An interview between Amelia Parenteau and Jon Greene, founder and Artistic director of the Radical Buffoons.
Amelia Parenteau: Why did you found The Radical Buffoons?
Jon Greene: When I moved here and started directing here, I was approached by a company in town, Rockfire Theatre Company, which is Matt Reed, Kevin Murphy, and Mint Bryan, and they had always really wanted to do a production of Mr. Burns: A Post-Electric Play. I love that play, but as we started to talk about the realities of what that play requires, I thought, “Okay, I’ve raised money for other projects before. Here’s what I’ll do. Why don’t I start an LLC theater company and I’ll match your put in. I’ll raise the money from my own sources to match your budget, so that we can double the budget and support the production." It was a means to an end, as opposed to a long-term plan for my life.
We did that play and I loved running the company. We did another play and I loved the idea of building something larger than just a career for me to direct plays: I liked building community and I loved producing. So what was a means to an end ended up blossoming into what it is now.
The name of the company comes from Lisa D’Amour who had come to see one of the pantos I’d written and directed at Le Petit, who was like, “Thanks for bringing all that radical buffoonery to Le Petit stage.”
The universe laid a lot of pieces out and just patiently waited for me to accept the offers.
Amelia Parenteau: So you’ve just completed your first or second season?
Jon Greene: Second season. The first season wasn’t technically a season, wasn’t planned to be so. We co-produced Mr. Burns: A Post-Electric Play in the fall of 2017, and then I was approached by Clint Johnson with The Dumbwaiter. We produced, I directed, in the early spring of 2018, and then I looked back and I was like, “this is a season, we did two plays.” So that was technically our first season.
Many people who worked on Mr. Burns and The Dumbwaiter were invited to be a part of The Radical Buffoons as this sort of growing collective. Once everybody said yes, it was at an “at-will” level, just like who’s interested, you can all be a part of it, if you don’t want to do anything, you don’t have to, if you want to do something, let me know. In between our first and second seasons is when we shifted, structuring our entire company with programming tracks and the idea of greater collective membership and participation.
This last season, Stories Without Words, Balloonacy, and Barbecue was our second season, and we’ll be going into our third in 2019-2020.
Amelia Parenteau: And how did you select Barbecue to close out your second season?
Jon Greene: In terms of our structure, we focus on programmatic tracks, as opposed to we just produce stuff, and that came from a lot of conversations with audience members and theater artists in town and asking, “What do you think is missing? What is inaccessible to you, when you see theater?”
One of them was theater for families and kids, the second one was an opportunity for new creation that isn’t as entrenched in previously established companies. We knew going to season two, we’d have a lab, we’d have a young adult show, and we’d have a mainstage. Mainstage is the one that’s really still based on our mission. We knew the mainstage was always going to be our marquee show, for adults, always humor as a vehicle for storytelling, though we keep that very broad.
Torey Hayward had expressed interest in being part of the play selection process. So I said, “Let’s read some plays.” We use our mission statement as a rubric for play selection, and it’s a really great rubric!
Based in New Orleans we are devoted to making work that is outsize in scope or idea, physically evocative, socially provocative, and couched in humor as a vehicle for storytelling. -- The Radical Buffoon's Mission Statement
Everything gets a point: a point for outsize in scope and ideas, a point for physically evocative, a point for socially provocative, a point for couched in humor, and a point for opportunities -- one of the values of our company -- a point for opportunities for diversity on and off stage. It’s a really great way to score. So we got down to about 6 scripts, and in the end, both of us had the same thought: Barbecue is amazing, and it scares the shit out of us.
BAR BECUE by Robert O'Hara Produced by the Radical Buffoons, 2019
We had to do the one that scares us. Just by the fact that the word “radical” is in our names, we have to do projects that make us worried that we’ll get in trouble, worried that we’ll miss the mark, worried that we’ll offend or isolate our audiences, we have to take those risks in our choices, and we knew we had to do that play.
Amelia Parenteau: When you say, “worried that you’re going to get in trouble,” what does that mean to you?
