By Brian Lucas
Josh Neth is the exceptionally talented artistic director of the Allentown Public Theatre. Josh is marvelously outspoken and passionate about the Theater. He is a remarkably eloquent and intelligent person and to converse with him is a true pleasure. His mind has many dimensions from arts to philosophy to psychology to business. To round it all off; he is quite an accomplished stage actor. I recently had the opportunity of watching him play the lead in the Pennsylvania Playhouse’s production of Sondheim’s – Company. I must plead guilty to being a fairly stringent critic of Community Theater. However, watching Josh perform, I almost forgot I was sitting in a small auditorium. Instead, I could imagine I had front row seats on Broadway. Josh is fortunate to be joined in life and theatrical endeavors by his quintessentially pixyish and appealing wife Cheryl. She is an uncommonly expressive actress and a wonderfully animated singer of her own merit. I will not say much more about Josh because he would be the first to say that this is not about him; it is about the Theater. Josh states that the Theater is an essential part of our public conscience as well as entertainment. After listening to him in the interview, I agree. So I am asking all my readers to make a donation to the Allentown Public Theatre. I also encourage those in a position to underwrite a performance or help the Allentown Public Theater find and finance a permanent home; to contact Josh Neth or Troy Brokenshire directly. Your generosity will go towards something that makes a significant difference in so many lives and elevates us all.
Lucas: You did not have any formal training in agile. In fact, you were quite surprised and a little reluctant about the interview.
Neth: No I did not. To be honest, when I read your other interviews and saw the predominance of business professionals, I became apprehensive about whether I was the right person. I noted though, an interview with someone who arranges Mangia dinners as a hobby. If agile means operating with minimal resources, than we in the Allentown Public Theatre are exceptionally agile. Local Theater, by nature, is not a large profit or money making proposition; regardless of how much benefit and traffic it can drive to a downtown community. In the Theater world, being agile is a matter of survival.
Lucas: Whole hearted commitment to something is what drives agile. Why are you committed to the Theater? It certainly cannot be for the money!
Neth: That is an intriguing connection about commitment and agility. I never seriously thought about it, but if you have a deep desire, you will eventually find a way to fulfill it. Heaven knows I am not in Theater for the money! There are two reasons I do what I do. The first is that I have to do this. It is a truly basic drive for me, and I am miserable if I do not. I am immensely thankful that my fabulous wife is in the same profession and that we can share the experience and support each other. She is a true treasure and the first love of my life. Even Theater comes second. I guess I have to thank my grandfather for my performing talent. He was a magnificent musician who performed in speakeasies during the great depression. Very early on, when I was three perhaps, he thrust a guitar in my hands and taught me how to play. When my family began clapping, I was hooked. The second is that this is how I affect the world around me. This is the medium given to me to interact with my community and even in the larger scope of the world in which I live. I honestly believe; however, it is not all about me. Theater is beyond me and my own limited needs. It is the venue from time immemorial, where relevant and often controversial subjects were brought to the public forum and generated discussion. From the time of ancient Greek Theater in the 200 years following Thespis, Theater was the cornerstone of emerging social, moral and political change. Without Theater, some sociologists speculate, we could have found ourselves in a totalitarian world. Theater in some form probably preceded written language as we can see in prehistoric rock art in northern Scandinavia.
Lucas: That is quite a profound postulation that Theater preceded written language. Is Theater only about making a statement or airing a subject that needs to be brought to the public conscious?
Neth: No! Of course not, there is validity in entertainment. We do things in the Theater world that is pure entertainment. That in itself is a vital societal function. The personal experience of watching a play or a musical has a richness of involvement that television or other mediums cannot hope to achieve. It is why people go to see sports teams in stadiums; even though they would get a better viewing experience from their living room. In the Theater, you absorb your surrounding environment, the audience reaction, and the fact that you are seeing something unique. No matter how many times you see a live performance, it will always be a little different. Emotion also comes through in a live performance, far more than any electronic medium. The audience experiences the energy, the highs, the lows and the triumph personally. My overall point is; given the opportunity to have the public’s ear; it becomes a responsibility to blend with entertainment a communication of subjects that demand a greater public awareness.
