Crowded Fire Leads With Art and Innovation

Crowded Fire
Michael Wayne Turner III, Nkechi Emeruwa, and Nican Robinson in Young Jean Lee's The Shipment at Crowded Fire. Photo: Adam Tolbert.

San Francisco’s Crowded Fire Theater is led by the artistic triumvirate of Mina Morita, artistic director; Tiffany Cothran, managing director; and Stephanie Alyson Henderson, production manager. The trio brings a deliberate intentionality to the company’s day-to-day operations and participation in its Potrero Hill neighborhood. “It isn’t just aesthetic,” Morita says. “We’re creating community, love for the work and effecting change.”

Crowded Fire inhabits a unique “political space in the Bay Area theater world,” according to resident company member and multidisciplinary artist Lisa-Marie Rollins. Rollins and Morita co-direct the company’s current production of The Shipment, Young Jean Lee’s comedic dissection of African American stereotypes and tropes permeating our culture. Cothran calls The Shipment “a quintessential Crowded Fire piece. It’s experimenting with form, pushing boundaries and provoking.”

Crowded Fire introduced Lee’s work to the Bay Area with its 2011 production of Songs of the Dragons Flying to Heaven, directed by its former artistic director, Marissa Wolf. It remains the only local company, one of few outside of NYC, to produce Lee’s plays. Cothran and Morita attribute Lee’s trust to the company’s history of supporting of non-traditional narratives and voices. “Our reach is wide,” explains Henderson. “We champion new, diverse voices — in our artists and work we produce. People know us across the country for the gorgeous, necessary work we do.” Company member Lawrence Radecker affirms, “We put plays on the stage that normally won’t get produced in the Bay Area. We take risks.”

For The Marbury Project, I asked the Crowded Fire artists questions about the show, their art and being in theater leadership.

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What are some characteristics of a female-led organization?

Tiffany Cothran: It’s less ego-based, more collaborative. There is more attention to care. That’s not necessarily specific to gender, but I do think there’s something unique in the fact that the three of us [are] women.

It’s rewarding hearing “we feel welcome”…

Mina Morita: We talked about this at [American Conservatory Theater’s] Women’s Leadership Conference. If you’re doing this relational leading, the decision process takes longer because you are bringing the entire team with you. It takes more time on the front end, but the effectiveness of that decision is felt profoundly. Everybody is clear how the decision was made, how they’re going to participate in the decision and they support it.

Stephanie Alyson Henderson: We are on the same page, and work together to keep our departments aligned. The three of us have knowledge and input about every facet of the company. We brainstorm, problem-solve and talk things through. Our team is strong because we always support each other and make room for each other’s ideas.

Why the emphasis on leading with art and bold artistic innovation?

MM: Art is a catalyst for conversation around larger issues. In a sphere where people of color are fighting for space at all, and women are fighting for gender parity, their work is looked at with a different critical lens. If the quality isn’t strong, it affects funding for the next group because they’ll be judged based on how your work went.

Keiko Carreiro shares her costume designs for The Shipment. Photo by: Adam Tolbert.
Keiko Carreiro shares her costume designs for The Shipment. Photo by: Adam Tolbert.

All the designers involved with The Shipment are female. What drives those decisions? How do you support local designers?

TC: It’s not uncommon for Crowded Fire’s creative team to be predominantly female. We’ve always produced a majority of female playwrights. Once you’re leading with that, the makeup of your team shifts. If we had more female playwrights, would we see more behind-the-scenes women? Until the white male is not the default, you have to push for it.

SAH: Crowded Fire has always taken risks on young artists like me. We feel strongly that we have to keep moving that forward. It is hard to build a theater career in the Bay Area now, whether you’re an emerging or accomplished designer. We launched the Ignite grant to support local designers and technicians so they can continue to develop. This year’s grantees are Beth Hersh, Devon LaBelle and Mikiko Uesugi.

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You mentioned the company has a culture of welcome and inclusion. What does that look like on The Shipment?

MM: The first rehearsal of any play is like a big party. There’s a table full of food. Resident company members welcome actors and crew with hugs. Carla Pantoja, our fight choreographer, came in with her baby. She’s telling someone how to make a punch and the actors are smiling at her baby. It’s rewarding to hear people say they feel welcome because often they have not felt as at home or as free to be themselves — ever.

Any moments that unseated your expectations?

MM: We were working on the living room component of this piece and an actor said, “Oh, I’ve never been in a living room play.” It was an offhand comment, but every single person lost their breath because they realized they had never been in a living room play. If they had, there was the realization of how that option isn’t normally there and what that means.

Mina Morita (L) and Lisa Marie Rollins (C) co-direct The Shipment. Photo by: Adam Tolbert.
Mina Morita (L) and Lisa Marie Rollins (C) co-direct The Shipment. Photo by: Adam Tolbert.

How does The Shipment align with your artistic goals?

MM: Les Waters introduced this piece to me in 2009. I fell in love with it. It speaks to what is important in the world, what is important for us to face and provokes in the most artistically innovative way.

Lisa-Marie Rollins: My work is about what is happening to the black body and the way the black body is implicated by cultural narratives on our stages, on our screens. Changing that narrative is something that has been part of my work.

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What do you hope the audience takes away?

LMR: People less comfortable talking about the violence that racialization has on bodies of color will have an opportunity to dive in ways they might not have had before, ways that might be scary and challenging. For people who have been having these conversations, this is going to be a way to think about cracking open long-held tropes and stereotypes. I’m hopeful they will appreciate the interrogation of those images.