SDC EXECUTIVE BOARD
MEMBERS OF BOARD
Saheem Ali Christopher Ashley Anne Bogart Jo Bonney Mark Brokaw Rachel Chavkin Desdemona Chiang Liz Diamond Sheldon Epps Lydia Fort Leah C. Gardiner Liza Gennaro Joseph Haj Linda Hartzell Anne Kauffman Dan Knechtges Mark Lamos Pam MacKinnon Kathleen Marshall D. Lynn Meyers Lisa Portes Lonny Price Ruben Santiago-Hudson Bartlett Sher Casey Stangl Seema Sueko Eric Ting
John Rando EXECUTIVE VICE PRESIDENT
Michael John Garcés FIRST VICE PRESIDENT
Michael Wilson TREASURER
Melia Bensussen SECRETARY
Seret Scott SECOND VICE PRESIDENT
Leigh Silverman THIRD VICE PRESIDENT
Laura Penn COUNSEL
Ronald H. Shechtmann HONORARY ADVISORY COMMITTEE
Karen Azenberg Pamela Berlin Julianne Boyd Graciela Daniele Emily Mann Marshall W. Mason Ted Pappas Susan H. Schulman Oz Scott Daniel Sullivan Victoria Traube
SPRING 2020 CONTRIBUTORS
Ann M. Shanahan
EDITORIAL ADVISORY COMMITTEE
Melia Bensussen Joshua Bergasse Jo Bonney Noah Brody Desdemona Chiang Sheldon Epps Ann M. Shanahan SDC JOURNAL PEER-REVIEWED SECTION EDITORIAL BOARD SDCJ-PRS CO-EDITORS
Emily A. Rollie Ann M. Shanahan SDCJ-PRS BOOK REVIEW EDITOR
Kathleen M. McGeever SDCJ-PRS ASSOCIATE BOOK REVIEW EDITOR
Ruth Pe Palileo SDCJ-PRS SENIOR ADVISORY COMMITTEE
Anne Bogart Anne Fliotsos Joan Herrington James Peck SDCJ-PRS PEER REVIEWERS
Donald Byrd David Callaghan Jonathan Cole Thomas Costello Kathryn Ervin Liza Gennaro Travis Malone Sam O’Connell Scot Reese Stephen A. Schrum
Lou Bellamy DIRECTOR
Melia Bensussen DIRECTOR
Michael J. Bobbitt DIRECTOR + CHOREOGRAPHER
Jo Bonney DIRECTOR
Jade King Carroll DIRECTOR
Desdemona Chiang DIRECTOR
Wardell Julius Clark DIRECTOR
Hana S. Sharif DIRECTOR
Bartlett Sher DIRECTOR
Casey Stangl DIRECTOR + CHOREOGRAPHER
Seema Sueko DIRECTOR
Tazewell Thompson DIRECTOR
Awoye Timpo DIRECTOR
Eric Ting DIRECTOR
Maria Torres DIRECTOR + CHOREOGRAPHER
Pirronne Yousefzadeh DIRECTOR
SPRING 2020 SDCJ-PRS CONTRIBUTORS
André De Shields DIRECTOR + CHOREOGRAPHER
Rick Dildine DIRECTOR
Sheldon Epps DIRECTOR
Nataki Garrett DIRECTOR
WESTERN MICHIGAN UNIVERSITY
Anne Fliotsos PURDUE UNIVERSITY
Henry Godinez NORTHWESTERN UNIVERSITY
Joan Herrington WESTERN MICHIGAN UNIVERSITY
Ruth Pe Palileo COLLEGE OF SOUTHERN NEVADA
Nicole Hodges Persley
UNIVERSITY OF KANSAS
DIRECTOR + CHOREOGRAPHER
Patricia McGregor DIRECTOR
Paige Price DIRECTOR
Ruben Santiago-Hudson DIRECTOR
SDC JOURNAL is published by Stage Directors and Choreographers Society, located at 321 W. 44th Street, Suite 804, New York, NY 10036. ISSN 2576-6899 © 2020 Stage Directors and Choreographers Society. All rights reserved. SDC JOURNAL is a registered trademark of SDC. LETTERS TO THE EDITOR Letters to the editor may be sent to SDCJournal@SDCweb.org POSTMASTER Send address changes to SDC JOURNAL, SDC, 321 W. 44th Street, Suite 804, New York, NY 10036.
2 SDC JOURNAL | FALL 2020
CONTENTS Volume 8 | No. 3
FROM THE PRESIDENT BY EVAN YIONOULIS
8 Lights Down MEMBERS REFLECT ON HALTED PRODUCTIONS BY HENRY GODINEZ,
KEL HANEY, D. LYNN MEYERS, JOANIE SCHULTZ, JOSÉ LUIS VALENZUELA + CHRISTOPHER WINDOM
11 Dream On! BY SHELDON EPPS
12 The New Now BY MELIA BENSUSSEN
13 A New Renaissance BY BARTLETT SHER
15 A Dream Deferred BY TAZEWELL THOMPSON
16 This Is My Paradox BY MICHAEL J. BOBBITT
19 Ishi Kara Ishi BY STAFFORD ARIMA
20 The Time of Change:
On COVID-19, AntiRacism, and the Myths We Must Dispel BY PIRRONNE YOUSEFZADEH
22 Expanding the Circle BY CASEY STANGL
23 We Have to Look
Outside Ourselves BY RICK DILDINE
24 The Last Blood Sacrifice
BY ANDRÉ DE SHIELDS
26 Entwined Viruses and
30 Fault Lines BY TIM DANG
32 Healing Our
Communities BY RUBEN SANTIAGO-HUDSON
+ ANDRÉ DE SHIELDS
34 Beyond the Building: Black Directors on Transforming the American Theatre
AN SDC ROUNDTABLE WITH LOU BELLAMY,
JADE KING CARROLL, WARDELL JULIUS CLARK, KEN-MATT MARTIN, PATRICIA McGREGOR, HANA S.SHARIF + AWOYE TIMPO MODERATED BY TAYLOR BARFIELD
Solving for Pattern BY SEEMA SUEKO
29 What Does “A New Form of Theatre” Mean? BY JO BONNEY
18 Notes from a
Jaded Optimist BY PAIGE PRICE
Kimberly Monks + Christiana Clark in How to Catch Creation at Oregon Shakespeare Festival, directed by Nataki Garrett PHOTO Jenny Graham FALL 2020 | SDC JOURNAL
43 The Gift of
Desperation—Race, Revolution, and Recovery in a Summer of COVID-19 BY ANN M. SHANAHAN
46 Our Future BY MARIA TORRES
47 A Vision of
Financial Literacy BY ADRIANA BAER
48 We Need a New WPA BY LINDA HARTZELL
49 Our Craft Is Our
Strength: Leading with Artistry and Truth
PEER-REVIEWED SECTION SPECIAL ISSUE FORUM: UNIVERSITY THEATRE RESPONSES TO COVID-19
BY MEGAN SANDBERG-ZAKIAN
AND THE MOVEMENT FOR BLACK LIVES
Brave New Theatre BY NICOLE HODGES PERSLEY
59 Theatre Seasons in 60 A Time for
BY ANNE FLIOTSOS
62 The Evolution of
Theatre in the Time of COVID-19 BY HENRY GODINEZ
BY SNEHAL DESAI +
Pearl Sun in The Price at Arena Stage, directed by Seema Sueko PHOTO Colin Hovde
4 SDC JOURNAL | FALL 2020
Emergency Relief Fund Thank You
August 1, 2019 – July 31, 2020
the Age of COVID-19 BY RUTH PE PALILEO
From the SDCF President
72 Annual Fund +
BY KEVIN ABBOTT +
SDC FOUNDATION BY MARK BROKAW
58 Context and Creativity
NATAKI GARRETT + ERIC TING
53 Why Are You
Time for a
SPECIAL ISSUE ESSAY
A Lamp, A Bridge, A Ship
A CONVERSATION WITH
PRESIDENT When I look back at my first letter as SDC Executive Board President, which I wrote in January, it feels like a missive from another world. There are threads that must be put on hold, but also those we carry forward with renewed vigor into the pandemic world we are living in now, in which parallel viruses—one “novel” that has shuttered our theatres and halted our income, and the other systemic, which has had centuries to embed itself in our society— have endangered many thousands of lives and livelihoods. Both need our immediate and sustained attention. I wrote in January about SDC’s commitment to fostering an inclusive and just field and to celebrating and supporting diversity in all its forms. I wrote about laboring to ensure that our Members work in safe and equitable workplaces and create the conditions in rehearsal halls and theatres that allow actors, designers, and other collaborators to be free to do their best work. “Safety” has accrued more meaning in light of the pandemic and the call for racial justice. So has the concept of “getting in the door”—how do we prepare for a return to rehearsal rooms in what will likely continue, for some time, to be an economically distressed field, while also seeking increased opportunity for our Black, Indigenous, and people of color (BIPOC) Members? Right now, most of our productions have been postponed or canceled, but our Members are still working: developing new plays and musicals and resurrecting past pieces on Zoom; remotely directing and choreographing countless benefits for theatres and service organizations; directing radio plays and experimenting with blended work; and mounting productions in drive-in theatres and physically distanced outdoor venues. Many of you have written about such activity in these virtual pages. We expect the creativity and innovation of our Members to expand as we move forward, touching audiences and influencing the culture. Productions captured as the field was shutting down have been streamed, some with encore performances. New productions going into rehearsal have plans for capture in the face of unknowns regarding gathering audiences. Whatever the work is or becomes over the next months, SDC, through our Collectively Bargained Agreements, a newly promulgated Remote Contract, and modified Capture Provisions, will continue to protect our Members. (If you have any questions about which contract to use, please contact the Contract Affairs staff at Contracts@SDCweb.org) As you know, SDC has put into place a process for approving theatres’ safety plans. In collaboration with the American Guild of Musical Artists (AGMA), we have hired three medical experts who, using a rigorous set of criteria, work with us to clear—or not clear—productions for our Members. If a theatre or production is not cleared, SDC will not issue or authorize a contract. We all
share the desire to get back to work. Even though each of us has our own level of risk tolerance, SDC must create standards for the protection of all. The Union is also engaging politically to promote legislative action that helps our Members, especially in relationship to unemployment benefits and health insurance protections, and is supporting efforts to get out the vote in the November election. We are preparing guides for our Members that outline best rehearsal practices with regard to safety and COVID-19. And, importantly, we are taking steps to continue and further the work of anti-racism. These are challenging times for our Membership and our Union. However, as I said at our Membership meeting in July, I am continually reminded of our collective power. Our strength as directors and choreographers lies in our ability to set a vision, share that vision, and build a community that is drawn to our vision. Our strength is in our ability to find solutions when obstacles cross our paths and our capacity to make great work even when we are constrained. We need all our strength right now. And we need each other. When I work with my fellow Executive Board Members and feel their passion for serving the Membership, their willingness to roll up their sleeves and tackle thorny issues, their commitment to the path of anti-racism, I feel the strength of our Union. Let us all remain united in our belief in the power of theatre, whatever form or forms it may take; in our faith that we will return to the work we love; and in our resolve that when we do so, it will be in a field that is more just and inclusive. In Solidarity,
Evan Yionoulis Executive Board President
FALL 2020 | SDC JOURNAL
6 SDC JOURNAL | FALL 2020
In March, as we all faced the devastating reality of a deadly global pandemic and the shutdown of the industry, we began work on a special issue of SDC Journal that would feature essays responding to the COVID-19 crisis and its profound impact on theatre and theatre artists. With the Journal’s Editorial Advisory Committee, we decided to organize the publication around stories that would celebrate and mourn the past, capture our present moment, and imagine what the future might be.
in April and early May, when we were still reeling from the immediate impact of COVID-19. Others were generated later, in June and July, and focus primarily on racial divides within society and the American theatre itself. And some explore the ways these two pressing issues—the devastating impact of the pandemic and the long-overdue reckoning with racial inequities—are intertwined and present opportunities for deep, fundamental change. We include the submission date for each contribution to provide context.
Then in May and June, following the murder of George Floyd and the anguished, widespread calls for racial justice in all facets of society, including the American theatre, we decided to expand the Journal’s focus to include vital conversations around racism and racial injustice. A second call for contributions went out to our Members.
Our organizing principle for this special issue of the Journal has been to let the articles speak to one another. Together, they encapsulate the past six months and illuminate who we were, who we are, and who we might become—as theatremakers and as a society.
In the essays and rich discussions that follow, directors, choreographers, and educators address fundamental questions about theatre, why we make it, how we make it, who gets to make it, and for whom. Some were written
Kate Chisholm Managing Editor
Stephanie Coen Features Editor
We welcome your responses to this issue. Please write to us at SDCJournal@SDCweb.org PHOTO Paige Price FALL 2020 | SDC JOURNAL
Pipeline By Dominique Morriseau Directed by Ron OJ Parson Ensemble Theatre Cincinnati March 11, 2020. I am standing at the top of the stairs looking over a lobby filled with people. It feels like a dream, a dream come true. The people are diverse in age, race, and attire. Some are at the bar, chatting loudly; others are quietly heading towards the theatre doors. Dominique Morriseau’s Pipeline is about to open under the direction of Ron OJ Parson. It is a play so dear to our mission at Ensemble Theatre Cincinnati that we have 22 community programs planned over the four-week run. I walk past an engagement wall—the playwright’s words at the center and chalkboards filled with patrons’ comments on either side—as I take the stage for a welcoming curtain speech. Imagine taking one of the deepest breaths of your life. After decades it all was real, in that moment, what it was all about was present. Now imagine being in that same spot 24 hours later: looking at an empty lobby, coming out of empty offices, quiet, sun going down. What I can bring to this is hope—hope and faith that we will rebuild, reopen, renew our commitment. Next season will be our 35th. It will happen. Together, we will survive, until we can thrive.
Connan Morrissey, Ron OJ Parson + Bryant Bentley in rehearsal for Pipeline at Ensemble Theatre Cincinnati
—D. Lynn Meyers
Destiny of Desire
By Karen Zacarías Directed by José Luis Valenzuela Cincinnati Playhouse in the Park/Milwaukee Repertory Theatre/The Guthrie Theater At the Latino Theater Company, where I am Artistic Director, we were celebrating the 50th anniversary of the Chicano Moratorium (the anti-war demonstration where Ruben Salazar, an LA Times journalist, was killed by the LA County Sheriff’s Department) by creating programming that dealt with social issues affecting communities of color. Due to COVID-19, the entire season of the LTC— encompassing 10 plays, a youth conservatory, and a new plays festival—had to be postponed indefinitely. In response, we are now transitioning to the digital world through archival screenings and digital readings to keep engaging with our audience.
Esperanza America in Destiny of Desire at Goodman Theatre, directed by José Luis Valenzuela PHOTO Liz Lauren
8 SDC JOURNAL | FALL 2020
And it was a very special year for me as a director, with a three-theatre tour in the Midwest of Destiny of Desire by Karen Zacarías. We can’t overlook what it means to have an all-Latino play reach these audiences, and it was a very exciting venture for Karen and me. Beyond the financial and emotional impact that the cancellation had, it was devastating, because as Latinx artists, we seldom have the opportunity to have a production of this scope and reach. However, we are thankful that at least some patrons of Cincinnati Playhouse and Milwaukee Rep were able to experience a digital format of the play for two weeks each. —José Luis Valenzuela
American Mariachi at Dallas Theater Center, directed by Henry Godinez PHOTO Karen Almond
By José Cruz Gonzalez Directed by Henry Godinez Goodman Theatre/The Dallas Theater Center The Dallas Theater Center introduced me to professional theatre when I was in ninth grade, so it was a profound thrill for me to be going back to direct American Mariachi there, especially because it was a co-production with my artistic home, Goodman Theatre, and included my daughter in the cast. We got as far as our final dress on Friday, March 13.
An emotional Kevin Moriarty (Artistic Director of DTC) came to the end of tech notes the night before to let us know that due to the county commissioner’s new guidelines, we would not make it to first preview. It was a numbing, extraordinary feeling of loss. Not until later that evening, as I realized that every colleague in the field was suffering the same experience, did I begin to feel an odd sense of acceptance. The production was scheduled to open in Chicago on May 4. That has not happened…yet. —Henry Godinez
Book by Terrence McNally, Music by Stephen Flaherty, Lyrics by Lynn Ahrens Directed by Robert Kelley Choreographed by Christopher Windom TheatreWorks Silicon Valley On our first day of rehearsal, the instructions for the company were extremely clear: no hugs, no handshakes. Elbow bumps were the designated way to greet one another. The protocol felt odd, especially for theatre people, who seek to create intimacy more than distance. Yet in every way, Artistic Director Emeritus Robert Kelley and his administration were careful and caring and made us feel safe.
artists, so to see our community so resoundingly halted really speaks to the impact the pandemic has had on our world. For weeks, I felt unsettled about our unfinished rehearsal process. What keeps me grounded is remembering my connection to a vast group of artists, each of whom is experiencing this moment in their own deeply personal way. —Christopher Windom
Eight days later, with only one week of rehearsal under our belts, the company was gathered together and informed of the decision to postpone our production. There were tears. There were a few sighs of relief. (Throughout that first week some of us came into rehearsal sharing stories of sleep interrupted by nightmares.) The cast and creative team were given a solid promise that we would be invited back to resume our roles when the show is produced next season. After all, theatre is for optimists. It was crushing, however, to see the children in the show receive perhaps their first dose of another theatrical feeling—disappointment. As I traveled home to New York City, my phone’s inbox kept filling with email upon email from respected theatre companies, announcing discontinued productions and early show closures. The spirit of “The show must go on” is the resilient attitude that connects all theatre
Christopher Windom at Ragtime rehearsal with Suzanne Grodner + Robert Kelley FALL 2020 | SDC JOURNAL
My Lord, What a Night By Deborah Brevoort Directed by Kel Haney Orlando Shakes/National New Play Network
It’s been an honor to spend almost five years directing and developing Deborah Brevoort’s play My Lord, What a Night. Deborah’s play imagines events leading to Marian Anderson’s historic concert on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, which was recognized by many as the official “starting bell” of the civil rights movement and established the National Mall as the USA’s seat of civil protest. The play also depicts Mary Church Terrell, a crucial foot soldier of the civil rights and suffragist movements. (Check out her autobiography—this woman used her life to accomplish an extraordinary amount and should be acknowledged.) The Orlando Shakes/NNPN production was going to be an integral moment in this play’s development. It felt extremely important to me, especially during an election year, for this Central Florida audience to engage with the questions the play raises about how to fight racial injustice. On March 24th, our friends at Theatre Without Theater posted a video of Sheryl Carbonell singing Anderson’s version of the spiritual “My Lord, What a Morning.” I hope that post introduces more people to Marian Anderson’s story and also serves as a bit of a balm in our current moment. —Kel Haney
Sheryl Carbonell as Marian Anderson in the Orlando Shakes publicity image for My Lord, What a Night, directed by Kel Haney
Frida…A Self Portrait By Vanessa Severo Directed by Joanie Schultz Cleveland Play House/Portland Center Stage
Frida…A Self Portrait, written and performed by Vanessa Severo, is a piece I have been honored to work on since 2018, leading to a world premiere in 2019. In May 2020, we were scheduled for the Cleveland Play House as part of their New Ground Festival, where we were going to implement new material in performances before bringing the piece to Portland Center Stage in September. The play traces Frida Kahlo’s life story, while drawing connections to Severo’s own life through text and movement, which not only makes the piece a historical biography but also connects with the artist’s heart. Vanessa becomes a conduit for Frida, but Frida also is a lifeline for Vanessa. The narrative comes to life on stage through clothes on laundry lines that are puppeted, danced with, and inhabited to represent characters from Kahlo’s father to Diego, to her unborn children, to her paintings. The storytelling in this piece is unique, emotional, surprising, and honest— bringing Frida to a modern audience in a new way. I look forward to sharing this piece again when we can safely gather. —Joanie Schultz
Vanessa Severo in Frida…A Self Portrait at Kansas City Rep, directed by Joanie Schultz PHOTO Cory Weaver
10 SDC JOURNAL | FALL 2020
DREAM ON! BY SHELDON EPPS
MAY 13, 2020 It certainly gave me great joy and pride to serve as the artistic director of a theatre for two decades. In truth, it also gave me many headaches and sleepless nights. All things considered, that time of building and sustaining Pasadena Playhouse is the great work of my life. However, shortly after the pandemic hit and theatres of all sizes all over the country necessarily began to shut down, canceling both their current and upcoming programming, and knowing the costs of all kinds in those decisions, I confess I did have moments when I thought, “Thank God I am not in a position of leadership of a theatre right now!” But as days and weeks and months have passed and I’ve talked with many friends and colleagues who are still so
LET'S GET TO IT AND DREAM AWAY! DREAM OF NEW WAYS OF SEEING OUR THEATRES IN TIME AND SPACE.
graciously and ably serving their companies, I’ve come to think of it differently. I certainly recognize the kinds of challenges that theatres are facing, and that makes me nervous for them. But in some ways, it seems these challenges offer the possibility of being “unleashed” in ways that may be exciting and offer great possibilities for the future. In a world where everything has changed, perhaps everything can change. Perhaps it’s possible to feel “free at last” from all of those models that have in some ways harnessed our theatres over many decades, based on the theory that it’s best to keep doing things as they’ve always been done. Stick to the same calendars, schedules, subscription models, programming choices, and even the same spaces that we’ve always used. It seems an ideal and propitious time not only to say why but also to say why not? Why not dream of bringing our theatres back not only as what they have been but also as what they could be? There is real necessity and a great opportunity for this kind of bold thinking given the additional urgency of the cries for racial equality throughout every corridor of our theatres, both on stage and off. Once again, bold thinking, courage, and dynamic action are called upon to answer the urgent demands for change. We must dream of letting all our theatre artists “breathe” with
equal freedom. Now is the time for that as well. And please remember that it is not going to be about what you say, but what you do! It was in fact audacious dreaming that initiated and sustained the entire resident theatre movement in its birthing days. Those theatres wanted to be something different from commercial Broadway and road company fare regarding their physical spaces, their theatrical and political diversity, and their connection to the community where they were born. Those founders had no models to follow. Perhaps that was the source of the magic they created. Perhaps that can be the source of a much-needed magic right now. Dreaming again. Dreaming of it all being different. Dreaming of new ways of creating, nurturing, and sustaining our theatres. We are, in fact, “such stuff as dreams are made on.” So let’s get to it and dream away! Dream of new ways of seeing our theatres in time and space. Let’s allow passionate dreaming to remake our theatres—so we can make theatre. Now I’m thinking that it might just be a GREAT time to be an artistic director. I believe it can and will be if we take the current challenges as an opportunity to dream in a new and daring way about the future. Sheldon Epps is Artistic Director Emeritus of Pasadena Playhouse. He was recently appointed Senior Artistic Advisor at Ford’s Theatre in Washington, DC.
Twelve Angry Men at Ford’s Theatre, directed by Sheldon Epps PHOTO Scott Suchman FALL 2020 | SDC JOURNAL
NOW BY MELIA BENSUSSEN
JUNE 2, 2020 Now is the winter of our discontent… Now, fair Hippolyta, our nuptial hour… Ay, now am I in Arden, the more fool I. I can’t stop thinking of the word “now.” The idea of Now, the present. As a director who has done a fair amount of Shakespeare, I’ve routinely stopped actors on that word, for the use of “now” in Shakespeare has always been amazing to me. It’s literal—it’s active—it’s alive: Shakespeare is telling us it is happening Now. Theatre is about action, theatre is what the actor is doing in front of us, and with us, in the immediate present. Shakespeare constantly reminds us to be in the moment and pay full attention, and in return we will be granted the joy of becoming one with the storyteller and the story.
THE JOB IS TO LEAD A THEATRE. A THEATRE THAT ISN'T MAKING THEATRE. I’ve never felt more in the present, in the Now, than in a rehearsal room. And it’s only during this moment, in this undefined time, that I realize that the “Now” only worked for me because it was about preparing for the future. Rehearsals were a joy to be present in because they were part of a narrative moving forward on a foreseeable schedule. The goal of opening night was always in sight. It’s different now. I was named Artistic Director of Hartford Stage in January 2019. I took over the position on July 1, 2019. In looking at programming the ’19-20 season with my predecessor, Darko Tresnjak, I chose to place my “directorial debut” with the company for the end of the ’19-20 season, giving me time, as I joked, to figure out how to find the bathroom and the coffee machine. To get to know the staff and the theatre, to make my
12 SDC JOURNAL | FALL 2020
home as the Artistic Director before returning to my comfort zone in the rehearsal room. COVID-19 closed us down three weeks before I would have started rehearsals. There is a shift from being a freelance director to an AD, certainly—the job transforms you. Suddenly, viewed through Octavio Solis, Melia Bensussen, Cynthia Rider + KJ one lens, your own directing is Sanchez celebrating the beginning of Quixote Nuevo superseded by your leadership rehearsals at Hartford Stage PHOTO Alex Syphers of an institution. At some happy times, these roles might dovetail; at others, prioritizing The “now” becomes not September. Soon, one’s own directing over the probably in the next few weeks (I’m writing this institutional health can cause havoc. At this almost impossible time, there is no choice but in late May), we will move the opening date to February. We wonder how we will reinvent. to lead; there is no directing to do. So, the job is to lead a theatre. A theatre that isn’t making theatre. A week into the pandemic, we furlough 70 people from our staff. A staff I’ve just gotten to know, whose respect and trust I’ve been working on earning for less than a year. We get down to a core group and start creating scenarios—postponing, canceling, shifting. Co-productions collapse as we learn of different theatres’ strategies and limitations. Terrific and interesting work starts appearing online, almost instantly, it seems. We don’t have the funds or the staff at this point to make that kind of work. And then there’s the bigger question I wrestle with: is that the kind of work I would make—virtual productions, readings, video events? It’s all valid and important, but I confront the truth that my way of making theatre is to be in a room with people. In the “before,” I’d solicited scripts and contacted actors, reached out to directors and designers. In this new “now,” there is a backlog of commitments and a fear of breaking promises. Two weeks into the pandemic, we decide at the theatre to start a “virtual” cocktail hour. I don’t promise to deliver plays or even facsimiles thereof. The point is connection— reminding all of us, our staff included, of the importance of our theatre to this community. Daily senior staff meetings, eight of us now— we were nine, but one resigned, moving to a safer position in the cable TV industry—we look at new scenarios. What is the “now” now? Do we mount a one-person show with 350 empty seats (our theatre normally seats 485)? Wouldn’t that be more dispiriting? This isn’t what theatre should feel like—this isn’t what theatre can do.
As the AD, I sit both in not knowing and in leading. To lead and inspire while being overwhelmed oneself, to have hope and planning and a sense of the future when the unknown is greater than the known future for our craft. I fight my own sense of being too small for the moment because of course we are all too small for this moment. The moment is too large and too impossible to embrace, to conceive of. I read wise words from gifted writer Rebecca Solnit: “We are in the middle and the end is not in sight. We are waiting, which is among most people’s least favorite thing to do, when it means noticing that you have taken up residence in not knowing...Nearly all of us would like to be at the end of the story, because to live in the middle of it is to live in suspense and uncertainty about what will happen...” I know we at Hartford Stage are not alone in living in the middle of this suspense and uncertainty, and to be finding our way toward purpose in this new “normal.” This is our new Now, so different from how I originally experienced Shakespeare’s invocation. But our being in the “middle” forces us to believe in the next chapter, however unknown, for Hartford Stage and for each one of us. Now, in this now, trying to figure out how to prepare and lead for what comes next. Melia Bensussen is Artistic Director of Hartford Stage.
Renaissance A NEW
BY BARTLETT SHER
JULY 13, 2020
One month after William Shakespeare’s birth in 1564, a plague descended on Stratfordupon-Avon, killing one quarter of the population. His parents went into immediate quarantine, hiding away their newborn baby.
In 1592, during the early part of his career, as he was establishing himself as a playwright, the plague hit again, closing the theatres for 14 months. During this time, the playwright composed Romeo and Juliet, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, most of his sonnets, and two long poems, including “Venus and Adonis.” Late in his career, between 1602 and 1613, while he was writing his last works, including King Lear, the theatres were closed on and off for 87 months, during which almost onefifth of the population of London died. And strangely, Shakespeare never wrote about the plague, even though it appears to have dominated his entire life. Except for a brief reference in Romeo and Juliet, this cycle of opening and closing and shutting down his life and work appears nowhere in his plays.
PERHAPS THE ONLY THING THAT IS GOOD ABOUT THIS PANDEMIC IS THAT NOW WE HAVE THE TIME TO ACTUALLY CONSIDER, REFLECT, AND BEND TOWARD CHANGE AND JUSTICE.
On March 12, 2020, theatres across the country began shutting down and, as of this writing, have been closed for four months, with no real signs of reopening for at least a year. In the course of that, the most social of beings, theatre people, who live in the most intense and constant community of any profession on earth, have gone into seclusion and been cut off from the lifeblood of our work, our colleagues, and our creative families. We have watched our friends suffer and die, and tried to ask ourselves hard questions about our inner lives and this sacred work we engage in that we call theatre. So here I am, looking back at the Renaissance and asking whether Shakespeare found some other value for his own pandemics. Clearly, he kept writing, and certainly he seems to have experienced the time and off-time with a kind of purpose, maybe even reflection, and I wonder if it actually could have had a hand in making his work better. How does this time come to be of use, or at least come to offer us a chance to ask questions about ourselves and this work we do in the theatre?
any of us could have imagined. Two months into our quarantine, in South Minneapolis, George Floyd was murdered, and I think the real purpose of our quarantine and isolation made itself clear. For from that horrible event, and the subsequent protests and transformative events to follow, a real purpose and clarity emerged from the center of the pandemic. These events provided a kind of intersection between the work we make and how we make this work. They provided an important and critical opportunity for us to ask the deepest questions of ourselves, our privilege, our work practices, and our systems. A systemic racism, which had always been there, was now something we could not avoid or deny but must face. I spent the last 25 years working in the regional theatre and New York, and I probably think I had asked many of these questions about race, our history, and how
But I don’t think I really knew how to answer this question in the early days of the pandemic. I mostly spent the time planning for the future, wondering what work was ahead, and reaching out to friends and colleagues. At the same time, there was enormous uncertainty about its duration, and while we all somehow felt like we were pulling together, I don’t think we reckoned with how long it was going to last and how much we might be changed in the process. But there is one huge difference between now and 1592— something no one expected and something more powerful than
Kearstin Piper Brown + Justin Austin in Intimate Apparel at Lincoln Center Theater, directed by Bartlett Sher PHOTO Julieta Cervantes
FALL 2020 | SDC JOURNAL
Kelli O’Hara + Bartlett Sher in rehearsal for South Pacific at Lincoln Center Theater PHOTO Joan Marcus
these questions lived in the deepest places in our theatre. But the pandemic, and these events, have been an opportunity to see that much of that investigation, while important, was mostly bullshit, and only a sort of prep for what we are facing now in terms of transformation. Perhaps the only thing that is good about this pandemic is that now we have the time to actually consider, reflect, and bend toward change and justice. We must reflect on privilege, on how we work, on the structure of our organizations, and the very substance and manner of our processes. We must rethink the power structures of our organizations, and we must be responsible for creating genuine change and access within every part of our community. We must learn from our history and take responsibility for our part in it. And, most important, we must learn from and participate in what is one of the most important moments in our country’s history in 400 years.
14 SDC JOURNAL | FALL 2020
When I learned about the Renaissance in school, I recall the extraordinary etymology of the word: it means rebirth. It was probably the most transformative time of the last 1,000 years…until now. Because I now realize we get to be a part of a new Renaissance, a genuinely new rebirth. When the theatres were closed in 1592, Shakespeare made the most of those 14 months. When I do that math now, I look to next May and am determined and renewed by the thought that we will return to a completely and fully changed world of the theatre, where what we make next, and how we make it, will be profoundly transformed for the better. And I maybe dimly understand the mystery of why Shakespeare never wrote about the plague. I think it was a deep part of life, but it wasn’t the important part—the important part was creating worlds and work that could lift and transform himself and all of us. That’s the work we have ahead. It’s been
horrible putting the brakes on life like this, and we have endured much suffering in the entire course of events, but there is a deep hope that this crucible will allow us to return and engage in a new and better theatre. Bartlett Sher is Resident Director of Lincoln Center Theater.
