2014 TCG National Conference Day 1

by Jacqueline E. Lawton

in National Conference

Post image for 2014 TCG National Conference Day 1

(Photo by Michal Daniel. Pictured: Naomi Iizuka, Kristoffer Diaz, Peter C. Brosius, Matika Wilbur, Sarah Bellamy)

At last! The first day of the conference was finally here! I knew the work we had ahead of us would be rigorous and require deep engagement. I knew that folks were ready to see how a year of advocating for clear, definable actions steps toward Diversity, Inclusion and Equity had manifested, if at all. I knew the conversations around this work would be powerful, charged and dynamic. And I suspected that this conference would set a precedent. Well, folks, I’m here to tell—if you haven’t heard already—I was not disappointed.

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(Photo by Michal Daniel of the Identity Affinity Group: African, African American, Black.)

Identity Affinity Groups – Creating a Safe Space

For the first time, TCG worked to create intentional space for Identity Affinity Groups based on how attendees self-identify in four areas of identity: gender, ability, sexual orientation, and race/ethnicity. Affinity groups are designated “safe spaces” where individuals from underrepresented communities can come together in solidarity and empowerment. By their nature, affinity groups are meant to be “exclusive” because these individuals may not feel safe in the larger community because they are in the numerical minority.

Over the years, these groups formed on their own out of a desire for to network, problem solve, and advocate for diversity, inclusion and equity. Meetings would take place in between sessions or while other sessions were taking place.  In order to honor this desire to connect in this way, TCG ensured that attendees would be able to connect and not miss out on other sessions and events. While they suggested a handful of groups, conference attendees were encouraged to propose and/or facilitate them as well.

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(Photo by Michal Daniel of the Identity Affinity Group: Asian Pacific Islander.)

Each Affinity Group met separately over the course of the Conference and then everyone came together on Saturday afternoon to share experiences, learnings and possible next steps. These are the Identity Affinity Groups that met on Thursday:

  • African, African American, Black Facilitators: Mica Cole, Associate Producer (Oregon Shakespeare Festival) and Malcolm K. Darrell, Founder & CEO (MKD Arts Management)
  • Asian Pacific Islander Facilitators: Tim Dang, Artistic Director, East West Players and Randy Reyes, Artistic Director, Mu Performing Arts
  • Latin@s in Theatre Facilitators: Alex Meda, Producing Artistic Director (Teatro Luna) and Anthony Rodriguez, Producing Artistic Director (Aurora Theatre)
  • Mixed Race Facilitator: Khanisha Foster, Artist
  • Native American, Alaska Native, Hawaiian and First Nations Facilitators: Larissa FastHorse, Artist and Randy Reinholz, Artistic Director, San Diego State University, Native Voices
  • White Allies Facilitators: Rachel Grossman, Ring Leader (dog & pony dc) and Abe Rybeck, Artistic Director (The Theater Offensive)

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(Photo by Michal Daniel of the Identity Affinity Group: Mixed Race.)

The objectives for the Identity Affinity Groups were stated as follows:

  • To empower networking and coalition-building for theatre practitioners who self-identify as part of these groups;
  • To provide opportunities for peer-connection and mobilization to dismantle long-standing inequities and structural barriers in our theatre field and larger culture.

Now, owing to the nature of why these groups formed in the first place, TCG asked an important question with regard to the role and presence of allies in these spaces. Here’s how it was asked on the proposal form:

While the role of allies is essential in advancing diversity, inclusion and equity, TCG believes it is essential to create safe space for conversation among those who self-identify as part of these Identity Affinity Groups. However, if you feel it’s necessary to have allies at your Group, please let us know why.

The facilitators of each group needed to determine how allies would participate based on the needs of their communities. But what is an ally and what does it mean to participate?

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(Photo by Michal Daniel of the Identity Affinity Group: Latin@s in Theatre.)

