Game-Changers Accumulate

by Rachel Grossman

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? 

Rachel Grossman: “Most” questions paralyze me. That line from The Highlander—“There can be only one!”—starts on continuous replay in my head and I can think of nothing else. So not to defy the question but, there can’t be only one; the game-changers accumulate. They’ve all shaped me into the artist and leader I am today. A handful off the top of my head: Bill Irwin’s In Regard of Flight, Dael Orlandersmith’s Yellowman at Arena Stage, Alain Timar’s production of The Chairs at Round House Theatre, a multi-hour improvisational exercise “Parents & Children” I participated in at Living Stage Theatre Company led by Rebecca Rice and Oran Sandal, Propeller Theatre Company’s The Taming of the Shrew, numerous works by Liz Lerman at Dance Exchange. These and many others taught me to value rigor in artistic process, wrestle with hard questions and difficult topics, explore the relationship between scale and impact, connect inextricably with the audience and exist with them, not in spite of them. These values poured into my “game-changer” project COURAGE, a political theatre revival in 2010. Over two years in development, COURAGE was the most ambitious endeavor I’d attempted to date. The devising and production process ultimately unearthed dog & pony dc’s core values and birthed our guiding devising principle “audience integration.”

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

RG: When I was young, I wanted to be a ballerina. One of the few figures in the dance world I became obsessed with was Jacques d’Amboise, after seeing the documentary He Makes Me Feel Like Dancin’. In 5th grade, d’Amboise taught a one-off workshop for youth in Davenport, IA where we lived at the time. In the workshop we collectively devised a short dance piece, creating choreography from everyday movements. I was selected among as a small group of volunteers to attempt to perform the piece, each of us solo, in front of the group with closed eyes. (The purpose: trust your body and senses.) Two or three children went before me; all of them opened their eyes at some point during their performance. I was the only one able to complete the “challenge.” d’Amboise placed his hand lightly on my shoulder and said, “well done.” Jacque d’Amboise’s praise and the memory of that brief interaction has stayed with me in three ways. First, it planted in me the understanding that everything is inspiration; seemingly mundane aspects of daily life can be turned into art.  Second, I learned firsthand the power of arts participation to lift-up and motivate. Third, I discovered that inciting the passion and cultivating the skills and talents of others is equally (if not more) rewarding work than inciting and cultivating your own.

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

RG: The rapidly increased availability of connectivity access and community-driven models, along with the development of a participatory culture. The intersection point of these “phenomenon” is an opportunity just waiting for the theatre field to take full advantage of … and reimagine how we make our work, for and with whom. People + connectivity + agency. I believe it can allow us to redefine the role of theatre in American culture.

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

RG: Equity, and the innumerable negative repercussions that are perpetuated by inequity. The imbalance in this world, already significant, grows more gross and disturbing. Not to be trite, but I turn in Bertolt Brecht’s famous quote: “Art is not a mirror held up to reality, but a hammer with which to shape it.” Theatre as an artform is so accessible, malleable, and requires so little for meaningful impact. Theatres could serve as foundational, “bipartisan,” and “secular” intercultural forums. But we have to accept and begin acting from a different values proposition to tackle this challenge. I believe we are up for it. I believe we can make a difference.

Rachel Grossman is an artist and engagement strategist focused on the triangulation between art, artist, and audience. She is a co-founder of and Ring Leader for devised theatre ensemble dog & pony dc, with whom she has created seven original works that integrate audience into live performance. Rachel launched Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company’s “connectivity” initiative and was the first connectivity director, transforming how the company considers the relationship between its work, audience, and community. Prior to that she was the director of education at Round House Theatre, and managed programming at Shakespeare Theatre Company, Arena Stage, and CENTERSTAGE. Rachel has presented at TCG, NAMP, NET, ATHE, and AATE; she’s a member of HowlRound’s National Advisory Committee.

Jacqueline Lawton_headshotJacqueline 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.