Producing artistic director and co-founder of Robey Theatre Company, Ben Guillory has long graced the entertainment field as director, producer, and actor in film, theater, and television. Born in Louisiana and raised in San Francisco, Ben has been an advocate for human rights, black culture, and black theater for decades. In 1994, Ben and Danny Glover formed Robey Theatre Company, named in honor of Paul Robeson, the late, great actor, activist, and famed operatic singer. Ben took time from his busy schedule to interview in May 2020.
When did your theater begin and what led to its creation? What is your mission?
Ben Guillory: The Robey Theatre Company was founded in 1994 by myself and Danny Glover in Los Angeles. We recognized a need for a continued and concentrated representation of black culture in the Los Angeles theatre community. Robey’s mission is to develop and produce plays about the global black experience and to reinterpret black classics.
Robey was Paul Robeson’s nickname. Paul‘s artistry and activism were the inspiration for the theater. Danny and I were both attracted to theater because it was a platform to present social consciousness through this art form. In creating this theater, we honor Paul’s life-long commitment to human rights and his unyielding, outspoken stance on the brotherhood of man. As a result of his uncompromising need to be active, he sacrificed much of what he had earned as a successful artist. He would not rest on this seeming success and remain silent. We were passionately interested in creating and contributing by presenting to audiences a point of view through a black consciousness that contained how we felt about many things. We also recognized the need for an institution that would provide artists of color a place to grow, develop, and mature in an atmosphere that understood, was unhurried, and possessed a sensibility that placed these artists first - and not as an afterthought, which was so often done in the past and is still frequently happens even today. We wanted a company where artistic disciplines could be nurtured and cultivated, where raw talent and gifts could be honed. Most importantly, Robey was founded to produce works that speak to the black experience and through that prism.
When did you close the theater due to COVID-19? Were you in the middle of a run?
BG: We’re not closed. Obviously, production is shut down because of COVID-19; but our developmental work, playwrights’ lab, commissioned plays, Board meetings, and fundraising continue through the internet, zoom, and ongoing meetings and discussions. Given all that has happened in our society in 2020, we are not presenting our program this year. Our 2021 season is being designed for spring and fall productions. We are also planning our summer Paul Robeson Theatre Festival. Those who wish to volunteer, participate, and support Robey need only contact us at (213) 489-7402, and I will gladly speak to them. Right now, we have conversations about our upcoming plans. People can also visit our website to make contributions – something that we need and would really appreciate. We feel boundless gratitude for any support and want to sincerely thank our supporters for their ongoing interest and help. Without that support, we could not continue our work. It is through public grants and individual donors that we find the resources to do this work and fulfill our mission.
Over the past weeks, how has COVID-19 impacted your theater?
BG: Obviously, right now we are unable to bring in our audience to see our productions. We are hoping that will change soon, but we realize that we must wait until it is safe to again perform for large groups.
Are you doing anything right now to keep your live theater going? Are you streaming? Do you have virtual meetings? Are you planning for your next show when the theater can reopen? Are you auditioning or fundraising?
BG: We haven’t been doing any streaming. We strongly feel that theatre must be a live event. This is the essence of theater. Anything else would not be the same. Of course, we are planning for our 2021 season. But that’s a lot of months away. At the moment, everything is in flux; and we have to wait and see what the future brings.
What do you think will be the impact of COVID-19 on live theater in general in Los Angeles? Do you foresee any permanent changes?
BG: One has only to look around to see the impact of COVID-19 on all of us. I do not know of any production that is running. Everything is at a standstill. After it is safe – and especially when our audiences feel that it is safe to return – then we can enjoy live theater again. At that point, some companies will be able to continue; but others will not be able to return. I believe that this will happen gradually - with the result that the theater community will diminish somewhat. But then I strongly feel that it will rebound – just like it has always done in the past - because there is no substitute for LIVE theater. Our artists will always have the creative urge to continue - because it is and will always be our nature.
What do you need right now to keep going forward? What would you like from the theater public?
BG: We need our audience to understand and continue to recognize our value. When this is all over, we need our audiences to return and continue to support live theater. We also need our artists to weather the storm and continue on their creative path. We know that our patrons will keep supporting us any way they can; and, of course, donations are always welcome.
What are some of your future plans?
BG: As I said before, we’re planning our 2021 season, as well as our Robey Theatre Festival next summer. In the longer term, we will secure a permanent home for the Robey Theatre Company.
This article first appeared in LA Splash Worldwide.