One of the many fantastic partners we had in putting together this year’s addition to the New Jersey Women Playwrights Project was the Jersey City Theater Center. Their Artistic Director, Olga Levina, is an incredibly intelligent, thoughtful, and wonderful woman, so I wanted to sit down with her and find out more about her and the organization she helms.
WTNJ: You are the Artistic Director of the Jersey City Theatre Center – how long have you been the Director there and what are some of your favorite memories from past productions and events?
O.L.: My partners and I founded the company in 2006. In October of 2007, JCTC rented a theatre space on Christopher Street in NYC for our first production, LAND OF FIRE, by Luis Santeiro. Jersey City didn’t have a professional theatre space where we would be able to present a production with the union actors in it.
On the night when we finally had a reporter and a full house, the sound/lighting booth caught on fire. I had to go in front of the audiences and ask them to leave the theatre and wait outside until we resolved the problem. People waited outside for about 30 minutes. They were laughing, talking, commenting on how the name of the show matched the occurrence.
Not even one person left. After the fire department left and our technicians repaired the problem, everyone went back into the theatre. The next day we had a great review along with the description of the accident. I learned three things: that as an Artistic Director, I have to live in the moment just as an actor does on stage; secondly, that if a show is engaging, people will wait and forgive you even if the theatre is on fire [laughs]; and lastly, JCTC really needed its own theatre space in Jersey City.
WTNJ: I spoke with [Artistic Director of Speranza Theatre)] Heather Wahl about how the location of an organization tends to influence the work it does and I think this is especially true for arts organizations. How does the unique atmosphere and energy of Jersey City affect or influence JCTC’s programming?
O.L.: What made me truly fall in love with Jersey City is its diversity. It is a community where everyone can come together and learn about each other and all our different cultures without traveling too far. Our aim with JCTC is to use the arts in ways that acknowledge, reflect upon, and highlight the positive impact of cultural diversity on not just our city, but every aspect of life in our country.
WTNJ: I think the foremost mark of a good Artistic Director is their vision for the work they help create and nurture. What are some of the things you look for or try to achieve with the events and shows that you produce?
O.L.: Work that tackles the issues of our times. I want diverse voices to be heard. I want artists of different cultural backgrounds and every discipline to bring their works to JCTC without any hesitation. We are getting more and more submissions and the artistic excellence of the work and its thoughtfulness all play a crucial role in what artists we will work with. Personally, I am most attracted by honesty. I like work that is personal to an artist, yet it contains universal massages.
WTNJ: Jersey City is a huge melting pot of many different cultures – how do you try to reflect that diversity in the work JCTC does?
O.L.: By giving opportunities to performing and visual artists with different cultural backgrounds and reaching out to our diverse community giving them affordable programming.
WTNJ: The current series at JCTC (of which the NJWPP is a part) is called “Identity.” Can you share with us a new insight that you’ve had about yourself or the organization that’s come about as a result of being exposed to the wonderful art and performances that are part of “Identity?”
O.L.: Never assume that you know the true core of a person because you read something about them or identify them with the certain social group, be it culture, ethnicity, religion, or age. Each and every time I watch a new reading or performance, that experience changes any preconception I may have had or thought I had. Never presume you know someone until you experience that person – or their art – first hand. Identity made me realize that lesson again.
With Identity, I’ve also learned something new about myself with the I’ve seen work so far. It is much easier to make an assumption, but theatre and the arts are all about experience, and through experiencing, we grow and we change. What’s most exciting is that Identity still runs through May 13th, and we have a lot more to discover and experience.