Jeff Storer: Director, Educator and co-founder and Artistic Director of Manbites Dog Theater
Creatives in Conversation: I believe that we can learn so much from each other and I am fascinated by the ways in which artists of all mediums move through the creative process. Each month I feature a different local artist as we discuss the challenges and joys that come from accessing and living with their creativity.
Jeff Storer is co-founder and Artistic Director of Manbites Dog Theater, a professional company founded in 1986 dedicated to world and regional premieres of contemporary work. He is co-author of Indecent Materials, which opened the 1990 season at Joseph Papp’s New York Shakespeare Festival, and has co-authored Tune for Tommy, Hotline, and an adaptation of Allan Gurganus’ Plays Well With Others. He has directed over 150 full length works since 1975 in New York City, Portland, Oregon, Boston, Winter Park, Florida and Dallas. He is currently a full professor of the practice in the Department of Theater Studies at Duke University, where he has taught since 1982.
You’ve been an actor, a director and you’re also the co-founder and Artistic Director of Manbites Dog Theater. Tell me about how you moved from one role to the next. I assume you began with acting?
I started directing in middle school because in my mind that was a way to get to acting. During my undergraduate degree I started to direct a little bit more. Then I went to graduate school at The Dallas Theatre Center and I was on a double track of both acting and directing. And it just seemed to evolve that directing was the thing that I was strongest at.
I think it takes a really special person to be a happy actor and I didn’t totally have that skillset. As an actor you’re out of control of so many things. And I could never really lose that need to be seeking the answers and making the decisions about things. So directing suited me a lot better and also was a better companion for teaching, and I always wanted to teach.
What was the first spark that became Manbites Dog Theater?
Manbites [Dog Theater] came out of two things. There was a moment in time when my contract was not renewed at Duke [University]. And I had to make the decision of whether to stay in Durham or to use it as an opportunity to move somewhere else. I liked Durham but all of a sudden I didn’t have a creative outlet. I was freelancing around the US, based out of Durham. But I didn’t have anything here to keep me here. It’s sort of wrapped up with sexual identity politics as well. I’d met Ed [Hunt; Storer’s husband and also co-founder of Manbites Dog Theater] two years earlier, he had brought me out. In 1986 there was nothing really happening artistically concerning HIV and AIDS in the Durham area. Ed and I got to see a preview of Larry Kramer’s play The Normal Heart in NYC. And it just blew us away.
I’d always been aware of the power of theater, but now – having recently discovered that I was gay, having recently discovered that so many gay friends and gay family were dying … My brother died of HIV. We lost many, many friends during that period. And to see this piece of theater that was so radical and inspiring and moving … Ed and I walked from the Public Theater and we just walked for the longest time that night, talking about why a piece of theater like that wasn’t represented in the art in Durham. We wanted to bring The Normal Heart to Durham.
We also started to ask the question: what other kinds of theater aren’t being done [in Durham]? And on top of The Normal Heart, which I would consider political/social justice oriented theater, [we were interested in representing] theater that experimented with form.
Our very first show at Manbites Dog was called Seventy Scenes of Halloween. Seventy scenes that the actors and the directors could put together however they wanted in order to tell whatever story they wanted. [We also wanted to feature] theater that – for lack of a better way of describing it – was kind of a theater of wonder, or magical theater. Something starts off realistic, but then begins to veer off into another thing.
So we said, what if we picked one play from each of these categories and formed the first season around that? We had no anticipation that it would last longer than one season. We ended that season with The Normal Heart.
And at that point, in 1987, believe it or not, downtown Durham was a wasteland. We found an old shoe store that had been abandoned for years near Five Points and we got the guy who owned their building to let us use the building for five-hundred dollars a month. We were young then, and we used a lot of our own sweat labor and we cleaned up the building. It was an example of a hole in the wall in an area of town where nobody was prone to go.
But at that end of the season there was an interest in the kind of work we were doing. And we proved that downtown was not as un-viable as it seemed in that moment. We could bring people downtown.
Of course the rent went up and we got kicked out! So we were out of space and faced with the decision of whether we were going into a second year or not. And we did something that proved very helpful for us; we gave ourselves permission to know when it was time to close things down. We knew we didn’t want this project to interfere with our interpersonal relationships. We couldn’t put our own money into it. We paid all theater personnel from the very beginning because it was important to us to make a statement about artists being paid for the work that they did. Sometimes it was just a twenty-five dollar stipend for the whole rehearsal and run of the show.