Lucas: One of the most prominent aspects of successfully being agile is a specific clear vision. The Allentown Public Theatre certainly has one. When did you develop this vision?
Neth: I have a distinct recollection of being a freshman in college and my school decided to do the musical “Grease”. I remember saying to a professor; we should be learning something more significant. Authors like Eugene O’Neill, exposed American vernacular for the first time. He dramatically portrayed characters on the fringes of society, struggling to maintain hope. That is relevant to many people today. I wish we had done “Ah, Wilderness!” instead of “Grease”. We would be doing lighter subjects as soon as we graduated by necessity, in order to pay the rent. We should have been studying more serious performing arts subjects. It was at that point, I had an epiphany! I knew I did not want to be just an entertainer. I needed to explore serious and weighty subjects in the public domain. That was the birth of my vision!
Lucas: In agile, team effort is essential. Why do others want to be on your team?
Neth: That is a very good question, because Theater is all about teamwork? Even a one-man-show is not just one person. There are all the people that make the production possible and market the performance to attract an audience. Without the audience, the best performance is only a voice crying in the wilderness. To get back to your question, what I offer is a chance for people to be a part of something greater that themselves. I provide a stage, if I may use that word, for them to do something that they genuinely love and feel is vital. It is fundamentally self-actualization. The Allentown Public Theatre is also different from Community Theater, in that we are a profession troop. We pay actors enabling them to make a living doing what they love best. Everyone else unselfishly volunteers their time in a thousand different ways to make Allentown Public Theatre productions happen and keep us alive. I am immensely grateful to our volunteers.
Lucas: You mentioned self-actualization. That is one of the reasons so many executives are leaving the Fortune 500 world and becoming entrepreneurs or freelancing. It seems that some of the dynamics of Theater are not so different from the business world.
Neth: People are people! We have gone through a generation where the emphasis was on accumulating wealth and consuming goods, getting the largest house, the most expensive car, etc. It failed to make most people happy. I watched my father work extremely hard at a job he did not love. He achieved financial success, but he did it at the expense of a lifetime of effort about something he was not passionate. Today more and more people inside and out of the business community are pursuing their dreams; doing something in which they can believe that they are good at.
Lucas: Why the emphasis on paid actors?
Neth: I was looking for craftsmen capable of taking a performance to a different level than a hobbyist. You need that level of ability in performing serious works. I also wanted to bring professional actors into the downtown community where they would help revitalize the city by their sheer presence. Actors living downtown, consuming goods and services downtown and in general hanging out in the neighborhood are an attraction. They not only generate commerce directly, but promote a more positive view of the city by both city and suburban residents. This encourages people to come into the city and spend both time and money.
Lucas: Agile is also about growth. Is there any element of growth in what the Allentown Public Theatre does?
Neth: Absolutely, we are an incubator of talent. Good performers do not grow on trees! They learn and develop by continued and steadied experience and coaching. With a professional troop, we start with actors and actresses that have already committed themselves to the Theater. We in turn, provide the venue for them to grow. The Allentown Public Theatre predominately uses younger performers for this exact reason. They have growth potential. It is also a matter of economics right now. We can only afford to pay younger performers.
Lucas: Getting back to the subject of business similarities for a moment, do you see other commonalities in what is going on in business today and what you are trying to do in the Theater?
