A Multidisciplinary Storytelling Machine: A Conversation with ATL's Robert Barry Fleming


by Katy Yocom



Robert Barry Fleming is the Executive Artistic Director of Actors Theatre of Louisville. Fleming previously served as Associate Artistic Director at Cleveland Play House and as Director of Artistic Programming at Arena Stage. World premieres commissioned, developed, and championed during his tenure at Arena include the 2017 Best Musical Tony Award winner Dear Evan Hansen, Karen Zacarías’s Destiny of Desire, and the 2017 Pulitzer Prize winner, Sweat, by Lynn Nottage. Fleming was also a tenured professor and Chair of the University of San Diego Theatre Arts and Performance Studies Department. His Actors Theatre Direct new media credits include COVID-Classics: One-Act Plays for the Age of Quarantine, Erma Bombeck: At Wit’s End and Romeo & Juliet: Louisville 2020. Live event directing and choreography credits include Are You There? and Once On This Island (Actors Theatre of Louisville), and productions at Cleveland Play House, Oregon Shakespeare Festival, and Tantrum Theater. His professional acting credits include stints on Broadway, Off-Broadway, television (The George Carlin Show) and in films (Academy Award-winning L.A. Confidential).

Robert Barry Fleming

We spoke in June 2021, after a 2020-21 season profoundly reshaped by COVID-19. Our conversation revealed an artistic director ready to expand the concept of storytelling beyond the limits of live theater—and to upend old models of how theater works. The 2021-22 season includes radio plays, virtual multimedia performances, and other forms of “transmedia storytelling” in addition to in-person live performances, some of which incorporate virtual and augmented reality in reinvestigating the classics. It’s an approach that, in Fleming’s words, is intended “to reflect the wonder and complexity of our time.”


The conversation has been edited for length and clarity.


KATY YOCOM: Actors Theatre announced its 2020-21 season on March 11, 2020. Within 48 hours, everything changed completely.


ROBERT BARRY FLEMING: Completely.



KY: And you had to pivot very quickly. I saw Where Did We Sit on the Bus, which was originally intended to be performed live onstage. That became something really interesting, a video production that I imagine transformed a good bit from what it would have been. Looking back, did you learn anything that you think is going to carry through to theater on the other side as you go back to a more traditional model?


RBF: Yeah. And you speak to an operating assumption that we're going back to the other model, so I want to address that.


There are many practices that the American regional theater was invested in, prior to the two public health crises of COVID and the systemic reckoning with racism, that were clearly unsustainable and have been unsustainable for decades. The subscription model, the funding landscape, different kind of corporate and foundational support dwindling, more heavy reliance on individual donors: All of those things were signaling it has changed. Things are not changing; it has already changed.


The question has been, are American regional theaters ready to adapt and respond to those changes? What we were seeing was evidence that the answer has been “no,” as evidenced by our structural deficits and meeting our unsustainable practices with magical thinking. [Regarding families that have long been major donors,] the patriarchs have passed, the remaining spouse and children have different philanthropic priorities, the funding landscape of organizations like Humana and other stakeholders has continued to evolve and shift. We have to be responsive to those realities. There’s no way to go back.


We are really invested in recognizing that the demographics, the psychographics of folks who want to participate in storytelling experience with us, has been and will continue to evolve. Knowing that the country is going to have a sizable demographic change with the accompanying social change, while we’re all experiencing the insistence of global climate change, it has become evident funding models that are trying to be responsive to what sustainability looks like in the 21st century will be actively considering where arts and culture fits in that equation. Actors Theatre of Louisville wants to be quite intentional in our strategic and tactical efforts to be responsive to that evolving landscape.


So we continue to look for additional and new funding streams, social engagement. We are an anti-racist, anti-oppressive arts and culture organization as social enterprise. Yes, we’re going to be reincorporating in-person gathering, but the definition of theater and storytelling writ large might be on multiple platforms, some digital as we have done this year. And that will continue as we move into the future.


Yes, we’re going to be reincorporating in-person gathering, but the definition of theater and storytelling writ large might be on multiple platforms. . .

Many companies who used digital, multi-camera shoots of in-person-gathering plays—things that were conceived as live/ in-person events—that work served as a stopgap measure during a time where we could not gather. We did one project, two projects maybe, in that vein, immediately around the March 12, 13, 14 [2020] window where we all began shutting down in-person shows by taping what was currently running in our Humana Festival, one of which got to be shared with the public, Where the Mountain Meets the Sea.


