Last year, I watched theatres across the country announce their seasons only to see lists composed exclusively white, male writers and directors. Conversations sprang up across the internet about how to change things, what to change, and whether they should be changed. It’s this last conversation that I find the most insidious. The implication - or sometimes stated belief - that it would not be possible to find female artists or artists of color who are equally as talented as their white, male counterparts. After one particularly impassioned conversation, I realized why I get so heated about this topic. Ultimately, a season is a reflection of the priorities of the artistic director of a company. Do they value female directors? Playwrights of color? If a company consistently produces work of and by white men, it’s hard to believe that they value the contributions of artists who don’t fit in that demographic. How does this extend to their audience?
Aral Balkan, while not a theatre practitioner (to the best of my knowledge) wrote a beautiful, intelligent article about the false dichotomy we are presented with time and again, that diversity and meritocracy can’t exist at the same time. He systematically breaks this binary apart, quoting others from his industry (technology).
In an industry where 27–29% are female, if you manage to get a speaker line‐up with 0% female speakers, you have a bias. It does not necessarily mean that you’re a male chauvinist pig with a deep‐seated hatred for women who is determined to hoist the banner for sexism to exciting new heights with his next event. It may just mean that you have an unexamined, unconscious bias. If you care about diversity, this is the point where you should be disappointed in your process, not — as Andrew stated he was in his tweet — ‘happy with’ it. RTWT
An “unexamined, unconscious bias.” Seems pretty much spot on to what happens in the theatre industry. If the percentages are going to change, we need to make a dedicated effort to examine these biases and address them. Which means giving them the time and attention they deserve.
There are a ton of responsibilities for any artistic director - not to mention staffs that are required to take on increasing demands of the same limited funds. Literary departments have to find plays to produce, coordinate and collaborate on premieres or second productions, write program notes, coordinate panels, lead talkbacks, and more. With limited time, you have to prioritize. If it takes a larger investment to find plays by minorities (which MIGHT be true the first time you go on this particular search, but once people know you’re interested, the plays will find you), you have to weigh the value of finding those plays against other responsibilities - blog entries, program notes, etc. While having more articles available online, or participating in podcasts, or leading talkbacks might seem like a great way of connecting with audiences, I would argue producing producing art that connects with a wider audience base will have a greater overall return.
After many circular conversations on this topic, Travis Bedard asked me to come up with a list of guiding principles for creating a season. Never having been one to work just in the abstract, I asked him to give me some rough guidelines for a theoretical company and I would program a season for it - and draw the guiding principles from the resulting season. He gave me a theoretical company with a five-million dollar budget, two stages (a 400 seat proscenium and a 99 seat thrust), and a focus on new or recent plays.
Creating a season was easy. From my years in literary management, I have a folder of plays on my laptop that I have been advocating for over the years. However, I don’t know as many local playwrights as well as I should. As an freelance director, I have found one playwright I connect with as an individual artist and I have gotten to know her work at an intimate level, but she is just one of many. As an Artistic Director, it would be my responsibility to know more than just the names and faces of DC playwrights. It’s important to know their previous work, their developmental and production histories, their goals, the projects they are currently working on. I would hope to produce many of them, but in lieu of immediate production, I would first need to get to know them.
With that large caveat, here are the principles and season I created.
- focus on local artists
- no discipline over 50% male
- no cast over 50% white
- offer opportunities for artistic development; create times for cross-pollination between locals and OOT guest artists
- offer roles to stretch and challenge artists
- spread the love; one offer per artist per season
Year-Long Reading Series Local-only reading series to highlight and promote local talent to the theatre, the theatre community, and the public. Private post-reading sessions w/ playwrights for feedback on script and frank discussion of fit with org. If not a good fit, help playwright connect other orgs locally and nationally.
Year-Long Playwright Workshop and Festival Select three teams playwright, director, and dramaturg (all local) w/ a specific project to develop over the year. Provide regular events to encourage relationships with these artists, those working on mainstage productions, and theatre staff. At the close of the year, there will be a festival of bare-bones stagings. The festival will run on the thrust in conjunction with book-in performances of Poetics by Nature Theatre of Oklahoma and Chekhov Lizardbrain by Pig Iron Theatre Company on the proscenium.
Full Productions: Proscenium Stage RUST by Kirsten Greenidge directed by Elissa Goetschius set: Tom Kamm lights: Colin K Bills costumes: Melanie Clark sound: Elisheba Ittoop props: TBD
Riddled with self-doubt, NFL star Randall Mifflin has barricaded himself inside his den, where he plays video games around the clock, defends himself against a team of slick and shiny sportscasters eager to dissect his celebrity, and, at doctor’s orders, busies himself with a project: collecting black memorabilia. Life could return to normal if it weren’t for Randall’s new hobby. Soon, objects meant to be forgotten are roaming the streets and Randall is assaulted by thoughts he would prefer to ignore. (Blurb from New Dramatists.)
