Bloom Where You Grow
Interview with Claudia Nolan, American Dramaturg
It's easy to imagine how artists creating in a different country have more access to resources, more engaged audiences, more enthusiasm for new plays. But is it really better somewhere else? This series explores the exciting new play development—and challenges—awaiting theatre creators on both sides of the Canadian/US border. For the second post in my series, I spoke with my go-to American dramaturg, Claudia Nolan.
Claudia is currently pursuing her MFA in Dramaturgy at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. Her work focuses particularly on new play development, and cross-cultural fairytales and mythology. She has worked at the McCarter Theatre, New Georges, HERE, and Bread and Water Theatre; and has served as dramaturg or literary assistant for Stephen Wadsworth, Kim Euell, Kate Royal, Alex Riad, and Rui Ding. She is currently working on new plays with author Rachel Hinkel and director Jennifer Onopa, and preparing to attend the National Arts Festival in Grahamstown, South Africa in summer 2017.
Maggie Sulc: What are you working on currently?
Claudia Nolan: I'm a graduate student at University of Massachusetts Amherst. A part of the program is New Play Lab, a development workshop for professional playwrights to work with student actors and university resources. It's an opportunity for the graduate students working on it to shape it into whatever they want their experience and learning opportunities to be.
Maggie: How do you think Play Lab is mirroring what you see across the country?
Claudia: The way director Ifa Bayeza and I structured Play Lab this year is in line with what I sense a lot of theatres are doing to increase diversity, and work with playwrights to create new pieces. When I interned at McCarter in the literary office, they had just decided they would not accept blind submissions. They were interested in building relationships with artists through people that they knew or literary agents that had a sense of the work their theatre does. It does hopefully open up space for people to be interested in new work. If someone goes to New Georges, they're thinking, “I know this is going to be a woman playwright with a woman director.” They are already familiar with the sensibility of the theatre.
Maggie: I'm glad I asked that question. I would not have thought that would be a great thing.
Claudia: It can make it harder for someone starting out, but it can also encourage people to do more of that personal connection and “pounding the pavement” that's very easy to do on the Internet. It can bring us back to the face-to-face connections that theatre is all about.
It gives you a very different perspective on a new work if you are connected to [the playwright's] process or style. Life Defying Acts, one of the pieces for Play Lab, happened to be by someone Ifa has worked with before. Playwright Pam Dickler had this rapport with Ifa, so she was able to talk about personal things that serve as the inspiration for this piece. That gave us a very different understanding of how she's gotten the play to where it is and how she can continue sculpting it. That relationship has furthered the opportunities this play is going to have.
Theatres feel a need to limit their seasons to what they know will sell tickets. And playwrights know that plays with fewer characters in them (read: fewer actors) are more likely to be produced.
Maggie: What are you most excited about in American theatre today?
Claudia: One thing I am excited about is the growing emphasis on the creation and productions of work by marginalized voices—be they LGBTQIA+ authors telling stories related to their community, people of color presenting their voices and stories onstage, an emphasis on plays by women, etc. Things like The Kilroy’s List are important in bringing light to work written by women, and pieces that deserve wider dissemination, recognition, and productions.
The more work I do in producing, the more I see that a fully mounted production is not an opportunity a lot of people get to take. You learn a lot about your play talking to designers and getting actors to spend more than two to three days with the script. The resources of a production allow you to understand your play in a very different way. Some of those questions can't come up in a reading.
There's also the problem of getting past that first production, too. They can often have that first production, mount it themselves, and do a bare bones thing, but it never goes anywhere. The challenge for playwrights is: what next? Our “pipeline system” doesn't help people who don't have those connections.
Maggie: I knew the pipeline was going to come up! It's things like this that caused me to do this blog series. For example, in January we just had the Next Stage Festival in Toronto. It's a winter festival run by the Toronto Fringe specifically for second productions. You can't submit unless you've already had a first production.
Claudia: That's so fabulous! I worked on an assignment about the Women’s Voices Theater Festival a few years ago in DC. All the theatres did a new play by a woman playwright. Awesome, don't get me wrong—but where are those second productions you could be doing? We're going to do this play, one and done. Then you look at the ratios of other seasons and they're not doing any other plays by women. A lot of diversity on stage feels like checked boxes.
Maggie: This leads into my second question: what are the biggest challenges that new American theatre faces today?
Claudia: The costs of putting on plays can be so prohibitive. Theatres feel a need to limit their seasons to what they know will sell tickets. And playwrights know that plays with fewer characters in them (read: fewer actors) are more likely to be produced. They are inclined to make plays that are as tight as possible. Even sometimes to the detriment of the work.
