Building Community in Artistic Processes

Four Boston Theatremakers in Conversation

Now in its third year, Company One Theatre’s 2019 PlayLab Bootcamp—a three-day intensive for people dedicated to making new plays—was held 27-29 September 2019. Thirty-seven participants attended sessions on the theme of Circles of Community, and the rigorous mix of panels, hands-on workshops, and participant-guided conversations was free for all registrants, thanks to the generous sponsorship of the Boston Public Library.

three Black woman smiling at the camera.

Dawn Simmons, Summer L. Williams, and Kirsten Greenidge at Company One Theatre's 2019 Bootcamp. Photo courtesy of Company One.

In the panel conversation “Building Community in Artistic Processes,” Ilana M. Brownstein, Company One Theatre’s director of new work, moderated a wide-ranging discussion with Dawn Simmons, artistic director of Boston’s Front Porch Arts Collective, executive director of StageSource, freelance director, and playwright; Summer L. Williams, co-founder of and associate artistic director for Company One Theatre and freelance director and maker; and Kirsten Greenidge, Mellon Foundation Playwright in Residence at Company One who also oversees playwriting at Boston University, about building strong relationships and enriching our communities through healthy, collaborative processes. Tl;dr—the answer is: never say no to a dance break.

Ilana M. Brownstein: This conversation is about how we can, as artists, create really healthy communities within the work we do. I’d love to hear about how you think of community in the world at large, and then we’re going to talk about how we can translate that into our rehearsal spaces or artist spaces.

Dawn Simmons: For me, community is a series of concentric circles. There’s the New England theatre community, then there’s the next level of the Boston theatre community, which I have through StageSource. I tap into both of those. Then, the circles get smaller by the arts groups I work with. Before Front Porch Arts Collective, which is the theatre I run now, I had a smaller company called New Exhibition Room. They’re two totally different types of work and kinds of people, but sometimes we come together. Then I have this crew of “BFFLs,” who are the people I have been making work with for the longest time. Those tend to be the people I am always running to for advice or with the question, “I want to put this show together—is this the worst idea or is this awesome?”

Those circles widen and new people come in and new people go out and people keep leaving the community. It’s forever expanding and contracting.

man standing onstage with seated actors behind him

Front Porch Arts Collective. Photo by Gregory Cook.

Kirsten Greenidge: I echo that idea of expanding, contracting, and changing. I would include the students I teach as part of my community as well. And then, nationally, there’s the playwriting community. Playwrights tend to be very nomadic, and we exist throughout the United States. So it’s a strangely broad kind of community, but, with technology, that sense of community has changed.

Summer L. Williams: This is related to my position as a co-founder of Company One Theatre, and our history together as a collective dedicated to social change—community is a lifestyle for me. I truly believe that wherever I am is the community I am a part of. Then I have to figure out the ways I need to work to make it feel like community for myself, and for the folks who are around me. But it’s not always easy.

There are some days where I’m 100 percent for that, and it’s very actionable. And then there are other days. So it’s a living, breathing aspect of my life. “Where are we all trying to go?” Or “What are we all trying to accomplish in this particular moment?” Or “What’s the conversation we all need to be a part of?” And that’s the lens through which I view it.

Dawn: I reinforce the idea that there is a little bit of a lifestyle component to this, whether that is by choice or by chance. For me, it is a lot of my own doing and it’s something I am coming to terms with—“Should I continue to make this choice?” I was one of those people who, growing up, wanted to make a living in the arts. It was important to surround myself with that all the time.

But I am literally surrounded by it, like many people, 24/7, and there comes a time where you’re like, “Do I need to branch out? How do I bring more conversation, more experience? Do I take a break from this?” And, “When do I want to activate this and when do I need to stand back from it?” That is something I’ve been feeling quite a bit. I wake up and I’m like, “Time for theatre.” I go to bed and I’m like, “Go dream about theatre, get up and do it all again.”

It’s a huge ask to be vulnerable together when you’ve just met each other (…) but it is a huge red flag when there is an unwillingness to go there together.

