Introduction by Jordan K. Stovall, director of Outreach & Institutional Partnerships at the Dramatists Guild of America:
The “well-made play” has long been the standard in play analysis and writing courses around the country. We know the familiar diagram and terminology: a series of events, conflicts, and cause/effect actions that ultimately lead to some sort of climax, and finally a denouement. A series of unspoken rules have crept their way into our playmaking processes—a formulaic and understood approach to story construction, trickling down to producers, educators, literary departments, and selection committees. Why? We know it results in a safe bet for theatres, audiences, and stakeholders—something pleasing and commercially viable.
We also know who it is pleasing and commercially viable to: the audiences that have long held the lion’s share of the American theatre—audiences that are predominantly older, white, cisgender, heterosexual, middle- or upper-class. To be clear, this is not an attack on anyone who might fit those descriptors. It’s just that when our audiences don’t accurately reflect the populations of our country, we’ve run into a problem. The solution lies in discovering the components of our industry that have led these absent communities to feel there is no nourishment or entry point for them in what are meant to be centers for cultural dialogue, exchange, and growth. And so we’ve found ourselves in a moment of societal reckoning, wherein many theatre administrations and arts organizations have taken a pause to identify and address these barriers.
While there are many different facets of this conversation, this dialogue will focus the most closely on story: Whose stories are being told, what form of civic system are they speaking to or within, and how do they end up on our stages? To pave the road for stories shared by those long sidelined from the canon, it is important to understand the mechanism that forced them into the margins. Two prolific artists and thought leaders, Roger Q. Mason and Danilo Gambini, explore the shared expansive perspective on storytelling and evaluation that first brought them together. Their vision centers around dimension, authenticity, potentiality, and the “sublime” that informs the stories, rather than on a rigid framework that might prevent them from being recognized.
Outside of this conversation, we have been hard at work in a group that has blossomed among the Dramatists Guild, National Queer Theater, and Rattlestick Theater to apply these ideals to further trans and gender nonconforming (TGNC) representation in the theatre, and to prove that this vision is not only possible, but constitutes the future of our industry. Last year, we welcomed Ayla Xuan Chi Sullivan and Nick Hadikwa Mwaluko as the inaugural 2021/22 fellows for the New Visions Fellowship, a year-long incubatory program for Black TGNC writers. So far, this has culminated in a partnership with the 24 Hour Plays to bring a dedicated version of the Viral Monologues, the sold-out Jubilee for a New Vision showcase, as part of Carnegie Hall’s Afrofuturism Festival at MCC Theater, numerous publications, and a conversation at BroadwayCon with historic Tony nominee L Morgan Lee.
We invited numerous notable literary departments to be in dialogue with TGNC theatremakers in March 2022. We brought our conversation, “Together We Rise: Dream Session for a Queer Future,” to the TCG Conference in Pittsburgh in June 2022, resulting in a list of ideas and actions that we aim to share publicly later this year. This is only the beginning. Now, we invite you, the American theatre, to join in on the vision that Roger and Danilo manifest in this dialogue, which took place over Zoom in April, about how to read scripts in consideration for production.
We hope this dialogue may aid in our collective journey and responsibility to challenge these norms. We hope you take these insights with you and share them with those in positions of power. We hope you aid us in this work however inspires you most; we can’t do it alone and we need you. The next part of the journey is yours.
ROGER Q MASON: I want to talk about a love affair. It’s a beautiful love affair between two fledgling minds of the global theatre—not just the American theatre but the global theatre. I had the great pleasure of meeting you, Danilo, through the Page 73 and Roundabout Theatre writer/director exchange program. The beauty of that exchange was that I got a chance to meet you in a most intimate way, because we were on Zoom. The only thing we could do was listen to each other dream about the theatre we wanted to make. When I think about you, the life you’re pursuing in the theatre, and the work that you’re creating, I’m invigorated. You possess a simultaneously futuristic and primordial understanding of why we gather in space together to tell stories theatrically.
