Playwright-director John Rosenberg continues his series of long-form interviews of varied creators and theater peeps with LaNeshe Miller, an actor and executive director of Theatre in the X. (Read other interviews in this series.)
John Rosenberg: Who are you?
LaNeshe Miller: I am an actor, producer, and marketer passionate about providing access to the arts and art for social change. I’m the executive director of Theatre in the X.
John Rosenberg: Why did you say it like that?
LaNeshe Miller: When people ask about you they are really asking “what do you do to make money?” I like to offer instead what I do and what I’m passionate about up front, and then plug the project I dedicate the most time to second. Also, because I know this series is about theater makers, that definition of myself seemed most pertinent. Depending on the situation, I’d also tell you I am a mom.
John Rosenberg: How many different versions of you are there?
LaNeshe Miller: Mom/Wife, administrator, performer, LaNeshe of no responsibilities―so four.
John Rosenberg: Your email address is fortheloveoftheater. What do you love about theater?
LaNeshe Miller: I LOVE the power theater has to entertain, connect people, change the way people think, and create dialogue. I believe live theater has a power that work on screen can never have. There’s no wall between the performers and the audience. There’s no distraction (like cell phones and laptops that usually distract me when I’m watching TV). You’re forced to engage in the art in a person way sitting next to strangers. It’s great.
John Rosenberg: Do you remember when you fell in love with theater?
LaNeshe Miller: I fell in love with performing theater during a high school production of Anything Goes. Prior to this production I was just a dancer. I was cast in Anything Goes because I could tap dance, and I fell in love with acting and soon moved away from dancing.
I fell in love with the power of theater also in high school, when I was part of Bridgeport Profiles Theater, a program where we as high school students devised and created plays for middle school students around themes of things like gun violence, suicide, and LGBT issues. I could not believe how much we reached those middle school students. We opened up their minds and created dialogue about really important issues. It was so powerful to be a part of it. That’s when art for social change because a passion of mind.
John Rosenberg: Where are you from?
LaNeshe Miller: I’m originally from Bridgeport, Connecticut, but I’ve been in Philadelphia for 15 years and I say “jawn” without thinking about it so at this point I’m from Philly.
John Rosenberg: What brought you to Philly?
LaNeshe Miller: Temple University!
John Rosenberg: What did you study at Temple?
LaNeshe Miller: I was a communications major with a minor in theater.
John Rosenberg: Where is someplace you are certain I have never been?
LaNeshe Miller: You have never been to Bridgeport, Connecticut.
John Rosenberg: Haha, I have never been to Bridgeport. What is it like?
LaNeshe Miller: It’s a bit like Philly in that there are different neighborhoods, and each neighborhood believes its the coolest. Lots of people of color. It’s an old factory town, so there are many old warehouses. Where I grew up, the East End, is its own little neighborhood where most people know each other. It is NOTHING like the Connecticut most people probably think of. This isn’t where Martha Stewart lives.
John Rosenberg: What hangs on the walls of your home?
LaNeshe Miller: Photos of family, a velcro “dart” board, a painting I did at one of those “Paint & Sip” nights, a piece depicting the Bridgeport CT skyline that my best friend in high school made for me.
John Rosenberg: How many plays have you walked out of?
LaNeshe Miller: Two.
John Rosenberg: Which ones?
LaNeshe Miller: A production of Jamaica because the accents and acting were really bad, and a production of Edward Scissorhands because there was no dialogue. I don’t know if the marketing didn’t disclose there would be no dialogue or if I just missed it, but it wasn’t what I was looking for.
John Rosenberg: What was there in the production of Edward scissorhands if there was no dialogue?
LaNeshe Miller: It was mime/dance. The plot was told through movement.
John Rosenberg: What do you not like about theater?
LaNeshe Miller: I don’t like when theater is pigeonholed into only telling certain stories for certain audiences. I’m so happy that mainstream theater in Philadelphia is shifting to telling the stories of people of color more often. I don’t like that theater can often be something only accessible to people with means to pay for tickets and get to downtown theaters, which is why we created Theatre in the X.
John Rosenberg: Why do you think mainstream theaters are shifting more to telling stories of people of color?
LaNeshe Miller: Its three parts: 1. a genuine want to be better and more inclusive. 2. being guilted into being more inclusive and 3. knowing that diversity and inclusion is where the grant money is right now. It’s all a mirror of how prevalent diversity and inclusion conversation are in popular culture right now.
John Rosenberg: Is there a danger in mainstream theaters shifting towards telling stories of people of color?
LaNeshe Miller: I don’t think so. People of color will always self-produce to insure their stories are told on their terms. Mainstream theaters also telling the stories will help reach people, their audiences, who would never find themselves outside in a park in August watching our shows.
John Rosenberg: I guess my question of danger with mainstream theaters is questions of genuine, honest storytelling compelled by the right reasons not because where the grant money is right now. But America is a country with a long history of white people having to be dragged kicking and screaming towards progress. I wonder if ideas of inclusion in art goes through cycles.
LaNeshe Miller: Ah yes. I think that can be a danger. Not every theater is going to do it right. The only way around that is for theaters to have people of color on their team (from board, to management, to on stage, to behind the scenes) to make sure they are really hitting the mark. No matter how well meaning you are, you can never truly know if you’re telling someone else’s story correctly.
John Rosenberg: When did you start Theatre in the X? I know you mentioned the cost of downtown theaters and accessibility. Can you walk me through the lead up to you making this decision and your life at the time?
LaNeshe Miller: We started Theatre in the X in 2013. All props go to my co-founder Carlo Campbell for the idea. He was audacious enough to say matter-of-factly that we should and could do theater in West Philly, his neighborhood. We wanted to bring theater to that community and create opportunities for ourselves and other actors of color in the city.
