Like all theatres around the world, Geva Theatre Center in Rochester, N.Y., has radically shifted the way we conceive of and produce theatre. Our first programming of the 2020-2021 season is Recognition Radio: An Audio Play Festival Celebrating Black Voices (available for listening now through mid-December). This new festival has been an ongoing test of Geva’s commitment to anti-racism after a 47-year history of upholding a system of white supremacy. We have reexamined the ways in which we historically curated design teams to better reflect the communities whose stories are being told.
We have also begun to center playwrights in every aspect of the production process. For the first time in Geva’s history, playwrights have been asked which dramaturg they wanted to work with. And for the first time, in addition to myself, three Black dramaturgs were hired: Pascale Florestal (she/her), a Boston-based dramaturg, director, educator, and assistant professor at Boston Conservatory, who worked on The Resurrection of Michelle Morgan by Christina Anderson; Theresa M. Davis (she/her), dramaturg, devisor, director, and associate professor of Performance at the University of Virginia, who worked on The Bleeding Class by Chisa Hutchinson; and Otis Cortez Ramsey-Zöe (he/him), dramaturg, director, educator, and adjunct instructor in dramaturgy at Carnegie Mellon University, who worked on we are continuous by Harrison David Rivers. (For my part, I worked as dramaturg on Kirsten Greenidge’s Feeding Beatrice.)
Having four Black dramaturgs in the same artistic space is such a rare occasion, and I felt a wonderful opportunity to have a candid, transparent conversation not only about individual experiences within the theatre but also about our collective hopes for the future of the field, particularly as we continue to invest in anti-racism and equitable practices. Dramaturgy has historically been and still is a very white academic field, and is often seen as an inaccessible profession, particularly for BIPOC people. In a recent conversation I had with my colleagues, we challenge that notion, among many others, and I hope we can inspire and uplift budding BIPOC dramaturgs and theatremakers.
FRANCISCA DA SILVEIRA: I’d love to start out by asking, what does your day look like now, in this present moment, in your respective roles?
PASCALE FLORESTAL: I’m in this weird point of my career where I’m getting a lot of work, which is great—but I’m also thinking about how we move in this space now and how we create art. There’s a lot of urgency, need, and desire for more. In terms of the day to day, I recently finished a writing class. I’m trying to better understand storytelling, not just from a theatrical perspective but in all the ways we tell stories, especially now that we’re seeing how we have to change how we create. I’m also working on a narrative podcast with Northeastern inspired by Lorraine Hansberry.
I’m also really thinking about what it means for theatre to be more accessible. Now that we can’t physically be in the theatre, how can we bring this to everyone? We have the opportunity to examine that now. Working digitally makes it easy for even my family, who lives in Miami, to experience theatre in a way they have never experienced it before.
OTIS CORTEZ RAMSEY-ZÖE: I’m starting each day with a half-hour meditation practice to make sure that I am preparing myself to meet the day with intention. A lot of my time is spent teaching online. Like Pascale, I also find myself quite booked right now, and that indeed is a gift. But I’m also questioning it and am kind of skeptical. I think about the ways in which the attention to Black stories, Black bodies, Black art, Black lives was awakened by the repeated murders of Black people. There’s a lot of attention right now on Black lives, and I am waiting to see what happens with these cultural institutions when we slip out of attention, when we slip into inattention.
It is indeed a gift to be super booked, but I wonder what’s actually changing within the systems. When we are invited to the table, are we also still upholding and supporting the table? This might be a time where we need to flip the table over, chop it up, get rid of it. Even as I go from one thing to another, I’m still asking myself: When are we going to have that conversation?
THERESA M. DAVIS: Ooh, that was powerful. What does the day look like? Well, from Sept. 21 to Oct. 30, I did a 40-Day Surrender Fast—it was not just about food fasting, but insecurity, fear, anger, resentment, anything that’s blocking or distracting you. It was so productive that I am now in the fifth day of the second round of this Surrender Fast. So my day right now, similar to Otis, is starting off with meditation and listening when the spirit wakes me up in the morning to get up the first time. After that, in terms of teaching, I’m on Zoom a lot. I’m learning a lot about what it means to stay centered as we work this particular tool.
