Feature: Vanguard Theater Company Artistic Director Janeece Freeman Clark on Being a Black-Founded Organization, How it Came to Be, and More

Plus, learn about their upcoming event, the Broadway Buddy Mentorship Cabaret!

By: Aug. 08, 2020

Janeece Freeman Clark, Artistic Director at Vanguard Theater Company, wrote a piece exclusively for BroadwayWorld, about how the company came to be, being a Black-founded organization, and more.

Read the full piece below.

"Can you try the scene again, but this time with a bit more urban edge?"

"Can you sing that again, but this time add in a few riffs and runs?"

Coming up in the business as a young black actress of color, I often found myself being placed in boxes. One casting director after the next - one creative team member after another - even my representation played a part. The feedback I received from my agent was often: "they don't think you're "raw" enough" or "they think you are too 'polished'" which was code for...I wasn't black enough. What I found odd was that the material I was auditioning for seldom actually called for this kind of specificity (e.g. "Belle" in Beauty and the Beast. Really!?!). It was just expected of me because of the skin I was in. Ironically, however, there were also moments where, apparently, I was "too black." I'll never forget when the director on a TV set said, "Can you try it a little less angry...more like Oprah having a disagreement."

At the University of Michigan, I received great training, but being taught how to navigate the realities of the business as a woman of color was not a part of the curriculum. None of us are taught we are just expected to figure it out along the way.

Feature: Vanguard Theater Company Artistic Director Janeece Freeman Clark on Being a Black-Founded Organization, How it Came to Be, and More
Dwayne Clark and Janeece Freeman Clark

When I joined the Broadway cast of Urinetown (another audition where I was asked to "urbanize" the material. I believe the exact words were, "Can you try it again, but a bit more street this time?") I was immediately greeted by Dwayne, one of two black men in the cast. Excited to see a woman of color finally joining the production, he quickly headed in my direction, won me over with a charming smile, and with an extended hand said, "w'sup token!?!" We shared a laugh, later a coffee, and as time went by many a story about our experiences in the business. From always having to wear bright smiles to not intimidate others or be misconstrued as "angry' to our methods of navigating microaggressions by often choosing to ignore them simply to preserve our sanity. That said, there was one experience Dwayne shared with me that warmed my heart. Though Urinetown was Dwayne's 5th Broadway show, when he first started - with little formal training - he needed some help getting off the ground. Coming from a working class family in Newark, New Jersey and barely making ends meet as an adult, he couldn't afford a Broadway Dance Center dance card, and YouTube tutorials weren't yet a thing. One day he got bold. After being cut three times in a row from the dance call of a popular Broadway musical casting its national tour, Dwayne stood outside the Broadway stage door and waited patiently for a specific actor to emerge. When the stage door opened and Adrian Bailey finished signing a slew of autographs, Dwayne bravely approached him and asked for help learning the choreography for the show. To Dwayne's surprise, the artist took him to a nearby rehearsal studio and taught him the full audition combination. Fast forward one month - Dwayne booked the show. It would be his first national tour: Smokey Joe's Cafe.

Since then, Dwayne has appeared in over ten Broadway shows. Adrian not only helped him get his start, but also continued the mentoring process by helping him navigate the industry as a young African American man - a journey that would differ from the experiences of many others. Though Dwayne experienced many painful moments during his early journey involving a great deal of racism, his mentor was there to lend a hand, a shoulder, and offer words of encouragement.

Shortly after Urinetown and after being cast in three consecutive shows together, Dwayne and I married and began a family of our own. It was at this time that I started shifting my focus. The moment I began seeing the world through my children's eyes and the need to create a space where they would be able to see and experience the kind of theater that represented the various complexions of the world we live in became imperative. Change was slowly happening in the industry, but I looked at the occasional black actor being cast as "the first" as being more of an exception. I wanted to create a space where color conscious casting was normalized and I wanted to begin young. It's common knowledge that outlooks and conclusions about race begin early on in one's development.

