The LGBTQ Movement?
It's a great question. We decided that in 2012, and I think it's because they were all so relevant in the moment. All of these things, and this is sort of the point of the show, were major movements in our history, but they've never really gone away, and so you know the whole thing with occupy Wall Street, the backlash against Obama's election, it really made me feel like, wow, we've come so far, and yet have we? Because everyone seems to be focused on the divide of these things.
You're either the haves, or the have nots. You're either white, or you're non-white, or you're either straight, or not straight. It seems like these are the three things that we can't seem to get past.[...] You've been rehearsing and coming up with this for a bit now, can you tell me a little bit of what the rehearsal process is like for this show? You have to encompass, from what I was reading in the press release, you have to encompass both singing and dancing while telling the story, so what are the rehearsal processes like?
That is a great question because that has totally changed within the last two months. [...] We had this incredible artistic retreat at a vineyard arts project on Martha's Vineyard two months ago, and in that process we actually ended up throwing out the entire show, and starting again from scratch, and doing it with a new way of storytelling for us, which was a process of using parameters rather than specific choreography. What happens, the quick version, is that we taught the six people that were there one of our love duets from act three of the show, which is about these two men who had been together for ten years, but one of them keeps ending it because he's afraid to be out in public, and deal with what that means. And so, we taught that, which was like a two minute number, and then after some pretty heavy discussions, vulnerable discussions, about what each of us were going through in life I said, okay, forget the story of the show for a moment, and tell your story within the parameters of what we taught you, but tell your story, and it blew my mind, because suddenly this two minute number became like a ten minute story, and the most powerful stuff was the silence and the space in between the stuff, because everybody in those moments was being so deeply honest and vulnerable in themselves that it blew my mind. I said, okay, we're starting over with this idea. Let's use the idea parameters, which means there's choreography, but when you do, where you do it, how long you do it, and who you need to do it with is up to you, and that allowed for spontaneity within these parameters, and honesty.[...]
It's not improvised. It's just set within these parameters. We call rehearsals magic time actually, because what happens is magical when you give people the space to be themselves, and just some guidance within what parameters to use. And so, magic time involves me asking a lot of questions and trying to get more, and more specific with those questions, and letting people be themselves.
With that, I also kinda want to pick it up off that question, what was this casting process how did you go about finding the right people that would be able to tell this story in the way that you wanted it told? That's another great question. The story's about these three people in present day who look around and day, how did we get here? How did our society end up like this? And then, they sort of go back in time and revisit these scenarios, and two or those three heroes has been with me forever, one is my fiance, and co-creator, Jamie Verazin, she is the most magical person you will ever met, and Marc Heitzman, who was with us in Dance, Dance, he was our dance captain. We actually have been calling him mini-Mark for a couple of years saying that he is the person that lets me retire, because he is one of the only people I have ever met that gives you all the crazy partnering that I do, and so I've found I've been able to step back and not have to worry about performing, because Marc is there.
(Photo Credit: Christopher Duggan)
They're incredible together and third, Voltaire Wade-Green from Hamilton he's done with us off and on for a couple years, and so we started there, and then the crazy part Ry, is right after Martha's Vineyard we had auditions, and the auditions blew my mind in terms of A, who I thought we needed to hire, and B, what I thought people were capable of, because we had 80 people in a room at once and no one that I recognized, and I said to my casting director, who are these people? I don't recognize anybody, where are my people? And he said, just do what you do. And so, we created Magic Time in these auditions, we meditated to start with, which is what we did at the vineyard, and we looked at each other in silence, and said this is not an audition, this is an opportunity to do what you love to do and tell your story. You don't need anything from me today other than the opportunity to do that, so we're gonna teach you some parameters that allow you to tell your story, and that's all you need to do today. And Ry, every single person in the room, all 80 of them, no matter how experienced, or in-experienced, no matter how great of a dancer, or not great of a dancer, we could've hired all of them, because everybody could tell their story in a really powerful way, and you couldn't take your eyes off of any one of them.
