Tag Archives: conference

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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Dramaturg as Arts Advocate / Dramaturgs & Designers

17 Jul

Further follow-up from the LMDA11 conference

As mentioned in an earlier post, one day of the conference proceedings were conducted in a style called Open Space. I took notes for two of the sessions, one of which I led. I promised folks I’d make those notes available, so here they are. Click the titles for the linked google docs. If you can make use of any of these ideas, I offer them freely, and ask only that you let me know how it goes and report back.

1. Dramaturgs in Arts Advocacy: Talking to Policy Makers – Convened by Me

I called this session into being to address an issue particularly close to home: how we in the local theatre community can better advocate for ourselves and our impact with local legislators, policy-makers, and thought leaders. I framed this as a question about how dramaturgs can use the tools that come naturally in our practice to be trailblazers in this realm, but I think the issue is vitally important for all theatre stakeholders. In this set of notes, we lay out some obstacles, questions, and ideas for action. I’m in the midst of writing a larger article on this topic (which I’ll link to this blog once it’s published), as well as aiming to tangibly implement some of the ideas through the StageSource Advocacy Committee, on which I sit.

2. Dramaturgs & Designers: Opportunities for Intersection & Collaboration – Convened by Faedra Carpenter, Assistant Professor, University of Maryland

I attended this session because I’ve long felt there are great untapped possibilites in the dramaturg/designer relationship, especially in connection with new work. For that matter, there’s much to be gained by stronger designer/playwright relationships, especially early on in the creation process. It’s this belief that led us at PwritesCom to create the Freedom Art Theatre Retreat, which will put dramaturgs, playwrights, and designers together in the woods for a week to see what can be made of it. This conference session was interesting, in that it reminded me how often the dramaturg and the designer are in the same boat as jobbed-in independent artists.  I think we could be more effective collaborators and creators if we could jointly acknowledge this fact at the start, as well as move beyond designers seeing dramaturgs primarily as library minions (a not uncommon first impression).

If any readers have further ideas on these two topics, I’d love to hear them. Please respond in the comments section, or contact me directly at pwrites<dot>commons <at> gmail<dot>com

 http://www.ri4arts.org/

Reporting from LMDA11: The Dramaturg as Public Artist

13 Jul

Hello all,

The conference of Literary Managers & Dramaturgs of the Americas wrapped up over the weekend, and as usual, I’ve left with not only a new spark and verve for my work, but also a few tangible take-aways.

In this first (long) post on the conference, I’ll offer a summary of the events.

Thursday belonged to  LMDA’s University Caucus, which annually allows dramaturgs with ties to academia present Hot Topics, and then turns those topics out into the room for conversation and weekend-long follow up.  I love the U-Caucus because it’s not only a good jumping off point for the rest of the conference as a whole, it provides a useful snapshot of what the academic-affiliated portion of the field has been thinking about over the past year.  This time we had topics as diverse as:

1. Dramaturgy as a mediation tool between culturally/racially difficult plays and sensitive communities (in this case, a challenging play that needed to reach a socially/racially conservative audience base)

2. Dance dramaturgy practiced as scientific R&D

3. Strategies for restoring women to the canon of dramatic literature

4. Finding ways to honor and evaluate the work of dramaturgs as professors within the academic tenure structure

5. Dramaturgy as a healing process

6. Dramaturg as department chair — how to use the skill set of a dramaturg to question and reformulate something as staid and unmoving as an academic department

7. Explorations of ownership, power, and copyright in the dramaturg/playwright relationship

8. And lastly, a report on the upcoming release of the updated LMDA University Caucus Sourcebook, which gathers together members’ dramaturgy syllabi, exercises, case studies, resources, and the like.

We finished the day with an invigorating and amusing keynote address from Adam Lerner, the curator of the Museum of Contemporary Art in Denver. He made an impassioned argument for the need to embrace being more awesome. Or, as he put it, we creative professionals spend so much time trying to be excellent, we forget to be awesome.

For him, “awesome” means leaving aside the snobbery and stuffiness and elitism that contemporary art (analogue: contemporary theatre) seems to inflict upon the public. At MCADenver, he instituted the Mixed Taste lectures, which pair two absolutely disconnected lecture subjects into one evening event, then holds  joint Q&A. Examples: Walt Whitman and Whole Hog Cooking; Prairie Dogs and Gertrude Stein; Marxism and Kittens Kittens Kittens. It’s an amusing idea, but also one that unearths completely unexpected patterns in the juxtaposition. It gives attendees time to really appreciate issues of, for example, artificial lighting (which, as I recall, was paired in an evening with Warhol). You walk away with new understandings of things you couldn’t guess you’d care about.  For me, the big idea here was that when we find way to connect art to very fabric of our lives, we give our lives and the art meaning; this is authenticity. (Also, the next Mixed Taste will be the starting point for MCADever’s Pigeon Project, whereby Denver residents can check out homing pigeons to take home, care for them for a while, and then release them to find their way back to the MCA roof deck. Amazing and WTF all at once.)

Friday began with several opportunities to take advantage of Denver walking tours and public art.  Several colleagues and I (including PwritesCom Associate Producer Corianna Moffatt ) decided to get out into the mountains and check out the Buffalo Bill grave and museum. It was terrific — so utterly theatrical in itself, and a celebration of the life of one of America’s consummate showmen. Also, it was wonderfully kitschy. Check out this motley crew of dramaturgical types:

Friday also saw several larger-scale panel discussions, once the morning walkabouts were completed. We began with a group session on the status of the field in response to Todd London’s 2010 book Outrageous Fortune: The Life & Times of the New American Play. There was a promise from LMDA leadership that the comprehensive powerpoint presentation used in this session will be available online soon. Once it’s out there, I’ll link it here.

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