Kevin R. Free, who is one of the busiest theater artists I know– actor, playwright, director, producer, mentor, teacher, audiobook narrator – has taken on two new jobs…. both of them artistic director.
In November, Frigid New York announced they were appointing Free as resident artistic director. Then this week, Mile Square Theater announced that, after a nation-wide search, they had chosen Free as its new artistic director, taking over from Chris O’Connor, who founded the much-lauded Hoboken-based company 19 years ago.
I talked to him on the telephone while he was taking a dinner break from a directing gig in California, walking the aisles of a Whole Foods. The interview is edited.
Jonathan Mandell: Congratulations, but it sounds like a lot of work. How did you wind up being an artistic director for two different theaters? How can you do this? Why do you want to do this?
Kevin R Free: Well, I’ll tell you, the first job, as resident artistic director of Frigid New York, is basically a mentorship — an extension of what I’ve always done for independent theater artists. It’s a low key, low pressure job in which I offer advice to Frigid’s three resident companies — Saudade, Infinite Variety Productions, and Something From Abroad. — run a few salons for them to share their work, connect them to opportunities and to other professionals in the independent theater scene.
And Mile Square?
Mile Square is more of a traditional, artistic directorship: I will direct a couple of plays per season, be in charge of choosing plays, raising money, hiring staff and artists. But I wouldn’t call it a full-time job, because it’s a very small theater. I also have a career as a freelance director and as an audiobook narrator. I’m not giving up the audio book narrating and I’ll still be doing some freelance directing, but less of it. Right now, I’m directing a production of “Passover” by Antoinette Chinonye Nwandu in California until February 2, and then I’m going to Portland, Maine to do a world premiere play there by Greg Lam,, “The Last Ship to Proxima Centauri ,” until March 7.
–Then you’re coming back?
I’m be back and producing “The Niceties” by Eleanor Burgess at Mile Square.
-You’ve also had a career as a playwright and an actor. What will happen with them?
I have a play that I’m still working on and other smaller ideas, but yeah, I’m giving up more of the writing work. I’m not accepting a lot of commissions.
-Is the play you’re working on “A Hill On Which To Drown”?
Yes, I’m still working on it.
–What about acting?
I’m not leaving town to be an actor anymore. I’ve shot a couple of commercials during the pandemic and that has been great, so I’m still auditioning for that stuff. But I’m not focusing on it like I used to.
-. I remember one time I was hesitant to set up an interview with you because of how crowded your schedule, and you said: “I’m never not busy. That’s the beauty of me.” Why are you taking this on, and shedding other things to do it?
Well, about 10 years ago, I started saying out loud that I wanted to be an artistic leader. That’s when I started directing. I knew I wanted to run a theater someday. I applied for jobs I didn’t get, I guess because I wasn’t a known quantity in terms of artistic leadership.
The Mile Square job is perfect because I’m still able to maintain the other work that I do, and I love that theater. I love the work that I have been a part of with them over the past three years, and I am really excited at trying my hand at a new model of leadership and implementing some of my plans – making the players a little bit more diverse, doing more world premiere plays there. And of course at the same time trying to hold onto the things that they do really well.
–I know that theater. Are you going to continue the annual festival of plays about baseball?
Yes I am. It’s called “7th Inning Stretch” and we’re definitely doing that in June.
–What are you going to do about Frank Sinatra?
What am I going to do about Frank Sinatra?
–How are you going to honor Frank Sinatra? We’re talking Hoboken here, the birthplace of baseball and of Frank Sinatra.
It’s funny, when I interviewed nobody mentioned Frank Sinatra to me, but I’m happy to honor Ol’ Blue Eyes
–Has the pandemic affected your plans?
The pandemic has affected everything. We’ve already pushed back the next two productions at Mile Square.
