Godfrey L. Simmons Jr. has built a career making room for others. In 2012 he co-founded the community-minded Civic Ensemble in Ithaca, N.Y., and he will next take the reins as artistic director of a theatre with a similar community profile, HartBeat Ensemble in Hartford, Conn., which has an affiliation with the University of Connecticut. We spoke to him recently about his work and his plans for the theatre, at which he’ll start on Dec. 1.
ROB WEINERT-KENDT: Congrats on the new job.
GODFREY L. SIMMONS JR.: Thanks.
First, tell me what’s next for Civic Ensemble?
The idea is that it will keep going. Civic co-founder Sarah K. Chalmers is managing the transition. Sage Clemenco and Julia Taylor, a couple of brilliant applied theatre practitioners, have been working with us for the last year, now. So there’s a good possibility that they’ll be carrying on the work of Civic Ensemble.
Tell me about your impressions of Hartford.
Almost 20 years ago now I did The Old Settler at TheaterWorks in Hartford. I spent a good six to eight weeks up there. It was interesting; it was definitely a city in a kind of a weird transition. It used to be a very wealthy city at the end of the 19th century—and now it’s one of the poorest. But, man, Hartford is culture rich! There is so much deep and profound work being done by cultural practitioners all over Hartford.
Does HartBeat have an ensemble, as its name suggests?
Yes, six members who have been basically running the company the last few years with our fearless managing director, Rhoda Cerritelli. One of the founders died in 2012, but the ensemble did a really great job of rallying and maintaining what they’d been doing, which included new political plays, Neighborhood Investigative Plays, and training teenagers to become civically engaged theatre practitioners through our Youth Play Institute.
How would you characterize HartBeat’s mission or vision, and what will you bring to it?
HartBeat is artist-led and artist-driven, and the mission is to build community partnerships and integrate the arts into the Hartford community. HartBeat doesn’t separate art-making from the community, like the community’s over there and the theatre’s over here and you just have to come to us, right? It’s much more of a cycle of give and take. HartBeat will go into a community and make theatre, or gather information about that community and then bring it back to HartBeat Ensemble to create a piece of theatre that represents the community that they’re working with. Two things I can bring to that are: One, their company-created works usually take about a year, a year-and-a-half to make. Part of my goal is to help make things that don’t take a year-and-a-half to make—just streamline the model a little bit so that there is more production to share with our constituents. And two: Establish HartBeat Ensemble and its Carriage House Theater as a national center for the development and production of new political plays. The theatre facility is a lovely space associated with the super politically engaged Immanuel Congregational Church, and we feel like our theatre should be a true center for civic discourse.
Tell me a bit about uprooting your life from Ithaca, where you started a family, is that right?
Right, Sarah Chalmers, who is also my partner, and my 8-year-old son, Samuel. It’s tough. We started this company, and our plays at the beginning were always meaningful; they weren’t just plays, they were really investigating what was happening in the community, and we built the company from there. Which means there are deep partnerships, deep roots here. That’s tough to leave. We’ve been here for nine years and invested a lot in both the theatre company and in Ithaca. Part of the challenge for me in terms of thinking about the decision is that, you know, when you’re making theatre, you’re making theatre for your community. Ithaca is a largely white town, outside of Cornell University and Ithaca College. Cornell actually is super-diverse, but in the summer the students leave. Some people stay behind, but when you really look at Ithaca, it is a largely white town, which is sometimes surprising, given its progressive bent. I’m not trying to say if it’s a progressive place that it’s automatically diverse. But when you’re in a place that talks about equity and inclusion and often practices it, is at the forefront of a lot of conversations on gender and on climate change, there’s a cognitive dissonance when you’re like, wow, there’s a lot of white people here. I began to think, okay, who am I making this work for? Hartford is roughly 80 percent Black and brown folks. So there’s a sense that there might be a deeper need in Hartford for what I can bring to the table, and what Sarah can bring to the table as a master applied theater practitioner.
You’re both an artist and administrator. Can you tell me about balancing those two?
It is a challenge because what you’re doing is you’re continually holding space for everyone else to be able to do their jobs and fulfill potential, self-actualize. That includes your audience. Certainly I think that’s the big project, in terms of what an actor wants to do, as someone who tells stories for a living in real time within a community. And if we go back historically to the griots, the people who tell the stories in our communities—I’ve always felt the calling to do that. To really try to facilitate those stories in our communities.
Part of what makes it easier—and by easier I mean joyful, actually—is when I can help facilitate an audience or constituents made up of Black and brown folks who actually see themselves onstage. Or when I can really help facilitate the conversations between people who are bankers who never lived around anybody that didn’t look like them, and recovering addicts, and that 16-year-old who’s trying to figure out their gender fluidity—when those people can be in the room together having a conversation about the big questions, that’s where the joy comes in.