DANILO GAMBINI: If I remember correctly, we had a 10-minute span of time to talk to each other, and you brought up the dialogue between aesthetics and content. Immediately we connected, because I was talking about what realism means aesthetically and what would it mean, what should it mean, to have a queer aesthetic or an “aesthetic of color”: how different bodies express themselves theatrically, instead of just bringing color to a white supremacist aesthetic. And I think we started just yelling at each other.
ROGER: We started crooning to each other, because suddenly I found a kindred spirit! I found someone who, like me, existed in a theatremaking modality that didn’t embrace, either consciously or subconsciously, realism (and, in particularly, cause-and-effect, dialogue-based, cisgender male-hero’s-journey-centric realism) as the default, the be-all, end-all measuring stick of good writing in our profession. I was so refreshed by you, because I saw a great mind that understands where we could go if we allowed ourselves to be brave and imaginative. My first thought for you is, before we talk about where we’re going, let’s have an earnest conversation about what kinds of shows we are programming and developing in New York and regionally now.
DANILO: I have to start by saying that I moved here from Brazil five years ago.
ROGER: That’s exactly why I’m asking you! Because you’re a tourist in this town, and you have the beauty of second sight and objectivity from which to analyze this, as someone looking at it from the outside of the glass house inward with cultural and geographic distance.
DANILO: Yes, since you mentioned tourists: The schism for me is the difference between when I came as a tourist to watch Broadway shows, and then when I came as an immigrant to become a theatre practitioner in the United States. My expectations from the industry are completely different in those two minds. I have a Brazilian director friend, Ludmila Brito, and she says it’s our immigrant privilege to know what the difference is. Once you immigrate from one culture to another, you become more keenly aware of where you come from. I feel at the same time more Brazilian and less Brazilian, and more American, and a stranger in this land.
Once I started investigating the aesthetics of theatre in the U.S., I saw the predominance of realism as the basis of all practices. Which is not what it is in Brazil. I got enamored of this aesthetic because it’s so beautifully executed, because it is the tradition of this land. But why is this perceived as the baseline aesthetic? I started reflecting about it and where it comes from. As we know, in theatre it comes from Stanislavski and Chekhov, and they have a very specific sensibility, that there is this ordinary-like level of relationships, and you have this river of emotions going underground. There are things you don’t say, there are words that you hide, and super-objectives, and subconscious, and given circumstances—and the subterranean river and all of these components that make up the realism aesthetic are a very specific sensibility from a very specific white European culture. This style of theatre, from the Russia of 120, 130 years ago, was brought here and it became the predominant theatre form in America. It was a sensibility that both existed in and was learned by a very specific portion of our society. When the conversation became how do we “diversify” theatre, the initial impulse was not to diversify the aesthetic of theatre, but to diversify the colors of the bodies inside a white sensibility.
ROGER: What you’re saying quite brilliantly is that once the die was cast, this very white-centric realism was established as the aesthetic norm. It now becomes the measuring stick by which everyone else’s art has to be responsible and responsive; therefore, diversifying theatre in America means bringing Black bodies or brown bodies or other people of color into the aesthetic that is still the cultural norm. It’s still a demand for some sort of assimilation and acculturation that is in many ways colonizing. The philosophy of the power structure is: I am the norm, the standard, and the measuring stick of goodness; the way you get recognized is by writing a play or performing a play in this manner. We look at moments where POC projects have done well commercially and, many times, it’s work that is in dialogue with white cisgender male structures. One of the great plays, Fences by August Wilson, which I adore tremendously, is an experiment in how to find the doings and strivings of the Black body using the lexicon of a story structure that’s already known to the culture. We are all Willy Loman, especially Troy in Fences.
“Experimental theatre is not just reserved for the white literary elite. It’s not just Ionesco and Beckett who can say they are waiting for Godot. We can wait for him, and we can wait for our own gods and ancestors too, from our specific traditions outside whiteness.”
