Inclusion Takes the Lead
For the 26th National Conference in Washington DC, TCG is highlighting the current recipients of the Fox Foundation Resident Actor Fellowships and the Leadership U[niversity] One-on-One Program, the Rising Leaders of Color, and the four finalists for the Alan Schneider Director Award. These programs are unique to the field, and provide critical support and mentorship for the future leaders of our art form. In honor of our longstanding commitment to professional development across the field, we are excited to continue to host the Spotlight On Series throughout the spring leading up to the conference.
TCG: When was the moment that you decided to take on a leadership role in the field?
Dawn Monique Williams: Honestly there isn’t a single moment that I can call out as “the moment” that I decided to be a leader. It was a necessary evolution. I made a gradual shift from being an actor to being a director, and that came with a degree of inherent leadership. The more my desire and clarity about a directing career grew, like so many before me, I understood that if I wanted to be a working artist, I needed to be a theatre maker that creates opportunities for myself and others.
I didn’t feel that the work I was seeing was representative of the work I wanted to be doing, so like you do, I started a theatre company (or two) with friends from college. Those were tremendous endeavors that taught us so much, and solidified for me the aspiration to be a leader in the field. I knew from those experiences of creating work with people that I cared for deeply, trusted, and respected, and creating it with practically nothing, that a theatre home, a theatre family was going to be critical to sustain myself. I also knew that cultivating this desire could not be a passive act; it required vision. And that is the path I am currently on.
TCG: As an arts leader, what is your vision for the future of the theatre field, and what is your role in moving us towards the future that you envision?
DMW: Broadly speaking, my vision for the future of the theatre is radical inclusion. Look, I’m from Oakland, California, I went to public school in Berkeley, and college in the San Francisco Bay Area. My world is full of all sorts of folk and those folk have all sorts of stories and the fact that access to certain platforms is restricted, infuriates me. I cannot, and will not, sit in a theatre and watch another all-white play. In my world, that is a fallacy. People of color are the global majority. Being an inclusion activist is my role in moving us toward the future I envision.
A leader values people, values difference, diversity, and inclusion. A leader values collaboration, a complex range of opinions, and fights for equity. That’s how I can move the work further along.
Storytelling is central to human existence, and there are so many options and approaches for each of us to be change agents. As a director my work tends to lean towards Shakespeare and the ancient Greeks; this is a way for me to explode the canon, to dismantle the notion of “precious western classics” reserved for an elite few. At the same time, as a leader and theatre maker, I champion the voices of my contemporaries, people who are writing for bodies that look like mine, and voices that speak in my vernacular. These approaches are not mutually exclusive. There is a way for everyone to be invited to the party, to be at the table.
Equitable representation is foundational. Diversity of stories, experiences, expressions, is mission critical. The creative imagination is vast but it must be encouraged. People must know they are welcome and have a place in the theatre; that they can be the hero of a story, a King or Queen, the romantic lead, and also be exactly who they are, show up as they are, and be valued for their particular human complexities. I won’t be fatalistic, but I will say that every theatre’s got some initiative to get millennials in their seats, and, well, Beyoncé is on tour and folks are dropping mad cash for those tickets, so if that audience isn’t coming to the theatre, they are not the problem, we are.
TCG: What was a moment in your career as an arts leader where you felt connected to a larger community, locally, regionally, nationally or internationally?
DMW: I’m still struggling with that sense of belonging, to be honest. The San Francisco Bay Area has a tremendous theatre community that I have felt a small part of since I was in high school. I was well nurtured in undergrad and found a theatre home at Impact Theatre in my mid-twenties, but since completing grad school I have felt a bit itinerant. I know that working freelance has a lot to do with that, but I have also felt disenfranchised in the American theatre. The gift of being in residence at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival over the last three seasons has finally been feeling connected to a national community and a voice in a national conversation, it is now up to me to sustain that connectivity as my Leadership U time at OSF winds to a close. I am definitely apprehensive about it. But hopeful too.
Dawn Monique Williams is a freelance director and Artistic Associate at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival. She has directed a wide range of plays, most recently August Wilson’s The Piano Lesson, and Lynn Nottage’s By the Way, Meet Stark. Representative credits: English language premiere of Gracia Morales’ NN12, Othello, Twelfth Night, In the Blood, Steel Magnolias, Children of Eden, The 25th Annual Spelling Bee, Little Shop of Horrors, Burial at Thebes, Medea, and La Ronde; Edinburgh Fringe productions of Scapin the Cheat, Anna Bella Eema, and The Tempest. Honors: TCG Leadership U Participant, OSF Killian Directing Fellow, and Drama League Directing Fellow. Education: MFA in Directing; MA in Dramatic Literature.
TOP: Medea at The African-American Shakespeare Company, directed by Dawn Monique Williams. In the picture: Leontyne Mbele-Mbong as Medea, Kathleen Ridley as the Nurse, Danielle Doyle and Shani Harris-Bagwell as Chorus. Photo credit: Lance Huntley.
ABOVE: Dawn Monique Williams.