And thirty-one years later we reached that point where Ed, who runs the theater as Executive Director every single day, said, “you know, I think it’s time to not be under this kind of immense pressure.”
I was just thinking about when I acted in Sonnets for an Old Century. I got paid and it was the first time I’d ever been paid for doing something artistic. It just blew my mind! And I remember I bought myself a pair of jeans and a pair of shoes. The jeans don’t even fit anymore and the shoes are all scuffed up, but I still have both because they symbolize getting paid for my art.
That’s a great story. Paying artists as best we could and keeping the institution alive was important to us. And keeping tickets accessible! Those [things] are contradictory. If your ticket price truly reflects what it costs to pay the artists what they should be paid nobody is going to buy the expensive ticket. It’s a balancing act. We wanted the work to be seen and we were doing non-commercial work. The work we did in our thirty-one years was all area- or world-premieres. But we weren’t doing things we could charge a big-ticket price for. We were doing stuff people had never heard of in strange spaces all over town.
Transitioning into a broader subject; what does living a creative life mean to you?
It means being able to access dialogue with myself and the society that I’m a part of. I’ve forgotten exactly who told me this, but some wise professor told me that theater is beholden to the society it serves. That’s an important connection. When you’re doing live theater it becomes a dialogue. So all of a sudden you’re doing a play about HIV and AIDS and you hope that it’s the catalyst for a conversation.
Artists are constantly being asked to make choices that somehow articulate who they are, what they value, how they feel, what makes them angry, what brings them joy.
Being a storyteller is fundamental to all of us. Robert Edmond Jones, a famous scenic designer from the 1940’s, wrote a book called The Dramatic Imaginationand he begins the book by imagining what it was like at the campfire for the first cave people. One of them comes back and has killed a beast they’re going to eat for dinner. And that person begins to explain around the campfire how they saw the beast and killed the beast. And Jones imagines that that’s the beginning of theater. This need to tell someone something about their experience with life. Every viewpoint is totally unique. Society tends to want to put us in boxes and I don’t think we belong there. We all have ways in which we view this life. So therefore it makes perfect sense that we’d want to tell stories to one another about that perspective. So being able to follow that impulse is what leads to theater.
How do you think we could get this country and the world to value art and creativity more highly?
It’s got to be viewed as what it is – which is fundamental to who we are as human beings. We want to be able to recognize beauty. We want to be able to recognize joy. We want to be able to recognize heartbreak. We want to be able to recognize sorrow, longing. We all have some sort of creative spark in us that makes us want to tell those stories.
On a larger level it seems to me that valuing creativity means engaging in creativity both as a spectator and a participant. It means putting a worth to it, which oftentimes is monetary, sometimes it’s bartering. But it is worth something. And [putting worth to art] leads to our government – which is for the people, by the people – changing their attitudes toward how arts are valued and potentially supported. We paid top mortgage and rent for [The Manbites Dog] building the entire time we owned it. Some [countries or cities] say here’s an abandoned building, it would make a great theater, pay us a dollar in rent per month. In the same ways that we support our political parties and our churches we should be supporting the art that we value. We need to put our money where our hearts are. Not enough people take that responsibility.
What’s something about the creative life that you were sure of as a young person that you feel differently about now?
I think that our society values and gives a high profile to a group of people who are considered to be “winners,” whether it’s winning the Academy Award or a Tony. And I think that as a child I thought that winning meant Broadway, it meant movies. And it does, to some people.
But it’s more important to define what’s important to you and establish your value system based upon those [values.] As I got older I began to value different things. [Konstantin] Stanislavski has a great quote about loving the art in yourself as opposed to loving yourself in the art. So rather than doing [art] because it brings you glory and fame, you’re doing it as a means to an end that reflects and articulates who you are as a person.
What advice would you give someone who thinks they aren’t creative?
I would first of all say that’s not true. Everybody has within them a well of creativity or else they would not be able to move their lives forward. Being creative isn’t always making a piece of art. Sometimes it’s getting up in the morning. Sometimes it’s sitting by someone’s bedside who is ill and you want to make them feel better. Creativity at its very core is a reflection of the human condition.
This interview has been edited and condensed.