A DREAM DEFERRED BY TAZEWELL THOMPSON
JUNE 17, 2020 “What happens to a dream deferred? Does it dry up like a raisin in the sun? Or fester like a sore— and then run? Does it stink like rotten meat? Or crust and sugar over— like syrupy sweet. Or maybe it just sags like a heavy load. Or does it explode?” —Langston Hughes, “Harlem” “Not everything that is faced can be changed, but nothing can be changed until it is faced.” —James Baldwin It is difficult for me not to feel utterly defeated. Not difficult at all for me to see my face photoshopped and superimposed over George Floyd’s face. I’m angry and personally frightened as a Black man living in an increasingly terrifying and divisive country, where a uniformed white police officer in
broad daylight, hands in pocket, a smug smirk on his arrogant face, in the middle of the street, confidently and with impunity, snuffs out the life of an unarmed, handcuffed Black man. “But man, proud man dressed in a little brief authority Most ignorant of what he’s most assured— His glassy essence—like an angry ape Plays such fantastic tricks before high heaven As make the angels weep…” —Shakespeare, Measure for Measure I’m emotionally exhausted and wonder how we can move onward. I take heart and solace that I’m a member of a dedicated group of the board of trustees of The Kurt Weill Foundation, which represents the works and missions of Kurt Weill and Marc Blitzstein. I can only imagine if Weill and Blitzstein were alive today, they would be writing the songs we need to hear and sing exactly right now: songs of pain and anger and outrage, satire, chants, hymns, love ballads, anthems and marches, songs that inspire courage and
togetherness, songs about the many issues that confront us, and the communities that are affected and suffering most as a result; the pandemic; unemployment; social and political injustice; lack of empathy, ignorance, and moral corruption at the leaderless top; voter suppression; gun violence; the right to protest systematic racism and police brutality.
MY HEART LEAPS UP WHEN I SEE THE STREETS ALL OVER THE GLOBE FILLED WITH DEMONSTRATORS AND THEIR NEED TO SHOWCASE OUR SHARED HUMANITY IN A COMPASSIONATE CONTRACT FOR CHANGE... My heart leaps up when I see the streets all over the globe filled with demonstrators and their need to showcase our shared humanity in a compassionate contract for change, bringing the peoples of the world together through—let’s start with—Black Lives Matter. “I see only one hope for our country, and that is when white men and black men, desiring neither power nor money, but desiring only the good for their country, come together to work for it. I have one fear in my heart, that one day when they are turned to loving, they will find we are turned to hating.” —Alan Paton, Cry, the Beloved Country
Blue at Glimmerglass Festival, composer, Jeanine Tesori; librettist and director, Tazewell Thompson PHOTO Karli Cadel/The Glimmerglass Festival
Tazewell Thompson is a director of theatre and opera, a playwright, teacher, and actor. He is the newly appointed Director of Opera Studies at Manhattan School of Music.
FALL 2020 | SDC JOURNAL
PARADOX T H I S I S MY
BY MICHAEL J. BOBBITT
JUNE 9, 2020
#BlackLivesMatter. I am a Black Life running a predominantly white institution and live with the tremendous stress of paradox every day. Racism can create quick deaths, some taking 8:46, or gun shots and little deaths that eat at your soul over the course of your life or work. I preface this read with a note. It is not my intention to offend and displease donors, loyal patrons, or arts persons who make, administer, support, or consume art within the existing models. I do the same. I have a tremendous respect and love for anyone actively engaging. In truth, I need to personally examine my need for this note or disclaimer: Why do I qualify or apologize for my feelings? Well, my friends, this is my paradox. Also, these thoughts and feelings have been churning for a while, but the COVID-19 crisis and the beautiful charge of the #BlackLivesMatter movement has brought more clarity to my thinking—our systems and models must be revamped! Perhaps we can turn this stressful time into a positive. As a BIPOC artistic director running a predominantly white institution, I’m living in a contradiction where financial systems/ viability are warring with my own personal/ professional desire to make theatre inclusive—especially for the marginalized. Large news outlets announced my hiring by leading with “diversity.” (The feelings associated with the pronouncement of being a “diversity hire” will be left for another article.) The outpouring of expectation from BIPOC artists was overwhelming. Add to that the articles highlighting that I am the gay father of an adopted Vietnamese child. My intersectionality engendered numerous marginalized people to hope that I could fix all the problems. Well, I’d like to! I really would. But the paradox is: How and how fast? How much destabilization can a mid-sized company in transition handle? Dismantling systems that might be contributing to the lack of inclusion takes education, trust building, nerve, engagement, self-care,
16 SDC JOURNAL | FALL 2020
affinity support, and “risk” capital. And how many years? Am I not being brave and bold? Do I actually have the power to dismantle? Am I letting down my people? Am I selling out? What is the root of the problem? I pose that it’s the financial systems that we have functioned under for many decades.
IN MY 20 YEARS AS A BIPOC LEADER, I HAVE LEARNED THAT SEASON PLANNING, SUBSCRIPTIONS, BOARDS, AND BUDGETING ARE JUST SOME OF THE FINANCIAL MODELS THAT CONTRIBUTE TO OPPRESSION AND ARE AT THE HEART OF OUR PROBLEMS WITH INCLUSION, ACCESSIBILITY, EQUITY, AND DIVERSITY. Let’s start with season planning. Since I’m sharing, I really loathe season planning. I love picking shows to produce, but I hate planning seasons. I’m frankly not sure if this business model works. Setting opening and closing dates don’t allow for the maximization of “return on investments” with extensions and/or early closures. Tickets have been sold months or a year in advance. Why not program a few months out? Wouldn’t that be more fiscally viable and sustainable? When planning, there are so many masters to answer to—marketing, development, production, boards, etc. In a world of inclusion, considering the thoughts of all is important. But who are these masters? What is at the core of their concerns? One could say that, as an artistic director, I have the power to do whatever I want, but this simply isn’t true for a mid-sized organization. This is my paradox. Season planning may be my greatest opportunity to create the inclusion
that this nation of theatremakers has been pontificating about for years. And we have made strides in diversifying our seasons, but how great are the strides in our audiences? How often have I heard, “Our subscribers won’t like that!” or “Our donors love this!” or “Our patrons won’t come and see that!”? Is season planning just a renewal campaign to maintain the status quo? What about the transformational acquisition of new patrons? This is my paradox, y’all. If I don’t renew current loyal patrons and donors, will I have the resources provided to produce quality work for new patrons? UUUUUggggghhhhh!!!!!! Then, there is the question of subscriptions—a paradox if there ever was one. The beauty of subscriptions is the influx of cash to cover the financial ebbs and flows of our programming models. I’m spending next season’s money this season. Let’s hope that there is no fire or strike or… PANDEMIC…that prevents us from delivering on the goods that are already paid for. Also, we can’t overlook the oppression that subscriptions create. After announcing, you have a few months to market some shows and more than a year to market others, while the whole company is “hijacked” with sales—especially renewals. I have serious questions! Are subscription models, especially those used for cash flows rather than “insuring seats,” effecting programming that is not
Michael J. Bobbitt shares a hug with former students PHOTO Ryan Maxwell
Michael J. Bobbitt rehearsing Ella Enchanted at Adventure Theatre PHOTO c/o Michael J Bobbitt
inclusive? Who has the resources to buy their ticket six to 18 months in advance? What seats are they buying? Are they the best seats? Are we giving those with privilege more privilege? Does this force those with fewer resources to sit in the back and sides? Is that oppressive? If subscribers are loyal patrons, why won’t they sit in any seat? Why not have general admission like cinema? To incentivize renewals, are we offering those who can afford to pay full-price discounts? Are we celebrating our subscribers in front of those who cannot afford to be subscribers, creating additional exclusion? This is not only a conundrum—it cuts right to the core of my personal tenets and how I want to effect change.
management. Until organizations truly live by “values-based budgeting,” most annual budgets perpetuate renewals of the status quo, again creating an organization that may be inaccessible. Numbers do tell stories, not to mention budgets linked to season planning. Every year, I fear that part of the season will tank, threatening cuts to expenses on the latter part of the season in an attempt to balance a budget that was created 14-16 months ago. How does that make financial sense? Let’s be honest: predicting that far into this future, especially in this fast-moving world, seems unreasonable. We’ve all gone to theatres where that show produced in the last quarter was raggedy.
Can we please talk about the boards of directors model and the inequalities that boards profess to dismantle? I could go on and on about the IRS’s policy that forces nonprofits to have boards, filled mostly with people who have significant resources, further empowering those with privilege decision-making power—and more privilege. Why not simply have these generous and hopefully altruistic people be engaged donors and volunteer advisors and leave all decisionmaking power to professionals who are trained, experienced, and qualified? Why is this a policy determined by the government? Does this financial structure perpetuate the status quo and create exclusion? Will the folks on my board allow me to take a programmatic risk? Will BIPOC and younger people join my board, given the organizational financial models that exclude them?
In my 20 years as a BIPOC leader, I have learned that season planning, subscriptions, boards, and budgeting are just some of the financial models that contribute to oppression and are at the heart of our problems with inclusion, accessibility, equity, and diversity.
While I do loathe season planning, a close second is annual budgeting. I value financial
The issue of streaming deserves a paragraph. This entire industry is scrambling to catch
I both cheer and have used programmatic initiatives invented by my colleagues to create more inclusion—everything from ticket discounts to community engagement programs to organizing to changing board give/get policies, etc. But I wonder if these really create transformational relationships. I’m sure there are anecdotal successes, but I suspect that most of the relationships with BIPOC and younger audiences are still transactional and infrequent for predominantly white institutions.
up on a nearly two-decades-old tool—the best platform for more accessibility. The experience of seeing live theatre cannot be replaced. And once we return to our buildings post-COVID-19, streaming will not threaten live theatre. The sporting industry strives because of streaming! Those who love the live theatre will still go. Not streaming feels like a disservice to the work—work that has been called “nonessential.” As a theatremaker, I would much rather have 100,000 people see my work vs. the 5,000 that can fit in a five- to six-week run in my building. Or better yet, 105,000 in the theatre and at home or on the bus ride to work or during breaks or at the bar. I’m not sure why this is even a question. Every other “live entertainment” industry is waaaay ahead. The three minutes of footage we are allowed to use based on union regulations seem counterintuitive. And why aren’t we offering “mobile-friendly performances” once or twice a week? Is it free marketing? Producers, unions, and artists, let’s figure this out! There is no one better at imagining the world differently than theatre people. We are experts. Let’s collectively imagine a world where all people can engage in theatre. Ah, Utopia. Maybe our expert imaginations can be enhanced by collaborating with futurists, MBAs, social scientists, entrepreneurs, strategists, economists, and business executives. Of course, these collaborators would have to be fiercely anti-racist and antioppressionist. Maybe these collaborations are with a cross-section of the field that includes service organizations, unions, educational institutions, and artists. And let us get funders to fund these “think tanks” and collaborations and beta testings. Audacious philanthropy supported audacious ideas like CPR, 911, marriage equality, hospice care, polio eradication, school lunch, and infant car seats. Can’t it support “Theatre Utopia”? Finally, my goal is to share with you my personal paradox. Even the idea of living with a paradox is a problem. I’m ready to constructively debate my thoughts and collaborate on solutions that are audacious. Director, choreographer, and playwright Michael J. Bobbitt is Artistic Director of New Repertory Theatre in Watertown, MA.
FALL 2020 | SDC JOURNAL
Notes Trom a Jaded Optimist BY PAIGE PRICE
MAY 27, 2020 I have intentionally neglected Facebook for some time, relying on Instagram for diversion and Twitter for the occasional warm bath of political rage from fellow progressives. But in late March, I found myself back on Facebook, in search of friends and colleagues who were sharing updates on their experience with this virus. And then, one of those “Your Facebook Memories” popped up; you know, those “last year on this date” photos, from a rehearsal of a production of Next to Normal I directed. And in an instant, I realized how completely shut down I’d been. Early March was a blur at my theatre company in Philadelphia, where I am an artistic director. We were closing one production, about to start rehearsals for another, a week away from producing our gala, and also preparing for a new play reading in New York on Monday, March 9. At 8 a.m. on March 9, our star called in sick and we canceled the reading. By Thursday, March 12, we had shut down our gala as well as the balance of our season and were preparing to work from home indefinitely. I’m not proud of my ability to compartmentalize, but it makes my job easier. Ah, a crisis! I’m good at this! Diving into scenario planning, Zooming with peers. “Do the actors know how to get unemployment?” “Let’s tell the front-ofhouse staff about these micro-grants they can apply for…” “If we furlough staff, how long can we pay benefits?” Bring it.
Crisis mode was replaced by the exhausting crush of understanding that this situation was going to last a very long time and that our practice was uniquely imperiled. My summer gig was delayed—“Are you available for dates in mid-August?”—and then canceled altogether. Contracts fell away with increasing speed, for time frames further and further into the future. My husband, a designer, went through his own version of this loss. Shows that had suddenly closed would not reopen. Tour dates were rearranged and rearranged again.
SUDDENLY, I WAS UNABLE TO IGNORE THAT WHAT HAD MANIFESTED AS BUSYNESS, STRESS, EXHAUSTION, AND ANXIETY WAS ACTUALLY GRIEF. Still, there was planning to be done, budget and programming scenarios to be run, more Zoom meetings with peers who were alternately frustrated, supportive, sad, candid. And then, glumly posting some random update on Facebook because now I had become the social media manager of my theatre, I came upon that Facebook Memory. And suddenly, I was unable to ignore that what had manifested as busyness, stress, exhaustion, and anxiety was actually grief. Profound, keen, in-your-not-even-a-little-bitergonomic-home-desk-chair grief. As I turned over my emotions in that rare moment, I allowed myself to really sit with how I felt. I recalled how in the days immediately following 9/11, it seemed that what I did for a
living was so frivolous, so selfish. Similarly, now, it’s easy to focus our admiration on frontline workers, our compassion toward our fellow humans who are sick and dying, and our rage at feckless “leaders.” But I know I finally need to acknowledge the jumble of feelings that accompany this moment. Sorrow over the inability to properly mourn those I’ve lost during these months. Concern that before we even get back into the room, colleagues will suffer from sickness, financial ruin, or a lonely hopelessness that might drive them to give up their dream. Fear that we’ll never enter the rehearsals that we’re all desperate to return to with the same giddy, nervous excitement. That the easy (and often physical) connection we enjoy will be replaced with timid caution and proscribed distance. I’ve always considered myself a jaded optimist. As the remainder of 2020 plays out, we can observe (and learn from?) other industries getting back to work. I know we will rebuild our world somehow, and that when we can tell stories again, directors will lead the room with even more nuanced care for our colleagues. I believe this pause also creates space for great opportunity in how we think about theatre and how we offer it to audiences. The field finally seemed poised to let new leaders shape a vaster, more inclusive landscape. Some of my professional relationships deepened during this time (albeit digitally). I am so grateful for those rows of faces in boxes, for the text chains, the surprise checkins. I found in them a source of energy that I can’t conjure on my own. It’s helped as I begin to rearm myself and try to regain the momentum I’ve lost. It just feels harder this time, maybe because it’s been nearly 20 years since we were last stopped in our tracks. I’ve had that much more time to appreciate the talented and generous humans I get to know. More time to fall in love with what we do. I guess that’s really the takeaway. I’m a little lost. But I’m lost with my favorite people. Paige Price is Producing Artistic Director of Philadelphia Theatre Company.
Anne Tolpegin + Devin Lewis in Next to Normal at the Fulton Theatre, directed by Paige Price PHOTO Kinectiv
18 SDC JOURNAL | FALL 2020
ISHI KARA ISHI BY STAFFORD ARIMA
JUNE 23, 2020 As the world confronts and celebrates trumpeting voices and protests, I see the transformative power of change—real change—coming. For some, this is a scary time. A time when we must take a deep look within ourselves and ask some difficult questions regarding our accountability within this situation. For others, this is a time that feels heinously long overdue. Stating the obvious, that racism is alive and well and living among us, almost feels redundant. However, like the insidious coronavirus, racism can be asymptomatic. It can hide within the DNA, the soul, the minds of rational, upstanding, educated individuals.
ONE OF THEATRE'S RESPONSIBILITIES, THROUGH THE SIMPLE ACT OF TELLING A STORY, IS TO REVEAL IN ORDER TO HEAL. As a theatre practitioner who recently became Artistic Director of one of the largest regional theatres in Canada (Theatre Calgary), I’ve come to understand that this role is more important than ever. What arts organizations and its artistic leaders can advocate for is change within our theatres. That’s the obvious. We can also utilize what our training and experiences have taught us: how to effectively tell
Lea Salonga, George Takei + Telly Leung in Allegiance on Broadway, directed by Stafford Arima PHOTO Matthew Murphy
stories. I will always remember what one of my early mentors, the director Frank Galati, shared with me. “Artists were put on this Earth to tell stories, to tell out loud what has happened,” he said. How simple but immensely profound. The power of storytelling is unparalleled, and I’ve always maintained that one of theatre’s responsibilities, through the simple act of telling a story, is to reveal in order to heal. I have faith that the stories we tell on and off our stages, as well as in our administrative offices and boardrooms, will have as much influence as any hashtag or protest. I made my Broadway directorial debut with Allegiance, the first musical on the Great White Way to tell the story of the internment of over 120,000 JapaneseAmericans (and 23,000 JapaneseCanadians) during the Second World War. (I was informed that I was the first AsianCanadian to direct a musical on Broadway, which, for me, was/is a disheartening fact.) The subject matter of Allegiance, the primarily Asian cast, as well as the four Asian members of the creative team (composer, sound designer, associate director, and director), broke conventions in 2015. When I look back at all involved, I feel profoundly proud of that unorthodoxy. The story we were telling was not just about a Japanese-American family living and surviving through the internment, but
also our production illuminated a narrative about the artistic vitality and value of an Asian creative team and cast. I am honored to be in this moment of history where a paradigm shift is taking place. This is a moment in history that my immigrant (Canadian) grandparents (originally from Japan and China) fought for. I have a duty to be proactive. With all that the world is experiencing, and the related overwhelm that we might be feeling, I am reminded of a song in Allegiance (written by Jay Kuo) called “Ishi Kara Ishi.” Loosely translated, the phrase means, “Stone by stone, a mountain can be moved.” Have faith, friends, for as difficult or stressful as this journey might feel, change can and will happen. Ishi kara ishi. Stafford Arima is Artistic Director of Theatre Calgary.
PHOTO Trudie Lee
FALL 2020 | SDC JOURNAL
ON COVID-19, ANTI-RACISM, AND THE MYTHS WE MUST DISPEL BY PIRRONNE YOUSEFZADEH
JULY 27, 2020 “Change takes time.” Since moving to Rochester to take a position at Geva Theatre Center last summer, I’ve lost count of the number of times someone said that to me. It came in the form of reassurances from my closest friends as I expressed uncertainty and fear about this massive life change, trading in a freelance career and a cozy studio in Brooklyn for a new life upstate. It came from my colleagues as I spoke with impatience about the potential for improvement I saw within the organization. Eventually, as months passed and I found myself in the steady rhythm and reliable hum of a regional theatre working in a typical way under typical circumstances, I found myself saying it to other people, to convince them, perhaps, but really to convince myself. And then, halfway into my first season as a full-time Associate Artistic Director and Director of Engagement, circumstances went from typical to—you guessed it—unprecedented. At ludicrous speed (kudos if you get the Spaceballs reference), I saw how nimbly and resourcefully we pivoted, both at Geva and across the country. Here in Rochester, our production staff became video producers overnight, securing equipment and planning final performances of the shows that were in production so we could capture and stream them for audiences who hadn’t yet seen them live. Our Literary Director, Jenni Werner, started a podcast. I led my first virtual book talk with a published author. In a matter of weeks, we all had new projects to keep us busy and keep us connected with our audiences and our artistic community.
20 SDC JOURNAL | FALL 2020
As we hurtled forward into the world of Zoom performance, I felt a deep desire to make this forced pause an opportunity for reckoning and reflection. Could we now do the anti-racism training we all agreed was necessary, but never fit into a jam-packed production schedule? Could we use this moment to envision the theatre we wanted to return to, in lieu of a return to “normal”? I produced events on Zoom with as much vim and vigor as I could muster, but with these
We adapted quickly and nimbly to COVID-19 because we understood that our assumptions about our given circumstances were no longer accurate. Very simply, we couldn’t be in a room together anymore, so we had to change. In order to dismantle systemic racism within the American theatre, we have to unlearn some fundamental assumptions that are the backbone of white supremacy.
First, we must shatter the illusion of a false choice: fiscal responsibility or anti-racist decisionmaking. The idea that this is an either/or proposition is, in and of itself, white supremacist. This manifests in countless ways, but most often, in the characterization of certain (white) plays as being “sellers” while certain (BIPOC) plays are “risky.” Remember Hamilton, Cambodian Rock Band, Vietgone, or Sweat? And let us also remember that many Jamal James, Sean Meehan + Lisa plays that center on white Tharps in The Royale at Kitchen Theatre stories have been flops by Company, directed by Pirronne capitalist standards, but Yousefzadeh PHOTO Teresa Mogil we never refer to those plays as being “risky.”
big, existential questions looming over me, the virtual art I attempted to make left me longing for more. And then “more” came, like an avalanche. As many theatres did in response to a national and global uprising in support of Black lives and in condemnation of state-sanctioned violence, Geva released a statement of solidarity. That statement ignited the conversation I’d been longing to have ever since I made the move to Rochester. Suddenly, we are having weekly anti-racism meetings, sharing articles and books, compiling a staff-wide list of anti-racist resources, and talking about our season, our staffing, and our budget through an antiracist lens. It is, at long last, a beginning.
Anti-racist theatre, by its very nature, decenters whiteness in favor of representation that embodies the multiplicity and abundance of voices and experiences in our global landscape. Enacting anti-racism in policy and programming decisions will lead to abundance: of new audiences, constituents, and stakeholders. Anti-racist theatre is not a financially risky proposition; it is, in fact, integral to our fiscal sustainability and to any hope we have of rebounding after this pandemic is over. After all, is it not more sustainable if all of your constituencies feel welcomed within your lobby, instead of a chosen few? Second, we must disrupt the notion that efforts towards inclusion of one group means the marginalization of another. This idea shows up in responses like “Are you
Zuleyma Guevara + Kim Sullivan in A Doll’s House, Part Two at Actors Theatre of Louisville, directed by Pirronne Yousefzadeh PHOTO Jonathan Roberts
suggesting that we replace all the white [staff/ plays/artists] with BIPOC [staff/plays/artists]?” What this question implies is that the goal is to merely trade places as the oppressor and the oppressed, and to wield the same hierarchical thinking to make sure white people now get the short end of the stick. But what this viewpoint fails to account for is that an American theatre that is more just and equitable for BIPOC theatre makers also benefits white theatremakers. Abolishing unpaid internships is anti-racist; it also creates more opportunities for access by underprivileged white applicants. Creating income transparency addresses the disproportionate extent to which BIPOC employees are underpaid, but it also empowers white employees (especially those who are female, LGBTQ, disabled, and/or part of another vulnerable community) to better advocate for themselves. Centering anti-racism in artistic programming means that in lieu of one “diversity” play (most often in February), theatre artists and audiences— BIPOC and white alike—get to experience a thrilling range of perspectives and aesthetics all season long. Because of the pandemic, countless theatres are in very precarious positions, and I’m not naïve to these realities. Practically every regional theatre in the country has had to do layoffs, furloughs, or some combination of both, and at Geva, we’ve had our share of difficult, painful choices. As all of us plan multiple scenarios for reopening, we are still facing months of uncertainty and financial scarcity. Due to this scarcity, I’ve observed and experienced the intensification of our culture of haste. This is the third assumption we must dismantle: that efficiency is paramount. This
haste is not well-placed urgency that focuses us on our values. It is panic, and this same panic causes individuals and institutions to revert to unconscious bias and scarcity-based decision-making. It stymies the creative process and disconnects us from the wealth of possibilities in our collective imagination.
FIRST, WE MUST SHATTER THE ILLUSION OF A FALSE CHOICE:FISCAL RESPONSIBILITY OR ANTIRACIST DECISION-MAKING. Our most effective antidote is to slow down. Breathe. No one is coming to the theatre today, not tomorrow, not even next month. We have to make decisions, yes, but we need to be mindful in our processes, to ensure that we are not making decisions based on an old, oppressive set of assumptions. Our manufactured sense of urgency only keeps the status quo alive and well. Instead of hurtling forward with the same kinds of decisions that created these systemic problems, can we apply the ingenuity with which we continue to adapt to our evolving COVID-19 reality to the centralization of anti-racism in our practices? Can we take the time to build it into our budgets, our rehearsal schedules, our staffing? Can we lay the groundwork to facilitate more inclusive hiring practices and board recruitment strategies, innovative institutional structures, and humane workplace conditions?
We need to rewire our brains to think laterally, not vertically. We need to question the binary, either/or, and scarcity-based thinking that got us here in the first place. We need to embrace our own uncertainty: we don’t know what the future looks like because we’ve never collectively tried to envision this type of future before. Moreover, our predominantly white regional theatres were never built to hold or uphold anti-racist values. As Albert Einstein said, “We cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used when we created them.” Or more to the point, in the words of Audre Lorde, “The master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house.” We cannot create the next chapter of anti-racism in the American theatre if we don’t radically transform our individual assumptions, priorities, and values. We need new tools. It may seem like a paradox, but we need to both slow down and reject the idea that “change takes time.” That phrase, I realize now, is the snooze button that keeps us asleep at the wheel, unable to wake up to the white supremacy we perpetuate and the meaningful change we procrastinate every time we say it. This work is lifelong and endless; it is always towards a “more perfect union,” right? But the decision to change? That is quick. You either want to, or you don’t. It is a choice. In all of the pain and suffering this pandemic has wrought, it has also done us the greatest service in destroying the status quo. There is no point in ever again saying, “But that’s the way we’ve always done it,” because we’ve already rendered that false with our countless streamed performances and Zoom readings. As we’ve already seen, limitations create opportunities when met with boundless imagination and a sense of wonder in experimentation. We can now build something radically new, inclusive, and just. In fact, it is our moral imperative. Let’s use this pause to interrogate every policy, every line item in the budget, and every bit of programming on our stages so that we can reform ourselves and our institutions towards our collective liberation. Pirronne Yousefzadeh is Associate Artistic Director and Director of Engagement at Geva Theatre Center.
Special thanks to Megan Sandberg-Zakian, Jenni Werner, and Miriam White for their loving and invaluable feedback on this piece. FALL 2020 | SDC JOURNAL
CIRCLE EXPAN D I N G BY CASEY STANGL
MAY 21, 2020
Look at the back of a program at any theatre in this country, and you’ll see the number of artists listed is minuscule compared to the number of administrators. And, often the artists listed are “affiliated,” which means they’re not staff and probably not making much money. I ran a small theatre in Minneapolis, so I completely understand the pressure to run ourselves like a business. But that kind of thinking has led us to justify our existence by measuring our economic impact rather than the intangible contributions made by our ephemeral art form. Artists are not at the forefront of our theatres. And directors, aside from those leading institutions, are not a central force in planning or creative problem solving. The pandemic is forcing us to pause, contract, and deal with smaller budgets and smaller
infrastructures. I’m hoping that’s going to bring artists closer to the center of what we do as we move forward. I would love to see more directors at the front lines of strategy, of imagining new models for us. I hope this is an opportunity to rethink ourselves and for directors, with all that we can bring to the table, to be more of a go-to resource.
EXISTING STRUCTURES MUST BE UPSET AND REIMAGINED SO WE CAN HAVE BETTER ACCESS FOR ALL. Theatre is about reflecting the lives that we’re living, right now. Looking through the lens of the virus is urgently affecting how we approach our work aesthetically. I think we are going to see directors
and choreographers incorporating more sophisticated ways of doing video and video capture into our processes and contracts. The various scenarios we are all contemplating— socially distanced audiences, hybrids combining live and streaming audiences, and even no live audience at all—provide us with the opportunity to increase access and reach a wider and more diverse audience. One positive thing I’ve found with the pandemic is that the upheaval has shone a spotlight on the inequities in our society and shown that there must be and can be more access. Zoom has been a great leveler; it has also revealed that those without access to technology are being left behind. This unprecedented moment is revealing how many voices are not being heard. Existing structures must be upset and reimagined so we can have better access for all. Casey Stangl is a director and an Associate Artistic Director of Ojai Playwrights Conference.
Casey Stangl rehearses Silent Sky with Victoria Grace at Arizona Theater Company
22 SDC JOURNAL | FALL 2020
WE HAVE TO LOOK OUTSIDE THIS FEELS LIKE AN OURSELVES OPPORTUNITY TO BY RICK DILDINE
MAY 22, 2020
We have to look outside ourselves and our conventional sources of information if we hope to create any new models. We will have to engage with different, unexpected partners, which will likely set us on the course toward truly being civic institutions. These are the moments to challenge assumptions. I have always been drawn to “what if…” thinkers and adventurists. We artists peddle in “what if” thinking; it is our currency.
BRIDGE DIVIDES AND CROSS BORDERS.
for new ways to make theatre with those who choose or are drawn to the American South, a place people often describe as “complicated.” I think the only way we can hope to create new forms is by looking to those unlike ourselves. This feels like an opportunity to bridge divides and cross borders. I have been reading poet C. D. Wright’s Cooling Time, and I connect with her assessment: “The division between urban and rural is the only serious border left to us. One serves to undermine the other. One could just as easily serve to mine the other. I am a serious border crosser.” I am looking to cross borders and to mine from others a new model for creating. It is a moment that calls for great listening and a willingness to learn something new. What if it’s not so complicated after all? Rick Dildine is Artistic Director of Alabama Shakespeare Festival.
In the South, much revolves around food, so I’m organizing Zoom dinner parties to bring together unexpected storytellers. I’m interested in those from other fields: historians, futurists, poets, deejays, anthropologists, philosophers, chefs, social workers, and faith leaders. I am looking
Rick Dildine rehearses Steel Magnolias with Marcy McGuigan, Gracie Winchester, Allison Briner + Sarah Walker Thornton at Alabama Shakespeare Festival PHOTO Perri Hubbard FALL 2020 | SDC JOURNAL
BY ANDRÉ DE SHIELDS
JULY 13, 2020 I am a man. I am a Black man. I am a free Black man. Nonetheless, during my 74 years of existence on the Earth Plane, I have experienced a systemic, sometimes suffocating, yet ultimately symbiotic constriction that is almost inexpressible. It’s called righteous rage. I live in the United Plantations of America, where Black Lives Matter, but Black life does not. The pathology of racism detrimentally affects one’s emotional, physical, and psychological health. This chronic condition was recently made
even more acute by the video capture of the death of George Floyd, whose body had been defiled on the streets of Minneapolis by the action of four police officers, the most egregious of whom was Derek Chauvin. There are those who caution me to not watch the video because of its horrific content. I choose to do the opposite for the very reason that by watching the video, I serve as witness to the horror of the terror tactics used to deny George Floyd his life. Viewed in the context of the concurrent plague of police killings of Black citizens—both male and female—the dispatching of George Floyd was deemed third degree murder. The officers were relieved of their duty. An
autopsy followed, which—when highlighted by the eight minutes and forty-six seconds of deadly pressure applied by Officer Derek Chauvin kneeling on Floyd’s neck—raised the level of the alleged murder to second degree. This treacherous event occurred on Monday, May 25, Memorial Day, a day set aside for observance in memory of those who made the ultimate sacrifice in war. At its least harmful, the murder of George Floyd was a heinous crime, and at its worst it was a matter of violating, with inveterate malice, his Constitutional rights. What Derek Chauvin accomplished was the segregation of George Floyd from the inalienable rights
André De Shields (Director + Choreographer) rehearses Ain’t Misbehavin’ at Crossroads Theatre Company, 2011 PHOTO Lia Chang
24 SDC JOURNAL | FALL 2020
André De Shields in his theatrical concert Old Dawg, New Tricks PHOTO Lia Chang
endowed him by his Creator. And among these rights are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. I believe the perpetration of that act was deliberate and premeditated. Which, from the perspective of righteous rage, elevates Chauvin’s commission of murder to the first degree. Chauvin intended his deed for evil, but in the end it evoked good. Ironically, the repellent action of Derek Chauvin was catalytic in fomenting the war against racial hierarchy that presently consumes the very soul of the American body politic.
