Guiding Light: Jeremy Fiebig

photo credit: Jacob French

Jeremy Fiebig is the Master of Play/Founding Artistic Director of Sweet Tea Shakespeare and Professor of Theater at Fayetteville State University. He also serves on the Cumberland County Library Board of Trustees. He holds an MFA from Mary Baldwin University and an MALS from UNC-Wilmington. He regularly works with other theater companies and performing artists across the region and writes and lectures on Shakespeare for schools across the country.

What does success mean to you?

This is an answer that has changed for me over time. I think it’s happening for everybody: COVID forced us into a different set of priorities, and we’re going to come out changed.

I’m an ambition-oriented guy, or that’s been my story. I like little achievements. I like badges. I like awards. I like degrees. I like collecting things like rank and status. And the sort of gamification of life has been the language I have understood and been successful at to this point in my life.

But I think where that’s changing is the artist in me actually has always wanted to push against that. To disrupt it, to use the language all the young people use these days. What does it mean to make art that actually doesn’t try to get to the next level, but is perfectly fine and happy where it is? I think the framework that runs counter against achievement-oriented success is meditative and reflective space. So how do you do that? I mean, theater does that naturally but, how do you, say, run a theater company where the goal is not to grow? That’s what the business world does: the pressure of work, capitalism generally, is to keep achieving and to keep growing. There’s a personal health version that’s necessary, but the economic version of that is not particularly healthy.

So it’s just more and more and more, and if you chase that rabbit too far, it goes to the opposite of Wonderland. So for me, what is the space that pushes against that? What are the hedges we build to create that space? What does success look like in that world, which is sort of quiet, maybe methodical or repetitive or, to use another word from another part of my life, liturgical. What does that work look like? I’ve been thinking a lot about that lately and it’s drawn me to some early conclusions about how success is quiet. Success is being able to get up in the morning and have two hours with a cup of coffee and my mind. I’m not getting up, looking at my planner and trying to think about the nine things I have to knock off my to-do list.

In my recent history, the last five years, I’ve had to really re-examine what success looks like. It used to be how many tickets can I sell and will my theater company survive? Will I get the kind of attention I got into this business for? But is that space as healthy as it can be? Is it as sustainable as it can be? That’s been a real shift in terms of success personally, artistically.

I also think success is about how am I empowering others to do what they need to do. I just turned 40 this past year and I’m working with folks in the Sweet Tea world who are younger and I’m remembering, oh yeah, I was basically exactly like that. What did I need that I didn’t get that I can provide to others? I worked in that sort of mode for a long, long time. I no longer have to prove anything to anyone. I can just live my life. And there’s a calm that can come with that.

I think this is true for all kinds of artists, but I know it is true for theater people: it’s like an addiction. And I mean that in the most direct and literal sense. It takes you to dangerous places if you let it. And it requires a kind of constant state of recovery–in all of the senses that that means–to be ongoing. And so success is a little bit like what success would look like in AA, which is did you make it through today? Do you have support? Did you make responsible choices today? And if you didn’t, are you cool to reset and keep moving on? So much of the talk about artistic life is really positive. I mean, there’s the negative side of it, nobody makes any money at it, for example. But if the positive side is oh, you’re this leader, you do eccentric stuff, you do things that nobody else does, you have talents nobody else has. And all of that is true, but I think for a lot of artists, if they’re in it, they’re doing that expression because there’s so much pressure and a lack of conformity in the other parts of their lives and it’s super stressful, incredibly exhausting, and risks being pretty dark. That is the addiction part of it, too. Everybody wants to talk about the high, they don’t want to talk about the withdrawals. They don’t teach about that in directing school. And so success is am I doing this in a way that is making an ideal life, just today?

What change do you seek to make with your art?

The change that I still have the fire for is a change in belonging, how we think about belonging. I had a lot of theater experience before I started Sweet Tea. That’s essentially why I founded a theater company because I think it was very rare to get right the idea of belonging. We use ideas like “community” and “common experience” and how we’re getting everybody in a room and we’re breathing the same air, how all the heartbeats in the room sync together.

But then we have professional structures where everything is temporary. And this is true, not just in the professional world, but also in community theater, educational theater. At the same time that we champion safety and care for actors but don’t provide that economically. Yes, there are lots of people who do this just because they love it, and the pay is bonus, but there is no security even in unpaid theater contexts because you never know the next play you’re going to do. You’re sort of artistically homeless the whole time. And that was something I felt like we mostly get wrong. And a lot of that, I sort of lay at the feet of bad tax policy and non-profit policy.