Ilana: When you’re thinking about the projects you make, whether that is a production you’re rehearsing for—which brings a bunch of disparate people into a space, moving towards a direct goal—or whether it’s about artistic cohorts—like the group of folks you bring into your space over and over again—or whether you’re talking about writers’ groups… What are some of the pitfalls of bringing a bunch of people together? What are some things you’re on the lookout for when you’re curating these mini communities?

Summer: Intention. Is everyone intending the same thing? You might not be intending the exact same version of the thing, but you all have to know the body of water you’ve entered and know it’s the one you want to be in. I think this is what auditions are for me.

When I’m sitting in an audition space, one of the things I think a lot is, “I love watching whatever this person is doing.” But the thing I love more is the conversation I have with them afterward, the opportunity to get a glimpse of, “Could we maybe be people who speak the same language eventually?”

It’s not: “Are we speaking the same language now?” But: “Is it possible for us to at some point and to be okay navigating that water together? I’m going to work really hard to speak your language. You’re going to work really hard to speak my language.” And if we’re both up for doing that work, then we’re going to get to the place where we all feel comfortable. But that’s the thing I look for. Do I see a willingness, an intention, perhaps a desire?

Kirsten: That moment in the audition process when there’s a glimmer of, “Maybe we’ll be able to be in the same space and fail together and it will be okay.” Which is really difficult; it’s a huge ask to be vulnerable together when you’ve just met each other. And I understand it’s a huge ask, but it is a huge red flag when there is an unwillingness to go there together.

It’s not just about the text on the page, it’s about values aligning or misaligning, or times when people will clash. It’s about building that team, finding collaborators who think of it as a team and not just as director, playwright, cast.

actors seated by a table.

Greater Good by Kirsten Greenidge. Photo by Natasha Moustache.

Dawn: That’s one of the most important things for me. People who think of the process as a collaboration, a team effort. But I’ve started to find that I am also into the idea of the team of rivals: when there’s one or two people whose opinions may oppose or push up against mine, but where we’re all still working towards the same collective end. People to help me challenge my assumptions, just as a way of reinforcing lifelong learning for myself. So who am I bringing into the room who’s going to bring new ideas? Who might say or present something that makes people uncomfortable but in a way that is healthy?

What is that challenge and how can I structure it in a safer manner, where it’s not going to turn into a fight or where somebody is going to be a terrible human being, but where we are all pushing ourselves?

I also like to work with people I admire but who I think are more talented than me, with the idea: “What can I glean from you and how am I again pushing myself in the room?” No matter if I’m the writer, if I am the director, or if I’m assisting. I actually still assistant direct because I want to know what other folks do and how they do it.

Summer: In my educator life, I think about “growth mindset” all the time. The woman who wrote the book with the same name, Carol Dweck, happens to be married to David Goldman, who founded the National New Play Network. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that these two people are coming at this interesting point of view, which is, “We all have the opportunity to grow and change and morph into something new.” It’s about resiliency, curiosity, and innovation, instead of fear, as a driver of collaboration.

Ilana: So we can do all the great groundwork ahead of time to curate the folks who are going to be involved in a process, whether that’s a class or a rehearsal or a writer’s group or whatever. The coming together of artistic collaborators. But what do you each do to set yourselves up for success once the process starts? Even if you think you’ve got the right people, what do you do ahead of time to get yourself into that space of creating a healthy community once you’ve started the work?

Kirsten: One simple thing is to make sure I know everybody’s name around the table. That can seem strange because you’ve cast the thing, you’re in the room. But as a playwright you might not know everyone’s name. I’m talking about the entire design team, every assistant stage manager, everybody.

Make sure everyone feels seen, and then check in with people as the process continues. You’re hopefully building relationships so that if something goes awry, you’re already connected. This can be hard to do, especially if you are on the creative team and you’re juggling a lot.

One of the things playwrights think about—especially about a new play—is, “Is this thing done? I’m about to go and do three processes and these things are not done.” So what I’m actually thinking about in addition to making sure I know everybody is, “It’s the first day and I have fifty pages of rewrites to do by tomorrow.” For some playwrights, our personality is Oh my God, I’m going to go into the corner and shrink, and then we take a deep breath to step out of that mindset and introduce ourselves to everybody. We’re trying on a different role, even though it’s hard.

