Q&A with Tracey Chessum, incoming Brenau University Theatre Chair

Tracey ChessumGTA is overjoyed to introduce our new Brenau University Theatre Chair, Tracey Brent-Chessum. Chessum replaces Dr. Ann Demling who retires in May. Dr. Brent-Chessum hails from Los Angeles, CA and is an active director, producer, music director, conductor, and new work development consultant. In the academic world, she is passionate about curriculum development, accreditation, and academic leadership, and their intersections with the arts. In the past 10 years, she has been privileged to work with faculty and students in the theatre programs at the University of Maryland, Ball State University and Point Park University’s Conservatory of Performing Arts.

Brent-Chessum holds a Ph.D. in Theatre and Performance Studies from UMD, and her scholarship focuses on propaganda and nationalism in American musical theatre (with an emphasis on six “Salesmen of Americanism”: John Philip Sousa, George M. Cohan, Florenz Ziegfeld Jr., Oscar Hammerstein II, Stephen Sondheim, and Lin-Manuel Miranda). She was the founding Managing/Artistic Director of Pallas Theatre Collective in Washington, D.C., developing new works to ensure the continuance of America’s musical theatre legacy (Helen Hayes Award Nominee, John Aniello Award for Outstanding Emerging Theatre Company).

What drew you to Brenau University and Gainesville, GA?

After spending time in many different types of theatre programs, I was looking for one that focused on education rather than the new buzzword “training.” At Brenau, I see faculty and leadership who understand that a college education should produce our nation’s next generation of thinkers and leaders—through whatever they choose to study. Theatre education today has moved so far from this. We tend to cram so much training into a course of study that students have no time to process how to use their training effectively or build on that training and become effective thinkers and leaders. I was looking for a university and faculty who, first, understood the balance needed between education & training, and second, were already thinking about how it could produce the next generation of artistic leadership. I found that at Brenau and GTA.

I spent a good portion of my artistic life in Washington, D.C. developing new musicals. At the time, many of the musicals going to Broadway were being developed by D.C.’s regional theatres. In the last few years, out-of-town tryouts have shifted from D.C. to—you guessed it—Atlanta! What an exciting time to be relocating to Gainesville! I’m excited to watch the development of the American musical in this new regional center.

Can you elaborate on Atlanta as a “new regional center” for musical development?

Throughout its history, the musical has been a distinctly American art form—it’s a cultural product that we can truly claim as our own. After the AIDS crisis of the 1980s virtually wiped out the up-and-coming generation of musical librettists and composers, several regional musical theatre centers (as opposed to Broadway) saw the need to develop and teach new talent to ensure the continuation of the genre. In the early 90s, it was theatres like The Public Theater and the O’Neill Theatre Center that started new work development programs designed to teach young creators what they used to receive as mentorship from established artists. It was the forethought of these regional theatres that saved musical theatre from becoming a Disney-only phenomenon, and led to the explosion of new work and creative talent that characterized the new Golden Age of the 2000s. I saw this in Washington D.C., where the city’s more transient population provided audiences that were willing to be part of a development process, not just an entertainment experience, and these audiences gave valuable feedback in a geographic area far from the Great White Way. Next to Normal, Dear Evan Hansen, Come From Away—all of these shows started in D.C. And, look at the shows we know and love that began their journey in Atlanta—The Color Purple, The Prom, Bull Durham, and Becoming Nancy. . . . Atlanta has clearly found the right audience to keep American musical development moving forward.

What excited you about Gainesville Theatre Alliance?

I can’t find one other program like GTA anywhere in the country. This program is set up to thrive on collaboration, rather than the single vision of a repertory theatre company. This is a gift and a legacy we can give our students: to learn the art of collaboration well. Given the current situation in higher education, I truly believe that GTA will become a model for other programs around the country in the future.

Could you speak more about the importance of collaboration, specifically the “art of collaboration,” as it relates to students and graduates in their professional careers?

Like Andrew Lloyd Weber’s Evita’s famous line “Politics: the art of the possible” (originally by Bismarck)—I would say that collaboration is the art of balance (my favorite word—and one my colleagues are probably already tired of). On its surface, collaboration is about necessity. In the theatre, one person simply cannot do everything; I cannot design, direct, conduct, play, act, market, and manage a show. If I tried, I would fail miserably, and it would have taken over every corner of my life. Also, theatrical art is at its best when it incorporates many artistic perspectives; we need others to help us see a work from all vantage points, and to add their great ideas to the mix. Collaboration ensures we complete the task and create better art. Brenau, UNG, and GTA model this for their students every day. Our faculties and facilities pair well to create a thriving program that covers anything and everything our students may need to be successful in this arena. Both universities—and Gainesville as a city—are getting a program that is double the size of what they are putting into it, and everyone reaps the benefits. Our students learn from our example how to use artistic resources to their best effect.

