Universes Theatre Company: The next big thing in American Theatre?
As box offices decline all over the country, these New Yorkers have something different in mind for American theatre audiences.

With the average price of tickets steadily climbing to cover the increasing costs of theatre production, and audiences steadily being lost to film and television, Universes Theatre Company breaks every normal convention to reconnect with the audience. Through an intricate balance of sound, light and movement, Universes is breaking new ground all over the world. From South America to Canada, people are slowly catching on to the newest wave of American theatre - hip-hop theatre. By blending the rhythmic and musical elements of hip-hop and the spectacle and visual elements of traditional theatre, Universes is reconnecting American audiences with a fresh new perspective while reinvigorating the theatre artists of tomorrow to break conventional theory.

I sat down with Steven Sapp, the front man for Universes, while he was in Chicago at the Goodman Theatre’s New Stages Series. Sapp is both reserved and wholly engaging. Raised in the projects of the Bronx, Sapp has worked in every facet the theatre has to offer - producer, artistic director, writer, director, and performer.

Briefly describe what Universes Theatre Company is all about?

I think what we're about is really bringing to the stage the voices, sounds, rhythms of voices that you don’t usually see on stage. At first, it was primarily about the inner-city urban experience, those voices, but now as we’ve gotten older and we’ve been traveling a lot more, I think that it's just all different types of voices that you don’t see on the stage. The unrecognized voices, so to speak.

You guys started in the New York Poetry Scene. How long ago?

About ten or eleven years ago. You know, really just hanging out at the Nuyorican Poets Café, it was the main, that was like the mecca of poetry. I mean there were other little spots around the city, but that one was the mecca, where everyone who was in New York who ever got any fame from reading poetry, they read there. People like Saul Williams, Tracy Morris, Reg. E.Gaines, Carl Hancock Rux, Willie Perdormo, Miguel Pinero. Those are our mentors, that’s who we came up under. And we’ve always been like, they would call us the kids, the Poetry Kids. Cause we were young and hungry and we had a group. So yeah, it started off that way.

How did you meet the other four members? Through this café?

Well, Mildred and I met in college (Bard College). So we were together, and then Mildred and I founded and built a non-profit agency in the South Bronx, which was called The Point. It was a 12,000-square-foot building. It was an abandoned bagel factory, and we renovated it into a 4300 square-foot theatre. Then the rest of the building was chopped up into businesses - so there was a restaurant, a barber shop, a computer center, a dance studio, and that was our agency. So we ran that for five years, and because I had the theater space I met Flaco - I actually met Flaco when he was 17 yeas old and I met him in a bar doing a poetry reading. He was like this 17-year-old kid that I thought was amazing. One time I was at a poetry reading, and somebody was onstage, and they had two more minutes on their set, and so they called me up to finish off their set. I only had one poem. So I used to do that with Flaco. I would do my set, and then I would bring Flaco up to read his poem. So he would come to The Point, our agency, and hang out. Because of The Point, we would all come and hang out there and then go out into the poetry scene and do what we do.

How were you guys received when you first broke out on the scene?

Well, I must say, the poetry scene thought we were amazing. They saw something more than just poetry. The theatre scene - we weren’t really, to be honest, we weren’t trying to do theatre, at all. We were content doing that. Then I produced a theatre festival in my space and I was inviting all these different people to be panelists and I invited Mark Russell, who was at that time the artistic director of Performance Space 122 - Spalding Gray, John Leguizamo - they all came through that space. So I invited him up. At the same time we had just put together an evening of our own stuff, and Mark came. Mark stayed and saw it and was like, ‘Two hundred people just paid 15 dollars to see a group I’ve never heard of. I’m not quite sure even what you’re doing, but I want you to come down to my space.’ That night! We got on stage, he came backstage and he gave us an offer. That was in October. By that May we were at P.S. 122. We had four days. It went fairly well. People were like, ‘wow, what is this? What’s this new form? What’s going on?’ But then that was pretty much it.

What was the impetus for "Slanguage," your first show?

The impetus for "Slanguage" was really like who we were at the time - who we were inspired by and what motivated us. How did we learn language? Language was bigger than just Shakespeare. It was street stuff, and prisons, and Mohammed Ali and Jack Keuroac and Richard Pryor and hip-hop and the blues and Spanish boleros. It was all that stuff that we were inspired by, the five original members. It was this fusion of music and song and it showed us at our best - our strengths. Sort of us as an ensemble, breaking it up with some hip hop stuff, and then Mildred singing some Spanish things and some beat-box is going on and we're doing Mohammed Ali and I'm doing shadow-boxing at the same time. Jamal is doing a poem, and it's lit, you know.