AMERICA, WE ARE AT A HISTORIC CROSSROADS, THE INTERSECTION OF HUMAN EVOLUTION AND MORAL ACCOUNTABILITY. I choose to watch the video because of the unmistakable patina of impunity on the face of Derek Chauvin, obvious in his imperious white gaze that is impervious with disdain, not only for the Black dog under his knee, but also for the hapless spectators, who are helpless to alter the terror unfolding before their eyes. Moreover, when one of his colleagues in uniform inquires as to whether Floyd should be turned on his side to ease his breathing, Chauvin responds, “No,” inferring, “watch closely, I’m going to show you how to kill a nigger.” At that point Floyd had pleaded 20 times, “Please, let me stand. I can’t breathe.” The final three words
of George Floyd’s plea have morphed into an international lament, as people the world over became woke to the pernicious dis-ease known as White Supremacy. These are the agencies of brutal entertainment that qualify George Floyd’s murder as a public lynching. I choose to watch the video because it lays bare for anyone who has the slightest knowledge about the politics of taboo just how viciously aberrant is the pleasure that Chauvin derives from depriving Floyd’s brain of the oxygen-rich blood necessary for sustaining life. This is a blatant display of sexual assault via erotic asphyxiation, pornographic, depraved, and reminiscent of the 1997 episode in which Abner Louima, a Black Haitian American, became the blood sacrifice of a group of vicious officers from the New York City Police Department. Arrested on fallacious charges outside a Brooklyn nightclub, Louima was assaulted, brutalized, and sexually abused. The responsible officers attempted initially to cover up the attack; however, Louima’s injuries were so severe as to require three major surgeries. In the face of such incontrovertible evidence, the offending officers were charged and convicted in federal court, and one, Justin Volpe, is still in federal prison serving a 30-year sentence. I choose to watch the video in order to make note of White Christian America’s hypocrisy. The ancient Hebrew tradition for communion with G_d involved the sacrifice of unblemished animals. The Hebrew name Yehoshua (Joshua, the deliverer, 1 Chronicles 7:27, KJV)—later transformed through Greek and Latin to become the English Jesus—easily resembles both Joshua delivering the Jews into the Promised Land and Jesus becoming
the Christian Savior. By the time the name has completed its metamorphosis, it is associated with the revolutionary ethos that animal sacrifice was no longer necessary, “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life” (John 3:16, KJV). And the proof of that were the events on Golgotha, the Aramaic name for the location outside of Old Jerusalem where Jesus was crucified and was intended to be the last blood sacrifice. It was this promise in the scriptures of the King James Version of the Bible that was used to indoctrinate the enslaved peoples kidnapped from Africa into believing that their bondage was the will of God, and they would be rewarded in heaven after dying. And lo, here we are, the African American people... obedient, beaten, and teetering on the verge of a meager existence. George Floyd was crucified on a cross of cement in Minneapolis, Minnesota. His cri de coeur was “Mama, I’m dying.” The cry of the heart from Jesus as he hung from his cross of wood was, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Matthew 27:46, KJV). America, we are at a historic crossroads, the intersection of human evolution and moral accountability. And if we are as great a nation as we claim to be—leader of the free world, which is the entire planet, because if one of us is chained, then none of us is free— we must own the responsibility of setting the example that there is only one use for violence, and that is in the extinguishing of guilt, shame, hate, and blame. Humanity united. At this juncture—the crossroads of our potential coexistence—we have an opportunity to embrace this miracle moment and declare, “Never again!” Perhaps on Memorial Day 2021, Americans will have sufficiently healed so that we might include the memory of George Floyd in the tribute to those who made the ultimate sacrifice...in Peace. And if for some reason we don’t emerge from the fire unscathed, we shall say—as faithful, Black Christian Americans who believe in a God that saves the innocent and punishes the guilty—“Father, forgive them; for they know not what they do” (Luke 23:34, KJV). André De Shields is a performing activist and proud Member of SDC.
FALL 2020 | SDC JOURNAL
Entwined Vir uses and
S O LV I N G F O R P A T T E R N BY SEEMA SUEKO
JUNE 19, 2020 My fellow SDC Executive Board Member, Ruben Santiago-Hudson, taught me some things. At our June 8 Board meeting, as the Board was grappling with the Union’s response to George Floyd’s murder and the racism embedded in the American theatre, Ruben shared a marketing experience he had at a LORT. He didn’t name the theatre, but as he described the situation, I realized it must have been my theatre, Arena Stage. I reached out to him the next day for more info. The details stung at first, but his candidness presented a generous opportunity to learn and grow. I passed along my notes to Artistic Director Molly Smith, who received the criticism with humility and an open heart. She recognized we needed to hear more. We spent the next few days on phone calls with other Arena artists who had bravely signed the “We See You, White American Theater” post. They spoke with specificity about experiences they had across the field, illuminating some changes LORTs, Broadway, and Off-Broadway can make, small and large, which have the potential to have meaningful impact. As I write this essay on Juneteenth, we are only beginning the work at Arena Stage. The things we are learning from these conversations will be shared at the senior staff level, with the board, with all staff and ushers. In order to find success with any of these potential changes, we will need broad support and the will from inside and outside of the organization.
Wendell Berry. It’s the idea of finding solutions to problems while minimizing the creation of new problems and solving multiple problems at once. Here are a few examples of ways I’ve been working with artists and Arena Stage to listen, learn, and begin the process of solving the problems of our entwined viruses.
Artistic Experiments, Anti-Racism, and Structures Many directors and choreographers are experimenting with new forms in this time of COVID-19. Once each week, since April 15, I meet online with scenic designer Mikiko Suzuki MacAdams, costume designer Ivania Stack, projection designer Shawn Duan, lighting designer Jeanette Oi-Suk Yew,
and sound designer Andre Pluess. We are engaged in the research question: How do theatre artists make theatre on this new stage—our devices? We call this project Isolated Theater or Set Model Theater. Most of the artists are part of the design team for our pandemic-postponed production of Rashomon at Arena Stage. We are achieving several things through our meetings: • Continuing our design process for Rashomon—this extra time is allowing us to dig deeper. • Experiments—we plan on building the set model for Rashomon, taking photos from outside and within the model for the
It is fitting that these viruses, coronavirus and racism, are entwined in this moment. The first virus disrupted the theatre-making system, creating the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to change the paradigm and rebuild as antiracist organizations. I don’t know if we will succeed, but I am activated to try, and I invite you to hold me accountable. “Solving for pattern” is the concept coined by writer, environmental activist, and farmer
26 SDC JOURNAL | FALL 2020
Isolated Theater R&D Team (clockwise): Mikiko Suzuki MacAdams, Shawn Duan, Seema Sueko, Andre Pluess, Ivania Stack + Jeanette Oi-Suk Yew
Alyse Rockett, Regi Davis, Philip Anthony Rodriguez, Gedde Watanabe, Ashley Park + Conor Guzman in The Fantasticks at Pasadena Playhouse, directed by Seema Sueko PHOTO Jim Cox
Fichandler (in-the-round) Stage, which will become virtual backgrounds. We will use the costume renderings to make little character dolls, and experiment with them in the model and against virtual backgrounds. We will take what we learn from this and hopefully experiment with members of the cast utilizing the virtual backgrounds. We are curious if this will yield: • New process—we know we can do table work over Zoom, but can we also stage while we are isolated from one another? Can we stage combat and intimacy this way? Could we even pre-tech while isolated? If isolation continues for long periods, and/or if there is a second wave of the virus and rehearsals are interrupted again, might this be a way to continue rehearsing beyond table work from a safe distance? • New hybrid product—like claymation and other handmade art forms, might this research yield a hybrid art form that is of this time? Recently, our meetings have been focused on racism in our field rather than the design of Rashomon and Isolated Theater. That seems right. As we try to solve the problem of how
to make theatre during a pandemic, we want to be intentional that our artistic experiments don’t yield new problems of racism. In addition, my collaborators, who are all artists of color like myself, shared their personal experiences in our field. The conversation illuminated how our tiered contract structures can inadvertently convey a message to staff that some artists, those in the larger spaces, are more important than those in the smaller spaces. While my collaborators have worked in Arena’s larger spaces, that has not always been their experience at other theatres. The tiered budgets, coupled with cramped timelines where “all shops across the country are behind,” according to my collaborators, are two structural elements that then exacerbate inequities and sometimes create hostile work environments where BIPOC artists working in the smaller spaces are disrespected and verbally abused. I had always felt proud of my work in diversifying the landscape of American theatre. I understand now that it has not been enough. Sixteen years ago, I founded Mo`olelo, a community-focused, socially conscious Equity theatre company in San Diego. Years later, I worked beside Sheldon Epps at Pasadena Playhouse, utilizing my Consensus Organizing for Theater methodology to engage diverse audiences. In just over two years, we brought in 6,000
new audience members, over $2 million in grants, and over $200,000 in new ticket sales from Black, Latinx, and Asian American communities. At Arena Stage, my Artistic Development department includes a selfidentified Latina Casting Director/Line Producer; a Black and Iranian American Literary Manager; and me (Pakistani and Japanese Muslim American). In the past five years, the playwrights we have produced have been 53% BIPOC and women and our directors have been 77% BIPOC and women. But the honest conversations with my Isolated Theater collaborators taught me that diverse programming and hiring alone do not make for an anti-racist organization. We also must look at the structures. These inequities, brought to light by BIPOC artists, give us an opportunity to develop humane structures for all in our field.
A New Delivery System: The Arena Stage Theater Artists Marketplace In the seventh week of the pandemic, before George Floyd was murdered, I had a painful week calling fellow theatre artists and informing them that productions we had planned would be postponed. I wanted to make the kind of calls I used to make, calls about opportunities and possibilities. Then I realized: Artists and audiences still exist, both still hungry for each other. It’s only FALL 2020 | SDC JOURNAL
our delivery system of “gather artists, gather audiences, and mix” that is broken. We can create new delivery systems and new ways to earn income now rather than wait until theatres produce again. I proposed that Arena create an online marketplace where the public can commission a theatre artist or purchase a work of art directly from the artist online and with no physical contact. Websites like Cameo.com already exist where people can buy a greeting from a celebrity. This is the theatre version of that idea, which embraces the art form and artistry. Regional theatres are networks, linking artists and audience. This is a way to monetize that network, keeping it alive while we are dark.
AS WE TRY TO SOLVE THE QUESTION OF HOW WE MAKE ART AND GET PAID WHILE THE THEATRES ARE DARK, LET'S NOT CREATE MORE INEQUITABLE STRUCTURES, BUT INSTEAD BUILD THE THEATRE FIELD WE WANT. I reached out to Arena Stage artists, artisans, and technicians to inquire if this would be of interest to them. Actor Dawn Ursula replied, “I would absolutely like to participate. This means so much. I can’t tell you how much this means.” Actor Nicholas Rodriguez shared, “Since we’ve been in quarantine, I have recorded 13 videos or lessons, and done multiple interviews and Q&A’s for theatres, and this is the first time someone has figured out a way to pay the artist.” The artists determine what they want to offer on the marketplace, the descriptions of their work, and their pricing. The majority of the income goes to the artist and Arena receives 15 percent. Arena Stage’s Theater Artist Marketplace (www.arenastage.org/artistsmarketplace) launched June 23, 2020. The diverse offerings include personal concerts and greetings, original music compositions for a loved one, one-on-one acting and vocal coaching sessions, custom-made face masks, conflict resolution, a custom-designed and performed puppet film of a person’s life, a cooking class and a song, a writing salon
28 SDC JOURNAL | FALL 2020
for you and your friends, original, one-of-akind artwork, and beautifully designed rock garden landscape services. Theatre artists are multi-talented. The Marketplace provides space for artists to bring all their skills and talents, their full selves, and control what they offer and how their work is priced. Before the webpages went live, I gathered the artists and Arena Staff who built the site for a Zoom toast. I asked everyone to collaborate on making the Marketplace an anti-racist place.
New Employers Theatres cannot hire directors and choreographers now. I am interested in surfacing new employers. Here are some ideas: • Individuals: Building on the Arena Stage Artists Marketplace idea, any of us can deliver art directly to people. We can borrow from websites like Upwork.com to create a system of a robust talent pool of directors and choreographers, opportunity postings, matching, and secured payments. We would need to be intentional that we don’t inadvertently create an unbalanced patronage system of wealthy white people hiring BIPOC artists, but rather a transparent, artist-centric, anti-racist one. (Thank you to Leah C. Gardiner for bringing Upwork.com to my attention and fleshing out the idea with me). • Non-arts businesses: Several hospitals in the US, Canada, and UK already have writers in residence to serve the staff. Many businesses have been operating throughout the pandemic, and their staff are stressed: grocery stores, tech firms, law firms, construction businesses, nonprofit associations, faith organizations, etc. A creative outlet might be just what they need. Can you reach out to the frontline hospitals and businesses in your community and offer your service as a resident artistic director? • Arts EAP: An employee assistance program (EAP) is a confidential service that enables employers to help their staff with personal growth or workplace issues. EAPs are not limited in what they can assist workers with and now cover a broad range of services. EAPs come at no cost to employees but are paid for by the employers, and they may be delivered via phone, video, or online interactions. By offering an EAP, employers get a happier, healthier workforce who feel valued and supported by their employer. Can we collaborate with existing EAPs to include
theatre artists among their roster of experts? Even more ambitious, can we create an arts-focused EAP and market it to employers across the nation? • International: Some international theatre markets are opening before the US. Here is a resource to find international festivals and funding opportunities: https://www. midatlanticarts.org/grants-programs/ international-festivals/ As we try to solve the question of how we make art and get paid while the theatres are dark, let’s not create more inequitable structures, but instead build the theatre field we want. Molly Smith always says, “First you hear it, then you know it, then you do it, then you become it.” We are hearing it: our art, which requires empathy, has been surrounded by structures and people who sometimes lack it. In this extraordinary moment when these physical and social viruses are entwined, let’s know, do, and become something extraordinary by solving for pattern. I thank my fellow SDC Executive Board Members Sheldon Epps, Lydia Fort, Leah C. Gardiner, Ruben Santiago-Hudson, and Seret Scott, who bravely spoke up in our meetings. Seema Sueko is Deputy Artistic Director of Arena Stage in Washington, DC.
WHAT DOES "A NEW FORM OF THEATRE MEAN? "
BY JO BONNEY
MAY 26, 2020 We’re enjoying a tsunami of digital theatre content—but what is this version of theatre if the combination of live performance and live audience in real time is no longer present? In a world of digital technology and social media, theatre is an oppositional force, but is this still valid when it’s now beholden to the same technology? I’ve been reading dozens of old interviews, theatre program sites, and essays to see how the experience of theatre is described. The same words and phrases are consistently used to extoll the “specialness” of the theatre-going experience: “immediacy,” “collective shared experience,” “live-ness,” “ephemeralness,” “each show a unique performance.” I watched What Do We Need to Talk About? by Richard Nelson, a continuation of The Apple Family saga and, to date, one of the best examples of digital theatre. I know and like these characters from the past when I sat in the theatre watching them. Now I’m sitting
Ito Aghayere, Sahr Ngaujah + Kevin Mambo in Mlima’s Tale at The Public Theater, directed by Jo Bonney PHOTO Joan Marcus
in my living room and witnessing a family Zoom get-together as they engage in a ritual we’re all becoming familiar with in the time of COVID-19. One of the characters decides to leave the screen to get a glass of wine. I decide that’s not a bad idea; I’ll join her. To do that, I hit the pause button and the family freezes. I rejoin them a few minutes later (with my glass of wine) and, without missing a beat, we continue. So, okay, this is interesting—I’m kind of interacting in a virtual way with their activity. Ten minutes later, my phone pings with a text message that has some immediacy to it, so I hit pause again to answer. This time though, as I return to the show, I realize that I’m watching it the same way I view a TV show or film. Because the play was recorded and broadcast, the cast and I are not experiencing this together, my presence and energy are not relevant. The performances (however wonderful) are locked. That uniquely live event that each audience experiences and contributes to at each show is lost. The question hovers...was it a “theatre” experience? What are these offerings? Is this “a new form of theatre”? What does that mean? I’ve watched theatre in traditional
I'VE WATCHED PASSIVELY IN THE DARK AND ALSO BEEN PHYSICALLY ENGAGED IN A PERFORMANCE IN AN INTERACTIVE ENCOUNTER. IN ALL CIRCUMSTANCES, IT HAS BEEN A LIVE, SHARED, EPHEMERAL EXPERIENCE. theatre spaces, lofts, abandoned churches, and outdoor venues. I’ve been asked to wander from room to room to view scenes in random order, and I’ve sat across a table from a single performer and experienced the show as the single audience member. I’ve watched passively in the dark and also been physically engaged in a performance in an interactive encounter. In all circumstances, it has been a live, shared, ephemeral experience. It was not me and a screen. So is this just a question of terminology, an unwarranted concern with nomenclature? Or is this the beginning of an existential identity crisis for theatre? I know that to survive this next year, things must and will change, but the word “theatre” has always meant something specific. It’s hard for me to lose that. Jo Bonney is a director.
FALL 2020 | SDC JOURNAL
FAULT LINE BY TIM DANG
JUNE 23, 2020
Six years ago, as Producing Artistic Director of East West Players (EWP) in Los Angeles, I introduced the 51% Preparedness Plan for the American Theatre at the Theatre Communications Group (TCG) Conference in San Diego and at SphinxCon in Detroit several months later. The plan was a challenge to the American theatre to initiate, create, and innovate diversity and inclusion policies at organizations to include board, staff, artists, and audiences in response to the massive change in the demographics of America. I suggested that if change didn’t happen fast enough, many organizations would become obsolete and irrelevant. At EWP, the nation’s longest running professional theatre of color, we had created a strategic program called “2042: See Change.” 2042 is the year that the US Census determined the majority of the population would be people of color (POC). In the first phase of the program (through 2020), EWP challenged ourselves and other theatres to open their storytelling to POC artists and audiences and underrepresented communities; invite the next generation to bring innovation and inspiration to theatre; and offer women equal opportunities in reimagining the theatre. The future (2042) was already there at EWP, and we looked forward to other theatres embracing this change. Nearly two dozen theatres joined our challenge. The plan unveiled a reality that is inevitable and gave organizations decades to transform themselves. I believed the coming stark demographic changes would finally shake things up, making way for a new chapter in American theatre, one that would be diverse and inclusive of all communities. While some theatres may have chosen not to prepare, I believed they would eventually face financial headwinds or even become obsolete. As a Southern California resident, we have preparedness plans for major earthquakes. I
30 SDC JOURNAL | FALL 2020
ended my challenge with the following two sentences: “An earthquake is coming that will hit all American institutions. Save yourself.” Was that a premonition for 2020?
This year, earthquakes of another kind happened that I would not have ever imagined but triggered the aftershocks I did imagine. It was not one but two viruses. One was a pandemic caused by a novel coronavirus that shut down the world economy and quarantined us, physically distant from each other. The second virus, an epidemic so American and more virulent, is the centuries-old systemic racism and recent protests that have shaken the very foundation of our nation. What remains is a huge chasm that has separated us even further and forced questions about what we value, who we value, and why the systemic disparities based on power, race, wealth, and patriarchy continue to dominate the majority of people. Can the new majority, coming in 2042, create change now in 2020?
THERE IS NO GOING BACK TO NORMAL. THERE IS NO CREATING A "NEW" NORMAL. EVERYTHING IS DIFFERENT NOW. WE MUST CREATE A DIFFERENT THEATRE. A THEATRE FOR EVERYONE. The aftershocks of these earthquakes will leave lasting impressions for years to come. Some theatres may never open again. Some will try to open under extreme pressure to exist, but they too may eventually fail. But the ones that will survive will be the ones that
have been now “forced” to create, initiate, and innovate those diversity and inclusion policies throughout their organizations. And hopefully, these theatres have used this time of forced closure to create their preparedness plans and will implement them in time for the reopening of theatres. As our country struggles with COVID-19 and the reopening of businesses to include the arts and culture sector, businesses will thrive again. But what kind of businesses? It will be necessary for all businesses to change their strategic direction to achieve diversity, equity, and inclusion, including the arts and culture sector, if they are to be relevant and survive.
Recently, there have been many open letters to theatre leaders across the nation from artists and administrative staff demanding change at the institutions where they work. And hopefully, the robust dialogue has begun between artistic and managing directors, boards, artists, administrative staff, and even their audiences. Artistic directors, managing directors, executive directors, and boards of directors need to listen in order to lead. There is no going back to what was pre-COVID-19. There is no going back to normal. There is no creating a “new” normal. Everything is different now. We must create a different theatre. A theatre for everyone. The key is to create a culture that actively embraces equity, inclusion, and the creative expression and engagement of our Black community and all of our historically marginalized communities, particularly at this time when the unfortunate events of our past and present mean we feel the need to say that All Black Lives Matter. It is a vital aspect of our collective healing, truth-telling, and the shifting of greater public awareness and appreciation of our diverse communities. After 23 years as its Producing Artistic Director, in 2016, I left East West Players, a theatre organization that I love, in the capable hands of a next-generation leader, Snehal Desai, in keeping with my 51% Preparedness Plan for the American Theatre. I still believe in it as I continue my advocacy
ES Tim Dang (center) rehearses with Daniel May + Radmar Agana Jao for Beijing Spring at East West Players PHOTO Gary Leonard
THE ARTS HAVE THE POWER TO BUILD HEALTHIER COMMUNITIES WHERE WE CAN ALL THRIVE, EXPRESS OURSELVES FULLY, AND CELEBRATE OUR COLLECTIVE STORIES.
Joan Almedilla + Elijah Rock in Chess at East West Players, directed by Tim Dang PHOTO Michael Lamont
for cultural equity in arts and culture. If you want to see the original plan, it can be found at www.eastwestplayers.org/2042seechange. This plan may still be of value to some or a springboard for other plans that can be stronger and more firm in a commitment to achieve faster results. One thing is for sure: we cannot go back to “the before.” The earthquake(s) came a lot earlier than I predicted. As an LA County Arts Commissioner and Co-Chair of the Cultural Equity and Inclusion Initiative, I write this essay on the day the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors approved a Countywide Cultural Policy, the first of its kind in the country, that will educate and enlighten through all 37 county departments about the value of arts and culture. The goal of the policy is to bring racial equity, social change, and the sense of belonging to the 10 million people of this county. The arts bring joy,
pride, and healing to our communities, things we all need right now. The arts have the power to build healthier communities where we can all thrive, express ourselves fully, and celebrate our collective stories. I am seeing change happen much quicker now, and perhaps I will live to see the day when full cultural equity and inclusion will be achieved. Tim Dang is a director, Los Angeles County Arts Commissioner, and 2015 recipient of the Zelda Fichandler Award.
FALL 2020 | SDC JOURNAL
HEALING OUR COMMUNITIES BY RUBEN SANTIAGO-HUDSON
+ ANDRÉ DE SHIELDS On June 4, 2020, in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic and 10 days after the murder of George Floyd, a virtual town hall entitled The Impact of COVID-19 and Systemic Inequity in Communities of Color was presented in New York. Convened to address proposed FY21 city funding for arts institutions and subtitled “A Holistic Plan for Healing Our Communities,” the town hall was presented by the office of Manhattan Borough President Gale A. Brewer; 42 members of the Coalition of Theatres of Color, a nonprofit consortium; and the Arts and Culture Committee of the Greater Harlem Chamber of Commerce, the Harlem Arts Alliance, and the Northern Manhattan Arts Alliance.
take care of your family? But there was one thing that was certain. There were a lot of opportunities to go and express myself, to work my art, to find a theatre family, whether it was downtown at the New Federal Theatre, or uptown with the National Black Theatre, the Negro Ensemble Company, the Puerto Rican Traveling Theater, and on and on. I knew that if I had nothing, I had somewhere to go and say, “I’m here, let me
offer my services, let me be a part of what you’re doing.” When we threaten these organizations, we take the opportunity and the ability for human beings to express themselves; to tell you where they hurt; to tell you what they need; to tell you how they feel; and, in a strange and wonderful way, to heal you. I know there’s a lot of work to do in the city. I know there’s a lot of work to do in the country, in the state. This is a terribly tumultuous time, but one thing we absolutely need is the healers. The people who are running into the hospitals to help heal people, even the law enforcement officers who are running to protect people who are in the streets, people who are protecting each other. We’re all running into things and trying to heal and protect. Ultimately, what it comes down to is when this is under control—and I have faith that it will get under control, and better than that—when it is done, and those fighters are weary, and those fighters are beaten, and those fighters need to be
Among the speakers were Tony Award winners Ruben Santiago-Hudson and André De Shields. Their remarks, lightly edited and reprinted with permission, follow.
Ruben Santiago-Hudson: What We Do Is Sacred First of all, thank you for giving me the opportunity to be among you and to have a voice. This is a day in a time of chaos, and a time of uncertainty, and it probably would be easy to just ball up in a corner and cry. Because everyone says the same thing. They’re tired, and sometimes you get weary. But this is not a time to ball up and cry. You can choose to have a voice to speak, and I appreciate that you have given me an opportunity to be with the village. Because there’s no stronger place to be than surrounded by like-minded people who are fighting for the same things. And those things are dignity, humanity, and all the things that the Great Creator endowed us with. Let me tell you a little story. I came to New York in 1983, and there was a lot of uncertainty surrounding me. Uncertainty about being an artist: can you make it, is there a place for you, can you be successful, can you find a career, can you
32 SDC JOURNAL | FALL 2020
Chris Thomas King + Ruben Santiago-Hudson in Lackawanna Blues at Center Theatre Group, written and directed by Ruben Santiago-Hudson PHOTO Craig Schwartz
myself. And but for my parents deferring their dreams, I would not be here to be a witness for, to bear testimony for, the CTC. Born in Baltimore, educated in Wisconsin, but baptized in New York. When I came to New York in 1973, my earliest artistic homes were Ellen Stewart’s La MaMa; New Federal Theatre—Woodie King, Jr. was its founder and continues to be the Executive Director of that gorgeous organization; and the AMAS Repertory Theatre, which was founded by Rosetta LeNoire. In 2019, I was blessed to be the Triple Crown winner of the Outer Critics Circle Award, the Drama Desk Award, and the Tony Award. I mention that because the very first award I received in New York was an AUDELCO Award. AUDELCO, which is the Audience Development Committee, whose mission it is to recognize excellence in Black theatre. And to my knowledge, it’s the only organization worldwide that does that. That happened because of the CTC.
André De Shields in Hadestown on Broadway, directed by Rachel Chavkin PHOTO Lia Chang
healed, we the artists are the healers. We will be called to heal, to use the power that God has given us, continually gives us, this special thing. We’re poets. We’re healers. And what we do is sacred. When the funding is gone, and the theatres are gone, the community begins to wilt. I implore everybody that’s looking at a budget (and things have to be sacrificed—I’m not foolish; I’d be remiss if I thought that things weren’t gonna be sacrificed)—I ask you to look at that budget and find a way to make sure that your theatres are intact, as much as you possibly can, and we will find the ways to do things as well. We’re gonna meet you somewhere, but we need to be empowered, supported, so we can do our healing.
people who all have stories that are worthy of telling? So I implore you and tell you that we need to keep our theatres intact. I wish you all safety. Please keep the village strong, stay together. Thank you so much.
André De Shields: The Transformational Power of Theatre I got four minutes. Here’s minute number one.
WE'RE POETS. WE'RE HEALERS. AND WHAT WE DO IS SACRED. -RUBEN SANTIAGO-HUDSON
This is not the time to defund the Coalition of Theatres of Color (CTC). It’s a consortium of not-for-profit performing arts institutions. Now, that confuses Americans; if you’re notfor-profit, they wonder what are you for. Well, the CTC is for the transformational power of theatre, because we know that theatre can change an individual’s life. We know that theatre can alter governments. We know that theatre can be the transformation in the world that we all want to see. This is precisely the time that we need to support the CTC.
When the theatre dies in the community, the restaurant suffers, the tailor suffers, the security force suffers, the janitorial force suffers, culture suffers. And what is New York if it’s not a bastion of culture, if it’s not a mosaic of beautiful, wonderful, dynamic
I grew up in Baltimore, Maryland, in the late ’50s and early ’60s. So I had two choices. I could be a knucklehead with a life expectancy of 25 years and then be brought down by a police bullet or chokehold or knee to the neck, or I could find some way to save
Today, we’re dealing with the coronavirus, but that is not the only infection that we need to be concerned about. There is in the air an infection of temptation: the temptation to despair; the temptation to panic, to fear; the temptation of self-pity, complacency, and apathy. Those of us in the theatre answer to those transgressions because we are the masters of language. We are the masters of emotion, the masters of intellect, and we share the same mission with the Hippocratic oath, Primum non nocere, and that is “First, do no harm.” And moving on from that, our mission is to heal. So we’re not going to be silent. We’re going to heal with impunity. Now, I may have just a minute and 30 seconds left. So I’m going to use it this way. I’m most well-known for my performance in the musical theatre. So I’m gonna take a drink of water, and I’m gonna sing us out! Okay? Lift ev’ry voice and sing, ’Til earth and heaven ring, Ring with the harmonies of Liberty; Let our rejoicing rise High as the list’ning skies, Let it resound loud as the rolling sea. Sing a song full of the faith that the dark past has taught us, Sing a song full of the hope that the present has brought us; Facing the rising sun of our new day begun, Let us march on ’til victory is won.
FALL 2020 | SDC JOURNAL
BLACK DIRECTORS ON TRANSFORMING THE
AMERICAN THEATRE AN SDC ROUNDTABLE INTRODUCED + MODERATED BY
TAYLOR BARFIELD Amid the chaos of the past six months—when the COVID-19 pandemic has killed (as of this writing) more than 170,000 Americans, disproportionately affecting Black and brown communities, and protesters fill the streets in every corner of the country chanting Black Lives Matter and demanding racial justice—the theatre industry has been hit hard. Companies have shuttered, shows have been canceled, and people have been fired or furloughed in droves. In this unprecedented time, SDC Journal asked me to assemble a group of Black directors to discuss what the role of theatre is in this time of social distancing and civil uprising, and what the future of American theatre could and should look like. Seven brilliant directors from across the country agreed to participate in this online roundtable discussion. Then, as has become commonplace these past months, the eight of us each logged onto Zoom from whatever slice of home had become our office and began talking.
ABOUT THE PARTICIPANTS TAYLOR BARFIELD serves as Literary Manager for Two River Theater in Red Bank, NJ. He is currently a DFA candidate at the Yale School of Drama. His dissertation examines contemporary reimaginings of Black theatre history. LOU BELLAMY is a freelance director. He is the founder and Artistic Director Emeritus of Penumbra Theatre. He continues to direct and develop plays from the African diaspora at theatres around the country. JADE KING CARROLL is a freelance director based in New York City. Currently she is working with playwrights Dael Orlandersmith, Candrice Jones, and Chisa Hutchinson.
34 SDC JOURNAL | FALL 2020
WARDELL JULIUS CLARK hails from Alabama but now calls Chicago home. He earned his BFA in Acting from the Theatre School at DePaul University. He is a Company Member and Teaching Artist with TimeLine Theatre, where he recently directed Kill Move Paradise. KEN-MATT MARTIN is currently the Associate Producer of Goodman Theatre. He previously served as the Producing Director of Williamstown Theatre Festival and co-founded Pyramid Theatre Company. PATRICIA McGREGOR is an acclaimed director and writer working in theatre, music, and film. She has been twice profiled by the New York Times for her work on world premieres.
HANA S. SHARIF is an award-winning director, playwright, and producer. She is currently Artistic Director of The Repertory Theatre of St. Louis and serves on the Board of Directors for TCG and the Sprott Family Foundation. AWOYE TIMPO, a director based in Brooklyn, NY, works on new and classic works. She is also a Producer of CLASSIX, a series exploring classic plays by Black playwrights.
TAYLOR BARFIELD | I read something recently that said 2020 is like living through the Spanish Flu of 1918, the Great Depression of the 1930s, and the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and ’60s, all at one time. There’s some truth to that. It’s a time of sustained communal need and communal uprising that many of us haven’t experienced in our lives. And in the isolation, I have found myself wondering what theatre artists are to do in this time when our primary tool, live theatre, has to be put on the shelf for a few moments. What is our role in all of this?
