Two dramatically fresh faces have brought colorful resumés and ambitious agendas to local college theater departments this year. Both new to the Green Mountains, the men are seasoned stagehands, with experience before and behind curtains across the country. And because their job descriptions extend beyond the classroom, the community will also enjoy the fruits of their labors.
The University of Vermont's Theatre Department recruited Gregory Ramos to expand cultural diversity in its courses - perhaps a tall order in a predominantly white state. "My decision to come here was really an opportunity to have this kind of dialogue with people who hadn't been exposed to a lot of Latino people or a lot of the questions around issues of diversity," says Ramos. "I'm teaching a course right now - LGBT Queer Theater of Color in America - and it's a really smart, really active, interested group of students."
To Ramos, the classroom challenges seem more easily surmounted than the broader cultural and commercial hurdles he observed in his recent work as a Broadway marketing executive. "Broadway has cultivated an affluent white audience," he says, and "panders to that sensibility." Working on The Color Purple, however, provided a glimmer of hope. Houses were 60 to 80 percent African-American. And, yes, he met Oprah. "The reason she gave her name and her money to that production was because she wanted to offer Broadway to an audience that doesn't feel like it's for them," Ramos explains.
At Johnson State College, Reed Brown shares Ramos' strong cross-cultural artistic background - and belief that theater is more than just drama by dead white men. For 11 years, he stage-managed for the St. Louis Black Rep, the nation's largest African-American theater company. In 14 years as artistic director of Missouri's Ozark Actor's Theatre, Brown put on more than 60 productions, which "ran the gamut," he says, from mainstream to avant-garde. He has also choreographed for disabled actors.
Brown and Ramos both worry that lack of ethnic diversity in their student populations could make staging certain works difficult. But Brown also enthusiastically embraces really nontraditional casting. His children's play, Green Eggs and Hamlet, makes Seussian rhyme from Shakespearean pentameter. "The last time I did it, I cast an African-American woman as Hamlet," he recalls. "I firmly believe that we need to start breaking the barriers at a young age about 'women play this role, men play that role, blacks play this.'"
Perhaps coming from the dance world gives the profs a more pliable perspective? Both Ramos and Brown began their professional careers as hardworking hoofers. Ramos says dance training heightened his interior awareness and mental flexibility. "Moment to moment, it's really helped me . . . be present and understand how to respond in any given situation," he reflects.
Brown finds himself continually drawn to "movement-oriented" work. This fall, he will direct Charles Mee's Big Love, "a postmodern adaptation of a Greek tragedy. It's almost theater juxtaposed against modern dance," he explains. "It's that weird genre in the middle where movement and text become one."
One of Brown's primary missions at JSC is to build up the college's new B.A. program in Musical Theater. He's filling curricular holes by teaching classes on movement and improvisation, stage management and Laban notation (documenting choreography). He'll also be directing musicals, although he's eager to mix the familiar canon with edgier work.
Ramos will direct one of UVM's three mainstage shows each year, in addition to teaching classes and supervising students in the directing program. His debut production, Arthur Schnitzler's risqué meditation on sex, La Ronde, opens February 21.
Brown's performance calendar is packed this semester. He directs Larry Shue's farce The Foreigner this weekend, and Cabaret later this spring. In March he dons the actor's mask twice. Brown stages Vincent (March 7), the one-man show he has performed across the country since 2000. Written by Leonard Nimoy, the play unravels Van Gogh's life in dialogue between the painter and his brother Theo. Brown also acts in a student-directed production of Proof next month.