Jesse Cline, the artistic director of Media Music Theatre opened the doors of the theater to answer questions about his life, his career as an actor, singer, and director besides polemic topics like the Oscar’s racial controversy and the study of theater as a major in college.
His work has been seen at the Media Theatre, which ranks as one of the East Coast’s top regional theatres, since 1994 when he began staging Broadway musicals in Delaware County as the artistic director.
Jesse Cline was born in North Carolina, he holds a BFA in theater from Virginia Commonwealth University, did graduate work at Bowling Green University and has staged over 50 Broadway revivals, which have received critical acclaim from the Philadelphia Inquirer and several other media outlets.
From North Carolina, to NYC, to Media, Jesse Cline has been in several places showing his talent and experience, and on the second floor of the Media Theatre he opened up and told me all about it.
Jesse Cline: I don’t think I had a choice. Even though I grew up in a small southern town, where there was no theater except church plays and school plays, there was something that drew me to those opportunities to participate in some sort of theater. If I didn’t get the lead in my school play I would be upset [laughs]. So as soon as I could, I went to school and studied theater, and afterwards I went to New York. If I had to do it over, knowing what I know today, I don’t know if I would have gone to school to get a degree in theater.
Jesse Cline: I probably would have just moved to New York and studied privately with the best teachers I could find. The only thing that matters is the audition, whether you go to school or not. I think that getting degrees in theatre is a safety cushion because this [field] is so competitive.
Phindie: You have worked as an actor for several productions before becoming an artistic director. Do you still act?
Jesse Cline: No, I decided to stop. I don’t intend to sound arrogant here but I had strong feelings about musical theater and I didn’t want to be just a spoken wheel, I wanted to be the wheel. That’s why I started my own little company in New York called Music Theatre Company. The idea was to discover new musicals and to give them readings where we could invite investors, composers, directors, and other people, and have them come and hear a reading of it and discuss what needs to be done with it or if it we could produce it. That is how I started directing.
Phindie: You are the artistic director of the current production “To Kill a Mockingbird”. It is part of Black History Month and it talks about racial struggles. We have seen recently in the news the controversy about the Oscar and racism. What is your opinion regarding this issue?
Jesse Cline: I don’t believe in quota systems. I think performances should be based just on the work that is done. I think the composition of the people who judge probably should be a bit more diverse than it is. So that the accusation cannot be made, that there are no black people being nominated because most of the people who decide are not black. I think that black people are much more sensitive to racism than white people because they had to endure it. But political correctness and politics, if at all possible, should not be a part of the Oscar, the Tony or anything else. Simply because there are no black nominees, this should not be viewed as an opportunity to accuse those who are nominating as being racist.
Phindie: Do you cast local actors for your productions?I think I have an obligation to give local actors as many opportunities as I can. I went to the Second Baptist Church right around the corner from the theatre, a black church, and I persuaded the minister to play a role in “To Kill a Mockingbird.” He does a pretty good job. However, in all truthiness, Philadelphia does not have the talent pool that New York has. Especially if you are doing musicals. I try to cast whoever is best for the role.
Phindie: Journalists say the readers nowadays have short attention spans. Do you believe the same is happening with the audience of theater performances? Are directors trying to make plays more fast-paced?
Jesse Cline: It is like the movies, back in 1930, they were like plays. People could go to the movie theater, sit and watch Bette Davis’ movies. All of those movies were just plays that were being filmed. And people could sit and listen at that time better than they can now for some reason. Life is just faster paced. The entire running time of “To Kill a Mockingbird” is 2 hours and 10 minutes. That is probably as much as people are going to sit and listen.
Phindie: If you could choose one production to do it again, either as an actor or a director, which one would that be?
Jesse Cline: If I could do it again I would do a show that most people are not familiar with, it is called “Thrill me.” It was based on an actual crime committed in Chicago in the 20’s. I know it sounds weird that I want to do it again, but it is a really interesting and fascinating musical. I had a great time directing it. We took the stage and made a black box theater of it. We closed off the fourth wall. Once you walked into the theater, you couldn’t get out. There were people that came who were blown away by it, for others it was very difficult to take it. I think that sometimes you have to confront people with material that makes them uncomfortable, because when they become uncomfortable, they become free.
Phindie: What would you say to a college student who has not been in a theater in a long time?
Jesse Cline: I would say that there is a spirituality here that they need to get to know.