C. Ryanne Domingues is a relative newcomer to Trenton, New Jersey, but she’s made it her home fast. As the artistic director of Passage Theatre Company since 2017, she’s deeply invested in creating a range of theatrical experiences that speak to all of the people living in Trenton - and that’s a very diverse group.
When I spoke by phone with Domingues on April 22, 2020, Passage – like theatres across the world – was closed to the public during the pandemic, but busy behind the scenes. Her job now consists of meeting payroll while closed, deciding whether to postpone or cancel upcoming productions, and strategizing when to reopen, all while continuing her creative work of developing new productions for future seasons. During our conversation, which has been edited for length and clarity, we discussed all of this, as well as the ways she’s been finding comfort and sustenance in these trying times.
Jersey Arts: Before moving to Trenton to join the Passage Theatre Company, you were based in Philadelphia, most recently at the Wilma Theatre. How does working in the two cities compare?
C. Ryanne Domingues: The Philadelphia and the New Jersey arts communities are very, very different, mostly because the New Jersey arts community is so much more spread out. Trenton, for being the capital of New Jersey, really functions more like a small town. It’s so funny, I’ve spoken to the mayor many times here - yet I never spoke to the mayor of Philadelphia and I lived there on and off for seven years! So it’s a much more intimate community here, which I think is lovely.
Also, we’re the only professional theatre in Trenton, whereas there are over 100 professional theatres in Philadelphia, so it’s just a completely different landscape. You can do work that is a little more niche in Philadelphia, because there are so many theatres doing so many different things. One of the things you have to worry about there is doing the same thing as someone across the street! Here, the closest theatre to us is the McCarter [in Princeton], which is a much larger theatre and does completely different programming.
My concern is always that we’re reaching each member of our community, and our community is incredibly diverse. So it’s a little bit more of a challenge to plan our seasons, because I want to make sure that we’re being inclusive and that we’re reaching out to everybody. And with a mid-size theatre [such as Passage], that can be difficult to do - you want to reach all different ages and all demographics, so that’s been the biggest difference.
JA: How did you get into theatre to begin with?
CRD: My mom put me into a theatre class because I talked too much when I was in third grade! I was in my first play in fifth grade, and it grew from there. When I went to college, I was a dual major in theatre and secondary education. I was going to be an English teacher and I was set to graduate with both majors in four years. I finished my theatre major first so that I could focus on my student teaching my final year. Then I got a job offer to direct a play in Philadelphia. My advisor said, “Well, you can just drop your education major and graduate early with a theatre degree.” I said, “I don’t know about that!” But then my unbelievably supportive parents said, “Graduate early, take the gig, and if you need to go back to do your student teaching, you can go back.” And I just never had to go back. So I was really, really lucky. I was directing a play at a coffee shop, and [an artistic director from a Philadelphia theatre] saw it. I was just a kid and he took a chance on me.
JA: In 2005, you co-founded Simpatico Theatre in Philadelphia, then went on to graduate school for directing at the University of California Irvine. After a few years, you moved back to Philadelphia to work at the renowned Wilma Theatre. What was it about Passage Theatre that drew you to it?
CRD: Passage’s mission statement is incredibly similar to what Simpatico’s originally was - and that is theatre for social change in a specific community. When people see a show, I don’t want them to walk out and say, “Oh, what a great show.” I want them to walk out and be motivated to do something, or help someone, or change something.
At Simpatico Theatre, when I was there, we linked every show to another nonprofit. So if you were concerned about the issue in the show, you had something to do, you had somewhere to volunteer. There was a show that we did where you could register to vote at every production – it was theatre that resulted in some sort of social action. Passage is very similar to that. Our shows are very specific to our community. We try to pick shows that will reach people, but we also try to pick shows that make people think and make people engage, and encourage dialogue between the audience members. So that was huge for me. When I read Passage’s mission statement I thought, “That’s everything that I know how to do.”
Also, Passage does new work, and I have a pretty extensive background in new work. I’m drawn to it because new work is reactive to what’s happening now.
JA: How has Passage had to adjust because of COVID-19?
CRD: We postponed our second mainstage show of this season, “A Twist of Water,” until next season. The artists involved with that show were absolutely incredible. I asked, “We’re going to postpone this show for a year, are you going to want to come back?” And all of them said, “Absolutely,” and we were just so grateful.
We postponed our second Solo Flights show, “Mother and Me,” to June 19th. I’m wondering if it’s going to have to be pushed back even further or possibly cancelled – we’re not sure yet. Everyone is playing the waiting game right now. But that artist, again, has been incredibly gracious. We’re doing the work to pay the artists as much as we can, because so many theatre artists just have no income right now.
The question for all theatre companies is when do we start again? We’re scheduled to open our first show of next season in October, but are people going to be ready to come back to the theatre yet? We don’t know! I’ve talked to people throughout the country, and in roundtables and forums through the New Jersey Theatre Alliance. Everybody is asking, what do we do? Even though the ordinances might be lifted, when will the general public feel comfortable going to the theatre? So that’s been a real challenge in planning. We have an A, B, C, and a D plan for next season! And we have four different budgets and four different layouts for when the shows will happen. Because we just don’t know.
We’re also working. We have a program called Playlab, where we develop new shows. We have two of them in the pipeline right now that are going to go up in our 2021-2022 season, so we can’t stop working on them! One of them is “The OK Trenton Project,” which is based on verbatim interviews from people in Trenton, and one is a new musical called “Group” that’s about the opioid epidemic. The writers of the musical just sent me a new outline yesterday. For “The OK Trenton Project,” we’re still working on pulling together the script, so there’s a lot happening.
JA: How are you personally handling this period of social distancing?
CRD: Zoom is amazing; you reach out with people that way! But I’ve been baking a lot and I’m a total crime-show junkie. I had never seen the series “NYPD Blue” and my husband thought that was ridiculous! Luckily, there’s like 12 seasons of that show. So I’ve been doing things like that – silly comfort things.
But what’s also been helpful is writing in my journal, and remembering the basics. I was really into the work of [playwright and poet Bertolt] Brecht when I was in graduate school, and I’ve been rereading some of those texts and letting that percolate. So the creative juices are still flowing.
Photos in cover image: C. Ryanne Domingues, photo by Claire Edmonds; production photo from “Dauphin Island” with SJ Hannah and Shadana Patterson, photo by Jeff Stewart; production photo from M”orir Sonyando” with Maria Peyramaure, Daniel Colon and Johanna Tolentino, photo by Jeff Stewart; and The Mill Hill Playhouse, photo from web.