The Role of Allies

TCG defines ally as “someone who understands the many layers of oppression, can identify positions of privilege that they hold, and actively works to rectify inequity.” While the role of allies is essential in advancing diversity, inclusion and equity, TCG believes it is essential to create safe space for conversation among those who self-identify as part of these Identity Affinity Groups. Understanding that the outstanding allies working in the American Theatre would want to continue their work, problem solve, and process their experiences, TCG recommended that allies to propose their own gatherings during these session time slots.

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(Photo by Michal Daniel of the Identity Affinity Group: White Allies.)

When I learned about the White Allies Affinity group, I wanted to show my support for this much-needed work and learn more about their needs and concerns. I even tweeted to Rachel and Abe that I would be sitting front row. My support was met with enthusiasm, but also a clear understanding that this space was not for me. While I hope that TCG will consider hosting an Interracial Allies meeting, I understood the need for this work to be exclusive to whites only. In fact, I encourage it. There’s a great deal of work that White Theatre Artists and White Allies need to do on their own around identity, unpacking privilege, and determining a multitude of ways to dismantle the systems of white patriarchal bias that exclude so many men of color and women.

Intergenerational Leaders of Color Meeting

My first session of the day was the Intergenerational Leaders of Color (ILOC) meeting. For those who may not know, the ILOC meetings started in Baltimore 2009 facilitated by Joe Haj, Producing Artistic Director at Playmakers Rep and member of TCG’s Board of Directors. Joe facilitated again next year in Chicago.  Hana Sharif (Associate Director at Center Stage) facilitated the meeting in L.A. in 2011, Benny Ambush (Senior Distinguished Producing Director-In-Residence) led the meetings in Boston in 2012 and Dallas in 2013. This year, Sarah Bellamy (Artistic Director at Penumbra Theatre) took the helm.

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(Photo by Michal Daniel of the Identity Affinity Group: Intergenerational Leaders of Color.)

The annual ILOC meeting grew out of the need expressed by many young professionals of color, who yearned for mentorship and advice with challenging situations, along with several veteran leaders who believed there would be great value in intergenerational conversations with multidirectional learning and lessons to be shared. Having attended the past three, I can firmly say that it is a rare, wonderful, and unique opportunity to be in a room filled with more than 100 leaders of color. Even in D.C.—or should I say especially—there is a no other space in my professional life where such an event can occur. I treasure every second of our time together.

Emilya Cachapero began the meeting with a 10 minute intergenerational exercise that energized the room with the spirit of mentorship:

  • Mid-career and Veteran theatre artists were to instructed to share something they wish they knew at the beginning of their career with Emerging and Early career theatre artists.
  • Emerging and Early career theatre artists were instructed to ask something they wish they knew how to do now to Mid-career and Veteran theatre artists.

Once we were all seated, Teresa Eyring welcomed us into the space, shared her enthusiasm and support for our convening, and then left to allow us space to do the work we needed to do. At which point, Carmen Morgan explained that this session was intended solely as a space for Leaders of Color. She asked those of us who identify as Leaders of Color to remain and make room for others who were just arriving. She then asked those in the room who identified as White Allies to honor the intentions of the space, stand in solidarity with us, and help create a space for us to convene as a community. This was powerful moment of disruption and deep learning…

While I can’t speak for all of the meetings since 2009, I do know that in 2012 and 2013, White Allies were allowed to attend and bear witness. In fact, I had invited a White Ally—an emerging artistic director who wants to build a diverse and inclusive board—to attend this meeting with me. When Carmen asked the White Allies to support us in a different way, I immediately noticed the energy of the room shift. My friend and I looked at each other. She packed up her things and said, “Okay, I’ll see you later.” I whispered, “I’ll text you and make sure you get introductions throughout the conference.”

Once the room settled again, our moderator, Sarah Bellamy opened the room to discussion. Immediately, the moment of disruption was addressed. As I listened and took notes, I began to understand what was happening underneath the conversation taking place and two critical elements became clear to me:

  • The work one does as an ally is not about the needs and desires of the ally. It’s about creating a more inclusive and equitable world. It’s about raising awareness around conscious and unconscious bias. It’s about dismantling a set of privileges that disenfranchises others, even you benefit from said privileges. But again, while it requires your energy, commitment, self-education, it’s not about you.
  • People of color have a lot of work to do around feeling comfortable when white people are uncomfortable. Historically, and very recently, our lives have depended on white people’s comfort. We have to move pass that.

