Editor’s Note: The following is an Ithaca Voice People Project about Rachel Lampert, artistic director of the Kitchen Theatre Company.
To nominate someone for a the People Project profile, contact me at email@example.com.
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ITHACA, N.Y. — At nights when the patrons are gone and the doors shut and locked, the empty lounge of the Kitchen Theatre becomes the living room of Rachel Lampert.
On a desk sits her laptop. Next to it is a half eaten apple and a bowl of stew her husband brought for her. For Lampert, the Kitchen Theatre has become a home away from home.
For the past 19 years and counting, Lampert has been serving as the artistic director of the not-for-profit theater. The title doesn’t capture the full extent of her responsibilities; Lampert is really more like the captain of the ship, overseeing the entire theater and its productions — and making sure everything’s smooth sailing.
“It’s hard work. I have to wear a lot of different hats around here,” she said.
Lampert said she reads over 200 plays every year between seasons. Of the 200, she chooses about seven or eight plays that the Kitchen Theatre will produce.
Lampert said she picks plays that are funny and lighthearted once in awhile, but the majority are selected for not for their entertainment value but for societal problems that the plays highlight.
“You can go to a theater and have a great laugh,” she said, “but what’s more important is the potential for transformation in a play.”
“Once you go into a theater and you come out, something could have changed in your perception, and in every single performance, there’s that potential.”
Lampert’s emphasis on diversity
In an ordinary kitchen, the most important conversation that takes place may be, “What’s for dinner?” But in the Kitchen Theatre, Lampert wants the audience to have a more serious conversation.
“I like to pick plays that really reflect diversity. That’s really critical to me as a person,” she said.
Currently, the theater is performing The Mountaintop by American playwright Katori Hall. The play is a fictional depiction of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s last night alive before he was assassinated.
Despite its fictional nature, the play is a powerful reminder of the real struggles African Americans faced during the civil rights movement era of the 1960s, Lampert said.
“I think the issue the play is talking about is that we are still lacking in social justice that Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. gave his life for. The country has come a long way because of how he led the civil rights movement, but we still have a really long way to go,” she said.
Empowering women through theater
Lampert also spoke of her passion for empowering women, especially in theater. When she began her career as a director, she said the theater field was dominated by men and still is to a large extent today.
“I noticed that theater was male-dominated when I got the job here and found out I was the only female artistic director in Ithaca,” she said. “There were a lot of talented women directors but it was interesting to go to conferences and see how few of them there were compared to men.”
“It’s gotten better but there’s still a lot to be done for women, so I use my position here to give a lot of young women opportunities.”
As a result, Lampert said she is devoted to making the Kitchen Theatre a place where female directors and actors can showcase their talents. The current staff of the theater is largely female, including the the current director of The Mountaintop, and the play was written by an African-American woman.
According to a September 2014 article in the American Theatre magazine, less than a quarter of the plays produced by over 500 not-for-profit theaters across the country were written by women. In the 2013-2014 season for New York’s Broadway, there were no plays written by women in production despite 68 percent of Broadway theatergoers being women.
The same magazine also recognized the Kitchen Theatre last month for being one of the top 82 not-for-profit theaters in the nation that were most friendly to female and transgender playwrights.
In 1997, having moved from New York City to Ithaca with her husband, Lampert was offered a job as the artistic director at the Kitchen Theatre.
Lampert said that back then, the Kitchen Theatre occupied a small space in the Clinton House and had only a handful of audience members for its shows. She said she didn’t take the job then because she was uncertain if she could lead the struggling theater.
Instead, she went to Beijing, China, to produce West Side Story with an all-Chinese cast and crew who spoke barely any English at all. Lampert, other than a few simple theater phrases like “Do it again” and a count-in, didn’t speak Chinese.
Despite the seemingly insurmountable language barrier, she was able to produce the play in seven weeks in front of 1,400 people. This experience, Lampert said, gave her the hope to attempt to resuscitate the then-fragile Kitchen Theatre.
“That experience reignited in me the feeling that art can change the world, that it can certainly bring people together,” she said. “It taught me that I had the personal strength to lead [the Kitchen Theatre]. So I came back, said yes and have been here ever since.”
At 66, Lampert said the curtain will come down on her run as the artistic director “soon, maybe in a few years.”
“It’s a hard thing to leave a place I feel so connected, but I’ve mentored a lot of young people whose time has come. I think it’s important for the current generations to step away and say, ‘come on,’ to the next.”
But for the immediate future, her schedule is quite packed.
The theater has another play, I and You, coming out in less than a month and in December, Lampert will be performing a one-woman play entitled “The Soup Comes Last.” Lampert’s solo play will depict her experiences in China in 1997 before coming to the Kitchen Theatre as the artistic director.
Lampert said she doesn’t think she could get bored to tired of being an artistic director. Working with actors directly on improving their technique, she said, is still invigorating even after nearly two decades.
But even after Lampert retires from the Kitchen Theatre, she won’t be too far from it. For her, the theatre will always be as close to her as the living room.
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