PROFILE: Daring to Be Seen: How Christopher Betts Reimagines Life Through Art
Betts' shows convey the richness of Black life, undergirded by the belief that being able to see representations of ourselves fills a gap in our identity.
Christopher Betts has a great memory. He remembers the names of his elementary school teachers, the first play he acted in (“Cinderella,” when he was seven), the date of the first professional theater production he saw (“Wicked,” on July 19, 2006) and all 30 shows from a theater festival he attended in South Africa in 2017. He shares all of these memories during an interview, done via Zoom from his New York City apartment. Betts is an NYU and Yale Drama graduate and the director of the Paramount Theater production of “Dreamgirls.” He speaks in fits and starts as he tells me about his life. He fidgets with his hair, worn in thick twists, as he thinks, and he often pauses between phrases for long stretches, tilting his head toward the sky and letting his mind search for the exact word he wants to use. He backtracks and corrects himself as he tells stories, determined to convey what he’s thinking in meticulous fashion. It’s the same attention to detail he puts into his work, which he sees as a culmination and reflection of his past.
When Betts was in preschool he joined a performance his grandmother, a kindergarten teacher, was putting on with her class. He practiced and got dressed up for the performance, but Betts said, “When we got to the theater I was like, ‘I don’t want to do it…’ So then she was like, ‘Okay.’ She was like, ‘All right, you could just sit in the audience.’” So he did. He saw his grandmother’s work for the first time, a moment which he views as an “omen from the universe that I should be a director not an actor.”
Betts’ grandmother Frankie, much like him, was a creative. Though she couldn’t craft the career in the arts that she wanted –– largely, as Betts says, because it was difficult for a Black woman living in the 60s to do so –– she found ways to share her love for the arts with Christopher. “My grandmother is my biggest influence. There’s no way of my making theater… that wasn’t informed by her.” The performances she put on with her Chicago Public Schools students — the pains to which she went to make those performances look beautiful — stuck with Betts. “The one thing I can say about all of the plays I’ve done is that they looked good… and I know that I get that from my grandmother.”
Betts’ work strives to “give Black people [a] sense of joy and exuberance.” To Betts, that means making sure that his productions look good because “there’s been so many centuries of black people… not being elevated in as much beauty and excellence as we have.” Betts’ shows burst with color; the lights make the brown skin of his actors sparkle on stage. They convey the richness of Black life, undergirded by the belief that “being able to see representations of ourselves… fills a gap in our identity.” That belief, and that goal, are rooted in his childhood relationship with theater.
As he went through middle school, Betts was bullied. During that time, he turned to theater as a respite. “So many of my earliest memories are related to theater because it was such a sanctuary for me. And I think that it was the thing that helped me keep going. It was the thing that helped me know that everything was worth it.” When not doing theater, he found other ways to express his burgeoning creativity. In third grade, he set up a pretend swap meet in his family’s apartment and tried to convince his family members to buy what he was selling. He delved into fairytales and fantasy books, which he says “gave me hope that my life could be more than what I was born into.”
But what truly resonated with him was a collection of VHS tapes, created by the Encyclopedia Britannica, that showed cartoon fairy tales performed in different cultural contexts around the world. The tapes had three-part episodes: the first part was a European telling of the story, and the last two parts were the same story told from the perspective of non-European countries. “That was probably my first exposure to seeing non-white people in whimsical and fantastic circumstances, and that created a hunger for more.” Those fairytales simultaneously made him feel that life could be more interesting than what it was and highlighted the absence of non-white people in fantastical narratives. That absence of visibility felt personal for him because, as Betts said, “There’s a connection between not feeling seen as a person and being informed that there are stories all over the world that aren’t being seen.” Betts had felt reduced to invisibility in middle school, and that experience led him to “[find] a kindredness in the lack of representation, and it made me feel empowered to do something about it.” It was the beginning “of a quest to try and create more stories like those because the visibility of those stories also created more visibility for me.” This link between identity and art, and the work to reconcile the two, have framed much of the tension that characterizes Betts’ work.
It was Betts’ high school theater teacher that told him to consider pursuing an acting career. From that day, Betts took theater seriously, and he decided to go to NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts to get his BFA. That, in and of itself, was a sacrifice for him. “I gave up my whole life to go to NYU,” Betts said. “I gave up everything I knew about life, and everyone that I loved was so far away.” That, in addition to navigating a new environment surrounded by classmates that were “fucking rich” made college a profound challenge for him. But the central frustration was that of not being able to fully express himself in theater.
“When I was in college, gay boys needed to be able to play straight. And I did not want to do that. I found theater because I wanted to express sides of myself that I was taught were not beautiful, that were shameful and that need to be put away… so I started to fall out of love with theater because, well, what was the point? I wasn’t in it.” Betts hated the shows picked to be performed out of his studio that year, so he had one of two options: take a role in a show he didn’t like, or direct his own. He chose the latter.
The show was called “Carrie” and it told the story of a teenage girl struggling with bullying. Betts chose the show largely because he felt a connection to the main character’s experience. “I remember I was so focused, and I was so excited, and I had so much energy… people could call me at three o’clock in the morning to talk about “Carrie,” and I would be like, ‘Yes, I’m up,’ because it meant that much to me. And I remember looking at all the design and research images and walking into tech, and seeing the set and seeing the actors and costumes and being like, oh my god, 1000 people are about to see my perspective on this story that meant so much to me as a child.” This was the moment for Betts—wherein he had the opportunity to be vulnerable with his audience through his work—that reignited his joy for theater.
