My Utopian American Theatre Dream
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?
Joanie Schultz: I found myself pursuing a life in the theater as a young adult because it was in the theater that I found a community where I belonged. For various reasons, as a young person, I always felt like an outsider. Even among friends or family I always felt like the odd man out, the person who secretly knew she didn’t fit in. Somehow, though, when I stumbled into the theater, I always felt accepted and supported. It was a place where I could express myself, celebrate my own contradictions, and find peace with my own flawed human-ness. It was life-saving.
And much like the late age wherein I had to finally accept there was no Santa Claus (which I won’t admit here), I was late to the party in learning that the professional theater community was not that same magic place that I found in my high school drama room. And that, in fact, my high school drama room was not the magic place for others that it had been for me. See, I had this utopian idea that in the theater, the corrupt rules of the rest of the world wouldn’t apply. The theater, to me, was clearly a better place than the rest of the world. It was a place where there wouldn’t be issues of greed, favoritism, or prejudice. It was a place where it wouldn’t matter where I came from, what my gender was, or that I had no money to back up my theatrical dreams. The only thing that would count was my artistic vision.
And much like the person I was as a child who nodded my head and agreed that Santa wasn’t real but still secretly wrote letters and believed in him in my heart, when I discovered that the American theater was not the perfect society I had thought it to be, when that dream was crushed and I realized that we not only reflect the world we live in, but are sometimes behind the curve in our notions towards ethics and diversity, equity, and inclusion—even then, even now, I still have this secret belief inside of me of the that at it’s core, the theater can do better. And that belief has quietly spoken to me for years and pushed me towards asserting myself as a leader.
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?
JS: I believe that the theater should help us dream of the America that we would like to see and that can be. There is hope and optimism inherent in the creation of art, but in particular I think that creating theater—a medium in which we create a world onstage and peer into it as it happens— is utopian in its promise. Theater artists possess the tools of innovation; we teach professionals in other fields how to collaborate, improvise, problem solve, and think creatively. But we are often terribly antiquated and fearful in the ways we structure and run our own companies. I believe that we can, and that it is our responsibility to try to be models in the way we create our work and govern ourselves, for the rest of the world. As a leader in the American theater, I want to fulfill that utopian American dream. Not the adulterated one filled with greed, pride, and egoism that oppresses and privileges as it does, but the one that inspires us through acceptance and equality.
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?
JS: I’ve spent many years as a director making theater in rooms that I can only hope create and manifest that ethos which I believe to be so important. I try to be collaborative, straight forward, trustworthy, respectful, and sensitive. I try to be intuitive and articulate, and to lead with an open heart and a clear vision. I try to bring out the best in my collaborators and listen to the information they each bring to the project. I don’t mean to say that my rooms are utopian or perfect, but the attempt to make them so is important to me. I think that the process is as important as the product, when it comes to making theatre. And I want this to be true on all levels of theater production.
It’s been many years in the making, but I’m finally at the next level of theater leadership. I’ve spent years in the field as a director, administrator, and producer thinking about what I would like to do when I finally take the reigns. I’m thankful to have had the opportunity to take the time on Leadership U to remind myself of the values that brought me to this point in my life and career. This fellowship not only gave me the opportunity to gain vital skills and training, it also led me to look within, and focus on what is truly important, which for me has been and will always be about creating a welcoming and inclusive community. Expanding my work to reach staff, board, audience, and the greater community is a challenge that I am energized to take on. I am armed with my ideals in my pocket, and I know that there will be many failures and shortcomings that will keep me from this perfect vision, but I also know that striving for the impossible is the most important thing we do in the theater.
“You see things; and you say 'Why?' But I dream things that never were; and I say 'Why not?”
–George Bernard Shaw
Joanie Schultz has been serving as Associate Artistic Producer at Victory Gardens Theater, as part of the Leadership U One-on-One Fellowship funded by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation and administered by TCG. She is also a freelance director, with recent and upcoming productions at Kansas City Repertory Theatre, Studio Theatre, The Cleveland Play House, The Goodman Theatre, Steppenwolf Theatre, and Victory Gardens Theater. Joanie holds an MFA in directing from Northwestern University; was a Drama League Fellow; The Goodman Theatre's Michael Maggio Directing Fellow; the SDCF Denham Fellow; and Lincoln Center Theater Directors Lab participant. She is an ensemble member at Steep Theatre and Artistic Associate at Victory Gardens.
TOP: Joanie Schultz in first rehearsal of REST with Samuel D. Hunter at Victory Gardens Theater. Photo by Michael Courier