Embrace the Useful Tension

by Shirley Serotsky

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?

SHIRLEY SEROTSKY: This question brings me back to two productions I saw when I was still a student—experiences that expanded my very idea of what theater can be, and do. One was Théâtre de Complicité’s rendering of Brecht’s The Caucasian Chalk Circle at the National in London in the late 1990s. The expansive theatricality of the production—its use of movement and puppets with spare props and scenic elements to tell an epic story was so different from the lavish shows I’d seen on Broadway growing up (mostly musicals—useful and inspiring influences indeed, but rarely sparse and elegant!). I think it was also the first time I’d seen a play set in the round.

The next year I saw the Israeli theater company The Gesher Group (made up of Russian ex-pats) perform the Joshua Sobol play Village at the Lincoln Center festival. Again, it was a company that expanded my notion of story-telling and made great use of movement and imaginative theatricality. The play also sparked in me an interest in theater coming from that part of the world, which has since informed my journey as a professional theater artist and made it unexpectedly game-changing for me.

And, to include at least one recent example, I have to mention the experience of seeing Fun Home at The Public. To finally see on stage such a lovingly rendered coming of age story about a young woman was so refreshing and moving—as if all of our experiences as women, vastly different as they may be, were finally being recognized as stage-worthy.

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

SS: I take with me always an exchange I had with Anne Bogart while participating in one of the SITI composition workshops. We were going around a circle talking about what stage of the process made us most nervous, and I said moving from the table to being on our feet always felt like a huge leap to me, no matter how prepared I was, no matter how ready everyone was to be up in the space. I totally expected—with all of her groundbreaking work with Viewpoints and Suzuki—that this would be an unrecognizable fear for her. But instead she shared that she has the same sensation, and that this tension is necessary and useful—that it is breaking through the space from the safe to the vulnerable that allows a company to enter the next stage. It was hugely freeing for me to know for onethat I was not alone with my nerves, and also that this kind of tension could be a good thing, could be utilized. Since then I’ve tried to embrace useful tension in the process, and recognize and eradicate the detrimental kind.

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

SS: It sounds cliché, but I think our great challenge right now is to stay relevant. To earn our place in the attention span of people leading very busy, very distracted lives. We need to speak to those lives in a unique and special way. I don’t know that we are consistently doing that. We know we need them—but have we proven that they need us?


Shirley Serotsky is Acting Artistic Director at Theater J, where she directed The Call, Yentl, The Argument, The Hampton Years, The History of Invulnerability, Mikveh, and The Rise and Fall of Annie Hall (Helen Hayes nomination Outstanding New Play). Other directing credits include: Rapture, Blister, Burn (Round House Theatre); Blood Wedding (Constellation Theatre); A Man, His Wife, and His Hat and Birds of a Feather (Helen Hayes winner Outstanding New Play, The Hub Theatre); References to Salvador Dali Make Me Hot (Rorschach Theater, Helen Hayes nomination Outstanding Direction); Sovereignty (The Humana Festival). Training: BFA, North Carolina School of the Arts.


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