WE ARE STILL PRESENT AND POWERFUL AS CREATORS. THAT HAS NOT GONE ANYWHERE. -AWOYE TIMPO PATRICIA McGREGOR | I feel like for many of us—and certainly for me—artmaking and storytelling have always been a form of protest. That might be because showing prismatic representations of ourselves is its own kind of revolution in the society that we live in that tries to reduce us to a monolith. Whether we are directing something that feels like a more naturalistic play, or our own take on what a “classic” would be, or supporting a new play or something really
experimental, for us to show ourselves in our multiplicity is already a political act and often an act of protest. In many ways, the world is catching up. But I feel like I spend a lot of time with artistic directors who have “politics light,” like a nostalgic view of civil rights, which to me is hugely problematic. And now, I hope people are catching up and giving us support to do the kind of work that we have already been doing—and maybe to do it with more resources and abandon. AWOYE TIMPO | I’ll echo everything that Patricia just said. Also, Taylor, in response to your quote, I think this moment is also breaking down the idea of linear time versus circular time. The echoes of all those movements, of all those moments of history that have existed before, exist inside of us now. They’re meant to teach us now. We’re supposed to remember them now. We’re reliving them now. They’re activating us now. We are living inside of the echoes of history. The way I’ve been thinking about the question of our role as artists is that even though we can’t go to a building to make theatre, we ourselves as artists—we are still here in this world. We are still present and powerful as creators. That has not gone anywhere. Some of the components of our work are not accessible, but the
kind of power and ferocity and beauty and activism that is part of our natural experience as citizens—all of that is full and complete no matter what the building is. Like this Zoom conversation is our building, you know what I mean? I feel really strong and excited about that. So much of our work is about either creating illusion or breaking illusion, and I feel very full inside of what’s possible in the moment. JADE KING CARROLL | I completely agree. One of the things I have found personally is
Dawn L. Troupe + Anthony Michael Peterson a.k.a. Tru in Spunk at Cal Shakes, directed by Patricia McGregor PHOTO Kevin Berne
Stephen Tyrone Williams in Paradise Blue at Long Wharf Theatre, directed by Awoye Timpo PHOTO T. Charles Erickson
FALL 2020 | SDC JOURNAL
Kimberly Hebert in Gee’s Bend at Hartford Stage, directed by Hana S. Sharif PHOTO T. Charles Erickson
The Christians at Baltimore Center Stage, directed by Hana S. Sharif PHOTO Richard Anderson
that this time has allowed me the freedom to think more deeply about what I want to create, how I want to create it, and with whom—rather than just, “Where am I going to get it produced? What is the date that it’s going to be shared with an audience? How can I best serve the play in that time frame, and when is my next gig?” I’ve come back to the core of why we are telling these stories, who we are creating them for and with, and how we can make them more accessible. We are in the middle of a revolution, and I’m hopeful for where that leads us as theatremakers and as a collective outside of the confinements of the buildings. Actually seeing each other as artists and humans, and seeing what we need as a community, and thinking about how we can nurture each other rather than looking to our institutional system that wasn’t really working to begin with. So, I’m hopeful. I’m wary, but I’m very hopeful too. HANA S. SHARIF | It’s wonderful to hear the threads of this conversation. I’m the child of former Black nationalists, and the politics I was raised under never allowed me to believe that we were actually in a post-racial society. When I went in to the PWI [predominantly white institution] regional theatre world, I was really clear about what I was entering and why I was entering. I’ve said it many times: I only went in with the intention to steal the master’s tools, but opportunities kept rolling out and I’ve tried to maximize the learning, access, opportunity to leverage for a moment of evolution like we’ve hit now in
36 SDC JOURNAL | FALL 2020
the field. One thing I want to acknowledge, as someone running one of these institutions, is that the entire system is on the brink of collapse. Many of the largest institutions in the country are on the verge of bankruptcy. The systems that were never meant to support us as Black artists or the work that we’re most passionate about—those systems are fracturing. I actually think it’s a wonderful moment, as the theatres doors are closed, for us as artists—as directors, playwrights, producers— to really think about the agency we have in the stories we tell. So often we’re telling our stories, but not to our people, right? You go into these big regional theatres, 95 percent of your audience are not BIPOC folks. And oftentimes, the most produced Black plays are not about our joy or our triumphs, but instead about the pornography of our pain and the marginalization of Black and brown bodies in relationship to whiteness. I wonder in this moment— when the streets are erupting with people demanding accountability and change, where corporations are being challenged by their employees—what happens when artists, who create fiction in order to reveal truth, exercise our own radical truth-telling, with real agency? This is a magnificent and liberating time to be creating art. I don’t have to be within the confines of the building. I can test and push the boundaries on what theatre is. We have more technology than we’ve ever had before; we have the ability to be
connected, and there’s this global uprising of humanity that we, as artists, get to be part of. At the same time, there is a complete collapse happening in the systems that we’ve grown up in. I wonder what role we, as independent artists, can define for ourselves in the rebuilding of the American theatre. In terms of this idea of the continuum of time that Awoye was talking about, I’m clear that everything we are doing is moving with the power of the ancestors. I feel a spiritual practice at play in the work that we have to do moving forward—it is bigger than any one of us individually. That feels really sacred to me. LOU BELLAMY | Hana, maybe it’s because I ran an institution that I resonate so much with what you are saying. And maybe because I’m in Minneapolis, where this current civil uprising began. But I’ve been so busy getting jobs and creating work and preparing for the next one and sitting on panels and all that sort of stuff, I don’t know that I was listening in the same way that I am now listening to the people. They are doing the work, and they’re doing it, frankly, without our buildings and all that. It’s an interesting time to be cognizant and listen to what’s going on, at least for me. What I fear is that that energy, that creativity, will be hijacked and monetized and taken away in the same sort of way that I’ve seen Black creativity taken away my whole life—and that’s said by someone who makes a living in those large, white organizations. That’s where I direct. What worries me very much is that, if we’re not listening well and addressing and understanding what the people are saying, the message will be taken from us. I wrote an
essay years ago called “The Colonization of Black Theatre in America,” and I see strains of that going right now. What one has to do— especially if you’re using, as Hana says, their money and their levers and their place—is somehow strike a balance between that and still being culturally sound and spiritually truthful. Those are the things that worry me about this wonderful moment of people speaking.
I WONDER IN THIS MOMENT...WHAT HAPPENS WHEN ARTISTS, WHO CREATE FICTION IN ORDER TO REVEAL TRUTH, EXERCISE OUR OWN RADICAL TRUTH-TELLING, WITH REAL AGENCY?
play that the white producers decided was the next big Black play, that a white woman directed the original production of. That was not of interest to me. I removed myself from the freelance equation and was like, “Oh, let me just get a job where I can make a living by way of producing.” But in terms of my artmaking, I’m just Black as fuck. I make work for Black people. I don’t actually care what white people think about anything that I make. I never have. So even though I might produce your plays for your white audiences, as far as my directing work is concerned, I’m going elsewhere. And I think what’s so beautiful about this moment is I get to look to leaders like Hana and Lou and say, if they
can speak that boldly from their positions and reflect in this moment of major reckoning, I can do the same. It’s tough; there’s also all this stigma that comes with being a millennial. When you’re young and Black in this business, folks will slap that millennial thing on you on top of you being Black, and act like you are being uppity for asking for what you deserve. I’m emboldened in this moment. I’m just gonna make the Black-ass work that I want to make, which is why artistically speaking, I’m making something for Black theatre companies and that’s it right now. That’s where I’m putting my focus. It’s a beautiful time, because I feel
-HANA S. SHARIF KEN-MATT MARTIN | Thank you, Lou, very much. I’m honored to be in this room with you all. Hana, I don’t even know if you remember this, but I first met you years ago at a TCG conference in DC. At the time I was still running Pyramid Theatre in Des Moines, Iowa, which is the first and only Black theatre company in the state of Iowa. You and I had a brief conversation, and you asked me what my long-term goals were, and I said, “I’m running a Black theatre in Iowa of all places right now, but I really want to run a big regional theatre one day.” And you challenged me in that moment. You asked, “Well, why not just keep running your theatre in Iowa? Why are you interested in this other thing?” Since then, many opportunities have come my way to work within white institutions. What feels so unique and different about this moment is that there’s a generation of directors and artists who get to look to leaders like yourself and Lou and others and say, “I have these people to look to as a kind of guiding star, and hearing them reflect on what they did and what they want to do in the future, I frankly just feel emboldened to be able to walk away from all of these white institutions altogether.” One of the reasons I became a producer, once people realized that I “have the skill set” and I started getting those opportunities, is that I wasn’t interested in being asked to direct the second or third production of that one Black
Christina Acosta Robinson + Galen Ryan Kane in The Piano Lesson at Hartford Stage, directed by Jade King Carroll PHOTO T. Charles Erickson
FALL 2020 | SDC JOURNAL
Prowess at Brown/Trinity Rep, directed by Ken-Matt Martin PHOTO Mark Turek
finally that the ground has shifted in a way where I can say that, and I can do that boldly, and that there are folks like all of you here who are in a pretty similar place. WARDELL JULIUS CLARK | Amen. My spirit is so full already from this conversation. It is so nice to know that, although we are in different places at different points in our careers, we listen to our elders to know what is possible. Awoye said something about time. And time for me has really been something I homed in on in March, when we first went into quarantine. I started to do some deeper spiritual work; after doing nine shows in two years, I had time to work on myself. I am of the same mind as Ken-Matt in that I was the first—in 2018, ’19, ’20—I was the first Black male director at five theatres. And I thought, “I don’t care what you’ve done with your white plays for the past however many years; it’s a new day, and I am not really interested in centering your subscriber base. You hired me for a specific reason, and I am going to tell the truth of my people in the context of this play.” It is so empowering in this moment to know that, whether we go back to PWIs or not, or however we choose to work in this moment, it is from a freely liberated place. We can choose where, when, and how we exist to create our art. I always say that artists have always existed. There are some larger
38 SDC JOURNAL | FALL 2020
truths about the world, larger than race, that are coming to light at this moment, and artists have always had the power and the responsibility to tell those truths. That is the kind of thing that I’m really interested in, as it is my responsibility as an artist right now to tell the truth of the world as it relates to my people. I feel emboldened to say no in a very different way than I did before. And in this moment now, and in the next moment and whatever comes after that, is a specific kind of power of the ancestors. All the things that were ours are coming back to us in a very real way. All of the colonization all over the world, for not just thousands of years but hundreds of thousands of years, is coming back to the original people who created everything, including spirituality and art. So, I am even more emboldened in that I know that the wind and the wings of the ancestors are lifting us up to this next moment, and that is scary, because it’s new in a way, but the fear is a very small factor in how I feel like we’re moving forward. TAYLOR | I want to circle back to something Hana said about rebuilding the American theatre. And I want to ask you all, because you are directors and producers and leaders in the field, how can we rebuild the American theatre to reflect our needs and our spirit? HANA | I’m artistic director of the largest regional theatre in Missouri, St. Louis Rep.
My predecessor was there for 34 years; my current managing director/partner has been there 33 years. St. Louis is a city that’s 50 percent Black, but the audience base, the patron base—not just subscribers but singleticket buyers, too—was 94 percent white when I was hired. The beautiful thing about the moment we find ourselves in is that the 60, 70 years of tradition is no longer relevant to the next generation of potential audiences. And in order for regional theatres to survive, the language I’ve been using is that we have to shift the value proposition for what a theatre is. It should always be about beautiful plays and beautiful work, but it can’t just be about that. Because millennials, who are now in their thirties, are very interested in the connection between where they spend their time, their energy, their entertainment, their resources, and their social constitution. We’re in a community where the mayor lives on the corner, and every night we’ve got protesters on the street. Some days they are on the street with drums at 5 o’clock in the morning saying, “If we can’t get no justice, you can’t have no peace.” That’s the energy of the world in which I am now creating art. In order for me to get funding, in order for my theatre to be able to continue to sell tickets beyond our subscribers, we actually have to shift our positioning in this community, and we’ve got to show up in the way the community wants us there. If we don’t
do that, then in five years, we won’t have enough of the traditional subscribers to be able to keep the doors open. Some of the transformational work I was being brought in to do has been catapulted forward five years by the moment we find ourselves in. Many institutions are in a position where they have to figure out how to meet the future faster than they were prepared for, and I feel like that’s where the real opportunity is for individual artists. So how do you come in and say, “Oh, I can help you get there, but here’s what I need in exchange”? How can we now make some demands on the institutions that we’re going in to work with? Because they need us. In the past, it’s been like, “Well, if you won’t do it, she’ll do it.” But what happens if we’re all aligned in what we will and won’t do? What happens if we are aligned about what the conditions have to be for us to show up in your institution to work? What happens when we start to say, “We can shift the standards instead of having to dance for the money”? What if we just say, “This is actually what it means to have an artist like me in your institution—here’s what I need, and here’s what I’m going to deliver for you on the other end”? What if negotiation looks completely different than it has in the past? I’m super interested in that question.
reason I worry about that is I’ve seen the larger society come for our art, our creativity, our style, time and time again. And we lose control of it. The other thing is, and this is me being 76 years old and near the end of the road, the only way that what I have done can survive is through institutions, and so I think the Black community needs these institutions. They have to be robust; they have to be strong. And I wonder about them in the context that you’re speaking about, where we have this power to affect the work that these large white organizations are doing, because they want it badly, but still take care of our own institutions, which will nourish our communities and care about them as more than just ticket buyers.
LOU | Hana, I think your analysis of what’s happening is spot on. And the opportunity as well. But I worry in that scenario, where is the place for Black institutions? And the
Before I took the job here, the first person I called was Ron Himes, who has run the Black Rep here in St. Louis for 40 years, to say “Hey, I’m thinking about taking this job, but I’m
HANA | I’m crystal clear that the Black talent in PWIs was created by Black institutions, and that the American theatre has really profited from the genius of our institutions. And then, for whatever reason, the funding ends up going by and large to these white institutions who are credited for programs lifted from BIPOC theatres. So in every theatre I’ve worked at, I focus on how to use the platform I have in order to honor and amplify the generative work that’s already been done— before it was Christopher Columbused.
coming to your city.” I can’t come into this man’s city and not show respect to the giant that he is, when I know the institution I’m about to inherit has been the beneficiary of his talent and those he helped train. And so, my first year in, it was like, “Who are those artists? How can we work together? If you’re already doing something great, I don’t need to then come in and take the funding and replicate your work. How about I be a good partner? How about I use my resources to amplify what you’re already doing?” Because there’s a debt that’s due all over this country. That’s what we’re seeing in the streets. There’s a debt that’s past due, and I think that for those of us who are producers—I look to Ken-Matt—I think that one of the genius parts of being a producer at these institutions is you actually get to open the door for more people. And you have some agency in how decisions get made—as painful as that agency is, as much as that agency costs. So I think to your point, Lou, it’s absolutely true that we’ve got a 30-year history of taking genius talent and money out of our institutions that our communities need. And I do feel, and this is my own politics, that if you look like us, and you’re in one of those PWIs, you have a responsibility to be feeding back and using the platform to amplify the genesis of where the talent has come from. It’s not just paying homage; it’s actually about strengthening the theatrical ecosystem.
Lou Bellamy directs Erika LaVonn + James T. Alfred in The Mountaintop at Arizona Theatre Company
FALL 2020 | SDC JOURNAL
Dulé Hill + Daniel Watts in Lights Out: Nat “King” Cole at Geffen Playhouse, co-written and directed by Patricia McGregor PHOTO Jeff Lorch
PATRICIA | It’s really inspiring to be in this conversation. It’s fueling. I feel like we’re often the only representative in a room. And I think this is one of the tide shifts, moving from silos of fighting into collective action and using that power base so that we’re not having to fight these battles alone. Something that both Lou and Hana are talking about reminds me of diversifying our portfolios as individual artists and as institutions. As an individual artist, I am very clear that if I’m working at your institution, I don’t feel I’m working for you. I’m working with you. Whatever you have to say to me, dramaturgically, is filtered through the lens of, “My perspective and work have value. Would you give that note in that way to a white male director?” I am collaborative and value good notes, but don’t bow down if/when it is revealed that there are problematic hierarchical power dynamics at play. That’s a power shift. Creating my own work and not working exclusively in American theatre helps me to be more selective about where and how I engage, as I have options if I am not feeling the politics of a place or person. I also think there’s something very empowering about all of us on this call feeling like we’re producers, whether that’s of our own work or work of other people. That’s one of the big reasons my sister Paloma and I formed our company, Angela’s Pulse, where we do pieces that are rooted in social justice and amplify Black diasporic voices in a variety of mediums. We founded it at a time where
40 SDC JOURNAL | FALL 2020
we were both working with big companies, but we saw the writing on the wall in terms of the problems that happen within those companies. We wanted to be able to not only produce ourselves, but also amplify and support other people.
AS AN INDIVIDUAL ARTIST, I AM VERY CLEAR THAT IF I'M WORKING AT YOUR INSTITUTION, I DON'T FEEL I'M WORKING FOR YOU. I'M WORKING WITH YOU. -PATRICIA McGREGOR I think there’s often a big perception problem in the American theatre, often in primarily white institutions: “Aren’t we being benevolent for engaging with communities other than our subscriber base?” Rather, there should be an appreciation that a range of communities showing up makes your institution more relevant and helps it live up to its mission and the grant money that it has
been given. I learned a lot from working in music on concerts with J. Cole and Raphael Saadiq. People were willing to not only show up, but to pay top ticket prices because they were centered in the conversations the artists were having. People are willing to show up and/or pay to show up if they are excited by and feel represented in what they are seeing and welcomed into the experience of coming to the theatre. I’m excited by places that are making work that is relevant to our current times and not upholding the values and representation of a problematic past. How is our artistry on the front lines of political and social movements that align with Black Lives Matter and represent ideas and prompt action toward a more just world? To Lou’s point, there are people on the front line risking their lives right now in order to move the world forward in a way that is necessary and just, and that might even allow for us to dream for our kids. So how can we make sure that with every project that we’re on, and in every way that we engage, we are trying to be on the front line with the tools that we have, with the gifts that we are given? How can we contribute to the cause in that kind of way? That’s what makes me excited. That’s the kind of guiding principle for how I choose to do work. KEN-MATT | I’m reflecting, Lou, on your point about how we continue to center our own institutions in this moment as well. It’s
so key. It’s so important. As someone who started one of these Black theatre companies and then found my way into these white institutions, I view my role right now within the white institution as working to create and open up as much space as I possibly can for as many Black and brown folks as possible. But I don’t view it as my role right now to save these institutions; it’s my duty to hold them accountable. And as a result of that, and as a millennial in my thirties, I am also interested in what radical divestment looks like from these institutions so that they get their act together. The reality is that I don’t know that these white institutions deserve us, frankly. And I am not interested in trying to save them. Not to say that I hope that they all go under, but I do think the means through which we can continue to hold them accountable is the larger question. At the same time, what I’m principally interested in is how to investigate and interrogate ways that we can continue investing in ourselves and investing in our institutions. I think it’s possible to do both at the same time: You can hold these white institutions accountable, and you can also invest in your own institutions. I’m just curious about what that process looks like. Hana mentioned Ron Himes. Ron and I had lunch when I lived in St. Louis for a few years right after undergrad—before I started Pyramid. I was 22 or 23 at the time, and hungry and ambitious. And I asked, “Ron, why have you never really left St. Louis? Why
haven’t you worked elsewhere?” And he said, “Because I don’t have anything to prove.” So many people, especially young people, operate as if they have something to prove. Especially for those of us who are considered early-career, emerging, mid-career, whatever the hell all that is—what do you have to prove to any of these white institutions that don’t actually care about you? I am curious and interested in the question, what does radical investment in ourselves and in our own institutions look like in this moment, in addition to holding these white institutions accountable? WARDELL | I’ve been saying this for the past two months, as people are asking, “What do we do? How do we fix it?” First of all, it’s not my problem to tell you how to fix your institution or the harm that you’ve caused for however long. Also, the radical divestment idea Ken-Matt is talking about is something that is very much at the front of my mind in a large way. I told someone the other day, I don’t care if every PWI in Chicago closes down and there’s nothing but BET [Black Ensemble Theater] and Congo Square and MPAACT [Ma’at Production Association of Afrikan Centered Theatres] and ETA Creative Arts and the Latinx and the MENASA [Artists of Middle Eastern, North African, and Southwest Asian Descent] theatres and communities. Really investing in those companies while the PWIs get their shit together seems very, very exciting to me right now, because everyone’s really scrambling.
And I’m like, “What are you scrambling for? Why is it so hard to do the right thing?” Well, talking about it is one thing, but there has to be action and accountability, and that seems really difficult, even in this moment. You look at the “We See You” demands coming out, and I think at least half of the white artistic directors in major cities, you can see steam just popping out of their head, like, “Oh my God, there’s this comprehensive thing, and we have no idea where to start.” Well, start at the base level and start working. That seems to be really difficult for them. So radical divestment to me seems like a very strong possibility. PATRICIA | A few people have brought up money. Elizabeth Alexander, the President of the Mellon Foundation, has just come out and said, “You’re not going to get the money unless you’re really about social justice.” There are a lot of primarily white institutions that have gotten a lion’s share of the big grants focusing on “diversity,” “engagement,” and “building community.” How can we ensure support of Black theatres, Black artists, Black collectives on the large grant and gift level that have had this work at the center of their practice for a long time? How do we hold accountable the work at these primarily white institutions that have already received big grants for this work? Where are we putting our own money and time in terms of showing up for each other’s work and showing up for Black organizations and artists? How do we get the tools and give each other the tools
Cage Sebastian Pierre, Kai A. Ealy + Charles Andrew Gardner in Kill Move Paradise at TimeLine Theatre Company, directed by Wardell Julius Clark PHOTO Lara Goetsch
FALL 2020 | SDC JOURNAL
Stephen Pelinski, Celestine Rae + Elizabeth Heflin in From the Author Of at Delaware Rep, directed by Jade King Carroll PHOTO N. Howatt
so that we make sure the financial support is there in places where we are in the driver’s seat and not on the fringe? JADE | I really appreciate everything that’s being said about the institutions. I do believe right now that a lot of them are not gonna make it. I’m okay with that. And I think missions that look good but aren’t lived by are being exposed right now, and I think that’s necessary. One of the things that I’m always interested in as a freelance artist is how can we center these institutions around the artists. A lot of the people who are the gatekeepers at institutions are not artists. How do we center around the artists—’cause we’re the ones creating, you know? That’s why we’re all doing it. How do we come out of this so we can survive and create, so we can actually do the work and eat and spend Sunday with our families? How do we create a livable situation? And how do we make artists comfortable in the communities we’re going into? ’Cause it’s not only the theatres. Sometimes the theatres are the best-intentioned, but if I’m in the middle of Westover, WV, or any of these little places that I go to because they do need to crack open their lens and hear these stories— and you do need those communities, and hopefully those communities are there to watch the plays, to engage, to grow, to have or experience a new conversation, to commune—but it is dangerous for artists a lot of times. I often feel more overt danger in the community, not necessarily in the theatre (though that definitely exists). It’s a separate thing, and that’s something I’m really interested in. I’m interested in tackling how to make artists feel safe to create and have a living wage. And how we can do that
42 SDC JOURNAL | FALL 2020
as a collective and not be so dependent on an institutional system. LOU | You know, when I’m hired, I view myself sort of as a hired gun, a representative of the culture, a keeper of the culture. And I’m not being egotistical about it. This is how I live. This is how I do my art. It’s my citizenship. I always get tickled during meet-and-greets, you know, when you’re introduced, and you’ve got to talk about the play. I always say that I will be directing this piece as though there is no one but Black people in the house. And to watch their faces when I say that, it just tickles me all the time. What this assumption does is create that space that you’re talking about, Jade, where an artist can bring all of themselves to the equation, not just the part that’s going to be considered acceptable. So I try to create this milieu where they can feel safe to be Black, and I’ll protect them. I consider that to be my job. JADE | I think the theatres, and us, as artists, have to take better care of each other as humans in this moment and moving forward. Let’s really take the time to look at each other. Let’s actually see the human next to us, not what we can get out of them, but what’s the conversation we’re having, why are we doing this? Let’s be honest with each other and ourselves. In order to really be present and feel safe, there are so many things at play. But one of the most important things as a director is to create that safe space, which we are constantly navigating. And it would be great to just be able to walk and not have to constantly navigate. I don’t know the answer to how we make the communities that we need to go into safer. It’s a bigger question of really seeing humanity, really seeing each other as humans first.
Zenzi Williams in The Homecoming Queen at Atlantic Theater Company, directed by Awoye Timpo PHOTO Ahron R. Foster
AWOYE | The thing I keep thinking about is what I was saying earlier, about this nature of illusion, but also this nature of lens. When we think about the American theatre, when we’re asking these questions about the American theatre—in my mind, the kind of illusion that I think can be suspended or lifted or changed or transformed is that we think about the larger umbrella of the American theatre as being inside of these predominantly white institutions. I think there’s the possibility of decentralizing those institutions as the large umbrella of what the American theatre is, so that it can encompass all the things that we’re talking about. It encompasses us as artists, it encompasses the community, it encompasses the fighters, and not as separate things that need to squeeze under the umbrella. But that what we deem the American theatre gets put in an appropriate place, because there are so many of us, and there is so much incredible work that people are doing inside of their own communities, wherever people are making art and gathering and communing and talking and building. How do we shift our very understanding of what we think of as the American theatre to actually be a true American theatre that encompasses all of us and all of our art? TAYLOR | Thank you, Awoye, and thanks to all of you for this conversation. It’s been such an honor to be in a digital room with some of the baddest Black directors in the country. You’re all brilliant. It has only been an hour, but if feels like we could and probably should be talking for a million more hours. Is there one last sentiment that anyone would like to leave us with? PATRICIA | Onward!
THE GIFT OF DESPERATION RACE, REVOLUTION, AND RECOVERY IN A SUMMER OF COVID-19 BY ANN M. SHANAHAN
JULY 3, 2020 I am humbled by the opportunity to reflect on this moment from my perspectives as a white, middle-aged, woman-identifying, cisgendered director, scholar, teacher, and relatively new chair of a theatre department at a public Research I institution. I have rewritten this piece multiple times, not sure what is valuable for me to share or that I should be writing at all. In the space allotted, I want to foreground pieces by Monica Ndounou and Nicole Hodges Persley, leaders in Black theatre and in higher education. I had the honor of working with them on the 2018 ATHE
Conference, “Theatres of Revolution,” and to edit for a forum they wrote following their leadership of the International Black Theatre Summit at Dartmouth in 2018. Dr. Persley has written a piece for the Peer-Reviewed Section in this issue (see p. 56), in which she outlines a powerful utopic vision for an American theatre after the pandemic, founded on racial justice and equity. Dr. Ndounou wrote in an op-ed entitled “The Silence of White Theaters on Anti-Black Violence Is Deafening” (The Burton Wire, May 31, 2020): “COVID-19’s destructive impact on the theater industry presents an opportunity to rebuild with greater equity and empathy in funding and operations.” What may have seemed impossible before, for reasons founded on racism and white supremacy, is made possible by the
perspective shifts and pause demanded by COVID-19, the radical and necessary overhaul of this moment. I wrote a first draft of this essay in late May 2020, with protests against police violence and for racial justice raging across the country following the killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and Ahmaud Arbery and deaths from COVID-19 (over 100,000) disproportionately impacting people of color. As an administrator and producer, I sat then as I do now in an uncertain moment, bridging the past of canceled productions and transition to remote teaching at midterm in spring 2020, and an unknown future—planning scenarios a, b, and c for the academic year and a potential production season in ’20-21. In the weeks
Purdue University Department of Theatre stage managers’ online “Snack Time” PHOTO Fritz Bennett FALL 2020 | SDC JOURNAL
since then, I have watched, listened, written, rewritten, edited, and re-edited with my colleagues in SDC and in my department at Purdue. I write today in a painful, potent present—for a profession, a field, a country, as an individual—that has finally, finally demanded to face the horrific truths of systemic racism that run through every aspect of life in America. The piece I originally wrote posed questions of how to safely return to campus, if and when to return to production in ’20-21, and how to train undergraduate and graduate students amid unprecedented safety considerations and calls for longnecessary systemic changes for racial equity and justice. What should training in theatre entail for a field as curtailed as live theatre is without audience, with socially distanced staging, the prospect of face masks on stage? How can the field engage in safe and ethical training? Will students pursue training for careers in the theatre at such a vulnerable, uncertain time? Should they? I wrote about how, along with colleagues around the country, and in specific contact with theatre chairs in the Big Ten (including SDC Member Rick Lombardo) and in the Directing Program of the Association for Theatre in Higher Education (ATHE), the faculty, staff, and students of the Purdue theatre department transitioned courses to online delivery and suspended productions of Bonnets by Jen Silverman (part of the Big Ten play initiative) and Water by the Spoonful by Quiara Alegría Hudes, which was only one week into rehearsal. I wrote then about “necessity as the mother of invention,” that while we made many mistakes, being forced to address how we would complete class outcomes for students remotely made us confront questions and implement solutions quickly. Faced with the cancellation of events, we sought ways for the casts, designers, and tech students to complete the credits in production; plans ranged from postponement and online rehearsals to cancellation and completing outcomes through a purely written analysis. We decided to accelerate the public performance of Bonnets and shifted plans for Water by the Spoonful to a run-through in the theatre (on a partially painted stage floor) 10 days into rehearsal. Without time to ponder, we had to make hard choices, which, if not the choices we would make in the future, gave us a sense of what worked, what didn’t, and what further steps to take and to consider next time.
44 SDC JOURNAL | FALL 2020
Parts of what I wrote then still hold true to inform the present, but in new ways, and with important shifts. I wrote about how the specific experience of directing Water by the Spoonful offered uniquely valuable insights on the questions of the moment. While cancellation meant loss of opportunities for students involved, I was grateful for how engaging with the play had allowed for exploration of the role of digital mechanisms in building connections across communities. Its larger themes, structure, and style offered intersecting cultural, spiritual, and political frameworks capacious enough to hold at least some of the vast complexities of the moment.
folks who might otherwise be separated by geography, age, ethnicity, and class. The play traces the connections forged across digital and in-person means in the equalizing terms of addiction and recovery. This is a chief example of dissonance, a concept drawn from John Coltrane’s free jazz, which runs through the play. The character of Yazmin (Yaz) Ortiz, an adjunct professor of music, proposes to a class: “Coltrane democratized the notes. He said they are all equal. Freedom” (15). “I want you to pinpoint the first time you really noticed dissonance....This is your creation myth” (16). Hudes uses dissonance such as this throughout the play to forge a democratic dramaturgy and a new freedom theatrically.
THE MOMENT DEMANDS WE PAUSE TO ALLOW THIS GREAT RECKONING TO OCCUR, IN OUR INSTITUTIONS AND OURSELVES.
Work with this play included connections to friends and loved ones in recovery. Discussing the challenges of converting to online, a friend pointed out that AA and other 12-step communities had been faced with the same questions, and that the necessity to meet had driven members to establish Zoom meetings quickly. Closure of clubs, community centers, and churches generally used for meetings meant that alcoholics and addicts had to find ways to connect, not as luxury or entertainment, but in order to stay sober—in order to stay alive. Embracing the “gift of desperation,” to use a phrase from the AA program, folks in recovery needed to find a way to stay sober one day at a time, online. My friend spoke of being surprised at how much they got from Zoom meetings. While they await the return of in-person meetings, Zoom Rooms offer surprisingly similar comforts. In some ways, Zoom meetings offer advantages— easier access to more meetings, connection across geographies and from around the world—similar to the recovering characters in chat rooms in the play.
The season selection committee had chosen Water by the Spoonful after the ATHE 2018 conference, where Quiara Alegría Hudes and her sister, Gabriela Sanchez, provided a powerful joint keynote on their experiences as Latinas in theatre. The world of the play includes intersections in the lives of a Puerto Rican family (based on Hudes’s own) in Philadelphia with members of a global online recovery group situated in California and Japan. Our season selection committee chose the play as part of a 2020 season focusing on women, and in continuation of a commitment fostered by my colleague Anne Fliotsos to regularly produce plays by playwrights of color. In the range of racial and ethnic identities of its characters, the play offered opportunities for student actors of color, and to bring in a guest artist to play the role of Chutes and Ladders, a Black man in his fifties. We also chose the play for its topicality with the opioid epidemic and, especially, for its profound story about the interconnectedness of human beings in recovery—recovery from the traumas of war; from racial, ethnic, and economic injustice; and from addiction—
The idea of desperation as a gift offered ways to reconcile the costs of changing from in-person formats for teaching and making theatre in this time, as well as ways to reframe the disruption to standard practice by COVID-19 as a potent opportunity to dismantle the systems of the past rife with injustices and inequities in forming future practices. How might this life-or-death perspective open space for theatremakers to use the combined digital and physical gathering places available to express and advance fuller freedoms? In what ways does the pain and desperation of this cultural reckoning contain a gift to confront and dismantle structures and ways of working that silence and marginalize,
Water by the Spoonful rehearsal, Purdue University Department of Theatre, March 13, 2020 PHOTO Ceira Ostberg
to write broader creation myths of truer democracy? Practices that were standard are being examined and challenged. What may have seemed natural or acceptable weeks ago is called out for its injustice today for more to see. The moment demands we pause to allow this great reckoning to occur, in our institutions and ourselves. I’ll share one personal example of the reckoning, in hopes it might be useful to others. The faculty and student population in the department where I work is predominantly white, a circumstance I and colleagues have been working to change, including by committing to produce plays by artists of color with roles for people of color. This has been accompanied by a commitment to and strategic thinking toward casting roles of color, including for Water by the Spoonful, with a commitment for a guest artist of color to play the role of Chutes and Ladders. As for most theatre departments, funding is limited; considering the guest artist role to be the priority, we decided to direct in-house from our faculty. While I had personal connections to the play and the cast is made up of a mix of races and ethnicities, I consider now that I was wrong to direct it as a white person. The decision was based in distorted, scarcity-based thinking, in economic and
cultural systems with a history of bias and inequity. I was aware of the cultural blindspots and power dynamics potential in this choice, and attempted to address them by a collaborative ensemble dramaturgy process with students who identified as Latinx in a cast mainly of people of color. But in light of this reckoning, I see that was inadequate for full and free expression of the voices of color at the center of the play. I see more clearly now that this was the sort of limited, privileged thinking that perpetuates injustice. We made the choice based in an old way of thinking, founded on the acceptance of economic and organizational systems built with inequity. Monica Ndounou writes: “By overhauling funding and operations to recognize the intrinsic value of Black people and theaters, the industry can thrive during and beyond COVID-19. We know better so let’s do better, together. Our very lives and livelihoods depend on it.” At the time, I saw no other way, but in the desperation of this moment of necessary and overdue revolution, there is a painful but potent opportunity to rethink and see in a fuller, more just way. Any path—and there were some, obscured by traditional ideas of budget streams, faculty loads, past norms— that would have had a person of color as director would have been better. If we are
to revisit this production again, it will be led by a person of color. I offer this as one personal example of a change in thinking and practice brought by listening in this moment. The examination and overhaul of systems of the past offer a profound chance to rebuild on principles of racial equality and reconciliation, true democracy, and freedom. Ann M. Shanahan chairs the Department of Theatre at Purdue University and is co-editor of the SDC Journal Peer-Reviewed Section.
