We Can Astonish

by Ray Dooley

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?

RAY DOOLEY: Looking back over more than 45 years or so provides so many examples.  Coming to mind:

  • Peter Brook’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream at BAM, fall 1970 or spring 1971.  I was a senior in high school and we were routinely taken by bus into New York and to Stratford, CT., for music, art, and theater.  As we all now know, this production changed so many ways we think of theater and produce theater.  Among the things that stick with me:
    • The reliance on the audience’s imagination–Oberon and Titania finish a scene (“…with these mortals on the ground.”), walk upstage, turn around, walk back downstage as Theseus and Hippolyta (“Go one of you…”) Got it.
    • The spare and abstract playing space drew the audience’s attention to the text (rivetingly spoken by a superb company) and to the actors’ brilliant physicality.
  • Most of the game-changing theater experiences I’ve had since then have had to do with superb writing (and of course with actors and directors gifted and disciplined enough to convey the play to the audience).  Each of these expanded my idea of what might be possible in the theater; each had me leaving the theater feeling smarter than when I entered; each left me in awe of the reach and craft of the writer and the skills of the actors and directors.  These would include: Bill Ball’s Tiny Alice and Taming of the Shrew, and Allen Fletcher’s Peer Gynt at ACT;  in New York: Angels in America, Two Trains Running, Seven Guitars, Sweeney Todd, The Invention of Love, Arcadia, Faith Healer, Nicholas Nickelby and August:Osage County. 
  • Most recently—and this is likely a personal response projected large—was Jerusalem.  Mark Rylance’s performance was, I thought, a game-changer in that it brought bravura acting—the kind cherished at ACT when I was training there–to the forefront.  It seemed a gauntlet thrown down: “challenge yourself in every way; astonish us.”  That performance has become a standard for my own work.   I look for it in others and encourage it in my students.  And if writing can be thought to be “bravura,” then Jez Butterworth’s play would certainly qualify.

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

RD: First, William Ball.  I had the good fortune to train at ACT in the mid-1970s and witness first-hand the glory that Bill had created.  There was a scale of imagination, audacity, and rigor that continues to inspire and challenge.

Second would be Joseph Haj, with whom I worked at PlayMakers from 2006 to 2015. This experience is still too close for objective assessment.  Joe’s ability to inspire excellence, to create community, to foster diversity and inclusion, and to lead with integrity are some of the legacies he will leave at PlayMakers and bring to the Guthrie.

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

RD: No surprise here.  It’s the increasing time we, especially young people, spend in our cocoons online.  Theater must provide something that cannot be found there.  We must astonish, in the flesh.  We must present excellence, from the writing to the acting and everything in between, including the front-of-house experience.  Symphony orchestras are finding some effective methods of reaching out to their audiences; we would do well to learn from them.  We must make the theater part of the fabric of a community.  As the adage goes, “People give money to people, not institutions.”  So too, people will subscribe, and leave their television and computer screens, to attend an institution with which they feel a personal connection.

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

RD: Hell if I know; that’s a big question. All we can do from our outposts is chip away.  We can open a window on the world.  We can add beauty.  We can put ideas in play.  We can make community. We can model excellence, purpose, and empathy.  We can astonish. We can show up.


Ray Dooley lives in Chapel Hill, North Carolina.  He is an actor with PlayMakers Repertory Company, the professional theater associated with the Department of Dramatic Art at UNC Chapel Hill.  As Professor of Dramatic Art he served as Department Chair from 1999 to 2005, and since 2005 has been Head of UNC’s Professional Actor Training Program.  He received an OBIE Award for Distinguished Performance in Peer Gynt at CSC Repertory Company and played Father Flynn in the European premiere of Doubt at Vienna’s English Theatre.


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