OKLAHOMA CITY: Among the winds sweeping down the plain and the wavin’ wheat in this Southern state is Oklahoma City Repertory Theatre. The roving company performs at the Freedle Little Theater at the Civic Center Music Hall, the Visual and Performing Arts Center Theater at Oklahoma City Community College, and various venues and spaces in the capital city. American Theatre caught up with founding artistic director Donald Jordan via email to learn more about the theatre’s programming and history.
Who founded Oklahoma City Repertory Theatre, when, and why?
The idea for Oklahoma City Repertory Theatre, or CityRep, was formed on January 1, 1998 at a New Year’s Day gathering of several old friends, including several theatre artists with Oklahoma ties who have since gone on to notable achievement in careers throughout the country. Most of us had known each other since attending college together, and dreamed that Oklahoma City might one day have a year-round Equity professional theatre. We reached out to other theatre friends in town and around the country and found support and enthusiasm. We quickly formed our founding company, which included Jonathan Beck Reed, Ruth Charnay, Elaine Pfleiderer, Marcellus Hankins, James Tyra, Michele Wilson, Jackie West, Michael Jones, Kirk Rogers, and Russ Webster.
Tell us about yourself and your connection to City Rep.
I have served as founding artistic director from the theatre’s inception (our first season was 2002-03) to the present, and we are nearing completion of our 15th season. In that capacity, I oversee all aspects of the theatre’s operations.
What sets your theatre apart from others in your region?
We were the first year-round Equity theatre in the history of the state of Oklahoma. We are proud to say we were the first Theatre Communications Group member theatre in Oklahoma City. We have been an Equity professional theatre since we opened our doors and strive to create a theatre in service to our art and our community, where the finest theatrical talent can share their gifts. We strive to create a theatre where Oklahoma artists who have gone on to a life in theatre can come home and share their talent and experiences with Oklahoma artists, patrons, and the young talent of tomorrow.
Our theatre has been nationally recognized by Actors’ Equity Association, and we received a National Theater Award from the American Theatre Wing in 2012. In addition we have received the Oklahoma Governor’s Arts Award, which is the highest honor for the arts in our state. We are also proud to be the first Blue Star Theatre in Oklahoma, as our state has the highest percentage per capita of veterans in the country.
Who is your audience?
We try to program eclectic seasons and always strive to create a series of diverse theatrical experiences. So our audiences run the gamut. We often try to focus our marketing on a show-by-show basis, reaching people in the community who might have a particular need for or interest in a given show.
Tell us about your favorite theatre institution other than your own, and why you admire it.
I do have a special place in my heart for Dallas Theater Center, where I was in the company for many years. Also Stage West Theatre in Fort Worth, Texas, which is a small and exciting creative home for theatre artists. Finally, I have to mention two of our sister theatres in Oklahoma—the Lyric Theatre of Oklahoma, our musical theatre house, and the Pollard Theatre “up the road a piece” in Guthrie, Okla. The vision and work of their artistic directors, Michael Baron and Jerome Stevenson, inspire me!
How do you pick the plays you put on your stage?
I have a goal of trying to see at least 100 plays a year, and I read others as well. I also try to spend an hour or so most mornings reading about what is going on theatrically around the country. I am rich in theatre friends around the country who often give me suggestions. I pay close attention to American Theatre magazine, seeing what plays are a part of our national theatrical discussion, and The New York Times (a longstanding love affair for me from my many years living in New York City) to see what is happening there.
What’s your annual budget, and how many artists do you employ each season?Our budget varies a bit from year to year, but is usually in the $500,000 range. We generally do five projects a season, which runs from July 1 to June 30. That can change according to availability and budgetary constraints. We are a very lean shop (isn’t every theatre?), and the limited support infrastructure for the arts in Oklahoma has been further hampered by the lower oil prices. That is good news for most people, but it is another hurdle to overcome for the arts in Oklahoma.
What show are you working on now? Anything else in your season that you’re especially looking forward to?
We just closed Mr. Burns, a post-electric play last week, which I found fascinating and creatively daring. In addition to our plays and musicals, we try to have unique and amazing theatrical talent in once or twice a year as possible. Audra McDonald will be coming in three weeks for a solo concert. We have also hosted Patti LuPone, Bernadette Peters, Mandy Patinkin, Susan Egan, and others over the years, most of them for the first time in our community.
Strangest or funniest thing you’ve ever seen (or put) on your stage?
I had my friend Charles Ross come join us and do his One Man Star Wars Trilogy, and it became a theatrical event. People came in costumes—many more than once—and brought friends who had never been to a live theatrical event before to watch Ross, alone on a bare stage, act out all the parts and make all the sounds of those three beloved movies. It was amazing, and audiences from age 6 to Yoda age loved it and laughed at the unique theatricality of this mild-mannered Canadian. The FARCE was with us.
The biggest hit in our theatre’s history is Greater Tuna, which featured cofounders Jonathan Beck Reed and myself. Of course, here in the Southwest, we think of that play as a documentary. Our audiences are especially fond of them, so every few years we do one of the Tuna plays as a special treat.
What are you doing when you’re not doing theatre?
I am married to the most wonderful woman in the world, my wife Laurel, and because I am traveling so often, I enjoy being at home for a quiet evening. I also try and visit my mom, who is 93 and battling Alzheimer’s. I love to read and I find great creative stimulation from visiting museums. When I am not making theatre, I still love to go to the theatre! It is a joy to me, and I believe if we love the theatre, we must support it. If we do not think it is worth our time and resources to go, why would we expect any patron to?
What does theatre—not just your theatre, but the American or world theatre—look like in, say, 20 years?
I believe we are a species that uniquely uses the power of storytelling to understand and shape our world. I think the theatre is fundamental to civilization and will always be a part of humanity. As more of our lives are virtual and electronic, the tribal experience of “sitting around the fire” and sharing a story with other human beings becomes an even more important aspect of community and shared human experience. The economic challenges are enormous and growing, and the situation is always fraught. But if we look back just 50 or 60 years, we see that we have created a new national network of professional theatre for our country, an amazing accomplishment. “We made a hat, where there never was a hat…”