Break the Addiction to the Familiar

by Mary Kathryn Nagle

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?

MARY KATHRYN NAGLESliver of a Full Moon ( Today, Native Women are more likely to be murdered, raped, sexually assaulted, and/or abused than any other population in the United States.  And yet we live in a country where Americans who go to the theatre are more likely to witness the performance of redface on stage than the performance of Native stories by Native People.  Sliver of a Full Moon, therefore, is a game-changing production because it breaks the silence.  Instead of portraying Native People as a costume or romantic image from Thanksgiving in third grade, the play puts actual Native actors on stage to portray Native People.  Three Native Women Survivors (Billie Jo Rich, Diane Millich, and Lisa Brunner) join the actors on stage and tell their individual stories of survival in a country where the Supreme Court has declared them to be racially inferior, not worthy of protection.  Through the restoration of sovereignty of identity, the play advocates for the restoration of tribal sovereignty to ensure tribal governments can protect their Native Women from violence.

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

MKN:   Suzan Shown Harjo is the most game-changing leader/artist I’ve ever met.  For five decades, she has been working tirelessly to remove many of the vestiges of genocide from our laws, schools, sports teams, and most importantly: our stories.  She is an incredible storyteller, and as a result of my work with her thus far, I now carry with me the understanding that our stories are powerful.  When we speak from the heart, when we expose the truth, there’s very little we can’t change.

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

MKN:  The most significant opportunity/challenge the American theater community faces is its subscription to the falsity that the only good stories are the ones we have already heard and love.   The American theatre has an addiction to the familiar.  And yet what is “familiar” on the American stage is not at all “common” to most Americans.  As a result, the majority of Americans are unable to connect with the theatre. I have had the following conversation far too many times in the last year or two:

Theatre:  “We love your play.  It’s brilliant.  But we need to be able to sell tickets, and our audience isn’t interested in Native stories.”

Me:  “Have you ever produced a play by a Native playwright?”

Theatre:  “No….”

Me:  “How do you know your audience is not interested in something they have never seen or experienced?”

The challenge/opportunity we have is to expand our vision to include stories with which we are not familiar.

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

MKN:  Climate change.  One of the biggest challenges in facing climate change is that American culture has allowed us to disconnect our actions from their inevitable consequences.  Theatre has the unique power to force its audience to confront the narrative it desperately seeks to avoid. Plays about climate change are powerful, and needed.  NOW.

Mary Kathryn Nagle was born in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, and is a citizen of the Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma.  She is a member of the 2012-2013 Public Theater’s Emerging Writers Group, where she developed her play, Manahatta, which the Public Theater workshopped in its in inaugural Public Studio series in May 2014.  Her play Sliver of a Full Moon was presented at Yale Law School on March 31, 2015 (directed by Madeline Sayet), as a part of a national movement to restore jurisdiction American Indian Nations to prosecute non-native men who commit crimes of violence against Native Women on tribal lands.  She and Suzan Shown Harjo co-authored My Father’s Bones, a play that documents the Sac and Fox Nation’s struggle to bring Jim Thorpe home so that he can be buried in accordance with his religious beliefs and with his relatives. (#BringJimThorpeHome) She currently lives in New York where she writes briefs, plays, and posts on Howlround that explore the appropriation and exploitation of Native identity on the American stage.  #InsteadofRedface

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.