By Alex Dumas
The SUNY Plattsburgh Theatre Department sponsored A Conversation in Artistic Leadership with Michael J. Bobbitt, the artistic director at the New Repertory Theater in Watertown, Massachusetts last Wednesday. This Zoom event included Bobbitt discussing his experience in music and theater, anti-racism movements in theatre, and a live Q&A.
Ben Wright, the department’s technical director, and adjunct lecturer discovered Bobbitt on an anti-racism platform over the summer. Wright immediately felt he was a great candidate to talk to theater students.
“His insight about theater management is what really appealed to me,” Wright said. “I just liked the way he talked about theater and the way he talked about running a business.”
Wright contacted Bobbitt about the opportunity to speak to the Production Leadership class taught by associate professor Erika Guay, and students involved in the Music Arts Management major. Once Bobbitt agreed to speak with the class, the theater department decided to open the workshop to the entire campus.
“We will happily have him as a guest in our class,” Guay said. “You don’t squander a great opportunity like that.”
At the beginning of the workshop, Bobbitt took the time to establish his experience in the arts and especially his work in musical theater. Some of his titles include arts leader, educator, playwright, director, choreographer and anti-racism advocate.
“It is kind of crazy how much he has accomplished. He’s a seriously motivated person,” Wright said. “He is incredibly generous with his time.”
Some of Bobbitt’s work has included adapting children’s books into musicals. His most notable include “Bob Marley’s Three Little Birds,” “Jumanji” and co-writing “Garfield the Musical with Cattitude” with Jim Davis, the author of the “Garfield” comics.
Guay had the opportunity to interview Bobbitt during the Q&A portion of the workshop. The questions were submitted by students in the Production Leadership class and viewers in the chatbox.
“You don’t get not excited to talk to somebody who has so much life experience professionally,” Guay said. “That just sort of blows your mind.”
Bobbitt answered numerous questions ranging from working professionally in the theater to current events, such as his anti-racist work and the future of theater due to COVID-19.
“I think Michael was a great resource,” said Dwayne Butchino, performing arts coordinator. “I think he was a very charismatic person, and I think he really kind of spoke to everyone about everything that is kind of going on right now with race relations.”
Bobbitt touched on many aspects of race and sexuality, especially in the theater. As he identifies as a gay black man, he explained how he has redefined aspects of hiring and wants to have a more diverse board of directors on productions.
“Michael Bobbitt has tossed that playbook out and has his own way of hiring people and creating culture,” Wright said. “Michael doesn’t get caught up on what you’ve done. He gets caught up on what you are, what motivates you, what you care about, what’s important to you. Are you willing to learn?”
He also discussed the future of theater relating to the current pandemic. Bobbitt said many professionals have brainstormed moving theater outdoors, making it digital and even creating new films dedicated to different drama works.
“He’s envisioning smaller types of events. Outside, in different types of locations, and with this there have been movements toward doing like a dinner theater in people’s homes,” Wright said. “A digital dinner theater in peoples’ homes.”
The New Repertory Theater has introduced more interactive plays for the Watertown, Massachusetts, community. Bobbitt explained new and exploratory events currently happening in virtual theater.
“It is very important that people see the arts and I think it is more available right now,” Butchino said. “I think theater as a whole is going to learn from this.”
Another aspect of Bobbitt’s work has been giving back to his community. When his Washington D.C. theater, Adventure Theatre, put on their production of “If You Give a Pig a Pancake,” a mother reached out to him about not being able to see the show because of her child’s sensory issues. Bobbitt would not allow this from stopping a child from seeing their production.
“I knew a little about his sensory theater,” Guay said. “But when he started talking about it I was like, ‘Oh my gosh, I can’t believe he did all this for sensory theater.’”
His cast created a theater program for children that have sensory issues and autism. His work inspired the first Broadway production to include sensory theater with Disney’s “The Lion King.”
The theater department hopes to continue inviting professionals to talk about their expertise and experience within the arts. They hope to keep providing opportunities for students to become more involved with theater, and the arts in general, especially during COVID-19.