Maggie: Do you see this problem stemming from larger houses not taking risks? Or do you see it in smaller companies, who aren't able to take risks budget-wise?
Claudia: I think it's a two-way street. I feel like there are budgetary concerns with running any theatre company, particularly with larger theatres. If you do a new play and you're worried that people are not going to come, then you shave costs on another play.
I'm not as well-versed in smaller company work as I would like to be, but I'm seeing more challenging, risky stuff by those companies. Even then there's just not as much work for larger casts. Some of that's from playwrights saying, “I've got a two-hander, someone might pay to do that.” Even when playwrights list their cast breakdown, they disclaim, “Don't worry! It looks like a lot of people, but it's really only six actors.”
Maggie: Even in Canada, six characters in a show is considered “big.” In Toronto, I'm so aware of the different levels [of the theatre industry] and how they interact—or fail to recognize each other. What is your perception of Canada's new play development?
Maggie: People in Texas thought I was going to die when I came to Canada. I wanted to ask because you're somewhat closer in Rochester and Amherst. How pervasive is that international border?
Claudia: Part of it is geographic for sure. I know a lot of people from Buffalo and Rochester do road trips, but I'm not sure how much farther that goes. I don't know how much of it is the logistics of crossing the border. Which is actually not that hard, but there's a mental block about it. In New England, there's some awareness of going up to Montreal. But being in Amherst, I’m only three hours from New York City, two hours from Boston, Massachusetts and Providence, Rhode Island—nobody talks about going up to Toronto. I do think there's a barrier there in every sense of the word.
There are companies that are trying to be consciously inclusive and start conversations through the work they put on their stages, and by being community meeting places. People typically see the play and then they leave. The dramaturg in me is like, ‘Oh, I would love for people to have more conversations and hang out longer.’
Maggie: Do you think other artists in the US should be aware of what's happening in new play development in Canada?
Claudia: As someone who professes an interest in international and cross-cultural theatre, I absolutely think that there is value in knowing what kind of work is going on in our neighboring country. I’ve spent a lot of time in the Northeast, relatively close to the border and many of the major Canadian cities, there is little reason I should not know more.
Maggie: If nothing else, coming to Canada showed me there's so much more going on in the world. There's this balancing act here between new Canadian theatre and being part of the international community. So what do you think about US theatre now?
Claudia: Particularly in our current political climate, I feel that there is much to both discuss and learn from what I see as many positive things going on “further North.”
After the election, we are in a completely different world. I wonder how much impact theatre has. You get into those existential questions: what am I doing with my life? My president doesn't even believe in global warming, so what is my play even going to do? It's fascinating seeing what Justin Trudeau is doing in Canada when we're withdrawing from the Paris Accords!
Following the election, there were mixed responses on my campus. Being in a rural, liberal part of Massachusetts is a funny bubble. My faculty immediately responded. They wrote this beautiful piece about theatre as a transformative art form. That was definitely not the case across the campus. Some students said that they went to class and everything continued as normal.
I will even admit that the night after the election, I started looking at English teaching jobs abroad again. I didn't know if this was a place where I wanted to be, or if the work that I do would be valued. It's really upsetting to feel that way.
What we were talking about earlier does give me hope. There are companies that are trying to be consciously inclusive and start conversations through the work they put on their stages, and by being community meeting places. People typically see the play and then they leave. The dramaturg in me is like, “Oh, I would love for people to have more conversations and hang out longer.” There is a lot of work to be done.
Maggie: There are two ways to look at it. Either it invalidates everything we do and you give up, or there's more work to do. Obviously what we do is important, but we're not doing enough to make it trickle out.
I have one more major question: do you think the US is the best place for emerging playwrights, and theatre creators to be right now? Why or why not?
Claudia: I don't believe that there's a definite answer to that question. That's kind of a cop out. My mom is very much of the mindset that you bloom where you are planted. I'm still a little intimidated by this because it's easy to say and harder to put into practice. It's easy for theatre practitioners to say, “I know the pipeline exists, if I do that then it'll be smooth sailing.” But if you don't make it into that, maybe it wasn't meant to be. The more people who found their own companies, or are finding ways to make the work that they want to see happen, are the most fulfilled in what they are doing.
It's truly about what is a place that's going to feed you, and let you make the work you want to make sustainably. Quite frankly, I don't know where I'll be in a year when I graduate. I'm like, “Ah! I need to figure this out.” Yet, the more I think about the things I've done in my life, opportunities have presented themselves and I have taken them. That's not to discount hard work, but you should also make the most of what's in front of you. You and I are both like, “Ugh, New York,” so it's very easy to say that's not the place for us to go. I'm going to go there and be depressed, and not make good work? Different people need different things.