In terms of the work, I too have been blessed and I’m like, “Wait, where’s all this coming from?” And then I go, “Oh, yeah. Black Lives Matter, they’re going down the line asking, who are the Black folk?” This has forced me to really ask for the power of discernment, because something might feed your belly, but does it feed your soul? Will this particular work feed me and feed members of our various communities? I’m also directing Priyanka Shetty’s one-woman show The Elephant in the Room, which has been invited to the Fringe Festival this year. My days right now are really about figuring out how I can be more empathetic as a dramaturg and as a director. How can I work to really get inside the story?
DA SILVEIRA: For me, I’m trying to figure out how to navigate dramaturgy as a day job and my own playwriting. I’ve been really lucky the last few weeks to be in workshop and rehearsal for two separate plays of mine. I’m grateful, of course, but it’s a lot of creative hours in the day to negotiate. Now, I don’t know about you all but when I say, “I’m a dramaturg,” I’m usually met with a blank stare. I would love to get each of your individual definitions of dramaturgy and find out more about what it means to you.
DAVIS: For the longest time I remember paraphrasing something I’d read online where a dramaturg said, “I consider myself an illuminator of the text.” I was very fortunate when Chisa [Hutchinson] gave me an amazing shout out and said, “Theresa Davis is an archeologist of story.” It immediately made me think of Zora Neale Hurston. I have so admired her work and how she would go into communities and really get to know the folks. What does it mean to be an archeologist of story?
I don’t think Chisa knew this about me, but one of my first work study jobs in college was working for an archeologist in Erie, Pa. I remember one day he had a skull and said, “We can tell where people are from just by the shape of the skull. The bones tell you so much.” I would see him lovingly brushing the bone, and I thought, “That’s it. How can we just really be here and be present?” Right now, the archeologist of story is going through my mind.
RAMSEY-ZÖE: That makes me think of Michael Chemers’ Ghost Light: An Introductory Handbook for Dramaturgy. He offers two definitions of dramaturgy, and one of them has to do with the aesthetic architecture of the play. I’m thinking about archeology and architecture in relationship to one another. I tend to talk about dramaturgy in terms of the practicals, the deliverables, and say that my area of concentration is new-play development. I work with writers or a team of artists and am listening on behalf of the text. I usually do the layman’s definition of developing the script, asking questions, etc.
DAVIS: Your definition enlightens people. People could say, “Oh yes, that’s what it is.” They would look at my definition like, “What did she say? What does that mean?”
FLORESTAL: I do like hearing this question, because I know when I was in college I didn’t learn about dramaturgy until I was graduating. It was still very new to me, and it wasn’t until I moved to Boston and met people like Fran and Ilana Brownstein, who really gave me an opportunity to understand what it is. Sometimes I like to say that I’m either the playwright or the play’s champion. If it’s new-play development, I’m there to make sure that the playwright feels that this is what they want, this is the story that they are hoping to articulate. If it’s a play that is older, has been produced, or is at that point that it doesn’t need the kind of eye that a new play needs, I say I’m the person in the room to support everyone in understanding the world of the play.
DA SILVEIRA: I like to say that I’m the playwright’s best friend, living or dead. But similar to you, Otis, I tend to put it into categories and say that while I do production dramaturgy, my passion is new-play development. I call myself a playwright dramaturg. The work that I am focused on is more the development of the playwright than a specific play. I aim to help writers navigate the workshop room, figure out how to receive feedback from directors, actors, institutions. When you’re starting out, it’s very easy to become overwhelmed. Using my institutional knowledge, I also want to illuminate some of the mystery around how season programming works. What happens when you actually send your play to a theatre? Who’s reading it? Hopefully, imparting some of that knowledge helps in the work that they go back and do on their play.