While the processing of this moment could have gone on for the entirety of the hour, I appreciated that Sarah moved us forward to address our needs. Of course, the need to process remains and I’m curating a conversation with those who were in attendance.

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(Photo by Michal Daniel of the Identity Affinity Group: Intergenerational Leaders of Color.)

Sarah asked the Mid-career and Veteran theatre artists to share what they wish they had known:

  • Had a grasp on the cannon of plays and roles available for artists of color.
  • How important it was to write, the importance of collaboration and mentorship.
  • Had a wider focus, other than just acting. Learn more about producing, how to create space and raise funds.
  • How to build allies.
  • How to empower oneself to speak more.
  • Trust your instincts and realize that just because it hasn’t been done before doesn’t meant that it isn’t the right move.
  • Keeping a balance between artistry and managements.
  • The universe always says yes with no exception and it is made for our pleasure. There is a cornucopia emptying abundance into our hands. We go astray when we curse the blessings that do not bear our names.

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(Photo by Michal Daniel of the Identity Affinity Group: Intergenerational Leaders of Color.)

Sarah then asked the Emerging and Early career theatre to share what they wish they knew how to do:

  • How to find a home and tribe of people to call a home, and how to be an un-starving artist.
  • How to build our own Broadway and create a space of our own to support our own work.
  • How do you sustain one’s passion and drive over time?
  • How to create pathways so that the consequence of building an infrastructure doesn’t compromise the work.
  • How do we find and work with artists who don’t understand that theatre is a place for them? Conversely, how to support theatre artists in formalized MFA training programs.
  • How to create work that isn’t defined by race.
  • How to not run away from where we come from.
  • How do we formalize the mentor/mentee relationship?

Our final question was a meditation on next steps:

  • How do we create a Middle Eastern Theatre community and how can we grow the Native American Theatre community?
  • How do we prepare for an ever growing and increasing mix-raced community?
  • How do we understand and celebrate each other’s aesthetic? How do we cultivate a cross-pollination of audiences across race and cultures?
  • How do we find the strength and courage to stand up and call out racial aggressions when they happen
  • Can we have an entire pre-conference on intergenerational leaders of color?
  • How do we create an infrastructure that identifies who the artists, leaders, and arts administrators of color are? How do we address the pipeline of stage manages and designers of color?
  • Remember that our elders are our resources and they’ve been through what we’re dealing with right now. We also need to take up the baton at the theaters of color.
  • How can we engage children in the sustainability and growth of the community?

When the session ended, there was sense that we had gone through a rich, dynamic, and powerful moment together. For me, the ground had shifted and opened up to a new way of being in the world with clearer eyes and an even greater sense of urgency to continue this work.

New Play Development/Dramaturgy Affinity Group

In addition to the Identity Affinity Groups, TCG curated job title-based Affinity Groups for theatre practitioners. As one of many theatre artists wearing multiple hats, I was excited to attend the New Play Development/Dramaturgy Affinity Group. I arrived a bit later, but these were the topics of discussion listed on the board:

  • Ensembles of color
  • Resources to support new play development
  • Workshops versus production
  • Introducing new plays to subscribers
  • Best practices outside staged reading
  • Dramaturgs communicating/engaging audiences
  • New plays connect to theatres that will produce the plays

The conversation started by listing resources for finding new plays:

  • New Play Exchange from National New Play Network: a cloud-based script database, enhanced with a robust search-and-filter mechanism, crowd-sourced recommendations of plays, and the connectivity of a social networking site. The NPX lets writers share scripts and helps theaters discover and evaluate them in a more streamlined, targeted way than ever before. It’s a neutral platform built for the common good of the entire new play sector—writers, producers, and everyone in between who enjoys new work—and its goal is ambitious: to revolutionize the way playwrights and theaters connect field-wide. Click here to learn more.
  • The List from the Kilroys: The Kilroys surveyed 127 influential new play leaders to compile a mighty brain trust. Their responses showcase the abundance of excellent new work being written by women today: These experts identified more than 300 plays as among the best work they had encountered in the past year. THE LIST comprises the 46 most recommended plays from this survey. Click here to learn more.
  • We Exist from Elaine Romero, Rachel Jendrzejewski, and Christine Evans: an open source listing of female and female-identified playwrights was created as a response to the #theSummit / #pipeline debacle and has been spearheaded by Elaine Romero  in tandem with many other great artists, and we want you to take part. Click here and here to learn more.

