Welcome to the new in-depth interview series ‘The Playwright’s Playground’ – highlighting local female playwrights in the D.C. Theatre community.
Female Theatre artists make up more than 50 percent of those involved in the Theatre, yet the number of female playwrights being produced is dramatically lower. In this series I will interview and introduce DCMTA readers to the many talented playwrights in this area to learn about their writing process, their inspirations, and their motivations, and struggles to write and produce their art.
The Playwright’s Playground Series debuts with Jacqueline E. Lawton.
If you are not familiar with the name Jacqueline E. Lawton or her work – get ready! She is a force to be reckoned with and one of the area’s most active playwrights.
Jacqueline E. Lawton is a critically acclaimed D.C. playwright, dramaturg, and theatre teaching artist. She is recognized as one of the top 30 African American playwrights by Arena Stage’s American Voices New Play Institute, and in 2012, Lawton was named an inaugural group member of Arena Stage’s Playwright’s Arena. (The Playwrights’ Arena is the newest new play initiative developed by the American Voices New Play Institute centered on a small collaborative group of local playwrights dedicated to the support and development of each other’s work).
Earning an acclaimed reputation for writing complex, multilayered, historical material that is urgent and playable, Lawton’s plays include: Anna K; Blood-bound and Tongue-tied; Deep Belly Beautiful; The Devil’s Sweet Water; The Hampton Years; Love Brothers Serenade; Mad Breed; and Our Man Beverly Snow.
Theater J presents the World Premiere of her latest production, The Hampton Years, May 29 – June 30, 2013.
In Part 2 of my interview with the revealing, and enlightening Jacqueline E. Lawton, Jacqueline discusses her views on the state of American Theatre today, nurturing new works, the influences on her writing, and the start of her playwriting career.
How do you view the state of American theater today . . . and your role in it? Why do you go to the theater?
We are at an exciting and scary precipice in the American Theatre. Theaters struggle to build audiences, sustain funding, represent racial and gender diversity, and support new plays on the main stage:
In order to build and keep audiences, we need to value theaters’ essential contribution to our economy and society. We must infuse the ritual of theatre going as a part of our culture. It’s more than going to Broadway. It’s about being in the audience of your local and regional theaters. It’s about serving on boards, giving annual donations, and being an advocate for theatre. It starts in childhood, continues through middle and high school, and must be a part of the academic experience. Otherwise, as young adults, parents and empty nesters, we won’t know to make it part of our lives.
We must find sustainable models to create theater and support theatre artists. In what other industry are professionals asked to give of their talent, time, and expertise for free and just for the love of it? And, where else are they made to feel bad, a diva or not a member of the team, if they require payment? If another industry does this as well, then stop it! In addition to honoring the value of theatre, we must also respect the people creating and making theatre.
The issue of racial and gender diversity is bigger than the entity of theatre, but what better place to address it than on the stage? What other art form offers an intimate portrayal of the strange, beautiful, curious, brave and vulnerable human experience. On stage, we can see unfold the various ways in which we live and die; of how we behave towards one another in love and hate; of the immediate and residual impact of our decisions; of the damaging and devastating consequences of our neglect; and the joy and glory of our good deeds. In order to do this with as deep, rich, full and complete a picture as possible, we must rid our theatre offices, rehearsal halls and stages of race and gender discrimination. Enlighten yourself to this reality and do better. This has to stop.
Nurturing new work is one of the American theater’s highest ambitions — and one of its most difficult tasks. The cost of producing plays is rising and fewer playwrights are given the opportunity to fail.
Yes, we all accept that producing new plays are a risk. Obviously, there’s no guaranteed outcome of success. But we must remember that at one point in time all of the much beloved, tried and tested classics were once new. And someone took a chance on them and allowed these plays to show us the world in a way that we had never seen before. We have to remember this.
Are regional theaters doing enough to nurture new playwrights and providing audiences with an alternative?