RAMSEY-ZÖE: I’d also like to say that the chief role of the dramaturg is, of course, to listen, but then also to facilitate inquiry in the room. To that extent, I’ve taken this move to try to invite us to think of dramaturgy as being outside of the confines of the rehearsal hall, as both an engagement with process and product. I invite people to think about themselves as dramaturgy. What is the dramaturgy of you? What are the meanings and messages that are being communicated that you are signaling out into the world? If you were inviting us to read you as a text, then how are you curating that dramaturgical conversation and how are you moving through the world? Dramaturgy is also a way of being in the world. But you have to see if your audience wants that or if you need to just give them the boom, boom.
DAVIS: That is so true. I love what you just said, Otis. Do they want that? Maybe it’s naïve, but I want to believe that people have this curiosity about them. How do we inspire that curiosity? How do we get you to go a bit deeper? But I love what you said in terms of seeing everyone as a subject.
DA SILVEIRA: I’d love to know what each of you look for when you get asked to dramaturg a project. What makes you say yes?
RAMSEY-ZÖE: Honestly, it’s a gut thing for me. I always read a text and I think, “Is this a room that I want to be in?” More than the play itself, am I interested in the people? Because, for me, dramaturgy and the work that we do is so much about an investment in community. That community is both the folks you’re working with in the room and also the community where the play is being presented or produced. Is it a community of artists and audience that I want to invest in, be a part of? Can I contribute to the conversation? Can I reflect the questions in the play? Most often I want to be enriched by the experience, and so is that a room I want to be in?
FLORESTAL: Yes, I love this. The room is important for me too, and the relationship between me and the playwright is what gets me to say yes to something. I love working with playwrights and I love working with new work. If we can’t listen to one another or if we just don’t vibe well, that makes collaboration harder. But if the connection is instant and the rapport seems very fruitful and beneficial, that always makes me say yes, even if the play may not be where it’s at for me or I have some problems with it. I’ve noticed that in my career in the last few years. Sometimes I’ll get projects where there may be something problematic within the play. Either the playwright or the producing company that’s working on this play needs to reckon with themselves and understand what’s problematic. But I say yes to that project if the people in the room are willing to listen and say, “Yes.”
As people of color and Black people in theatre, we are normally looked at and never listened to, and our ideas are not really given the same gravitas or seriousness as the white men who are leading the rooms. So I always want to be sure that my ideas and my thoughts will be heard. I always tell playwrights, “You take what you want from my feedback. This is just me imparting an offer.” It doesn’t matter to me if they take that feedback and go with it, it’s if they’re willing to listen.
DAVIS: I call it the yea, the nay, or the may-bay in terms of whether or not I’m going to work on a piece. And sometimes it’s may-bay nay, sometimes may-bay yea. Picking up on everything that Otis and Pascale have already said, so much goes into that decision. I look at the mission statement of the theatre. Is this one time you want to have some tokenism, or is this really what’s at the core of your value and belief system as an organization? I check that out. I do love new work, and so what type of new work are you doing? What type of new voices are you trying to integrate into the theatre?
I also think about the people, so thank you for that reminder. Who’s heading up the theatre? I worked with one theatre where it was so evident that the head of the theatre lacked insight in terms of the work, but the people working with him, the artistic team, were on point. They had a level of consciousness and I wanted to be with them to help support that endeavor because I knew this was not channeling from the top down. It was coming up from the grassroots.
But also, and Pascale said this: Is the script a problem? I think these amazing playwrights give us the birth of their baby as text and I want to honor that. Then there’s the baby that’s born with the production. And I don’t have any children, so I have to ask myself, “Do I really want to take on a problem child right now? Do I have the love, the care and the attention to be able to give that?” If I can’t be in service of the text, I have to step away. I have to admit, that rarely happens. Usually if it’s something that I connect to, I’m there.