Then we worked to unpack the perception that if a theatre produces a title that people know, then you will achieve success. Also, that if we select plays that we think will connect with certain audiences, then those audiences will come out in support of the plays. However, no one really had any statistics to prove that this is true. It seems we’re caught in a loop of relied-upon supposition around these ideas and continue to make decisions accordingly.

From there, we spent a great deal of time discussing audiences and new plays. Some of the questions were:

  • How do we encourage audiences to feel comfortable going to new plays?
  • How do we prepare our audiences for the experience of the new play without giving away the secret?
  • Do we trust our audiences?
  • Audience dramaturgy that introduces the play to the audiences prior to the show.
  • Telling the audience that the playwrights choices are intentional and ensuring them that it’s okay if they don’t understand what they just saw.

It was an interesting conversation. Personally, when making the choice to see a new play, and professionally, when writing, teaching, or dramaturging a new play, I don’t think of them as risks. I think of them as extraordinary moments of discovery. I have no idea what to expect and enter the experience wanting to learn. I inspire this spirit of interest in my students, but wish I could share it more widely with theatre artists, critics, and audiences.

As the conversation progressed, an interesting moment occurred. The room we were has a large window that overlooked the ocean. Suddenly, a beautiful kite danced into view. I leaned forward and was completely elated. They kite dipped up and down, and circled all around. I was transfixed. I wanted to interrupt the conversation and tell everyone to look out the window. Then it occurred to me, this is this how I want artistic directors and audiences to feel about new plays: eager to read it, enthusiastic to produce and experience it, and determined to tell everyone they know to go see it.

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(Photo by Michal Daniel of the opening plenary session Navy Band Southwest performance.)

To the Mountaintop – Open Plenary Session

As Day One of the conference drew to a close, I reflected back through my notes and exhaled. Five and half hours had past, but it felt like a week. I took stock in the day, in all we had experienced, and felt so grateful to be in attendance. I could hardly wait to experience the Open Plenary Session, which based on the description, promised to be evocative and meaningful:

To The Mountaintop: As we continue to take action on advancing diversity and inclusion, it’s time to take in the big picture and ask: How do we define success? What would a truly equitable theatre field look like? Sound like? Who sits at the table? (Is there even a table?) Who is in the audience and what do they see on stage? How is it funded? What is the view from Martin Luther King’s mountaintop, and how can get there together? These questions resonate in the unfulfilled promise of our country and world, as well as our theatre field. That’s why we’ve asked four cultural leaders to take that visionary climb and imagine what our world could look like—will look like—when we achieve true and lasting inclusion and equity.

Featured speakers include:

  • Sarah Bellamy, Co-Artistic Director, Penumbra Theatre Company
  • Kristoffer Diaz, Playwright
  • Naomi Iizuka, Playwright/University of California-San Diego
  • Matika Wilbur, Photographer, Project 562
  • Peter Brosius, Artistic Director, Children’s Theatre Company

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(Photo by Michal Daniel of Sarah Bellamy.)

Sarah Bellamy began by addressing how Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s vision, spirit, and leadership could serve us today in the American Theatre. So much of she said resonated deeply with me, and you can read the full text here and watch the entire session here, but I’d like to share the following with you now:

“Leaders serve: They put the people first. Their vision extends beyond themselves, even beyond the scope of their own lives. It is not about them.

Leaders listen: They are humble in the face of collective wisdom. They take the time to hear what individuals want for their communities. They address injustice by first making space for those most impacted to have voice.

