It’s been an exciting few months for new artistic hires in the D.C. area, with Reginald L. Douglas (he/him) being the most recent addition, as artistic director of Mosaic Theater Company. Reflecting in a recent conversation on the appointments of Karen Ann Daniels at the Folger Theatre and Matthew Gardiner at Arlington’s Signature Theatre, Douglas said he is excited by this moment for the D.C./D.M.V. theatre community, both as an arts maker and as an audience member, “to have this many leaders of color, this many leaders committed to new work and voices, this many leaders excited by collaboration, all working together.”
For Douglas, this position, and the past few years, have represented a homecoming. Attending Georgetown University in undergrad, he was a self-proclaimed political junkie who initially wanted to be a lobbyist for education reform, but then discovered his passion for forging social change through theatre.
“D.C. was the holy grail for me,” he said. “I remember touring all the universities in D.C., and when I got accepted to Georgetown, I was on cloud nine. It really just feels like I found a home in a city that moves at a speed I love, with a city that’s wonderfully diverse in so many ways, and a city that has politics in its DNA. It feels really right, professionally and personally.”
Since his Georgetown days, Douglas has been known for his work in new-play development and community engagement at theatres across the country, having previously served as associate artistic director for Studio Theatre and artistic director at City Theatre in Pittsburgh.
I got to sit down and talk with him during his first week on the job—the night after his fourth day, to be exact—and it’s clear that he’s excited to be part of leading the charge to discover the role Mosaic can play in the field.
DANIELLA IGNACIO: I really appreciated getting to hear from you last year when you were a guest speaker for one of my Zoom classes at American University. Something you said about bringing your whole self to the table changed my own perspective on how I bring myself to auditions and new workplaces in general. Can you talk more about how important is it for you to bring your whole self to your work—your background, your history, your cultural identity, who you are?
REGINALD DOUGLAS: It’s really vital. I believe that as artists our job is to tell stories with the full truth. And for me, that requires being honest, and bringing my pain, but also my joy, into a process before every first rehearsal. In a world that so often seems to focus on my death, I’m here to celebrate life. I use theatre to celebrate life and stories of resilience, stories of survival. So yes, there’s pain, but there’s also joy, and I want to do that work with the ultimate nuance.
I would also say, typically, as a producer, I sit in this seat and have this great opportunity because of the amazing trailblazers and workers and leaders who came before me. So I bring them into the room with me. I also bring a really fervent promise and belief in the next generation of artists to take their seats. In order to make that space, I need to bring all of my history, and also the possibility of what could be, to the room. I try very hard to remember that.
Who are some of the theatre leaders that you’ve learned from, and what are the most important lessons you’ve learned from them?
I was really fortunate to train at the McCarter Theatre Center, and I worked for two of the most dynamic arts leaders in our field and two trailblazing women, Emily Mann and Mara Isaacs. Emily embodied what it meant to be a community-centered arts leader, where she was deeply invested and used her artistry to ignite a conversation with an audience, not just for an audience. That is a value that I hold very dear to my heart as an artistic leader. Mara taught me the value of creative producing, that even behind the scenes or dealing with the budgets and the hiring, all of that is also an artistic expression, and to use our work as producers to create the bravest, boldest space we can for creation. I’ve been guided by those two women my entire career and I feel like the luckiest kid in the world.
Another leader who has been really influential in my life is Chay Yew, a trailblazing leader of color and new-play director. I paraphrase a saying of Chay’s a lot, which is: When we invite people to the table, we need to also allow them to cook the food their way. I so believe in honoring the fullness of someone’s diversity and allowing them to fully express themselves and a creative team and on a staff, and that that is joyful work. And I think that’s something Chay has embodied throughout his career that I admire so much.
Are there any specific memories from your time with these leaders that you’d like to share?
Emily has been a guiding force throughout my career journey. She’s always encouraged me to walk into new chapters with humility, and to never forget the importance of service. Moments like right now, where it’s a spotlight on you, you’re actually standing in that spotlight to bring more shine to other people. You must stay true to your vision in your values, not to the noise. I’ve seen her do that her entire career.
I remember working on A Streetcar Named Desire on Broadway with Emily. She was noting until opening night; she was never going to settle for doing less than the best work and always doing it with love and rigor. To watch her do that, to support her doing that at the ultimate level of theatremaking, was such an active learning lesson and reminder about why we do what we do and how we can do it best, and that is with care and empathy. That’s advice from Emily I always hold tight to.
The search was national, but it all came back to you, someone who knows the D.C. theatre community well. What does it mean to you to get to serve the D.C. theatre community in this specific capacity right now?
I think there is a special opportunity in a city like D.C. to make work that celebrates the great diversity of the local communities and neighborhoods that call D.C. and the D.M.V. home, but to do that in a way that speaks volumes to the nation. What happens in the District directly impacts our country and our world. I believe that we have an opportunity as arts leaders and art makers in D.C., particularly those of us who value new plays, new work, and new voices, to allow our art form to follow in that same precedent, to use our creativity and how we make work that celebrates multiple perspectives and creates dialogue across communities and across cultures, and to allow that to be a local conversation that has national impact. That is the great gift of a city like Washington.
