Theatre in Motion: Adaptation and Community Engagement with Carl Cofield

Anastasia Ellis
January 13, 2023

In Theatre in Motion, we discuss theatre's movement across stages, through time, and within communities with its creators and practitioners. 

We talked about the adaptation of classical theatre texts and the importance of community engagement with Directing alumnus and Associate Artistic Director of the Classical Theatre of Harlem, Carl Cofield ’14.

Carl Cofield is a New York based director and actor and is currently the Associate Artistic Director of the Classical Theatre of Harlem and the Chair of the Graduate Acting program at NYU. He directed the award winning world premiere of One Night In Miami for Rogue Machine Theater and the Denver Center Theatre, for which he received the Los Angeles N.A.A.C.P award for Best Director. NYC directing credits include: The Tempest, Macbeth, The Bacchae, and Antigone (Classical Theatre of Harlem), the 50th anniversary of Dutchman (Classical Theatre of Harlem/National Black Theatre), The Balcony ​(The New School), Better Than Yellow (48 Hours In Harlem), The Seven (Connelly Theatre), A Midsummer Night’s Dream (New York University), 1001 (Columbia University), and The Tuskegee Airman Project (CUNY York College). Regional directing work includes: Twelfth Night (Yale Repertory Theatre), Radio Golf (Everyman), Disgraced ( Denver Center), Henry IV Part II (Oregon Shakespeare Festival), A Raisin In the Sun (Two River Theater Company), and The Mountaintop (Cleveland Playhouse). He assisted Molly Smith in the world premiere of Camp David by Laurence Wright at Arena Stage. He directed the reading of Camp David for President and First Lady Carter at the Carter Center retreat in Vail, Colorado. He also assisted Kent Gash on Langston In Harlem at Urban Stages. 


What sparked your interest in theatre? 

Carl Cofield: It started very young. My uncle was an actor, and so I would accompany him to the theater. I was the little boy in the wings watching the ritual of theatre unfold. I watched how audiences would respond to actors in space—to the telling and sharing of a story. That's this real, primal thing; I think it goes back to the beginning of time and communities wanting to hear stories through the oral traditions of telling them. So for me, at the age of four, watching how audiences interacted with theatre had a really profound impact. And it was different from film. Watching films, you go into a dark room and you try not to make too much contact with those around you, and you experience this thing, but the people you're watching aren't really experiencing the thing. For me, it was really important to have a live experience. That shaped the path for me at an early age. I just knew I wanted to be a part of live theatre.


I'd love to talk about the work you do at Classical Theatre of Harlem, specifically in your use of classical texts. In your opinion, what is the value of bringing classical texts into the present day, and how can today’s audiences relate to them?

CC: I think what’s important about classical works are their themes and how those themes resonate over time. There's a reason why we continue to go back and investigate these stories that grapple with big existential questions. Questions of: who are we? Who do we claim to be? Who do we want to be? I think we find a lot of those questions in the Greeks, obviously in Shakespeare, and also in modern-day classics. Reinterpreting these themes that continue to be relevant in our lifetimes and trying to understand the human experience better through the classics can, I think, reframe where we are politically and socially in our own time period. I think the classics have the ability to speak to us across generations and move through time—as this series might denote, “theatre in motion”—to show us how the reverberations of their themes can be felt years, or even centuries, later. I think a lot of these texts, at least for me, are just as relevant today as they were when they were originally produced. It's easy to distance ourselves with technology and say, well, that [classical work] doesn't really apply to us. But the more you investigate it, the more I would challenge that theory and say that classical theatreworks actually apply more now than ever before.


When you're directing a piece that uses a classical text, do you have a specific process for how you bring the story and its themes into the present day?

CC: I think the muse comes when the muse comes for me. I'm always going to be led by curiosity, which I think is true of most artists. It’s about questioning: what am I curious about? What is on my mind? Where am I in my journey not only as an artist, but as a man, as a husband, and as a father? All of those things come together, and I think the muse then speaks to us where we are on our paths. Right now we're at a difficult place exploring conversations around gender, race, inequity, and anti-blackness. All those questions inform how I interact with a text. And for me, those are the things that are my north star, my guiding principle when I'm creating work, and specifically work that I'm going to probably devote a good portion of my time to. Each piece that we do at Classical Theatre of Harlem is planned a year or two in advance. So you're pouring a lot of yourself, your energy, and your time into it. And for me, those questions I ask of myself and a text are the principles that have to be the prerequisite for me to engage with it. I need to have a clear picture of why we are doing the work, not just for the commercial aspect, but what value it carries and what conversations I think can be stimulated by the work. 


How do you connect an entire community to classical texts when members of that community might have already formed an opinion about that text—either from already having engaged with the work in a different context, or perhaps refusing to engage with it? I know some viewers are wary of Shakespeare because it uses such dense language. How do you invite a community into that kind of work?

CC: It’s all about the curation of it for me. I'm always cognizant of the demographic that I want to be in conversation with. In our community in Harlem, we have a huge disparity between folks who are doing extremely well and folks who aren't doing well. Here again, my guiding principle for that is: art should be for everyone. It shouldn't just be for the high brow intellectual PhD student at Columbia. It should also be for the young brown or black or student who has felt distanced by classical text, whatever “classical” means. I’m pushing the movement to say it's just “heightened language.” It's not classical, it’s not the thing that we should all aspire to. It's just heightened text—but we’ve got a lot of heightened text in theatre.