After that, what we used our PPP loan to do was to support staff retained to do the digital work, hire a virtual company of artists, artisans, to participate in storytelling for platform-specific stories. So we weren’t focused on investing in multi-camera shoots of plays that were built for the in person/ in-theater experience. As you described, Where Do We Sit on the Bus was built for that platform. It was, “How do I tell this story for this medium?”


(View the trailer on YouTube.)


We did over 35 different projects that were platform specific. That's not a stopgap measure; that's exploring all the different ways one can tell stories, create accessibility for people who may have grown into disability and can't get to the theater, may be geographically in a locale that “I can't come to your festival. So how might I participate in your storytelling experiences?” You can work with us on these digital platforms. We've made a very meaningful resource investment in VR, claiming that space as a theatrical platform where the spatial relationships are not exclusively accessible or even particularly tailored for film and television as a medium or industry. We believe that is a platform that is as much for live entertainment storytelling, for theater makers, for theater practitioners as anyone. We plan to continue production in that vein.


We also have invested in a game—another storytelling platform in which we can offer a narrative-based experience. We've also invested in storytelling through our Louisville Sessions music series. We know what kind of influence American culture has all over the world. And certainly, the excitement of our music scene is another place to tell stories and share something about the human condition.


So, all of these initiatives will be a part of our diversified portfolio, moving forward. Offering a hybrid season where we share both in-person gathering and hybrid experiences, being an arts and culture organization that works on multiple platforms.


(Read the announcement of the 2021-22 season.)



KY: Tell me about the game.


RBF: The game is called Plague Doctor: Contagion 430 BCE – 2020 AD. It is a new interactive video game that explores the profound upheavals unleashed during four public health crises that changed history. From 430 BC in Athens, 1720 in Marseille. The Spanish Flu in 1918 Philadelphia. The final one is in Louisville in 2020 during COVID.


There is this seminal figure, the plague doctor. You'll probably have seen the mask. This plague doctor shows up in all these different periods, helps you navigate those environments and follow the narrative of each. It has been in development and will be released [on the Steam gaming platform] sequentially, according to those different periods in the game.

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KY: At Spalding, in the School of Writing, we’ve recently introduced writing for games as another area of study, beyond our traditional fiction, poetry, screenwriting, playwriting, and so on.


RBF: Exactly.



KY: Talk about the financial model of this hybrid approach to storytelling.


RBF: You have to figure out a way—just like you would in your own personal finances—to say, “What am I investing in that I can expect a potential return on investment, or social return on investment, later down the line, and what am I just putting into a money pit?”


Just working with expense controls does not work. One has to invest, which is different from “I’m just going into mindless debt.” It’s investing with the anticipation that you’re going to see long-term return.


We have to be open to psychologically moving into a different space. Since the first of our mission tentpoles is that we are going to unlock human potential, then build community, and, thirdly, enrich lives by our practice as theater practitioners and artisans and administrators, we’ve got to do that first thing: unlock human potential, which means in fiscal and artistic matters that we have to come to terms with, Is our capacity and is our ambition right-sized and matching? And if it’s not, can we make the necessary adjustments that we must make in spite of that being uncomfortable?



KY: How do you measure social return on investment?


RBF: You’ve got the social impact wheel of Americans for the Arts, which frames that question in multiple sectors pretty elegantly: “How do the arts contribute to anything from infrastructure, religion, education?” That gets the mind in the right paradigm, to be thinking about arts as something other than “a safe place that diverts from the troubles of life,” rather than actively rooting us in the metaphysical celebration, contemplation, reflection, and meditation on the ever-present existential dilemmas and joys of being human.


[About arts as a diversion:] Well, that’s one function of arts. (Laughs.) That’s one function. It’s not the whole function and it’s probably not the reason why any of us have dedicated our lives to it. Because “I’m here to try to distract people from their real problems”—I’m actually trying to get you right in the center of that pesky problem of your homophobia, your implicit racism, your difficulty of navigating the inevitable trauma of life. So that we can have a more full, flourishing society that isn’t based on oppression, isn’t based on denial, isn’t based on cognitive dissonance.


Arts have always been the place that we were able to speak the unspeakable, to navigate the unfathomable challenges of being human. Some of us have a completely different understanding from “I’m trying to distract you and just cheerlead you into joy.” I’m trying to actually say, you don’t have to live in that level of cynicism where you need a cheerleader. I actually think we can get to the heart of some of those things and plant seeds for meaningful long-term change. I don’t suggest it’s easy, but I would also suggest cheerleading is probably the last thing that’s going to get you away from being demoralized or mesmerized by one’s existential challenges.


Arts have always been the place that we were able to speak the unspeakable, to navigate the unfathomable challenges of being human.

