The curtain closed yesterday, August 3, 2014, on the 24thseason of five plays at the Contemporary American Theater Festival, but the anticipation to next season’s 25th anniversary has already started. There is something to be said about that phrase ‘saving the best for last’, as I had the honor of engaging in an extended conversation with Peggy McKowen, Associate Producing Director for the ninth and final interview of this year’s The Playwright’s Playground: The Playmakers CATF 2014 series.
This Special Edition of The Playwright’s Playground continues The Playmaker Series: CATF 2014. In a series of in depth conversations, I speak with the artistic teams associated with the plays at this year’s Contemporary American Theater Festival. Playwrights and the Directors share revealing behind the scene insights about their inspirations and the development of their new plays. It’s always refreshing and reaffirming to speak with artists who are not only passionate about the work they do, but are open about sharing their creative process and motivations.
The quick wit and charming authenticity of native West Virginian Peggy McKowen are infectious. As the Associate Producing Director of The Contemporary American Theater Festival, McKowen’s artistic eye, attention to detail, and her natural ability to establish and sustain long-lasting relationships with designers and the artistic talent makes her invaluable.
McKowen’s association with CATF began in 2006, when she designed the costumes for the world premiere of Keith Glover’s Jazzland and Noah Haidle’s Mr. Marmalade. In January 2007, Peggy joined the full-time staff and assumed responsibilities on the administrative side while keeping a hand on the creative side as an artistic partner. For the past seven years, Ed Herendeen and Peggy McKowen have curated CATF’s season of plays and artists, and matched their artistic vision to the available resources. As a leading center for the production and development of new plays, The Contemporary American Theater Festival has fully staged 100 American works, including 37 world premieres, by 72 different playwrights.
Peggy McKowen has a B.A. in Theatre from West Virginia University and holds a MFA from The University of Texas-Austin. For ten years, McKowen was a Costume Designer and head of Design at West Virginia University, and then served as Chair of the WVU Theatre Department for another five years. Additionally, she has taught Theatre and Humanities at Shepherd University, Dickinson College, Dickinson College/London She was the Resident Designer for the Obie-award-winning Jean Cocteau Repertory in New York for more than a decade. As a freelance costume and scenic designer, her work included productions in regional theaters from New York to Alabama, Texas, and California. Internationally her creative talents have been seen in productions from the B.A.T. Studio Theatre in Berlin to the Teatro Alfa Real in Sao Paulo, Brazil and from the E.T.A. Hoffmann Theatre in Bamberg to Beijing, China where she designed the first full-length English-speaking production of The Tempest.
Sydney-Chanele: The 25th Anniversary will be celebrated in 2015. What are the goals for CATF?
Peggy: With the 25th Anniversary everyone really wants to do a book, and we are doing a big, big strategic planning thing right now with our Board. Our audience has an ownership of the CATF experience, the art, and the artists. I feel like the goal for CATF and the future is to really inhabit this world we have begun to create. What I mean is, people come here and they see this amazing work and this unbelievable facility and a really terrific community that supports the work.
There is a very complete experience here. But if we can grow internally a little bit more strongly, I think the potential for us to be truly spectacular is really there. By that I mean I believe that this Festival happens right now by the sheer wills and passion of Ed and James and I, and all the people that come with that faith. That’s terrific and that’s not anything you can ever replace. If we could build up a little more infrastructure and process we could really be unstoppable.
What is it going to take? You have the passion and a clear mission.
I think we need a little more staff. Coming out of a big Capital Campaign I think we need to reinvest in our people. When you are doing a Capital work and you’re doing other things – they go back and forth. So I feel like right now we are in a position to get them back up to a speed with where our Capital facilities are. One of the things out of the Phase III opportunity we hope is coming is either a Playwrights or new play development library where all this Festival information of all of these World Premieres of established and establishing artists have a home. We just have to get stuff together.
Peggy, this marks your 7th season with CATF. How did you come to work at the Contemporary American Theatre Festival as the Associate Producing Director?
Ed and I had known each other for a long time and for many years and had been in each other’s circles. I first met him as an Undergraduate student, so it’s been twenty years. I had worked on some of his shows and he was just one of those instructors whom most Theatre students knew because he was one of those teachers that was excited about the work he was doing. In 2006 I came to CATF in the summer as a designer and designed for two shows for Ed. At that point I had been at WVU for ten years and Chair of the Theatre Department for five.
As you continue to answer the question, I’m interested in the full details of your journey. Let’s back track a little. What is your life-in-theatre story up until that point?
