Martine Kei Green-Rogers has questions. Plenty of them. Questions for you, for me, for her colleagues, for the theatre field at large. Though she’s a dramaturg by trade, Green-Rogers’s persistent pursuit of knowledge has led her to numerous leadership roles. Most recently, she’s taken over as the dean of The Theatre School at Chicago’s DePaul University in July 2022 and just last month was named president-elect of the Association for Theatre in Higher Education.
“I see dramaturgy as the exploration of what makes us human,” Green-Rogers said in a recent interview. “That’s the reason I love every sort of theatrical experience I’m in. Every single one is a new opportunity to learn something I didn’t know about who we are. It feels like higher ed is the place to be, because that’s a place where I can continue to explore, to experiment, to ask questions, and not feel like that weirdo just asking questions. My job is to ask questions.”
Originally from Norfolk, Va., Green-Rogers has a PhD from the University of Wisconsin-Madison. She taught previously at Kenyon College, Sam Houston State University, and the University of Utah, and has served as interim dean of the Division of Liberal Arts at the University of North Carolina School for the Arts and as president of the Literary Managers and Dramaturgs of the Americas. Now she’s setting down a six-year path with ATHE, where the leadership rotation includes two years as president-elect shadowing the current president (CarlosAlexis Cruz, in Green-Rogers’s case), two years as president and mentor for the president-elect, and two years as immediate past president, helping to cultivate the next generation of leaders for the organization.
In a conversation in late August, Green-Rogers spoke about her mission as a leader of both DePaul’s theatre program and ATHE, and the questions she has on her mind moving forward. This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
JERALD RAYMOND PIERCE: You’ve been in your current position for just over a year now. What’s been the biggest shift for you, either personally or in how you approach leading The Theatre School?
MARTINE KEI GREEN-ROGERS: The biggest thing I’ve learned is that different places are in different places about how to move forward. I’ll put it this way: I feel like conservatories can do one of two things. They’re either places of innovation and pushing vision forward, or they’re places of conserving the way things have always been done. Some places are better at looking to the future than others.
There’s an anti-intellectualism that is pervading the country. There are just so many things that are making higher ed under attack. You couple in with that the politics of different states and how politics is now starting to dictate what these places, which are supposed to be bastions of information and education, can now teach. We are now in a situation where people are fighting the fight to make sure that there’s equity in terms of the distribution of the money attached to people’s labor.
I am excited to be in a position of leading The Theatre School at DePaul. I’m excited about being in a position of helping usher ATHE into the next sort of understanding of what all these things are, while also recognizing that there is a lot of building, rebuilding—all sorts of things that have to happen at the same time. All of that is to say, what I’ve learned is that everyone’s in a different place, in a different space, and somehow we have to figure out how to make all of that move forward.
Speaking of anti-intellectualism, have conversations around book bans and censorship been coming up in theatre classrooms or on the radar for you either at DePaul or ATHE?
Is it on my radar? Yes. Have I seen it intersect with either one of those yet? No. Have I seen it intersect directly with me? A little bit. Here’s the thing: I recognize that the kind of work I did when I was in the classroom—I taught classes called Race and Gender in American theatre—total target. Before all of this—so we’re talking six years ago, seven years ago at this point—I ended up getting an alert for the fact that on some far right-wing educational blog, I was listed as someone who needed to be “watched” because of what I teach.
What’s fascinating about it is that it had nothing to do with anything. It was clear they were just sort of scouring academic catalogs, course catalogs, for certain buzzwords. If they found those buzzwords, they found whatever person was attached to it. I think the reason why they were, “Oh, we’ve got to flag this woman,” is because almost every class I teach has something to do with non-white culture. But the funny thing is, I teach that too. I also teach the early English Renaissance.
I remember that happened and I was, “Huh, this could be a problem.” I don’t care. Because here’s the thing, honestly: My North Star has always been spreading information. That is the thing that means the most to me, and it is the reason why all these years later, no matter how many times higher ed has done me dirty, I’ve come back. Education is super important to me.
I see the work we do in the arts as about collecting, sharing stories. That’s really, when you boil it down to its essence, what we’re talking about. How do we collect our own histories? How do we disseminate those histories? Because even things that are complete works of fiction are still a snapshot of who we are in that moment, and I’m intrigued by that.
In the end, I’m not going to stop doing what I do. Truth, the pursuit of that, should never be villainized. If we find ourselves in a situation where truth is being villainized, I’m staying in it until the very bitter end. That’s my North Star. Transparency is important. I lead with that.
How do you see your desire to ask questions appear in leadership roles where, from an outsider’s perspective, it seems like people are looking to you for answers?
