In Chicago, Refining the Cultural and Critical Lens
Willa Taylor reflected on her philosophy of building education programs for young people in theater:
I wasn’t really interested in training actors. I was interested in training human beings who could change the world through the arts.
Taylor, who is based in Chicago, heads up the Goodman Theatre education and community engagement department, is a longtime member of The Women and Theatre Program (WTP) and most recently received WTP’s 2016 Achievement Award for Activism. During her career she has created a wide array of initiatives, from the Hughes Fellow program at Arena Stage to The Urban Ensemble at Lincoln Center.
WTP, which is associated with Association for Theatre in Higher Education (ATHE), has held for the past three decades a pre-conference day described as “panels, informal discussions, workshops and performances as a means to foster both research and production of feminist theatre activities.” The 2016 WTP pre-conference, held Aug. 10 at Chicago’s Stage 773, was focused on the topic of “Women and Theatrical Labor.” This included a midday roundtable on “Women in Chicago Theatre” in which Taylor and various colleagues reflected on supporting feminist and community-focused work, crafting future theater makers, and building a critical lens on theater productions and practice. The 60-minute was that rare bird — both packed and productive — as it explored, for example, how to train future women theater critics; issues around race, gender and ethnic representation on Chicago and national stages; the ways in which theater institutions can use traditional and nontraditional critical voices; and new work developed out of the stories of women veterans.
At the Roundtable
The panel moderator was the elegant Joan Lipkin. Advocate, playwright, activist and artistic director of That Uppity Theatre Company in St. Louis who grew up in Hyde Park, Lipkin now lives in both St. Louis and New York. Some of her current projects include Every 28 Hours, a collection of 70 one-minute plays about racial justice that will launch in October with 50 to 60 collaborating organizations around the country; and Dance the Vote, which pairs commissioned dance pieces about the history and experience of voting with spoken word and voter registration in public spaces. Lipkin is also involved in the “theater action” After Orlando, a reading and collection of short plays to be distributed by NoPassport.
“When is my lens expanding perspective?”
Willa Taylor, a Texas native, lived abroad when she served in the US Navy, and later settled in Chicago after a long stint in NYC. Lipkin noted that Taylor “works in social justice in the belief that arts are a tool for positive social change.” Taylor’s work at the Goodman includes year-round programming as well as summer initiatives for young people around Chicago: the seven-week PlayBuild on devised theater, and a new eight-week musical theater intensive.
Megan Carney, a director who “administers as an artist,” runs the Gender and Sexuality Center of the University of Illinois at Chicago and is a member of Chicago’s Rivendell Theatre Ensemble, dedicated to advancing women through the arts. At the UIC, Carney creates arts-based programming for the campus about LGBTQ inclusion and diversity, “foregrounding storytelling, dialogue work and interactivity,” she noted. She is currently directing Rivendell’s production of George Brant’s Grizzly Mama, which she described as “about guns and mothers and loyalty and the F-word, feminism.”
Kerry Reid is a freelance arts journalist and critic. Reid, Taylor and I were founding members of the Cindy Bandle Young Critics Program for female high school sophomores and juniors, developing young women’s critical voices and love for theater. Reid also mentioned an upcoming public event, Kill Your Darlings: A Live-Lit Mashup, at which she would discuss criticism and representation; she further noted the play reading and adjudication she does for the American Theatre Critic Association’s annual Primus Prize for emerging female playwrights.
And I rounded out the panel — bringing my background as researcher, dramaturg, theater critic and awards adjudicator to the table. When I lived in Chicago for a happy but brief four years in the mid “aughts,” I worked with Carney at Rivendell, read scripts and was a production dramaturg for several area theaters, was a member of the Jeff Awards Committee and worked as a mentor with the Young Critics Program. I also participate on an ATCA play-award committee, read for several play competitions and development programs, write theater essays and criticism and am the lead author of The League of Professional Theatre Women’s Women Count annual reports on Off-Broadway hiring trends by gender (playwrights, directors, designers, stage managers).
Details of our current professional passions filled the roundtable discussion. We all spoke of ways we raise our voices to support and highlight women working in theater.
The Theatrical Lens and Cultural Competency
At one point the panel explored the “lens” idea inspired by the Young Critics Program. Reid noted that she asks her students to explore personal relationships to critical perspectives:
When is my lens expanding my perspective and when is it constricting it?
As arts and theater criticism continues to face a severe contraction in traditional print media while new publications vehicle (like The Marbury Project) continues to expand, the panel contemplated how to encourage and use theater criticism, and how to open the field to new voices and types of critics. The community blog, the untapped voice, the undeveloped venue, could all place traditional criticism in a new location and encourage new voices to create and be read. Reid remarked that the theatrical lens could be shared with different kinds of critics and commentators, especially if plays or performances come from a social-justice perspective where other areas of expertise (e.g. policing, law, legislation, criminal justice) could apply.
Taylor expressed concern with attracting young people and underserved communities to theater. “I would like to figure out how to make critics not matter,” she asserted. “How do I create in individuals the desire to take a chance on a piece because it seems interesting, regardless of what somebody says?”
Lipkin summed up the conversation beyond criticism, beyond particular voices, as the role of theater arts in the lives of citizens:
I feel that we need to encourage new voices in criticism as a contract, challenge, or extension of mainstream cultural competency. At the same time, we need to help imbue people with an appreciation of the beauty of being in the room together and of the live event.