Direct the Light of Reason

by Diane Glancy

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 Change. The 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?

DIANE GLANCY:  In January – February, 2015, I was part of Global Voices: Spring Staged Readings, Schwartz Center for the Performing Arts, Theater Laboratory at Emory University in Atlanta.  Janice Akers, Artistic Director, described it “as an informal reading of 15 plays with playwrights whose work I would define as ‘culturally charged.’ ”  My play, The Bird House, was directed by Michael Evenden, resident dramaturg.  During rehearsal and the presentation, he found a very different interpretation from the 2013 Native Voices at the Autry production of the same play in Los Angeles.  I saw the game-changing aspect of “presentation.” Just by neglecting a set and putting emphasis on the words alone, the language stood up as a warrior and said what it maybe had wanted to say all along. The words were set, action, character, conflict / complication / and resolution. The focus centered on what was heard.   I also saw my play in relationship to others in the series, as it became a part of the group of plays that became “the communal play that took three weeks to present” (my words).

The-many-voices-in-one-story-or-one-series was an emphasis for another event.  In November, 2014, I drove to Washington, D.C. to see the opening of Our War: The National Civil War Project, at Arena Stage, the Mead Center for the American Theater.  Twenty-five playwrights were asked to write a short monologue on their take on the Civil War.  It was a play presented over two days, and gave proof to the truth that we are a country of many voices even when talking about the same subject.

At Emory, each play had its own night in the group-play presentation.  At Arena Stage, the voices were combined into one long, single piece, each picking up on a dimension of our multi-dimensional world.  I would like to see more experimentation in these mixed-voice areas, though as a writer, I want my own words taking up space on the stage.  How is that for a dilemma?

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

DG: It would have to be Native Voices at the Autry.  They have produced four of my plays.  They are the only native equity company for the development of native work.  Over the years, I have spent much meaningful time with them.  They have a short play competition in the fall during the Indian Market Days at the Autry.  They have a New Play Festival in June, moving between La Jolla in San Diego and the Autry in Los Angeles.  They have a full-production of a play in March of every year.   When I think of their fine work, I think, how do they do it?

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

DG:  I think it would be funding.  Where does a company or department get the funds to bring in playwrights and have the means to feed, house and work with them?  To provide cast, space, stipends, and everyone and everything else it takes to present dramatic work. Our ideas are manifold. Where do we get the manifold funds to speak about our changing and ever-expanding manifold world in the integral, necessary, vital, creative, and interpretative way that dramatic work does?

Almost every day in the mail or internet, I am asked to give to different projects, whether independent film-making, theater, literary journals, colleges and universities, churches and philanthropic organizations that dig wells in Africa and support orphaned children. I want to help feed the poor.  I want to provide for rescued animals. Each request is urgent and important.  But there is no way I can meet every request.

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

DG:  The rise of terrorism comes to mind first.  I’m not sure what can be done.  A play is not journalism or propaganda. It has to be embedded in story, in characters that dominate the action. When I hear of the millions of refugees fleeing Syria—when I think of the emotional wounds, especially in the children as they are terrorized by mortar attacks in their cities, as they are uprooted and displaced—I think of the plays they will write someday.  I went to Syria in 1994 for the USIS.  In my dream-world, I would like to return, this time to the refugee camps to put on plays they write about their experience.

The environmental challenges are another significant area.  Fracking, for instance.  I live in Texas part of the time, and I have seen those tremendous wells as they encroach.  In a recent storm in all the terrible storms that Texas has had lately, lightning struck an injection well.  I am sorry to say, I was pleased.

But even something like fracking can bring a different light to the challenge of creating new dramatic work.  I would like to see more “fracking” of theater.  I’m not sure what I’m saying as fracking is not a good practice in my opinion.  It was the subject of my play, The Bird House.   It was about fracking seen from different points-of-view. One character loses his church.  One character has a stoke. The native heritage of another character is assimilated. In the play, native theater itself is fracked until it doesn’t look like itself, but is. In the play’s downsizing and loss, yet holding to the center pole, it is a native story to the core.

I also can say that Syria has been fracked.

I remember thinking about The Bird House, when I was writing it, that the center has been de-centered.  I remember asking, after seeing Our War at Arena Stage, what is the center of this play-of-many-voices?  What is the core?  The central message?   I concluded, it didn’t have one.  Therefore, it was a fracking job also. What a new idea.  It simply was different paths through a single field until it didn’t look like the same field that everyone was walking through.  A single field made manifold by the manifold voices in it. The play had found a new way to think about the elements of theater.  It’s what the ingenuity of American theater has been doing a long time.  It takes many tries (for me anyway) to catch the possibilities that are there.  It takes funding, workshops, discussions, readings and re-readings of the script-in-progress.

In my opinion, the significant challenge of theater is to direct the light of reason and language toward the dark rim of the world.


Diane Glancy is professor emerita at Macalester College. Her 2014-15 books are Fort Marion Prisoners and the Trauma of Native Education, nonfiction, University of Nebraska Press, Report to the Department of the Interior, poetry, University of New Mexico Press, and three novels, Uprising of Goats, One of Us and Ironic Witness, Wipf & Stock. She has a chapter in Twenty-First Century Perspectives on Indigenous Studies, Routledge. 2015. She is working on a play, Lloyd and Hallah, about a native aspect of visual art. She lives in Kansas and Texas. Her websites: www.dianeglancy.com, www.dianeglancy.org.


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