(This post is a part of the Diversity & Inclusion blog salon led by Online Curator Jacqueline E. Lawton. Check out further Diversity & Inclusion interviews on Jacqueline’s blog. If you are interested in participating in this or any other Circle blog salon, email Gus Schulenburg.)
Diversity and Inclusion Blog Salon: Theatre for Young Audiences
JACQUELINE LAWTON: First, tell me about the work you do as a theatre artist or administrator.
GABRIEL JASON DEAN: I’m a playwright/screenwriter and I teach undergraduate and graduate playwriting/screenwriting. At this point in my career, my body of work, both for children and adults is primarily concerned with narratives and characters who must stretch toward the beating heart of understanding; plays that chronicle those moments when we are stretched beyond our judgments and fears to compassion. But don’t get me wrong. My plays don’t always play “nice”. In art as in life, compassion is hard-won and thoroughly tested at every turn. I ultimately see myself as an architect of questions. I don’t write plays that have the answers because I believe the role of art is not only to validate, but to challenge who we are. I want my plays to be the beginning of a long conversation between the collaborators and the audience. As theatre-goer and writer, I crave transformative work that gnaws at my bones for life.
JL: How do you identify in terms of race, culture, and gender? How has this identity impacted your ability to work in the American Theatre? Have certain opportunities been made available to you owing to “who” you are? Have certain doors been closed to you?
GJD: I’m a white, straight, American male– the most privileged identity working in the American Theatre. No opportunities have explicitly been made available to me because of this, but I am 150% positive that somehow along the way, my career has benefited from my identity. We work in a system so ensconced in white dude privilege that it happens unconsciously. It’s the norm. It’s what we inherited. Personally, I go to the theatre/cinema/art galleries to have my limited view challenged and I try to create art that does that too. Which means sometimes I write characters from cultures and identities not my own. I do so with a lot of research and respect. I try to work toward the change I’d like to see in our world in my work by writing stories about people who live without this privilege. And yes, even that, my attempt to write stories that change our notions of “norm,” is a result of my privilege as a white guy. Doing this kind of work is difficult, dangerous, and requires a lot of listening. I’ve taken some heat from colleagues whose biases tell them that white, straight American men are only capable of writing and understanding white, straight American men. So, to some degree, my work has been criticized because of my identity. I think it’s always important for white male writers (maybe all writers) to ask ourselves, “What right do I have to tell this story?” And if you’re answer is personal–it goes beyond the “artistic license” argument, beyond the “we’re all human” claim– then write the play, because if it’s personal, it’s your story too. And then share it as much as possible with an audience of people who identify with the characters in your play and deeply and openly listen to their criticism.
JL: What inspired you to work in the Theatre for Young Audiences field? What impact do you hope to have?
GJD: Suzan Zeder—her work and her passion for the field. I was fortunate to study with Suzan while I was a graduate student at the Michener Center at UT-Austin. She has since retired. Suzan opened me up to TYA and ignited my own passion for the field when I took her Playwriting for Youth class in my first semester at UT. I jokingly refer to her as my “fairy godmother”. I developed my first TYA play, THE TRANSITION OF DOODLE PEQUENO with her at UT. You can read more about the play and its journey in these two articles:
To be frank, I think American TYA is in a slump at the moment, but has lots of momentum and enthusiasm to get out of that slump. Artistic Directors and their institutions are wary of unknown titles or plays that seek to do more than passively entertain audiences. I’m not saying theatres should program boring, erudite, issue-oriented plays. Quite the opposite. I highly value entertainment. But I see a lot of work nowadays that only seeks to entertain versus both entertaining and elevating an audience. Everyone seems to be so financially on the brink that programming decisions are made from a place of fear versus a place of artistic integrity and confidence. In my experience thus far with DOODLE, which I think is a fun romp start to finish, TYA theatres are afraid of challenging both their audience, and what’s more likely true, they are afraid of presenting material that will challenge the people who foot the bill for that audience—parents and educators. But, I’ve had inspiring conversations with up-and-coming leaders in the field that seem to indicate that the tide will soon turn. I really hope so, mostly for the sake of the audience and the field, but also selfishly, for my own sake. I want to keep writing TYA, but can only do so if the kinds of plays I write are produced. If we want theatre to matter in the future, then we have to program theatre that matters to our young audiences now, not necessarily theatre that matters to the bottom line…although I don’t think the two are mutually exclusive. We have to write the stories of the kids in the communities our theatres serve and we need to be creating originalstories that are meant specifically for the theatre, not adapting stories to our medium. If I have any impact in this field, I hope that through my work, I’m able to show that there is a hunger out there for original, complicated stories in TYA and to create a deeper respect for our young audience’s ability to grapple with complex material.
JL: Do we need more organizations dedicated to fostering new plays for Theatre for Young Audience? What is gained by focusing our attention, talent, and resources to this community?
GJD: I’m not sure if more organizations is the answer. New TYA plays should be mainstream, not relegated to the impoverished fringe where upstart organizations often reside. The institutional theatres that exist should earmark funding for the development and production of several new plays each season and for the education components that might accompany more complicated plays. TYA is important for the future of all theatre. The stories we encounter at an early age, just like anything else, influence who we become. They stick with us. They are touchstones. If kids encounter important, deeply meaningful stories in the theatre, then they are much more likely to become engaged audience members throughout the rest of their lives.
Gabriel Jason Dean is a Brooklyn based playwright/screenwriter. His play JAVAANEH (IN BLOOM) was a finalist for the Laurents/Hatcher Award, received the Kennedy Center’s Paula Vogel Prize, and was Runner-Up for the Princess Grace Award. His play for children, THE TRANSITION OF DOODLE PEQUEÑO, received the 2013 American Alliance for Theatre & Education Distinguished Play Award, the 2011 New England Theatre Conference Aurand Harris Award, and the Theatre for Young Audiences Award. It was selected for the 2012 Kennedy Center New Visions/New Voices Conference and was Runner-Up for the Harold & Mimi Steinberg National Playwriting Award. He is the recipient of the Essential Theatre New Play Prize and Austin’s 2013 B. Iden Payne Award for “Best Original Script” and “Best Comedy” for QUALITIES OF STARLIGHT. His play PIGSKIN won the Samuel French Off-Off Broadway Festival. Other awards include the James A. Michener Playwriting Fellowship, Dramatist’s Guild Fellowship and Princeton University’s Sallie B. Goodman/McCarter Theatre and Hodder Fellowships. His scripts are published through Samuel French, Dramatic Publishing and Playscripts. Gabriel is a Core Writer at The Playwrights’ Center and a Usual Suspect at New York Theatre Workshop.
Jacqueline 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