FALL 2020 | SDC JOURNAL
OUR FUTURE BY MARIA TORRES
JULY 16, 2020 The government needs to know that artists are of vital importance to the foundation of society. The US Bureau of Economic Analysis reports that, in 2017 (the most recent year for which statistics are available), arts and cultural productions accounted for $877.8 billion and 4.5 percent of the US economy, contributing 5.1 million jobs. Arts and cultural productions are second to retail in added value to the US GDP. The arts add five times more value to the GDP than agriculture, $60 billion more than construction, and $227 billion more than transportation. We need economic relief to weather the impact of COVID-19. Now is a great time for artists to get to work primarily in arts education. We’re a fundamental part of the upbringing of the next generation. I’ve created and taught programs that show the importance of having an artist involved in the education of children and young adults. Along with academics, culture—art, music, theatre, and dance—helps shape what a person is going to become. Systemic problems returned when arts education got taken out of the schools. It is the time, right now, to look at what artists can bring and provide opportunities for artists to contribute their knowledge. Art is something that instills confidence. It introduces a sense of self.
rather than advertisements for liquor and cigarettes, which were prevalent in our innercity area of East New York in Brooklyn. Change is not a static process. It does not come with a manual. Now is an opportunity to galvanize, strategize, and organize our future. Theatre artists don’t necessarily have to be working in a show to begin working—there are other ways we can create projects that change the landscape. I’ve collaborated with historians, with scientists, with mathematicians, infusing music and dance into their curriculums. I know for a fact that it does make a difference; I have the data to prove it. And during this pandemic, governors and mayors have to come up with ways to create opportunities, grants, and jobs where we artists can use our skills remotely, or in person if possible. Through the arts, we break down racial barriers. We need to start now, even if we’re just working remotely, and find ways to be involved, to have a voice, and to get to work. The call to action is about addressing the civil unrest that’s happening. We must find ways to voice our concerns, really bring them to light. There are going to be uncomfortable but necessary conversations. And through the arts we can help to navigate these issues.
Now is the time to take action, a time to figure out what is important—because what we have currently on a global level is fear, and we must not come back in the same way. It is going to take a long time. Those are the realities. Right now we’re dealing with the tsunami and systemic problems our society is protesting, and it is up to all of us to create our new normal. I think the first step in creating solutions is solidarity. All social change requires a critical mass of people to reject the existing social contract and create the space to negotiate real solutions. What is that landscape to be? What’s important is that we are going to have to improve the way we live, really take a look at the things that didn’t work before the pandemic, and rethink how we can change them. Maria Torres is a choreographer and director with a background in performance in all mediums: theatre, TV, and film. PHOTO
CHANGE IS NOT A STATIC PROCESS. IT DOES NOT COME WITH A MANUAL. NOW IS AN OPPORTUNITY TO GALVANIZE, STRATEGIZE, AND ORGANIZE OUR FUTURE. I’m a perfect example of that—I am a Puerto Rican Dominican Cuban Afro Latina who came from a low-income family, and I’ve dealt with racism all my life. I remember how challenging it was for us, and how my parents had to work three jobs each to be able to get us out of a bad neighborhood into a middle-class community so that we could be surrounded by billboards that were inspiring,
46 SDC JOURNAL | FALL 2020
Man of La Mancha at 5th Avenue Theatre, choreographed by Maria Torres PHOTO Mark Kitaoka
BY ADRIANA BAER
MAY 19, 2020 I’m of the Rent generation. Many of us who were in high school and college in the late ’90s caught the bohemian bug. We learned that the real way to be an artist was to be broke, hungry, desperate, and a general mess. There was pride in being a “starving artist” because we all knew that the only true artists were those who suffered. People with money and financial security were sellouts and villains. Viva la vie Bohème. My students are the Hamilton generation. They’re scrappy and hungry. Their anthem is that you have to fight in order to succeed. The goal is not to suffer, but to win. The old way is staid, boring, and conservative. My students received one message that I most certainly did not: financial knowledge is…cool. Thank you, Alexander, for your service. Because guess what? Being a starving artist is terrible! After grad school, I didn’t go to work in a squatters’ garret, making art late into the night. I went to work at a restaurant in Midtown so I could afford to pay my—you guessed it—rent. I had student debt, no savings, and no cushion. Was I dreaming of my next creative project and basking in the midday sun, full of inspiration and drive? No. I was tired from working until 2:00 a.m., trying to figure out how I was going to get any creative projects going when I also had to take jobs that were unfulfilling and draining. Scarcity does not breed creativity. It breeds stress, anxiety, and a narrow focus. Creativity is breath, breadth, openness. So…this vision of the future that’s not about artmaking? It’s about financial literacy.
WHAT IF WE WERE TO HIGHLY VALUE FINANCIAL WELLNESS FOR INDIVIDUAL ARTISTS, NOT ONLY FOR INSTITUTIONS? One of the first things foundations look for when considering whether to approve a grant is fiscal health. Does the organization consistently run a deficit without a strategy to cover it? Does it have a cash reserve safety net? How long can it survive until it next receives income? And, most important, does it have a reasonable and thoughtful plan?
Dana Green + Lauren Bloom Hanover in Macbeth at Portland Center Stage, directed by Adriana Baer PHOTO Kate Szrom
What if we were to highly value financial wellness for individual artists, not only for institutions? What if it was considered just as important to be working toward fiscal health as it was to be working toward an Obie? I know: it’s decidedly unsexy. It’s not really braggable or put-in-your-bio-able. But it is the thing that will allow us to make better, more experimental, and risky work. If we weren’t afraid of not being able to pay rent if someone didn’t like our art—if we could separate those two things—we could become freer, more satisfied, and happier artists.
business and help them get set up as such. Once a simple LLC or other appropriate entity is established and a separate bank account for the business is created, we construct a platform for writing off expenses, tracking income properly and easily, and more. Self-employed folks who have legitimized themselves as a business are having a much easier time right now with unemployment applications like Pandemic Unemployment Assistance. Being an official business in the eyes of the government is a part of creating a safety net for ourselves and our work.
So what might this take? First and foremost, financial education must become a cornerstone of all training programs at the undergrad and graduate levels. Too many of us earn our degrees and suddenly realize we don’t know even the most basic basics. What deductions do I claim on my tax forms? What’s the difference between a 1099 and a W-2? How much do I need to be saving from my income to pay self-employment taxes? Let’s make sure we are training our artists to have a working knowledge of budgeting, taxes, insurance, balancing income and expenses, debt and borrowing options, investing, and retirement planning.
The psychological benefits of having a solid financial education and plan are immense. Does it mean we’ll suddenly have a steady income stream and the projects of our dreams? No. But it will help us sleep at night. And if we can spend more time in restful rejuvenation and less time in fearing the unknown, we will become better artists and, I believe, better citizens and stewards of our world. Vive la vie stable! Adriana Baer is a theatre director and coach.
Next, let’s make sure every director and choreographer understands that they are a FALL 2020 | SDC JOURNAL
WE NEED A
NEW WPA BY LINDA HARTZELL
JULY 10, 2020 During the Great Depression, the Works Progress Administration (WPA) and its Federal One programs helped artists across many disciplines to survive in desperate times. We need a new version of those government programs to help artists survive now. The Federal Theatre Project (FTP), a component of Federal One, was aimed at conserving “the talent and skills of artists who, through no fault of their own, found themselves on the relief rolls and without means to continue their work.” But the FTP did more than give people meaningful work; it responded to a need: to entertain and give joy and hope to all classes of society, in cities big and small, and rural and farming communities across the nation.
employees of the Seattle Parks Department, and the staff were employed through CETA/Neighborhood Arts Program grants. The vision for that theatre, which later I was honored to lead, is a continuum of a program developed under the FTP, in which professional artists performed for young audiences. An important component of the WPA was the creation of the Negro Theatre Project. From 1935 to 1939, the WPA created programs that hired Black actors, directors, playwrights, designers, and technicians, and produced a number of plays by Black playwrights in 23 cities across the nation. In New York, Newark, Boston, Chicago, and Seattle, Black artistic directors (eventually) headed those projects, while white directors were in charge at most of the other WPA endeavors. While the promotion of an African American theatrical impulse was productive and valuable at the time, it also contributed to the segregation and “otherness” of African American artistry that underlay the racism of that era, too many currents of which persist to this day. We are living through a wrenching and necessary examination of institutional racism in society now. A reimagined WPA will need to aggressively promote inclusion and equity for Black and BIPOC artists in all positions in all our theatres—from stagehands to actors and designers, and, most critically, guest directors, artistic directors, and producers.
in their professions. The devastation wrought upon the economy is likely to persist long after a vaccine is found. We need to unite and lift the American people while finding ways to put many back to work. We need to create new community partners who serve every segment of our society. The ideals of the WPA need to be reimagined and refashioned to address this present crisis with justice and equity.
WE MUST COME TOGETHER AS A SOCIETY TO EXPERIENCE THE WORLD THROUGH THE LENS OF OTHERS IF WE'RE GOING TO HEAL. Theatre is the most ancient of social experiences. I’ve seen what a theatre experience does for young people; it develops empathy. We must come together as a society to experience the world through the lens of others if we’re going to heal. From the beginning of time, shared stories and parables have taught indispensable lessons, even as we are entertained.
As we continue to struggle through the COVID-19 pandemic, tens of millions have lost their livelihood or are unable to practice
The Federal Theatre Project created a continuum that lived beyond its relatively short life. Hallie Flanagan, the FTP’s director, intended that the program’s funding of new theatre groups would lead to enduring community institutions. The National Endowment for the Arts strives to bring cultural richness and variety to audiences across the socioeconomic and diversity spectrum today. The FTP often brought together private, federal, and local entities as sponsors. In Seattle, those sponsors included the University of Washington, Woodland Park Zoo, Seattle City Light, and Tacoma’s Cushman Hospital. Many of those projects were performed outdoors and toured all over the state so anyone could attend. I was hired in the ’70s to be a company member at the original Seattle Children’s Theatre, then known as the Poncho Theatre, located on the grounds of the Woodland Park Zoo. The artistic and managing directors were
48 SDC JOURNAL | FALL 2020
Jason Ko + Ho-Kwan Tse in A Single Shard at Seattle Children’s Theatre, directed by Linda Hartzell PHOTO Chris Bennion
Linda Hartzell is Artistic Director Emerita of Seattle Children’s Theatre, a company she led for 32 years.
OUR CRAFT IS OUR STRENGTH: A CONVERSATION WITH
NATAKI GARRETT + ERIC TING MODERATED BY
Eric Ting was named Artistic Director of Cal Shakes in November 2015, and Nataki Garrett assumed her position as Artistic Director of the Oregon Shakespeare Festival (OSF) in August 2019. In a conversation (here edited for length) on June 17, 2020, with director Desdemona Chiang, they discussed their experiences running two of the country’s flagship Shakespeare companies as BIPOC artists.
NATAKI GARRETT | I applied to 11 positions in the American theatre, mostly for artistic leadership. I remember at some point I had to make a concerted effort and change my focus, because it was clear that the American theatre industry was not prepared to have me at the table. The ways in which it was not prepared were so treacherous and so demeaning that my goal became “apply for this job and spend this time on this platform, removing the idea that somehow you’re not supposed to be here, so that nobody has to come behind you and experience what you’ve experienced.” I went final round on 90 percent of those jobs. At some points I remember feeling like I was in the pool because the theatre needed to make sure that it looked like their search was diverse. The process that creates the opportunities for people like Hana Sharif and me to get these jobs is completely different for us than it is for everybody else. You’re either dealing with a group of people who have no idea and think somehow they’re going to
manipulate you, or you’re dealing with a group of people who do have an idea and they’re doing something with you— they’re proving something with you. Having spent the amount of time that I have in this industry, it literally does suck the life out of me to be in a room across from people who have no expertise in my field, who cannot fathom that I know how to do my job. DESDEMONA CHIANG | Why do you think you were hired at OSF? NATAKI | I think they are a body, but they are also a group of individuals. So I think that there were some individual voices on the search committee who knew that they could put together a candidacy pool that reflected the organization’s values. And I think there might be a couple of people on my board who were like, “No, Nataki is the one. We need her to have this job.” But there are other people on my board who were like, “Let’s just go ahead and do it and see what happens. And then
William Thomas Hodgson, Kimberly Monks, Christiana Clark + Chris Butler in How to Catch Creation at Oregon Shakespeare Festival, directed by Nataki Garrett PHOTO Jenny Graham
FALL 2020 | SDC JOURNAL
if it doesn’t work out, we can say we tried.” There are elements on my board, right now, whose way of moving in their responsibility is to manage and mandate as opposed to listen and collaborate. The other day, I had somebody say, “Well, I’m not going to let you invade this thing.” And I was like, “Well, good thing I’m a part of this team. I can’t invade it if I’m in it.” So we’re going to invade it together. We’re on the same side. Let’s just move in the same direction. Let me use the word invade 20 times in this next conversation so that you hear what I heard. Not that I’m going to shift your hearts and minds, but you’re not going to use that language with me again. In some ways you’re kind of like, I’m a pioneer and I’m figuring it out, and they’re figuring it out too. ERIC TING | I think arguably the more insidious of that group are the ones who think they’re doing it for the right reasons, but they don’t fully understand the implications of it. It’s the self-congratulatory sort of experience of being able to put somebody that feels disruptive into a position of power, but then they don’t actually surround that person with the necessary support, because they don’t fully understand what the level of obstacle is that these leaders are confronting. NATAKI | They don’t know how to do our job. They actually don’t know the job itself. So they don’t even know what they’re hiring you to do. ERIC | I appreciate those members of my board—many of whom are no longer on the board—who were very upfront about it. Those are the folks that you know how to speak to. Stepping into a leadership position in these legacy white institutions—or stepping into these legacy white institutions at all on some level—has been, for me, a journey of compromise. And I’ve been doing it for four years now. Honestly, if you were to ask me if the strength of my ideals have held up in the face of this work, I don’t know that I would be able to answer yes to that. NATAKI | Would you say they shifted or evolved, or have they been denied? ERIC | I feel like they’ve been worn down. I walked in with an ideal of freedom of speech and that very quickly was dismantled for me. Part of the work that I have experienced at Cal Shakes—having nothing to do with leading it, but just being part of this kind of organizational culture—is about questioning the kinds of things that we feel strongly and confidently about. And I think that you do have to question those things, and so I own that; I think that’s part of the work as
50 SDC JOURNAL | FALL 2020
well. But I also think that the conversations that we have a lot right now at Cal Shakes have to do with the question, what does it mean to be a legacy white theatre, when this whole nonprofit industy that Nataki has talked about is built upon white supremacist structures? You cannot exist within these spaces and not be complicit in them. So we cannot exist in this country and not be complicit in all of the systems of oppression that we’re raging against. We’re raging against them, and yet we’re also simultaneously—in some really screwed up way—benefiting from them, some more than others. Those of us who have chosen to enter into these spaces and to take on these leadership positions, we take on these institutions too, and their history becomes our history, whether or not we want it. And that’s where it gets so complicated.
THE THING I HAVE TO RESPECT ABOUT THE CORONAVIRUS IS THAT IT'S REVELATORY. IF YOU WANT TO KNOW WHAT'S WORKING AND WHAT'S NOT WORKING, THE CORONAVIRUS HAS ALREADY EXPOSED IT. -NATAKI GARRETT NATAKI | I’m interested in this idea of compromise. I don’t know if I have had the occasion yet to focus enough on the ways in which I might compromise, you know? I inherited somebody else’s season and then that season was destroyed by the COVID-19 crisis. Now we’re in the middle of trying to figure out a strategy to make it through to the other side. And these next few steps require something that cannot be compromise alone, if we are privileged enough to be one of those few institutions that actually arrive at the end of this. So few, because you know, we’re talking about this crisis and then the recovery, and then it’s like two and a half years after that, we’re still going to be dealing with what we’re in the middle of now. I got lucky that OSF has been so focused on utilizing the resources that were being offered to focus on audience development. Freda Casillas [OSF’s former Audience Development Manager] wrote the very first Audience (R)Evolutions grant for TCG and
Nataki Garrett directs Nubia Monks + William Thomas Hodgeson in How to Catch Creation at Oregon Shakespeare Festival PHOTO Kim Budd
penned the Audience Manifesto, and OSF has been invested in evolving its audience ever since. And I know that the only way that this place survives is if we decide that a group of people who have been capitalized on and marginalized in terms of their ability to even come into our spaces will be our audience, because we can get all these millions of dollars in grants, right? We’ve spent millions of dollars saying to people, “You should come and we’ll welcome you as a part of what we’re doing.” We’re going to welcome you, which is inherently white supremacist. Even this idea of welcoming you into a space that your tax dollars pay for, and that is as equally yours as anyone else’s. Now what we’ve got to do is be like, “By the way, without you, there’s no us. And so this has to belong to you. Can you come and save us?” And if these people don’t want it…That’s where I am right now. I had a conversation recently with my board where I was like, “You have to determine whether or not you hired me to run this organization and help us find a future, or sunset it. You have to figure that out and tell me, because I’m not doing the latter.” I also feel like what comes with these kinds of spaces is a kind of—as you said, Eric—a consciousness about the scaffolding of white supremacy. And you cannot get away from it. I’ve sat in rooms with people who are brown and Black, who operate under white supremacist structures in the same
Michael Jean Sullivan + ensemble in Black Odyssey at Cal Shakes, directed by Eric Ting PHOTO Kevin Berne
ways white people do. And that is true for everybody under the sun. So-called white supremacy prevails because it is built into the fabric of the things that we do. No matter what we’re doing. With that in mind, the level of compromise actually becomes really tricky and complex, because you’re compromising a consciousness structure. You’re compromising whether or not you’re willing to be conscious of the decisions that you’re making. But the decisions are always going to be informed by the same structure, no matter what you do—until they aren’t. And that’s what you build towards, beause it won’t happen in our lifetime. You build it so that the next generation can come behind it and do some more shifting. It’s not going to be for us. DESDEMONA | I wonder, at moments like this, why should we try fixing it instead of building our own structure off to the side? NATAKI | I think you do both. There are people who will build their own. And I think that the more organizations are run by people who look like Eric and myself—and Hana Sharif and Jamil Jude and Robert Barry Fleming and Chay Yew—the more there is balance for the people who are out there creating the spaces for themselves. ERIC | Do you remember, Nataki, when we were having lunch in Ashland, and we basically made a joke that the primary duty of our generation of artistic leaders was to
ensure that there were still theatres for the next generation of artistic leaders to come along and actually transform? I would say that what having to navigate largely white spaces has led me to is the creation of a kind of shadow agenda. I always have a shadow agenda. Whatever it is that I’m saying I’m doing, there’s always the real thing I’m doing that is underneath that, which I’ve never felt courageous enough or brave enough to name. I do think that in the moment we find ourselves in right now, there’s a cohort of extraordinary leaders like Nataki. I have learned from Nataki, and hearing you talk about your experiences—both getting to OSF and the first few months at OSF—I’ve learned more about my first three years of Cal Shakes than I had the space of mind to be able to name. And I think part of it is that this moment was not expected. No one expected this to happen as quickly as it did. But we are actually there, and we’re in the middle of it right now. If there was ever a moment to just name the agenda, to name the objective and be super clear about it, and to be unafraid in the naming of it, and to carve that path so clearly in the ground in front of us—this is because there isn’t a single one of us who isn’t actually in the process of dismantling our organization. NATAKI | Right. Which is why you’re in it and not outside of it. The thing I have to respect about the coronavirus is that it’s revelatory.
If you want to know what’s working and what’s not working, the coronavirus has already exposed it. It is exposing your board to itself. It is exposing the people who call themselves company members. It exposes even those ideas in the hierarchy. I mean, all of it, everything. I spend days on Zoom calls, watching people realize, “Wow, that’s because that’s who we are? We’re doing this. This is who we are. Yes! This is what we’re doing!” This is why you have to change. If you want to be here, you can’t do that anymore. You’ve got to change it. “Oh, you don’t want to change it? Don’t worry about it. You won’t be here.” Those are the choices. For me, one of the things that this crisis, and the uprising that happened in the middle of it, have caused is a frankness. I don’t have time to convince you. Here are the choices: you do this or that. There is nothing in the middle. And I’m not going to dress it up to make it seem nice. This is where we are. OSF is about to do another 10 percent reduction, which brings us down to a 10 percent staff. Okay. That’s where we are. It’s treacherous and scary, but I’m grateful for the clarity that this time has brought. DESDEMONA | I just came off a meeting where people were talking about “How do we save the theatre?” Everything we talk about, all of the agendas that we have, are all tied ultimately to “Where’s the wealth?”
FALL 2020 | SDC JOURNAL
NATAKI | It can’t come from wealth anymore. It’s going to have to come from some sort of New Deal legislation. I don’t know if you’re experiencing this, Eric, but members of the one-percent class on my board and in my donor base are retracting ever so slightly. It’s not going to come from them. Let’s move on, because what we need to be doing is prospecting for a wider donor base with a smaller amount of money, as opposed to this constant reliance on these rich people who don’t really want to give. Foundations are going to do what they can, but they can’t save the sector. There’s going to have to be some other stimulus that happens. If it’s an economic stimulus from the government, everybody has to move into the space of advocacy. Everybody, every artist, is going to have to become an advocate. ERIC | Don’t you also maybe think we are too big? I think a big part of this is actually re-evaluating what we think we need in order to do what we do.
STEPPING INTO A LEADERSHIP POSITION IN THESE LEGACY WHITE INSTITUTIONS-OR STEPPING INTO THESE LEGACY WHITE INSTITUTIONS AT ALL ON SOME LEVEL-HAS BEEN, FOR ME, A JOURNEY OF COMPROMISE. -ERIC TING NATAKI | I laid off 500 people, and that affected 5,000 jobs in my town and 20,000 in the region. I have to think about it a little bit differently in terms of the structure of how we build back. Because first of all, I can’t build back an organization that allows people to be so reliant on it. That when it does not exist, it decimates people’s lives. I can’t build that organization back up. The second thing, it can’t be so small that it doesn’t operate as a true partner in this community. Oregon is a tourism state. Everything we do relies on tourists. I can’t ask my theatre to operate in a different way in a state that focuses primarily on people coming. I have to be willing to move with the state; if it decides it’s not going to be a tourism state, we all shift together. So I’m conscious of the decisions I’m making: everything I do affects 26 bed-and-breakfasts. All the restaurants. I think about that—that’s what wakes me up
52 SDC JOURNAL | FALL 2020
in the morning. Let me find that economic stimulus so that we can actually be a part of this economy in a way that allows us to do what we were originally intended to do, which is bring people together around here and around this region to experience and witness something. But I have to think about these things as I’m making my numbers up. Are we going to be a $38 million or a $12 million organization? Twelve million dollars doesn’t do shit for this town. So we can’t come back like that. But we won’t be a $44 million organization again. DESDEMONA | I’d like to talk more about the deep compromising stuff. Do you want to circle back to that idea? NATAKI | Are you still feeling like an artist, Eric? ERIC | In some ways, more than I ever have. More than I have in a very long time. I think that we’re in the middle of a conversation around the value of art. I’ve had questions about the value of theatre for a long time now. Anytime anybody hears me say, “Oh yeah, I run a Shakespeare theatre,” they look at me as if I’m in a dysfunctional relationship. You know what I mean? They’re like, “Oh, that’s so… oh.” There are certainly extraordinary artists at Cal Shakes, but I have a hard time making a case for the value of the work that we’re doing in the face of a pandemic that is laying bare the inequities in our world. If we want to be an anti-racist arts organization, we have this opportunity to build from the ground up. To not be beholden, to not be a servant to the subscription base or to this wealth base, because we’re about to get very small. Can we imagine something that allows us to sustain even what little we have right now, to do work that feels meaningful to us again? NATAKI | I am running so many aspects of this organization that I can’t read a play. I actually don’t have time. But even if I did, I don’t even know if I could take it in. I know why stories are important to the time; that part I don’t question. I find myself seeking a story that will reflect to me the really scary bits of this time we’re in. Not in terms of whether or not it’s going to end up in the theatre, but whether or not we’re going to live through it. I got into the theatre because it was the one department at my high school that didn’t spend 97 percent of the time questioning my identity. It spent 10 percent, but the theatre was the one place where I could completely explore what it meant to be a tangible human being in this exploration about humanity, which is what theatre has always been for me. I don’t know if I have existential questions about whether or not the practice of making
theatre is going to be necessary in the future. I think that the future will dictate it. In the meantime, you just keep getting up and doing the thing that you know you love to do and other people love to do, and you create spaces for them to do that as often as possible. But I haven’t been an artist all year. The coronavirus didn’t create that for me, it exacerbated it—the fact that I have not had an artistic thought in my head. ERIC | Nataki, I’m always going to be glass half full. So pardon my resisting you right now for a moment. Everything that you’ve been talking about in this conversation is a consequence of your artistry. That is the practice of your art. Whether or not it feels that way, right? We see it, those of us on the outside who are witnessing you practicing your art as you navigate incredibly volatile, incredibly dangerous spaces. I’m not saying you’re coming through it yet. I’m sure you’re thick in the middle of it. The thing that gives me hope is that this kind of leadership, in this moment, demands the kind of artistry, the kind of spaces that we as directors are so good at navigating. That’s what our work has prepared us for in this moment of leadership: it’s prepared us to be constantly monitoring the truth of the moment. What we’re saying is, we finally now have this moment where we can let go of the bullshit. Now we’re into the space where what we’re marshaling is our capacity to speak truth clearly. NATAKI | Oh, thank you for that, Eric. The big struggle is wanting it to be like it was, and having to reconcile that with the fact that it is this way. I’m used to being able to find hope within the act of creating. Locating it in this other act of creating, which I actually just call my job, is daunting. I’ve had a few conversations with non–artistic-leader artists who separate the art from the job, who are like, “Well, you represent an organization. You’re not an artist.” I think when you say that out loud, what you are doing is releasing yourself from the thing that drives you toward it, which is your craft. And, actually, you can arrive in artistic leadership positions with both of those things intact and have access to both of those things. It does not make me less a director because I am an artistic leader. ERIC | Our craft is our strength. NATAKI | Yes. And it’s because we’re directors that we can do the thing that we do. I thank you so much for that, Eric. I’m going to take that all away. I’m storing that in all the cells in my body. Because I’m going to need that to get through this time, to remind myself that it’s exactly the same skills and exactly the same craft. I appreciate that so much.
WHY ARE YOU CALLING US? BY SNEHAL DESAI +
MADELINE SAYET JULY 8, 2020 What could be more thrilling than the moment an artistic director calls? Sadly, for many BIPOC directors, these calls are not the happy content of fairy tales. Because while there are many reasons a white artistic director calls a BIPOC director, few of the initial reasons are the same as for a call to a white director. Over time, these exchanges that should be centered around moments of artistic connection give way to a heightened sense of skepticism, as the truth behind the power dynamics of each call seeps out, and the question morphs from one of enthusiasm to one of trepidation: why are you calling us? The most common answer to this question is: you are calling because you need a director of color for a BIPOC play you have chosen.
Some of the other reasons we have been called include: to balance out an otherwise all-white production team; because you want a cultural consultant; because you want to look like you have interviewed a BIPOC director for the position before ultimately giving it to a white director; because you want to direct the play yourself but know you shouldn’t, so you are seeking a BIPOC front while you attempt to backseat-drive the production. We are a solution rather than an artistic voice, despite our work being unique, distinctive, imaginative, and varied, beyond our identities. In these situations, power still rests with the institution. Is it any wonder, then, that we suffer from imposter syndrome when we have been invited in under different pretenses than our white colleagues? Below are some of the misconceptions and challenges BIPOC directors run into, based on our own personal experiences as well as
conversations with fellow BIPOC directors and in shared affinity spaces: “There are no BIPOC directors who are ready to work at this level.” What does “they are not ready” to work on this level mean? How are you assessing this? What professional development opportunities could your institution be creating to cultivate new and emerging talent? Are you primarily looking at emerging directors and ignoring the previous generations of artists? Are you being as strict with the admittance of new white directors? “I haven’t seen their work.” What have you done to make sure you are seeing work by BIPOC directors? Have you seen work at a theatre of color? Have you mentored a director of color? Once a director has been “approved” by another PWI, does
Assassins at East West Players, directed by Snehal Desai PHOTO Steven Lam
FALL 2020 | SDC JOURNAL
Tai Yen Kim, Jane Lind + Erin Tripp in Whale Song at Perseverance Theatre, directed by Madeline Sayet PHOTO Julie York Coppens
the necessity to have “seen their work” go out the window? “I need to read a review of their work.” How much do you rely on reviews for hiring or discovering directors? Who are those reviews written by? How does this feed into a white supremacist system? “There are no BIPOC directors who are ready to direct this, but we will hire one as the assistant director.” Have you considered the power dynamics of this? You are hiring someone who has more vested interest in the piece into the assistant role, but you’re giving them no ultimate power to stop something offensive or hurtful from happening in the production process. Often, this means actors who are made uncomfortable with choices are confiding in the assistant and not in the director. How did you determine that the white director was “ready” to direct a BIPOC play? “We had a BIPOC director once, but they didn’t do well here.” Why didn’t they do well? Were they set up for success? What obstacles might they have faced at your theatre, and how might you dismantle them for the future?
54 SDC JOURNAL | FALL 2020
Do you use the same standard of “if one didn’t do well, then no others can ever do well in the future” for white directors? Cis-male directors? “We didn’t hire them because we didn’t get the grant.” Did you need to get a special grant in order to hire the white directors, or only the BIPOC one? What are the additional community engagement responsibilities you are assuming BIPOC directors will take on that you do not assign to white directors? Do you compensate them for this additional work? “I don’t see why race should have anything to do with who directs the play.” The short answer to this is: it does. Just as colorblind casting has become an outdated mode of thinking, so too would saying you choose directors colorblind. How many times do you think of a BIPOC only when you are doing a BIPOC play? Have you hired a white director for a BIPOC play? Have you ever done the reverse, hiring a BIPOC director for a play by a white playwright? Other than Shakespeare? If you are a white director, do you even question the moment you have been offered to direct a BIPOC play?
SNEHAL: Directors of color want to be seen as directors who can take on works that are not only tied to our ethnicity or cultural background (these could also be substituted by gender, disability, sexual orientation). However, the experience for many of us is that we won’t be seen in those ways until we have built up a body of work, which usually comes from being offered plays that align with our cultural heritage or ethnic background. For me, I love to do South Asian plays and plays about the IndianAmerican experience. But I would not like to tell those stories exclusively. And we must also make sure to recognize that Asian and Asian American are two distinct backgrounds that will affect the way we tell stories. Our narratives are not interchangeable. Nor is a generalized Asian look or feel possible. Following grad school, I participated in a number of different fellowship programs. One of my first was being in residence at a LORT theatre. On one of my first days, I was told that the current mainstage production, a South Asian comedy, was not quite jiving. The play, which had a South Asian company, was directed by a white director who did
not have any discernible connection to the South Asian community or the playwright. The notes I took that afternoon I gave to the artistic director. There were many moments where jokes were not landing because the director did not get the cultural context of the situation. The South Asian cast was trying extremely hard to help, but they were on stage and not able to have the same outside perspective as a director. Also, that weight should not be put on them. I was told that my notes, in their entirety, were passed on by the white artistic director to the white director without mention that they had come from me. With the proper context for certain situations, the notes I provided led to the laughs that had not been there before. That production has been the only South Asian play that this theatre has produced in its 85-year history of approximately 1,000 productions, and that one was directed by a white director. Since that production nearly a decade ago, no other South Asian playwright has been produced nor a South Asian director ever hired there. My main concern, though, is not looking back but forward. What will the next time a South Asian story is told by this theatre look like? Will it be a South Asian story written by a white playwright? Will it be directed by a director who has some connection to the Indian community? Will the larger commitment to the community whose story you are telling for the first time in a decade or more be considered—particularly if you intend to invite that community into your space? MADELINE: The first white artistic directors who approached me in my career asked me to do “Indigenous versions” of Western classics. At first, I felt honored because I thought I understood what this meant. A lot of my early work for my own companies was reimagining Shakespeare with large groups of other Native folks and incorporating my Mohegan perspective and philosophies into the work. But I quickly learned these institutions wanted something full of feathers and fringe. They wanted the stereotypical markers that the Hollywood Western and history of redface in America has taught non-Natives to expect—something I would never do and isn’t Native at all. My specific tribal nation is core to my identity, and my values are such that I will never do anything that would harm my people. So what was right to them was fundamentally wrong to me, and I did not adhere. These racist assumptions ingrained in our industry automatically put me at odds with white figures in authority who had no education on
these differences and made these experiences incredibly painful. But it taught me exactly how we are seen in this industry, when Native folks aren’t present to question it. Now that we finally have Native works being produced across the nation, you would think Native directors would be in demand. But rarely are Native directors considered, even to direct Native plays. Two common phrases are “I don’t know any Native directors,” or “None of them are ready.” How is that logical, when you consider not all Native directors are emerging? We are not talking about one generation of artists; we are talking about systemic multigenerational exclusion. If the main way BIPOC directors gain entry to the field is by directing the work they are culturally affiliated with, and our largest institutions aren’t hiring Native directors to direct Native work, it directly blocks Native directors out of the system. We get called when they need info on Native actors or designers. We get called when white directors have cultural questions or want playwright recommendations. But I wonder if institutions are afraid of sovereignty, of the shift in power dynamics that comes with Native leadership. If they are afraid of having too many Native artists working on a project at once. Otherwise, why is it so important to have the work filtered through non-Native lenses? Have you ever thought about how strange it is that, unlike nearly every other nation, America has no performing arts center dedicated to the Indigenous theatre of this land?