Feature: Vanguard Theater Company Artistic Director Janeece Freeman Clark on Being a Black-Founded Organization, How it Came to Be, and More
Vanguard Theater Company Co-Founders
Janeece Freeman Clark and Daryl Stewart

Having the desire to change the narrative of theater as I knew it, I decided to begin in my own little corner. In 2015, alongside a fellow Artist Educator, Daryl Stewart, and founding Board President Kelly Waters, Vanguard Theater Company was born. From its inception, Vanguard has sought to nurture talent and change the narrative through theater dedicated to DREAM - Diversity, Reciprocity, Education, Activism & Mentorship. In addition to our mainstage shows, we offer a year-round schedule of on going classes, and educational programs that culminate in fully produced performances. In the last five years, we've seen first hand how theater has the power to connect people across cultures and social divides; to break down walls and stereotypes. We like to say that we are the change we wish to see in the world, through the rainbow of people you see onstage, behind the scenes, on our Board of Directors and staff, and in our audiences. After being a traveling theater for our first five years, we are putting the finishing touches on a space of our own -- a beautiful 4000 square foot theater and rehearsal facility in downtown Montclair. We can't wait to create theater and community there.

Inspired by my husband's unique mentorship experience, we created Vanguard's signature Broadway Buddy program to give life-changing mentorship opportunities to 30 students each year. For the last four years, Broadway Buddy has been an overwhelming success. Every year, the program begins in March and culminates in June with a one-night-only Mentorship Cabaret. Within that three month window, a diverse group of emerging artists hangs out backstage with their mentors and learns about the realities of life in the business as well as the importance of balance. Then, the young artists have the thrill of sharing the stage with their mentors - Broadway actors from Tony Award winning shows like Hamilton, The Color Purple, Beautiful, Ain't Too Proud, Frozen, and On Your Feet.

I really feel that without ongoing mentorship opportunities from working actors, the future for young artists (especially those with limited access to traditional training) may not be so fruitful. The added bonus is that through this program our young actors see the importance of giving back as their mentors demonstrate donating their time and talent to lifting up the next generation. We then see our young artists motivated to use their talents to give to others and to bring about change in the world we live in.

Feature: Vanguard Theater Company Artistic Director Janeece Freeman Clark on Being a Black-Founded Organization, How it Came to Be, and More
A few of Vanguard's Board of Directors

The COVID-19 crisis has made this year very different. There have been no in-person meetings, no rehearsals at Ripley Greier, and no hanging out backstage at Broadway shows. Sadly, Broadway went dark right after the Broadway Buddy 2020 program began. Nevertheless, "the show must go on" and our mentors and mentees persisted, meeting and rehearsing via Zoom and recording their duets in their respective locations. With the Black Lives Matter movement exploding during the COVID-19 crisis, and our youth also realizing how disproportionally COVID-19 is hitting people of color, it has been all the more important for our young artists to have their mentors to turn to and lean on during these turbulent times.

When Symphony Space closed its theater thus cancelling the live cabaret previously scheduled for June 8, we reached out to The Actors Fund and offered to present the cabaret as a benefit for the Fund's COVID-19 relief efforts. BroadwayHD quickly signed on to air the benefit on August 13, and luminaries such as Lin-Manuel Miranda, Betty Buckley, Seth Rudetsky, Loren Lott, Yvette Gonzalez-Nacer, and Michael James Leslie, offered to make special appearances, in addition to a star-studded line up of mentors from shows like Hamilton, Hadestown, Waitress, Tina, Ain't Too Proud, and more.

I am grateful, but not surprised, by the support VTC continues to receive from the Broadway community. They are a loving community who believe in the power of mentorship and the need to have each other's back. We all know that no one does this alone. We are all graced with people in our path who give us support, whether a word of advice or encouragement, a shoulder to lean on, or a connection to pursue. We hope these mentor relationships will last for years to come.