Wednesday, August 5, 2015

Reflecting on 24 years of InterAct

Merion-born Seth Rozin, the producing artistic director and co-founder of Philadelphia's InterAct Theatre Company, reflects on his Lower Merion roots and nearly 24 years in the theater industry.

Reflecting on 24 years of InterAct

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Seth Rozin, 47, InterAct’s producing artistic director, standing in the Adrienne Theater next to a collage of stills from 15 years worth of the company’s plays. (Josh Fernandez / Philly.com)
Seth Rozin, 47, InterAct’s producing artistic director, standing in the Adrienne Theater next to a collage of stills from 15 years worth of the company’s plays. (Josh Fernandez / Philly.com) (Josh Fernandez / Philly.com)

As a budding Lower Merion High School student, Seth Rozin knew his career would go down one of two paths – theater or visual arts.

 “Almost everyone who goes into theater starts out on stage at some point,” Rozin, 47, said. “I was active in theater – acting, directing, writing – from the end of my elementary school days, all the way through college. It hooks you and you have to do it.”

Rozin , a class of 1982  Lower Merion graduate, doesn’t regret his theater decision, especially since he gets to enjoy the almost 24 years of success with InterAct Theatre Company, of which the Merion-born resident is co-founder.

To date, InterAct has presented 78 main stage productions, including 32 world premieres, more than 30 regional premieres and two premieres in the United States. Rozin, the company’s producing artistic director, was named “Best Director,” by the Philadelphia Inquirer twice for the premiere of the 1993 play 6221 and Lebensraum. (Inquirer Theater Critic Howard Shapiro’s reviews of Rozin’s recently directed play, The How and the Why and the musical he wrote, A Passing Wind, can be found here and here.)

The journey toward InterAct’s birth began after Rozin accepted a job offer following his graduation from University of Pennsylvania in 1986. Kaki Marshall, Rozin’s college advisor and the then-associate director of the Annenberg Center, offered him a job as her assistant.

The job entailed Rozin to serve as the interface between the professional theater performances that came through the center, and the student population at Penn.

It was during his tenure at the Annenberg Center in fall 1987 that Rozin met the Irish Universities Theatre Company, a theatre troupe from Ireland that toured the United States performing classic and contemporary Irish plays.

“When they came to Penn I was told ‘you have to find them housing, help them do publicity,’ basically handle them,” Rozin said.  “And so in handling them, I found the idea of a kind of cultural exchange through theater to be a neat idea.”

The then-administrative assistant had a conversation with Terry Dixon, the troupe’s tour director, who was both an Irish and U.S. citizen, which resulted in Rozin’s desire to bring a tour of American plays to Ireland.

The following fall, Dixon returned to Philadelphia, and he and Rozin developed an Irish tour schedule the following fall.

Rozin gathered former college colleagues to help get the tour running, and by Feb. 1988, the tour group became InterAct.

“We decided to form a company that would do this international theater exchange with the idea that you could learn something about another culture through its plays, both about its contemporary culture and values,” Rozin explained.

By fall 1988, InterAct launched its first season at the Annenberg Center’s Harold Prince Theater, performing five classic and contemporary plays one night each.

The plays performed were Eugene O’Neill’s The Emperor Jones, Seduced by Sam Shepard, This Property is Condemned by Tennessee Williams, Sexual Perversity in Chicago by David Mamet and Edward Albee’s Seascape, which Rozin directed.

The performances through the Annenberg Center were followed by a seven-week tour in in both Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland, which included forty-two performances in ten towns and cities.

“We did that entirely fueled by naivety, adrenaline and my life savings, which wasn’t much,” Rozin laughed.

Following the tour, Rozin said he and his fellow company members realized doing tours was going to be very difficult and costly, especially since local funders, although excited when InterAct started, weren’t going to give them excessive funds to perform elsewhere.

InterAct’s mission began to change by the third season for two big reasons: Rozin met playwright, Thomas Gibbons, who also has Main Line roots, and the company began producing new work with a more political and public focus, as opposed to a wide range of plays that were generally American.