After I graduated from WVU, I went straight to Graduate School at the University of Texas in Austin, and at that time I was actually in Costume and Lighting Design. After I graduated, I stayed in Texas for a little bit, but I always felt very far away from home and very far away from what is my draw to the East Coast. So I took a teaching job at Dickinson College and while I was teaching there I was continuing my freelance career at the same time as the Resident Designer at the Jean Cocteau Repertory in New York. I was the Resident there for a long time and worked with the Founding Artistic Director of the Cocteau, Eve Adamson.
I was at Dickinson for about six years when I felt like I had done what I wanted to do and it was time to move on I thought I was going to freelance again, but at that time my brother was an undergraduate student at WVU in the Theatre Department and the Costume Designer there was leaving. I was interested in coming back home and being closer to my family, and I was interested in trying to make theatre an art in West Virginia. I got the job and I was WVU’s Costume Designer and head of Design for five years.
Then the Dean of the School recommended that I become the Chair. At that point I thought I was ready to move onto new things, but that opportunity was something that was appealing to me because I liked the idea of being in the leadership role of facilitating the art and the education. I wanted to get a sense of what it really meant to be an Administrator and it seemed like a good opportunity to try that out.
I reconnected with Ed Herendeen during my time there. When he asked me to come and design here that was in being the 5th year being Chair at WVU, and at that point again I was sort of ready to do something else. Being the Chair is hard and I was pretty young when I took over. It was a tough job – I learned a ton – but it was a tough job.
We rarely learn the details from this type of insight. What were your biggest challenges in being Chair of a Theatre Department at the University level?
There were two big challenges for me. The Theatre Department functions in a different way and with a different metric than other departments. For example, theatre really functions and happens a lot after 4 PM when most of the staff is gone. And that is unlike what a lot of other departments at a University are like. So it was getting people to understand that if I was in rehearsal for six weeks until 11 PM or 12 AM at night that I was not going to come in at 8 AM in the morning to sit in the office and be an Administrator. There was a learning curve about the expectations of theatre. Those things were challenging.
And then for me personally, I was a young woman and there was the good ol’ boy network. I looked around me and I was the only woman Chair in the Arts for a chunk of that time I was on the Associate Provost Chair.’s Advisory Council; there was one other woman on there. It just always felt like there I sat with these men who didn’t get it. That was challenging. I sort of feel like that was the first time that I understood sexism, gender issues, and the impact of all that politically. That was my moment.
I had reached that point of being ready to do something else and that’s when Ed started talking to me about coming to CATF. He wanted to restructure the staff so that he had an Associate Producer – an artistic partner. He felt like he was missing somebody who understood what he was trying to do. So we worked it outand I join them in January of 2007.
We all go on these cycles, these seasons of change to be challenged in new ways. How have your duties and focus evolved at CATF? What keeps you still interested?
When I first started here, the staff structure was a little different. There was a Business Manager and a part time Development person, and I did everything else So I was literally doing the job that I’m doing now and the job that James McNeel (Managing Director)is doing. James has been here almost four years now, and that really shifted my job a lot because it enabled me to focus more on the artistic development and facilitating of the Festival.
Since I have come here, my goal has been to enhance the quality and level of the work that we do. My primary focus is that people see better work in the theatre. And so I had been doing that, but now I really get to devote the majority of my time to that. And the other thing that has happened in the last couple of years is defining for myself what it means to be an artistic producer of theatre and the kind of Associate Producer that I want to become. I now have had the opportunity to chart how I want it to be.
I hear breath and a creative freedom now that you can fully architect and realize your artistic vision. What are some of those ideas?
They involve making a decision on how I would like the artists’ experience to be when they are here at CATF, and to have a greater daily impact and management of that. One of our Directors recently said to me – Tom Dugdale (Uncanny Valley) who is new – that he very much felt like CATF was a culture of “YES.” That when you come here as an artist we try to answer and provide all of the tools to enable you to do your work. That is exactly what I want to create. I don’t ever want to be the “No” here. That’s challenging. But it just makes people feel like they can work.
I would think that culture of “YES” would attract people wanting to work here. What is your process in creating this welcoming atmosphere? And how do you go about it?
I feel like what I have tried to do my entire life is to collect artists. So there are people who work for us that I have known for a really long time. Maybe I went to Graduate School with them or maybe I worked with them on a show. Maybe I saw their work and I’m tracking them. Some of it is maintaining the contacts that I have, and some of it is really shopping for people’s who work I really admire. The second part of it is getting to know that artist a little bit, to see if they have the collaborative personality that you really need, and to understand where you are when you come here. Some really, really talented people may not like this environment. (That’s not to say untalented people do.) It’s the isolation more than anything else or they can’t comprehend coming to a city without a public transportation system.
