Dig Baton Rouge

Passion Play

Greg Williams Jr.  |  Artistic Director  |  New Venture Theatre

When the New Venture Theatre first took the stage in 1997 as a local theatre program, Greg Williams Jr. knew the future company was on the brink of something essential to the city of Baton Rouge. The theatre company serves as a space for diverse artists to receive opportunities in developing their talents and to deliver messages to the community that reflect on human experiences.

After years of collaborating with New Venture Theatre, Williams stepped into the position of the company’s artistic director. Williams chatted with DIG to talk about his role as artistic director, the scripts he most wants to direct, and what New Venture means for the Baton Rouge community.

What were some of the steps for New Venture to become a theatre company?
I had to make sure we understood how to finance the company, how to make sure that the community was invested in the project and the mission. So, we took two years before we even did a show and just dived into the community to make them aware of the project, find out what their needs were and how we could provide those. We also met with other theatre companies to see how we can expand the landscape and not necessarily have any direct competition.

Why did you want to take on the role as artistic director?
I’ve always had a passion for directing and got terrified when I graduated, because I thought I was supposed to go into acting. Everybody has always said, “Greg you’re the singer, you’re the actor,” but it just didn’t feel like the right place. I’ve always loved the person that can quietly sit back in the chair and realize he had something to do with making all this magic happen and then just go home. And so, I’ve just always had the desire to be a director. And it really does—I know this sounds cheesy—but it really does something for me when I see somebody who’s never been on stage or see someone who gets that lead role finally after auditioning for years, and see them just shine and have their moment. Because I remember how much I used to hunger having those opportunities as a younger person. Now the city of Baton Rouge has this place where people of all backgrounds can come and really have their moment to sing their song, dance their dance and play their role.

What are some of your responsibilities as artistic director?
I pick the season each year, I direct about three shows out of the season. We do six a year, and the other three I also help bring in guest artists so that the actors have a chance to work with professionals from around the country. I take care of the budgets, and report to the board monthly just to let them know how the company is flowing and answer any of their questions.

Can you tell us about the upcoming season?
We’re finishing this season. We have “Love, Whitney,” which is our dance musical that opens in October, and then we’re closing with “Black Nativity” in December. We’re a calendar year so we’ll be announcing our next season at the very beginning of December.

When selecting the season, what are some of the things you look for in scripts?
First thing I look at is the community and we try to see what the needs are. For instance, after the flood and the Alton Sterling situation, we understood that we had a responsibility to address topics like Black Lives Matter and race relations, but we also really had a responsibility to help people laugh and understand our shared humanity and escape. I’ve been trying to make sure we’re playing as many comedies and musicals as we are political pieces or heavy pieces. I try to find a good balance to make sure we have something for everyone.

What are some of the goals you hope to achieve with New Venture Theatre?
For the remainder of this year, I’m really working on developing on new audiences and bringing the arts to underserved areas that may not have been exposed to the arts. So that’s one of our primary goals. I started in Eden Park and if I hadn’t had been exposed to theatre by seeing a little play by Playmakers in the library as a four-year-old kid I may not be here. So, we really work hard to make sure we’re out in the community. Another thing that is a major goal of mine is rehearsal and scenic shop space. We lost our space in the flood so we’ve kind of been in flux so we’re working hard to try to develop that. We’re not looking to build a theatre by any means, but we want some rehearsal and office administrative space. Those are my two major goals right now.

How does New Venture interact with the community?
We offer free courses for schools. For instance, last year we partnered with Glenn Oaks and we offered free acting classes and workshops because they were going through a rebuilding process and had no artistic space for students. So, we would just go once a month and do free acting classes. We also offer extremely affordable acting classes at the Arts Council. And lastly, we visit schools. We have a show called “Polka Dots” that deals with teaching kids just because we’re different doesn’t mean someone is better or not better than anyone else and we’re touring that around at various schools to teach kids about inclusion and what it really means to celebrate our differences but still respect one another.

Where do you want to take the company five years, 10 years down the road?

Within five years, I want us to be able to present more new work so that we can also offer more opportunities with local playwrights. I would love to partner with organizations where we can have actors start to present their own work as well, but also moving towards being a professional theatre where we can pay our actors, pay our staff, and really sustain the company so in 20-30 years when I do retire, Baton Rouge has this little artistic gem that continues to thrive.

Photos by Sean Gasser

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