Now Betts views directing as a profoundly intimate and life-affirming act. “Every time I direct something I’m literally taking my mind and my imagination and putting it in front of people and saying, ‘This is the way that I think, would you like to see?,’ and I don’t know how to be more vulnerable than that.” It’s a step forward on the journey toward complete self-expression that in hindsight seems straightforward to Betts.
Straight out of college and living in New York, Betts felt the need to find a job that would allow him to keep a roof over his head and pursue his newfound passion for directing. So he took several assistant positions, working under actors like Phylicia Rashad and helping on projects like “Moonlight.” His plan was to work his way up the ranks and eventually turn those assistant positions into director positions. But things began to stagnate. While Betts was getting opportunities that many would dream of, he wasn’t getting chances to work on his own projects. The positions he was taking weren’t bridging the gap between wanting to be a professional director and being a professional director.
Betts characterized that gap as ambiguous and frustrating. “I knew what I wanted to do,” he said. “I knew that that was what I was supposed to be doing. But I didn’t know how to get there. That’s depressing. When you’re an actor, you can show up, you can go to 1000 auditions, but when you’re a director, it’s much more of a chicken and egg of how to establish yourself.” Giving everything to the roles that he was in, Betts began to burn out. “I needed a drastic change because I felt that the capitalist model for theater was going to eat me alive. And I knew that I wasn’t going to like the art I made, I wasn’t going to like myself.”
In search of a new experience, Betts applied to the Taymor World Theater Fellowship. Getting the fellowship would give him an opportunity to travel to several countries to explore their approaches to art. Though he said it was a long shot, he won the fellowship. From 2017 through 2018, Betts traveled to South Africa, Rwanda, Uganda, Kenya and Morocco. Finding himself in a new environment, Betts began to see what it looked like for theater to be a communal act, not just one that employs professional actors and centers profit-incentives. Many of the performers he watched had other jobs and used theater as a means of self-expression. The celebration and reverence of it all, the love of art for art’s sake, was compelling to him. “[It was] refreshing to be in the presence of artists who felt that their stories mattered, and who knew their audience, and who knew that they could share in community their stories and also be affected by other stories.”
Grounded by this experience, Betts ventured to Yale to get his Masters in Fine Arts. “I felt that I could either assistant and associate direct my way into the position that I wanted to be in as a director or I could make a personal investment,” Betts said of his choice. The opportunity to build his portfolio and get the backing of an elite degree made the decision simple for Betts. His experience in the MFA program was colored by the pandemic, as he lost opportunities to put together shows and work in person, but he still found his time at Yale valuable.
One of his most meaningful experiences was directing “Choir Boy” at the Yale Repertory Theater. Originally, Phylicia Rashad was slated to direct the production, and Betts sought to work alongside her as an assistant director. He relished the opportunity to work alongside Rashad again, so much so that he walked into the office of James Bundy, the Dean of the Yale School of Drama, and asked to be put on the musical. Soon thereafter, Rashad was tapped to be the next Dean of Howard University’s College of Fine Arts, leaving the director’s seat vacant. Betts was chosen to fill her seat, with the final nod coming from the musical’s author, Tarell McCraney, a good friend of Betts’ for whom he was an assistant in years past. The production, according to Betts, made him the first student in 35 years to direct at the Rep, an opportunity which was “affirming,” and served as “a nice little reminder from the university to keep it up.”
More than that, directing “Choir Boy” gave him the chance to pay forward a theater experience that was once so resonant for him. In an interview for the Yale Repertory Theater about “Choir Boy,” Betts recalled seing his first queer character on stage in Tarell McCraney’s Marcus, calling it “ the most humanizing experience I had in the theater” and expressing a hope that “Choir Boy” could be that for someone else. “I hope that Black queer youth see [“Choir Boy”], and see their place in the work… and they know that the world would not turn without them,” said Betts.
Today, Betts is working on several new projects. Among them is the current production “Dreamgirls,” running at the Paramount Theater in Aurora, Ill. Betts has spoken about what returning to his hometown means to him in an interview with the Aurora Beacon-News, highlighting how he is now in a position to carry forward his grandmother’s legacy and share the gift of art that was once given to him. Speaking with me, he shared a story of seeing four young Black girls sitting in front of him watching the show, the first piece of theater they had ever seen. Reflecting on that moment, Betts was moved by the prospect of having created an experience that those girls will carry with them, an experience that might inspire them to pursue the arts. His time back in Chicago has also led him back to some of the very people that shaped his view of the stage. The artistic director for “Dreamgirls,” Jim Corti, directed one of the first shows Betts saw in Chicago. Betts shared this with Corti after Corti hired him. “He had no idea 14 years ago that he would direct a show, and that he would [eventually] be hiring someone who saw that show” all these years later. For Betts, their reconnection was a testament to the ability of theater to leave marks on people’s lives.
When asked how he thinks about his legacy, Betts leaned away from the discussion of awards and accolades. Instead, he framed the question as one of process, practice and progress. His goal for right now is “daring to be seen,” and his hope is that his work will reflect that boldness and inspire others. “By showing up bravely and authentically, as who I am, I allow people to see me. And by allowing people to see me, I know that will inspire others to be seen as well.”