We wrote this article for SDC Journal to ask our fellow white directors to take these things into consideration before you agree to direct that next BIPOC play or as you work with a BIPOC assistant director, and because a large number of directors in this country are artistic directors themselves. In this dual capacity, directors who are ADs wield tremendous influence on the field and the next generation of directors. We ask that you look at your network of directors: is it a diverse pool of BIPOC directors? If it’s not, engage with us before you program that Black, Asian, or Latinx play. So that the first time we are speaking is not because you have programmed a Native play and are looking for a Native director. When we arrive, trust and support us. Make sure we aren’t made to speak for our entire culture or heritage and to be the only person of color in the room. Allow us to bring in our own designers, assistants, etc. If the collaboration felt like a fruitful one, ask us to come back, and this time ask us what we might be interested in—which may or may not be work tied to our culture or ethnicity. Ultimately, as a field, we must first confront that this is a systemic issue and not about “readiness.” There are tons of Native or Asian American directors we know of already who can do the work and we’d be happy to recommend. White artistic directors, if you are not ready for us, that’s for examining in a separate conversation. Theatre has operated from a white supremacist lens in America for so long it has obscured generations of artists of color who are standing right in front of you. We share our experiences to show the ways the system confines us and hope you will take action alongside us toward a more just and equitable field. Snehal Desai is Producing Artistic Director of East West Players. Madeline Sayet is Executive Director of the Yale Indigenous Performing Arts Program.
Aaron Bantum, Aaliyah Habeeb + Sebastian Nagpal in Henry IV at Connecticut Repertory Theatre, directed by Madeline Sayet PHOTO Steven Lam
FALL 2020 | SDC JOURNAL
SDC JOURNAL PEER-REVIEWED SECTION SPECIAL ISSUE FORUM: UNIVERSITY THEATRE RESPONSES TO COVID-19 AND THE MOVEMENT FOR BLACK LIVES As co-editors of the Peer-Reviewed Section (PRS) of SDC Journal, we are honored to contribute this section as part of the wider forum of this special issue focusing on the intersecting impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic and the powerful Black Lives Matter movement and necessary fights for racial justice occurring across the country. The PRS forum aims to address these matters specifically as they impact theatre in higher education in the late spring and early summer of 2020, looking to the year ahead and future of the field. Similar to the larger issue in which this sits, the forum was formed, and in parts reformed, amid an unprecedentedly difficult, potent, and genuinely revolutionary time in the country, in American theatre, and in theatre in higher education. The forum reflects the dynamism and breadth of change demanded of this time. Before the COVID-19 pandemic, our editorial team for the PRS had an essay and book review prepared for the summer (see p. 63), but we readily responded to SDC’s call to artists, scholars, and educators to document the shifts happening in our field amidst the COVID-19 crisis in a special forum. We put out a call to PRS advisors and SDC Members in April and May, receiving submissions in May and the first days of June 2020. Some of the pieces submitted addressed the essential dialogues emerging from the Black Lives Matter protests following the recent murders of Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, and George Floyd. Others were submitted before these deaths and adhered to the specifics of the original call, addressing subjects related specifically to COVID-19. Recognizing the profound import of this time, the need to respond to the national protests following George Floyd’s death, and the fact that issues surrounding the pandemic and racial justice and equity are related, SDC Journal extended to us in early June the offer they were making to authors in the larger issue—that we present forum contributors with the option to revise their pieces to address both issues. Some authors opted to leave their pieces as written, and others opted to revise, some substantially shifting the focus of their essays. The following forum is thus a reflection of a variety of factors—the historical and material circumstances contributing to this important and unprecedented moment of reckoning and change. The first three pieces were not edited in substantial content; the last two were. Whether the pieces deal primarily with the impact of the racial justice movement or innovations in response to COVID-19, or are a mix, we frame them as related. As Monica White Ndounou, Associate Professor of Theatre at Dartmouth College wrote on May 31 in an op-ed piece for The Burton Wire on the silence of white theatres on anti-Black violence at that time: “COVID-19’s destructive impact on the theater industry presents an opportunity to rebuild with greater equity and empathy in funding and operations.” The disruption required for public safety with the COVID-19 pandemic is time to pause—to stop, finally—to examine and dismantle the mechanisms informed by white supremacist culture that pervades academic and theatre production and training systems, as they do our culture. The intersection of these factors makes for a long needed, overdue opportunity to listen and learn, reform and innovate in work to build anti-racist practices of education and theatremaking. Days before we submitted this, Yale School of Drama announced that they would suspend their production season for 2020-21; Dean/Artistic Director James Bundy, Deputy Dean/Managing Director Victoria Nolan, Associate Dean Chantal Rodriguez, and Assistant Dean/General Manager Kelvin Dinkins, Jr, issued a statement: “The coronavirus pandemic demands of us that we slow down as never before, to care for our community while bringing our best selves to theater training. At the same time, the state of our nation and field calls us more urgently than ever to continuous work toward anti-racist pedagogy and practice, in order to prepare our graduates to lead in a more just and joyful profession for which we must altogether take responsibility now.” In this spirit, we offer the following essays from leading directors and educators around the country—looking to the prospect of building together a truly just and joyful future ahead. INTRODUCED + EDITED BY ANN M. SHANAHAN + EMILY A. ROLLIE
TIME FOR A BRAVE NEW THEATRE BY NICOLE HODGES PERSLEY, UNIVERSITY OF KANSAS
I learned how to be brave at my all-Black elementary school in Detroit in the late 1970s. My teachers were Black men and women who, as students, marched to get the Civil Rights Act passed in 1964. Just over ten years later, they dedicated their lives to teaching Black children like me how important we are to the American theatre. They taught us that as theatremakers, we could make the world a better place. This COVID-19 moment
SDC JOURNAL PEER-REVIEWED SECTION | FALL 2020
has me reflecting on the platform that theatre provides to rehearse opportunities for change. During this quarantine, I watched Black people around the country die at a disproportionate rate. I have also struggled through the rage, sadness, and hopelessness surrounding the deaths of Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, and George Floyd. As an African American woman who is a wife, sister, cousin, aunt, and friend to Black men, my heart breaks each time I face these atrocities. I wonder if my husband or my brother, my uncles, my cousins, or my friends will come home alive. How can young Black children imagine themselves as artists
or theatre practitioners watching news coverage of Black men and women murdered because they are Black? Why aren’t my colleagues in the theatre who want our plays and our “diversity” standing up and speaking up on their platforms? Is it fair that despite the sacrifices of my early teachers who marched to desegregate America, that the hope and dreams of many Black children and adults are still segregated today? Is it fair that my fellow white theatremakers across the nation have the luxury and privilege of being silent? Watching deaths by COVID-19 and anti-Black violence exhausts me. Asking for support exhausts me. Explaining why this is important exhausts me. It took me days to write this essay for SDC because I asked myself, what will come of writing? I love my colleagues and support freedom and justice quests equally. Black people and other people of color who read SDC Journal already know what we do every day to survive. So what about everyone else? “How long,” said U2, “how long must we sing this song?” The Black community is hurting. The New York Times may say that “Black Theatre is having a moment,” but our moment has always been. We don’t start to exist when predominantly white theatre publications say our art and our artists are worthy of mainstream consideration. Everyone should band together to demand equitable treatment and justice for people of color in and outside our theatres. It’s really simple. Just do the right thing. Stand up. My utopic vision of the post-COVID-19 theatre community has us back to business creating live performance that will help communities process and heal. Sure, we will social distance to protect ourselves and the community. For some of us, social distancing provides no guarantees. I invite accomplices who believe in social justice and human equality to stand with African Americans until the theatre experience and the justice system is equal for all. There is no just theatre without a free and just America. We will need everyone who believes in justice to lift their voices. In my utopia, our theatre community is free of racism. African American theatre artists have the liberty to dream and create without filters. We will have equal opportunities as actors, directors, choreographers, designers, technicians, and producers. We won’t have to explain why our shows often use different language, don’t always conform to Aristotelian formats or logic. We will not have to defend why representation is vital to understanding human interaction and feelings. We will never have Tonys, Oscars, Emmys “so white” ever again, because we will demand that everyone is seen, heard, and represented. Theatres will hire HBCU grads and autodidacts with the same frequency as they hire graduates from Yale and NYU. Theatre departments will understand that one person of color is not enough to represent a diversity of American experiences. Theatre history will be taught from intersectional standpoints. We will adjust rehearsal times to accommodate families, caregivers, varying mobilities, and incomes. Equity (AEA) will create sliding scale membership opportunities that consider how historically underrepresented groups gain access to professional industry experiences in theatre. LORT will help sponsor smaller theatres of color who survive on budgets under $100,000 a year. Off-Broadway, Broadway, and other large predominantly white theatres will not serve as the barometers that measure the worth of an artist or their potential. Other unions such as Directors Guild of America, Producers Guild of America, and Writers Guild of America will stop creating elitist and classicist road blocks to stop people of color from accessing membership to their organizations. Nepotism, sexism, and cronyism in
the entertainment industry at large will end. Women and non-binary people are paid equally to men without negotiation. We will pay actors, designers, and technicians living wages so they don’t have to live in poverty. Theatre diversity initiatives will not continue for years without holistic change. Search committees will not ask coded questions about “fit” for candidates of color in theatres, nonprofits, corporations, or universities. White fragility discussions and cultural fluency training will guide curriculum and season selection because programming a diverse selection of theatre demonstrates what democracy should look like. Efforts to increase fluency on white fragility and cultural literacy should also happen in higher education across the board from administration to classrooms. Artistic directors, directors, and professors in theatre training programs will facilitate and support safe choices for the actors, designers, and audiences without tasking a person of color to “explain” the plays or socio-cultural contexts when they select plays by artists of color. Ideally, SDC will offer more opportunities for directors of color to gain full Membership access to the Union through smaller regional productions. SDCF’s newly formed Lloyd Richards New Futures Residency for BIPOC directors is a step that gives me great hope. I am hopeful that a donor will see the brilliance of this program and sponsor a specific annual fellowship for individual racial and ethnic groups in the BIPOC configuration so that we do not have to compete against one another for such valuable opportunities. By creating this and other virtual mentorship programs, SDC and SDCF can increase the number of directors and choreographers of color and offer more opportunities for artists of the global majority to thrive by creating opportunities in the cities and theatres where BIPOC directors are working. Recognizing that systemic inequality exists within an organization is key to changing it. Revising existing organizational practices and programs to fit the needs of the communities that it wishes to serve facilitates broader opportunities that directly address the socio-historical, cultural, and economic experiences of artists of color who seek the industry legibility that results in career-changing opportunities. These are just a few of my utopic dreams that inspire me to keep making theatre even at times when I feel defeated. As we come together as a theatre community in this moment of great stress and anxiety, let us mourn the losses that occurred as a result of this pandemic and the anti-Black violence. If we want to be an intersectional and inclusive theatre community, both in professional practice and in higher education, we have to be brave. We have to stand for one another even when it is uncomfortable, inconvenient, and scary. We must seek resources to collectively decolonize acting, directing, and technical training programs in theatre so that every student feels represented and included. There is more than one way to act, direct, and design theatre. Our faculty and practitioners of color are not the sole people responsible for educating the next generation of theatre artists and scholars. Requiring training programs to not only include work by artists of color but also to educate themselves about responsible and inclusive training is vital. We’ve rehearsed this for a long time now. It’s time to play some actions and pursue some specific objectives. If not the theatre, where else can we model how to stand for one another? We must have hope that the 180,000 COVID-19 deaths (and rising) and the horrific murders of Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, and George Floyd are not in vain. The fights of my ancestors and former teachers to make this world better were worth it. We owe it to ourselves and to our children to realize these utopic dreams in all of our theatres today. The time is now. FALL 2020 | SDC JOURNAL PEER-REVIEWED SECTION
CONTEXT AND CREATIVITY
BY KEVIN ABBOTT + JOAN HERRINGTON, WESTERN MICHIGAN UNIVERSITY
In his address regarding the hiatus planned for the Guthrie, Artistic Director Joseph Haj argued that the experience of live theatre does not happen when we watch a virtual performance, noting that it requires a shared space/experience. He clearly defined a virtual performance as film and not theatre. But are the lines between film and theatre as clearly delineated as he sees them? Are there lines we as theatre artists cannot cross before we become filmmakers? Haj takes comfort in the knowledge that in the theatre what we are doing is the same thing we did 2,500 years ago (minus a bit of technology): presenting live performance to live audience. But is this the essential definition of the form we should share with our students? COVID-19 has forced all of us to reconsider what theatre might be, at least in the short term. In so doing, it may provide something we rarely get: not just a chance, but the requirement that we invent something new. For those of us in higher education, it is an extraordinary opportunity to explore this new territory in collaboration with Generation Z. Ruminating briefly on the premise that live performance presented virtually is “film,” one could note that the defining characteristic of a film is not so much that it was shot through a camera, but by the presence of a deliberate cinematic language. There are many instances where a camera is used in a non-cinematic way, such as with body or surveillance cameras, fixed interview cameras, or dashboard cameras. Even hand-held cell phone videos are at their simplest form devoid of film language—no cuts, close-ups, or crane shots, and most importantly, the absence of the camera as primary storytelling vehicle. All of these non-cinematic perspectives provide contexts in which an online drama might take place without becoming a film.
Webcams also fit this definition quite perfectly. Consider the Public Theater’s What Do We Need to Talk About?, which uses a family Zoom meeting as its context, completely removing cinematic language while providing a strong foundation for its reality. Recognizable to us all (including Ben Brantley) was its “theatrical impulse—to celebrate and capture a moment in real time as it passes….” While we have seen some instances of co-opting non-cinematic camera contexts for the purpose of making a film, for the most part, a camera that functions without cinematic intent creates a reality with a non-cinematic identity. Any context that does not express a filmmaker’s vision and instead places focus on the performers—and allows them to exert primary control over the scene and story—is arguably more theatrical than cinematic, and provides a context for theatre—even when mediated through technology—to exist. Of course, the piece that is missing is an audience in the same physical space as the performer. While we teach our students that this connection is vital, it also feels limiting to imply that with no live audience there is no theatre. Again, we return to the hierarchy of defining elements as we search for that magic. Perhaps it is the performer who needs to be live to differentiate the form? Can sharing a live performance with audiences who may not all be in the same space—but still are sharing the same experience—not inspire camaraderie? The simultaneous use of webcam and text or chat can, for example, be quite powerful and provides a potentially compelling way for audiences to connect with each other or even with the actors while witnessing a live performance. If our students are to create theatre that will engage audiences of their generation, they must embrace the language and cultural circumstance of their generation. Is this not theatre because our audience isn’t in a room with 100 or 500 other people? According to Peter Brook, “A man walks across this empty space whilst someone else is watching him, and this is all that is needed for an act of theatre to be engaged.” If the witness to that walk is watching on a computer, is it a film? Perhaps not. It is the immediacy, the simultaneity and the unfiltered quality of the moment when an actor makes a choice and it is shared with another human that perhaps most defines our form. Synchronous action and observance remain a signature element of theatre.
Jay O. Sanders, Maryann Plunkett, Sally Murphy, Laila Robins + Stephen Kunken (clockwise) in the livestreamed What Do We Need To Talk About?, written and directed by Richard Nelson PHOTO c/o The Public Theater
SDC JOURNAL PEER-REVIEWED SECTION | FALL 2020
Focus on the technical and artistic demarcation of what is and is not theatre dismisses the opportunity for young theatre artists to bring their boundless creativity to bear on the problem. Theatre artists are not just storytellers, they are the greatest of creative problem-solvers. We should not be surrendering our form to the virus and waiting for it to pass. Theatre artists should feel empowered—and perhaps even obligated—to find ways to make and share theatre. It is what our students will continue to do for years beyond this pandemic.
THEATRE SEASONS IN THE AGE OF COVID-19 BY RUTH PE PALILEO, COLLEGE OF SOUTHERN NEVADA
Greetings from Las Vegas where, up until the protests of George Floyd’s death began on May 30, the Strip has been shut down. No scantily clad street performers, no spectacular jets of water dancing to Pavarotti, and no theatre. Faced with this and other similar scenarios, directors are probably wondering what in our directing toolkits could possibly handle a pandemic. How about: (1) the ability to make lists, to organize ideas around a theme; (2) a sense of humor; and (3) hearts that seek to open up a text and share it with an audience. With these tools I came up with nearly thirty plays that we and our students could creatively engage with in the age of COVID-19: Plays about washing hands • Shakespeare’s Macbeth. Enough said. • Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice’s Jesus Christ Superstar with the song “Trial Before Pilate” being disrupted by the singing of the ABC song to show how long Pilate should wash his hands. • Quiara Alegría Hudes’s Water by the Spoonful, which (spoiler alert) ends with a scene of hand washing. Plays that are already masked • Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Phantom of the Opera, naturally. • Japanese Noh Theatre. Any Japanese Noh Theatre. • Commedia dell’arte. Any commedia dell’arte. Plays in which socially distant staging is built-in • Eugene Ionesco’s The Chairs has Old Man and Old Woman sheltering in place together for about 100 years, but the play’s absurdist staging makes it easy for a director to keep the other 30 characters apart from each other. • Thornton Wilder’s Our Town. Obvious, really. • Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream. The lovers and the faeries can easily run around after each other with six feet between them. Plays set in cars Think about it. You can put a windshield in front of the characters without breaking any theatrical illusion, and the audience will feel safer. • Alfred Uhry’s Driving Miss Daisy. • Will Kern’s Hellcab. • Alas, if only Andrew Lloyd Webber had written Cars instead of Cats, he would’ve won the trifecta. Perhaps each individual engine in Starlight Express could wear its own face shield. Now that would be really safe and look really cool. Plays about nostalgia for non-essential businesses • Robert Harling’s Steel Magnolias because it’s set in a beauty parlor. • Steve Martin’s Picasso at the Lapin Agile because it’s set in a cafe. • Roy Williams’s Sucker Punch because it’s set in a gym. Puppet plays The audience is more than six feet from the puppets. The puppets are more than six feet below the puppeteers. Puppets don’t breathe. Everybody can be wearing facemasks and gloves. Sometimes, the gloves are the puppets.
Plays about sheltering in place Post-quarantine, it will be cathartic to laugh or cry about the problems other people had being confined with those they love. These plays evoke both laughter and tears sometimes at the same moment. • Samuel Beckett’s Endgame, in which Hamm, Clov, Nagg, and Nell are confined to Hamm’s home. • Stewart Parker’s Pentecost, in which four people are trapped together in a Belfast working-class parlor-house while a workers’ strike ignites the city. • Vegas playwright Erica Griffin’s Kizzy in a Tizzy, in which Kizzy, imprisoned in her home by illness, enlists her girlfriend’s help in kidnapping the guy delivering their sandwiches. Plays that might be “too soon” • Naomi Wallace’s One Flea Spare, about the Bubonic plague. • Sarah Yuen and Jack Gilliat’s Echoes of Ebola. • Kevin Kerr’s In Unity, about the Spanish flu. Risky theatre in the age of COVID-19! • Henrik Ibsen’s An Enemy of the People: An entire town’s water supply is contaminated with a microorganism and nobody listens to the doctor who proves it. I couldn’t sit through rehearsals or performances of that without squirming right now. • Athol Fugard’s Master Harold and the Boys: The racially charged scene in which one character spits into another’s face would already be shocking to those with heightened droplet awareness (HDA). But after George Floyd? No way. • David Mamet’s Romance with the judge sneezing every few minutes. See previous entry re: HDA. Re-imagined Beckett (pending permission from the Beckett estate) • Not I : Lisa Dwan revisits her signature role as Mouth but wearing a medical mask designed by Ford Motor Company. • Come & Go : Three women sit close together on a park bench and whisper in each other’s ears. What director would dare put actors at such risk? But what if we put Flo, Vi, and Ru on three separate benches? • Breath : With pre-show assurances that no-one will be in danger of contracting a respiratory disease from the performance because the breath is a pre-recorded sound, the audience looks at the stage one person at a time. As we might remind our students and ourselves, there have always been plagues and there have always been plays. In the critical time when Ebola cases were diminishing in Sierra Leone, UNICEF turned to theatre to help stop resurgence of the disease. Susan Glaspell and her Provincetown Players survived the Spanish flu to premiere awardwinning plays by Edna St. Vincent Millay, Wallace Stevens, Eugene O’Neill, and Glaspell herself. Shakespeare wrote Romeo and Juliet in the year after the Bubonic plague shut down London for fourteen months. Hence the line, “A plague on both your houses.” Though these lists are tongue-in-cheek, I intend the idea to be a little contagious and perhaps a creative exercise for students. Go on—jot down a few seasons of your own!
FALL 2020 | SDC JOURNAL PEER-REVIEWED SECTION
A TIME FOR TELEPRESENCE BY ANNE FLIOTSOS, PURDUE UNIVERSITY
The global pandemic of COVID-19 has wreaked havoc with university theatre programs. My own experience has challenged me to think in new ways about our future pedagogy, particularly in terms of international programing and intercultural learning. In midMarch 2020, I was caught in the midst of the exploding pandemic just after my students performed at the RITU theatre festival in Liege, Belgium; on my journey home I saw hordes of study abroad students at the airports, trying to get home before flights were canceled or borders closed. Also at that time a student emailed me to say her study abroad trip to Japan was abruptly canceled. How she could fulfill credits in cross-cultural learning? Simultaneously, a colleague of mine had to cancel an international theatre collaboration with a university in Colombia. Within the span of just two days, I saw multiple crises erupt. With the uncertainty that the COVID-19 virus may reemerge and/ or mutate, what options remain for cross-cultural theatre exchange? Will we be limited to working with small groups and maintaining social distancing? While Zoom, Skype, and other platforms offer simple digital alternatives, they do not allow the staging and physical interaction that is so fundamental to our art form. Actors become talking heads rather than fully embodied, physically expressive characters. In addition, we miss sharing the live experience of theatre, the very essence that separates us from digital media. A more complex and nuanced performance alternative, blending live theatre with streaming technology, is immersive telepresence in theatre. My experience with Coventry University (UK) in May 2019 proved telepresence to be a valuable option for theatre artists who seek international collaboration in these volatile times. Telepresence theatre employs a telepresence system (such as Polycom) designed for joint business meetings and adapts the
system’s use in a theatrical environment to produce a hybrid theatre that is simultaneously live on one side of the screen and projected/ live-streamed on the other.1 Dr. Tom Gorman, Coventry University, first employed telepresence theatre in 2015-16 between Coventry and the University of Tampere in Finland (with colleagues Mikko Kanninen and Tiina Syrjä), to explore Shakespeare’s plays as a language-learning method.² Gorman was surprised that no one else had tried telepresence in rehearsal, though he quickly discovered the challenges involved, challenges he and his colleagues used as opportunities for collaborative problem-solving that involved their students. On his website, Gorman reports, “While providing students with opportunities to engage in intercultural collaborations and to develop valuable global attributes, the project promotes a more environmentally sustainable model, diminishing the need to move large groups of student actors across the globe for rehearsals, workshops, and even performances.”³ His telepresence projects have since earned three Gold Awards from the Reimagine Education Awards competition. Telepresence theatre requires specific equipment and performance parameters, presenting two initial obstacles: expense and space. Though daunting at first, once the initial equipment needs are met, the door opens to future connections across the globe, or even within different regions of our own nation. At Purdue University, we were able to borrow a Polycom system from an administrator in the dean’s office and purchase a high-quality projector and short throw lens with an internal grant from the College of Liberal Arts. In addition to the telepresence system and projector, we sorted out additional requirements, more easily within our grasp: • A large, standing screen, set flush to the floor • Speakers and a sound board (installed behind the screen) • Lighting focused upon the actors but not the screen • High speed internet portals • IT staff to lower firewalls and test the connection. The optimal performance space for telepresence is large enough to accommodate the actors, equipment, and a small group of spectators, but small enough for the telepresence microphone and speaker system to carry sound clearly.⁴ The illusion of sharing one space is best created when both rooms are similar— for example, if both are black-box or studio spaces. The telepresence system is placed at the center of the screen, on a music stand or other unobtrusive stand, and the floors are taped to show the actors when they are on or off camera. A “screen-in-screen” shot helps actors and director see the production from the opposite viewpoint, on the other side of the collaboration; although the “screen-in-screen” box can be removed in performance, it also gives the audience a rare glimpse of two simultaneous views of the same production, from very different perspectives.
Galileo (Matthew J. Duncan) makes an adamant point to Andrea, with screen-in-screen showing the view from the UK PHOTO Anne Fliotsos
SDC JOURNAL PEER-REVIEWED SECTION | FALL 2020
This mix of elements provides a fascinating laboratory for collaborative learning and experimentation. Unlike traditional camera work, the telepresence camera’s view is static; it focuses on anyone approaching or retreating from the center of the screen. In essence, the actor controls the shot through movement, giving
the performer agency in creating tight closeups or more distant panoramas. It is fascinating for directors and performers to play with juxtaposition of size, exposing its symbolic nature. For example, in our penultimate scene from Brecht’s The Life of Galileo, Andrea extended a hand to Galileo as a means of mending their rift. On our side of the screen, an enormous, projected hand extended to our (live) Galileo, a gesture that dwarfed his presence and spoke volumes through image alone. Unequivocally, interviews and surveys of the student participants in telepresence projects reveal a positive learning experience. Though often daunted or skeptical at first, they find the unique elements of the live-yet-projected medium Galileo (Matthew J. Duncan) portrays the earth as an apple, with different perspectives from each side of to be almost magical, and unlike traditional the telepresence rehearsal. PHOTO Anne Fliotsos + Tom Gorman stage or camera work alone. After a few days in joint group warm-ups in this As Brecht writes in A Short Organum for the Theatre, “Our own period, live/on-screen environment—playing which is transforming nature in so many and different ways, takes theatre games or sharing cultural traditions (e.g., a burlesque lesson pleasure in understanding things so that we can interfere” (193). from the USA)—students forgot about the technology and became Brecht’s words certainly resonate strongly in our current cultural immersed in the work, forming a relationship with the performers moment. Conditions are changing so rapidly that we are in constant on the other side. In the best circumstances, the collaboration goes “pivot” mode, improvising as we fight for racial justice in the midst of beyond the telepresence rehearsal, with student actors connecting a world pandemic. Telepresence theatre offers new opportunities to through Facebook, Adobe Connect, and/or Skype to work on lines, explore key relationships across both geographic and cultural borders. chat about their experiences, and form friendships. Students have Most importantly, it enables us to create joint devising projects. How even shared post-rehearsal outings and “virtual beer” at the pub. One can we, as artists, reconceive theatre for social justice as part of the notable outcome from students is learning about the differences in Black Lives Matter movement? How might we collaborate with other their educational systems and work cultures. In Gorman’s post-project groups to explore the intersection of our experiences and articulate a reflections with the Tampere, students realized they could forge future call to action? The possibilities are diverse and fascinating. projects from their international networking and that they had learned to think globally about their future prospects as theatremakers.⁵ At Purdue, our actors embraced the international aspect of the project as well. They prized telepresence theatre as a highly unique experience in collaborative production with mixed media. The actor playing Galileo found it gave him the freedom to experiment in new ways, finding the project “was among the best experiences of three years in graduate school.”
Feedback from anonymous audience surveys and talk-backs also revealed the audience’s enthusiasm for the originality of this hybrid event. An introductory theatre class at Purdue proclaimed the blend of live and digital media “cool” and wanted to see future projects. When running talk-backs after the performance, questions always started with the logistics of telepresence for the actors and directors before progressing to the socio-political implications of the play itself. Actors on both sides of the pond shared their insights into Brecht’s Life of Galileo based on the politics of their respective countries, with fascinating resonance. Immersive telepresence in theatre provides a wealth of unique opportunities for students, but it also presents a number of obstacles and limitations. One of the most obvious is the telepresence system itself, which was not created for performance. We frequently found the sound quality, coupled with students’ regional accents, made the text difficult to comprehend. In addition, the camera provides a blurry image if actors move too quickly, and the latency of sound and image traveling from one country to another is a challenge to work around. One of the biggest lessons learned was the need for more time, both for deeper study of the play and for rehearsal, preferably over the course of several months.⁶
1. The telepresence system must be the same type on both sides of the connection. Gorman’s recent experience with a Nimbra Media system (usually used for streaming television) was a vast improvement on Polycom, though more expensive and difficult to deal with technically. Gorman writes, “We used it for the motion capture performance between Miami and Tampere with spectacular results (you can have multiple streams). It has really taken off in the Nordic arts/education scene recently—we’ve become members of The Nordic Centre for Digital Presence (https://tnt.riksteatern. se/) since we purchased one. Here’s a map of who is using the equipment for arts and education: https://www.google.com/maps/d/viewer?mid=1_gb f208uQK6avaqSSlmShoNRwRxvGOIP&ll=61.81469693867244%2C12.029609749999963&z=4.” Email to author 17 Apr. 2020. 2. See also: Kanninen, Mikko, et al. “The Coriolanus Online Project.” 20th International Academic Mindtrek Conference, Tampere, Finland, 17 Oct. 2016. AcademicMindtrek ‘16, Proceedings of the 20th International Academic Mindtrek Conference. Association for Computing Machinery, 2016, pp. 45759. https://doi.org/10.1145/2994310.299435Th. Video: https://www.youtube. com/watch?v=8gjVlQcYjw8 3. Gorman’s initial telepresence work was for rehearsal only, with students traveling to each site for the live performance. For more on Gorman’s work, see http://telepresenceintheatre.coventry.domains/ 4. At Purdue, we could accommodate only thirty invited spectators, who were seated around the perimeter of the room in order to see both the screen and the actors. 5. Gorman, Tom. Immersive Telepresence in Theatre. “Interviews with Students.” http://telepresenceintheatre.coventry.domains/videos/students/ 6. With a five-hour difference between Indiana and the UK, as well as students leaving campus in May, we chose an intensive workshop of selected scenes, with two weeks of rehearsal and two performances. Both latency (delay in broadcast) and scheduling are more challenging as the number of miles between theatres increases.