Well, we have a lot of really great opportunities here and I’ve taken advantage of any many as possible. In 2008, Active Cultures, a Maryland based company that creates locally-based worked for a multicultural and multigenerational audience, commissioned and produced my play Mad Breed. The next year, under the auspices of theHegira, I produced a workshop production of Anna K as part of Round House Theatre’s Silver Spring Series and co-produced Deep Belly Beautiful at part the Mead Theater Lab at Flashpoint. Last year, my play, Love Brothers Serenade, received a reading at the Kennedy Center’s annual Page-to-Stage new play festival (my fourth play to be presented there) under the auspices of theHegira and then it received a workshop and reading at Howard University. Of course, there’s also the Capital Fringe Festival, the Intersections Festival, the Source Festival, the DC Black Theatre Festival, and the Hip Hop Theater Festival, and the extraordinary efforts and support of the D.C. Commission on the Arts and Humanities.
But there’s always more that could be done. I’d love it if every regional theatre in D.C. had some kind of writer’s program. Even if the commitment to the playwright wasn’t to produce their work, the investment, development and exposure would be extraordinary. Ultimately, it’s the right of every theatre company to work or not work with whomever they choose and of course, it’s a matter of their mission, vision and values. But if that ever did happen, I’d apply to be a part of every single one of them. Seriously, imagine the growth and creativity that would come from working with the artistic leadership at Adventure Theatre, Folger Theatre, Ford’s Theatre, Imagination Stage, Shakespeare Theatre Company, Signature Theatre, The Studio Threatre, and Woolly Mammoth, just to name a few.
Already, we’re seeing a shift move towards a greater investment in the local Playwriting community. Of course, Adventure Theatre and Imagination Stage have had a long history of working with local playwrights. In January, Arena Stage launched Playwrights’ Arena, but had already supported the work on Karen Zacharias as part of their coveted Playwriting Residencies. Theater J is in its second season of Locally Grown Festival. The progress may seem slow, but the momentum is building, the commitment is growing and there are so many resources in D.C.
How has your fellowship at Arena Stage and your relationship with that theater influence your development as a playwright?
Arena Stage was one of my first theatre homes as an arts administrator and educator, so it’s wonderful to return as a playwright. Over the years, they’ve invited me to be a part of their meeting convening. In 2010, I was a part of their convening of 30 of the nation’s leading black playwrights.
We’re about to break for the summer to work on completing the first drafts of our play. Already, I’m seeing how it’s helping me be a better, stronger and more diligent writer. It’s a beautifully intense, focused and rigorous practice of inquiry, writing and study. I feel fortunate to be able to spend a year dedicated to communing with such exceptionally talented and diverse playwrights. We are investigating our dramaturgical practice and our writing process. We’re exploring our theatrical and creative mindset and exploding assumptions about what is and isn’t theatre. This initiative is really quite wonderful, encouraging and inspiring. I leave each meeting exhausted and rejuvenated all at once.
Working in DC, Race, politics, and the arts are broad themes referenced in your works. Do you think theaters can be effective political tools?
Absolutely, I feel that theater is a powerful tool for social justice, civic action, community engagement and overall accountability.
Do you think of your writing as political, and if so how is Playwriting a tool of consciousness for you?
Yes, the personal is the political. I’m a race conscious, feminist playwright. I’m writing from a perspective of having been raised in a black Southern working class, military family. I’m now a highly educated, lower middle class, woman. There is a lot going on in all of that and it comes through in my writing.
How has the D.C. political climate had an effect on your work? How has it changed over the years since you moved here?
D.C. is an important city. I live on Capitol Hill, which puts me in close proximity (only seven blocks!) to the U.S. Supreme Court and the Nation’s Capital. I’m walking distance from the folks making or not making powerful decision that impact the nation and beyond. As a playwright, I have an opportunity to write about these important and powerful decisions and hold the folks accountable for their actions.
