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PwritesCom Founder Honored with Elliott Hayes Award

30 Jun

This past weekend, as Playwrights’ Commons Founding Dramaturg, I was honored to receive the 2014 Elliott Hayes Award — an international prize of Literary Managers & Dramaturgs of the Americas, given annually for demonstrated dramaturgical excellence. It was incredible to celebrate this event here in Boston, where LMDA was having its summer conference. At the request of many, I’m posting here my acceptance speech and call to arms for dramaturgs as leaders and public advocates.

Saturday, June 28, 2014 — The Annual Conference of Literary Managers & Dramaturgs the Americas / The Elliott Hayes Award

 

As with all ritually significant moments, it feels proper to begin with an incantation and a glace to the gods:

Inclusion. Intersectionality. Empathy. Advocacy. Action.

imb award 2014 3I’ve been a member of LMDA for 15 years, and I can say without a doubt that nearly every radical idea and new direction I’ve tried in my artistic life has been sparked by ideas born from conferences and conversations with the people in this room. And 15 rooms past.

The last time I stood up here in this capacity was in 2008, and I mentioned that I was hoping to launch a grassroots playwright development organization in Boston. I remember thinking: Jesus Brownstein, you said it out loud so now you have to do it. Three years after that moment, and after a test run at Liz Engleman’s Tofte Lake Center, I formally inaugurated the signature program of Playwrights’ Commons: the Freedom Art Retreat. But what is Playwrights’ Commons? It’s not incorporated. It has no board. It barely has a staff (really it’s me, and while she lived in Boston, Corianna Moffatt).

It’s an idea.

The idea is this: a dramaturg has the power to be a curator, a facilitator, a teacher, an organizer, a distributor of resources both esoteric and logistical, a node around which a movement can happen, a driver of new forms, and a force for public good.

The Freedom Art Retreat was born in one of the darkest times of my life from my desire, well, my need (hi Liz), to be in the woods, on a lake, for my own mental health. I thought, well, if I’m going anyway, maybe I can rent a bigger house and let some artists tag along. Then I thought, well, if they’re coming anyway, maybe I can organize some programming. And if I’m going to program it anyway, I should probably make sure we all eat really well. (This is one of the many places where Mara Isaacs and I are totally sympatico – break bread with someone to cultivate trust and humanity.) It seemed worth it. As Cyndi SoRelle said yesterday, I’m more of a do-er than a thinker, so I booked a house, and put a call out for participants. Six years later, I can point to the 26 early career playwrights, dramaturgs, and designers who have come to the woods for a week of collective creation and experimentation, building aesthetic and collaborative vocabularies that carry them back into the Boston theatre ecology. I can point to over 30 projects (and 1 entirely new company) that were made by Retreat participants across all three alumni years, in Boston, with one another. And I can point to the 375 members of the Boston & New England playwrights network, which I run on Facebook as a space dedicated to de-silo-ing playwrights, and cultivating energy as a sector.

I do it for about $2000 a year. And frankly, so could you. So please, steal this idea. Adapt it to your needs. Step up and opt in: what does your community need most? In Boston, most professional theatre artists teach in our training programs, but we have enormous creative brain drain as recent grads look elsewhere for their artistic communities. Freedom Art was designed to address this heat-loss, and give early career folks shared collaborative experiences. That might not be a problem where you live, but surely there’s some tangible challenge in your city that could use your dramaturgical intervention. My soapbox tonight is this: you can make a change.

As I was getting Playwrights’ Commons off the ground, learning to tweet, and teaching my amazing students at BU, I had the incredible good luck to find a home with Company One Theatre and its incredible staff collective. For the first time in my life, I felt like all my artistic and professional endeavors were aligning with my own social mission: to make work that makes a difference. The founders of Company One, two of whom are here tonight, all came out of Clark University, the motto of which is “Challenge Convention, Change our World.” This notion infuses all we do. There is a presumption that as a non-profit theatre, we have a duty to represent our city in the widest sense possible, to be answerable to the people, and to provide civic benefit. Our stated core values are: Never be satisfied; Diverse, socially conscious thinking; Innovation and creative problem solving; Artistic Excellence; and Development of the individual as part of the greater community.

In the 3 years I’ve been on staff, my dramaturgy has been radicalized, thanks to the guiding philosophy of the company. Though I still relish the act of new play development, of being in the rehearsal room, it’s only one part of how I conceive of my practice.

My colleague, managing director, and friend, Sarah Shampnois, never wanted to make theatre. She started as a community organizer. Her values and practice — and those of the other Company One founders — have been a model for me. Boston has just seen the election and inauguration of the first new mayor in 20 years. Massachusetts is about to go through a Governor’s race. The statehouse has been a battleground for budget fights, especially around the arts. And for the first time since I moved here, there’s a rising energy across our entire arts & culture sector that (a) there’s work to be done, and (b) we could actually do it together.  As a dramaturg, I realized I was in a perfect position to join that movement and make a difference.

And so could you. The only barriers to civic participation are apathy and inertia.