Do you think that the act of seeing each other can break the fear of intolerance? Yeah, I do. It's funny a couple of people have really challenged me on it in the last couple weeks, and they said, well, so what, so you learn to see somebody, then what? Here's what I think. I think when you look at someone, for example, someone who believes something completely different than you, who is racist or homophobic, okay? Why? Why are they right in their world? What experience have they had? What filter do they have? What has shaped them? Why are they right, for them?
(Photo Credit: Christopher Duggan)
And suddenly, you start to see this is another human being who had valid experiences who is scared of something, who is terrified of something, who has had this experience, whatever that is, why is that? And while I vehemently disagree with you, I understand that you're a human being with valid experiences, and just the act of doing that, understanding that people have valid life experiences I think goes a long way, and that doesn't necessarily mean it's going to change anyone's mind. I don't think any of us can change anyone's mind. I think only they can do that themselves. If you can start to say to other people I see and I understand you then maybe six months from you, a year from now, five years from now, maybe they can look at you and say the same. I think those are the small seeds of change that leads to really big changes.
What is next for the show after the two dates, one in New York City, and the other in Rockville Center, New York, what is next? Is there plans to take the show on the road? Is there plans to go further? What you can tell me, what is next for the show? Great question. This is a long term plan and we're looking at September as sort of like the launch. Really what I want to do, the who this is for, it's for young people, it's for students, high school students, and university students, because I think they are the ones that are going to go out in the world and create change with their energy, and their passion, their youth, and so we are starting to talk to universities about building a university tour for next year, and it's in 2020, and we want to go to universities and not just do the show, but also do talk backs about all of these small actions we can take as well.
(Photo Credit: Christopher Duggan)
And even more so view some immersive workshops with the students where we put them in a scene from the show with our cast, or just with themselves, and then maybe the next year we give them the show, and they do their own version. It doesn't have to be our choreography. It doesn't even have to involve choreography, because it's all just about being a human being and having honest human interactions. We want to get this story out there to universities, to high schools, and we want to spread the word that, you know, what happens when we all expect the best from people? And what happens when we all learn what it's like to be in other people's shoes?
You could take this anywhere. I think anybody needs to see it, but I think starting with the youth, and the younger generation is what is really important, and is who needs to see this and can inspire the change for them. I also want to turn to and say that I enjoy that I think you want to get them involved with it, and kinda have them tell their own story in that as well. I think that is something that also is very unique as well. Did you see March For Our Lives? The big day that happened a few months ago, it blew my mind, and those kids are so inspiring and each one of those kids has their own story to tell, and that's true of all of us, and so I think what we learned about our show is that it's really about human connection, and everyone has their own story, and everyone's been hurt, and everyone's felt loved, and those are the stories that shape us, and so we all want to be connected to people, and in order to do that we need to understand where they're coming from. I think the [younger generations] are the ones to start that.
(Photo Credit: Christopher Duggan)
Yeah, and that's where the change comes from. Right. That's why we changed the title actually from Standard Time to When Change Comes, we were like, what is this show? What is it for? It is for creating the moment when we all learn to see each other because that is the moment When Change Comes. What advice do you have for aspiring performers and people who want to make a difference through their art form, and through their work in art or in performing? Good question. I think the biggest thing is just to get it out into the world, because so many people have big hopes in doing things, and putting on their own shows, or making a difference, and so many people don't do it, because they're so many obstacles, it is so hard, and everything will go wrong. We're experiencing that now. It's so hard, but just to stick with it and put it out in the world, because it is so important. Art is a mirror for society and we need it and so everyone just needs to stick to it and not give up, and get their stuff out in the world.
Tickets for September 7 and 8 at Madison Theater are $35-45, with student tickets priced at $10, and available by Madison Theater's Website. Tickets for September 13-16 at New York Live Arts Theater are $55, with student tickets priced at $10, and are available by visiting here. Valid student ID must be presented at will call for student tickets. The performance on Sunday, September 16 at 5pm is the Mark Stuart Dance Theatre 10th Anniversary gala. Tickets for this performance will be $150 each.
*Parts of this interview were edited to fit this feature*