A Community of Witnesses // by Dr. Keith Byron Kirk

Professor Keith Byron Kirk meditates on what theatre gives back to its creators.

Transport Group Theatre Company as /kəˈmyo͞onədē/

My efforts as a part of Transport Group were limited to involvement as a writer of one of many sections that became the company’s 2005 production of The Audience.  My primary desire to become involved came at the request of the glorious Jack Cummings III whom I had met during a summer at the Eugene O’Neill National Playwrights Conference.

My efforts in the theater first as an actor and, later, as a playwright and educator, have always been anchored from a space of collective collaboration.  My earliest experiences as a performer revealed a desire to be immersed in performance as a part of a community of creative souls pushing toward any number of opening nights; brief or long runs; or workshops of unrealized masterpieces.  We have each breathed deeply through creative processes that have, at times, elevated us to some new personal innovation.  At each instance we must recognize that our personal growth and innovative effort have and always will be a shared triumph.  Each half hour call step/line/note, and bow made possible by and bolstered by a community of like-minded souls hoping to excel to an elevated space of creativity.  Often times these desires whether ending in triumph or failure are shared by a community of artists who praise, battle, and, at times supportively envy our colleague’s efforts to excel.

Months after meeting Jack Cummings III (I love typing that name), he tracked me down with an initial explanation of his ideas on The Audience that spoke to my long-held desire to collaborate with multiple creatives on a project.  I had worked across various mediums and with so many gifted artists in the interpretation of their works and wanted to share in similar experiences with other writers and composers.  It was, for me, a gift and a fulfilling experience.

Whether we’d like to believe it or not, the industry that we pursue thrives in a community.  Not only one of designers, musicians, actors, and other creatives but of audiences and, in some cases, folks whose only interactions with staged works might be passing a theater and wishing for a chance to experience that world.  Sometimes we forget that.  Sometimes we forget that we require witnesses to our creative deeds.  These witnesses look to performance as a method of interpretation or other times as a tool to help clarify the changing world around us.  These folks represent what some might call imagined communities where folks may not attend the theater but their dreams and desires of playing a role in theatrical process serve them as the only spark of an otherwise regular day.

The places where performances take place are just as important as the actions of performance that take place within.  Transport Group, like so many other theatrical ventures small and large, seek a continued collaboration through the presence of multiple representatives of multiple varied communities.  Each seeking a newly rendered and necessary engagement with every butt in every seat as a “gathered public” both artistically and socially.  We are taught to engage by watching others do so.  The nuance of various interaction rituals played out by audiences renders us all members of multiple communities with sometimes shared, sometimes divergent goals.  In every case, we buy a ticket to witness a performance, but we bear witness having been changed by those performances—and we thrive.

August Wilson House
1727 Bedford Ave.
Crawford-Roberts Neighborhood
Pittsburgh, PA

Built in the 1840s
Wilson’s Childhood Home Approximately 1945-1958
Added to National Registry of Historic Places (NRHP) April 30th, 2013

The structure located at 1727 Bedford Avenue in the Crawford-Roberts neighborhood of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania was built in the 1840s.  During the mid-20th century, the structure served as the childhood home of Frederick Kittle, Jr. who would later be known as playwright, cultural theorist, and yes, actor August Wilson.  The structure was added to the National Registry of Historic Places (NRHP) on April 30th, 2013.  In July 2016, The Pittsburgh Playwright’s Theatre Company embarked on a project that would culminate in the performance of August Wilson’s play SEVEN GUITARS on the lower floors and backyard of the playwright’s childhood home.  The performance of this dramatic work in the environment that had nurtured the dramatist as a child, engaged highly charged ideas of community, individual, and even familial ownership and authenticity through pathways bolstered by what might be marked as a useful while problematic nostalgia.

Within academic vernaculars, spaces are made places by the actions and activities that take place within them.  Churches are simply elegant, stylized sites until religious rituals and spiritual fervor elevate them to a place of divinity.  In like fashion, theaters exist as cathedrals of creation but are made venues of performance by the bodies and narratives that inhabit them.  Theaters across the country are limited in that present circumstances have pushed us out of venues.  Yes, artistic endeavors have been sidelined and our theatrical engagements are fixed in the world of the electronically seen images.  Now, multiple screens serve as spaces of performance and are made place by the growth of newly imagined communities.  Those communities embark upon the labors of performance and are as viable and necessary as our long-lost norms.

In the end, we are all made whole by performances and what is shared.  We are all made whole by that sharing and we bear witness to what is given.  We glow from the energies and friction of drama and are made more—made better—from having experienced it.  Theater gives us the chance to be made better over and over and over again.

About the author:

Keith Byron Kirk is an Assistant Professor of Performance Studies and Director of Graduate Studies at Virginia Commonwealth University’s Theatre Department.  His theatrical career began as research assistant to the late playwright Ntozake Shange during her production of Ridin the Moon in Texas.  He received his MA in Performance Studies and Playwriting at New York University’s Gallatin College and his PhD from Northwestern University in Interdisciplinary Theatre and Drama.  He is one of the authors for Transport Group’s The Audience which was nominated for a 2005 Drama Desk Award and the plays Ft. Lonesome, Urban Trilogy, and Stone, Baby Solitaire.  His play As Reaper in Summer Grain was developed at The Eugene O’Neill National Playwrights Conference.  He has performed with Steppenwolf Theater Co., and at Chicago’s Goodman Theatre as well as La Jolla Playhouse, and Britain’s National Theater.  He has appeared on Broadway in The Grapes of Wrath, Miss Saigon, The Piano Lesson, King David, The Civil War, and off-Broadway in A New Brain.  He is presently serving as co-editor with dramaturg Martine Kei Green-Rogers on a collection of essays exploring audience and community through the works of dramatist August Wilson as well as a new play titled Ipseity.  His folk opera Night Train to Wrightsville will be completed in Fall 2021.