Observation to Interpretation to Action

by Suzanne M Cohen

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?

SUZANNE M. COHEN: Wow, it’s really challenging to choose just one… I’ve had the privilege of witnessing and participating in a number of different productions I’d consider game-changing as an artist, as well as a human. The original production of Angels in America: Millennium Approaches that I saw in LA at the Ford Amphitheatre in May 1990 before it went to New York is definitely high on the list. A stunning combination of story, cast, theatricality and staging kept me completely enthralled despite the uncomfortable bleacher-type seats, even during intermission. I couldn’t wait for it to continue! I moved to Seattle in 1992, and in 1994, I was deck crew and the Angel’s fly lead for the first regional post-Broadway production at Intiman Theatre. A very different version than what I’d seen in LA.

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

SMC: For me personally, I’d probably have to say Anna Deveare Smith. In 1987, I auditioned for several acting programs, including USC’s BFA program and she, John Edw. Blankenchip and Jack Rowe were the auditors. USC didn’t accept me, but I got into American Conservatory Theatre’s Summer Training Congress. Anna conducted a workshop on gender and race while I was at ACT, and not only was her approach and perspective game-changing, she also let me know that USC’s School of Drama had, in fact, wanted me; it turned out that the University rejected me because I had trashed my grade point average during my first two years of college as a biomedical engineering major at University of Maryland. Thanks to Anna’s intervention on my behalf, I completed my undergraduate degree at USC where my work with John Edw. Blankenchip also deeply influenced my theatre ethic and inspired me to start my first theatre company. Anna’s use of theatre to explore contemporary issues, questions of representation and identity, not to mention her tour-de-force technique combined with fierce honesty and truth continue to inspire and astonish me. She remains my hero and role model, and I do my best to honor her example.

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

SMC: I think the most significant challenge facing the theatre field is probably inequity in funding and resources. I wish I knew how we could address it. I do think rather than fighting each other over scraps, we need to advocate together for a larger piece of pie.

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

SMC: Well, according to sociologist Herbert Blumer, meanings are produced communally—learned through social interactions. Observation leads to interpretation, which, in turn, leads to action. The stories we are told and the behavior we see modeled—including theatrical stage presentations—informs and potentially disrupts the meaning we make and how we treat others. Performance offers unique ways of knowing that can challenge entrenched paradigms, contribute to pluralism and expand the range of meaningful action. I believe theatre is a powerful method of communication, as well as a site for social change, and it presents unique opportunities to engage and entertain while expanding perspectives and increasing tolerance and empathy.

With nearly 30 years of nonprofit arts experience, Suzanne M. Cohen has performed, directed, designed, and administrated at theatre companies across the country, as well as internationally. She is the Managing Artistic Director of Mirror Stage in Seattle, WA, and created the Feed Your Mind staged reading series to investigate how theatre can be used to build understanding among diverse groups. Suzanne earned a BA in Humanities/Drama from University of Southern California with a minor in Creative Writing, a Master of Not-for-Profit Leadership from Seattle University, and in June 2015, an MA in Cultural Studies from University of Washington Bothell.

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