So I work on breaking down the language we use around classical theatre to make it more accessible and aim toward expanding the cannon. At Classical Theatre of Harlem we have something called “Future Classics” where we select works from today’s playwrights that we think focus on big themes and existential questions that we feel in twenty, thirty, forty years will hopefully still be relevant, that we'll still be talking about, that we'll still be grappling with. So that conversation around language and accessibility is one part of it, but the second part is representation. What I'm not interested in is a traditional take on heightened text. You will probably never see a toga in my work. You're going to see a wide demographic of people that look like the New York that I live in. The work will sound a particular way that I think is more inviting. I'm not opposed to the lute and the tabor and all that, but I think one of the beautiful things about classics is that you have a full swath of imagination you can deal with and choose from. Your palette is rich, and how you apply it to your canvas is only limited by your imagination. And I try to stretch my imagination at every turn when I'm interacting with classical work and see what rabbit hole that can lead me down. 


How do you define the purpose of theatre in a community?

CC: It's a place to remind us. It's a place to learn. It's a place to see; it's a place to ignite conversation and thought; and it's a place of removing ourselves from our reality and placing ourselves in someone else's experience and trying to bridge the gap of understanding between different cultures, civilizations, and time periods. It’s really a powerful vehicle that can transport us. It can be a transporter to the future, to the present, or to the past. It's a vehicle that we can all get in together and hopefully share a communal space, which is becoming more and more difficult—especially coming out of COVID, where we were all just siloed. We are a communal people. We are a communal species and we're better when we are together. So for me, theatre is part ritual, and it's a way to stretch our empathy muscle and our curiosity muscle. It's a huge gumbo of all of these things that I think, even in the worst of circumstances, make us better. And I say even in the worst, because I think in all theatre, no matter how big or how small the production, a lot goes into it. And even the less successful productions can be a spark for conversation. Why wasn't it successful? In theatre, we can talk about that question with a critical eye, which I think we need more of as opposed to commenting on if we did or didn’t like something. That’s pretty much a non-starter for conversation and depth and critical thinking. 

For instance, when you go see the new Death of a Salesman on Broadway, like I did last night, you can take the story—right, wrong, or indifferent to it as you may be—and you can ask questions. You can say, well, they interpreted it this way, and what does it mean to have the Lomans as a black family in New York and Brooklyn at this time in history? And then you can talk about some of the directorial choices or some of the aesthetic choices. I think all of that is a function of theatre and art, quite honestly. 


What does community engagement look like to you? How do you get audiences excited to come to shows, especially people who are new to theatre? 

CC: A Classical Theatre of Harlem, we are blessed that one of our biggest shows is totally free. The issue of high ticket prices is one of the major obstacles that prevents people from engaging with theatre. So, luckily, that obstacle is already overcome. But I also have to approach the question of community engagement more pragmatically. I have to ask: why would I leave my house to go see a play? I have subscription-based streaming services at home; I have my computer; I have my phone. Why would I leave? I think one of the challenges for theatre makers is to address those questions. And for me, I try being cognizant of my demographic. 

I make work that would appeal to the 13-year-old me. For that reason, I make sure there's going to be an element of spectacle. There's going to be an element of surprise and theatrical wonder that I think goes into that appeal to my younger self that, as [Professor] Anne Bogart would say, can only work in the theatre. It would look silly on film, it would look crazy on television. The only place that this kind of spectacle could possibly be fantastical is the theatre. So that idea is something in my back pocket. I also need to be cognizant of how technology can work in our favor at Classical Theatre of Harlem. So I have to be mindful of sizzle reels and how to market work, and I have to put marketing materials in the spaces where we want these new theatre-goers to come from. So is that TikTok? What social platforms do the people who we say we want to invite and engage with use? We have to make the art flexible in order to engage a community, especially a new community of theatre audiences. 


When you have the chance to see theatre outside of your directing, administrative, and pedagogical work—purely as an audience member—what personally moves you?

CC: Well, without getting too esoteric, first I come in with an appreciation built on the insider knowledge of how hard it is to create anything. So I'm already in, in a way—a piece of theatre has already got me on that. The stories that move me, then, are those that examine the human condition. I keep coming back to Death of a Salesman because it's the freshest in my mind. We know the story of the Lomans, or at least a lot of us do, I should say. I went into the show knowing the story of the Lomans, but going and seeing how the creative team for this new production put their own spices in this beautiful, rich dish is a thing that makes me lean in. When I was at Columbia, the professors always said it's not about the what, but about how the story is told. As I watched Death of a Salesman, I was thinking about how creative it was that the show didn’t mention race per se, but it alluded to it, which then made the story even richer and more interesting, and it allowed me to create my own narrative about how that particular story would resonate in this time. 

So I say all of that to say: how creatively can you tell a story, especially a well known story? We all know that there's probably only about 10 stories. But it's how you craft yours, what you show me in the beginning, what you reveal in the end, what surprises happen in the middle, and so on. A single story could be a thousand different things. So I think that is always of interest to me. And it’s not necessarily the Broadway spectacle; you can tell a very interesting story with three chairs. Theatre is only limited by your creativity and the artists’ and the collaborators’ creativity, which is really amazing.