RAMSEY-ZÖE: One other thing I forgot to add is that I tend to work with writers again and again and again. Often I’m already developing the relationship, so I’m already invested in that person. Theresa, your comment inspired me to think about tokenism. I’m wondering about the possibility of asking the question: So, what’s next? You know what I mean? Because what I don’t want to do is come in and give you the photos that you can use to show how you’re invested, and then next…you’re not doing anything else.
DAVIS: It’s true. What is their agenda moving forward? Because we know there are some theatres that are thinking two years or more in advance. So how are they hoping to grow that? What is coming next? Who is coming next?
DAVIS: It’s very valid to ask these investigative questions, not only about the play but about the institution. I think institutions need to hear that that is happening.
RAMSEY-ZÖE: I have certainly had issues with problematic artistic directors in the initial offer conversation. There was one situation where afterward, I went and had a kiki with my director friend who recommended me for this job, and we both ended up walking from the project because she was like, “Nope, I’m not doing this either.” So just know that your problematic nature is going to catch up with you, girl.
DA SILVEIRA: That is so, so real. I think there is this assumption that all Black artists are just so desperate and so eager for work that the answer is an automatic yes. But there is so much discernment, as you all have said. I too do my research. I look at your production history. I read your mission statement. I go on your Twitter. I see if you put out a statement. I also look at the wording of exactly what is being asked of me, especially right now. You can really read into intention based on what the ask is.
Another thing I’ve become very critical about is what I call being “Oreo-ed,” which is when there is Black director, Black dramaturg, and a white playwright. We’re like a little Oreo sandwich. More often than not, the play has some racial element to it too. And if that is the case, honestly, there’s a high chance that I’m not taking the job. Because the situation has already sort of presented itself there. Of course, there’s always an outlier situation, but…let’s just say, I think about cookies a lot.
FLORESTAL: I love the Oreo thing, y’all. I don’t think I’ve experienced that. Have you all experienced that?
DAVIS: Yes, I’ve been in that situation. I was asked to come on board as a dramaturg with a white playwright and woman of color directing. But this particular playwright was so humble, did not claim to know everything and did this amazing amount of research. That was a pleasant situation. But it can be an ugly one.
DA SILVEIRA: Do you all approach working with a white playwright differently than a BIPOC playwright or a Black playwright? Same thing goes for directors. I know this one’s hard.
FLORESTAL: I tend to work so much more with BIPOC playwrights because that’s who I want to work with. Those are the stories I’m invested in. But I’ve had experiences with white playwrights, and I think, especially when I’m working on a piece that is talking about race, about Black people, one of the things I always try to approach is all the research. This is so I never get questioned with where I’m coming from. It can be very demeaning if I feel like I have to prove to you that this is why you’re wrong, even though I know I’m right. So often I have to remind myself and the playwright that we’re going to have difficult conversations and it’s going to be complicated. It’s not your fault or my fault, that’s just what the situation is. Sometimes that makes it easier and sometimes that can make it harder.
But I will say, when I’m working with a Black playwright, it does feel like a kiki. It feels like home. That makes the work so much more fruitful. Those conversations can be so much more authentic and don’t feel like walking on eggshells or trying to make sure people aren’t feeling offended. I try to break that down in that first conversation with playwrights. I think that can be so hard for white playwrights when they’re talking about race, and even if they do understand, they still have to reckon with their own white fragility and what that looks like.
RAMSEY-ZÖE: Similarly, I work mostly with BIPOC artists. Most of the time, when I do work with a white playwright, it’s not that there’s a hierarchy in the room, but often I’m paired with younger playwrights, so there is always already built in a sort of, “I’m going to listen to you because you’re a particular type of elder.” Even if the age difference isn’t that vast, there’s a sense of respect.
I can’t think of any challenging situations with white playwrights. But I can think back to my younger baby-turg days, and when it comes to white directors—that can be a thing. I’m not finding any examples of anything that is striking or out of the ordinary right now. That’s not because they’re not necessarily happening, it’s because I’m mostly working with BIPOC folks, so I get to be in my happy place and spread bliss and be bliss.
