To The Mountaintop: Naomi Iizuka

by Naomi Iizuka

in National Conference

Post image for To The Mountaintop: Naomi Iizuka

(Photo by Michal Daniel. Pictured: Naomi Iizuka delivering her “To The Mountaintop” remarks at the 2014 TCG National Conference: Crossing Borders in San Diego.)

I’m not somebody who gives speeches.  That’s not what I do.  What I am is a problem-solver.  As a playwright, I have to figure out how to tell the story I’m trying to tell.  As a teacher, I have to figure out how to help students who might be struggling.  And as a single mom, I have to figure out what to do when my son wakes up with a fever, and I have to go to work, and I don’t have any childcare I lined up.  Every day of my life, I have to be a problem-solver.

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 believe universities can provide a model for how to do just that.

Recently, the Big Ten consortium, under the leadership of Alan MacVey at the University of Iowa, came together to address the fact that there were not enough plays by women being produced in regional theatres and in universities.  These Big Ten schools also sought to address the fact that there were not enough roles being written for women.  They saw a problem, and they decided to do something about it.  Together, they made a multi-year commitment to commission women playwrights to write plays where the majority of roles would be for women.  And then these same Big Ten schools committed to producing those plays in their main stage seasons.  I was the first playwright they commissioned.  The play I wrote opens at the University of Michigan this Fall and is slated for multiple productions this year and next.  Kirsten Greenidge is the second playwright being commissioned.  I look forward to seeing who the third, fourth and fifth playwright will be in this ground-breaking initiative.  The point is simple: If you see a problem, take action.

I want to give you another example of the way in which universities can be part of the solution.  I believe one of the biggest obstacles to a more inclusive and diverse theatre is the one-size-fits-all model of production.  If we want a theatre that is truly inclusive and diverse, we need to figure out how to genuinely support all the different ways that artists create work.  Some projects require a deep engagement with community partners over long periods of time.  Some are multi-platform projects that require intensive and ongoing collaborations with designers in the room from the outset.  Some are radically reconceiving how audiences participate in the creative process.  These projects and many others do not lend themselves to a one-size-fits-all approach.  They do not lend themselves to a four week rehearsal process and a few days of tech.

I believe universities may be able to offer solutions.  I’ll give an example of what I mean.  When I taught at UCSB, I started something called the Summer Theatre Lab.  My idea was simple: Invite a diverse group of artists to UCSB to work on projects with the students. How the artists used their time at the Lab was up to them.  It was completely artist-driven.  My only rule was that whatever artists were working on, that they include students, not as gophers or assistants, or silent observers, but as participating artists in their own right.  And so I invited people like Luis Alfaro, Daniel Alexander Jones, Chay Yew, Lisa Portes, Jonathan Moscone, Anne Garcia Romero, Les Waters, Jessica Hagedorn, Lisa D’Amour, Sean San Jose, and Campo Santo.  I trusted that if I brought everybody together and gave them what they asked me for, whether it be bilingual actors or a live band, that if I served really good food, and then if I just got out of the way, amazing things would happen.  And they did.  And they did in surprising and unpredictable ways.

Yes, plays were written and projects developed that went on to be produced regionally and off Broadway.  But for me, even more exciting, there were all these students, many of whom were the first people in their families to go to college, kids from underserved and underrepresented communities in Fresno, Pacoima, Anaheim, and San Jose, talented kids who had never really done theatre, and now were all of a sudden really, really excited about theatre.  Many of these young men and women found mentors and collaborators because of that Summer Theatre Lab.  And an extraordinary number of them went on to pursue theatre, including playwrights Chris Peña, Dan LeFranc, and Sharif Abu-Hamdeh, to name only few.

If we are truly seeking to create a field that is more diverse and more inclusive, I believe universities are a huge, untapped resource.  My experience with the Summer Theatre Lab and at UC-San Diego where I now teach have convinced me that universities are uniquely positioned to serve as laboratories for artists to create new work in a way that regional theatres can never be.  Universities have unparalleled resources.  We have spaces to rehearse.  We have state of the art performance spaces.  We have housing for artists.  Universities can be places where artists can create work in non-traditional ways over longer periods of time.  Where artists can work with visionary thinkers in other disciplines like Physics, Engineering, and Bio-ethics, and where they can push the art form in new directions.  Universities can also be places where artists have the opportunity to teach and learn from a genuinely diverse community of students who will, if we inspire and nurture them, become that next generation of artists and audiences.  I would reach out to all of you in this room to think about ways in which universities can play a bigger role in making our field more inclusive and diverse.  The Big Ten initiative and the UCSB Summer Theatre Lab are just two models of what that might look like.

I realize that this is just a small part of a much larger conversation.  There are many problems to be solved.  But there are also many problem-solvers among us, people of action, and that makes me optimistic.  I want to end with something I tell my writing students and myself everyday.  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.  Thank you.

conf14_naomi_iizukaNaomi Iizuka’s plays include 36 Views, Polaroid Stories, Anon(ymous), Language of Angels, Aloha, Say The Pretty Girls, Tattoo Girl, Skin, Concerning Strange Devices From The Distant West, Ghostwritten, At The Vanashing Point, Hamlet: Blood in the Brain (a collaboration with CalShakes and Campo Santo + Intersection for the Arts), and 3 Truths (a collaboration with Cornerstone Theater Company.) Her plays have been produced by Berkeley Rep, the Goodman, the Guthrie, Cornerstone, Intiman, Children’s Theater Company, the Kennedy Center, the Huntington Theater, Actors’ Theatre of Louisville, GeVa, Portland Center Stage, the Public, Campo Santo + Intersection for the Arts, Dallas Theatre Center, the Brooklyn Academy of Music’s “Next Wave Festival,” and Soho Rep. Her plays have been published by Overlook Press, Playscripts, Smith and Kraus, Dramatic Publishing, Sun and Moon Press, and TCG. lizuka is an alumna of New Dramatists and the recipient of a PEN/Laura Pels Award, an Alpert Award, a Joyce Foundation Award, a Whiting Writers’ Award, a Stavis Award from the National Theatre Conference, a Rockefeller Foundation MAP grant, an NEA/TCG Artist in Residence grant, a McKnight Fellowship, a PEN Center USA West Award for Drama, Princeton University’s Hodder Fellowship, and a Jerome Fellowship. Her play GOOD KIDS is the first play commissioned by the Big Ten Consortium’s New Play Initiative designed to provide strong female roles for theatre students and professional actors. Iizuka currently heads the MFA Playwriting program at the University of California, San Diego.