A Conversation with a Local Playwright
From 10 minutes plays to two-hour dramatic readings, local playwright, Jacqueline E. Lawton is recognized as one of the top 30 leading African-American playwrights in the country by Arena Stage's American Voices New Play Institute.
Lawton, 35, is the recipient of numerous awards and fellowships that include two Young Artist Program Grants from the DC Commission on the Arts and Humanities for Playwriting; the Ellsworth P. and Virginia Conkle Endowed Scholarship for Drama; the Jean McKenzie Schenkkan Endowed Scholarship in Playwriting; and the Morton Brown, Nellie Lea Brown, and Minelma Brown Lockwood Endowed Scholarship in Playwriting.
Lawton, who lives on Capitol Hill, will present a reading about the founding of the art department at Hampton University titled, The Hampton Years, during the 23rd Annual James A. Porter Colloquium on African American Art at Howard University in Northwest. The colloquium begins Thursday, April 19 and runs through Saturday, April 21. Lawton will also be a part of a panel discussion, State of the Art: To Publish or Perish, at the university on Friday, April 20 at 4 p.m.
WI: How does a District-based playwright make a living?
JL: It isn't easy to earn a living as a playwright anywhere. Many playwrights teach at universities or write for film and television. I'm a professor of Theater at the University of the District of Columbia and teach at the Smithsonian Associates Summer Camp. I also work as a dramaturg.
WI: Elaborate on the role of a dramaturg – exactly what does that entail?
JL: I help to make the world more accessible to theater artists and audiences. I compile research about the play through articles, essays, songs, pictures, and videos. I write program notes and conduct artist interviews. I lead post show discussions and theater symposiums. Also, I help playwrights develop and strengthen their plays.
WI: Do you only write plays for theater?
JL: No, I've written historical presentations for the Smithsonian Institute's National Museum of American History and the National Portrait Gallery. I've also written for the Hurston-Wright Foundation and Theater Washington's Helen Hayes Tribute.
WI: How many productions have you presented in the Washington, D.C. area?
JL: I've had several one-act plays produced at the Smithsonian Institute; most notably, Ira Aldridge: The African Roscius, starring Avery Brooks and Jewell Robinson at the National Portrait Gallery. In 2008, Active Cultures commissioned and produced, Mad Breed. In 2009, theHegira presented a workshop production of Anna K as part of Round House Theater's Silver Spring Series and the world premiere of Deep Belly Beautiful as part of the Mead Theater Lab at Flashpoint.
WI: What has been your worst experience in theater?
JL: Regardless of your role, it is challenging to produce a play. It's hard to be taken for granted and it's never good when communication breaks down between artists or within an organization. Over time, I've come to realize that it's better to learn from these experiences. That way, even the most heartbreaking of situations can be rewarding.
WI: What has been your best experience in theater?
JL: While working on The Hampton Years with Theater J, I felt nurtured and respected as a writer. During Anna K and Deep Belly Beautiful¸ I worked with brilliant artists whose talent and dedication encouraged and inspired me daily. When Active Cultures commissioned and produced, Mad Breed, it was the first time I had seen a play of mine come alive on stage. It was thrilling!
WI: What advice do you have for up-and-coming playwrights?
JL: Honor and protect your writing time. See as many plays and readings as you can. Make friends with other theater artists. Don't ever stop writing!