Have you guys sparked something that has grown? Are there other people trying to do the same thing?

I just don’t think people have quite figured out how to put it all together. When we’re out traveling around the country, some group in college will show us what they do, and it’s like, you know, they're doing some singing, and they're doing some stuff. But no one knows how to put that together. I think we’ve sparked a lot of interest. I think people are like, ‘Wow, I would love to do that,’ but what we do is so us that I don’t think anybody’s kind of like, I mean I’m sure it will, I’m actually hoping it will - that somebody’s going to come along and do us better than us. Not even us, just do sort of this gumbo of, you know, styles. But I haven’t seen it yet.

Being able to look back now, after ten years, why do you think things went the way they did? Why did New York Theatre Workshop take that chance on you?

I honestly think we were looked upon as being these young kids, these street kids. I think, especially during that summer retreat, we mingled with them, we socialized with them. I think when they actually started to talk to us, and I was like, ‘Yeah, I’m from the Bronx, but I also graduated from Bard College with a Theater Degree.’ I don’t think they knew that. Mildred and I were running a non-profit agency, I don’t think they knew that. So it was one of those things like, you know, sort of this myth of who we were or ‘We can’t bring in these young street kids - they don’t know anything about theater.’ What you see is what we do. It’s just really kind of raw. I think that helped and then I also think that having (director) Jo Anne Bonney around. NYTW really wanted to work with Jo. This is my personal belief. They were curious what Jo had and what she wanted to work on, and we were at the time right on her plate. They were like, ‘if you can get a show out of them, cool.’ I think between that and them getting to know us, I think that’s what made it happen.

Your work seems very collaborative. There are all of these added elements, from lights to sound and direction. Is that something that you set out to do, this sort of collaborative art?

The company was inspired, was motivated, by the people in the room. So, yes, I was a good poet in the poetry scene, but that’s kind of what I was. Then it was like, ‘but I love being in a room with people that are going to push me', that artistically, when you bring them in the room it raises the level of what’s going on in the room. So somebody’s monologue or poem can get enhanced with this or with that. You just find people who really want to work and get them in the room and see what happens. Trust me, it’s hard, and (you) take some steps up and some steps back, but we do a lot of laughing. We’re real silly. We know how to not let it be so tense. When we sit in a room and are like, ‘we have to write this piece, ' it doesn’t come out. When we’re really loose and goosey and kind of like, ‘Here it is, what do you see, what do you feel?’ and you respect everyone in the room, that’s when it’s going to come out.

If Stephen Sapp had to be defined, how would he define himself? Do you consider yourself an actor, a poet, a writer or just an overall artist?

I’m an artist. I mean, I write, I direct, I act. You know, I’ve been a producer and an artistic director. I think I do a little bit of it all. I like being an actor, but I don’t like the whole audition process. I don’t like running around. That actually started in college. At one point I was the only black guy in the theatre department. So, when they would pick theatre roles for me, I was always running somewhere, or you know, they weren’t very challenging, artistically, for a black man. When they just cast me and they weren’t trying to think of me being black, it was interesting, it was cool. So I got really tired of trying to find interesting stuff that was going challenge me. I was like, ‘well, I’ll do my own thing.’ I did that in college. When Universes came about, it was like I already (had) a template here to say a lot of different stuff. The way I wanted to say it, paying homage to where I come from but also the theatre stuff that I did learn, how do you match that together? You know, like how do you put some street shit with Beckett or Ibsen or Shakespeare? You know, how do you have real pentameter going on and you’re talking street stuff? Some people can just dismiss it as street shit, but a theater person’s like, ‘Whoa, that’s in pentameter. Are you really checking this? It’s in pentameter!’ You know, that’s the challenge. So I think I do a little bit of it all. I haven’t boxed myself in.

So your theatre focuses on language and the use of language. How has that evolved in your ten-year history?

I think it’s not just poems anymore. Before it was just like poem, poem, poem, poem - it was persona poems, which is what we call them - when you have a character in the poem. So Blue Sweat for Mildred and I - we wanted to keep our poetic style but have it be about these characters and this story. Which "Slanguage" wasn’t. "Slanguage" was this series of vignettes sort of like Ameriville is. We really wanted to write a whole narrative in this poetic style. So I think that’s what evolved, our ability now to write a story and our ability to work on a character. We’re not just writing poems all night long. Even with Ameriville - we’re writing somewhat traditional monologues in the middle of all this poetry and songs - because again, we get dismissed a lot. Like ‘oh they can’t really write this. Or I can’t really commit to them to write something else because they don’t do that.’ So we’ve been trying to dibble and dabble in the traditional sense to show, yes, we can write it if we choose to.

How does music influence you when you’re writing?