Lauren Davis as Jeanine, Olivia Baye Harrell as Randall Mifflin KenYatta Rogers as Chunk-Chunk, Omas Maya Jackson as LeDonna Adams, Mary-Mary Anne Dawn Ursula as Ella Mae Walker, Randall’s mom Jefferson Russell as Gin George, Mr Peale Ricardo Frederick Evans as Andrew, Steve Julian Elijah Martinez as Bill, Snipe
HEDDATRON by Liz Merriweather directed by Natsu Ononda Power set: Mischa Kachman lights: TBD costumes: Ivania Stack sound: Chris Baine props: TBD robots: TBD
A book falls from the sky and a depressed Michigan housewife is kidnapped by a clan of renegade robots, whisked away to the jungles of South America, and forced to perform the title role in a mechanical version of Hedda Gabler. As a documentarian searches for the truth about the abduction and the woman's family mounts a search party, Ibsen himself enters the picture to defend his well-made play. (Blurb from Sideshow’s production as part of Steppenwolf’s Garage series.)
Erika Rose as Jane Andres Talero as Cubby Joe Brack as Rick Paige Hernandez-Funn as Nugget Dylan Myers as Ibsen Thembi Duncan as Ibsen’s Wife Carolyn Meyers as Else Evan Casey as Strindberg Kristin Watson as Film Student Aaron Bliden as Engineer, Monkey
MIMESOPHOBIA by Carlos Murrillo directed by Ryan Maxwell set: TBD lights: TBD costumes: Lynly Saunders sound: TBD props: TBD
They seemed like the perfect couple. Affluent. Attractive. Well-educated. Why did the husband brutally murder his wife and then take his own life? A desperate screenwriting duo struggles with severe writer’s block to unearth the answer. The murder victim’s sister reconstructs from the ashes a diary that may or may not contain the secrets. And a deranged academic, haunted by her own possible involvement, meditates on the American obsession with violence. In the face of inexplicable violence, whose myth will most closely resemble the truth of what happened? (Blurb from AO International website.)
Gabby Fernandez-Coffey as Shawn Lee Mikeska Gardner as Beth, woman b/w 2nd and 3rd Anu Yadev as Jessica Alex Vaughn as Aaron Miller Max Heaton as Henry Blumenthal JB Tadena as Man b/w 2nd and 3rd
Full Productions: Thrust Stage TELETHON by Kristin Newbom directed by Kwame Kwei-Armah set: Dave Shuhy lights: Cara Antico costumes: Frank Labovitz sound: Veronika Vorel props: TBD
In which a group of physically disabled fundraisers convenes at Dunkin’ Donuts to celebrate, detox, squabble, flirt, and become a family … or not. (Blurb from Clubbed Thumb’s premiere production.)
Maboud Ebrahimzadeh as Scott Rose McConnell as Ann Brandon McCoy as Lewis Brynn Tucker as Shelly Kyle Encinas as Larry
PONY by Sylvan Oswald directed by Sarah Marshall set: Ryan Haase lights: TBD costumes: Deb Sivigny sound: TBD props: TBD
When Pony moves to a small rural town to start a new life as a man, he meets a woman named Marie who is obsessed with a local murder. On the other side of the forest from Woyzeck, Pony gets wrapped up in her violent fantasies and must figure out how to be himself and how to stay alive. Alternately disturbing and drily funny, Pony explores power and the fluidity and ambiguity of gender. (Blurb from New Dramatists.)
Veronica del Cerro as Marie Jennifer Mendenhall as Cav Deirdra LaWan Starnes as Pony Aaron Reeder as Heath Jessica Dukes as Stell
Choosing plays, directors, and actors was easy. The number of inspiring artists to work with in the DC area is tremendous. This is, however, a season that would give marketing departments a challenge. The ambition of more than one play makes the conclusions abrupt or difficult to manage on stage. A couple are more lyrical or poetic and don’t conform to a traditional “well-made play” structure. None of these plays are world premieres and none of them were huge New York hits.
So why am I excited about this collection of artists? The word I keep coming back to is ambitious. They represent a diversity of styles, a diversity of voices, and each one is incredibly ambitious in content and form. Our country is made of many smaller self-identifying communities. These plays ask, how do we fit together? How do we communicate with each other to find understanding? These plays question our stories, how we know what truth is, and how we connect with our history and our contemporary culture.
It’s by no means a perfect season. As I said before, I would hope to program local playwrights on the main stages in later seasons after exerting a lot of time and energy into developing relationships. Additionally, I don’t know many actors from the trans or disabled communities. And I clearly need to broaden my knowledge of local designers. But I think this season takes many steps forward from those we traditionally see announced this time of year. These plays represent the diversity of our world and their production teams and casts continue that depiction. It’s a season that tries to include as many voices as possible and asks its artists to stretch themselves. It’s a season that invites many communities into the theatre by giving them a home on the stage. It’s not perfect, but it’s a step in a direction that feels more representative of the world I live in and that feels like progress.