(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?
AL HEARTLEY: Seeing the Kent Gash directed production of Pacific Overtures by Stephen Sondheim and John Weidman at the Alliance Theater in Atlanta triggered a paradigm shift for me. I was in high school, probably around 9th grade, and I was still pretty fresh to theater. The gorgeous and riveting production was not only magical, but also spiritual. The show opened me up to a piece of art completely alien to my experience as a young Black man, but it also meshed my love for history and theater in a perfect way. The show reflected my interest in how perspectives are brought to the stage and who gets to tell that story and perspective. The subject of the Westernization of Japan in the late 1800s is something that I possibly would never have been exposed to, except perhaps in a history book. But the musical made the intersection of the historical and personal experiences of those characters come alive and resonate with me.
JL: Who was the most game-changing theatre leader/artist you’ve met, and what do you carry forward from their example?
AH: I had the honor of working with Robert O’Hara while I was an Apprentice at Steppenwolf Theatre in Chicago. I contributed dramaturgy support for one of his new play commissions. For one of the first times in my professional career, I had the opportunity to sit in a rehearsal room filled with African-American actors who were stars of the Chicago theater scene. Robert exemplified how theater-making can be expertly led by a person of color. I needed that moment in so many personal and professional ways as an early-career theater artists and administrator. Similar to Malcolm X’s transformation to consciousness about his racial identity, I was coming to terms with how to insert my identity and interests in race and ethnicity into my work in the theater. Robert invited me into every facet of his process. I will never forget the incredible honesty with which he approached his work. He added things in and he threw things out with an inspiring sense of fearlessness and intuition. I still carry the visual image of him leading those rehearsal rooms as I move forward with my own career.
JL: What is the most significant opportunity—or challenge—facing the theatre field, and how can we address it together?
AH: Work around diversity in the field represents both a great opportunity and a great challenge. I am an advocate for diversity because I believe it to be crucial to how the field will move forward. Over the past several years, the national theater community has been able to grasp and articulate some of the moral arguments about why diversity is important. However, we must expand our thinking to include the economic model around diversity. What is a successful model that includes diverse programming, audiences, staff, and leadership? What does it look like when we think about diversity as an economic asset, rather than a burden? The financial numbers can be just as important as the moral values, because numbers signify our values. As artists, many of us don’t like to think about it that way, but money and art always collide at some point in the theater business. Stakeholders have to be convinced that diversity works not only as a moral imperative, but also for financial stability.
JL: What is the most significant challenge—or opportunity—facing the world, and what difference can theatre make?
AH: The world has started to see the consequences of profiling- racial profiling in particular. The shootings of young black men and women have been extremely visible of late and have opened a national conversation about how we categorize people as well as how we identify with people. Recently, Huffington Post reported a story about airline staff who denied a Muslim woman an unopened soda can on her flight because they assumed she might use it as a weapon. When she tried to share her disbelief with a fellow passenger, she was shrugged off and told to just deal with it. The woman went into emotional duress and she couldn’t find anyone identify with her. This disturbed me. There are real consequences to racism and prejudice. Lives can be taken or become emotionally wrought with isolation and anxiety. I think the theater has an opportunity to continue to be a place where people come to understand the lives and perspectives of people with backgrounds other than their own. Theaters have the capacity to promote empathy. As theater makers, we must champion unique and urgent stories that may be outside of our personal experiences. Diverse stories matter because the lives of the storytellers matter. I believe that theater can aid in the exploration of stories that could literally help save lives.
Al Heartley is a theater administrator, director, playwright, and diversity and equity advocate based in Cleveland, OH. He currently works as the Assistant to the Artistic and Managing Directors at Cleveland Play House where he was previously the Education Associate. Al has previously worked as the Theater Management Apprentice and Multicultural Fellow at Steppenwolf Theatre Company. Al was a 2012 Young Leader of Color for the Theatre Communications Group (TCG) and has worked with TCG’s Diversity and Inclusion Institute. Al has worked on various productions as a director and assistant director, most recently a reading of Down By Contact by Les Hunter and A Civil War Christmas by Paula Vogel at Dobama Theatre. Al received his BA in Theater from Florida State University and in the fall of 2015, he will pursue an MFA in Theater Management at the Yale School of Drama.
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