And in many ways, that’s quite revolutionary, because it’s disintegrating the exclusivity of whiteness as the center of theatrical humanity. It’s saying, I can infiltrate this and make it my own, have my own ethos infused into it; you may have thought that what you were seeing was a play that was culturally familiar and digestible, and yet I invested so completely in the specificity of my life and history and culture that I made it my own. Sometimes that is an important initial step towards diversifying form: You erode and evolve from within the structure. And then there are moments where I think explosions are possible and explosions are important. I think about people like Suzan-Lori Parks, who was in dialogue with her foremothers and forefathers, like Adrienne Kennedy, who imagined a space for the Black avant-garde onstage, saying, “We can do the weird stuff too.” We can be experimental and existential—experimental theatre is not just reserved for the white literary elite. It’s not just Ionesco and Beckett who can say they are waiting for Godot. We can wait for him, and we can wait for our own gods and ancestors too, from our specific traditions outside whiteness.
I think about where we are now and where we are going. To be Black and queer in the theatre right now is both a dangerous and exhilirating thing. I find myself navigating my Blackness and my queerness in worlds that aren’t always comfortable seeing them as one unified expression.
DANILO: I think you brought up an important thing: where we are going, and where we come from. I think it’s wonderful when you say that one way to erode the system is from within. How do I make realism on its highest level and bring a sensibility that is not a white European one? Because the corner that we wrote ourselves into is that now the “diverse identity” is limited to the diversity of characters inside a realist world. Our practice now has been that one can only do their craft inside the actual human identity they were born into. My expectation is (and of course there are many variations of this): How can you bring to the work your body, your heart, your soul—your full self—and how does the full you influence your aesthetic? How does your body, ancestry, and journey change your perception of the world, your expression of emotions, your conversations, your language? How does this influence your relationships, your self-expression, your mythology, your religion, your understanding of the world? This is the diversification that I’m hoping to see.
ROGER: I want to take you back to a piece of mine and a little bit of its literary journey. Many years ago, I went to a genderqueer bathroom in Chicago and it changed my life, because suddenly I found my place in the world through the toilet. It’s amazing, the insights that one can glean in the water closet. But that moment allowed me to carve a space that was non-binary, that was established, acknowledged, and accepted civically as my unapologetic self. I started reflecting back on the ways in which society had socialized me to feel that who I am as a non-binary person was wrong: someone whose voice really never dropped, who did not experience the same puberty that cisgender boys did. Biologically, there is at least a third gender in the world—and, arguably, many more. Yet I was forced and shamed into choosing a behavioral lane to maintain my place of respectability in American society. That put a lot of voices in my head. So when I started writing my genderqueer coming-of-age play The White Dress, the piece was not about realism-based scenes; it was about a character trying to exorcise the demon of the voices in their head out of their body, human vs. society, how we become socialized into identities. Only then, like Jesus on the cross, could that person be free, when they exorcise those demons from their body. The dramaturgy was about me and my voices. That meant doing away with the fourth wall. That meant speaking to the people directly, engaging with the queer sublime. That language cannot be contained by realism-based writing, definitely not the stylized approximation of realistic speech as expressed through Stanislavski. None of that could fully encapsulate the dimension and the complexity of my queer quandaries. I had to invent a whole new world.
I sent that play to a developmental program and I received a phone call from the literary manager criticizing my use of blank space and spoken stage directions. This person was concerned because they thought I would not be able to fill the page number or time-based quota for that festival. I suddenly realized that we have a literacy problem in this country in the American theatre. Now, one of my inspirations as an LGBTQ+ dramatist is é boylan, who has a beautiful piece called Virgo. The first page says: “We will be doing a lot of things with physicality, with duration, with performance, that take longer than they appear to on the page. So never judge this play by its page numbers, because I exist to expand and extend beyond time. I’m carving a third world whose power is to teach people a new relationship to time, space, and dramaturgical opportunity.”
What is the occasion of a queer play? It is the opportunity to expand your imagination beyond all kinds of binaries, identity, sex, civics, religion, science, politics. We exist in a world that is simultaneously omnipresent, yet relegated to the fringes. And it’s because of that expansiveness that we can imagine freedoms on the page. The world is too confined in their realism.
