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Great Risks, Great Rewards: Director Lou Bellamy Uses Theatre as a Tool for Social Change

by Christina Ritchie Rogers '03
Lou Bellamy
Lou Bellamy (L) shares his thoughts during an open Q&A session facilitated by Professor of Theatre Joe Gardner (R).

The idea of risk-taking in an environment of regular assessment, like college, can be a daunting thing. But as many Davidson students have learned, often the greatest risks yield the greatest rewards. This idea was reinforced Wednesday, as award-winning director Lou Bellamy, founder of Penumbra Theatre Company in St. Paul, Minn., discussed acting, directing and the "business" side of running a theatre company during changing economic times.

Risk-taking is critical to success in the theatre, Bellamy told the group gathered in the Cunningham theatre building. Company owners and directors need to take risks in the plays they choose; they need to give new, upcoming or controversial playwrights a chance; and they need to encourage actors to go outside of their comfort zones, he said. Over the last 40 years, Penumbra has been on the brink of collapse several times, and its survival hinged on "waking up one more day, trying one more thing," Bellamy said. And because of his creative, at times "risky" ideas, Penumbra remains the largest theatre company of its kind.

"We have to be willing to invest in artists, to take risks, to make mistakes," he said, and recalled a time when some members of the audience walked out of an August Wilson play at Penumbra. Penumbra was the first theatre to produce a Wilson play, and though it was not especially well received at the time, Wilson went on to win numerous awards for his later works–including two Pulitzers. Penumbra's early "investment" in him as a writer paid off, and the theatre has shown more of Wilson's works than any other theatre worldwide.

Never one to worry about what the critics say, Bellamy stressed that college is the perfect time for students to take risks as artists.

"You should play roles here you will never get anywhere else," he said. "Don't be afraid to walk out onto that thin ice. Now's the time to do it."

A Powerful Medium

A product of the Black Arts Movement of the 1960s and early 70s, Bellamy first got into theatre to meet girls, he joked, but quickly began to see that theatre offered so much more.

"I began to see the power of theatre, its power to build community," he said.

The Black Arts Movement grew out of a changing, challenging political and cultural climate in which African American writers and artists sought to use their media as mechanisms for social commentary and change.

While he understands that aesthetic and entertainment values are important, Bellamy refuses to stop there.

"When I do theatre, I want it to do something," he said.

His latest production, Katori Hall's The Mountaintop, opens Feb. 4 at the Blumenthal Performing Arts Center in Charlotte. The play is a re-imagining of events in the Lorraine Motel in Memphis the night before the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr.

Over the course of the evening, the play "makes Dr. King human," Bellamy said, and therein lies its power to affect social change.

"By making him human we empower ourselves because we see that he's no different from us," Bellamy said. It's that sort of thoughtful self-reflection that Bellamy hopes to affect in all of his audiences-reflection that inspires action.

"I view every play I do as a talk with the audience, and I expect a response. That kind of interaction is what sustains you as an artist," he said.

In addition to its regular productions, Penumbra provides a space and a platform to explore complex topics with teens through its summer institute. The students take classes in theatre, music, and movement and learn about theatre as a tool for social justice. For the past two years, Davidson students have traveled to St. Paul to work at the institute.

"Theatre provides a safe space where all sorts of ideas can be interrogated," Bellamy said, and it is in those moments that you "experience humanity."


The Mountaintop - Davidson is selling tickets for students, faculty and staff members to attend the Feb. 11 performance of The Mountaintop. Tickets are $7 and bus transportation is included. Contact the Theatre Department to purchase tickets.