Then, the great opportunity of a company like Mosaic, which is currently based on H Street Northeast, is that we are also reaching an audience that is outside of what some may consider the core D.C. theatre district. I want to celebrate that. It’s full of opportunity for deep community development and community-enriched and -inspired work, which is, to me, the greatest kind of theatre to make: theatre that reflects the community and the neighborhood that it’s in and the possibilities that it could be.
I think D.C. is home to a wide breadth of talent that often does not get recognized. I am interested in finding ways to cultivate D.C.’s talent by giving people opportunities to work, opportunities to make work and feel like they have a creative home. I think that’s a great opportunity for Mosaic, a mid-sized theatre company that centers on new and contemporary plays that sparked dialogue across cultures. We need to have multiple perspectives making that work and those multiple perspectives can come from the D.M.V.
What are some of your specific plans to increase community engagement through artistic initiatives at Mosaic?
For me, the best kind of community engagement is when it’s in the DNA of the organization and in the DNA of the art we make. What I’ve been grateful to have done throughout my career is build creative partnerships with local arts groups and nonprofits and community leaders that put them at the creative table. They are in the rehearsal room, they are not just in the box office. We are excited about launching programs and projects that are centered in that kind of deep collaboration.
We also have an amazing education department led by Angelisa Gillyard, our education director. I’m excited to work with Angelisa on centering education and audience engagement as vital to the art we make. We currently are in the midst of running a playwriting contest. We’re interested in expanding that kind of education work, where the themes of the plays in our stage get ignited in classrooms and in youth centers around the community and around D.C.
I’m also really interested in working with other theatre companies in D.C. I think we are such an exciting cultural community. I get really jazzed about collaborating with Raymond [Caldwell] at Theater Alliance and Maria [Manuela Goyanes] at Woolly Mammoth and Karen Ann Daniels at Folger. I want to celebrate the idea that Mosaic is a company centered on collaboration. Our name says it all: disparate parts coming together to make a more beautiful hole. That’s the kind of work we want to make, that allows multiple community members to see themselves together in our audience and on our stages to make something uniquely mosaic.
One of the core projects for next season, which we’re already busy planning, does include a hope for citywide dialogue about the legacy of Emmett Till and how it speaks volumes to both our present moment, but also the hope for a future that we all can engage in. We’re laying the groundwork to meet with other theatres and arts organizations, churches, schools, cultural groups to come together in the making of this project, not just the group sales opportunity. We want to have multiple voices shaping work. We are hopeful about fall 2022 launching with a really exciting project called the Till Trilogy. We’re very much on the ground level. I think that’s one of the joys of these conversations at this point, is it’s all about what we’re hoping to do, because it’s only my fourth day at work.
What are your thoughts on how you view Mosaic as you join this company? How do you plan to make it better on the inside and build up a positive, supportive environment from a management/team perspective?
I’m really fortunate that I’m joining a team that is so dynamic and resilient. The Mosaic staff and board has shown deep collaboration, and centered the values I center as a leader, which are empathy, collaboration, and joy. That’s the vision forward for our staff and our board: How are we working together and having a good time while we work together with the spirit of service guiding us? We are here to serve our audience and be in dialogue with our audience, that is the dream and to have a staff that is deeply committed to that is the greatest gift.
We are a small but mighty team. One of the major focal points of these early days of the tenure is infrastructure building and supporting this team as a teammate as much as a coach. I think of Mosaic sometimes like a startup. You know, we’re less than 10 years old. This is a great new chapter for me and for this organization. We’re still discovering who we are and who we want to be. We’re doing it with values and vision guiding the way and we all have a great hunger and ambition to make work that activates our neighborhood, our city. And because we’re new-play makers also centers voices that have traditionally been undervalued in the spotlight. I find that to be urgent work, but also really joyful work. And I’m grateful that our staff agrees.
What are your biggest hopes for what you’d like to achieve in the years to come?
I’m on the board at the National New Play Network, and we have a motto: “Locally grown, nationally known.” That is my hope for Mosaic, that we continue to celebrate being a D.C. theatre company, hiring D.C. artists, activating stories about the D.C. community, and then sharing that local story with our national community. The best of the D.C. area meets the best of the nation, and that unique collaboration is a Mosaic collaboration. And we actively lead by example how to create an organizational culture rooted in empathy.
The third thing I would add is that we play a leading role in the creation of a canon of new work that reflects what it means to be an American and a citizen in this particular moment. So the legacy we’re creating is one that is the mosaic that looks like the world not just as it is, but as it could be, and centers that diversity as a given, as a benchmark for success—that vital to our success is a diversity of thought, and cultures being reflected onstage and off-. That to me is the great goal that we’re after.
Anything I’ve missed that you’d like to touch on?
I am hyper aware that I’ve joined a handful of leaders of color at this moment. I’m grateful for their support and encouragement of my colleagues, and I’m buoyed by our shared belief that this moment is far bigger than me or any one job. This is a moment of service to the next generation. I always say I get my chair so I can pull up three more with me. I’m excited about the doors we can break down as a field, roadblocks of race, or age, or gender, or sexuality. Let’s knock down those walls and build them back up. That is also the fire in my bones right now, to get to work on building the field we want to make so that the next generation of Reginald Douglases are not the first—or one of the few.
Daniella Ignacio (she/her) is a writer, theatre artist, and musician based in Washington, D.C. She is a former editorial intern and editorial assistant for American Theatre. www.daniellaignacio.wixsite.com/site
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