Fulbright Stories: Maureen Towey

by Jake Lasser

in Global Citizenship,Interviews,Leadership U

Post image for Fulbright Stories: Maureen Towey

(Photo by Brett Bailey)

Between World Theatre Day, the Global Connections Round 2 Cycle B application deadline, and our delegation to Cuba, March was a big month for international theatre exchange here at TCG. Although TCG is always actively working towards facilitating cultural exchange for the artists and organizations in our family, it’s important to remember that we are not the only ones! The Fulbright Scholarship program, sponsored by the U.S. Department of State, offers opportunities to artists in all stages of their career to live and work abroad.

In an effort to mine some golden truths about the Fulbright experience, I spoke with the lovely theatre director Maureen Towey (currently a TCG Leadership U: One on One recipient working with Berkeley Repertory Theatre in California) about her experience directing theatre in South Africa in 2006. Maureen traveled to Cape Town to assist Brett Bailey—in her words, a “wild man of the theatre.” She ended up spending a chunk of her Fulbright traveling the rural Eastern Cape of South Africa, living with Sangomas (traditional healers) and doing research that would eventually turn into a collaboration with Sojourn Theatre in Portland, OR called Throwing Bones. After her experience in the Sangoma community, Maureen spent the remainder of her Fulbright traveling through rural villages in South Africa that were on the verge of getting electricity with Swallow What You Steal, a show she created with South African actors on that topic. Of course, as is the case with all of the Fulbrighters I’ve spoken to, Maureen didn’t start her year in South Africa knowing where it would end up.

JL: So your original project was this collaboration with Brett Bailey?

MT: Yeah, exactly, and his company is called Third World Bun Fight. Both laugh. Also on my grant as a collaborator was the Baxter Theatre, which is affiliated with the University of Cape Town, which I think was helpful for my application—just because they are more known and more established, and having a university on there was useful (and was useful to me for research and stuff).

Really the thing that pointed me in the direction of Brett was a college friend of mine who had lived in South Africa for a while, and she knew my style and interests as a theatre-maker, and she was like, “oh, you need to talk to Brett, you’re going to love what he does, and I think you could learn a lot from him.” So I really just kind of cold-called him, which is crazy that it worked. But I just sent him my proposal and said, “Hey, can I put you on?” And then, you know, a year later or whatever, I was like, “Um, I got it, like, here I come!”

So that was how I found him, and I didn’t really know how it was going to go as his assistant, but he ended up being very generous with me. He allowed me to work with the artists a lot. And his process is really long, and really flexible, so I was hands on doing choreography, and doing scenework, and learning to work with artists who English is not their first language, so it becomes a much more physical style of directing. I’m actually much physically closer to the artists as I work. And it was the same thing with the sort of secondary connection/collaboration with the Baxter and the University of Cape Town. They really were there to introduce me to the wider theatre community and act as a resource. And I didn’t end up being over there all that much, but I think if you’re going to apply as an independent artist, that having a secondary connection to a university helps to validate your cause a bit.

JL: That’s not the first time I’ve heard that. That’s great advice. Did you plan on spending your entire time there assisting Brett?

MT: Laughs. That’s a good question. That is kind of what I implied in my application, but everything changes once you get there. And really, the timing of it worked out in an amazing way, where they started rehearsals like the day after I got there. So I was able to be with him for maybe two or three months. But for me, I felt like I really wanted to put into practice the things that I was learning. So actually directing my own work while I was there felt like a priority. And Brett had done these rural tours himself, and he was the only one that I knew who had done that type of thing. And I had seen pictures of it, and some of the pictures I’d seen of it were like the reasons why I wanted to go to South Africa. So having it be sort of like apprenticeship and then research and then creation was for me a really satisfying way to use the year. And also, it was much more possible in a place like South Africa, where there’s a lot less red tape. And, you know, I wanted to do a tour, so I drove around to the villages and shook hands with the elders and said, “We’re going to be back in your village on this date at this time, and can we use that field?” And that was it. You know? So things were able to move a lot faster, I think, than the way they would here.

Photo by Brett Bailey

JL: That’s really cool. This is going to be an impossible question and you’re going to hate me for it, but you mentioned that you wanted to put into use the things you were learning with Brett in your own practice. Is it possible to articulate a little bit more specifically what you learned with Brett that you hadn’t been learning in your artistic experiences back in the states?

MT: Yeah, well, I mean, that tour—I had only ever made work for American, educated, urban audiences. And what that tour forced me to do, and really Brett’s sensibilities and where he places value was, you know, I was suddenly making work for rural, African, not traditionally educated, some maybe not even literate audiences. So I think finding that those people could also be my audience—that I could also be in an artistic dialogue with them—cracked shit open for me. In terms of why I make work and who I make work for. And the fact that there was great wisdom in those audiences, and that they understood the work, and actually requested us to come back and create something more challenging next time, do you know what I mean? That I think still really stays with me as an artist in terms of audience. And I think that’s what he meant by like, “Don’t stay in Cape Townand make theatre in a box here. Get out. Get out into the country.” And, you know, other South African theatre-makers were like, “We haven’t been that far out.” And even for the black actors that I was working with, they were like, “Where are you…this is crazy! What are we doing?” So I think it was really more the philosophy that’s at the heart of his work and his collaborations that kind of crossed over.

