On a friend’s recommendation, I invited JR Teeter to speak as feature speaker at one of our Icarus sessions. He spoke about his Bread & Water Theatre and the types of stories they choose to tell on their stage. JR runs the Theatre and writes/ directs/ produces most of the shows. His story, the 4th in this series, reveals his interests in understanding the underdog and the details of real events from unique perspectives. I look forward to his upcoming shows!
The big question is: “Why do I do what I do?
That’s a complex question and there’s not one answer. But I can tell you about my life and where things go from there.
I grew up in a small community just outside Rochester. The only claims to fame that it has are the first Tom Wahl’s Restaurant (it’s still there) and there used to be a whole lot of sanitariums. Specifically for people going to the sulfur springs. There was a big belief in the 1920’s that if something smells bad, is horrible, tastes horrible, is uncomfortable – it must be good for you.
Me and my brother didn’t much like the environment, I don’t think, but it was a cool thing in that you could take a shovel, dig in the backyard, and you’d find something. You’d find pots and pans, you’d find bottles, you’d find all sorts of things, and we were always very much connected to this idea of history in the neighborhood. We were always intrigued by the idea of what was here before us. And we happened to be on one of the locations where there was a sanitarium. It ended up burning down right before our house was built. So I was always connected to this idea of history – where are we, how are things connected, things like that.
When I ended up going to college, I eventually ended up at Nazareth college, where there was a bunch of things going on at the same time. It was a transitional period in the college when it was going from the Sisters of St Joseph to a secular president. The Sisters instituted a whole bunch of policies to reflect their ideology – social justice, compassion for others – if you’re going to get a degree, it’s gotta help someone.
Then there was also the idea that, the theatre department was small enough that they would do these off kilter projects and plays that no one ever heard of. So it was a really great place to explore who you are – whereas at some colleges they just want to cookie cutter you into a thing.
When I came out of college, there was a lot of momentum to do something different. And to do something different that connects with people in a different way, possibly a more profound way. Because that’s what was demanded of you there – to think different.
As part of my thesis project, I adapted and directed a play. In terms of style and everything else, it was nothing to write home about – but one of the things that happened, and I believe this happens to a lot of artists, is that your first project is usually not successful, but it proves to you that you can do the project. That you’re capable of doing it.
One of the things that I kept gravitating towards is the real life stories of people. I found that as an actor, I wasn’t getting a lot of roles. Or at least the roles that I wanted to play. And I always felt that real life was more interesting. I actually had a career dream that I wanted to happen, which never ended up happening but it kind of speaks to this – I always wanted to play one of the guys on the re-enactments of America’s Most Wanted. If that guy’s really good, people will think that he’s the criminal. And that says a lot about what they’re able to do.
So this project proved that I could do something, that I could put something together and I could manage it. And that I could manage it in a way that other people couldn’t. A lot of other students were doing projects that were failing. Somehow I managed to do a project with 10 other people where it wasn’t a critical success, but it got done. And I thought maybe I can do this on a little more permanent basis and create something that fits me, that fits my worldview a little bit more. Because one of the things that I was seeing out there in the world was that if you can create your own version of art, it can be whatever you want it to be. You’re kind of the rulemaker.
That sort of thing was appealing. So I got together with some friends and we started working on stuff. And Bread & Water Theatre has gone through some different phases, but one of the things that it gravitates towards and I connect to is this notion of real people’s stories and telling them in a unique way. And I think one of the reasons why that ends up happening a lot is because I am an organizer, I am kind of a production manager – I can organize a lot of people and a lot of things, but I’m not terribly creative. In the sense that I can’t sit down like the Game of Thrones guy or JK Rowling and create a whole new universe with new characters and all that stuff. But what I can do is I can compile what’s there, what already exists, and I can compile it in a unique way and make something happen.
There’s a play that’s really dear to my heart that I worked on when I was in college, called “The Witnesses of Kitty Genovese”. It’s a collection of news articles, courtroom transcripts, things like that, put together in a play format. In a way, it feels like poetry because there’s a rhythm to it. There’s the rhythm of the newspaper reporter who, I hate to say it, but you could put music to it. If you read the newspaper every day, there’s a da dada dada dada dada to it. So that at the end where they say, “And he gets 30 years to life,” there’s the upstroke of music.
It’s all already there. It’s all already created. I’m just putting it in a context different from what other people see. That creates a kind of magic, because it takes the ordinary and makes it a little bit different. And that sort of work keeps continuing. It grows in different ways. But you can see with that particular play, you have the idea of a social conscience – I’m telling this story for a particular reason – to push some people’s buttons, and it still has this quality of poetry, and of acting. In an odd way, it appeals to the kid in me who watched America’s Most Wanted and said “I could play that guy.”
One of my current projects is “My Name is Mudd”, which deals with the Civil War and things like that. As I’ve gotten older, as I’ve started a family, as priorities change – one of the biggest questions that I have is where I come from. Who am I and how do I connect to what it means to be American? My parents are getting older. What do I need to ask them now that I need to know to make connections to the past? “My Name is Mudd” comes out of that notion. He was a man who really hated the way that his world was going. He was a Southern sympathizer, he hated Lincoln, he hated all of those things. It’s me in my 20’s. I didn’t know why that I hated these people, I just knew that Nirvana was playing, I needed to hate something, and I needed to do it with a passion. There’s a growing up that’s involved.
As I’ve grown up, things have changed. Now, it’s about how can I go about shaping this world that I live in. What contribution can I make that makes this mine? And artistically, that keeps coming up.
But you keep going, if you’re interested. Some people leave college and they say “this real world sucks – I’m going to get a job and see where it takes us.” But for me, I can’t work in an office, I can’t work in those places and this is really the only thing that I have going for me. I’ve kinda pigeon-holed myself in a horrible way, but what are you going to do?
And I look forward to the day when all the people who don’t want to be here are gone. So that me and my other artist friends (who I don’t know yet), can create a new way of doing things. There’s this notion of primalism coming back – and it’s so appealing to me. It’s about stories that already exist. You think you’ve heard this story, let me change it around a bit – use all real, all non-fiction sources and see where it gets us. Can I change your opinion of this story? Change your point of view? Will you leave the theatre changed? Ultimately, I can’t compete with television, I can’t compete with million dollar touring productions, you’re going to have to do something different. Rochester is at that place where great imagined things can happen. And then it’s – can I do it with the complications of daily life?
To sum up where I’m at – it’s this notion of non-fiction storytelling and it always ends up being steeped in history – of a certain place and time. It almost always pertains to me. Thankfully, not as egotistically as other art-forms. There’s something about this place that we’re living in, Rochester, that I think connects us in a weird sort of way. It’s definitely taken over me. I’ve moved to other places and nothing artistically happened. There’s a part of me that said “This isn’t where I’m supposed to be.” I need to be in a place of dilapidated buildings and I need to create something (that may not happen) in this vain attempt to change something. What it is, I don’t entirely know. It’s this notion that this neighborhood needs me, that I need to be put to use. That I need to be like a worker bee to make some sort of change – and if that change outlasts me – awesome! If it doesn’t, oh well.