by Jim Martin
Last night, I sat through opening night of the play I wrote—TEACHER TRUTHS. It was a great experience, and I am more than pleased with the work the director, stage manager technical director, and cast have been able to accomplish. In writing this play—mostly a series of monologues—my effort was to illuminate educator voices in a time when teachers don’t feel heard. Psychological safety, which is someone’s ability to bring their whole selves to work, is low. None of the stories I attempt to tell (all fictional by the way but informed by my 23 year history in education) are meant to be taken as fact. They are all based on a variety of experiences that I have had, or colleagues have had, or that I have heard about in the news. I call it an amalgamation of truths. There is no hero in these stories. There is no easily identified bad guy. In the world that we live in today, we like to easily differentiate between the heroes and the villains. For example, the principal character in my play might come across as a villain of sorts, sharing information that ends up making the teacher feel insecure about her abilities. However, everything this principal says is probably something I have said in my own administrative career and I definitely don’t see myself as a bad guy. I think education is more nuanced than that. Which is why I wrote this play. I wanted education presented in a more nuanced way than the general public typically gets to see. Educators usually present themselves as blameless advocates of student well-being, underpaid victims of mis-directed legislative priorities. Entertainment often present educators as individuals fighting against the odds, against the powers-that-be, even against one another as one educator rises to the challenge of effective education. I think educators are heroes. I also think they are real people. I have tried to create portraits of courage who are faced with their own doubts and struggles. Teachers struggle. Even when we thrive, we struggle. It is this intersection of success and struggle that makes the field of education so rewarding…and so challenging. I think we need to do a better job at telling our stories. We need to tell our lower-case truths so that people see how complicated our work really is. And when teachers tell their stories, we need to listen. We need to dialogue and figure out solutions to educational problems collaboratively. This will raise psychological safety and eventually the quality of work that teachers and students do.
I haven’t been in a show for a long time. I haven’t even auditioned for anything in awhile. Most of the reason is because my life circumstances have made being in a show challenging. Another reason is that I don’t see myself as an actor anymore. My actor identity has gone away.
Now why would this be? Part of the reason is that I do much more behind the theatre scenes than on stage, which gives me a different kind of theatre identity. At the same time, my actor identity has diminished because I just don’t see myself playing a lot of the roles that are available.
I would encourage people to audition for everything, even things they don’t feel perfectly matched for. You never know—you may be exactly what the director was always looking for and didn’t even know it.
At the same time, I think the theatre scene has a representation problem. I am talking People of Color, various body sizes, people who identify as trans, and people with disabilities. I am a big guy. I don’t see a lot of men who look like me on stage. I’m dying to see an Audrey in Little Shop played by a plus-size Woman of Color—for some reason, we have pigeon-holed that role into a certain size and certain look. The fact that this keeps happening makes it challenging for people outside of those parameters to see themselves in available roles across Salt Lake.
I am thrilled, then, to be offering a piece during the Great Salt Lake Fringe Festival, produced by the WTC Black Box at the Gateway. The show, called MATCHSTICK THEORY, is a one-woman piece starring my high school friend Psarah Johnson. Psarah has been an educator and an activist for years, and I am so proud of her. Most importantly, she has an authentic voice that needs to be heard—and heard more often—in the theatre world.
You see, Psarah has lived all of her life with a disability. She lives with chronic pain and wants people to know what she lives with day in and day out. It’s what drives her passion for ensuring that she and other people with disabilities have access.
It is my hope that Psarah’s performance starts a trend—not only at the WTC Black Box but in all theaters throughout Utah. We need better representation. We need greater diversity not because it is the politically-correct thing to do but because our ranks are richer when these diverse voices share their perspectives, their experiences, their struggles, and their triumphs. I am looking forward to spending 30+ minutes with Psarah as she takes me on her journey.
Our schools are struggling to teach empathy. And empathy is exactly what’s needed right now. I have always heralded theatre as a space for building empathy. It’s s safe space where we can take time to see the world through another’s eyes. I hope that MATCHSTICK THEORY pushes everyone to live in the shoes of Psarah and people like Psarah. I hope it is one step of many where we are pushed beyond our limits of acceptability and comfort by seeing people that we wouldn’t necessarily expect to see on stage.
Tickets for MATCHSTICK THEORY, written by and starring Psarah Johnson, runs August 3-11 at the WTC Black Box.
by Jim Martin, WTC Black Box Facilities Director
Twenty-two years ago, I remember having a conversation with my mom. We were oddly enough in a Little Caesar’s Pizza waiting for our dinner. I told my mom it was my dream to have a theatre company of my own. How hard could it be? I explained. All we would really need is a space not too much bigger than this pace (I motioned to the pizza parlor where we were sitting), some lights, and some enthusiastic actors (of which I considered myself one).
I don’t know why it was important for me to start a theatre company. Artistic freedom? More opportunities to act? Becoming rich and famous?
Shortly after this conversation with my mom, I had convinced several of my friends to join my venture. They enthusiastically joined in and we produced our first project at Westminster College in the fall of 1997.
Through the years, I have seen a lot of theatre companies come and go. The one thing that can be said about our company, Wasatch, is that it has endured.
Tonight, I attended an event held by a new theatre group in town, De-Caf Acting Company with The Improv Police. I am thrilled with the energy coming from this group. It reminds me of the enthusiasm that I once brought into my own theatre company project.
One of the best places to see new works being done by some new groups is at the Great Salt Fringe Festival. Tickets for this year’s fest go on sale tomorrow, and the company that I once dreamed of is hosting several other groups in our Black Box Theatre at the Gateway. Some of these groups are new to the Fringe while others are returning. Some of the producing companies only show up during Fringe season, which is one of the great reasons that Fringe exists.
The point of this blog is to point out that the future of Salt Lake theatre is in very good hands. I love the enthusiasm. I love that these folks have enough of a vision for theatre that they feel the need to start their own theatre companies. More power to them. I hope I can help.
I have been wondering of late what footprint Wasatch Theatre Company, or perhaps more specifically the WTC Black Box (where we perform at the Gateway), will leave in Salt Lake’s theatre ecosystem. In a crowded field of theatre companies, how does one stay relevant 22 years later?
I am thrilled with the opportunity that having our own space has afforded us. It has given us a sort of freedom to experiment—to sometimes get it right and to sometimes get it wrong. Maybe this is the primary reasons I wanted my own theatre company in the beginning.
The WTC Black Box is finding its own way with its own partners. It is Wasatch Theatre Company’s vision to see this space take on a life of its own and to operate parallel to but separate from its founding theatre company. This decision, if successful, will give us the opportunity to incubate the kind of talent that is emerging at the Fringe and throughout Salt Lake—people just like a young 21-year old me who have dreams of creating their own theatre footprints.
Life is full of legacies. Sometimes our legacies are only felt by one other person, or a small group of people. What will the legacy of a space like the WTC Black Box be? I am hoping that it proves to be a way for local artists, perhaps some who are just finding their voices in Salt Lake’s theatre ecosystem, to take flight and persist f22 years and beyond.