Leaders don’t work alone: As brilliant as Dr. King was he was one of thousands of people who sacrificed for the vision of an equitable future. From parents who sent their children to fill the jails in Birmingham, to the cab drivers who charged 10 cents a ride – the same as the bus fair in Montgomery; everyone had a part to play.

These are vital attributes of leaders who understand equity. We need these kinds of leaders today – who get it on a fundamental in your blood and bones level. We need an army of people who believe that diversity and inclusion are vital benchmarks for the health and success of an organization, not because it will increase audiences or generate new income, but because it is simply the right thing to do.

Where is our courage? What is our vision? Us, this wonderful, wacky, brilliant, daring community of artists and arts-lovers. How big do we dare to dream?”

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(Photo by Michal Daniel of Kristoffer Diaz.)

The first speaker, playwright Kristoffer Diaz, took the stage and spoke quite plainly about the importance of programming to your mission statement:

“And I think that if you claim in your mission statement to value diversity, and then your work’s not diverse, or if you claim in your mission statement to represent the demographics of your city, and then your work doesn’t match up to the numbers, well, then we’ve got a problem.”

He also offered a three-point plan for fostering diversity, the final of which I’d like to share with you here:

“If you want to promote and support diversity, promote and support your artists.
Ask us what we need.
Not just as artists. As people.
Playwrights need a lot of things.
We’ve made a terrible career choice.
We have no job security.
We don’t make a living wage.
We have no real path to health insurance.
I know this doesn’t sound a problem particular to diversity.
And it’s not.
It’s just something I really want to mention in front of you all.
Because it’s a problem particular to humans.
We need these things to survive and thrive and continue doing the work we do.”

Click here to read the full text.

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(Photo by Michal Daniel of Kristoffer Diaz.)

The second speaker was photographer Matika Wilbur, who spoke passionately about her work, Project 562: Changing the Way We See Native America. With her breathtaking photography, she hopes to create a new system of knowing, a new way of thinking. Here’s a description of the project from her website:

“Last December, I sold everything in my Seattle apartment, packed a few essentials into my war pony, and hit the open road. Since then, I’ve been embarking on an epic adventure: Project 562.

For the past year I have been fulfilling the project’s goal of photographing citizens of each federally recognized tribe in the United States (there are now 566). Most of the time, I’ve been invited to geographically remote reservations to take portraits and hear stories from a myriad of tribes, while at other times I’ve photographed members of the 70 percent of Native Americans living in urban settings. My hope, is that when the project is complete, it will serve to educate the nation and shift the collective consciousness toward recognizing our own indigenous communities.

Imagine walking through an exhibit and realizing the complex variety of contemporary Native America. Imagine experiencing a website or book that offered insight into every Tribal Nation in the United States. What if you could download previously untold histories and stories from Apaches, Swinomish, Hualapai, Northern Cheyenne, Tlingit, Pomo, Lumbee, and other first peoples? What if you had heard those stories in grade school?

Project 562 is making all this happen.”

Click here to visit her website and view her work, where it can truly be appreciated.

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(Photo by Michal Daniel of Naomi Iizuka.)

Next was playwright (and my former professor) Naomi Iizuka who spoke about both University of California-Santa Barbara’s Summer Theatre Lab and the Big Ten Conference Playwriting Initiative as models for how to develop new work, foster diverse voices, achieve Gender Parity, and nurture mentor/mentee relationships with professional theatre artists and theatre students. She opened with powerful directive, which I’d like to share here:

“If we want a more equitable, inclusive and diverse theatre, I believe we need less rhetoric and more problem solving.  So in that spirit, I’d like to identify what I perceive to be two of the biggest problems getting in the way of true equity, diversity, and inclusivity in theatre.  And I’d like to propose some possible solutions.

