Exclusive Interview: Serenbe Playhouse's Brian Clowdus Announces 2019 Season, 'America'
Atlanta's Serenbe Playhouse, best-known for its immersive, outdoor setting (you know, the theatre that casually staged TITANIC on a real body of water this summer) has just announced its 2019 season lineup. "Season X: America" will include: SHENANDOAH, RAGTIME, HAIR, and POCAHONTAS.
Walking through the history of our country, it tackles experiences of Native Americans, the Civil War, Ellis Island immigrants, and the Woodstock music festival. Artistic Director Brian Clowdus sat down with BroadwayWorld to share his vision behind the diverse yet connected pieces, each uniquely demonstrating redemption, humanity, and hope.
"We're calling it 'Season X: America,'" reveals the artistic director. "We are basically chronicling the history of our country through theatre and showing how current some things still are, but also more importantly to show the hope of how far we've actually come."
Part of his vision for Serenbe Playhouse is always to collaborate with community organizations, and this season sees Serenbe doing just that in a big way.
"We're gonna open with the musical SHENANDOAH," shares Clowdus, adding that this show has a special place in his heart because it was the first show he had a major role in as a child back in his community theatre days. "It is set in the Civil War era, so we are going to be partnering with Civil War re-enactors so that the audience will actually drive into a physical Civil War battle that is going on, and the musical will erupt out of that reenactment."
Next up, Serenbe's family series presents a new world premiere adaptation of POCAHONTAS in which Clowdus and co. will partner with a fully Native American creative team. "We're having a Native American playwright and director reclaim the story of Pocahontas and tell the actual story based on history and folklore as opposed to the whitewashed, 'Man comes in and saves princess' story that we've known."
Continuing the season will be the Tony Award-winning RAGTIME, "which is of course telling of the history of immigration which is clearly still a hot-button topic."
In celebration of both the 10th anniversary of the theatre and the 50th anniversary of Woodstock, Serenbe will create a fully-immersive experience with HAIR.
"We are creating Woodstock in Serenbe with a full-on music festival," Clowdus says. "You can stay in tents overnight and hang out. We did it in our fourth season which was six years ago, and for our tenth anniversary, and with it lining up with Woodstock's 50th anniversary, it really makes sense to bring it back in a bigger and more spectacular way than you've ever seen. So that's our tenth anniversary season, right there!"
While some of these shows have sentimental value to Clowdus, he shares that choosing them required that the Serenbe team commit to a theme and use the resources around them. Their vision at its essence is about diving into hard topics to facilitate a dialogue between people who don't normally talk- beginning personally with Clowdus himself.
"With Civil War reenactors, there's this whole culture of them, so for each show I do, I'm meeting new people I never thought I would hang out with," Clowdus admits. "For MISS SAIGON [in 2017], I was hanging out with all these Vietnam vets who fly helicopters, and now I'm starting to get to know Civil War reenactors."
"And of course, there's a lot of stigma attached to all of these shows and all of these topics," Clowdus points out. "But for me, I'm just diving straight, head first into it. I think it's really important to do that with all this stuff."
Clowdus sees acknowledging our wholistic history- even the dicey parts- as the starting point on a path to positive change. For him, that looks like producing theatre that "goes there."
"Normally people are like, 'Oh my God, I'm so afraid to talk about Rebel soldiers or the Confederacy!'" Clowdus says. "But guess what? That existed. And guess what? That war happened. And by not talking about it, it somehow makes it less significant, but tons of people lost their lives on both sides. And guess what? Most of the men didn't even know what the hell they were fighting for." Ultimately, the Serenbe approach to these "hot button topics" looks like humanizing characters on all sides of the story.
"So for my money, I think, 'How do we make everyone feel like real humans as opposed to the victims and the villains?'" shares Clowdus. "A lot of times, those were 18-year-old boys who were just thrown into a war not knowing what the hell they were doing and dying left and right. So in all of these stories, I want to have 'good guys' and 'bad guys,' but I think it's important to show all of them as humans."
Clowdus sees his job as starting with creating theatre and in the process creating a place in this polarized society in which people can come together and see what they have in common.
"My goal is to have the most conservative people in my audience and the most liberal people in my audience, because guess what? That's how we spark conversation. That's how we stop wars. That's how we figure out what we have in common versus what we don't have in common, because guess what? It is time for us to stop dividing, and it is time for us to start treating everyone like damn humans. You know what I mean?
"I don't care what you believe. I don't care if we don't agree on anything, but we need to treat each other like human beings, because somehow that's getting lost. I just think it's time for us to look at the past, and not only how things are still so current but also look at how things are not as bad as they have been in the past, and I think it's time for people to start acknowledging that there are good things left in this world. We need to try to focus on the positive and learn from this history as opposed to everything being so damn negative on Facebook, you know what I mean?"
Clowdus says his biggest priority in all of this is to serve his audiences. "My goal is for these stories to remain in their hearts and their heads and their skulls. Great theatre for me is theatre that I think about weeks after. I'm just driving down the road, and these images just punch me in the gut, and it gets me thinking. That is true art. We want our audience feeling, experiencing, and thinking. And if we do that, our job is complete."
Season X: America
SHENANDOAH (March 13-April 7, 2019): The musical story of one family's struggle during the American Civil War will come alive in a site-specific, immersive new production. Their personal story of heartbreak and ultimately hope amidst tragedy will be staged alongside an actual Civil War reenactment to bring this personal story to life like never before.
RAGTIME (May 8- June 9, 2019): The Tony Award-winning musical based on E.L. Doctorow's acclaimed novel of the same name, is a picture of this nation's hopes and pains as we entered the Twentieth Century. Telling the diverse stories of African Americans, immigrants, and the elite upper-class, with a mix of real-life historical figures, it paints a canvas of a country on the verge of a new era.
HAIR: THE AMERICAN TRIBAL LOVE-ROCK MUSICAL (July 3- August 18, 2019): For our Tenth Anniversary Season, we will revive the Tony-winning rock musical in a brand new, larger than life production. During Season Four, Hair was a game-changing show for Serenbe Playhouse, and there is no better time to revive it than in 2019 with the 50th Anniversary of Woodstock!
POCAHONTAS (June 13 - August 4, 2019): This world premiere adaptation of Pocahontas will be brought to life in a new version by Native American playwright, Kara Morrison. Want to experience the story like never before? Come along as we journey through the forest where we'll find Pocahontas, as she awaits to share the tale of her beautiful, beloved homeland. Join us for an authentic take on the story of America's original heroine.
Season Tickets for Season X will be on sale Monday, November 26, 2019, available at www.serenbeplayhouse.com or by calling the Serenbe Playhouse box office at (770) 463-1110. Single tickets will be on sale at a later date to be announced.