Dawn: No matter what role I’m in, it’s about establishing, not the world of the play, but the world of the room: “Here are some ground rules. Here’s how I expect us to conduct ourselves, how I expect us to hold ourselves and make sure we’re making space when we talk.” It’s about the kind of culture I want to create in the room. How can we get more ideas out into the room without directing each other?

I try hard to lead by example. One of my favorite phrases, which I learned from my predecessor, is: “Don’t let perfect be the enemy of the good.” We are all on an even playing field, we’ll throw things at the wall and we see what works. But everybody has to come in with a spirit of, “We’re going to try.” It’s always about experimentation and, “How can I cultivate that in a space?” and just being kind and encouraging folks to explore.

It’s about resiliency, curiosity, and innovation, instead of fear, as a driver of collaboration.

Ilana: And at the beginning of the process are you formal about that statement of shared values and shared goals?

Dawn: Very. If I’m on my game, I’m sending out an email beforehand just to say, “Super excited to start this process. Here are a couple of things I want people to be thinking of.” Just to give them a taste of what’s to come, and then I reinforce that again in the room. With my StageSource hat on, when we are doing classes and workshops, we are starting to go out of our way to say, “All voices get to be heard.” And we’re asking: “How do we want to conduct conversations so that things can flow and people don’t feel stepped on?” Sometimes it can feel school teacher-y, but we are not always the best at helping each other out so we’re going to set up some ground rules.

Summer: I agree. For me it comes back to intention always. If I’m in process, going into a rehearsal space, I always say, “These are my intentions. This is where I intend for us to go and this is the way in which I think we’ll get there. What are your intentions?” If I’m able to, I try to meet with everyone I’ll be working with individually, and I ask them to talk to me about a time when they’ve been in collaboration with someone and it went really well and then tell me about the crap time and why it felt like crap.

In my own time, I remind myself that it’s okay for me not to know, and in the room say something every chance I get about what it is I don’t know but that I’m hoping we’ll figure out or find together. That takes some of the pressure off, especially when someone looks at you because they expect you to know the thing. I work really hard to dismantle the pressure of that look by saying, “I already told you, I didn’t know, so take that look away.”

Ilana: All three of you are often in the position of curating these spaces or being an authority or in leadership in a space. But how do you help create healthy spaces when you’re not the one in charge? Because not everybody is going to always be the one in charge. What can we as individuals do to create healthy communities around us when we don’t have control of the whole situation?

Summer: I listen, hands down. That’s where I’m most comfortable and it’s also where I can be my best contributor. When I’m listening and I’m hearing what’s happening, sometimes I’m able to synthesize. Sometimes I’m able to help translate, and sometimes I’m able to, by being quiet, create space for someone else. That’s one of the best tools.

two actors on a porch, one holding a broom, and the other in a cap and gown holding a trash bag.

Leftovers, directed by Summer L. Williams. Photo by Paul Fox/Company One.

Dawn: I’m going to reinforce that. Listening is a gift when you’re not leading everything. It gives you a chance to absorb everything else that’s being said in the room. And then gives you a chance to figure out ways to act on that, or connections you want to make, or connections you can assist other folks in making.

I also try to model behavior. I want to be mindful of not taking up space, but when I see a room that’s still, then I’ll be the first one to raise my hand and try to get conversation going or to tease out points from people when they’re not happening. I look at what the situation is and try to assess how I can best be of service to the room and to the folks in it.

Kirsten: Listening is huge. And the idea of being of service. I know that I often work to take the temperature of the room, including my internal temperature, and sometimes it takes me a long time to figure out: Am I that frog in the frying pan, not realizing the temperature’s rising? Wait, that is, Am I the frog in a boiling pan of water? That’s the saying. Are we all stewing in an unhealthy situation, not just for me but for all involved?

