(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?
OLIVER MAYER: ZOOT SUIT by Luis Valdez at the Mark Taper Forum in 1978. I was 13, pimpled, testosterone-crazed, angry with everybody. I remember getting angry with my parents and wanting to leave just as the play began; I had started to stand up when Eddie Olmos as El Pachuco hit the stage with his oversized switchblade. He made me sit down. Then the Lalo Guerrero music began, and the beautiful Latina women started dancing, and Valdez’s incredible mix of Shakespearean English and street Spanish flowed out, and I was changed forever. I can draw a straight line from that moment to my own plays when they work. Valdez brought in a new audience to the Taper, and nearly 40 years later we still remember like it was yesterday, and feel proud to have been a part of it.
JL: Who was the most game-changing theatre leader/artist you’ve met, and what do you carry forward from their example?
OM: The late Ron Link changed the directing game out of sheer boldness; his work on my play BLADE TO THE HEAT was breathtaking, and I often wonder if he had have lived longer what more he might have done to stand the American Theatre on its head. Robert LePage is the most transformative artist I have ever been around, and his DRAGON TRILOGY changed the game in creating epic theatre. I never met Joseph Papp, and yet his leadership in furthering new plays and playwrights continues after decades to be a beacon in the dense fog of play development.
JL: What is the most significant opportunity—or challenge—facing the theatre field, and how can we address it together?
OM: Sheer economics are against us, and although this is nothing new it’s also nothing to sniff at. Many of the best plays are happening in storefronts and mini-malls, and at holes in the wall: plays that take chances, that are written for the joy of writing and collaborating, that are made for reasons other than money. We must protect this urge with our collective passion and providence, and not let such efforts fall away.
JL: What is the most significant challenge—or opportunity—facing the world, and what difference can theatre make?
OM: There are so many challenges to the world as we know it, but in the end we combat inhumanity better than any other art form simply by convening folks that otherwise might never share the same space, and by creating community through the thundercloud of common crisis — as Tennessee Williams might say. If we do this forcefully and well, we will have done the world some continued good.
Oliver Mayer is the author of nearly 30 plays, from Blade to the Heat to his most recent, The Sinner From Toledo, inspired by a Chekhov short story. Other recent plays include Blood Match (inspired by Lorca’s Bodas de Sangre) and Members Only (Blade’s long-awaited sequel). He also writes opera libretti and children’s books, and is a tenured professor at the University of Southern California’s School of Dramatic Arts.
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