DANILO: I think what you’re hitting on is who and where are the gatekeepers that have eyes to look at this material, to understand the material’s potential, to understand the aesthetic experimentation, expansion, and explosion that a text can propose? If we establish that realism is the base level of our theatre, expecting and producing only realism makes complete sense. But we have a need to have more people with eyes to see, that are able to look at a text and understand that it’s not the purpose of this material to be realistic, or even in relation to realism. Can we identify, value, develop, and produce work that does not fit in this current aesthetic, and bring it to the mainstream? Can we see theatre that isn’t interested in or in relationship with realism?
ROGER: A play is a blueprint for a much larger event meant to be manifested in three dimensions. Really, I think it’s four dimensions—the fourth dimension is the sublime. Because I think when we produce a play, the ritual of performance conjures the spirit in a way. That is truly as close to divinity as we will get in this world. The ancients understood that. The ancient Greeks and the ancient Egyptians understood what it meant to conquer the spirit in order to make the crops grow. We’ve lost that understanding of the alchemy of performance and community. What does it mean to be so genuinely curious about the life and the well-being of someone else, for no other reason than just the pure enjoyment of being in fellowship with them? I don’t want anything from you; I just want to know how you’re doing. The text should not simply be read as literature. It’s not something to be consumed and appreciated from the static comfort of your candlelit living room. It must be seen as a guide for dreaming.
“If painting is the art of colors, if music is the art of sounds, if dance is the art of movement, I would say that theatre is the art of community. You have to have a community present and sharing the space, sharing the air, and some say sharing the heartbeat.”
I think the publication of plays and the prize-winning meritocracy that is the American theatre affirmation culture makes people start writing based solely on how a piece manifests on the page, as opposed to knowing that it’s a blueprint for a theatrical event that needs to be put on its feet in order to be truly understood. If I read a play and I have gotten every bit of narrative and characterological information out of it that I need already from the page, without putting it on its feet, was that really a play for the metaphysical stage? Shame on us for thinking that the final resting place of a play is its codification on the page. I think what I’m suggesting, and what I’m looking at, is that we need a new rubric of literacy and consumption of plays. Let’s give people permission to dream when they read a script. Don’t just see what you see; see what you could see.
DANILO: I agree. I think that’s the intersection that we need, and that’s why we so quickly connected to one another as artists. I always say that text is a pretext. If painting is the art of colors, if music is the art of sounds, if dance is the art of movement, I would say that theatre is the art of community. You have to have a community present and sharing the space, sharing the air, and some say sharing the heartbeat.
A theatrical text has to actually be a net or a hanger. People can attach themselves to it and unity can fill in the holes. When you say it’s the blueprint, it is sort of like the trail in which we step. We need the steps, and we need the people. A text must have the space for every performer to exist and breathe into it. You have the space for the director to translate it into the connections, the conversations, and the movements. It has to have space for all the designers to create the lights, and the sounds, and the imagery. It has to be the blueprint or the pretext for something to exist in another medium, in another realm. The sublime realm of presence and the sublime realm of community.
ROGER: How can I create something that’s not just about allowing my name, my ideas and my voice to be heard (although all of those things are very important)? How can I create something that is for somebody else? How can I create an invitation, not just a destination?
DANILO: I 100 percent agree. I teach this class called Understanding Theater at Quinnipiac University in Connecticut, and this one time I was talking to my students and I asked, “What is the reason someone becomes a theatre artist?” If you become a theatre artist or an artist that says, “I just need to express myself,” it comes from an individualistic place. Sometimes even a self-righteous place: “I just need to express myself and everyone else must hold the space.” I think an artist has to actually have something to communicate. I am in dialogue with my community—I’m not just behaving as an individual who is exploding in expressions. I am an artist that is paying attention to something in our society—something sublime or grotesque—and I want my community to pay attention to it too.
ROGER: I see something. And I can’t be the only one who sees. Let me offer this back to the community, so that other people will know that they are not alone in this dream or nightmare or desire or quandary. Let me write something so that we don’t go into that cold night feeling betrayed and deserted and alone. The great fear of the human spirit is to be forgotten and alone. Let me offer some balm in Gilead for those who think that no one cares about them.