However, the “art of collaboration” lies in avoiding the trap of over-collaborating. I think when we finally learn how to collaborate productively, we dive in and try and work on and create as many projects as possible at breakneck speeds (often a necessity given the relationship between art & capitalism). The work gets done, and sometimes we hit on genius, but most of the time. . .we’re very, very tired. It’s efficient collaboration, but it’s not always effective. Collaboration—as the art of balance—should allow us to bring our best artistic instincts to the table, provide time and energy to grow through the process, and allow us to maintain the other aspects of our lives. The art of balance means that we use collaboration to make our best art, not necessarily more art. I want students to graduate knowing how to work effectively to create something beautiful, while prioritizing their artistic needs and skills and their wellbeing. That is where the most meaningful art comes from.

What are your first steps to prepare for your new position?

Honestly, the first step is trying to sell my house in Pittsburgh in the middle of a pandemic! However, if we catch a break—if everyone observes social distancing and stay-at-home orders and helps “flatten the curve”—we should be able to make it to GA smoothly. In the meantime, I’m contemplating the changes ahead of us. GTA, Brenau, and UNG have long, rich histories and traditions, and we’re replacing all the leadership at once with people from the outside who don’t have the same institutional memory. I have great respect for all my future colleagues (and those from the past who have been instrumental in building this partnership) and I’m excited to forge a path that honors this past and leads to new discoveries. I’m cognizant that UNG’s new Chair and I are going to need the faculty to help us navigate these waters. I’ve started my “listening tour” with faculty members, and I’m already planning to hold some town halls with students in the fall. It’s important to first get a sense of the program and community from the people involved. I always try to sit down with as many individuals as I can and listen to their perspective—what do they need? How do they like to function? How do they define artistic education? Where do they see Brenau and GTA going in the future? My goal is to explore the balance between the needs of the art and the artists, and I’m thankful that so many people are already reaching out to help me learn more.

What are your long-term goals for Gainesville Theatre Alliance and the Brenau University Theatre Department?

Any long-term goals I have will be defined by a collaborative partnership with the next Chair of the UNG theatre department, so I’m going to hold off on announcing any major plans until there’s someone in place for me to set those goals with! However, I would like to see GTA and Brenau eventually start recruiting on the national level (it’s a fabulous program in a fabulous theatre town, who wouldn’t want to come here?), and fully establish itself with a national reputation among collegiate theatre departments.

What message would you like to share with Gainesville Theatre Alliance patrons?

GTA may be going through some changes, but I don’t believe that GTA patrons will see that when they come to our shows. There might be a new face giving the curtain speech, but audiences will continue to see what they’ve come to expect from GTA: high-quality collegiate theatre performances.

What message would you like to share with Gainesville Theatre Alliance students?

Come into this transition with as much flexibility as you can muster! Change is never easy, but it can be a refreshing time of growth if we approach it that way. Learn now how to roll with it—it will make you a better performer, designer, technician, artist, and person. Changes like the one we’re about to embark on together are the only constant in life; they require patience, positivity, resilience, and respect. All of us—faculty, staff, and students—want the same thing: for GTA to thrive! Remember that as we recalibrate this year. I’m so excited to meet each and every one of you, and get to work!

How did you first get involved in theatre?

Like many of us, I was just a little awkward growing up (okay, more than a little awkward), and I found some safety in my high school theatre program. From a young age, I’d found a voice in storytelling, and theatre was a perfect medium to create the environments to tell those stories. As such, my teachers saw pretty early on that I could direct, and gave me not only opportunity to create but the ability to fail miserably in a safe space. These early experiences allowed me to be comfortable with artistic experimentation and gave me the curiosity to figure out why these experiments worked or didn’t work.

What are some of your favorite musicals, plays, or playwrights?

Each musical or play serves as a mirror to society at that particular time. As such, I tend to have favorite groups of playwrights/plays/musicals that mirror social or cultural history. For example: Sousa, Cohan, Hammerstein, Sondheim, and Miranda: these are the Salesmen of Americanism in musical theatre. Their musicals redefine the American in each generation (some more responsibly than others). Contrast these with the Saleswomen of American Womanhood: Betty Comden, Mary Rodgers, Marsha Norman, Jeanine Tesori, Jennifer Lee & Kristen Anderson-Lopez, and Anais Mitchell, whose musicals tend to show us the disparity between male and female opportunity and expectation. It’s so hard to pick “favorites” when each play/musical serves a purpose in telling our national stories!

What is a memorable theatre project you have worked on that you felt made a great impact or moved you in a significant way?

I was privileged to work with Steve and Karen Multer on their new musical code name: CYNTHIA in 2014–2015. We did several workshop readings over the first year (including one at the International Spy Museum) leading up to our small blackbox production. The Multers’ fantastic musical got rave reviews and several BroadwayWorld award nominations, but we kept coming in second to an out-of-town tryout running at the same time—Dear Evan Hansen. At the time, Dear Evan Hansen was still in development, and wasn’t quite what we see on stage today; but Pasek & Paul were a known quantity, and Multer & Multer were not. It was one of those moments where I realized how important small development companies were to the health and wellness—to the pipeline—of American musical theatre. Pasek & Paul were once in a small blackbox trying stand out among bigger names and bigger budgets. It reminded me to keep working with and giving to the smaller companies, so that audiences can always be both comforted by the voices they know and love, and challenged by new voices and new perspectives.

Read Brenau University’s offical statement here.

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