This is a sort of dramaturgical approach. The reason I’m asking questions is I feel like leadership is about figuring out the beginning, middle, and end. I don’t mean “end” in this sense that it’s all over. I just mean the beginning, middle, and ending of my intersection with a particular place and organization. So where do we come from? Where are we now and where do we think we want to go?
Asking questions helps us figure out who we were and who we are now, and also where we want to go, and figure out: Okay, now that we know this, do we have, from the past, what we need to do that thing? Or do we need to, in the present, start working toward building whatever it is that we need?
I’ll give you a good example. I feel like the zeitgeist of the world right now wants us to really, especially in theatre education, be thinking more interdisciplinarily, more transdisciplinary, all these different ways in which multi-hyphenates are kind of ruling our arts world in a good way. For example, DePaul, the legacy of our conservatory training was very much a deep dive into one specific thing. So the question is, do we want to continue to push that one thing, or does it make more sense to start figuring out, can both of those things live in the same place? Do we live in a space where, if someone wants to do the real big deep dive into the one thing, they can do that, but then there’s also space, if you want to kind of do a half dive here, then a half dive here? These are the questions we need to be asking ourselves.
The industry is working through a lot of tough conversations right now around systemic issues in the field. Those things never really came up when I was a BFA student. How are those conversations appearing in educational spaces for current students?
I’m not going to put you under any disillusion that in all of the spaces that conversation is happening. But generally, where I see it manifesting for us in higher education, especially even in the conversations I’m in at ATHE, it’s manifesting in the sense that we are asking the questions. Why are we teaching things that way? Is there a reason why the history of theatre needs to be so Eurocentric now? There’s no reason for that. So how do we fix it?
These are all questions that we’re asking each other all the time, and most of the time we’re crowdsourcing that answer. It’s the same thing that’s happening in here [at DePaul]. One of the things we talk about is, how do you go about revisions to curriculum? How do you go about the revisions to your syllabi that truly start to address some of these larger issues? How do you start to incorporate what is going to happen outside of here into it?
One of the biggest joys and failures of theatre education is that we assume that we can teach you all this stuff and that somehow you know how to apply it. It’s not that simple once you get out of here. The business of it all—and we could have a conversation all day long about, should theatre be a business, does it have a higher aspiration? There are so many questions we could be asking about this. But we live in a very capitalistic society that expects, once you get a degree in something, that you’re making some money doing something so you can basically afford yourself. So the question becomes, how do we incorporate all of that into this space and set you up for the potential for success?
How do you see the current generation of students—from students just considering going to college for theatre to recent graduates and everyone in between—shaping the field in the coming years?
What I find interesting about this generation of students is that they are not beholden to the same boxes of art that we have all traditionally subscribed to. For example, we have people in this building who are here and they’re, “Yep, I’m going to get a good degree from The Theatre School and I’m a hundred percent sure I’m going to go work in some other thing that’s not theatre—I’m going to take these skills and I’m going to go do this over here.”
I see a lot of students who are interested in “edutainment.” For the most part, we’re pretty conservative in this space about what we see as “theatre.” I’m still pushing us to try and start to do immersive work, to do stuff that in some ways was one time on the fringes that is now starting to come into the mainstream. I’m pushing us to really look at that, and I have a lot of students who are interested in this, interested in thinking about the activation of knowledge.
Is there anything else you’d like to share with readers?
The thing that I am interested in, both at DePaul and at ATHE, is really asking us to examine why. Full stop. I mean that on numerous levels, and I’m not saying it to be flippant. I’m just saying, I have questions. For example, in a moment when people’s pocketbooks are hurting, in a moment where people are asking about the value of a lot of nonprofit organizations, who are we? Why do we exist? What is our function in this? How can we be of help? How can we be of service? All these things.
What I’m hoping for over the rest of my contract here at DePaul—I’m one year into a five-year contract, and in some ways I’m now in year one of a six-year journey with ATHE—is to use the knowledge I’m gaining from being in this space with students and with faculty and staff here at DePaul. How can I take that information out to the rest of the theatre education community and say, “Hey, here’s some things that may work, may not work. Let’s try this together. Let’s experiment together.”
In my head, I see this really interesting future for us. I see DePaul being a space of innovation, especially in terms of thinking about how we use art in conjunction with other fields to tell, to show, et cetera. Because I think it’s a two-way street. Educational institutions, nonprofits need to spend some time listening as well as some time contributing.
We literally have the ability to potentially have people think about something in a different way than they’ve ever looked at it. That’s powerful, and that is not to be taken lightly. It’s also a shame when we don’t use it. So how do we use it for good?
Jerald Raymond Pierce (he/him) is the Chicago Editor for American Theatre. firstname.lastname@example.org
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