DANILO: A student of mine asked me, “Do you think all theatre is political?” Absolutely! But it is political in a way that reveals that the “I” exist in an “us.” I don’t exist alone. We exist in a relationship and context—and history!—whether we like it or not. Theatre is political against the individualistic spirit that is so valued and praised in our society. And that is ritual. It has to be. Yes, it’s ritual, it’s sacred, it is a moment that we all choose to share together. What characterizes us as humans is our ability to tell stories. It only happens now. It only happens in this space. It only happens because I am here, and because you are here, and because we agreed to be together. Which is actually the most beautiful part of being human: togetherness.
ROGER: So how do we change the world?
DANILO: How do we change the world?
ROGER: I think we start asking new questions. For us, it starts with asking new questions of our work and our collaborators in the theatre. Over the past year, I’ve been developing a new set of questions to ask of plays, particularly queer plays. Their aim is to celebrate the possibilities for theatricality and performativity within our work outside cisgender white masculine-dictated storytelling. My questions go something like this:
1) What delights us about the play?
2) What is the ritual structuring the work?
3) Who are the characters and how do they manifest or exist within that ritual?
4) Why does the piece need to exist specifically in the theatre, a four-dimensional live playing space before an audience? The four dimensions are time, space/place, the human element, and the sublime.
5) How does the author use physical storytelling as well as dialogue-based communication to forward the dramatic action or inaction of the play?
6) When do we engage the audience and by what means, passive or active?
7) What role do production elements play in storytelling: lights, sound, scenography, movement?
I developed these questions as a rubric for discussion within the New Visions Fellowship. Our work, our queer work, is experimenting with form, content and community engagement in radical ways, because we’re telling the stories of people who’ve had to make a way out of no way. These folks have been erased in so many ways from equal participation in American life in terms of health, in terms of politics, in terms of religion, yet somehow they’ve managed to build worlds on the stage where they can be free. The aesthetic I’ve observed among queer writers inspired me to ask a new set of questions that I think is helpful in terms of evaluating queer work, but it can also help offer some new ways of thinking about the theatre of the future in this country and in the world.
DANILO: I absolutely love this! I can try to contribute by sharing some sets of values I personally operate from. One set is what I believe are the three pillars of theatre: ritual, politics, and entertainment. I spoke about ritual and political. The third one, entertainment, I understand based on the word’s etymology, which is “to hold in between.” What is the capacity of this play to hold me in between?
ROGER: That’s the etymological reality of what entertainment means. How can I hold myself here and not run away? That’s powerful. That’s about cognitive responsibility.
DANILO: Other things that I look for as a director are the idiom of the play and the theatrical device that it demands me to articulate. What we see the most is realism as an idiom, and the fourth wall as a device, but there are infinite possibilities, and that is what excites me. The last set of things I look for when reading a play is what I call “The Guidelines for a Daimonic Show.” The daimon is an ancient Greek concept, and one of its interpretations can be a personification of an “essence of human nature.” Of course, all the ancient Greek concepts existed before Christianity, so we are not moralizing any essence as “good” or “bad” or “hell” or “heaven”—that has nothing to do with it. For me, the ideal piece should serve five daimons: the Child, the Teenager, the Young Citizen, the Intellectual Adult, and the Elder. Therefore it should inspire amazement, to wonder the Child; have voluptuous passions, to move the Teenager; engage politically and socially, to interest the Young Citizen; provoke thought, logic, and have virtuosity, to convince the Intellectual Adult; have a sense of humor, to entertain the Elder.
ROGER: And we have a sixth!
DANILO: Which one is the sixth? Tell me!
ROGER: The acceptance of our return to earth, and the responsibility that we all have to enrich that soil, by doing our best, most earnest, and selfless work while we are here.
DANILO: That daimon shall be named the Eternal.
Danilo Gambini is a New York-based director, originally from São Paulo, Brazil. He is currently the associate artistic director at Rattlestick Theater and part of the Roundabout Director’s Group.
Roger Q. Mason is an award-winning writer, performer, and thought leader. They are a proud member of Page 73’s Interstate 73 Writers Group, Primary Stages Writing Cohort, and the Dramatists Guild.
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