Following Sarah’s lead, I’ve been able to testify at city council hearings and town hall meetings, meet with state legislators, intersect with MassCreative and the Massachusetts Cultural Council. Democracy is amazing when you opt in. And as dramaturgs, we have the exact skills for this task. I often tell my students that the dramaturg is the person in a process whose job it is to identify and open up pathways into the world of the play – or, if you prefer, into the big idea, the question, the issue – to open those pathways to every individual constituency and stakeholder. It’s context, it’s framing, it’s speaking the language of the person you’re trying to reach. But now I’m not just doing it for plays, I’m doing it for the health of the sector, for the future of emerging artists, and for the quality of life for all residents of this city in which I make my life and my art.

I think about Hrotswitha a lot. Did you know she named herself? Her name means “the strong voice of Gandersheim.” It was a radical act that was meant to convey that she “stood firmly within the community of which she was a part” (citation). The community of people who allow me to do my best work is extraordinarily large, and if I named them all we’d be here all night. But I want to call out a few specific people. I feel sometimes that Shawn LaCount, Sarah Shampnois, Summer Williams, and Mark VanDerzee saved my life when they welcomed me into the heart of Company One. I am exceptionally, eternally grateful for their friendship. Corianna Moffatt made Freedom Art with me, and any of its success belongs at least 50% to her. Jim Petosa, my colleagues, and my students at BU not only allow me to cultivate my art and advocacy outside the university setting, they celebrate the ways it makes my teaching better. The staff of Company One is like a family to me, especially the dramaturgs who have been on my team, most recently Jessie Baxter, Ramona Ostrowski, and Ciera Sade Wade. Julie Hennrikus, Executive Director of StageSource, is a frequent co-conspirator and between the two of us I am sure we’ve made a pot of trouble. Speaking of trouble, I deeply appreciate the cadre of amazing women who are like my professional braintrust – you know who you are. And of course my husband Chandran, who not only tolerates but encourages all the barnstorming I’ve ever endeavored to do.

I’ll close here: the common thread that runs through all of this work is a soul-deep dedication to the dramaturg as an artist of impact. If we are to accept that dramaturgy, in its efforts to contextualize and present traversable pathways, has merit as a creative act, then I believe social justice, mentorship, and advocacy have to be at the core of all I do. The thing that sustains me is that theatre is not just an art form, it’s a vehicle for empathy and humane connection. It comes to us through a history of ritual and spiritual practice, and though we’ve largely moved on from those structures, the roots remain. The human condition is one that seeks connection—something we’re sorely in need of these days. If any communal activity holds the promise of bridging the gaps, it’s the theatre.

imb award 2014 2And so: I advocate, I mentor, I seek to make my small corner of the world better for us having been here. So can you.

 

Inclusion. Intersectionality. Empathy. Advocacy. Action.

 

Thank you.

— Ilana M. Brownstein

 

 

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Meet the Retreatant: Amanda Coffin

23 Jun

Amanda, a dramaturg, joins us from Emerson.  (Hooray for local dramaturgy programs!)

Amanda Coffin is a director, dramaturg, actor, writer, and teacher. Originally from New Hampshire, Amanda has been in Boston since attending Emerson College where she studied directing and dramaturgy in addition to fiction writing.  She currently works at The Mary Baker Eddy Library giving tours, which is a much tamer position than her last museum job at The Witch Dungeon Museum in Salem, MA (puritan dress, re-enactments of witch trials, a really scary, possibly haunted, dungeon!).  She also has a recent interest in American Sign Language and is struggling to become more fluent in this very expressive language.

 

As a dramaturg, Amanda has worked extensively on new works and classic productions.  She recently directed a one-woman show about Zelda Fitzgerald entitled Zelda: Musings from the First American Flapper, which is currently touring libraries and theaters around New England.  She served as dramaturg for Emerson College’s 2010 Rod Parker Award-winning play Paint: Imagining a Love Story of Robert Rauschenberg and Jasper Johns which had its world premiere at Emerson and is currently being performed in Los Angeles, California to much acclaim.  Amanda also serves as an artistic adviser for Boston Stage Company and recently co-directed their New England premiere of iLove.  As an actress, Amanda performed opposite her twin sister in the world premiere of The Argument in Newburyport, MA and also spent a summer playing Miranda in an outdoor production of The Tempest.  She had a blast as a cast member of The Awesome 80s Prom: Boston for more than a year.

Amanda loves: her one-eyed cat Monkey, writing depressing fiction, reading classic books that everyone else seems to have read except for her, Jerzy Grotowski and physical theater, attempting to cook, and watching the Red Sox.  She got her BA from Emerson College in Theater Studies (Directing and Dramaturgy) and a BA in Writing, Literature, and Publishing, also from Emerson.

Meet a Playwright: Walt McGough

21 Jun

Walt is the recipient of the very first Playwrights’ Commons commission.

In an effort to build grassroots support for the Freedom Art Retreat, we put a call out to local playwrights for a 2-minute play on the theme of “Art in the Woods,” to be performed at the May 2011 Feast Mass event.

This several-times-a-year gathering of Boston-area young professionals and hipsters awards hundreds of dollars to individual artists in need of support.

Armed with Walt’s Tree Play, the staff of PwritesCom made our pitch and won the $300 second prize.

We’re pretty certain we won because Walt was kind enough to include a bear in the play, at our request.  Meet the bear: