If you listen closely enough, you can hear the North Carolina in Sean Sears’ speech. We met for tea last week, and over our hour-long conversation I could just barely discern a drawl at the end of a few words. After spending both his adolescence and college years down south, Sean and his wife, Ursula moved to Pittsburgh to help found the Throughline Theatre Company with some of Sean’s college friends in 2009. You may recall the U.S. was in an economic recession then. He noted that there is never actually a good time to start a theater company; “No one ever says—you know what’s a money maker? Theater arts.”
Since its founding, Sean has held a number of roles in the company: Director of Development, President of the Board of Directors, and Associate Artistic Director. Currently, the Company is going through a staffing transition on a few fronts, and Sean is taking the helm of Artistic Director for the upcoming season. The founding mission of Throughline is to, “demonstrate the existence of common themes throughout literary history that bridge generations and bring into perspective the constancy of the human condition”. This season’s theme is the “Fairer Sex” focusing in on the stories on of gender equality. Sean, so far, has settled on producing two plays, Cloud 9 about shifting identities and power structures and In the Next Room (or The Vibrator Play) a play examining traditional women’s roles. He has not settled on the third play that Throughline will be staging later in the season.
Some have identified the forthcoming presidency of Donald Trump as a rejection of multiculturalism. This may be true but Sean continues to support that ideal. He said, “the arts are the cutting edge, so you work backwards from the arts.” When focusing in on the theme of gender equality Sean acknowledged that you have to explore the actual construct of gender. For Sean, “It can’t just be shows of women about women’s rights. That isn’t enough. You aren’t really diverse if you do that.” I questioned if Throughline’s audience was ready for Sean to push the envelope. He believes that to have empathy for your audience is the key to your audience enjoying the show. “You can’t beat up on them and then ask them for donations,” he said. Still he believes theater can be an excellent tool for change. It’s a medium like no other where an audience is living and breathing with the art unfolding in front of them. Theater is the ultimate shared experience, he believes. He elaborated on the theme of empathy, “[audiences] need to have themselves reflected at themselves so they can either learn or say, absolutely—thank you. We can be a release for people that struggle and are in pain. That is what theater is.”
He admits that he is still learning how to best be an Artistic Director practicing his ideals. He wants to act with an open mind. He offered me this caveat, “I’m a cisgender, heterosexual, white guy, so a lot of things I say come with a big dollop of privilege. My job as I see it is to learn and to shut up when other people who actually experience these things are talking. I can’t just take for granted that I’m an artist that I can tell anyone’s story. Some stories aren’t meant for me. Those aren’t my stories to tell, but they are still worth telling.” In that case Sean is going to put someone with a more authentic perspective in front of that production.
Returning to the theme of empathy, he noted that half of the arts is empathy. You can portray on stage situations you haven’t personally experienced, but you also need to be willing to take a step back and ask yourself if what you are doing is authentic. Is your production true to the mission and message that the piece is trying to convey? If you find that you are being inauthentic, then it is time to take a step back.
He sees the Greater Pittsburgh Arts Council as vanguard for these conversations. This December he will be attending a forum about equitable casting hosted by GPAC. The forum, December 12th is free and open to the public. He strives for equitable casting in Throughline’s Productions, but he does see limits. If one is doing a show about family and the family portrayed is by a multiracial cast, he believes it would behoove the story to offer some kind of background or context in that case. If the particular role you are casting is racially neutral then there is no reason to explain the casting decision. According to Sean, if an audience member leaves a show wondering why a role was played by an actor with a specific racial make up then that is a fail of the Artistic Director because the real message of the play was something else entirely.
Sean’s work with the Throughline Theatre Company is truly a family affair; his wife currently holds the position of Marketing Director. Maybe we’ll even see his young child, Rowan, step onto the stage in the near future. Watch out for the launching of Throughline’s season later this autumn.