–Some people are responding to the pandemi not just by delaying, but by focusing on digital theater
I would love to be able to do more of that. I’ve directed some things via zoom and there are artists like Jared Mezzocchi with whom I’d love to partner on creating new work that is virtual. I love the way he thinks about theater and how he’s changing the art form. As a matter of fact, the play that I am directing for Mile Square, “The Burdens” by Matt Schatz, was going to be a play that Chris O’Connor directed on Zoom in 2021. I’m excited we’re doing it in person, but, especially if this pandemic continues to rage, we could switch to virtual, or figure out how to do it in a hybrid situation.
–We’re also in an era of racial reckoning. How is that affecting your plans?
Frigid always had a focus on creating diverse work and having a diverse set of resident companies, so I’m just furthering their mission. I think one of the issues with a theater company like Mile Square Theater is that they’re so small, that we have to call on people that we love, who are willing to work for a little less money until we are able to grow…and our salaries grow.
I think that Mile Square is also a really great training ground for young theater artists. I’m thinking a lot about the young theater artists who are coming out of educational programs right now who don’t have any idea how to get work in a pandemic. We already use students from Hudson County Community College. I am a teacher at Hofstra University; I’m excited about hiring some of my recent graduates. And I have been a director at UNLV [University of Nevada at Las Vegas] and I’m very excited about continuing my collaboration with some of those students who are now in the professional field.
–You would ask them to move?
If they’re moving to New York
–Of course, Mile Square is in New Jersey, not New York. Do you see that as a barrier to enlisting people, either as actors or audience members, to your theater – even though it’s actually much faster and easier to get from the West Side of Manhattan to Hoboken than to Brooklyn?
Yeah. I think that is a barrier. I’m not looking to change anybody’s mind. I mentioned to somebody that I was taking this job and she was like, “Oh, that’ll be something if you can get me to go to Jersey.” But I am excited to make theater for the residents of Hoboken, Jersey City and the rest of Hudson County. If other people end up coming, that would be great too.
–I think I first saw you perform at least a decade ago at the Neo-Futurists. Since then, it seems to me, you’ve become a model for how to have a career in the arts – not a high profile one, but one in which you’re able both to create and, you know, eat. So, first, please tell me your journey from birth to when I first saw you at the NeoFuturists.
My journey from birth? Well, I can tell you that I always did theater and loved doing theater. I’m from North Carolina and I started my career doing Shakespeare at the North Carolina Shakespeare Festival. That’s where I got my Equity card. I thought that I had exhausted my possibilities as an actor in North Carolina so I moved to New York in 1995.
I did some regional theater, which was great and fun. But then I had a terrible experience in commercial theater.
I was cast in a national Broadway tour, but the casting director called my manager and said there’d been a terrible mistake; I hadn’t actually been cast. I had already cancelled a lot of the work that I had planned to do. It was really crushing. So that’s when I said okay, I’m not going to do musical theater for a while; I’m not going to audition for Broadway shows. I started doing improv – first at Upright Citizens Brigade, and that led me to the NeoFuturists. I got some commercials, and I finally started auditioning for theater again, because I got stronger as an artist at NeoFuturists and got over my heartbreak from the national tour experience.
-How much have you planned your career since then, how much has it been catch-as-catch-can?
I feel like if I hadn’t had all of the experiences that I’ve had, then I would not have come this far at all. There has been some strategy. I think my manager signed me because he knew I could do a lot of different things I was pursuing. We focused on what people wanted me to do at any particular time. There was a time when I was acting more than anything, and we were really trying to focus on that. And then there were times when I was writing a lot and we were trying to focus on that and taking smaller acting jobs, or taking bigger acting jobs to pay for some of the writing. Then most recently, I acknowledged to myself that I was a leader and I was good at being a leader. The directing just sort of took off. And my manager and I both agreed that being a leader and being a director are probably the best things that ever happened to me.
–You do seem to have a talent for finding talent.
I mean, what I’m really good at is creating community. And so when I find the people that I want to work with, I’m loyal to them until it seems like they don’t need me anymore. Which is great because then they’re able to move forward and do what they do, and I’m able to continue to add people to my community of artists.