I met Actor/Director Gregg T. Daniel relaxing with a fresh salad in the lobby of the Lounge Theatre, waiting for me to get my interview notes together. I wasn’t late, but I felt like I was; because Mr. Daniel’s sites were already launched and soaring towards accomplishing his latest project; so I had some catching up to do. Having come fresh off of his critically acclaimed run of August Wilson’s Jitney at South Coast Repertory (and later the Pasadena Playhouse), it was a little surprising to witness his exuberance. Most performers usually need a bit of down time to shake off the yoke of a demanding acting role. But Mr. Daniel is spry and enthusiastic, ready to direct Lower Depth Theatre Ensemble’s passion project, Elmina’s Kitchen. And that enthusiasm was quite contagious.
How did acting find you?
I grew up in Brooklyn. My father was Caribbean, my mother’s American, and because my father came out of that British educational system, Shakespeare was big in our house. The tragedies, the comedies, the sonnets, and I would actually read them being the precocious child that I was. I didn’t know about iambic pentameter, but something about the language really attracted me. I just felt the rhythm of it, the power of it. So words and language became my love, my joy.
But it wasn’t until high school that I realized I wanted to be in the performing arts. But I think the foundation was that I had been exposed to plays and language more specifically. I was sensitized to language; and of course theatre is all about language. Then I went to NYU which was in the Village. There were all these companies that were doing all this vital work at the time and I was exposed to all that.
I experienced something a lot like that. I fell in love with language, and out of that, became a writer.
Exactly. There’s something in the DNA that when it was triggered by exposure to those forms, it just filled us if I could be so bold. I was so filled with the love of it that soon I was just plotting my chart for, how do I get more? The difficulty was that no one in my family came from the performing arts. So trying to chart a course to… what do I do now? How do you pursue an education in the arts when your parents can’t really help you in terms of pointing you in the right direction? But thank God I did have a lot of people around me, friends [who] made me aware of those place, NYU, Julliard and conservatory programs.
So how did directing find you?
Once I graduated, I wanted to get as far away from the conservatory program as possible. My first job out of school was at Williamstown Theatre Festival in Massachusetts. Then I went on to Hartford stage. It was the first time I had to compare my process and my conservatory training with that of other actors. And thank God the directors that I worked with were kind enough to see that, I started asking lots of questions - and got a lot of answers - and that got me on the track for this directing thing. I still loved acting but I still was excited about the whole Mise-en-scène: how you have the lights and costumes and the sound, all make that story. So when I got back to New York I started my own theatre company.
What’s your first love? Acting or Directing.
Oh that’s tough. As I grow older, probably directing. I think [acting] because I needed to be on stage, and being in the character. But as I grow older, I love working with actors; and not just actors, designers. I guess being aware of the whole rather than the one. As an actor you concentrate on how do I make my character work, why does he want this, what’s preventing him from getting it? But when you are looking at the directing puzzle it’s so much more [about] how do I make everything tell the same story. I think that inspires me now. I would never leave acting, I love it. There are still so many roles I want to play. However, the directing I’m definitely leaning toward now. And I’m doing it more now; now that we have a company here too, it’s making me a better director.
Let’s talk about your company.
Sure, Lower Depth Theatre Ensemble. It was formed three or four years ago by myself and some colleagues of mine. They have careers, but were passionate about doing material and working on stage. And really the only way you can do that, other than waiting to get a phone call from a theatre company, is to do your own thing. It goes back to getting older and I don’t want to wait for a phone call to get me started on this amazing play. I don’t wanna wait! You want to start doing your own. So we were audacious enough to say OK, says go!
Thank God we weren’t young. It’s wasn’t like ‘I’ve got a barn, let’s start a theatre.’ We were married, we were having children, but we still had that same need. So with that we said, ‘OK, let’s start a theatre company.’ There are four founding members, my wife, myself, and another younger couple from Chicago. (Gregg T. Daniel, Jason DeLane, Yvonne Huff, Veralyn Jones)
LA is very such a film and television town. New York and Chicago are very much steeped in theatre. So when all of us started migrating out here because we wanted to make a living, we started doing film and television. But the need to do theatre was strong as ever. So that’s how we came together and said we’re going to found a company. We said we’re going to look at the kind of material we wanted to do and we’re gonna do it!
I read that LDTE was primarily founded on the premise of maturity and experience in exploring works. Does that mean no young folks allowed?