The theater world is such that you go contract to contract four weeks, eight weeks, 12 weeks at a time, if you’re really lucky, it’s much longer than that. But then you’re homeless and you’re jumping from spot to spot. But there are things that people like me can do, that theaters and arts organizations can and should do within that context. What does it look like to play around with the idea of a continuing community ensemble where actors and other artists have a stake and a say in the direction of the place? And that’s the experiment: the art is the company structure. The way of making plays in this regard has been the thing behind things.

And I say that on the educational side, too. There are days I feel like I’m good at teaching. For me, it exists on two extreme poles: I can work some magic because of my actor background, in a room full of 80 people who need the fire of a great sermon about whatever that thing is that day. And then the other side is one person at a time. But so much of the expectation of being a professor is nonstop measurement of what you’re doing rather than doing what you’re doing. And that’s just built for discouragement. Despite theater being a collaborative art form, if you’re in higher ed, you’re a silo, doesn’t matter what you do, you’re a silo because that tenure race is yours to run by yourself. There’s no one to hand the baton to. So we’re not good about creating spaces for belonging in that world. That’s the kind of change overall that I think I’m after.

How have you constructed the bridges of your career?

The bridges I’ve built have to do with two things. One is miracle: I have a mix of great privilege as who I am constructed in the universe. There are people who are constructed like I am, who don’t do what I do. The simplest way to describe it–although it seems a little woo-woo and new agey–is that I can manifest some shit. I can have a dream, whether it’s career-based or artistic-based, work or life oriented, and I think about that and it basically becomes true.

And the other piece that is a different kind of miraculous is I have just incredible resistance and grit, although I pay for it dearly. Like, I can keep going many times more than others who will quit earlier. And I have learned enough over my life to know that–I’ve had to go to therapy for some of this–but there’s a magical mix of questionable self-worth that I am built with that would cause other people to quit because they have too much self-respect or their time becomes too important to them. There have been long stretches of my life where that just hasn’t been true. I’m trying to prove something because I feel inadequate or whatever, and that kind of drive doesn’t happen in everyone. And the fact that I keep going, I think makes the manifestation thing more likely to happen.

And so, in terms of building bridges, there are lots of things that people who might otherwise be in my shoes would have said no to, and I haven’t, I said how can we make that work? My first two jobs in higher ed I got because I was a sort of jack-of-all-trades who could do theater tech work in addition to directing plays. I wouldn’t have gotten those jobs had I not said yes to the tech and design stuff. There are examples like that all over the place. There’s a version of that with Sweet Tea and founding the company: is this the way I would have done it had I the budget I wanted and the way I wanted? And the answer is no, I’m going with a path of at least less resistance. And that’s been part of the puzzle too.

I am happy and glad that Sweet Tea is able to expand to Raleigh, but I don’t think we expand there and then think, Hey, we’ve achieved the end. I’m honestly not sure what the other end is except more adventure. And, frankly, a little bit more financial predictability.

Who do you consider your present artistic cohort?

A handful of folks. Individuals and groups at Sweet Tea: two assistant artistic directors Claire Martin and Tracy Zapata, and music directors Jake French and Aaron Alderman. Dena Vassey, who does our costumes and Sana Moulder, who wears several hats from box office to costumes and other things: they’re part of that mix. And it includes this funky company that’s built on a medieval guild structure. So all the folks involved in that: it’s structured for us to develop those people and for them to weigh in on the company. That is a really, really difficult thing to manage and smarter people would probably choose not to do it, but it’s part of the soul of the place.

Outside the company, in terms of people that have and continue to influence me, I would include the American Shakespeare Center as a cultural institution.

My dad has been a big piece of this. He and I kind of follow each other: I got into Shakespeare grad school and then he took an interest, then I started a Shakespeare company and then he started a Shakespeare company, and we directed for each other, things like that. And he’s a college professor. So we sort of lead the other person now and again. And my mom is a jane-of-all-trades sort; the music piece is definitely tied to my mom, who plays piano.

Then there are a couple of other people: Rob Gibbs, with whom I’ve done a podcast off and on for years. We went to grad school together and we just fit. He’s a Hollywood screenwriter now. He landed in a different spot than I did, but we work together really well. And Rick Blunt, who’s another grad school friend. He’s just a good friend who cuts to the actual truth, whether we’re talking about art or whatever else. And that’s great.

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