DAVIS: I wish I could just live in the happy place. I thought a lot about this question that you just asked, because it’s so interesting. I verbalized it in a class I was teaching and a student immediately asked, “Oh, is there a difference?” And I thought to myself, “Yes, it’s about language.” I want to learn the playwright’s language. And so if we’re all speaking the same language then I have to ask myself, “Are we all speaking the same dialect?” And so sometimes the language and the dialect are very close to me, and we immediately start vibing and the conversation is rich.
Otis, when you mentioned the directors, that’s what comes to mind for me, moreso than the white playwrights. The playwrights are just so happy to have their work produced. They’re happy that someone wants to spend the time on their work. But with the directors—oh, yes. I can remember one particular experience…I was talking to the hair stylist because we were looking at the research for the period and the director, the white director, disagreed. And then how she countered me was to say, “Well, I have Black friends,” and as soon as that came out, I thought, “Oh, okay, all right.” So many times I have to say to myself, “This is a teachable moment with this person.” Because too often I’ve found that there’s some directors, white directors particularly, that will work to get you banned from the rooms. They will literally try to pigeonhole you or marginalize you so that your ideas are not valid.
So there is a difference and I believe there’s a difference with anyone that I’m working with. How do I learn that language? How do I learn that dialect? And then how do I navigate those minefields that often will come up?
DA SILVEIRA: I find myself, when I’m working with white playwrights, thinking about the other people of color in the room, particularly actors, who tend to have a lot of questions about their character—about language, behavior, placement. I find myself filtering those questions for the playwright, who may not necessarily be able to see those. And it is about language, like you all have said, and sometimes feeling as though you have to tread very lightly or carefully, especially if the play has some racial element in it.
For me, it’s also about the feel of the room. The joy that we all feel being in this room together is a similar joy that I feel when I’m in a room that is curated with a team of color. There’s something there that’s very joyous, and I think it’s just the pure fact of being and working together. It’s still so new. It’s still a surprise. I hope that joy never leaves, but I hope it becomes less of a surprise as we move forward.
You all do such brilliant things outside of dramaturgy and carry all of these brilliant hyphens. How are you navigating that right now? What hat do you find yourself wearing more often than not?
RAMSEY-ZÖE: I define myself first and foremost as a care worker and see everything that I do as care work. That’s the sort of lens or filter through which I do everything. And so for me, it’s asking: How do I lead with care? How am I being caring? How am I being careful? How am I interrogating the way in which care is offered? I love this word “offering.” I’m not sure if it’s the word that I would’ve used, but it feels like the only word that’s available now. When we are producing a work or presenting it to the world, it is an offering to the audience and to the community. I think about that relationship, about the way we are caring for folks in the work we do. I feel like that’s how I am navigating because everything for me really does kind of come back to care, and I pay attention to that. That’s my immediate shoot from the gut answer. Drop mic.
DAVIS: I love that. Care work, drop mic. I have been living with an Audre Lorde quote for the past few days. She says, “Caring for myself is not self-indulgence, it is self-preservation.” And that is an act of political warfare. So when you say the caretaker, it is because we are a part of the revolution right now. So thank you for being that change agent. I just wanted to pop that in there.
FLORESTAL: I’m so glad you popped that in, because that is exactly what it is. The way I navigate a lot of my work is through an educational lens. Both of my parents were teachers, and I think that’s what brings me to the choices of work that I do and want to learn more about. I don’t want to do work that I’ve done. I want to constantly be learning. That’s what guides me through everything that I do, whatever hat or bucket it falls in. It’s about being able to teach myself and teach others. Care work—I love that. I’m going to steal that, Otis, thank you. But I think that becomes a part of teaching, right? As educators, we care about that holistic view.