One of the biggest problems (I think we can all agree) is the shameful fact that there are still so many voices that are not being heard on our stages.  If we genuinely want a diverse and inclusive theatre, then we need to actively seek out artists from underserved and underrepresented communities, and we need to produce their work.  And, yes, it is that simple.  It’s not enough to speak about inclusion and equity in grant applications and panel discussions.  Those principles of inclusion and equity need to translate into action…

I want to end with something I tell my writing students and myself every day. And that is this: Show, Don’t tell. As writers, we have all these great ideas, but if those ideas aren’t showing up on the page, then it doesn’t count.  It’s an intention that has yet to be embodied.  If we want a theatre that genuinely embodies the principles of equity, inclusion, and diversity, those principles need to inform every choice that we make: in how we allocate resources, how we program seasons, how we support artists and the communities they come from, and how we recruit and train a younger generation.  We all know what the mountaintop looks like.  We do.  We know it in our bones.  We just need to find ways to climb better and faster.  So take action wherever you are, in whatever way you can.  Only when our actions match our words will true and lasting change happen. “

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(Photo by Michal Daniel of Peter C. Brosius)

Finally, Peter C. Brosius, Artistic Director of Children’s Theatre Company, spoke passionately about the creation and implementation of CTC’s ACT One program, a cohesive platform for access, diversity and inclusion in their audiences, programs, staff, and board.

“Theaters need to be leaders in bringing us together, in making sure that all of us are at the table. This collision, abrasion, merging, marrying, uniting, co-learning, THIS COGNITIVE DIVERSITY is exactly what has always made this country vital. It is where our progress has come from; and it is our greatest competitive advantage. But can we honestly say that this is true of our own institutions?

Access and inclusion is creative problem solving on a daily basis just like making theatre. Meeting these goals takes company-wide participation, dedication, time, hard work, commitment and money.”

He also reminded us of this powerful truth:

“If it isn’t in the budget it’s just talk. If you wait for this work to be funded or make it rely on funding, it won’t happen or worse, it’ll happen for however long the grant lasts and fade away. Invest and your allies will join you.”

Then Sarah Bellamy returned to close the session and shared this invaluable and insightful vision:

“We must acknowledge where we are – the challenges and the opportunities –that’s the climb. We must build trust, and listen to those voices we’ve silenced – either through ignorance or simply by maintaining the status quo.

We’re living through history. And it’s messy. Sometimes it’s going to hurt, and we’ll make mistakes, or be embarrassed, or not know what to do. But the great thing about theatre people is that we know how to work collaboratively; we know how to rely on other human beings to do what they do best. We must reach beyond what’s familiar and where we’re safe into spaces where we’re vulnerable, and wherein we must rely on the kindness and compassion of others. We must need each other.

And that, that is where we excel. Achieving true and lasting equity will require hard work in all sectors of society, but the most profound gift we have to give is our ability to help people recognize themselves in those who seem so very different. Where else can human empathy be called forward with such force, with such audacity? Theatre can engender transformational change in artists and audiences alike. We must not be afraid to use it. But to wield the power of theatre means to accept responsibility for what you offer up to the world. Leaders serve. They listen. They don’t work alone. Leaders are accountable. And they know that they are always learning.”

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(Photo by Michal Daniel.)

From there, we headed to The Prado at Balboa Park to attend the opening night reception. Of course, I stayed much longer than I anticipated because there were many wonderful people to see and a lively and impressive high school jazz band (!), but when I returned to the hotel, I could hardly sleep. I recounted the day’s events, the lessons I had learned, and the connections I had made. I felt so fortunate to be there and could hardly wait for the next day.

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(Photo by Michal Daniel.)

conf13_jacqueline_lawtonJacqueline E. Lawton received her MFA in Playwriting from the University of Texas at Austin, where she was a James A. Michener fellow. Her plays include Anna K; Blood-bound and Tongue-tied; Deep Belly Beautiful; The Devil’s Sweet Water; The Hampton Years; Ira Aldridge: Love Brothers Serenade, Mad Breed and Our Man Beverly Snow. She has received commissions from Active Cultures Theater, Discovery Theater, National Portrait Gallery, National Museum of American History, Round House Theatre and Theater J. A 2012 TCG Young Leaders of Color, she has been nominated for the Wendy Wasserstein Prize and a PONY Fellowship from the Lark New Play Development Center. She resides in Washington DC and is a member of Arena Stage’s Playwrights’ Arena. jacquelinelawton.com