How often do you get to go out and see theatre and “collect” new talent?
It goes in waves. When I first had my son, I said to myself I was going to take a year to just be a mom and figure that out. It turned more into a year and half almost two. So I didn’t see a lot and I didn’t travel as much. But in the last year or so, I’ve really started to travel more and so more work. I think there was a period of three months there, where it seemed like every week I was either in New York, D.C., Philadelphia, or somewhere. Of course we try to go to places that do new work or represent the work of artists. We go to the Humana Festival almost every year, we often are invited to the New Dramatists work in New York, The Lark is a new play development center in New York that we have become very good friends and have developed a good relationship with them.
It’s been a year now. How has CATF’s relationship with the National New Play Network been working?
It’s been great. It’s just nice to have an organization like that who seems to be so supportive of the work and completely understands what you’re trying to do and is trying to help you do it. They have a lot of great grants and a lot of things that they’ve even helped to support Uncanny Valley through some grant work. So it’s very exciting and it has certainly connected us to other theatres in a way we would not have been connected before. I think that’s really important. There are times in this industry when people feel like they are competing and that they are not working toward the same goals. In fact it’s so much better when we are not like that and are truly collaborating. I feel like the National New Play Network is really helping theatres be better collaborators in the industry.
That’s great to hear. Let’s go back to a mention several questions ago about the birth of your son and being a mother. How have you balanced motherhood with your consuming theatre job with non-traditional hours?
Oh gosh. He is here quite a bit. I think the only reason that it works is because I was able to say I need help. There was a period of time when I really didn’t want to do that. I thought I can’t do that, I’m supposed to do it all by myself. That’s just not possible. It’s just not possible. When I finally accepted that, I was able to balance and juggle things better.
The other thing – and this was very hard for me because I was the workaholic, always in the theatre – was that I had to be outside of the theatre more. I couldn’t be here 24/7 the way I used to be. That was hard to give up at first but then you have that life realization about what balancing your life is, and you have greater clarity and are actually more effective at your work. I had to learn that a little bit too.
This is such an important part of the conversation because we don’t hear enough about this type of decision making from working mothers. Why was it difficult to ask for help and what difference had this made?
I think that it was hard for me at first because I believe we probably came out of a culture that was designed to make women feel that as professional women that their personal life was never supposed to enter their work, that their personal life was never supposed to be discussed, and if we ever allowed that to happen in the workplace then some how that was an indication of our inability to cope or a weakness. Especially being Chair, I definitely remember I NEVER talked about my personal life. Now I didn’t have a child then but your mother is sick at home. Nobody needs to know that, you just need to make sure that things are being taken care of. So I do feel like I came out of that culture.
Then I remember too when I was Chair, I had a faculty member that worked with me, she was a Lighting Designer and was a single mom. She used to talk about how hard it was for her and how different it was for her with her colleagues. When she would say “my son is sick, I have to go home. I can’t be at a technical rehearsal.” They could not understand that because they had a support system that could help them. All of that started to clear my understanding of what was important for me to say and do in the workplace. So it was pretty much retraining myself.
This was a silly moment but it was really a clarifying one for me with Matthew. He started in daycare when he was like seven weeks old and there was a period of time when I had one daycare provider call off quite a bit from work. One day, I had to bring him to work with me because I had no other options. I brought him to work, and I remember that day being a miserable day. Just a miserable day because I really couldn’t take care of him the way I needed to and I couldn’t really do my work effectively. It was almost in that moment when I thought – I have to separate these things. I have to devote the time to my work without Matthew, and that doesn’t mean I don’t love him. There are also times when I need to be with him and not at work. I just have to cherish the time I’m with him and value the time I’m at work and understand that they need to be separated.
Had you not made that decision if you had him in daycare?
It’s true. It’s true. You think you understand that but even though he was in daycare I felt like I was spending every minute with him. I just don’t think it was as conscious of a choice as it needed to be, and I was still feeling guilty. That a big part of it too – being able to let go of that guilt. There are times that I am a mom and there are times that I am an Associate Producer of theatre. You just have to accept it.
Thank you so much for sharing that because I think many people will be able to relate and will have their own stories.
It actually has been interesting here at CATF. We do have people who come to us in the summer and say, “I have my children.” We were interviewing one Director in the Spring who said to me, “look I have to be up front with you I have a child now and it’s important to me that they are able to come with me.” Not that I wouldn’t have done it before, but now I’m more committed to making their experiences here work for them. I know how hard it is when it doesn’t work and when people are not supportive of allowing your children to be with you. It’s kind of ridiculous. We should be able to do this.
