Circling Back, Circling Forward
Years ago I expressed my sheepish reservations to a local professor-mentor about returning to New Haven from the “left coast” to live, instead of continuing to expand my borders. He wisely responded, “We circle back to the places that give us strength.” Thirty-three years later, I am still exploring and learning more about this community of strength.
I grew up in New York City—“in the Heights,” to be precise. The City, with all its cultural riches, was my third parent in a theatre- and film-making family. (Who takes their ten-year-old to see Hair? Jack and Pat Alexander did.) Yet I am utterly happy in New Haven, a microcosm of a cultural mecca with more art, music, and theatre than I can possibly ever take in.
In a school application long ago, I described an ambition to start an organization that would give communities the resources to create theatre among themselves. It took thirty years of detour before I felt the urge to connect with my roots. Around that same time, an invitation appeared in a Long Wharf Theatre program to apply to serve on the board; doing so has resulted in one of my most joyous life experiences.
We circle back to the places that give us strength.
For some years, Long Wharf Theatre’s vision was “to exemplify the power of theatre to strengthen communities.” However, it has been pointed out that our communities are already strong, and to imply otherwise is a misapprehension. Yet theatre is undeniably a place for collective experience, expression, and emotion—that sudden rush of shared awareness, the moment of recognition, or shock, or poignancy, or fun. And so, our new vision: “theatre for everyone,” while we circle back to the places that give us strength.
It seems to me that the 2020/21 emergent season has been under-recognized, not only for its everyone-ness but for its abundance and variety: the artistic staff produced a full season, with extraordinary dedication, energy, and creativity. Beginning with Hasan Minhaj’s Experiment Time and the Play on My Block production of Passing Strange in Fair Haven and Newhallville in August, we are now elated to circle back to live, in-person performances for the 2021/22 season.
Nonetheless, I hear some concern about how Long Wharf Theatre is evolving. One longtime Long Wharf Theatre-goer wrote to me recently:
“I fear … that there is a danger of creating an imbalance that in its way can lead to a type of exclusion. I really want to see Long Wharf regain its legs after COVID and thrive for the benefit and enjoyment of our whole community in all of its diversity.”
There is much to be gained by experiencing theatre both beyond the familiar (for those who are used to seeing themselves on stage most of the time) and within it (for those who have too long been marginalized). At Long Wharf Theatre we are diligently striving to keep our longtime, loyal audience members while opening the doors wide to those who have felt excluded—even alienated.
My own sense is that even when stories are told in the voices of people who are different from us, there is a common humanity that is deeply touching, as well as a different perspective that is informative and eye-opening.
In fact, a recent study published in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology found that watching live theatre productions increased empathy for the groups depicted in the plays (auto workers in Detroit post-2008; factory workers in an impoverished US town; a same-sex couple trying to adopt a child), changed attitudes about political issues addressed in the plays, and even—surprisingly—correlated with an increase in charitable giving, including to charities unrelated to the topics in the plays.
As I think back on productions I’ve seen in New Haven, ones that immediately stand out in memory are the wonderfully over-the-top Afro-futuristic Twelfth Night, Stuck Elevator, and On the Grounds of Belonging. None of them “white” or pointedly “hetero,” but simply powerful, moving theatre experiences that for me would fill a very satisfying and deeply entertaining season.
I also appreciate that Long Wharf Theatre is employing folks who have been marginalized, providing a supportive place for their voices. We have made great strides in building a theatre staff and board who better reflect the great diversity of our community. I am proud to serve with, and to serve, this extraordinarily capable board. In the coming months, now that we look different, we will explore how to work differently. I don’t know what that will look like—I’m just eager and ready to be part of the adventure.
We are circling forward to a place that gives us strength, joy, empathy, and growth.
 Steve Rathje, Leor Hackel, Jamil Zaki, Attending live theatre improves empathy, changes attitudes, and leads to pro-social behavior, Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, Volume 95, 2021, 104138, ISSN 0022-1031, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jesp.2021.104138, accessed August 28, 2021.
Nancy Alexander is an organizational development consultant and coach who chairs Long Wharf Theatre’s board of directors.