I feel like it’s a big part of me. To me, every piece of writing has music behind it or in it. Even if you don’t hear it, it’s there, even when I was being an actor in college. My character work was - yes, you do a whole back story, but what music is the character listening to? So I would have a whole soundtrack in my brain for each different scene. If I’m in this scene what music is playing? That keeps me locked in the character. So when it comes down to writing I’m like, what’s going on musically in this piece that no one will ever hear? But it keeps me locked in - so it’s Miles Davis, or Mos Def, or Tom Waits or Joni Mitchell. But what is the music soundtrack for the piece that I’m writing?

Why is Universes Theatre Company important? Why should it exist?

I think it’s really important, and I really feel this. I think we are the next link in the chain to the last poets. We are this weird sort of, almost a direct link to that. I think it’s very important that people see ensemble work this way. The theater and the poetry scene sees what exactly you can do with ensembles. We’ve been told by the last poets and these great people that we admire that we are taking what they were doing and moving it along to the next level. It’s important for young artists, and at first I thought it was only young artists of color, but the more that we keep traveling, the more I’m seeing that it’s just young artists, helping them see the possibilities of what art can be. I think the US, in particular, is much more open about race and culture and, you know, MTV and TV. A lot of people are interested in listening to things that they usually would not hear. So I can go to Independence, Kansas, where I was just at, and read a poem and the room will totally get all the references, because they may have seen it on MTV or because they’re interested in reading more books. So I think as a company we’re very important, because theatre can be very stale and boring and they don’t know how to appeal to the younger audience. They’re trying to think of all these marketing strategies to try to do it, and then we sort of come along and our audience generally consists of more of a diverse audience. You know, we got a mix of people, from college kids to theater heads, and that’s what theater should be. I think it’s important that we exist because I think we can pull in that younger audience that thinks they are going to see something hip and innovative and new. The older audiences are going to be skeptical at first but when they see the theatrical training, or the stuff that they can recognize as theater, then they can sit there and watch it, and then younger artists can see what a young company can do.

Is your theatre for minorities by minorities? Or is it trying to do something more in a country where race discussions are still tense?

Black people, especially black theatre, most of the black theatre you see is written for black people. Period. And that’s fine. That’s great. We have wider interests, I think. Whether this is a blessing or a curse…we’ve crossed over… to where we’re being looked at by The Goodman, not just a black theatre in Chicago. Our interests are wider… you know… I mean I just told you that I’m into Joni Mitchell, you know… How do I have all of my interest in a piece? How do I appeal to the people that I want to come in the room? I want to have dialogue. I want all of us- Blacks, Whites, Asians, homosexuals, straight people, you know, all of us sitting in a room talking about and being moved by, angered by whatever. To be able to sit in a room and have that go on is great. We’re not all going to stand there and be Malcolm X. We’re not going to be all inspiring. Our culture is complicated like everybody else’s is. I want all of that to go on. So to me it’s great if they (African-Americans) feel inspired or offended. It’s supposed to be (that way), and I hope there are some white people that are in the audience that are inspired and offended. Our audience is bigger than that.

What would you say to the average American theatre artist who feels like the theatre scene here has lost touch with us?

Find your voice. If this is not what speaks to you, what speaks to you? I think that all theatre artists have been inspired by something, otherwise we wouldn’t be doing it. What inspired you and how do you bring that to the stage? You’re going to get kicked on and spit on and ignored and told, ‘that’s not quite what this is,’ and ‘our theatre isn’t going to produce that.’ We were in the same predicament but we didn’t care, and to be honest with (you), I don’t care now. If the Goodman didn’t produce me, so what! You know, it’s like we can still go somewhere and do something and people will come see it. I don’t care. Now if you want to produce us, this is what you get. But for the most part we don’t care. We really don’t. We would still be here if NYTW had never produced us. It may have taken longer but so what? In reality, we’re not hung up trying to play ‘American theatre’s rules.’ I don’t care. Do your thing. I mean, if you look at theatre of the 1970s, them muthafuckas was crazy. And they didn’t care and they got little theatre spaces and did their shit. They just did it. We have to get back to that. If you’re running around waiting for some artistic director to actually get it, even if they do get it, and we’ve had a ton of artistic directors get it, they can’t fit us into their slot. They haven’t figured out how to get what we do into this machine that they have to deal with. So what are you going to do? You’re gonna pander and you’re either gonna write something and try really hard to get it in or you’re just sitting on the outside. Don’t wait for them. Find little theatre spaces, go to open-mikes, however you need to do it, if you really want do it, do it! And if it’s good, and you get your own following… Trust me, it’s also still a business. So what do you do as an artist? You just can’t sit around and wait, so fuck them. (Laughs)




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