FALL 2020 | SDC JOURNAL PEER-REVIEWED SECTION
THE EVOLUTION OF THEATRE IN THE TIME OF COVID-19 BY HENRY GODINEZ, NORTHWESTERN UNIVERSITY
In these times, it is important to remember that theatre has persevered for thousands of years, arguably through more frightening challenges than COVID-19 and in eras with far fewer technological advantages in medicine and communication. Storytelling has been an essential aspect of human society since our ancestors first had the impulse to contextualize their experiences, an instinctive need that will eventually find audiences and performers together again in theatre spaces now sitting dark and empty. While I miss the comfort of creating in state-of-the-art theatre spaces, I am weirdly excited by the innovative possibilities that our need to chronicle our current experiences will foster in us. When the current pandemic froze the majority of the world’s social mechanisms, the first thing Northwestern University did as an institution, quickly followed by us as a cohort of acting teachers, was to innovate and evolve. We had to reimagine teaching an art form grounded in sensory awareness, kinesthetic responses, and immediacy to a remote platform, so we adapted by learning every way to use Zoom to our advantage. Throughout the field, professional directors, actors, playwrights and producing organizations, did the same. The thought of living through these times without connection to our audiences was not an option. Not if our work was to continue to be relevant and necessary. Through virtual events, the streaming of past productions, and Zoom readings of new work, theatres fought to do what theatre has always done—survive. Then in 8 minutes and 46 seconds the world changed again as a second pandemic erupted, this one in the form of yet another brutal murder of a Black American at the hands of the police. This time, the fire sparked by the murder of George Floyd was different. For weeks, enraged Americans of all colors and ages have taken to the streets demanding change, and that uprising has reverberated
through every aspect of American society, including cultural institutions and universities. In the Department of Theatre at Northwestern, a vanguard of white students fiercely stood up for their Black classmates, criticizing what they saw as an exclusionary atmosphere rooted in the absence of Black representation in curriculums, programing, and faculty. Initial statements of solidarity with Black Lives Matter from schools and departments were perceived to be insufficient and quickly rebuked by white and BIPOC students, demanding instead genuine commitments with actionable steps forward. That same uprising was mirrored throughout the Chicago theatre scene. Already last in line to come back as the economy reopens, theatre both in the field and the academy must now profoundly reevaluate how we do what we do and who we do it with. In form, theatre may find itself for the immediate future looking to the distant past for its resurgence: utilizing open spaces, solo performers, and texts that speak to civic conversations. Design elements may become less dependent on technology and more site specific. The most exciting possibility, however, will be the need to reconnect with audiences on their terms. Communities long marginalized, disenfranchised, or intimidated by large centralized theatrical venues may find themselves witnessing stories from their front porches, public squares, or city parks. Until audiences feel safe in returning to traditional theatres, true community partnerships with churches, businesses, and governments will be absolutely essential to establish acceptable performance spaces and engage in authentic inclusiveness. Maybe this will even lead to borrowing from that most American of cinematic originals, the drive-in movie theatre. Only instead of a screen, there will be a scrim. When and how this will happen, no one at this point truly knows. What is certain is that in order to be relevant, the theatre’s traditional ability to innovate and evolve must go further than it ever has before. On every level, and in every way.
José Rivera (center) joined Henry Godinez’s Northwestern acting students on Zoom for their final performances of monologues from his play Sonnets for an Old Century PHOTO c/o Henry Godinez
SDC JOURNAL PEER-REVIEWED SECTION | FALL 2020
Northwestern student Kandace Mack performs her final monologue for Henry Godinez’s acting class, shared by video
SPECIAL ISSUE PEER-REVIEWED SECTION ESSAY The significant intersections of the global reckoning around racial injustice, a pandemic, and an economic crisis have offered a powerful opportunity to critically examine artistic practices and philosophies, particularly as directors. The following essay written by Megan SandbergZakian, and included in this issue’s expanded Peer-Reviewed Section, embodies just such a critical and honest examination. Rather than a stand-alone, peer-reviewed essay, this is an excerpt reprinted with permission from a larger work: Megan Sandberg-Zakian’s book, There Must Be Happy Endings: On a Theatre of Optimism and Honesty (The 3rd Thing, 2020). This excerpt is particularly timely in its poetic discussion of the director’s role in “holding space” for the truth of the play and actively cultivating compassion amid the violence that is necessary—albeit challenging—in the creative process. Sandberg-Zakian draws on and echoes directors such as Anne Bogart, who position the director’s role and craft within larger poetic and philosophical frameworks that evolve from critically reflective artistic practices, and asks directors and choreographers, educators and scholar-artists, to take this moment to think more deeply about the work, why do it, and how this moment offers new tools for doing so. INTRODUCED + EDITED BY EMILY A. ROLLIE + ANN M. SHANAHAN
A LAMP, A BRIDGE, A SHIP BY MEGAN SANDBERG-ZAKIAN
I heard once that the Dalai Lama starts every day with the same prayer. A few lines of it persistently return to me, the way poems do: in pieces, imperfectly remembered. “Let me be a lamp in the darkness, a bridge for those with rivers to cross, a ship for those with oceans to cross.” As I step into the darkened pre-tech theatre and swing my backpack down, these lines repeat in my mind. The lighting and sound designers are typing behind consoles, speaking into headsets. Young people with tools clinking on their belts adjust things in the ceiling and the floor and the walls. There is painting, drilling, sweeping; with a moment of warning (“Going dark!” “Sound in the house!”), light and sound charge across the space. Every time, I’m humbled by the number of people who work together to make a play. I want to guide them with kindness and grace. I want to move with the conviction that this story matters, to ensure that everyone in the room feels welcomed and part of something. I know that the tone of my voice or the tilt of my head has the power to shift everyone’s energy, for better or for worse. It’s just a play, of course. But almost every time, it happens: The play is about the aftermath of a suicide. Several members of our cast and crew have recently lost someone in that way. The play is about a woman trying to escape her abusive marriage and save her child. One of the actors has the same story in their family; their mother was that mother, and ran to save them. The play includes a miscarriage. One of the actors has recently had a miscarriage, although she won’t speak about it in the rehearsal room. Only I know. So, from first rehearsal to opening night, I need to be able to hold the space for this work to be both craft and truth, for it to go far enough but not too far. It’s a tender kind of intuition that tells me when to stop the rehearsal and gather in a cross-legged circle on the floor. Equally tender is the instinct for when I must push us forward. I have to
breathe into a deep place of compassion, of complete attention, and also hold the frame. They are relying on me for this. Without the frame of task—in the next two hours, we have to perfect this card-playing sequence in the second act—we would spiral into the raw space of unbounded feeling. The structure of task makes the work possible; the compassionate container keeps it safe. * * * There are some things I remember learning how to do, that I still do exactly the same way, just as I was taught. How to cut an avocado— halving it lengthwise, then striking the edge of a large knife into the exposed seed to lift it out—which my brother learned in a cooking class and then passed on to me. How to beat an egg into hot soup without curdling it—by stirring a cup of hot broth slowly, by teaspoonfuls, into the small bowl with the beaten egg—learned at a young age from my mother since it was a key step in Armenian-style chicken soup, which I ate whenever I was ill. I don’t remember, though, anyone teaching me how to direct a play. I learned pieces from various places—from my dad, from Peter Brook’s The Empty Space, and from Lowry Marshall, the college acting teacher who was the first person to suggest I might be a director and who gave me a cryptic but useful piece of theatrical advice I’ve never forgotten: “God hates transitions” (best said in Lowry’s North Carolina drawl). When I was in college and in my early years in the professional world, I’d never read a book about directing written by a female director. There were books on acting by Stella Adler and Uta Hagen, and Viola Spolin’s wonderful book on improvisation, but these didn’t speak to the questions I didn’t even know then that I had—how to lead a process, how to hold a generative container with grace and authority. By the time I was in grad school, a few of Anne Bogart’s books were available and I read them voraciously. One particular idea of hers stuck in my mind: that the director is the person who can tolerate uncertainty the longest of anyone else in the room. I always remembered this, and I shaped my idea of myself as a director in its image—cultivating a grounded, calm demeanor and a gentle energy, practicing holding space for whatever might emerge. FALL 2020 | SDC JOURNAL PEER-REVIEWED SECTION
FIG. 1. Phillip James Brannon in Nat Turner in Jerusalem at New York Theatre Workshop PHOTO Joan Marcus
When I went back to Bogart’s books while writing this essay, to find the line I’d been quoting, I found that Bogart herself was quoting someone else—the playwright Charles Mee. Mee’s definition of a director, Bogart writes, is “the person in the room who can maintain the anxiety of possibility and uncertainty the longest” (2007, 57). It turns out that she was using Mee’s concept as a foil. Bogart herself writes more often of precision, of articulation, of the director’s role in perpetrating “the necessary cruelty of decision” (2001, 44). Art, she says, is violent because it makes choices: To be decisive is violent....To place a chair at a particular angle on the stage destroys every other possible choice, every other option. When an actor achieves a spontaneous, intuitive, or passionate moment in rehearsal, the director utters the fateful words ‘keep it,’ eliminating all other potential solutions....But, deep down, the actor also knows that improvisation is not yet art. Only when something has been decided can the work really begin. (2001, 45) I love both Bogart’s and Mee’s way of describing the work of directing. It strikes me, though, that for all these years I’d held onto the part about possibility and uncertainty, while allowing violence and cruelty to lapse out of sight. In my field of vision: the part of my job that was open, spacious. Just outside of it: the part that was ruthless.
SDC JOURNAL PEER-REVIEWED SECTION | FALL 2020
In “The High Tide of Heartbreak,” 1 playwright Quiara Alegría Hudes asks, “Has theatre wounded me as much as or more than it’s healed me?” (98). Hudes described the suffering she’d experienced over the course of her career, the harm that the toxins of white supremacy and patriarchy were able to do to her through the workings of the American theatre, even as an artist seemingly anointed by the establishment, who’d been awarded both the Tony and the Pulitzer before the age of 40. She reflected on the loving labor of crafting working class Puerto Rican characters inspired by her family, and wondered if putting them onstage for a majority white audience was the equivalent of cultural tourism, rendering their culture exotic and their poverty monstrous. She asked, “Is honesty, which I strive for, also a form of violence?”(99). Reading, I felt a stomach-sinking wave of recognition. Hudes said publicly what I’d heard whispered in lobbies and bars and the back row of conference sessions for years—that the work is not worth the wound. These whispers are often from those of us—like me, like Hudes—who are most vulnerable to the harm of theatre-making precisely because we are most in need of its benefits. Artists who are female, of color, or queer, or immigrants, who are Deaf or autistic or use a wheelchair, who don’t live in a major city and didn’t go to a fancy school, who are fat, who identify outside of the gender binary—
we are hungry for spaces of empathy and imagination, we long for images that include us, to see that our stories belong here too. But the balance had tipped for Hudes: the harm outweighed the good. She was stepping away. I have not stepped away; this is still what I do. I want to insist that it is possible to make truthful and ethical performance. I am also mindful of what I learned and then forgot and then relearned from Anne Bogart—that violence is necessary to make art. But there’s a critical distinction between violence and harm. Violence is forceful. It can be destructive, yes—but it can also be generative. A roadblock can be exploded to allow free passage. A text or an idea can be cleaved apart, so that parts of it can be used differently from the whole. A person can erupt verbally, even physically, to communicate what would otherwise remain unsaid. A gesture, no matter how beautiful, violates stillness. A song destroys silence, no matter how gently it is sung. As a director, then, I must be willing to embrace violence as a quality of creativity, but I do not have to accept harm as a consequence. Violence doesn’t necessarily have an object, but harm always does. Harm, however, is not always easy to identify. It is often imperceptible, invisible to the eye and ear and hand, sometimes undetectable at first even to its victim. It may hide for awhile, like some kind of moral parasite, waiting until well after exposure to show its symptoms. As a regular part of my job, I ask performers to act and reenact scenes of trauma, as victims and perpetrators. I ask designers and dramaturgs to read and view research about the most horrifying extremes of human behavior. I ask assistants and interns—often very young people, high school or college age—to organize and interpret this research. I ask artists to create objects, clothing, and scenic environments that bring these traumatic events into physical life. So, as I make theatre, how do I gauge what is a necessary violence, and what, in fact, is harm? In ancient Rome, the Emperor had a taster—called a Praegustator— responsible for tasting food before it was served to ensure it was safe. I think part of good directing is to take up this Praegustator role; it makes sense not to ask anyone else to consume what I haven’t tried myself. Sometimes this is a matter of practical safety—I’ve climbed into high places, hoisted pulleys and carried heavy objects, to make sure these felt safe for actors and crew—and sometimes it’s a more psychological sharing. I’ll taste things in my mind: how would I feel wearing that costume in front of 300 people? How many times in a row could I rehearse this scene, before it became too painful to hear that word yelled at me one more time? I am not trying to predict my collaborators’ responses, but to fully feel my own. Taking up Praegustator role is a public demonstration of my awakeness to the possibility of harm, and this in itself is beneficial. Making a point of looking for potentially harmful things shows that I care about the effect of the work on my collaborators. By acknowledging that harm can emerge in any process, that no one needs to be blamed or punished for it, but that it must be identified and remedied, I foster a sense that concern for well-being can be a collective endeavor. This may lend some reassurance to those individuals who have felt habitually disregarded, who have been made to feel that their harm is incidental to the process of theatre-making; it may support them to engage in the process honestly and not defensively, giving them the space to tolerate a wider range of experience and thus, I think, reducing the scope of what might potentially feel—and be—harmful. When I was working on the world premiere of Nat Turner in Jerusalem at New York Theatre Workshop, Nathan Alan Davis’s beautiful script called for the actor playing Turner to have his hands and feet shackled
through most of the play, which took place in a Virginia jail cell the night before Turner’s execution. The research on what these shackles should look like, and the decision of which shackles to purchase, the act of exchanging money for these objects, was incredibly disturbing. I remember getting nauseous looking at the links the designer sent me to choose from. When I spoke to my response, the designer, relieved, revealed that she too had been having trouble viewing the images. We had an emotional conversation about our responses, allowing that this decision—ostensibly a technical one—had a weight far beyond the aesthetic. The shackles we ended up purchasing were real objects, not replicas; they arrived in a package from eBay. I don’t know where they’d been or what they’d seen, but holding them in my hands, I could feel their dark history. I remember bringing them into our sunny rehearsal room before the actors arrived. I asked the props designer to put the shackles on my hands and feet. I stood in the rehearsal room wearing them. They were cold and heavy. I took a few steps. It was exhausting, humiliating. Tears filled my eyes. I described how it felt to wear the shackles. The designer described how it felt to put them on me. Also present was my assistant, the stage management team, and the fight choreographer. I reminded them that the only Black actor in the room would be wearing these for hours of rehearsal, and that they would need to be fastened onto his hands and feet by non-Black production assistants. We discussed a protocol for using the shackles in rehearsal. The production assistant would offer the actor a chair, verbally ask if he was ready, and then kneel respectfully to shackle or unshackle the actor. No other work would be done while the actor was being shackled or unshackled, nor could anyone begin their break. This created a kind of sacred, focused hush in the room during the minute or so it took to perform the task. The actor, Phillip James Brannon, gave an incendiary performance in that production. He told me once that he liked putting the shackles on because it was truthful, and he likes the truth. I am certain it took a toll for Phillip to rehearse and perform this role, but I think we managed to avoid a massive dose of unnecessary harm to him by sharing the weight and the truth of those shackles across the company. What’s more, our process allowed the designers and the stage management team, who are often asked to perform a kind of technically proficient emotional disinterest, to be present with their own truthful response to the material, avoiding the harm that could have accrued to those artists in the absence of such permission. The Praegustator system isn’t perfect. There is, of course, the problem of the Praegustator’s own safety. Knowing my own limits in this role, caring for myself so that I might care for others, is consistently the most difficult part. And there are always moments of failure. Emperor Claudius was killed by poison in AD 54 even though all his food was tasted by a eunuch named Halotus—who was suspected in Claudius’ murder but somehow managed to keep his job for two more emperors. My failures as Praegustator fortunately haven’t been as spectacular as his. I think most have stemmed from failure to pay sufficient attention to my own response to something. The system doesn’t work if you feel a slight twinge in your stomach and you ignore it. Then you’re at risk of poisoning a whole room full of people. * * * As the daughter of an Armenian mother and a Jewish father, I grew up expecting that stories related to my cultural heritage would be violent. I became habituated to tales of terrorism and genocide, told and retold at a fever pitch, full of horror and grief and fury. Most of these tellings had what educator and theatre-maker Julie Salverson calls “an aesthetic of injury,” where we are asked to gaze on “deliberately tragic” (122) characters and situations with intense sympathy—‘Oh my FALL 2020 | SDC JOURNAL PEER-REVIEWED SECTION
FIG. 2. A recent workshop of Zabel in Exile by R. N. Sandberg, a new play based on the life and work of Armenian writer and activist Zabel Yessayan, at Merrimack Repertory Theatre PHOTO Meghan Moore
god, isn’t that terrible? That is so sad.’ As awful as the stories were, the aesthetic of injury provided a kind of pleasure—a reliable feeling of teary tragedy, like settling into a familiar armchair. Bertolt Brecht wrote about this kind of pleasure as “culinary”—the pleasure we derive from art that we consume rather than consider, ingest rather than analyze. In Brecht’s view, this style of theatre exploits the spectators’ most easily accessed emotions. If actors “go into a trance and take the audience with them,” both artists and audiences are filled up with generalized but powerful emotion—“like some erotic process” where “the element of terror necessary to all recognition is lacking” (29). In contrast, the most powerful depiction of the Armenian genocide I’ve seen was an excerpt of a reading of a new play. Though the details of the plot are now fuzzy in my mind, I can feel the impact of the performance as if it were yesterday. I think the Armenian protagonist was living in Beirut in the 1970’s, when Lebanon’s civil war brought back a flood of old memories of the genocide her family had fled Turkey to escape 60 years earlier. The reading was presented simply, with the cast seated at music stands. The cast was made up of all women, clearly of diverse ethnicities, none of whom were Armenian or even Middle Eastern. They spoke simply, without hesitation and without tears, making eye contact with the audience, describing terrible events with an honesty and directness that was disarming and devastating. Though I no longer remember the name of the play or the writer, I will never forget this performance. Through the voices of Asian, African and Latina women, accented with their native languages, using an
SDC JOURNAL PEER-REVIEWED SECTION | FALL 2020
unadorned, emotionally restrained performance style, I was able to hear old stories as if they were brand new. In my previous encounters with stories like this, the telling had been so soaked in pain that it was hard for me to find my own feelings. In this telling, the violence of the historical events was spacious enough that I could locate my reaction and, indeed, myself. This version of the story began to liberate me from the harm of the “culinary” tellings—which, by separating me from a more complete, more honest response, had actually interrupted my ability to feel myself in relationship to, and thus to metabolize and reckon with, historical and ancestral trauma. This was a powerful lesson for me as a maker: the revelation that an effusively emotional telling of traumatic events could actually be less evocative and therefore more harmful to an audience than a more restrained one. Brecht writes that the most powerful performance is one which allows the audience to recognize the themes and characters, while at the same time making them seem unfamiliar. To do this, he instructs, performers should not focus on feeling and transmitting the emotional content of the material (after all, “has one the right to offer others a dish one has already eaten?”), but should strive to be completely physically present onstage in their body while speaking. The actor “must not only sing but show a man singing” (45). When I worked with playwright Lydia Diamond on her play Harriet Jacobs at Central Square Theater in Cambridge, one of the first things she said to me was that the text should be performed with “no rage and no pity.” Diamond’s play included direct address monologues where characters described their lives as enslaved persons on a North Carolina plantation. As in Jacobs’ autobiography on which the play
was based, the details the characters were sharing were grim, and sometimes graphic; “no rage no pity” reminded me that there was a difference between what the characters were immediately expressing, and a larger, external judgment about their circumstances. It didn’t mean that the characters did not ever have feelings of anger or sadness. It meant that as artists our perspective on the characters could not be one of “feeling angry for” or “feeling sorry for.” To speak and to hear traumatic testimony over and over is painful. It is tempting to turn off, to not feel. It is equally tempting to give into the feeling, to be taken over by it. To be present to the full spectrum of responses that arise in us and to still make sure the text is fully heard, to be direct without being detached—this is the challenge for both actor and director. In most cases, in Harriet Jacobs, the monologues were simple reportage. They needed to be delivered clearly and unsentimentally. This isn’t to say that the characters or the actors couldn’t feel and show emotion, but they couldn’t be flooded by it. Lydia told me about a time that she had gone to see a play about slavery at a regional theatre, a beautiful production of a nuanced script, with very talented actors, but where “no rage, no pity” was not the prevailing tone of the performances. There were skilled, virtuosic performances, but in the service of a familiar, sentimental version of Black life. The audience leapt to their feet afterwards. “All those white people standing up like, ‘oh my god, slavery was so bad! It really was so terribly bad!’ and clapping and crying,” Lydia observed. “Those actors thought they got a standing ovation, but it was really a standing slavation.”
In this kind of performance, either the performer is feeling so much that there is little room left for the audience to feel, or the performance is aimed so intently at one particular response that we end up in tears—and on our feet, clapping—without fully understanding why. The most significant risk, and the one that makes this kind of performance potentially harmful, is that in a performance fueled by rage and pity, emotionality encourages the audience to disconnect, to see the trauma onstage as happening to a distant other, rather than as produced by a damaging system in which we all participate. Jung wrote that sentimentality is the superstructure erected on brutality—the pretty facade that hides the ugly thing from view. A sentimental performance conceals the brutality of the system. In addition to the risk to the audience, there’s also a risk to the performer—especially performers who, like the actors in Harriet Jacobs, share an aspect of traumatic history with the characters they portray. An artist can come to believe and repeat the insufficient representation. Gayle Pemberton writes about the particular risk that African American performing artists face in relationship to [W.E.B.] Du Bois’ double-consciousness. In an essay called “O Porgy! O Bess!” Pemberton wrestles with her own conflicted love for the classic “folk opera” written by two Jewish men, struggling with how Black artists might approach the singing of a work that presents a reductive, sentimental portrait of Black experience. Black performers, she writes, “run the risk of sentimentalizing their own lives by internalizing the white response to the sentimental presentation of Black life” (227).
FIG. 3. Kami Smith and Raidge in Harriet Jacobs at Underground Railway Theater PHOTO Elizabeth Stewart FALL 2020 | SDC JOURNAL PEER-REVIEWED SECTION
FIG. 4. Megan Sandberg-Zakian (second from left) with the cast of Bright Half Life at Actors Shakespeare Project PHOTO Nile Scott Studios
The production of double consciousness is so successful, Pemberton observes, that when asked to portray the truth of their own experience, Black artists may offer up a broad, stereotypical, sentimental rendition, that actually feels truthful to them. Black artists attempting to perform a nuanced and truthful portrait of Black life are up against a particular artistic version of double-consciousness, amplified and reaffirmed by actor training, audience responses, and decades of American popular art. The artist must first battle her own internalized double-bind, fighting to access an un-veiled truth within, and then must somehow perform that truth in a way that can transcend the gaze of an American audience, practiced in Du Bois’ “amused contempt and self-pity,” to reach together for something less familiar (231). Pemberton writes that such transcendence is possible only through the act of “good singing”—by which she meant the kind of virtuosic performance given by Leontyne Price on her favorite Porgy and Bess recording. The quality of the singing must be excellent for a transcendent performance to occur, but the skill of the singer by no means guarantees it. Perhaps it needs a marriage of Pemberton’s “good singing” with Brecht’s “not only sing, but show a man singing,” avoiding Salverson’s “aesthetic of injury” and leaning into Diamond’s “no rage, no pity.” Harriet Jacobs was performed by an ensemble of Black actors playing both Black and white characters in Jacobs’ life. When an actor transformed from a Black character to a white one, he or she donned a pair of white gloves. In the moment of transformation, the actor stood, holding the glove, grounded in Blackness, looking out at the audience, fully present and aware. They held the glove, looked at it, saw it clearly, and breathed into the gesture, showing us the feeling of their hand entering the glove, and then exhaling into a transformation, a new character, a different body. It was a simple gesture, it did not
SDC JOURNAL PEER-REVIEWED SECTION | FALL 2020
stop or even really pause the storytelling, but it did show the seams. The gesture in itself was a standing-next-to; it made visible not only the transformation from one character to another, but the act of performance itself. It flagged for the audience, “Here a choice has been made. We have thought about what it means for this actor to transform into these characters.” This kind of triply-aware performance has the potential not only to avoid harming artists and audiences, but, perhaps to do even more— to provide a healing reckoning. It can gift us a direct encounter with our relationship to traumatic histories, to suffering and the memory of suffering. * * * Shortly after we got engaged, my now-wife asked me, “Why do you direct so many plays about the Black experience?” The first time Candice asked this question, I talked about working at a Black theatre, how that had informed my aesthetic and connected me to a group of collaborators. As an American, I said, I felt a responsibility to grapple with the legacy of slavery, with the foundational assumption of white supremacy—which caused my immigrant ancestors to labor to be perceived as white, to both tacitly and explicitly denigrate Blackness, so that they might receive the benefits rather than suffer the injuries of an oppressive system. And I believed in MLK’s interrelated structure of reality—what effects some of us effects all of us. The second time she asked, I was defensive. I might have said something like, “I told you already!” I might have repeated my previous answers, the tone of my voice rising slightly.
My answers were true, but they were incomplete. She asked again. My wife is an African American woman and a psychologist. She is not one to settle for an incomplete answer. “What are you getting out of it?,” Candice asked. “What about Armenian and Jewish stories? Are you sad you haven’t gotten to direct plays about your own experience?” I stopped. Maybe some of the tension dropped from my shoulders. Yes, I said. I was frustrated and sad that I so rarely got the opportunity to work on plays connected to either side of my heritage. And in terms of my mixed ethnic identity—forget about it. It was also true that I compulsively returned to African American plays; I found my own emotions most accessible in relationship to those stories. I was able to access rage, grief, pain—once removed. Candice kept repeating and deepening her question because she could see that I was engaged in a kind of appropriative practice. I was practicing being in relationship to histories of trauma, I was leaning on Harriet Jacobs and Lydia Diamond and Nathan Alan Davis to rehearse the possibility of encounter. But it was more than that. My leaning had the effect of collapsing those individual Black people and their real experiences into a conceptual “Blackness.” I could use this concept, the “Black experience,” as a kind of historical trauma shorthand for oppression, persecution, dehumanization. This use of a Blackness as symbol of trauma is common in the United States, but is not unique. One closeto-home example: of the small number of plays by Middle Eastern writers currently being produced at major theatres in the US, many take as their subject the trauma of Muslim characters, but are written by playwrights who are not themselves Muslim—a similar kind of leaning and collapsing, and perhaps a similar kind of avoidance. My proximity to someone else’s stories of trauma let me stand on the banks of my own traumatic history without plunging in, without abandoning myself to a current that, I feared, might pull me under. “Blackness” seemed to offer a lamp, a bridge, a ship—a way for me to encounter the waters, a structure or a vessel that might be able to take me to a place I longed and feared to go. I was standing there open handed, with deep compassion, with honest attention, with respect and humility. But because I hadn’t fully understood why I was there, what I had come for, I might have caused—I probably did cause—harm. Nothing—no one—else could light my way or carry me across this water. I had to do it myself. I read the above passage to Candice. She said, “You aren’t standing on the banks of the river. That’s an illusion.” I looked at her blankly. “You sound like a damsel in distress,” she said. “Like a blond girl in a white dress, standing so innocently, so tentatively on the banks of the river, trying not to get hurt, trying not to feel any pain, waiting for a strong Black man to come and carry you across, like ‘It’s alright, missy, I know these here waters. You’ll be safe with me.’” “Yeah,” I said. “I think that’s kind of what I’m saying.” “But it’s an illusion,” she said, sitting up and leaning forward, “being on the bank is an illusion.” “Oh,” I said. “I’m already in the water?” “You’re already in the water,” she said, “and you’re not an innocent girl in a white dress. You’re covered in blood. You’ve been beat to shit. And you’ve had to fight and claw and struggle to survive.”
“And now I’m desperate, and I’m clinging to the raft of ‘Blackness’ because I’m drowning.” “You’re clinging to it to avoid your own pain. You feel like you’re drowning, not only in the trauma of your own heritage, but in the mystery of it—the distant intellectual knowing, the secrets, the way it hasn’t been told. The specific trauma of Black people is on display in a concrete, real way every day in this country and that becomes something you can grab onto.” “So the river is not only my own trauma but the ways I’m cut off from that,” I said, my chest tight, my underarms clammy, “and I think the raft is a vehicle to myself.” “Yes,” my wife said, and then paused, looking hard at me, “But what you think is a raft is actually a person, floating near you in this trauma river, and in your attempt to save yourself, you’re pushing them down.” I picture my battered, drowning body. I picture the tangled history inside it. It holds a people whose Christian identity made them the targets of an ethnic cleansing at the hands of Muslims, and a people whose Jewish identity made them the targets of an ethnic cleansing at the hands of Christians, who have now gone on to severely restrict and violate the human rights of Muslims and others, including Christian Armenians, in Israel. I can feel the legacies of genocide, the harm of denial and erasure. I become aware that these things are, in this moment, painful to me. And they still feel mysterious, slightly out of reach. And that is painful too. I understand that these feelings will never be simple or clear, they will never be fully unpacked. Maybe the best I can hope for is to make as much of myself as possible available to be looked at, to be heard. Maybe in that availability, I find myself floating. I look to my right, and to my left. I see that there are so many other people floating in this river with me. * * * In my favorite passage of The Life of the Drama, Eric Bentley discusses why, and when, we feel we have had a “momentous experience” in the theatre. Some of it, he says, has to do with our emotional experience, with what we feel the “import” of the play to be. Then: If part of this conviction derives from what the play means, another part derives from the mere fact that it means. Meaningfulness is in itself momentous for human beings, as they discover, a contrario, whenever life has no meaning for them. All art serves as a lifebelt to rescue us from the ocean of meaninglessness—an extraordinary service to perform. (147) I both love and doubt this final sentence. I love the image—a play, like a kind of art-tether, belting us to a sense of meaning, even as we are tossed by the waves of meaninglessness. (It took me years to look up “lifebelt” and find out it was just a British way of saying “life preserver.”) And I doubt whether it can be true. Is it possible that all art—really, all of it?—can perform this crucial rescue? What if it is bad art? What if it is harmful art? I keep returning to this question in my mind. I don’t know the answer. I do know that, over and over again, I have turned to a play to help me make sense of the world. When we make a play—actor, director, designer, stage manager— we find ourselves in its suffering and in its joy. It’s one of the most compelling reasons to continue to make theatre—the constant empathetic exercise. Over and over, we take up somebody else’s story and we find ourselves in it.
FALL 2020 | SDC JOURNAL PEER-REVIEWED SECTION
This is inevitable, and it is beautiful. And it can also, sometimes, be harmful. Sometimes the very power of our empathetic relating risks doing harm to the story’s subject—Hudes’ Puerto Rican characters, Harriet Jacobs, Armenians in Beirut—by collapsing it, overpowering it, fetishizing it. Sometimes, too, we risk doing harm to ourselves, because this empathetic response may be an elision of our own history. In the middle of the process, how do we determine when we are in the midst of an intolerable harm, and when the work is a necessary violence? I’m not sure there is any way to know with certainty, but I do know this is the kind of virtuosity I strive for, and that it is my work to hold the space so that my collaborators can strive for it, too—the good singing that makes us all more present. Candice and I got married in Provincetown, in a ceremony that began with us jumping the broom—a ritual calling back to vows made in the slave quarters, and a reminder that not so long ago our inter-racial, same gender union would not have been legally sanctioned. Then my cousin sang the Hayr Mer—the Lord’s Prayer in Armenian. After our vows, Candice’s friend Drey stepped forward with a glass wrapped in a napkin. “It is a Jewish custom to end the wedding ceremony with the breaking of a glass,” he said. “Some say that the breaking of the glass reminds us that life is so fragile that the couple should enjoy every day as if it were their last together. The breaking of the glass also serves as a reminder of the destruction and oppression that was experienced by your Jewish, African, African-American and Armenian ancestors, and that so many people still experience today. Even in a moment of such great joy, we are asked to remember that there is pain and suffering in the world and that we have a responsibility to turn towards it, acknowledge it and do our best to be present with it.” We held hands and crushed the glass under our heels; everyone yelled “Mazel tov!” and we danced out to Stevie Wonder. The next day, as we watched the September sun set over Cape Cod Bay as a married couple, Candice recalled the words her father had spoken in our ceremony. He said that he was thinking about his grandmother, Big Mama, who was born just after the end of slavery. He thought she’d be happy on our wedding day. “You two are the future of love,” he’d said. Candice told me that she thought some of the work we were doing together—the hard work of coming to understand each other and ourselves, reckoning with the legacy of slavery and white supremacy and class disparity and immigration and genocide and the construction of gender and the failure of intersectional feminism and whatever else— the weaving and unraveling of all of that between two human beings— was bigger than us. “We are doing this work on behalf of the collective,” she said. “We are carrying a part of the labor of this country, the hard work that needs to be done, here, between us.” * * * Sometimes it happens this way too: the play is about falling in love, and the actors are themselves falling in love. The play is about becoming an adult, stepping into a new space of responsibility, and it teaches the actor how to do that. The play is about coming out to your parents, and one of the actors comes out to their mother when she comes to see the show. The mother loves the show, and she loves her kid. The play has changed something forever in their lives. Making theatre changes me. By fighting to hold a space of truth and honesty, it makes me more myself. Through striving to hold a compassionate container, it asks me to be more present in the world, to share more of myself than I otherwise might. It makes me more alive in the world and more alive to the world. It is the way I craft living meaning in this disintegrating universe. The vessel, the free passage, the light.
