Beyond the Aristocratic Theater

by Holly L. Derr

in National Conference

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 (This post is part of the blog salon curated by Jacqueline E. Lawton for the 2015 TCG National Conference: Game ChangeThe following questions will inform the final plenary session, “Artistic Leadership: How We Change the Game.”)

JACQUELINE LAWTON: What was the most game-changing production you’ve seen or created, and why?

HOLLY L. DERR: The most game-changing production I ever saw – or at least the one that changed me the most – was Bring in ‘da Noise, Bring in ‘da Funk. I had grown up listening to the soundtracks of classic musical theater because my Mom is a huge fan, but I had this idea that musicals were all fluff with little substance. I remember that the first time I saw Noise Funk, I was sitting in the front row, right at eye level with the dancers’ feet, and I was blown away by their skill. It wasn’t just the artistry that changed me, though, it was the realization that musicals could be as entertaining as a rock concert, as full of history as a college-level class, and as political as anything by Augusto Boal. That’s the kind of work I want to make.

The production I made that changed me the most was my thesis show at Columbia. I had chosen Timberlake Wertenbaker’s New Anatomies because the five female actors in it play characters who are male, female, Western, and non-Western, and because it required me, as the director, to learn about something I knew nothing about – Sufi Mysticism. Well, my timing was terrible, because three weeks before we opened 9/11 happened, and three of the five actors in the show quit because they didn’t want to play Muslims. I was about to cancel the show all together when a friend and dramaturg encouraged me to at least do a reading of the it, and I ended up doing what I called “A Reconstructed Production,” that involved three new actors. Everyone read from their scripts, and we completely redesigned the costumes, the set, and the projections, put me and the assistant director onstage as narrators, and added sketches between each scene that provided context about the differences between Sufism and fundamentalist Islam, the colonization of North Africa, the still-unfolding drama of the attack on the World Trade Center, and the process the artists had gone through in getting the show up. It was a huge lesson for me in never giving up, knowing whom my friends are and listening to them, and using theater to educate, heal, and bring a community together.

JL: Who was the most game-changing theatre leader/artist you’ve met, and what do you carry forward from their example?

HLD: Shortly after Noise Funk opened on Broadway, I got a job as the assistant to the general manager at The Public Theater.  I had been a huge admirer of George C. Wolfe for years, having come up from North Carolina, where I went to college, to see Jelly’s Last Jam and Angels in America, so I was pretty psyched to be working at the institution he was running. The first thing that blew me away about working there was the diversity at every single level. It wasn’t just that the programming was incredibly diverse, from the new plays to the color-blind cast Shakespeare, it was that every department included a mix of people of all colors, ages, sizes, and orientations, and so did the audiences. Today when I hear theater leaders say, “We’re trying to diversify, but it’s hard,” I think to myself, “It can’t be that hard. I’ve seen it done.”

The other thing that struck me about working for one of my heroes was the realization that he’s just a person like everybody else. George is very private and very protective of the space in his inner circle, and though at first I was disappointed that we couldn’t just sit down and shoot the sh*t, the realization that the artists and leaders we idolize are just as human as we are was really important for me. I had a similar experience when, after idolizing Anne Bogart from a distance for years, I finally went to study with her at Columbia and found her to be warm and funny and curious and totally open to whomever is sitting in the chair next to her. I’m lucky now to call her not just a teacher and a mentor but also a friend, and I think her ability to form long-lasting friendships – not networking relationships but actual friendships – with the people she works and learns with is part of what makes her a great leader.

JL: What is the most significant opportunity—or challenge—facing the theatre field, and how can we address it together?

HLD: Diversity. Diversity. Diversity. (I’ll say it again. Diversity.) Obviously racial/ethnic and gender diversity are a big topic of conversation right now, but I think we need to focus on economic diversity, too. Making a career in the theater almost always involves going to college, having time while at college to do shows instead of work a part-time job, do summer theater programs that cost thousands of dollars in tuition, room, and board, and then work for free for years upon graduation. This is a totally untenable situation for someone who doesn’t have family money, and it is the number one reason that the work made in professional theaters is very aristocratic in both subject and tone. How can we tell stories about people whose life experiences aren’t upper class when all of the people making theater are upper class?

JL: What is the most significant challenge—or opportunity—facing the world, and what difference can theatre make?

HLD: Economic inequality, both within countries and between them. The distribution of resources in our world is so off, and yet most of the people with the resources don’t even realize it because we don’t see the people who are living without. We live in different neighborhoods, we go to different schools and different parties, we use different medical facilities, and we have different government representatives. If theater can manage to diversify economically – can stop making working for free the price of admission to the profession – we can confront audiences with stories about what life is really like for 98% of people on this earth. Right now theater is a ghetto of privilege, and if we don’t want the world to work that way, we can’t let theater work that way any more either.


Holly L. Derr is a writer, director, and professor specializing in Viewpoints and the performance of gender. Her most recent productions were Harry and the Thief by Sigrid Gilmer at The Know Theatre and her own play American Medea at Skidmore College. Holly holds an MFA from Columbia and has taught/directed at Smith College and The ART Institute, among others. She is an Artist-in-Residence at Skidmore where she will direct Macbeth this fall. Holly is also a feminist media critic who uses the analytical tools of theater to reflect upon broader issues of culture, race and gender. Follow her @hld6oddblend.


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