The second reason was partly prompted by Rozin’s personal development, after he started working for a program called Children and Mother’s Program (CHAMP), a program that provided arts activities and exposure to mothers and children who lived in shelters.

Rozin said the group met every Saturday afternoon at Drexel, before the program moved to the Penn Museum, helping program participants with crafts and taking them to theater shows.

“What happened because of that, besides being a great program and rewarding, was that [CHAMP] really brought out what was until then, a dormant social conscious,” the InterAct co-founder added. “I thought of myself that way, but I really hadn’t done a darn thing to help the world, and in doing this program, the difference between thinking and doing became very clear.”

Rozin said the experience sold him on the notion that theater had the opportunity to do more than entertain, that it also could stimulate a dialogue. The producing artistic director’s new found theater goal was put to the test with the production of Gibbon’s play, 6221, a three-act play about the MOVE tragedy.

The tragedy was the culmination of a 1978 shoot-out at the home of the MOVE organization, a Philadelphia-based black power liberation group who wanted to return to hunter-gatherer society as opposed to live with urban society’s technology, science and medicine.

MOVE members lived in a commune in the Powelton Village section of West Philadelphia, where, when police tried to vacate them, police officer James Ramp was shot and killed.

The controversy regarding Ramp’s death is that no one knows where the bullet came from, though MOVE members said the officer was facing the house at the time, indicating he would have been shot by a fellow officer.

After the arrest of nine MOVE members, the remaining members took up residency in a row home at 6221 Osage Avenue, where another standoff occurred in 1985, ending in the devastating bombing of the residence.

The entire row home caught fire and eleven people died, including five children.

The play premiered at the Annenberg Center and received nationwide attention. Ramona Africa, the one adult MOVE member who survived the ordeal, and then-police officer Jim Berghaier, who saved one of the MOVE children and later suffered a breakdown from the incident, attended the play and stayed afterward for a panel discussion.

“With 6221, every single person has a strong feeling about it, and we couldn’t sell it that well because of so many people having such angry feelings about the tragedy that they didn’t want to see the play,” Rozin said. “For those who did come, we had big arguments every night after the show.”

For Rozin, it wasn’t all tragedy and fighting with 6221, especially when he learned he impacted Berghaier.

“Jim Berghaier pulled me aside at the reception and said, ‘I just wanted you to know that watching the play tonight really helped ease my pain,’” Rozin explained.

InterAct has produced an array of plays since the play, including Microcrisis, a comedy about the recent financial crisis, which finished its run earlier this month. However, Rozin said none have defined InterAct as much as 6221.

“It crystallized what we were about, which was to use theater as a vehicle to stimulate dialogue,” Rozin added. “And we’ve never done anything like that since it’s really hard to get that kind of material all the time. It was something.”

Rozin said InterAct is putting together a first-time festival this spring called “Outside the Frame: Voices from the Other America,” which premieres from March 27 to April 22.

“It’s mostly first person solo works that individually and collectively show an array of stories, characters and ideas that are not commonly covered in the mainstream media,” Rozin said.

One of the first-person work is called “Draw the Circle,” performed by Deen, a transgender artist who uses the narrative to tell the story of his transformation from a South Asian woman to man, entirely through the words of his family, friends and partner.

Rozin said InterAct is producing “Draw the Circle,” since all of the other solo works have been done before.

“It’s an absolutely beautiful story, but he never plays himself,” Rozin added. “He only speaks the words of the people around him. He’s the person who is transforming before their eyes.”

Regardless of the future, Rozin credits his development as a director, writer and producer to his tenure on Lower Merion High School’s theater group, Lower Merion Players, the organization for which he also served as a staff sponsor from 1990-1998.

“I developed my entrepreneurial spirit there, I directed for the first time there and I even did some of first writing there,” Rozin said. “I can really track my creative and professional seeds to that time in high school. I am incredibly indebted to my time there.”

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About this blog
Josh Fernandez is a 2011 graduate of Temple University where he studied journalism and gender studies. He was a writer and editor for The Temple News, and has interned at Philadelphia City Paper and the Philadelphia Daily News. Josh lived in Aston, Pa. in Delaware County before moving to University City in Philadelphia.

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