DAVIS: I had a wonderful man, a spiritualist, come to me when I was 15 years old and say, “You want a lot of things to be your gift, but your primary gift is that you are a teacher. That is your calling.” And I admit, at 15, I was like, “No, that’s not my calling.” When I think about it now, it is. All that we do, all of these different titles that we have and avenues that we pursue, it really falls under this umbrella of wanting to truly be of service and to help others. To be loving. We share this gift of knowledge. Isn’t it the Kikuyu proverb that says, “Knowledge is power”? We are empowering people with what we do as dramaturgs. People read our words, and hear us in post-show discussions. I would like to think they begin to think, if not differently, then more deeply about a subject.
DA SILVEIRA: We’re in such a weird time in the American theatre right now. It doesn’t look like it did six months ago, and hopefully it doesn’t look like that again in six months. What are your hopes for the future? If you have any, of course, because it’s completely valid to say, “I’m not feeling very hopeful right now.”
FLORESTAL: I’m hoping for so much innovation. This moment has tested the theatre, and the old way doesn’t work anymore. Maybe it never did work. I grew up in a community that didn’t have a lot of theatre, so I had to leave my home to experience this thing that I love dearly. I don’t want us to have to leave the places we come from in order to experience this art form that can go anywhere. My thing right now is the accessibility of theatre and how we can make it for everyone, and not just for the people who can afford Broadway, live in New York City or too-expensive metropolitan areas. What can we do so that everyone can see themselves onstage in the audience? I’m very optimistic, so I hold onto that as much as I can.
RAMSEY-ZÖE: Ashe, ashe. To me, all theatre is local and should be fulfilling a role in the community. My hope would be that as theatre becomes whatever it is becoming, because it is never fixed, it really invests in its relationship, responsibility and commitment to community. What this moment has taught us is that story can be achieved by a lot of different mediums: radio, podcast, Netflix, all of this other stuff, right? The thing that theatre does, of course, is bring people together and respond to or be present in the community. How do we really do that?
DAVIS: What dropped in my spirit were three words that began with E: equity, enlightened, and empathetic. With the We See You White American Theater document, we know theatre needs to be more equitable. I also think it needs to be more enlightened. I think too often there’s this safety. I had a business manager once say to me, “Well, you know, our audiences won’t favor that.” And I’m thinking, “You don’t know.” Why do we continue serving audiences the same thing? You want to offer, make new offerings. I would like to see us connecting more with our humanness. I want us to be more attentive, to listen more intently, to really honor stories that are specific. Brent Staples said, “Find the universal in the specific.” A lot of people think that universal means general and should appeal to everyone. No. It’s telling our particular story. I’m hoping that we will really honor stories.
DA SILVEIRA: I echo all of that, and will just add the reality that now more than ever, Black artists will ask questions. There is no more being silent. We all have to live in discomfort to be able to live in truth. That’s how equity is possible. There’s so much elitism and hoarding of power and knowledge in theatre. I just don’t know who it’s for… well, I do know who it’s for, but I think the work will just be so much more powerful with transparency.
RAMSEY-ZÖE: Maybe what I’m hoping for is abolition, and when I say abolition, I’m also speaking back to what I said earlier about disrupting power and interrogating the table. It’s abolition as it relates to the release of oppression. Abolition from the limitations of our ideas, from acquiescing to the lies that we’ve just accepted. I think about your comment, Theresa, about the business manager and audiences. My immediate gut response is: “Your idea of audience is too small.” How are we supporting or honoring communities? There’s not just one community. If you’re only catering to this one audience for whom your work is too small, then your goals are too small. We need to abolish these ideas that have held us back and that have kept us stuck in these systems of power that only serve those who manage to come to the top.
DAVIS: Yes! Dramaturgy as abolition. Freedom! Free that text!
Francisca Da Silveira is a Cape Verdean-American playwright and dramaturg. She is currently the assistant literary director at Geva Theatre Center, a 2020-2021 Playwrights Realm Writing Fellow, and a member of the Public Theater’s 2020-2022 Emerging Writers Group.
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