In Tina Howe Premiere, Theatre 167 Confronts Climate Change

Theatre 167
Singing Beach playwright Tina Howe.

Theatre 167 is currently presenting the world premiere production of Tina Howe‘s play Singing Beach at HERE Arts Center in Lower Manhattan, Running through Aug. 12, the play follows a family on the North Shore of Massachusetts as they deal with, among other things, an aging parent and climate change.

A new play by Howe, of course, is an event. During the last five decades, the Tony-nominated Howe has written outstanding plays that have been produced worldwide, including Painting Churches, Museum, Coastal Disturbances and Pride’s Crossing.

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Theatre 167 — which is named for its productions about the borough of Queens, where 167 languages are spoken — typically offers a global perspective. For example, Antu Yacob’s Mourning Sun, set in Ethiopia, was performed by the company in NYC and then toured to the Kampala International Theatre Festival in Uganda. Pirara, by J. Stephen Brantley, connected characters between Malawi and NYC. The company’s Jackson Heights Trilogy brought together dozens of playwrights and actors, who interviewed Queens immigrants and created a complex portrait of the community. They have received multiple New York Innovative Theatre Awards, including the Caffe Cino Fellowship.

I recently caught up with Ari Laura Kreith, artistic director of Theatre 167, to talk about the company’s current projects.

Ed Malin: What was the development process for Singing Beach?

Ari Laura Kreith: Tina and I found one another in a magical way! Two years ago, Tina saw my daughter Elodie perform in Theatre 167’s The Church of Why Not. She approached me afterward and asked “Who is that child?” As we spoke further, we discovered we are both passionate about environmental awareness, and our relationship began — as the best artistic relationships do — through shared loves and shared convictions.

The play is fierce and fearless.

EM: How wonderful is it to work with Tina Howe, who is known for tackling complex family situations in her plays?

ALK: She is one of the most generous, giving artists I have ever known. She is profoundly rigorous in the work, yet open and curious and trusting of the process. Sometimes actors (and directors!) get scared when a playwright comes into the room, but it’s never that way with Tina. We all feel deeply dedicated to honoring her vision — and there’s very much a sense that we’re all in this together, trying to navigate this terrifying, beautiful journey between worlds.

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EM: There was a roundtable reading of Singing Beach on last October before the presidential election. The play speaks to global warming and other issues, which one might hope America would be dealing with differently. Have the author and ensemble made any revisions in light of the new administration?

ALK: Much as I loathe the new administration’s policies on global warming, the situation we now find ourselves in cannot be blamed on them alone. We are in the midst of a crisis that has been decades in the making. The play is fierce and fearless: it pulled no punches before the election, and that hasn’t changed. If anything, the current administration is making people more willing to engage in this conversation. Our commitment to catalyzing awareness and change is the same, though our experience may be more desperate.

At Theatre 167, we are dedicated to giving voice to those whose stories often go unheard. In this piece, those voices include the elderly and the environment itself. It is my fervent belief that the most radical and important action we can take as theatre artists is to explore the deepest truths; tell the stories that scare us. We invite our audiences to journey with us into their fears and hopefully emerge changed somehow. And that’s true no matter who is in power. Though I will say that at times it feels a bit more dangerous now.

Theatre 167
A scene from Singing Beach: Jackson Demott Hill (seated), Naren Weiss, Elodie Lucinda Morss, John P. Keller, Assistant Director Katie Chelena (background). Photo: Jenny Lyn Bader.

Just last week, we were renewing our liability insurance, and one question that came up as I talked about the play was whether we thought we’d be picketed! And my first response was that it was absurd — this is a play about climate change and aging! — then I realized that in light of the current polarization in our country, there’s no knowing what people will do.

EM: The film Manchester by the Sea put the North Shore of Massachusetts back on the map. What can we learn about ourselves from focusing on this part of the country?

ALK: One thing people may notice is that, on the surface, this play doesn’t look quite as culturally diverse as a Theatre 167 play usually does. We did a reading, exploring the idea that this family could be multicultural, and discovered that this piece is in part about who we blame for our current climate crisis: the ways in which white people have fortressed themselves and focused on their own personal needs while disregarding the needs of the planet.

Tina is known to many as a writer who explores the white glove experience, but her scope and vision is, in fact, greater than that. This play invites us into that WASP-y world, and is a terrifying indictment of its failures while simultaneously leading us out of Manchester by the Sea and into a global community.

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EM: Back in the spring, I saw an excerpt from Theatre 167’s touring production of Watched, adapted from the novel by Marina Budhos, which explores surveillance of Muslim American communities. And you’re working with some of the same actors in Singing Beach.

The way we work with scripts at Theatre 167 is very organic.

ALK: I’ve worked with four of the seven actors in Singing Beach before. Devin Haqq and I first worked together in 2003, and John Keller and I have collaborated on more projects than I can count! And, of course, I’m directing my daughter, Elodie — we first worked together when she was four. Naren Weiss is also in Watched and Singing Beach. The two worlds feel both equally urgent and very different.

I love having artistic relationships that span multiple projects. There’s a sense of trust, a common vocabulary, a feeling we’re all there for the same reasons. Also, the way we work with scripts at Theatre 167 is very organic, and that willingness to be fluid and adventurous with structure and text translates from one project to the next.

The flip side of that is that I also love bringing new people into the company! There are people who just click with what we do, and after a few weeks it’s like they’ve been part of the “family” forever.

EM: Theatre 167 is taken Watched to Montclair, NJ, Nassau Community College, and, in New York, Saratoga Springs and Buffalo. Are there plans for a full NYC production?

ALK: We’re very much hoping that will happen! We’ve learned so much about the piece through sharing excerpts and dialoguing with various communities, and, each time, our adaptation of the book becomes a bit more theatrical, a bit closer to a play.

We’ve been offered a residency to explore more deeply what that might look like — taking what has essentially been a reading and educational event and moving it more fully into the realm of traditional performance. But it’s also amazing to use these scenes as they’re adapted now as jumping-off points for conversations and workshops — in Buffalo we worked with young people at an international social justice conference.