KY: In the subscription model, you might have subscribers who aren’t as interested in really challenging productions. What do you do with that audience?


RBF: I’m going to necessarily scale my programming to whatever the ecosystem is willing to support. Part of the codependent nature of many arts workers and the organizations that employ them is an orientation to sacrifice self and staff to give our constituents whatever we can, because we believe in the art and believe in the education. I think part of that shift is saying, Artists are here like any other business. It’s ultimately up to the receiver to avail themselves to that offering.


The arts have been around for millennia. We all have a clear sense, if we look at the historical record, of how artistic engagement can potentially lead to full flourishing civilizations. Our discipline entertains but also enlightens. Look at our mission, regard us as you would the American Red Cross or Save the Children or Save the Whales. We are a global public service that contributes to the health and wellness of the community. Our work is to articulate, demonstrate, and make that more and more legible. Then measure to see if our stakeholders pick up what we’re putting down. And note and observe the level of constituent support, and recognize that’s the level that we will necessarily scale our efforts.


The onus is not exclusively on the artists. It’s on the communities that those arts organizations live in to support in conscious choice how they hope to engage. Moving out of the codependence of trying to convince the unconvinceable after all the evidence is in becomes essential strategic work for arts workers: Make the case and manage expectations. This is long-game work.


We are not fully government supported—even though 80 percent of our funding comes from corporate and foundational support, 20 percent coming from individual. There wouldn’t be a need for donors and there wouldn’t be a need for corporate support if theater paid for itself. Theater is a service. It doesn’t pay for itself any more than giving blood to the Red Cross pays for their expenses. Any global public service needs support.


So we just keep framing that, for those audiences to be reminded we’re not in the business of mass production of commercial theatrical juggernauts like Hamilton, we’re not structured organizationally to do what a company like Disney does, producing Frozen. I am an arts worker and leader in the not-only-for-profit industry working for Actors Theatre of Louisville, a for-benefit theater led by a mission, which is a different enterprise. If our mission is a compelling argument, we hope you’ll join and support us. If it doesn’t speak to you, we hope you’ll find an arts organization that does. Because any contribution to the arts is of benefit to all of us.



KY: Does the traditional audience come along with you at all? Or do you see this as a total revolution?


RBF: I think that's up to the audience. If the operating assumption doesn’t include a contribution to the global good by offering stories that are aligned with fulfilling our mission then our function in the ecology, the promise Actors Theatre of Louisville has made as a service organization has not been made legible. And more work must be done so the community has a clearer understanding of how we can most effectively serve.


We don't need to collectively hold on to the illusion that we had you if we never had

you to begin with. . . . The framing of “it's a risk to reify and clarify your mission-based praxis when there is foundational ambivalence to that praxis from some of your constituents” is a faulty framing. What we do unlocking human potential is always a risk, and clearly the risk of shaping your praxis to the codependent appeasement of that fragility was an already well-substantiated failing fiscal and artistic strategic practice that has not led to full flourishing in any creative or civic space.


KY: In other words, you're being political with your choices, even if your choice is to not be political.

RBF: That maybe as useful a frame as any to sum it up, I suppose.



KY: Circling back to the experience that we've always loved about live theater: it's never the same thing twice, and the audience and the performers feed off of each other. When you look at a narrative, and you’re thinking about what platform it best belongs on, what tells you that a story needs to be a live theater story?


RBF: I think there is something about the interaction, the human interaction piece, that can't happen without presence. That we have to be in each other's presence for that to be triggered. And that's different for a game versus how we interact with a movie versus how we interact with a concert, or how we interact with a narrative storytelling experience.


The operating assumption is “we all love theater,” and I would challenge that. I don't know if we all love theater. (Laughs.) I think we’ve performed dutifully in the way that some of us engage with worship services at church: it doesn’t necessarily have anything to do with a compelling existential spiritual search, but more to do with the ritual exercise.

Some people will equate the theater with a kind of church. That's a really great metaphor. We explored that idea with a guest on our podcast [Borrowed Wisdom], investigating that question of “How is the theater like a church and what function is it serving?” We thought that's an important podcast to have, an important story to be in dialogue with our stakeholders.


You know, having a diversified portfolio creates different levels of consciousness about all kinds of storytelling, including the intersections between the art making and culture sector and sports, religion, infrastructure, et cetera. We're a hyphenate multidisciplinary field, that has lots of ways that we serve our mission through storytelling.


So, we're eager to continue to explore those intersections through the tentpoles of our mission: unlock human potential, build community, enrich lives. We make sure that the mission stays central to all our activity so that we keep doing the thing that we're here to do as a global public service, whether people understand consciously what that is or isn't. And we want to do it in a way that is compelling.