Neth: Yes I do. You have said there is a new business revolution going on in America. We are returning to our entrepreneurial roots. I agree! One aspect I would like to mention is a return to an emphasis of quality. When colonial entrepreneurs started a business like furniture manufacturing they did not say to themselves, how can we make the most furniture as cheaply as possible and maximize profits? They had pride in what they were doing. They wanted to make the best furniture possible. Today workers are leaving companies because they are making a product or providing a service in which they do not believe. Whether through a lack of focus or vision or simply having too much administrative management; the need for fulfillment is not being met for these people. So they start out on their own to make the best possible product and give the customer personal attention. That is resonating with the public. That is what the Allentown Public Theatre is all about. I find it exceptionally inspiring that there are CEOs giving up high paying jobs because they want to make something better. It gives me hope that business as usual is no longer as powerful an influence.
Lucas: Is the Allentown Public Theatre looking for a home?
Neth: Yes we have reached the point where we unquestionably need a permanent home. We require a building that is first of all safe and up to the standard codes. There are a lot of buildings in downtown Allentown that we would love to occupy, but we cannot afford to bring them up to code. How exciting it would be, if the city or the Allentown Economic Development Co. or a consortium of businesses could help us get one of these buildings and renovate it for our needs. We need something that can hold at least 100 people. It must have an open area for seating and a high ceiling. From a development perspective, it is beneficial for us to be on the open Hamilton Street corridor around 7th. We have an eye on a space, but we need to have some architect drawings made up and we would need this done on a pro bono basis. A permanent home is essential for our audience base and helping us grow it. Heretofore they had to follow us all over town, wherever we could get a venue.
Lucas: Where does the Allentown Public Theatre need to be in 5 years?
Neth: It is vital the Allentown Public Theater become a self-sustaining concern. Obviously the Artistic Director position should not be a volunteer one. The Allentown Public Theatre needs a full company of actors, committed to multiple seasons, living downtown and becoming a part of the community. We are already donating our time, going out into the community, doing outreach programs and working with schools to promote various programs for students.
Lucas: You mention arts community often. It is a powerful part of your vision to build not just Theater, but a general sociological stratum of people in all aspects of the arts being a part of the downtown scene. Has the Allentown Public Theatre received much help from the Allentown government or the Allentown Economic Development Co?
Neth: The Allentown Economic Development Co. has generously given us a discount for our office and storage space at the Bridgeworks complex, but we need more help. I am committed to Allentown, but it has been a difficult challenge to maintain that loyalty to the city that gives us our name. The Allentown Public’s Theatre’s first mission is to do Theater. I have to be honest, if a patron of the arts or an arts council or government like Bethlehem or Easton, interested in encouraging arts to revitalize a downtown section, offered us a building, I would seriously consider moving. How could I possibly say no? Allentown has a symphony, a good art museum and the noted Baum School of Arts. At this point, they are an institution. What is missing from Allentown, and the Lehigh Valley for that matter, is a strong, professional, public Theater driven by local talent.
Lucas: That must be frustrating. You have accomplished much with hard work and volunteerism, but you have no full time administration or location. Funding and management activities are all done on less than a shoestring. Without more support from the government, councils or private patrons, how does the Allentown Public Theatre survive?
Neth: Yes it is frustrating. I wish everyone could hear our voice, understand what we offer not only Allentown, but the entire Greater Lehigh Valley Area and help us out anyway they can. Ultimately helping us would further the goals of governments and councils as well as filling a real public need. We will survive, however, by working harder to reach out to those who believe in the importance of Theater as one of the focal points of a downtown community and a powerful vehicle for social commentary. If it means leaving Allentown, sadly we will have to do so. We will adapt somehow – because we must in order to survive.
Lucas: Adapting to survive that is the basic definition of agile.
 See http://books.google.com/books?id=3mR3MghMo9UC&pg=PA153&lpg=PA153&dq=prehistoric+Theater&source=bl&ots=qPiUwDOwW5&sig=JK7HxOjap_M605PWZYov8f-ABUc&hl=en&sa=X&ei=CyCEUaP3Aafn0gHA74HYAw&ved=0CC4Q6AEwAA#v=onepage&q=prehistoric%20Theater&f=false