Change In The Classroom

by Jules Odendahl-James

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?

JOJ: The Laramie Project. Since its premiere in 2000, I believe there are only a handful of communities in the US that have not either seen (on stage or screen or both) or heard of the play, or have some idea of how it was made and who made it, or know the events that it depicts and perhaps even the legislation that bears the name of its protagonist, which was the result of concerted efforts by his family, by theatre artists, and by audience members who were effected by the story the play told. Today, Laramie remains a frequently programmed play in high schools despite what North Carolina’s rather infamous Senator Jesse Helms would deride as its “homosexual content.” I hope we will see the next iteration of the changes Laramie has brought when Fun Home eventually makes its way through the production system and we see it programmed first at regional theatres and then in high schools across the country.

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

JOJ: Jack Reuler and Mixed Blood Theatre. Their Radical Hospitality approach to production selection, curation, and institutionalization (i.e., placing that concept at the heart of the way they operate as whole) is the most “game-changing” regional theatre move of the past decade. The mini-grants they’re making available this season to theatres who hire differently abled actors to perform in plays that depict differently abled characters and communities is one more way that Mixed Blood illustrates that game-changing is only possible when you really change the way you engage, support, and conceptualize the game.

What I carry forward from their example is how much the structures of theatre production, not just the content of plays, must undergo significant revision in order for us to achieve the lofty, oft-touted goals of inclusion, diversity, parity, and access. Things have improved over the past decade, but I would like to see more recognition of structural changes being implemented by companies who have radically different approaches to production. I think the tipping point will come with more visibility and support for such smaller and unconventional companies from large granting/donor bodies where the commitment of funds remains too often limited to capital projects for long-established theatre institutions. I’m encouraged in this notion by the Ford Foundation’s recent announcement regarding grants to fund “social justice infrastructure.”

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

JOJ: Since my working context is often university theatre, I seize my “game-changing” opportunities in the classroom. That means finding ways for undergraduate students to let go of preconceived notions of what it means to make a play or what kind(s) of pieces they might read, perform in, create, and attend. This strategy makes the notion of game changing a rather one-on-one sport; however, I believe in a multiplier effect that emerges with growing student consciousness about how they become part of the field. Even as I want them to be successful (i.e. employed) artists, I want them to understand theatre’s enduring biases and structural impediments to innovation. I want students for whom issues of parity and inclusion seem not to constrain their opportunities to recognize how limits placed on other artists ultimately do restrict not only their work but the reach and power of theatre as a whole. In my professional work, I try to lead by example and model ways in which they might demand, participate in, and create opportunities that compel theatre’s continued growth and change.

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

JOJ: There’s not a corner of the theatre world that has not been touched in a significant way by the economic downturn. Six years on it seems the wave of closures has subsided but a strong air of uncertainty still hangs over the field. The idea of arts as a luxury has been met with arguments that emphasize the economic value the arts contribute to local communities. Privileging financial contributions, however, has a downside. It reinforces the driving commercial interests of US theatre even within the non-profit and educational sectors. Investments are steered into sure things, conservatively conceptualized, and excuses that undergird structural inequality now justify the status quo in the name of security at a time of scarcity. Recent national events also illustrate how deep divisions and raw intensity over issues regarding equity, diversity, and parity frame citizens interactions with each other, with governing systems and cultural institutions.

But it is precisely in this moment of austerity and contestation that we have a unique opportunity to take stock of what we bring to our communities. It is a chance to revise our processes in fundamental ways that expand our reach in terms of form, content, and collaborative networks. I’ve mentioned Mixed Blood but there’s also the Performance as Civic Practice work of Michael Rohd and Sojourn Theatre, Café Onda and the Latino Theatre Commons, The Kilroys, East-West’s Players’ 51% Preparedness Plan for American Theatre, Oregon Shakespeare Festival’s artEquity program, and more locally the work of Hidden Voices, a social justice through storytelling organization on whose board I sit. These are just a few examples of steps towards this brave new world.

We can insist upon the way things have always been done and lament our prospective obsolescence or we can be bold and take risks without knowing their ultimate reward. Fundamentally, it’s what we ask we ask of audiences as they encounter our work. In turn, they deserve our best efforts to refashion ourselves and a willingness break new, difficult ground together.

Jules Odendahl-James, is a scholar/artist who works as a director and dramaturg primarily in the Triangle area of North Carolina. This past season she served as dramaturg for Lauren Gunderson’s I and You and directed Meg Miroshnik’s The Fairytale Lives of Russian Girls both at Manbites Dog Theater where she is an Associate Artistic Director. She serves as the Research Director for Ladies of the Triangle Theatre, a gender parity advocacy group, and as the Regional Vice-President for the Southeast for Literary Managers and Dramaturgs of the Americas. Her research interests are in documentary performance, sci+art collaboration, #WikiTurgy, and women identified artists in contemporary American theater. She tweets about performance, politics, and parity @naturalreadhead.

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.