Oh, absolutely not! We have guest performers all the time. For example, our inaugural production was called Three Sisters After Chekov, a wonderful adaptation of Chekov’s Three Sisters set in Trinidad, in 1941. The founding members were in it, of course I directed and there were a wealth of guest artists in it. I’m excited when I come across young actors; there’s a whole generation of young actors that I don’t know, and they’re damn good!
Of course it depends a lot on the play we’re doing, if it calls for a younger actor sure. Eventually we would like to have a program where we are all training and taking classes together. That’s the true sense of a company. Not together to do one play, but you’re exploring Alexander technique, restoration, Masques, almost harkened back to my conservatory days where you’re training your entire instrument; a company that trains together and comes up with techniques together.
Do you ever see this company doing a musical?
Absolutely, absolutely. I have a lot of respect for musicals. They are very hard to do. The cardinal rule with musicals is when you can’t say it, you sing it. And that’s the best musicals when it’s not motivated by a song, it’s because a group of people need to communicate with song. But pulling material from the places that we do, we might even commission a musical one day. As long as it fits our mission statement and it’s material that we feel is relevant, and will resonate with LA audiences because that’s our base, oh yeah.
The next production from LDTE is called Elmina’s Kitchen.
It’s sort of the clash of three generations of men in this family in contemporary London, all feeling disenfranchised because while they are living in England, the first generation of the English born blacks of England’s large Caribbean population, they are still part of the minority culture. It’s just a beautiful story!
How did you find it?
USC. Earlier this year they were doing a symposium called “Voices from the Black Diaspora” and they invited an aborigine writer from Australia, they invited an Ethiopian woman, and they invited this brother, a Black British playwright named Kwame Kwei-Armah. And we did snippets from each play. And when I heard two scenes from Kwame’s Elmina’s Kitchen, I thought ‘wow, this is an interesting play. I wonder what the rest of it is [like]. So I ordered it, I read it and thought, this play is perfect for our company. This [play] fits our mission statement perfectly! Our interest seems to be leaning to more global voices. That seemed to be our niche right now. Voices that are unique to a culture, but still involve people of color.
By the way, I just read that Kwame Kwei-Armah is now the artistic director of Center Stage in Baltimore. He is going to try and fly out for the opening[LDTE 's production of Elmina's Kitchen happens this August 2012].
Aside from the great writing, why select this play? Are there relevant themes you want to explore in this piece?
Yes! It’s really a cautionary tale about what’s happening to inner city communities. It’s a lot about young people being drawn to crime. Young people who have broken their relationship with their parents, who are seeing the way to success as being gangs. This play is a cautionary tale about what happens when those generational ties are broken. Every day you see in the paper just younger people, dying. And lots of innocents too. So it's for my community, for the black community, that’s why we’re doing it. Because it’s the same story whether it’s in Brickton or it’s in Compton or Watts or God knows what areas of Paris compare. But in terms of people feeling powerless, people feeling disenfranchised and turning to the only way they know how to feel successful. And a younger generation being lost in that [feeling of powerlessness], who has eschewed school and can’t seem to find a regular way to achieve the dreams. So they are turning to the streets and to crime and to gangs, and to violence.
I was surprised how universal that struggle was, no matter what country you were in. If we don’t establish those ties with younger people again, and bring them in, we’ll probably lose a whole generation. That’s why we’re doing the play, because it resonates so much in minority communities in major cities.
Any plans to do community partnerships or outreach?
We have someone on outreach. We would love to bring in young people for special performances, discounted performances for either schools or organizations to come see this play. Because they really are the ones who need to see it. There is a theater-going audience who just loves drama and loves a well-written play. But the audience we’re really speaking to are the young people.
I love your excitement. You seem like a person that really loves what they do.
I do. I’ve been very very lucky. When I fell in love with language, I was able to find what my voice was going to be. To be able to make a living at what I do… which is not just film and television, with stage, I can’t complain!
The name and the mission of the Lower Depth Theatre Ensemble are mirror images of themselves. The goal of the company is to reach the lower depths, or rather the deeper layers of emotions and performance aesthetic in theatrical stage works. On the brink of its second full fledged production, resident director Gregg T. Daniel and company seem ready and eager to tackle this latest work, written by and featuring a story about people of color.
The Lower Depth Theatre Ensemble presents the West Coast Premiere of Kwame Kwei-Armah’s play Elmina’s Kitchen August 11, through September 9, 2012 @:
The Lost Studio
130 South La Brea, 2nd Floor
Los Angeles, CA 90036
Please ticket info call: (323) 960-4451
Lower Depth Theatre Ensemble is a 501 (c)(3) non-profit organization.