By Tre Garrett, a Studio IV director
One of the highlights of training at the North Carolina School of the Arts is the opportunity to work under and collaborate with professional artists in the business. It gives us a realistic view of what we can expect upon completion of our program and allows us to learn information in different ways. Sometimes it sparks artistic relationships that live on well after our years at the conservatory.
On one of the few breaks allotted in our rigorous schedule, I sat down with Benny Sato Ambush, the guest artist director / instructor for the drama school’s fall and winter terms, to get to know him a little better. He directed “Top Girls” by Caryl Churchill during fall term and “Journey’s End” by R.C. Sherriff during winter term. He also taught an acting class with sophomores during fall term and an audition technique class with seniors during winter term.
Tre- So, where are you from?
Benny- Worcester, Massachusetts.
Tre- What inspired you to become a director?
Benny- I can answer that in two ways. The summer going into my junior year I was asked by a graduate creative writing student to direct a play he had written. That was my first directing experience. I loved it!
Up until then I had been an actor but directing seemed to fit for me. I haven’t stopped since. Also George Bass inspired me to pursue theatre as a life’s work. This happened simultaneously.
Tre- How did you break into the business?
Benny- I’d say that my first break was as producing director of the Oakland Ensemble Theatre in California. This was a community theatre that had been dormant for two years and I revived it and made it professional.
Tre- How do you feel things have changed since you began in the business?
Benny- Referring to not-for-profit regional theatre as opposed to commercial theatre, we’ve been beleaguered by the economic downturn, financial restraints, increasing “corporatization” of our theatre institutions and also pressure towards safe conventional programming. I’ll also say it’s much more difficult to not just survive but to thrive and be adventurous at the same time.
Tre- What would you like to see more of being produced in the theatre?
Benny- I’d like to see more plays with mixed casts. By mixed I mean race, culture and gender. More epic theatre, more stories with large canvases and mythic dimensions, greater use of metaphor and larger casts: for example, a whole society being portrayed on stage. But I understand why that’s difficult given current realities. Also, more stories from different world views.
Tre- What artists influence you the most?
Benny- Zelda Fichandler, Jack O’Brien, August Wilson, Nilo Cruz, Ping Chong, Brecht, Pinter.
Tre- What are some challenges you have faced as an artist?
Benny- I’d say it’s been getting others to perceive me in the way that I wish to be perceived. That is, as a theatre artist capable of a much greater range of possibilities than is customarily assigned to artists of color. A constant struggle for legitimacy, a struggle to gain acceptance as a person of color to be as universal as Anglos. Tre, I think you can understand this: We’re often put in a box labeled “black” that means different things to others than it does to me. To be accepted without giving up my cherished racial and cultural identity. I wish to have the same freedom to explore, develop and enjoy opportunities that whites have historically enjoyed as privilege. It is a kind of banging my head against the same wall. Some of these issues are contained in August Wilson’s “The Ground On Which I Stand.” I was actually there when he delivered that speech.
Tre- I wish I could have been there. I greatly admire August Wilson.
Benny- One of the reasons I got into this was that I wanted to alter people’s perception during the era of identity politics coming out of the civil rights movement. I’ve long since expanded my world view and my scope to a universal plane.
Tre- Being that you are a teaching guest artist, what would you like to impart upon the theatre students here?
Benny- That it is very important work that they do, telling stories that till the soil of humanity. It is very important and vital. It is a noble and awesome responsibility that they carry, one that has tremendous power that should be used cautiously and wisely.
Tre- This is your second show here. How have you viewed your experience at NCSA and what will you take away from this experience?
Benny-It has been fabulous! I am both directing and teaching at the same time, so it’s been gratifying to see growth and development in the moment. Seeing students reach for and achieve goals, break through and overcome fears and revel in that glorious feeling of being an artist -– I get as much from mentoring and nurturing young artists as they receive from working with me. Students are teachers too. I’m learning from you as well. I’m trying to find out what is going on in your 20-year-old heads.
Tre- We’re just trying to create our world. (smile)
Tre- Where do you see yourself in 10 years?
Benny- I’ll be wanting what I’ve always wanted: the chance to do meaningful work of the highest level of professionalism for a community who appreciates the effort and to make a decent living doing it. Also to engage with young people to pass on my experience and to give something back.