Producing Artistic Director Idris Goodwin Takes Flight At StageOne Family Theatre
By Laura Ross
What do Muhammad Ali, “Frankenstein” and “Sesame Street” have in common? They’re all creative threads running through the mind of Idris Goodwin, StageOne Family Theatre’s new producing artistic director. Since arriving in Louisville in late summer, Goodwin is doing anything but settling in. A dynamic, young and nationally respected theater force, Goodwin, 41, is instead diving in, shaking things up and mapping out the future of the 72-year-old children’s theater.
“It’s an exciting opportunity,” he said as he sat in the theater’s cavernous rehearsal room recently. “I want to be as skilled a craftsperson as I can be and touch all elements of theater. We, as a society, need to foster an understanding of the theater and performing arts. Whether kids want to be artists or not, theater is something human beings have done forever. It’s how we learn who we are, where we’ve been; it’s how we have difficult conversations. Theater can be entertaining, but it’s (also) a fundamental part of developing as a human.
“It’s like catching butterflies,” he added, reaching into the air. “You’re grabbing ideas and committing to executing those ideas. I like to grab the idea, expand upon the vision and dream and help produce it in a creative way.”
Whether he’s writing or directing a play, hiring actors or staff or staring at the bottom line of paperwork, Goodwin likens his work to a tailor. “For a tailor, there are different fabrics and different measurements that lead to different outcomes,” he said. “I can make you a suit for a funeral, a board meeting or a ’70s disco night. I have the fabrics I prefer, but I’ll make it work for you. Theater is the same concept.”
Now in its 72nd season, StageOne Family Theatre is recognized as one of the nation’s oldest and leading professional theaters for young audiences and families. During any given season, StageOne’s professional actors perform for well over 80,000 young people, their families and teachers statewide across Kentucky and Southern Indiana.
Jonathan Riehm, manager of business applications at Brown-Forman and chair of the StageOne board of directors, knew the theater was the best fit for Goodwin’s talents. “Idris has an infectious quality about him,” Riehm said. “He has a cool confidence and when he is working with you, you feel connected to him and the material in ways that bring out your best work. He is also tuned in to what young people are reading, listening to, how they think and conversations they have. He composes plays and creates programming that is far more relatable and inviting, especially to the middle and high school audiences, than anything StageOne has done before.”
The Road Traveled
It’s safe to say Louisville was not on Goodwin’s radar as a teen. “I’ve always wanted to be a master storyteller,” he laughed. “I started out as a writer of bad rap music in my bedroom. Hip hop gave me an appreciation of language and poetry, and all that vibrancy of language drew me in.”
Goodwin attended film school at Columbia College Chicago and received a master’s degree in creative writing from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. While in Chicago during the 1990s, the world opened up to the young writer. He became immersed in the vibrant local theater scene and honed his craft. He wrote poetry and essays, dabbled in playwriting and learned the acting and directing crafts. “Schools are great for specific techniques and learning history, but you also need mentors and the real-world experience,” he said. “For me, that was Chicago, which opened its arms to me and let me try things out.”
Never one to rest long on one idea or location, Goodwin moved around, fell in love and married his wife, Felicia, and together they had a son, Taos, now six years old. A writer and educator herself, Felicia attended graduate school at the University of Iowa. Goodwin followed and also attended graduate school there. Later, they moved to Colorado Springs, where he most recently taught writing and hip hop at Colorado College.
Through it all, Goodwin continued writing.
He found his niche in playwriting and the spoken word. His critically-acclaimed play, “How We Got On,” focuses on three African-American teens dreaming of fortune in the hip hop music scene. It was developed at the O’Neill National Playwrights Conference, and later gave Goodwin his first taste of Louisville when the play premiered in Actors Theatre of Louisville’s 2012 Humana Festival.
“The Humana Festival was on my wish list because I knew everyone comes to see the festival in Louisville,” Goodwin said. “I knew that could be my launching pad, and sure enough, the universe provided.”
“Theater is something human beings have done forever. It’s how we learn who we are … how we have difficult conversations.”
— Idris Goodwin
“How We Got On” won wide critical acclaim and is now being produced in theaters across the nation. It was also nominated for a Steinberg/American Theatre Critics Association New Play Award. It was the first in his “breakbeat play” series which includes “The REALNESS” and “Hype Man,” winner of the 2017 Blue Ink Playwriting Award. Other widely produced plays include “Blackademics,” “This Is Modern Art,” co-written with Kevin Coval, and “Bars and Measures.” Goodwin is one of seven playwrights featured in the widely presented “HANDS UP!” an anthology commissioned by The New Black Fest and published by Samuel French. His one act “Black Flag” was produced Off Broadway. “The Way The Mountain Moved,” commissioned as part of Oregon Shakespeare’s groundbreaking American Revolutions Series, recently premiered.