John Rosenberg: Who else in on the creative team behind Theatre in the X?
LaNeshe Miller: Theatre in the X was founded by myself, Carlo Campbell, and Walter DeShields. Also on the team now is Eric Carter, Nastassja Baset, Richard Bradford, and Niya Colbert.
John Rosenberg: How did you meet the creative team behind Theatre in the X?
LaNeshe Miller: We all met as actors as part of a theater company that is no longer around “…And Company Theatre”
John Rosenberg: Why is the name of the company Theatre in the X?
LaNeshe Miller: It was originally because all our productions were in Malcolm X Park in West Philly. Now the X is sort of like “X marks the spot.” We’ll pop up anywhere bringing theater to the people.
John Rosenberg: How many plays has Theatre in the X produced?
LaNeshe Miller: Five productions in Malcolm X Park, two productions inside buildings, and around 10 readings.
John Rosenberg: What were the five productions in Malcolm X Park? What were the two productions inside?
LaNeshe Miller: I suppose its been more than five in the park since a few years we did more than one show.
- 2013 – Nilaja Sun’s No Child… and Amiri Baraka’s A Black Mass
- 2015 – Othello
- 2016 – The Meeting by Jeff Stetson, New Black Math by Susan Lori Parks, Love, Queens who Suffer from Post-traumaticStress Disorder compiled by Heather Thomas and Jamila Capitman
- 2017 – Running Numbers by Cheyenne Barboza
- 2018 – The Wiz
Inside we’ve done The Black Panther Project and The Colored Museum.
John Rosenberg: What do you experience in your head when you feel positive?
LaNeshe Miller: Happiness, ambition, and a need to dance.
John Rosenberg: What do you experience in your head when you feel negative?
LaNeshe Miller: Cloudiness.
John Rosenberg: Can you change how you feel?
LaNeshe Miller: I can change my attitude about how I feel but I can’t change how I feel.
John Rosenberg: Do you have a code you live by?
LaNeshe Miller: Choose joy.
John Rosenberg: Is there a piece of art that makes you feel unsafe?
LaNeshe Miller: I don’t think so
John Rosenberg: Is there a piece of art that makes you feel like everything will be okay?
LaNeshe Miller: The Wiz
John Rosenberg: Do you remember the first time you saw the Wiz?
LaNeshe Miller: I can’t remember the first time, but we produced it this past summer in Malcolm X Park and it was so beautiful. It’s so joyful.
John Rosenberg: What is it about The Wiz that makes you feel like everything is okay?
LaNeshe Miller: The reminder that everything we need to make it through is inside of us no matter what we have to go through on our journey.
John Rosenberg: How would you chart the evolution of Theatre in the X?
LaNeshe Miller: We just keep growing and expanding. If it were a line graph you’d see a big jump in 2018 when we did The Wiz.
John Rosenberg: How much do Theatre in the X productions usually cost?
LaNeshe Miller: We’ve only ever had one production in our history that wasn’t free. We only charge for our fundraising events. Even our upcomingco-production with EgoPo we’re having one performance that is complimentary to continue to allow access.
John Rosenberg: What is the upcoming co-production with EgoPo? How did it come about?
LaNeshe Miller: EgoPo graciously reached out to us to do a co-production of Egoli By Matsemela Manaka. They wanted to produce the play, and (rightly) wanted people of color involved. “A pivotal player in the grassroots black theatre movement and the anti-apartheid uprisings in 1970s South Africa, Matsemela Manaka unearths the stories of South Africa’s oft-forgotten miners. Hamilton and John forge a complex connection as they navigate lives that are confined by race and poverty. A bittersweet ode to the humans on whose backs a country was built.”
John Rosenberg: What do you think about when you act?
LaNeshe Miller: Being true to the character and reaching the audience.
John Rosenberg: What is the worst performance you have ever given?
LaNeshe Miller: In high school I put together a hip-hop dance routine with some friends for the talent show. When it came time to perform I was SOOO nervous that I was barely doing the steps in the routine.
John Rosenberg: What is the best performance?
LaNeshe Miller: Emilia in Othello (Theatre in the X summer show 2015)
John Rosenberg: What have you never seen on-stage?
LaNeshe Miller: Zombies!
John Rosenberg: What routines do you adhere to?
LaNeshe Miller: Always putting lotion on after a shower. It was a New Year’s resolution I made years ago and I’ve stuck to it
John Rosenberg: What routines do you no longer adhere to?
LaNeshe Miller: I no longer overwork myself for anything that isn’t within my control.
John Rosenberg: What is a book everyone tells you to read but you refuse to?
LaNeshe Miller: Game of Thrones. I’ll only read the book BEFORE I see the show or movie.
John Rosenberg: How would you describe the Philly theater community?
LaNeshe Miller: It really is a community. The humans that work in theater in Philly are super supportive of each other. I rarely go and see a show where I don’t see my theater peers also there to support. We give to each other’s crowdfunding campaigns, we trade props and costumes, we’re all here for each other in a beautiful way. No matter what gripes artists have with the institutions of theater in Philly, we all love the community.
John Rosenberg: Where do you see yourself?
LaNeshe Miller: I see myself at the center of a multi-circle venn diagram that encompasses being an actor, producer, marketer, mom and wife.
John Rosenberg: Are any of your kids performers?
LaNeshe Miller: My daughter has such great comedic timing and presence, but she’s pretty undirectable. She wants to perform when she wants to, not when told to. So no, at this time my daughter isn’t a performer.
John Rosenberg: What do you think my son is named?
LaNeshe Miller: John Rosenberg Jr.
John Rosenberg: No. What advice would you give yourself in the future?
LaNeshe Miller: Remember to always make your own rules.