Jon Greene: I think there’s various levels of what “trouble” represents. There’s trouble in the sense of comedy, where when no one gets it, you’re in trouble. There’s trouble when handling topics that we as a society have gotten both in fashion and out of fashion talking about, so we’re not consistently engaging in conversation around difficult topics, so there’s always a possibility that – you can never control how someone responds to something – so if something happens along the way that isolates or marginalizes a performer or an audience member, that’s done by me or done by our company, and trouble doesn’t include the idea that it’s like (sulking face) “Oh, I’m in trouble,” that it’s not a fixable, or a growable, or a teachable moment, but it’s hard too. I think, necessary, but hard to accept the connection between financial realities, fiscal responsibilities and social, moral imperatives. Right?
I think I’m always, personally, learning and growing, and working towards growth and understanding, making space and listening on the projects that I do. I’m aware the nature of racial relationships and gender relationships, but mistakes happen and we are all beautifully flawed. There’s a chance I could put my foot in my mouth, there’s a chance that someone’s going to feel isolated or marginalized, it could become a large problem. I have to accept that that might happen, and if it’s my fault, or our company’s fault, I learn and grow from that.
The reason I’m a diligent human is so that everyone feels welcome and available for work, and to participate. And also [Barbecue] on the page, it’s designed to make you feel like you shouldn’t be laughing at something. It’s designed to make you die of laughter about really fucked up shit! We had no idea how the audience was going to react. Torey thought it was hilarious, I thought it was hilarious, for the most part, the play was unifying to our very diverse audience. Only a couple people felt very uncomfortable and upset. It just took a lot of trust in the community, in our makers, in the artists that we participated with, and trust can sometimes be scarier than hedging bets.
Amelia Parenteau: Have you seen a change in your relationship to company members or audience members since producing Barbecue?
Jon Greene: We like to say we support the theater community, but we don’t make theater for the theater community. We make theater for New Orleans. And I would say across our season, our target audience for each of our shows, Stories Without Words, Balloonacy, and Barbecue represented who we are in a way that made people feel welcome in our big tent. Catharsis in the Greek sense is a feeling of relief that you’re not Oedipus. I think that this kind of aggressive comedy done in the right way, that feels safe even when it’s a completely unsafe topic, becomes a kind of cathartic response.
I think everyone went, “I can think about these things, laugh about these things, talk about these things with someone not like me.” The response I got after shows, from emails and conversations, was amazement and wonder. It’s really easy for people to forget these are serious topics. We can unpack them in non-traditional serious ways, because comedy’s serious, but it presents them for a lark. I think that people came to Barbecue not knowing what to expect or not being aware that it was a racially charged piece, and left just open, and amazed.
Amelia Parenteau: And how did that feeling wrapping up season two push you to planning your next season?
Jon Greene: This last season I participated in all the artistic projects on purpose. For both of the shows I was directing, it was actually a co-directed piece. I was really grateful to Torey Hayward as my co-director, and I was really grateful to AshleyRose Bailey who sort of stepped in to be an outside person in the event that someone in our creative room felt othered and didn’t feel like they could talk to any of the leadership.
Coming to the end of the season, in terms of the company, it was a reminder that the time did come for greater delegation, greater dissemination of responsibility around the company. The way I see season three is: the transitory year with great work, with a lot more dissemination of responsibility, new administrative jobs, new people leading projects. Which gets us to season four, where we are in a place where the collective membership has a lot more stake in how we do things, what we do, and how we move forward.
So it’s a big year. We’ve brought on two new staff members. Torey Hayward is coming on as our Associate Artistic Director, and AshleyRose Bailey is coming on as our Managing Director, and both of those are paid positions in our administrative team.
I want there to be this stable base to grow equitable participation, and a space for people to work. When I look, each year down the line, I only see that embedding itself more and more and more. We’re also a 501(c)3, we made that transition halfway through this year. We’re growing a board, building a team.
Amelia Parenteau: Anything else?
Jon Greene: I’m amazed by this community. I’ve never been able to have this as a consistently paying job anywhere else in the world that I’ve been making theater. It’s always been an extra job, and New Orleans has been a place where I’ve been able to do it, and I’m so grateful for this city. The city allowed me the space to fail and succeed and they gave me permission to give myself, and were accepting when I stumbled and I learned. I’ve worked with almost every company in town and I’m so grateful for each experience. All of this is necessary gratitude payback repayment for what I was given when I walked in the door. And I remind myself of that a lot.