We know what it's like to dutifully go to see a play that doesn't resonate in any way. Is there a way that I can make that accessible for you to see the great value and the relevance of it? Do I need to remake, rethink, reorganize how I tell that story in order to make you as eager to want to go see Arms and the Man as you wanted to see Springsteen on Broadway?



KY: What form of storytelling creates the most intimate experience with the audience?


RBF: Any of the platforms can do that. It depends on the project. Some people found Nomadland riveting and thrilling and deeply intimate and emotionally resonant, and other people found it boring. The game Kentucky Route Zero: some people find it “quirky, fantastic, so moving . . . I can spend hours with this game.” And some people are like, “Kentucky Route Zero? What's that?” We can’t be all things to all people, but we can get behind stories that resonate for many stakeholders, execute our programming doing what we do best, and intentionally make sure those who are interested find us.


I think part of the answer is: there's not one a one-size-fits-all. The mass American, the mass production orientation of capitalism keeps reifying the idea that one global dominant gorilla approach serves the interests of all and “I want to be that.” Whereas, what we’re finding is, as de Tocqueville said, we’re not only “too big of a country to govern” but also too diverse a population to speak to everyone with the same content and approach.


The natural law is diversity. There's certain things that we all hold in common. But it might not be the mass marketing one, the Disney of us, the Amazon of us, the Walmart of us. It might be something more fundamental: you breathe; I breathe. You have red blood; I have red blood. Whatever our gender, our age, all of those things, we have hopes, we have aspirations, we love, we fear. Those are some of the common things that bond us as human beings. They’re much more existential.



KY: I think that differentiation is important organizationally and individually. What are you most excited about, personally, in terms of projects coming up in the immediate future?


RBF: We're doing virtual programs and have announced three projects that signal the reincorporation of in-person/in-theater gathering. Every part of all of that is absolutely thrilling, but probably the most exciting value proposition is our whole diversified portfolio and our whole community and family that are rallying around being a multidisciplinary, interdisciplinary, storytelling machine that can add to the health and wellness of the community. And it can be one great hell of a party, while we're doing it.


That we are collectively building a sustainable long-term thing for Actors Theatre to contribute to long after my stewardship journey is over—a global public service—that's absolutely thrilling to me, to be a part of something bigger than myself in that way.



KY: It sounds like this is something that's been on your mind for a very long time. I'm wondering if the pandemic and the racial justice, dare I say “awakening”—what we've experienced in the past year—is moving you forward faster than you would have been otherwise.


RBF: You just hit the nail on the head. A lot of people have done their own healing journeys through therapeutic intervention and spiritual programs and a historical analysis of working with people in many different sectors to try to heal and move the culture forward. Some of the most fit for that are those who've been most traumatized by it, you know?


And it’s been an enormous year in that a lot of people with a lot of privilege are suddenly saying: “I'm a part of a system too. How am I complicit with the detrimental and deleterious effects of that?” So, I’m excited by that.



KY: It's interesting, isn't it? A lot of people were never going to believe the extent of police brutality, let’s say, until they're confronted with video evidence of it. And then, with George Floyd, you have media actually changing the perceived reality for a significant number of people.


RBF: We know that there is a segment of the population, even with the data, who don't believe there’s COVID, don't believe there’s systemic racism, who need to hang onto some of those illusions. Some people will never be convinced no matter what the evidence says.


How might I engage my fellow human beings, recognizing there will be no amount of evidence, for some people, to allow them to move out of those cognitive dissonant spaces? That's a part of what it means to be human too.



KY: When you have dictators rising up, the first thing they do is arrest the poets and playwrights and throw them in jail.


RBF: Yes ma’am! For very good reason. If you're an artist who's done this work for any extended period of time, you know the power of your discipline because you control fundamental narratives. That's not a small power.



KY: Robert, thank you so much. I can't wait to see what's ahead with you and with Actors on this ride.


RBF: It's my pleasure. Thank you so much for taking an interest.


Katy Yocom is the author of Three Ways to Disappear, a Barnes & Noble Top Indie Favorite, winner of the Siskiyou Prize for New Environmental Literature, Phillip H. McMath Book Award, First Horizon Award, and other prizes. Her words have appeared in LitHub, Salon.com, Newsweek, Terrain.org, Necessary Fiction, American Way (the American Airlines in-flight magazine), and elsewhere. The recipient of an Al Smith Fellowship Award for artistic excellence, she serves as associate editor of Good River Review and associate director of the low-residency programs of Spalding University’s School of Creative and Professional Writing. Find her online at katyyocom.com.