Goodwin has work commissioned by or is in development with The Public Theatre, Steppenwolf Theater, Kennedy Center, Seattle Children’s Theater, Nashville Children’s Theater, Berkeley Rep’s Ground Floor Program, La Jolla Playhouse, The Lark Playwriting Center, The Playwright’s Center, Boulder Ensemble Theater and New Harmony Project.
He is an award-winning book author, and his poetry has appeared on HBO’s “Def Poetry,” The Discovery Channel, BBC, NPR and “Sesame Street.”
He’s been busy.
“Let’s promote forgiveness, let’s talk about cooperation, let’s promote love, patience and civility.”
— Idris Goodwin
Landing in Louisville
That fateful trip to Louisville in 2012 also introduced Goodwin to StageOne. “A friend from Actors Theatre liked the rhyming voice in ‘How We Got On’ and recommended that I write a play about the young life of Muhammad Ali,” he said.
Goodwin took the challenge and wrote “And In This Corner: Cassius Clay,” a play commissioned by a collaborative partnership of the Muhammad Ali Center and StageOne. It is now widely produced nationwide, garnered the approval of the Ali family and was the winner of the 2017 Distinguished Play Award from The American Association of Theatre and Education.
He wrote and produced the popular “American Tales” for StageOne and soon found himself drawn to Louisville again and again. “The arts scene here is very impressive and is a best-kept secret. There is so much going on in Louisville,” said Goodwin. “It’s why I wanted to come here and connect with the arts leaders and community.”
When the leadership position at StageOne became available earlier this year, the company’s board knew they wanted to approach Goodwin. “We actually targeted Idris for the position,” said Riehm. “After the enormous success we had with him on ‘And In This Corner: Cassius Clay’ and ‘American Tales’ and knowing how successful he has been all over the country, we felt he could take StageOne to the next level both locally and nationally.”
Goodwin joined StageOne in August, just as the theater’s season got underway. One of the shows already planned included Goodwin’s adaptation of the classic “Frankenstein,” which spoke to Goodwin’s nature. “Even with ‘Frankenstein,’ I latched onto the creation, the discovering of language and going on his journey of being terrified of the world to finding his place in the world,” he said.
Now that he’s found his place in Louisville, Goodwin’s focus is shifting to the coming season, community outreach and developing a strategic plan with the StageOne board and company of artists.
“With the strategic plan, I’m thinking about how we present ourselves back to the community by the time we reach our 75th anniversary,” he said. “We need to articulate our past strengths and push to be an even stronger presence in the lives of young folks in this community.”
That presence, he said, will come through more community outreach and creative productions, bringing underserved children into the theater experience and building diversity of programming and performance at StageOne.
“The theater is a place we can talk directly or indirectly about the issues of the day,” Goodwin explained. “We’ve always had prejudice, class issues, power issues when we are at our best and our worst. On a collective level, the arts have always said, ‘Hey, wait a minute. Let’s find a way to promote certain ideals that will indirectly lessen the impact of those things. Let’s promote forgiveness, let’s talk about cooperation, let’s promote love, patience and civility.’ We’re all different, but when we sit in a theater and react the same way, that is a reminder of our shared humanity and curiosity.”
“Idris brings a fresh perspective,” said Riehm. “He is a significant change from previous StageOne leadership and he brings a new way of thinking, engaging and telling the StageOne story. He isn’t afraid to ask bold questions or tackle universal truths that resonate with you whether you are seven or 70. Combine that with the professionalism of the rest of the StageOne company and you have a recipe to touch the hearts and minds of all audiences.”
“I’m happy that research shows more than half of our audience are people of color,” Goodwin said, “but we must strive to reflect that on stage through actors, writers and directors as well. I want Louisville to be reflected on stage. I think about the possibility of kids seeing that and sometimes, that’s all it takes to inspire someone.
“When you connect with that child and the light goes on and you see that spark, it feels amazing,” he added. “When you teach these kids the fundamentals of theater, you’re teaching discipline, patience and all the things you need in life. That’s what I get jazzed about.”
“When you teach these kids the fundamentals of theater, you’re teaching discipline, patience and all the things you need in life.”
— Idris Goodwin
Riehm knows bringing Goodwin to Louisville was a strategic step. “Idris is someone who could have easily gone to a bigger city with more resources,” Riehm said. “Having him here shows the rest of the nation that Louisville is serious about theater and the arts, and we (encourage) creators to make their home here.”
“It’s a fundamental part of who I am,” said Goodwin, leaning forward earnestly. “It’s why I came here. I came to do this work because I believe in this theater. When you speak from that belief to people, if it touches something in them, then great things happen. We all want our young people to be imaginative and inspired. Our goal is to shape the next generation through the arts.” V
StageOne’s season continues in December with the holiday favorite, “The Best Christmas Pageant Ever,” which features 32 local student actors. In 2019, StageOne will present Judy Blume’s “Tales of a Fourth Grade Nothing” and the season closes with “The True Story of the Three Little Pigs.” For tickets and show schedules, visit stageone.org