Embracing Empathy

by Kelvin Dinkins Jr.

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?

KELVIN DINKINS, JR.:  HAMILTON:  I am pretty sure this may be part of a lot of responses but I had a truly profound experience watching that show from the seventh row and feeling, from the moment the show began, that I was a part of something important.  I don’t always go to the theater to get inspired or find profound meaning.  Sometimes I just go to be entertained and have a good laugh, or cry, or whatever I am in the mood for that day.  But in the moments when I am truly gripped by the words, the performances or artistry visible on stage is when I know I have found a work that gets me.  The last time I felt that was when I watched PASSING STRANGE (also at The Public) and it was as if the entire show was speaking to me.  I like to go to shows without knowing anything about them.  No reviews (or opinions from friends).  No dramaturgy.  No reading of the Playbill before it starts.  I want to be filled with a genuine and captivating experience from start to finish.  Every moment of HAMILTON had me on the edge of my seat and grinning all the while at the genius of building this complexity of language, music and narrative that I had never seen before.  And it’s about American history! And it featured an entire company of artists of color, which is significant because almost every major show I see (where race really isn’t a distinguishing characteristic of the story) there’s maybe one or two token ensemble members of color and it’s truly annoying.  The lyrical prowess Lin expresses throughout the entirety of the show, where the dialogue and musicality are so fluid and dynamic, baffles me.  All of this from one man?!  The business side of me is equally impressed since he won’t have to share any of that author’s royalty.  Lin notes how it took him maybe more than seven years and the work shows.  A hip-hop musical about one of America’s founding fathers isn’t a series of words I would ever expect to read or write anywhere but here we are. I could go on, but HAMILTON is a game changer because it is where the unexpected meets artistic genius.  Maybe it’s hard to communicate outside those who have seen the actual production, but HAMILTON has set the bar in my mind for artistic excellence and acknowledging that is why I do what I do.

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

KD: I think Joe Haj is pretty remarkable and in my limited encounters with him I have gotten the real sense of a generosity of spirit that makes me want to emulate his example.  Joe has helmed Playmakers, an organization I have been able to admire from afar (I grew up in the south and have strong ties to NC), and has done so much for that particular community that witnessing his transition as he takes the reins at The Guthrie is truly a game-changing moment for the field.  Joe’s attitude and practical outlook on where we stand, especially as leaders of color in a field in desperate need of equity, is refreshing and gives me hope that the future of American theatre is in good hands.

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

KD: SUSTAINABILITY.  At first glance, everyone assumes that sustainability=money and that is certainly not the case.  Yes, money is good, but the conversation about sustainability is about infrastructure and providing a sensible model of producing the live performing arts in an environment that is capable of supporting the theatre field.  What I mean is that a great number of nonprofit theaters, and many being essential cultural hubs for their specific communities, are struggling in the most visible way, which is to say they are struggling financially.  But fiscal hardship is an indicator that another piece of the machine is suffering. Leadership, organizational structure, institutional advancement and diversification are all additional factors that contribute to the idea of sustainability. No organization is bulletproof and some are one donor away from being in the same boat as many other organizations, so the idea of longevity is not a certainty for everyone. I would like to take the opportunity to educate our field on truly examining how much longer these institutions will last and how much longer we can afford to prescribe a homogenous model for producing in regional theaters. Are we doing enough as leaders, as colleagues, to help contribute to a national dialogue on the sustainability of  regional theatre?  Are we being responsible in communities that rely on these theatre organizations as cultural lightning rods by addressing our weaknesses outside of funding?  I think we stand in the theatre field at a very important time when successfully embarking on the next 50 years of the regional theatre movement will require true innovation and a focus on how sustainability is a complex and necessary challenge we all need to truly lead in this field.

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

KD: The world is struggling for understanding and empathy on a very human level and it remains a challenge that will continue until the end of time. Inequity and prejudice is one of the most debilitating, systematic challenges that affect our everyday lives from our personal health to how we exist as a community.  There is more and more detachment from the issues we face in our own society as it becomes increasingly easy to distance ourselves from facing real problems because we are only a click away from expressing support for a cause and silently retreating when it is no longer in vogue.   Change comes from a place of understanding and how are we to go about true understanding until we confront what we do not know?  One can be capable of comprehending injustice but not taking a firm stand to correct it when it is not in one’s own self-interest.  It happens and continues to happen until we are a victim of the injustice.  Theatre can make a difference and in many communities, it does make a difference when it comes to embracing equity.  We have to be careful as a field not to ostracize those who could stand to benefit the most from an opportunity to engage with real issues through art by not becoming an ivory tower and a place for rich, overly educated people.  Not reaching certain communities and perfectly serving others is not equity.  Making a theatre ticket “affordable” for one person and not all people is not equity.  There are some real issues with how we do business in the theatre but some organizations are taking bold steps to undo those perceptions and truly engaging and reaching out to the entire community.  Theatre should be the outlet that provokes conversation and change through bold and innovative artistry from stage to the mission of the institution.  We have a long way to go, but the idea of one community can do wonders for how we are responsible citizens in a society in desperate need of true understanding.


Kelvin Dinkins, Jr. received his A.B. degree in English and received a Certificate in Theatre & Dance from the Lewis Center for the Arts at Princeton University and completed his M.F.A. in Theatre Management & Producing at Columbia University’s School of the Arts. Kelvin’s career has brought him to National Artists Management Company, Intiman Theatre, National Corporate Theatre Fund, and The Civilians. Kelvin was a recipient of the EMC Arts/ArtsFWD Blogging Fellowship and is currently a member of the inaugural Theatre Communications Group (TCG) SPARK leadership cohort. Kelvin is currently the General Manager of Two River Theater in Red Bank, NJ.


Jacqueline Lawton_headshot

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