Once you realize the water is boiling, you have to ask, “Who can I check in with?” I’m not the one curating the space. Either I raised my hand and say, “Hey,” or find the appropriate person to say, “I think something is not right. I have noticed this person or that person just shut down or has been shut down for two days and is not participating in the way we think they should be.” And maybe it isn’t the director. It should be, but maybe that’s why the person is shut down. What are the appropriate channels I need to go to, and who are the allies to go to who can help the situation?

There’s nothing like having a good Prince song at your disposal at any moment.

Ilana: We’re going to do a quick speed round question: In the bag of tricks you have at your disposal, what’s a surprising one you use to get people on board, to get the process moving in the right direction? Either because something’s going wrong and you need to pull it back, or something to just make sure everybody’s in the same process together.

Kirsten: I tend to write a lot about race and class and gender, and how those intersect, and sometimes people can get very upset and heated about those things, as we do. Particularly in workshop situations when we’re at a moment in the script when characters are getting upset, and I know that a particular moment in the script depends on me to look at that moment and maybe rewrite, or the discussion is such that we’re not going to move forward, what I say to a group I am working with is: “Let me think about that.” That is usually a cue to move on.

For directors who have worked with me before, “Let me think about that” is me saying, “This is hundreds of years in the making so I don’t have an answer.” The script, though, can have an answer, because an audience isn’t going to sit there for the next hundred years and hash it out.” But in that moment of rehearsal, you’ve got to move on, and the cast can’t be held accountable for creating answers in the script either. That’s my job to figure out.

Dawn: Not going to lie, a dance break works. Especially if things are really, really tense. If I can get everybody to breathe, inhale, exhale, and then shake it out, that is often helpful. Another trick is to be able to say, “We’re going to park this and we will come back to it because either tensions are too high or none of us have the answer right now. We’re just rehashing the same stuff and we’re stuck.” Being able to allow the entire group to jump way ahead or jump way back can help.

Going into something that informs what we might’ve been stuck in can be incredibly helpful, but people freak out with that, with, “No, we have to fix it, we have to solve, we have to get past this.” Sometimes you just can’t.

Summer: I totally reinforce the dance break, there’s nothing like having a good Prince song at your disposal at any moment. That’s actually quite key for me, and hopefully we build enough trust and cultivate an opportunity for us to play or get maybe even a little silly with each other. I often yell, “Don’t look at me! No one look, I need to think!” and they’re like, “What?” And I’m like, “Don’t look at me!” People laugh, but it also says, “I’m just as vulnerable as we all might be feeling in this moment. And if we can just admit to that bit of vulnerability and all take a pause together, it might help us to reframe and be thoughtful about the fact that we are all vulnerable in this space together.”

Ilana: Those are great.

Kirsten: Most of the time though, in playwriting, if you’re saying, “Let me think about that,” it’s your responsibility to go back and actually think about it.

Ilana: That’s true. It’s not a get out of jail free card.

Kirsten: When the whole room is grappling with it as a new play, it’s a moment where you have to also think about it as an opportunity to go away, and then come back with an attempt that answers difficult questions, and that can allow the room to also come back and experiment and try.

Summer: It’s such a gift if you are able to be working on a piece as a director and you do have a relationship with the playwright. There’ve been so many times when I’ve had a conversation with the playwright, saying, “All right, we’re about to enter the zone”—and we both know what the zone is and how hard it is for the actors. I’ve been really lucky and fortunate to be able to call up the playwright to have them say, “What you’re about to enter, this sticky-ass horrible spot... I did that. I know it’s there. And I also know that you can get through it.”

It is affirming that everyone hits that mud, that quick sand. Everyone hits that and it could take you down, but it’s there on purpose.

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I cannot thank all of you enough for this article! I just got badly burned in a creative process that went off the rails fairly spectacularly, and I have been struggling to understand what went wrong, and how I can learn from this experience so that I can avoid it in the future. It's so easy right now to feel like it's all hopeless, and the kind of supportive, challenging collaborations I aspire to are impossible. Your words of wisdom are a great balm, and bring up so many concrete things that can be done to scaffold good collaboration. Thanks so much!