SDC JOURNAL PEER-REVIEWED SECTION | FALL 2020
1. This is a portion of a keynote address Hudes gave jointly with her sister Gabriela Sanchez for the 2018 ATHE Conference, published as an essay in American Theatre. The full keynote including both sisters’ talks is published in Theatre Topics, 29.1, March 2019, pp.1-13. WORKS CITED
Bentley, Eric. The Life of the Drama. Applause Theatre Books, 1964. Bogart, Anne. And Then, You Act: Making Art in an Unpredictable World. Routledge, 2007. -----. A Director Prepares: Seven Essays on Art and Theatre. Routledge, 2001. Brecht, Bertolt. Brecht on Theatre. 1964. Hill and Wang, 1999. Diamond, Lydia R. Harriet Jacobs: A Play. Northwestern University Press, 2011. Hudes, Quiara Alegría. “The High Tide of Heartbreak.” American Theatre, October 2018, pp. 98-102. Pemberton, Gayle. The Hottest Water in Chicago. Wesleyan University Press, 1998. Salverson, Julie. “Change On Whose Terms? Testimony and an Erotics of Injury.” Theater, 31.3, 2001, pp. 119-25.
MEGAN SANDBERG-ZAKIAN is a theatre director with a passion for the development of diverse new American plays and playwrights, and a cofounder of Maia Directors, a consulting group for artists and organizations engaging with stories from the Middle East and beyond. Her book There Must Be Happy Endings: On a Theatre of Optimism and Honesty is available from The 3rd Thing Press. Megan is a graduate of Brown University and holds an MFA in Interdisciplinary Arts from Goddard College. She lives in Jamaica Plain, MA, with her wife Candice. megansz.com
CALL FOR SUBMISSIONS Published by Stage Directors and Choreographers Society (SDC), the Peer-Reviewed Section of SDC JOURNAL serves directors and choreographers working in the profession and in institutions of higher learning. SDC’s mission is to give voice to an empowered collective of directors and choreographers working in all jurisdictions and venues across the country, encourage advocacy, and highlight artistic achievement. SDC JOURNAL seeks essays with accessible language that focus on practice and practical application and that exemplify the sorts of fruitful intersections that can occur between the academic/scholarly and the profession/craft. For more information, visit: http://sdcweb.org/sdc-journal/sdcjournal-peer-review/
FROM THE SDCF PRESIDENT Since 1965, SDCF—the only service organization dedicated solely to directors and choreographers—has been offering access, opportunity, and community to these central artists at all levels of their careers. As the theatre begins to plan for reopening following the work stoppage caused by the global pandemic and the industry’s reckoning with racial injustice, the Foundation is committed to enabling directors and choreographers to reemerge as supported as possible into a transforming field. In June, I was honored to be elected President of the SDCF Board of Trustees, succeeding the incomparable Sheldon Epps. I look forward to working through these challenges and opportunities together with our Board of Trustees and all of you. It’s a perilous time for directors and choreographers, impacted as they’ve been by the loss of employment opportunities resulting from the pandemic, and the cascading set of hardship circumstances caused by that lack of employment. We have been overwhelmed by the outpouring of support and so moved by the generosity of individuals, government agencies, foundations, and corporations who are willing to give to SDCF for all it does in service to the field. This generosity has made it possible for us to announce the creation of the Lloyd Richards New Futures Residency; SDCF will partner a mid-career BIPOC director or choreographer with the artistic director of a regional theatre to collaborate on visionary strategies for the field’s reemergence. The Resident Artist will receive a $40,000 grant from SDCF. We hope this is one step toward both employing artists during the shutdown and supporting access for BIPOC artists to institutional leadership. I also want to thank all the people who so generously donate their time and energy to the important work the Foundation does: all the people who support the Board of Trustees with their enthusiasm, knowledge, and expertise; theatres that host Observers, and the mentors who share their craft and process with these emerging artists; all the working artists and specialists in the field who serve on panels or participate in symposia; the SDC Board Membership; and my fellow SDCF Trustees. All of you, whether your gift is financial or the giving of your time and talents, make the work of the Foundation possible. At this moment in time, when our field faces the double curses of COVID-19 and racial injustice, we sincerely appreciate and value your loyal support.
Mark Brokaw President, SDCF
FALL 2020 | SDC JOURNAL FOUNDATION SECTION
S DCF ANN UAL F UND
A MESSAGE FROM THE SDCF BOARD OF TRUSTEES The full range of SDCF programs—Observerships, Fellowships, public panels, and symposia—rely on the generous support of individuals, government agencies, foundations, and corporations. We want to thank each and every donor who has already contributed this year. Every gift makes a difference. At this moment in time, when our field faces great challenges, and also potentially valuable possibilities and opportunities for SDCF to be of even greater service to our community, we sincerely appreciate and value your loyal support.
Sheldon Epps President, 2018 – 2020
Linda Hartzell Fundraising Chair
SDCF ANNUAL FUND CONTRIBUTORS
$10,000 or More National Endowment for the Arts The New York City Department of Cultural Affairs New York State Council on the Arts Stage Directors and Choreographers Society
$5,000 – $9,999
$2,500 – $4,999
Laurie B. Oki
Willette & Manny Klausner
David Hyde Pierce
Kenneth & Rosemary Willman
$1,000 – $2,499
Laura Penn & Marty Pavloff
SDC JOURNAL FOUNDATION SECTION | FALL 2020
$500 – $999 Peter Askin Rachel Chavkin Liz Diamond
Bob Evans & Steve Davis Christopher Gattelli Sheila Grether Joseph C. Haj
Seema Sueko Hirsch Brian & Miura Kite Kenny Leon Emily Mann
Pryor Cashman, LLP John Rando Julie Taymor
$250 – $499 Dean Adams Barbara Gaines David Ira Goldstein
Ron & Emily Hewett Robert Antonio O’Hara David P. Saar
Seret O. Scott-Williams Casey Stangl Eric Ting
Frank Ventura Barbara Whitman
Up to $249 Lori Adams
Sidney J. Burgoyne
William C. Lipscomb
Mary Robinson Steven Robman
Michael John Garcés
John Paul Christy
Leah C. Gardiner
Sharleen Cooper Cohen
Eric van Baars
Richard S. Hamburger
Elizabeth Rubyline Bell-Haynes
D. Lynn Meyers
Lori Wolter Hudson
Marcia Milgrom Dodge
Loukas N. Skipitaris
Melia Bensussen Jesse Berger William Berry Michael Blakemore Anne Bogart Jo Bonney Noah Brody
MJ Bruder Spencer
Jessica R. Kubzansky
Jay David Lesenger
Susan Enid Evans
Endowment Funds The Charles Abbott Fellowship Fund, The Joe A. Callaway Fund, The Sir John Gielgud Fellowship Fund, The Mike Ockrent Fellowship Fund, The Shepherd and Mildred Traube Fellowship Fund, The Kurt Weill Fellowship Fund.
This list reflects gifts made to SDCF’s annual fund between July 1, 2019, and June 30, 2020. We apologize for any errors and request that you contact Dani Cattan at firstname.lastname@example.org so that we can make a prompt correction. FALL 2020 | SDC JOURNAL FOUNDATION SECTION
SD CF EM E R G E NC Y AS S I S TAN C E F UND
A MESSAGE FROM JO BONNEY As we all know, the current global pandemic has left many in our SDC community financially vulnerable. In March, we began a fund to directly assist SDC Members from coast to coast who are experiencing hardship due to the COVID-19 crisis. Our call for help was met with deeply moving generosity from the individuals and foundations listed below. On behalf of the Boards and staff members of SDC and SDCF, we extend our sincerest gratitude to these partners in our efforts. Said one recipient of these funds, “This grant enabled me to cover crucial medical bills that landed in my lap right at the time our industry shut down. I am deeply grateful to the individuals and groups who have chosen to support our directing and choreography community in this uncertain time.” This is but one story from our community; it’s our privilege to support your needs in this moment. Given the continuing impact of the pandemic on employment opportunities for our Members, the need in our community is likely to increase. If you would like to make a donation, you can do so at www.sdcfoundation.org/donate; please tell us in the comments field that yours is a donation for the Emergency Fund. If you would like to apply for assistance, funds are still available for SDC Members. Please visit the SDC Member Portal at www.sdcweb.org for application details.
Jo Bonney Chair, Emergency Fund Committee
SDCF EMERGENCY ASSISTANCE FUND CONTRIBUTORS
Leadership Gifts (over $1,000) Marc Bruni Rachel Chavkin Jean & Louis Dreyfus Foundation
Howard Gilman Foundation Michael Greif
Miranda Family Fund
Josh Lehrer & Jeffrey Seller
Additional Gifts (up to $1,000) Charles Abbott
Seret O. Scott-Williams
Barbara Orozco Armstrong
Behind The Curtain: Broadway’s Living Legends
Seema Sueko Hirsch
Melia Bensussen Mark Brokaw Margaret Burrows
Andrea Burns & Peter Flynn
Gabriel Vega Weissman
Friends of the Pasadena Playhouse
Anne Kauffman & Jill Kauffman Johnson
Michael John Garcés
Brian & Miura Kite
This list reflects gifts made to SDCF’s Emergency Relief Fund between March 24, 2020, and June 30, 2020. We apologize for any errors and request that you contact Dani Cattan at email@example.com so that we can make a prompt correction.
SDC JOURNAL FOUNDATION SECTION | FALL 2020
IN MEMORIAM August 1, 2019 – July 31, 2020
Rob L. Barron
DIRECTOR-CHOREOGRAPHER Member since 1998
DIRECTOR-CHOREOGRAPHER Member since 1971
DIRECTOR Member since 1992
Gerald A. Freedman
DIRECTOR Member since 1981
DIRECTOR Member since 1966
DIRECTOR Member since 1968
DIRECTOR Member since 1982
DIRECTOR Member since 1981
DIRECTOR Member since 1970
DIRECTOR Member since 1992
DIRECTOR Member since 1986
DIRECTOR Member since 1967
L. Kenneth Richardson
DIRECTOR Member since 1991
DIRECTOR Member since 1990
DIRECTOR Member since 1988
DIRECTOR Member since 1976
DIRECTOR Member since 1984
DIRECTOR Member since 2002
DIRECTOR Member since 1981
DIRECTOR Member since 1966
DIRECTOR-CHOREOGRAPHER Member since 1979
John J. Todd
DIRECTOR Member since 1987
CHOREOGRAPHER Member since 1969
DIRECTOR-CHOREOGRAPHER Member since 2018
Shirley Basfield Dunlap
DIRECTOR Member since 1998
DIRECTOR Member since 1997
DIRECTOR Member since 1979
FALL 2020 | SDC JOURNAL
René Buch René carved a path where there was none. He inspired generations of Latinx artists to learn from their heritage while finding a path forward. I will always admire his dedication to spareness, his scholarship, his puckishness, his trust in the audience’s imagination, and his belief that theatre is a space for introspection and adventure. Repertorio Español provided a home for me as an up-and-coming director (I had the privilege of directing 17 plays for the company). I never thought I would get the opportunity to work in Spanish in the United States. His theatre opened these doors wide and showed me that there was a community hungry to connect with each other and with stories that spoke in a language many were taught to forget.* PHOTO Michael Palma Mir
— José Zayas
Zoe Caldwell In 1992, I was cast opposite Jason Robards on Broadway in Park Your Car in Harvard Yard by Israel Horovitz, directed by Zoe Caldwell. Her understanding of the work an actor does made that experience joyous. “The Journey,” she called it. During rehearsal I felt lost somewhere in the middle of the play. We talked through each scene and my confusion. I asked if two of the scenes were in the right sequence and her response was, “Ah, now you understand her journey!” The next day, Israel and Zoe reversed the two scenes and the “journey” had clarity and authenticity. That is the key to Zoe Caldwell’s brilliance as both an actor and a director. Each new production I encounter, I ask, “What is the journey?” I will be forever grateful for my own journey with Zoe Caldwell. — Judith Ivey PHOTO Photofest
Walter Dallas Walter Dallas had a huge effect on the students he taught for five years when he was a Senior Artist-in-Residence at the University of Maryland’s School of Theatre, Dance, and Performance Studies. Dr. D loved teaching and directing, where he found joy in choosing plays with many layers of passionate, driving concerns and plays that seemed to reflect the concerns of his students: idealism, art, theatre, writing, acting, love, transcendence, identity, longing, and unrequited love. He believed that the challenging aches of identity, fulfillment, idealism, and needing to be loved are not just issues of young people, but are the sirens that beckon us all. — Scot M. Reese
PHOTO C/O Barbara Silzle
Gerald Freedman Gerald Freedman had a way of seeing the talent and potential you never knew you had— when Jerry believed in you, you had no choice but to do the same. After first assisting him when I was in grad school, Jerry and I remained in one another’s lives in many different ways for 35 years. I was his assistant, then associate, then resident director, then guest teacher at the NC School of the Arts where he was Dean of the School of Drama, sometime secretary, and always dear friend—but my favorite title was being his “Cleveland theatre daughter.” As Gerald said, “We come together in the theatre and we create a family. Whether we like it or not, we become family.” Jerry has so many “children”; we are the actors, the directors, the teachers—the keepers of the traditions. The family of Freedman will live on and thrive for generations to come—we will make sure of that.
PHOTO C/O Gerald Freedman Estate
76 SDC JOURNAL | FALL 2020
— Victoria Bussert
PHOTO Cliff Lipson
An Off-Broadway pioneer and distinguished acting teacher for over 70 years, Wynn cofounded The American Place Theatre (APT) in 1962, making it one of the earliest not-forprofit theatres in the United States and among the first dedicated solely to the American playwright. For over a decade, APT had no box office and was subscription-only; critics were only invited at the request of the playwright. In 1968, Wynn incorporated an extended preview period during which critics could attend, a practice now ubiquitous in American theatre. Wynn’s directing and teaching careers began in 1949 and 1950, respectively, and spanned decades. He was a protégé of Sanford Meisner and Harold Clurman, and lived the creed of his hero, George Bernard Shaw, who once wrote that the theatre should “take itself seriously as a factory of thought…a temple to the ascent of man.” A devoted husband, father, grandfather, great-grandfather, friend, and mentor to many thousands of students and former APT colleagues, Wynn is sorely missed but lives fervently on. —Billy Lyons
Terry Hands Terry Hands...the name is almost synonymous with the Royal Shakespeare Company (RSC). For two decades, Terry and I worked side by side in Stratford, in London, and on tour around the world. We were shoulder to shoulder in battles for funding and fighting to extend our frontiers. He was at the very centre of the RSC family. Terry directed the best ever Coriolanus, the best Henry V, Merry Wives, Much Ado, Pericles, Tamburlaine. He did groundbreaking work with new plays and was given the honor of becoming the first Englishman to direct the Comédie Française. He worked with companies in Germany and Austria, and then, when our joint artistic director collaboration at the RSC concluded after eight years, Terry took on the role, until he left for pastures new. Those pastures were in Wales, where he created an ensemble doing astonishing work at Theatre Clwyd, which so deserved to be known officially as the Welsh National Theatre. But Terry Hands always deserved more than he was given. I continue to mourn my very dear friend. —Trevor Nunn
Peter Hunt I think I met Peter the day we entered Yale. I’m fairly sure we declared we were going to make theatre together. I’m absolutely sure we did do that, and those were among the richest experiences of my life. Peter was enthusiastically bitter. He could be exultantly appalled. He held these contradictions through a life full of accomplishments treasurable to people who experienced them. He did, at the Williamstown Theatre Festival, superb work; his years as artistic director there were among the loveliest in the history of that storied place. He directed, on Broadway, 1776. Nobody could’ve managed that wily and original piece as beautifully as he did. He accomplished the same thing in the movie of it, and this became clear after the cuts his producer had imposed on it were removed, years after its release. I could go on and on. This profession imposed heavy burdens on Peter. And he never lost his joy. He soared. PHOTO C/O Williamstown
FALL 2020 | SDC JOURNAL
Lee Kenneth Richardson From the start, the audacity to dream a big dream was fuel for Lee and me. Lee was an extraordinary artist, partner, and friend. We came out of grad school at Rutgers together simply wanting to apply our skills to the craft of the theatre we loved so much—to just do our work. But at the time there were so few substantial opportunities that were meaningful and respectful of our people and culture that we decided to start our own, our way, ourselves. We called it Crossroads Theatre Company. Lee was brilliantly gifted in talent, mind, and heart. And everyone who knew and worked with him would agree that to say he was a daring and talented man would be such an understatement. Yes, Lee was all of those things but so much more, because of the extraordinary passion he had and his incredible, infectious love of the work. He loved the work. PHOTO C/O Crossroads
Diane Rodriguez We remember her from her earliest days as a professional artist in the ’70s, when she became a vital and indispensable part of our core company [El Teatro Campesino]. Her power as an artist came from the heart, which she shared on stage as well as in life, by generating the collective spirit that creates theatre. The arc of her evolution as an artist and as a representative of the American theatre will give hope and inspiration to new generations of theatre artists. We shall never forget her as long as we live because she was an intrinsic part of our life and joy in our creative being. May the creator speed her to cosmic rebirth.* —Luis Valdez
PHOTO C/O Oregon Shakespeare Festival
I first encountered Laird’s work in the mid-’80s when I saw his production of Pericles at the Denver Theater Center. I was enchanted by the work—so clear, beautiful—really delicate and magical. I remember thinking I wanted to meet this very special director and one day work with him. When I became Artistic Director of the Oregon Shakespeare Festival (OSF) in 1995, I began a campaign to bring Laird to Ashland. He had worked for OSF for many seasons 20 years prior as an actor and director, and I think he was reluctant to return. I begged, pleaded, charmed, and promised, and he finally gave way and returned with another astounding production of Pericles. From that point on, Laird came back each season, always directing a play he passionately wanted to do. Laird had an exquisite imagination. His productions always shone with a unique, magical “Laird touch.” He loved the “big” shows—epic in size. Nothing daunted Laird. He was courageous, a truth teller, a lover of the power of storytelling. He made a major contribution to the American theater and he will be deeply missed.* —Libby Appel
*Excerpts originally appeared in American Theatre online: “René Buch: Tough Love in Two Languages,” April 28, 2020; “Diane Rodriguez: A Light and a Fire,” April 10, 2020, and “Remembering the Magic and Sweep of the Laird Williamson Touch,” February 24, 2020. Reprinted with permission from Theatre Communications Group.
78 SDC JOURNAL | FALL 2020
An acclaimed dancer and Tony-nominated choreographer, Louis Johnson is known for an extensive career that included ballet, modern dance, and Broadway, and is celebrated for supporting and creating opportunities for Black dancers across stage and film. Born in Statesville, NC, Johnson grew up in Washington, DC, and trained in acrobatics before turning to dance. He studied at the Jones-Haywood School of Ballet before earning a spot at New York City’s School of American Ballet, leading him to work with Jerome Robbins, George Balanchine, and Katherine Dunham.
To create more opportunities for Black dancers, Johnson established several companies that were open to all dancers and choreographed pieces that blended ballet with modern and ethnic dance and jazz idioms. He choreographed works for Dance Theater of Harlem, Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, New York City Ballet Club, and the Metropolitan Opera, among others. In 1970, Johnson choreographed his first show for Broadway, Purlie, for which he received a Tony Award nomination. Other Broadway choreography credits include Lost in the Stars and Treemonisha. Johnson also choreographed the 1978 film adaption of The Wiz.
Johnson began as a dancer on Broadway in 1952 with Four Saints in Three Acts. He went on to dance in a variety of shows, including House of Flowers, Kwamina, Hallelujah, Baby!, and both the Broadway production and screen version of Damn Yankees.
Throughout his career, Johnson remained dedicated to dance education. He established dance departments at the Henry Street Settlement in New York and Howard University in Washington, DC, and he taught the first Black theatre course at Yale University.
Very few Blacks have had all the experiences I’ve had. There haven’t been that many opportunities. I’ve performed and choreographed all kinds of dance, so that’s how I can go from Treemonisha to the Metropolitan Opera.
SDC LEGACY LOUIS JOHNSON 1930–2020
PHOTOS Louis Johnson (center) + dancers, Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater PHOTO Jack Mitchell, © Alvin Ailey
Dance Foundation, Inc. and Smithsonian Institution. All rights reserved. C/o Collection of the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture and Alvin Ailey Dance Foundation, Inc.
FALL 2020 | SDC JOURNAL
SDC MEMBERS + ASSOCIATES continued... Blair Hundertmark • Matt
Hune • Pamela G Hunt • JoAnn M Hunter • Adam John Hunter • Marlo Hunter • Robb Hunter • Robert Hupp Casey Hushion • Ron J Hutchins • Jess Hutchinson West Hyler • Yehuda Hyman • Garry Hynes • David Hyslop • Nicholas Hytner • Santiago Iacinti • Tommy 321 W. 44TH STREET | STE 804 | NY, NY | 10036 Iafrate • Yojiro Ichikawa • Robert Icke • Scott Illingworth Adam Immerwahr • Donna Inglima • Kenny Ingram Carrie-Anne Ingrouille • Daniel Inouye • Kevin Inouye A. Dean Irby • Bill Irwin • Robert Iscove • Leslie Ishii Ed Sylvanus Iskandar • Richard Israel • Edward Isser Barry Ivan • David Ivers • Judith Ivey • Brandon Ivie • Susan D Izatt • Alexis Jacknow • Dana Jackson Nagle Jackson • Lou Jacob • Jason Jacobs • DW Jacobs • Lavina Jadhwani • Darleen Jaeger • Jennifer Jancuska • Devanand Janki • Maureen Janson Daniel Jaquez • David Jason • Richard Jay-Alexander Abigail Jean-Baptiste • Bill Jenkins • Ken Jenkins Richard D Jenkins • Sharon Jenkins • Kris W Jennings Charles S.C. Jin • Stephen Jobes • Norbert Charles Joerder • Robert Johanson • Stephen C John • Millicent Johnnie • Anthony W Johnson • Beth Johnson Matthew Lewis Johnson • Nathanael Johnson • Randy Johnson • Kelly Johnston • Annette Jolles • A. Victor Jones • Bianca LaVerne Jones • Geovonday Z Jones John Frederick Jones • Ken Jones • Amy Elizabeth Jones • B.J. Jones • Bill T Jones • Denis Jones • Jane Jones • Jason King Jones • Richard Jones • Sabra Jones • Tom Jones Walton Jones • Thomas W Jones, II • Kate Jopson • Glenn Jordan • Bruce Jordan • Laura Josepher • Amanda Kate Joshi • Rosa Joshi • Jesse Jou • Brian Jucha Jamil Jude • Roderick Justice • Amnon Kabatchnik • Zoya Kachadurian • David K Kahawaii IV • Michael P Kahn • Gus Kaikkonen • Thomas Kail • Tinashe K Kajese Bolden Casey Kaleba • Robert Z Kalfin • Stephen Kaliski • Sheryl Kaller • Barbara Kallir • Jeff Kalpak • Marya Sea Kaminski • Nancy Kane • Ellen Kane • Joan M Kane • Daniel Kapinos Ameenah Kaplan • Steven Kaplan • Van Kaplan • Adrienne Kapstein • Rachel Gita Karp • Steve Karp • Suzanne Karpinski • Matt Karris • Adam Karsten • Karla Kash Ryan J Kasprzak • Wayne Kasserman • Adam M Kassim • Carol Kastendieck • Andrew Kato • Rebecca Katz-Harwood • Zach Kaufer • Kristofer K Kauff • Anne Kauffman Moises Kaufman • Gina Kaufmann • Caroline Kava • David Julian Kaye • Lesia Kaye • Halena Kays • Kevin Kearins • Lauren Keating • Lori Kee • Alex Keegan Luam Keflezgy • Kenneth Kelleher • Allison Keller • Lawrence Keller • Neel Keller • John-David Keller • Robert Kelley • Maura Kelley • Barnet Kellman • Ron Kellum Claire Shannon Kelly • Katie Marie Kelly • Nancy Irene Kelly • Diana M Kelly • Tony Kelly • Alexa Kelly • Kristen M Kelso • George R Kendall • Travis Kendrick • Nick Kenkel David Kennedy • Terri Kent • E. Allen Kent • Geoffrey Paul Kent • Jonathan Kent • Laura Kepley • Kim W Kerfoot • Dan Kern • Susan E Kerner • Linda Kerns • Christie Kerr Philip Kerr • Shaun Kerrison • Don Kersey • William R Kershner • Ilona Kessell • Sari Ketter • Nancy L Keystone • Ricardo M Khan • Anita Khanzadian • Trent P Kidd Dontee Kiehn • Damon Kiely • Melissa Kievman • Susan Kikuchi • Jayme Kilburn • Kappy Kilburn • Eric S Kildow • Paige Kiliany • Dimo Hyun Jun Kim • Dyana Kimball Jon Kimbell • Marc Kimelman • Leslie Kincaid Burby • Marie A King • Shea N King • Woodie King, Jr. • Terry Kinney • Jay F Kinsel III • AshleySimone M Kirchner Keith Byron Kirk • Elizabeth R Kirkland • Kelly Kitchens • Brian Kite • Lena Kitsopoulou • Cassey Kikuchi Kivnick • Scott Klavan • Benjamin Endsley Klein • Rachel Klein Michael Klimzak • Chip Klose • Stas’ Kmiec’ • Dan Knechtges • Adam Knight • Jim Knipple • Robert M Knopf • Mark A Knowles • Wendy Knox • Timothy Koch Lori B Koenig • Rhonda Kohl • Karen Kohlhaas • Joan E Kole, Ph D • Deborah Kondelik • Jenny Koons • Michael Koppy • Karla Koskinen • David Kote • Randy Kovitz Neal Kowalsky • Nicholas Kowerko • Ari Kramer • Julie Kramer • Daniel E Kramer • Randall Kramer • Ari L Kreith • Ann K Kreitman • Nico T Krell • Lianne Kressin Jon Kretzu • Portia Krieger • T. Newell Kring • Sarah Krohn • Tara Kromer • Andrea M Kron • Jeremy Gold Kronenberg • Zenon Kruszelnicki • Jessica Kubzansky Francis X Kuhn • Matt Kunkel • Peter J Kuo • Jeffrey Kuperman • Rick Kuperman • Richard Kuranda • Lynne Kurdziel Formato • Marcia Jean Kurtz • Shishir Kurup Daniel M Kutner • Helene Kvale • Kwame Kwei-Armah • Gary John La Rosa • Colleen Labella • Neil LaBute • Terence D LaCasse • Philip Lacey • Scott LaFeber Tony LaFortezza • Ron Lagomarsino • Tomas Lagunavicius • Flordelino Lagundino • Diane Lala • Kiesha Lalama • Maggie Lally • Armina LaManna • Isaac J Lamb Lynn Lammers • Mark Lamos • Marla Lampert • Vincent M Lancisi • Tina Landau • Brad Landers • Michael Landman • Mahayana Landowne • Amy Lane • Preston Lane Alan Langdon • Frank Langella • John P Langs • Joseph M Langworth • Jane Lanier • Joe Lanteri • Sarna Lapine • James Lapine • J Scott Lapp • Chad Larabee Tootie Larios • Jenny Laroche • Robin Larsen • Lorin Latarro • Barry J Lather • Diane Laurenson • Piper Laurie • Kitt Lavoie • Deirdre K Lavrakas • Sue Lawless Yvette Lawrence • Peter Lawrence • Leigh Lawson • Steve Lawson • Paul Lazar • Paul Lazarus • Sara L Lazarus • Bridget Leak • Greg Leaming • Dane CT Leasure Jimmy LeDuc • Kris Lee • Margaret Lee • Raymond B Lee • Darren Lee • David Lee • Jeff Lee • Robyn Lee • Yasmine Lee • Baayork Lee • Sondra Lee • Michael Leeds Sean J Leehan • Jeanne Leep • Ray Leeper • Joshua Legg • Cara E Leggio • Gregory Lehane • Lenny Leibowitz • David E Leidholdt • Andrea Leigh • Jeffrey Lentz Matt Lenz • Kenny Leon • Joe Leonardo • David S Leong • Mark Lerman • Jay Lesenger • Lawrence Lesher • Lori Leshner • Jerry Less • William F Lett • David Leveaux Ari Levin • Robin Levine • Rhoda Levine • Bruce A Levitt • Alex Levy • Annie G Levy • Simon Levy • Jan Lewis • William W Lewis • Shannon Lewis • Dana Lewis J. Barry Lewis • Kyle Lewis • Irene Lewis • Andrew Leynse • Cary L Libkin • Jonathan Libman • Michael Licata • Michael Lichtefeld • Dennis Lickteig • Ben Liebert Regge Life • Spencer Liff • Roy Lightner • Padraic J Lillis • Michael H Lilly • Jane Lind • Cathy Fitzpatrick Linder • Delroy Lindo • Katie Lindsay • Priscilla Lindsay Michael Lindsay-Hogg • Bruce Linser • Laley Lippard • William C Lipscomb • Heather Lipson Bell • John Lithgow • Jeff Liu • Jamie Lloyd • Phyllida Lloyd • Joe Locarro Mark Lococo • Mary Jo Lodge • Jason Loewith • Holly Logue • Rick Lombardo • David London • Liam Lonegan • Mark R Lonergan • Kevin Long • Kathryn Long Robert Longbottom • Michael Longhurst • Bruce Longworth • Louis Lopardi • Beth Lopes • Angela Ann Lopez • Michael LoPorto • Marcela Lorca • Jenny Lord Annie M Loui • Joanne Love • Elizabeth Lovelady • Caitlin Lowans • Leah Lowe • David Lowenstein • Domenique Lozano • Sarah Lozoff • Shellen Lubin • Lar Lubovitch Jeremy Lucas • Craig Lucas • Elizabeth A Lucas • Justin Lucero • Julie K Lucido • Sarah Lucier • Janice Luise-Lutkus • Bruce Haden Lumpkin • Karen L Lund Matthew Lundergan • Katie Lupica • Jennifer Lupp • Larissa Lury • Christopher Luscombe • Sherry Lutken • John David Lutz • Brian Lynch • Michele Lynch • Jonathan Lynn Rebecca Lynne • Emily Lyon • Marti Lyons • Penny Ayn Maas • Larry Mabrey • Brian MacDevitt • Gwynn MacDonald • James Macdonald • Noel MacDuffie • Adam Mace Kathy Gail MacGowan • John MacInnis • Victoria Mack • Will Mackenzie • Pam MacKinnon • Whit MacLaughlin III • Calvin MacLean • Mark Madama • Corey B Madden Tammy Mader • Taibi Magar • Ellen Maguire • Mike Mahaffey • Rajendra Ramoon Maharaj • William M Maher • Dave Maier • Peter Maier • Christopher Maikish Jimmy Maize • Amber Mak • Artur Makaryan • Ashley M Malafronte • Jennifer M Male • Alex Mallory • Travis B Malone • Joe Malone • Natalie Malotke • Emily Maltby Richard E Maltby, Jr. • David Mamet • David Grant Mancini • Alan Mandell • Nick Mangano • Art Manke • Emily Mann • Anita Mann • Fred C. L. Mann III • Mark T Mannette Joe Mantello • Jamie O Manton • Victor Malana Maog • Marti Maraden • Katy Marcella • Tyler Marchant • Brian Marcum • Elysa Marden • Jamibeth Margolis Elizabeth Margolius • Richard Marin • Vincent Marini • Kenneth P Marini • Cyndy A Marion • Aaron Mark • Kathryn Markey • Jonathan Marks • Tom Markus Ina Marlowe • Michael Marotta • Robert Marra • Antony Marsellis • Frazier Marsh • Jennifer Marshall • Kathleen Marshall • Rob Marshall • Dorothy Marshall Englis Amy Jo Martin • Claire F Martin • Derek Grant Martin • Keith T Martin • Bud Martin • Ken-Matt Martin • Ben S Martin • David Martin • Alma Martinez • Rebecca Martinez Lee Martino • Mark Martino • Kay Martinovich • Leslie Martinson • Jan Mason • Marshall W Mason • Marsha Mason • Bobbi Masters • Marie Masters • Marc Masterson Michael Mastro • Tony Mata • Sean Mathias • Fiely Matias • Alisa Matlovsky • Michael Matthews • Dakin Matthews • Michael Matthys • Patti Maurer • Gerard F Mawn Jackie Maxwell • Melissa Maxwell • Ron May • Heather May • Elaine May • Max Mayer • Michael S Mayer • Marya Mazor • Matthew Mazuroski • Steve Mazzoccone Des McAnuff • Jody McAuliffe • Christine McBurney • Simon McBurney • C McCabe • Janet McCall • Davis McCallum • Gilbert McCauley • Dale R McCausland Saundra McClain • Dan McCleary • David McClendon • Calvin McClinton • John McCluggage • Marina McClure • Patrick McCollum • Liz McConahay Wanfried Susan M McCormack Pike • Shami J McCormick • Matthew McCray • Chris McCreary • Jonathan H McCrory • Kenneth McCulough • Jayme McDaniel • Tricia McDermott Malini Singh McDonald • Brian McDonald • Meredith McDonough • Dugg McDonough • Brian McEleney • Deborah McEniry White • Michael McFadden Kathleen M McGeever • Paul McGill • Benjamin McGovern • Charlie McGrath • Bob McGrath • Wayne McGregor • Rory D McGregor • Patricia McGregor • Marty McGuire...