Playwright, Professor, President – An Interview with Joseph Frost

I, Laina Kenyon, sat down with the new president of the Hearth & Mantel Theatre (HMT) board, Joseph Frost to hear his perspective on living in Jackson, some of the things he loves about theatre, and his experience with HMT. He has supported us since the beginning of our journey as a company. For many of our team, he was there even before the idea to start a theatre had formed. He has been instrumental in shaping our approach to new works and finding ways of engaging with the community around us. We are thrilled to have him as part of the Hearth & Mantel story and honored to have him serve on our board.

Where are you from?
I moved around a bit when I was younger, but for the most part I am from Northeast, Ohio. Salem, Ohio is where I was born. I went to high school outside of Cleveland, then went to college in Canton, OH. I went to grad school in Virginia.

How long have you been in Jackson?
I moved to Jackson in 2004. So I have been here for sixteen years.

What have you learned about this city since living here? What do you value most about this place?
I think the things that are great about Jackson are the people, and its unique culture. Obviously there are larger cities in the country, and you could say there’s more by volume cultural activities and artistic activities and things like that going on in other parts of the country. There’s a value in Jackson in a more personal, hands-on approach to creating culture in general. There’s less of a corporate system of “this is the art world and this is the theater world,” and you have to function in that way in order to make it work. Jackson has more of a grassroots approach to creating art.

The writers that come from Mississippi have that great mixture of a sense of the reality of life mixed with the mystical, that Southern Gothic writing style for example, but other writing styles as well. I think it’s true of the visual artists and the playwrights working in Mississippi. There’s an extra value in this area for things like folk art too, so not purely people who are untrained, but there’s a grittiness to it, an honesty to it that doesn’t get bogged down in a slick style. I’ve appreciated in the sixteen years I’ve been here, that folk art kind of way of making things — you step up and make it, and find a way. You find a community that will appreciate it, not in a way that you pander to an audience, but you find a way to speak that relates to the community in Jackson and Mississippi.

Jackson has more of a grassroots approach to creating art.

What is your background in theatre?
I think in some ways it starts in the same grassroots way. I made theatre as a kid. My cousins and I made plays and performed them in the living room for my parents and aunts and uncles. I was part of plays that were in church. When I was younger, my friends and I would make little radio shows with a cassette recorder. It wasn’t good but it was our own expression, our own way of finding our stories. So from there I studied theatre in college. I went to graduate school and got an MA and MFA in writing. And since then I’ve been teaching, writing, directing, and acting.

Why theatre?
There are two parts of why theatre would be difficult for me to give up. And given that we are in the middle of a time of restrictions and a pandemic, they are some of the things I have missed the most about live theatre. The things I am most drawn to are liveness and presence. And I think of them as two different things. Liveness is that experience where whatever is happening is happening right now in front of you. Accidents can happen and you get the opportunity to watch somebody make the best of what they have. That plays out in doing improvisation. It plays out in regular theatre. I always enjoy going to the theater on a night when something’s gone wrong – when an actor misses an entrance, when the lights don’t work, when that furniture piece has fallen apart, when the sound cue doesn’t go, when someone goes to shoot and the gun doesn’t go off – well, now what? There’s an excitement to that, not just because something’s messed up and gone wrong, but there’s an energy in the room when we are off of autopilot and something real is happening.

Presence is something everybody should be able to appreciate now, however much quarantining you’ve been doing; it’s understanding that being present with other people in the same room has such a high value. It meant a lot to me before all this happened, only more so now, appreciating being in the same room with multiple people and having that communal and collective experience.

I think there are times other art forms have presence. There are other art forms that can have liveness. I think dance can have them both. I think music can have them both. But there are a lot of times where one or the other is missing, and I feel like watching theatre on a computer screen or my phone misses either one or both. It’s just not the same experience.

I love the community of creating a piece of theatre, as much, maybe even a little bit more than that experience of performing. I love being in a creative room and watching something come together in an improbable way. Making discoveries you didn’t know were there or possible in a rehearsal room is an exciting process to me.

… there’s an energy in the room when we are off of autopilot and something real is happening.

What was the first show you experienced with HMT?
So I saw the first show, the first performance of If I Had Wings by Mac [Mitchell] with Frannie [Maas] and Connor [Bingham]. It was in that living room with the little porch as the lobby.

What has been your favorite HMT experience?
I have seen four and been a part of two so it’s kind of cheating to say “the one I directed or the one I wrote.” Because the other ones where I wrote it or directed it, my brain was other places, so my favorite one that I was able to just sit and watch the show and not be nervous about my participation in any of it was The Lady with Bruce Willis Eyes. That was something that came together really smoothly from an audience perspective. It was just a really solid show. And I love the idea of having a piece of material and having one performer and how those things work together in that process. I love that idea of creating solo shows.

What do you think HMT brings to the city of Jackson?
What I appreciate most about Hearth & Mantel is that its focus on trying to develop new material that speaks directly to the community here is in line with the stuff I love about the community in Jackson – the folk art perspective, creating your own thing, and finding a community that appreciates what you’re about and what you’re doing.

I think there’s plenty of room and space for producing plays that are already written for other communities and bringing those ideas to our region, but my preference is for that unique voice and creating our own work. So I think that’s what’s unique about Hearth & Mantel in the Jackson community. There are a lot of other places where there’s going to be a One Acts Festival or a Reading Series for new work, but for new work to be the focus of the production schedule year round is unique in this area.

Where do you see HMT in the future?
I think that as a community of artists, it’s going to continue to grow in its ability to find its unique story, its unique voices, and develop those together as a community rallies around it – as an audience and as supporters. I see it growing in a very grassroots way.

And lastly, just to mix things up, what would you say is your finest accomplishment?
I am not the type of person who ever gets overly satisfied with anything I’ve done, but the things I have been satisfied with in the past have been rallying a community of people to create something and put forth all of our best efforts. In my history, the collaborators have been at varying skill levels. I’ve worked a lot in education, so often I’m working with people who are extremely new and people who are well experienced, and so things have different meanings for different people even if they’re in the same project. My satisfaction usually comes when people can say, “I was able to do my best and push myself further while still connecting to a need in the community,” even if it’s a need they didn’t know existed when we started. Sometimes the performance comes out awesome. Sometimes the performance isn’t great but the community comes together in a really strong way, or it’s an imperfect work that spoke perfectly to a certain time or place. Success is a moving target. And it’s almost never the bottom line of how many tickets we sold or how much money we made off of it.

If you would like to learn more about Joseph Frost, you can visit his website, here.


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