By J.Stephen Brantley
Directed by Ari Laura Kreith
555 Valley Road, West Orange
By GWEN OREL
Ari Laura Kreith finishes a rehearsal on a rainy day at Luna Stage. There’s a day off the next day; actors hug her as they leave.
Unusually for a debuting artistic director, she did not inherit a season from outgoing Artistic Director Cheryl Katz, but planned one. She is the third artistic director for Luna Stage, which was founded in 1992 in Montclair and moved to West Orange in 1995.
“Pirira,” by J. Stephen Brantley, bagan performances on Thursday, Oct. 4, and will run through Oct.28. Kreith has been working with the play, about water management in Malawi, for a while, and presented a reading of it at the Montclair Arts Alliance arts festival last November. Her company, the Jackson Heights, Queens-based Theatre 167, presented an earlier version of the play.
The 2018-2019 Luna Stage season includes three regional premieres and one world premiere, set in different locations around the world: “The Assignment” by Camilo Almonacid, set in New York City; “Roan @ the Gates” by Christina Gorman, the world premiere, set in D.C. and Russia; and “Heartland” by Gabriel Jason Dean, set in Nebraska and Afghanistan.
Without losing Luna’s current audience, Keith aims to bring in locals who may never have entered its doors. Even before she began her official tenure as artistic director at the end of last season, she created site-specific work at Luna: in March she helmed a 48-hour play festival in the community, “Walking the Valley,” created on location. The festival had people stumbling on the work, she said. One of the actors told her he’d grown up in the neighborhood, down the block and around the corner, and that he’d never considered coming in. So one of the songs was then called “Down the block and around the corner.”
“It’s really important to me that this space exists as a hub of conversation that is sparked by the art that we make,” Kreith says. “You do that by listening to your audience rather than just deciding what the conversations are that people are fed.”
LISTENING AND INTERACTING
Listening is one of the things that makes Kreith an exceptional director, said actor Rajesh Bose, who has worked with her for 10 years.
“She gets the best out of actors,” he said.
And she can find traits in people they may not know are there. Kreith has spoken to him about directing at Luna Stage at some point: Bose is not a director.
“She thought it would be good for me to do so,” he said. “She’s able to see truths about myself that I’m not able to see, and she’s able to do that with everybody.”
Kreith said she wants to create a real dialogue by fostering community engagement.
“My first day that I was on the job here I got a tour of the community,” she said. “I was driven down a street where somebody said to me, ‘This is the most dangerous street in Orange. And two people were shot here in the last two weeks and one of them was shot 26 times. And so we know that that was an assassination.’ So I feel like that was the moment where I said, ‘OK so there needs to be a play about gun violence in this season.’ Because I feel like how can you not.”
Looking at the intersection of cultures comes naturally to Kreith.
She spent her childhood in 27 countries, including Yugoslavia and Romania. Her father, born in Vienna, took appointments all over the world while based at the University of California-Davis. Her mother was a water research scientist.
She founded “Theatre 167” in 2008 after visiting Jackson Heights, an area with 167 spoken languages. She and her husband moved there three years later.
“I felt emotionally and culturally at home, it felt closest to my childhood of living all over the world, with cultures were all around me,” she said.
She brought in 12 playwrights to create “167 Tongues.” Over the course of a year, the playwrights explored the community and created a multilingual piece, with 29 actors playing 37 roles. “For many of the actors it felt like this was the first time they had kind of gotten to contribute to the creation of a role that spoke to their own to experience.” A company was born, and over the three years created two more pieces that became known as the “Jackson Heights Trilogy.” There is actually a fourth play in the trilogy too, created for a festival.
In the third play of the Jackson Heights Trilogy, “Jackson Heights at 3 A.M., “ Bose played a Bangladeshi taxi driver who had fallen in love with an Ecuadorian woman. “She was sort of gently but clearly focusing me not to push so hard. When it clicked there was a moment when I was ‘Oh, I’m not using the accent.’ She said ‘You’re being you. It’s beautiful.” She always saw how much was there, without having to push so hard. I had unknowingly stopped using the accent. One day in rehearsal it went away. That’s when it of course became much more real.”
DRAMA THAT CONFRONTS AND HEALS
For playwright Jenny Lyn Bader, who has worked on the trilogy, Kreith’s knack of finding the heart of a play is “amazingly intuitive.”
““She can envision things that haven’t happened yet,” Bader said. “She can look at a draft, and understand what a future draft might be like. It’s very unusual for a director. She’s sensitive about what the audience needs emotionally.”
For example, Jackson Heights is an underserved community, and “Ari had an extraordinary sense of what that meant,” she continued. “There was a free space at the school, which offered us an auditorium. She said she would rather do it in the cafeteria. She thought everyone would feel comfortable there, even people who’d never seen a play before.”
Realizing that not everyone understood the phrase “the house is open,” Kreith had ushers switch to “The play is about to start,” Bader said. The playwright too has found herself in a new role through Kreith’s insight: she became a producer of “Pirira” with Theatre 167, and producing someone else’s play is “a very weird thing for a playwright to do,” Bader said with a laugh. Kreith, she said, is “an inspiring leader.”
Kreith’s sensitivity to the journeys of others is also informed by her academic training. She moved to New York in 2001 to pursue a degree program at NYU in drama therapy, a discipline that uses acting and scripts to deal with trauma. “It can actually go very deep,” Kreith explained. And arguably, her directing work is drama therapy for spectators, where people can view issues that matter either about themselves or about worlds new to them.
“I’m not somebody who is drawn to art that hits you over the head,” she said.
A HOME IN MONTCLAIR
Kreith has been artistic director of a summer theater, as well as Theatre 167. But having a permanent home — Theatre 167 performs in different spaces — is new. Kreith likes that Luna Stage is in an area that has multiple communities intersecting with it, geographically, socially and culturally. She and her family moved to Montclair three years ago.
Like so many working moms, she juggles family and caree. While doing this interview, she used an app on her phone to watch her son answer the door. She has two children, Elodie, 12, and Dashiell, 9, as well as a husband and a puppy. The puppy was sick, and she took a call about that.
She ate a Kind bar, because she hadn’t had a proper lunch. A typical day: rehearse “Pirira,” work on auditions for the next two plays in the season, think about “Pirira” talkbacks. The day before this interview, she’d discovered through a Google alert to the word “Pirira” that the Gay Activists Alliance of Morris County was planning a field trip to see the play, not even knowing that the piece had LGBTQ aspects. So she’s considering building a talkback on LGBTQ rights in Africa for that day.
“It’s all about building bridges,” she said.
Ultimately, Kreith wants to use a black box space at Luna as a second stage, for short runs and readings, as well as rentals to other companies. The space has been renamed Luna Two.
She wants to focus the conservatory of classes that Luna offers so that there is a way for actors and playwrights to cross the bridge from class to working at Luna.
And she wants to keep the conversations going.
It’s important “that the work doesn’t just stop when people walk out the door,” she said, “and people don’t say, ‘That was a lovely play, I’m going to go back to my life.’ We give them the tools to actually make a change in their life or in their world in response to what they’ve just seen.” For Kreith, Luna Stage is a community that cultivates community.
“It’s also about just kind of being out in the world and not just saying, ‘OK so this is our community,’” she said. Instead, she wants Luna to say, “So this is the story that our community needs to hear right now. “