How has that translated in furthering the artists’ experience at CATF?
I do feel like that has had an impact on my ability to provide that experience for people here. We have a lot of families that come and stay in the dorm rooms. The most important thing is that the artists feel like they have the freedom to work and not be burdened by the other challenges of life. Now, that can’t be helped in some cases. But we do everything we can do to eliminate those life struggles while they are so they’re focused and have energy to do their work. That’s what helps make the artist experience better.
Speaking of artists and shifting gears here, out of 100 plays produced by CATF as of last year, 47 were done by women. What are your thoughts on the disproportionate number of female playwrights being consistently produced by theatre companies today?
I feel that one of the struggles of the American Theatre right now is that we have forgotten a little bit about who we are and what we do, in the sense that our art form is about the relationship between the artist, the audience and the story. If we are not committed to acknowledging all the different people that are our audience, all the different stories that they have to share, and all the different artists that make those stories – we can’t make theatre and we can’t make theatre that people are going to be loyal to and support. So it’s not just the disproportionate number of women, it’s the lack of understanding that we are an art form about each other. And we have to stick to that. We have to get back to the simple storytelling of each other’s lives.
It’s idealistic, I realize, because there are so many things to consider in terms of finances and commercial success. But at the heart of it, if we are not telling stories that people what hear or people want to see, they’re not going to be there. We have to do a better job of reaching out and making people feel really welcomed in the theatre. If you go to the theatre and it feels awkward like it’s just being presented to you as opposed to being engaging with you, then people aren’t going to come.
Just like our discussion of mothers-we have to embrace everything that is happening in our world to accommodate the growth and changes of people’s lifestyles and get all of that into theatre. The role of women in our world is very different now. We are not in a culture of feminism or let women vote; it’s not that, but it’s a different representation now. I think we are doing a better job of being who we are. I don’t think we are trying to prove something to somebody else, I think we are finally coming into our own where we say we are different and we are valuable. Let’s get to the telling of the stories.
As theatres and people embrace that one to one experience, I think women will have even greater opportunities and more roles. We have to continue to advocate for each other and we have to continue to push those doors open for ourselves. There are still mindsets and structures that have to be changed and have to be educated and opened by someone.
Peggy what I have enjoyed the most is that you don’t hesitate in sharing your strong opinions. Thank you for that. You have an ambitious and innovative festival. What are you most proud about the work that’s being done at CATF?
We say that we develop and produce new work; the thing that I am most proud of is that we actually walk the walk of that statement. The Ashes Under Gait City is the poster child of that experience. I was really proud when hearing Christina Anderson talk about “being in the room and all of these smart people collaborating with her and talking about the work.” She was so jazzed to go home and write, and the energy level she felt to keep telling the story and working at it. To be motivated by that is exactly what we are supposed to be doing. As a Producer, when you see an artist respond with that type of enthusiasm, and deliver the art and turn into a remarkable production, that’s when you look at the whole thing and say, “it’s everything we say that we want to do. We’re doing something right.”
The Playwright’s Playground: The Playmakers CATF 2014: Actress, Daphne Gaines Gives an Insider’s Look at ‘The Ashes Under Gait City’ and Her Simone the Believer Character
The Playwright’s Playground: The Playmakers CATF 2014: PlaywrightCharles Fuller Talks About His Life, the Encouragement of Ralph Ellison, and the Complicated People in His Play ‘One Night’
The Playwright’s Playground: The Playmakers CATF 2014: Director Kristin Horton Discusses Radical Love, Lessons Learned, and the Power of Community with ‘Dead & Breathing.’
The Playwright’s Playground: The Playmakers CATF 2014: Director Lucie Tiberghien Discusses Process, New Plays, and the Complex, Textured Clarity of ‘The Ashes Under Gait City.’
The Playwright’s Playground: The Playmakers CATF 2014: An Interview with Playwright Christina Anderson(The Ashes Under Gait City).
The Playwright’s Playground: The Playmakers CATF 2014: Ed Herendeen & Peggy McKowen Discuss the Development of CATF Plays.
The Playwright’s Playground: The Playmakers CATF 2014: Interview With Ed Herendeen & Peggy McKowen Who Preview the Season.
The Playwright’s Playground is a monthly in-depth conversation with 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 continuing Column, I will also interview and introduce DCMTA readers to the many talented playwrights in the DMV area to learn about their writing process, their inspirations, and their motivations and struggles to write and produce their art. Sydney-Chanele Dawkins.