A year after coming together, the two theater companies that created The Conciliation Lab (TCL) are going their separate ways.
The merger between TheatreLAB and The Conciliation Project was announced last year (and reported in this Style cover story) along with aggressive plans to create an organization committed to both arts and activism. “We set out to do something monumental,” says Deejay Gray, TCL’s co-artistic director. “But while it’s wonderful brainstorming and planning, you then have to implement that work.”
TheatreLAB, the company that managed The Basement performance venue, will shutter operations after the current season is over; whether the venue will remain open is unclear. The Conciliation Project will continue but with a different scope and focus. The move was finalized on Feb. 28 after a vote by more than 20 supporters, advisers and community members who had been involved in strategic planning for the merged companies. (Disclosure: a year ago, the author served on the strategic planning committee).
Trey Hartt, managing director of The Hive Movement, a youth justice organization, facilitated strategic planning for the companies. He cites the many challenges small organizations face to stay afloat as leading to the dissolution. “The drive to amplify the work of the two companies through a merger only got us so far,” he explains. “The roadblocks began when we started to implement our strategic plan with very little resources and not enough attention to the organizational culture.”
Gray founded TheatreLAB in 2012 and the small company distinguished itself by attracting top talent to work in its flexible underground venue, earning Best Play honors from the Richmond Theatre Critics Circle in 2016 and 2017 and Best Musical in 2019 and 2020.
The company’s other co-artistic director, Dr. Tawnya Pettiford-Wates, says, “We knew it was going to be hard [because] we were merging two completely different cultures. We wanted to be inclusive of all stakeholders but…in the end, it was too big, too many cooks in the kitchen.”
Pettiford-Wates brought The Conciliation Project from Seattle to Richmond nearly 20 years ago and regularly devises theater pieces tackling hot-button issues, focusing on anti-racism. “I still felt like we were at the beginning of something but clearly we had issues that needed addressing and processes that needed to be revised,” she concludes.
“When we were planning the merger, we used a metaphor of making a baby,” Gray says. “But a marriage metaphor is more appropriate, and we skipped dating and went straight to the altar. We didn’t take the necessary time to actually get to know each other.”
Issues came to a head during the development of an original performance piece commissioned for VCU’s 2022 Martin Luther King, Jr., celebration. In the weeks before performances, Gray was struck with COVID and Pettiford-Wates, a full-time professor at VCU, was preparing the latest production for the university theater department. There was no one else to step in to carry the load. “One person can’t do it all,” says Gray.
The separation hasn’t diminished the respect that first drew the companies together.
“Working with Deejay has been some of the most powerful creative work I’ve done in Richmond,” says Pettiford-Wates. “Art and activism were inextricably bound to one another.” Gray concurs: “I’ve learned so much from Dr. T and I look forward to seeing what The Conciliation Project does next. I continue to be inspired by their meaningful, necessary work.”
Both Pettiford-Wates and Gray say they will honor the commitments they’ve made; TCL opened “How I Learned to Drive” on March 12th and has two more productions planned. But the artistic directors have very different plans moving forward.
Pettiford-Wates will take a step back to consider her company’s best way forward.
“We may end up being more of a consulting organization,” she says.
Gray is moving to New York but it’s not a career move.
“I think I need a break from theater,” he says. Running TheatreLAB has consumed most of Gray’s adult life. “I’m incredibly proud of the work we did but I never signed up to spend my days watching emails pile up,” he says. “If this is burnout, I need to discover how to move forward without putting out the flame.”
“How I Learned to Drive'' is running at The Basement through March 26th. Tickets available at theconciliationlab.org.