JL: Was that unexpected for you to find that active, participatory partner in those audiences?

MT: Yeah, I think it was. And you know, some of it was too that these audiences didn’t know that you were supposed to clap at the end of a performance. So sometimes we would add a closing speech, like, if you like what you saw, you could clap for us. Or sometimes it would be more of an exchange, like our drummer would keep drumming and they would dance for us, sort of as a thank you. So it’s a very performative culture in that region anyway. Their song and dance is part of their world, but just not necessarily in the context of the theatrical performance. So it was interesting to navigate that and what that exchange wanted to be. You know, and one night, when we went to what became my other home village with the Sangomas, the Sangomas gave us dinner that night and sat us down, and they really danced for us that night. So it really was like, “You perform for us and we’ll perform for you.” I think people understood that exchange.

I think my favorite [performance of Swallow What You Steal] that we did, we were late to the performance, and we got stuck in the mud, and I went running out of the van, out to the performance area in the middle of this village, and the whole village was there. They were all just sitting, very patiently waiting for us. And it was men and women and children, which is rare there—to get the men out of their workday to come see it. And then afterwards, the sort of local councilwomen, they had a discussion about electricity and modernization and the collision of modern and traditional lifestyles. They used our play as a jumping-off point for a community discussion, which for me was super exciting. And not all of the villages we went to embraced it that thoroughly, but that place certainly did, and that was really amazing, to feel like it could have an impact in that way.

Photo by Brett Bailey

JL: That’s really great. And since you’re a Fulbright scholar and a current Leadership U recipient, I was wondering if you draw a connection between the two. How did the Fulbright shape your leadership skills and your interest in leadership, which I know is a very vague word that can have many definitions, but I’m interested in what you say.

MT: I think that going abroad and having to figure stuff out in this really foreign place and making it happen made me braver in my home context. You know, it’s almost like, they say that when you exercise in the beginning of the day, you do this really hard thing, and the rest of it is easier in comparison to that workout. And it was the same thing. South Africa is TOUGH, you know? It is a really beautiful but also really violent place. It’s a real land of extremes. And by getting stuff done there, it felt like, “Oh, this is easier now. Oh, what? We’re only dealing with one language? And we actually have a theatre building that we’re working in? Great, no problem.” And I think also it just allowed me to really refine my point of view as an artist in the world, and I think that makes you a better leader for sure, just when you’re clearer about what you want to see and you feel like you have the capacity to make it happen.

I think these residencies and these grants are so valuable, because it’s so hard to make it as a theatre artist financially and time-wise, and making space to make work, and having enough headspace to allow your imagination to roll with things, that being able to be an artist-in-residence or something like that gives you the time and space. I do feel like my time in South Africa sowed the seeds for my next five years of work, and allowed me to grow enough as an artist that I felt like I had a stronger tool belt, and just like stronger chops to be able to get it done and to have the drive to get it done.

JL: Finally, do you have any advice for theatre artists who are considering a Fulbright or who are applying?

MT: I think first, start early. The process takes a long time—and particularly, identifying your sort of sponsor or mentor is going to take time. So give yourself time, and do a lot of revisions on your essay. Statistically, make sure that you look at what the odds are in the country that you’re applying to, and allow that to influence the decision of where you’re going. It’s a lot harder to get a Fulbright in Europe than in Africa. And look at who has gotten the Fulbright in the past, because if that country has never given a Fulbright to an artist before, they’re probably not going to give one to you either. So really study that alumni list so you know which countries are friendly to artists.


Photo by Glenna Gordon

Maureen Towey directs plays and live performance. She worked with Arcade Fire as their Creative Director on their international tour in support of the Grammy award winning album, The Suburbs. Other highlights from that campaign include working on the ground-breaking interactive video, The Wilderness Downtown, working with Terry Gilliam for a livestream concert at Madison Square Garden, and managing a number of Arcade Fire’s charitable projects in Haiti. Most recently in her concert work, Towey art directed Ray LaMontagne’s 2012 solo tour and directed stage design for The Walkmen at BAM. For her theater work, she has received two Princess Grace fellowships and a 2006 Fulbright Scholarship in South Africa. Theater highlights include The Saints Tour (River to River Festival), Finding Penelope, Throwing Bones (Sojourn Theatre), Three Sisters (Working Theater), Emergence (Foundry Theatre), Swallow What You Steal (ubom, South Africa), Gruesome Playground Injuries, Animals Out of Paper, I Have Before Me a Remarkable Document… (Boise Contemporary Theatre). She has assisted Michael Rohd (GOOD), Brett Bailey (Opening ceremonies, Harare International Arts Festival, Zimbabwe) and JoAnne Akalaitis (Beckett Shorts, New York Theatre Workshop, starring Baryshnikov). Maureen is a native New Yorker, a Sojourn Theatre ensemble member, a former Development Director for Anne Bogart’s SITI Company, and a graduate of Northwestern University. She was recently awarded a TCG Leadership U Fellowship and is spending this season working with Tony Taccone at Berkeley Rep.


Photo by Laura Rose

Jake Lasser is the Project Coordinator in Artistic and International Programs at TCG. He is a freelance actor and dramaturg, and he is currently an Artist in Residence with Theater in Asylum. Jake also teaches and tutors in New York with the Princeton Review. Education: B.A. in Drama and Theatre Arts from Columbia University.