Playwright, dramaturg and professor of theater at the University of the District of Columbia, Jacqueline E. Lawton is heralded as an accomplished playwright. Since moving to DC in 2006, Lawton has become a vital member of the DC theatre community and is quickly garnering national recognition for her work, achievement and commitment to the theatre.
In 2010, Arena Stage's American Voices New Play Institute listed her as one of the top 30 new African American playwrights in the country and earlier this year, she was nominated for the Wendy Wasserstein Prize and the Playwrights of New York (PONY) Fellowship. This year, she received the Theater Communications Group's (TCG) Nathan Cummings Young Leaders of Color award, which was established in 2006 to bring young theatre professionals of color from around the US to the National Conference and engage them in a dialogue about the new generation of leadership.
Recently, Lawton spoke with me about attending the 22nd TCG National Conference held in Boston, Mass. The theme, "Model the Movement," challenged theatre professionals on the proverbial questions of "what if" and "what next." More than 1,000 theater professional gathered to discuss best practices and effective strategies for audience development, community out-reach programs, diversity, and networking tools.
MB: First, please tell us why you decided to get involved in theatre? Was there someone or a particular production that inspired you?
JEL: I can't remember a time in my life when I didn't want to be a part of the theatre. I was first introduced to it through my mother's love of MGM movie musicals. Also, in my elementary school, the 5th Grade Class performed a play for the younger grades as part of their curriculum. I lived for these performances and could hardly wait until I was in 5th Grade to participate in them. Sadly, by the time I got to the 5th Grade the curriculum shifted and they weren't doing them anymore. I can't even explain the depth of my heartbreak and disappointment, but my passion was not deterred! I continued to write poetry, short stories, and plays. I performed in middle and high School through UIL Poetry Interpretation and One Act Play Competitions. After graduating high school, I studied theatre, playwriting, solo performance, performance studies and screenwriting in college and graduate school at the University of Texas at Austin. Since graduating in 2003, I've done all that I can to continue working in theater.
MB: What is unique about being an artist in the nation's capitol?
JEL: D.C. is an important city. I live on Capitol Hill, which puts me in close proximity (only seven blocks!) to the U.S. Supreme Court and the nation's capitol. I'm walking distance from the folks making or not making powerful decision that impact the nation and beyond. As a playwright, I have an opportunity to write about these important and powerful decisions and hold the folks accountable for their actions. As with most important cities, DC has a diverse, talented, vibrant, and passionate theater community! Yes, we struggle with sustaining funding for our artistic institutions. We struggle with presenting racial and gender parity on our stages. We struggle as local playwrights to see our plays staged on the boards. Yet, for all that, I've been working nonstop since moving here in 2006. It hasn't always been easy, but I consider myself very fortunate.
MB: Thank you for speaking so candidly about your experience here. Now, can you tell us more about the "Nathan Cummings Young Leaders of Color" program?
JEL: Yes! TCG is awesome! As part of their mission and core values, TCG is committed to supporting and empowering the ambitions, visions, and challenges of the next generation of leadership. They want to encourage not-for-profit theatres to be more inclusive and to present and promote the work of artists of color. The Young Leaders of Color (YLC) program was a remarkable, inspiring, informative, empowering, and career-defining experience.
MB: Who nominated you to be a Nathan Cummings Young Leaders of Color Award Recipient?
JEL: Blake Robison, former Artistic Director of Round House Theatre/incoming Artistic Director of Cincinnati Playhouse.
MB: What excited you most about taking part in the conference and the program?
JEL: More than anything, I was excited to share space, thoughts, and questions with more than 1,000 theatre professionals from around the world! What I found amazing was that with all they had to manage and coordinate, the staff at TCG made time to introduce and connect artists with one another. They accomplished this through Conference 2.0, which allowed participants to create a profile, set up meetings and engage in discussions. They also gave all of the Young Leader of a mentor and introduced us to a professional in our field. This built such wonderful energy around what's to come and strengthen the sense of community in a dynamic way.
MB: What does leadership mean to you?
JEL: This was one of the first questions we were asked in our Young Leaders of Color session. I believe that a leader is someone who has integrity, courage, humility, compassion, a strong work ethic and values excellence. Someone who gets out of their own way, checks their ego at the door, and remains accountable for their actions. Someone who is discerning, able to delegate, and listens to the needs of their community. Someone who understands that leadership is a privilege and with that privilege comes a great deal of responsibility. Someone willing to say they don't know and that they were wrong. Someone willing to stand up for their core values, no matter how challenging that may be and even if no one is looking.
MB: What was the most valuable lesson you learned from the conference?
JEL: Hands down, the most valuable lesson is one that motivational speaker, Paul Robison, taught us when he helped us define our core values. First, values are what matters to you; what you can't live without; what defines you; what stimulates and inspires you; and what is central to who are you. Now, in order to be a core value, they have to be:
1. Chosen freely.
2. Chosen among alternatives.
3. Chosen after consideration of consequences.
4. Prized and cherished/bring you hope and joy.
5. Publicly affirmed and reflected in how you live.
6. Acted upon, even in the most challenging situations.
7. Part of a pattern of action.
So, you have to ask yourself how closely your behavior matches your core values. You have to be honest about this. If you're not living your core values, then you either need to adjust them or adjust your life. Basically, if health and fitness are important to you, but you've never set foot in that gorgeous gym you pay a monthly membership to; well, you might want to reassess that value!
MB: Last year, conference attendees were asked "what if," this year the question was "what next." They were looking for ways not-for-profit theatre companies and theater artists could build on the momentum of the conference to breakthrough some of our most persistent challenges. What were some of those challenges and how do you think theatres can overcome them?
JEL: These are big, powerful and important meditations. Theatres struggle to build audiences, sustain funding, represent racial and gender diversity, and support new plays on the main stage:
In order to build and keep audiences, we need to value theatre's essential contribution to our economy and society. We must infuse the ritual of theatre going as a part of our culture. It's more than going to Broadway. It's about being in the audience of your local and regional theaters. It's about serving on boards, giving annual donations, and being an advocate for theatre. It starts in childhood, continues through middle and high school, and must be a part of the academic experience. Otherwise, as young adults, parents and empty nesters, we won't know to make it part of our lives.
We must find sustainable models to create theater and support theatre artists. In what other industry are professionals asked to give of their talent, time, and expertise for free and just for the love of it? And, where else are they made to feel bad, a diva or not a member of the team, if they require payment? If another industry does this as well, then stop it! In addition to honoring the value of theatre, we must also respect the people creating and making theatre.
The issue of racial and gender diversity is bigger than the entity of theatre, but what better place to address it than on the stage? What other art form offers an intimate portrayal of the strange, beautiful, curious, brave and vulnerable human experience. On stage, we can see unfold the various ways in which we live and die; of how we behave towards one another in love and hate; of the immediate and residual impact of our decisions; of the damaging and devastating consequences of our neglect; and the joy and glory of our good deeds. In order to do this with as deep, rich, full and complete a picture as possible, we must rid our theatre offices, rehearsal halls and stages of race and gender discrimination. Enlighten yourself to this reality and do better. This has to stop.
As for producing new plays, we all accept they're a risk. There's no guaranteed outcome of success. But we must remember that at one point in time all of the much beloved, tried and tested classics were once new. Someone took a chance on them and allowed these plays to show us the world in a way that we had never seen before. Also, it's never fair to compare the reception of one new play to that of another. It undermines the audience, the artists, and presenting theater.