However, politics is just one part of the conversation. Yes, conservative mandates that restrict arts funding impact artists, but the overall downfall of the economy has had a far greater and more immediate impact. For the past three years, I’ve been working as a full-time visiting faculty member in theater at the University of the District of Columbia. Over the past two years, the local and federal government has initiated right-sizing and abolishment plans to address the budget. The Theatre Arts program is one of seventeen programs to be discontinued. In a city with more than 80 theatre companies, it baffles me that this could happen. Since moving to D.C. in 2006, I have made a living working in the theatre or teaching theatre in academia. For the first time, I think that might change.
Let’s segue into your start with professional writing. Exactly how has your professional Playwriting career evolved?
After graduating with an MFA in Playwriting in 2003, I made my way to the east coast seeking adventure and wanting to be a part of an artistic community. In 2005, I did an internship in Literary Management and Dramaturgy at Woolly Mammoth Theater Company and learned how to be a dramaturg from Mary Resing (former Director of New Play Development at Woolly Mammoth, now Artistic Director at Active Cultures). From there, I worked at the Folger Shakespeare Library and Arena Stage, where I began working as a teaching artist.
My professional career as a playwright began in the Fall of 2005, when I produced a reading of Deep Belly Beautiful at the Folger Shakespeare Library. I had just finished my dramaturgy internship at Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company and started working at the Folger as the Elementary School Program coordinator. After completing the second draft of Deep Belly Beautiful, I asked Mary Resing if I should approach Woolly about getting a reading. She said that I could, but reminded me that after working at Woolly, I had access to the greatest actors in D.C. and understood the new play development process well enough to produce my own reading. So, I asked Janet Griffin (Artistic Director of the Folger Theatre), who was very supportive of me, if I could host a reading in the conference. She said yes and the rest is history, or at least history in process!
What plays and writers have had a great impact on you?
Adrienne Kennedy (Funnyhouse of a Negro), Sarah Ruhl (The Clean House), Lynn Nottage (Intimate Apparel), Terrence McNally (Lips Together, Teeth Apart), John Guare (Six Degrees of Separation) and Jose Rivera (References to Salvador Dali Make Me Hot). These playwrights cracked open my heart and changed my world view. I am not the same for having encountered their writing, vision, passion, and devotion to theater. I am grateful to them.
What has been the most important experience in your training as a playwright?
Without a doubt, the most important experience in my training as a playwright was the dramaturgy internship at Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company. Being a dramaturg and working with other playwrights has helped me become a better playwright. As a new play development dramaturg, I’m reading new work and working with some fiercely talented playwrights. When I’ve read plays for Active Cultures, African Continuum Theatre Company, The Kennedy Center, Round House Theatre, and Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company, I’m introduced to a range of work from writers all over the country and gained invaluable insight to their creative vision and view of the world. As a production dramaturg, I’m getting to analyze many of the more well-known, established plays. It’s a brilliant education each time.
Also, as a teaching artist (elementary through high school) and a professor (young adults to seniors), I am in the position to introduce students to the history of theater, Shakespeare’s work, play analysis, acting, directing, the elements of design, etc. Some of my students have a bit of experience in theater from their schools or churches. Some know absolutely nothing and have never even seen theater in their lives. Still, there are others, who are passionate about theater and have made it their focus. I love them all and feel responsible to know the origins of theater, what is happening now, and where we’re going as a global theatrical community. I can never get lazy.
All of this helps me to be a better writer. How can it not?
On Friday, in Part 3 of my interview, Jacqueline E. Lawton discusses her love of theatre and the evolution of her playwriting, and shares her views on theatre criticism, her plays, and future projects.
‘The Playwright’s Playground Series': Jacqueline E. Lawton Part 1 by Sydney-Chanele Dawkins
Jacqueline E. Lawton’s website.
The Hampton Years plays May 29-June 30, 2013 at Theater J at the Washington DC Jewish Community Center – 1529 16th Street NW, in Washington, DC. Tickets can be purchased in person at the DCJCC, by calling the box office at (800) 494-TIXS (8497), or by purchasing them online.