(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?
MONET NOELLE MARSHALL: Fresh out of undergrad I was asked to choreograph a middle/high school musical. Now I’m going to be really dodgy about details because I am sure that this production was illegal because it merged the script from the movie and the music from the musical about talking animals. And it was called Lyon, the King. And that was just the beginning of the woes for this production. And there were many! But I worked with the dancers. And these were predominantly young women of color ages 12-17 from an underresourced neighborhood. And they made me work for everything I got! Do you hear me?! I mean they wouldn’t pay attention, I had a different group of dancers the first 4 or 5 times I went, refused to retain the movement. It was bad. And lil ol me was feeling like maybe it’s me. Maybe I’m not cut out for this. Until something happened. They started to see progress. They started to see that the dances were looking good and they wanted to be part of them. So more dancers came and then some young men joined and things really shaped up.
That changed the game for me. Because it solidified something I already knew. People, regardless of age, gender, race, etc, know what’s good. And once they recognize it, they want to be a part of it. They just need an access point.
JL: Who was the most game-changing theatre leader/artist you’ve met, and what do you carry forward from their example?
MNM: That’s a really hard question Jacqueline! I have been so fortunate to be surrounded by Black women artists from a very young age. My mother is playwright, choreographer, dancer, director… the list goes on and on. She earned her BFA when I was a teenager and her MFA in playwriting the same year I earned my undergrad degree in 2011. So I watched her create art and herself during some very formative years. I get it from my Momma! I really do.
But there were other women. Charlene Berry in Westbury, NY who ran a summer youth musical theatre camp and introduced me to classic musicals and performers. And Lynette Carr-Hicks, my high school music teacher who gave me the opportunity to choreograph show tunes and Motown songs for 200 students at 14. And, of course, Frankie Day and Donna Bradby (and the entire theatre faculty) at North Carolina A&T. These women served as models and mirrors and set a precedent and mindset that of course I can do this theatre thang!
JL: What is the most significant opportunity—or challenge—facing the theatre field, and how can we address it together?
MNM: I think the most important word in that question is “we”. We, as theatre lovers and practitioners, need to take a moment to stop looking out at our audience and start looking around at ourselves. We have a diversity issue. Period. We are not creating an environment that allows younger artists, artists of color and artists from working class families to create sustainable lives in theatre. So they leave the field and we lose their voices and their genius in a time when we need them most. And then we have the audacity to look out at our audiences and wonder why they look so homogenous. This is not new but it doesnt hurt any less.
But we can do address this! Our goal should not be more diversity initiatives but that we get to a point where diversity is ingrained into the missions of every single organization AND we have supported so many diverse theatre artists and companies that they are sustainable on their own. But that takes real work. It takes personal responsibility. It takes looking around room and asking who’s not here, why aren’t they here and how can I change that? It takes asking hard questions and being receptive to real answers. And it may even mean asking some of our long term donors and funders to give to someone else. Gasp!
JL: What is the most significant challenge—or opportunity—facing the world, and what difference can theatre make?
MNM: I am simultaneously fascinated and terrified by some of the things I see and read (Fox News I’m looking at you!). And the comments? Forget about it! Never. Read. The comments! It seems as if people are constantly spewing their opinions and thoughts, hoping to be heard. I believe it’s theatre’s job to say, “I hear you. We may not agree but I hear you. And now that I’ve listened, let’s talk.” I’m only 25 but I hear there was this old timey thing called conversation. On stage, we call it dialogue. Like my acting teachers would always say, “listen and respond.” Let’s do that.
Monet Noelle Marshall is a Durham-based director, playwright, choreographer, arts administrator and puppeteer. She is currently the Assistant Box Office Manager at PlayMakers Repertory Company and proudly serves as the Founding Artistic Director of MOJOAA Performing Arts Company, the Black community theatre company in the Triangle. Monet’s heart is set aflutter by arts education, arts advocacy and art created for, with and by underrepresented communities. You can follow her on the Twitters @MonetNMarshall or check out her website www.MonetNoelleMarshall.com.
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