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Building a Director-Centered Community

Jill Harrison: Welcome to a conversation with the team at Directors Gathering about why directors, and a healthy ecosystem for directors, matter. I am the founder and executive director of Directors Gathering, also known as (DG). We use the parentheses because it's like a circle. We believe deeply in circles and circles rising, as Paula Vogel likes to say.

I feel like directors are guiding the artistic journey of every theatre piece. They're at the helm. I had the privilege of being in a lot of fellow directors’ rooms throughout my career and observing that magic, and then being in the audience later. Someone in an audience would be like, “How did that happen?” Or, “Why do you think that goes that way?” I'd be like, "Well, it's probably a director offering an idea or a question, shaping something, or having a conversation with a playwright or maker in the room." And pretty much nine times out of ten, that person looks at me and goes, "Really? I had no idea. I thought that just happens.”

As that was happening in my life as an observer and an audience member, it was happening also as a fellow maker. I went to graduate school at Temple University and I got my MFA in directing there, shout out to the Owls. There were five of us directors, and we were a cohort. We became a company. It was the first time in my entire directing career, my entire theatre career, that I felt like I was a part of a community. To be in a room with multiple directors and meant I got to do the work, learn, and go through processes with four other people doing it entirely different than me, and vice versa. Having conversations about that and arguing about it, it was really worthwhile–and inspiring and incredibly hard.

Then we graduated, and that doesn't exist.

I started naming it. I would go to people's work or I would ask other directors to hang out. Go see their work and say, "Your vision is extraordinary. Why are you doing it that way? Have you seen so and so's work, or have you talked to so and so?" It was amazing for directors to have conversations with each other, to feel okay witnessing each other's tech processes, to have that willingness to connect and be vulnerable with each other.

That also carried over to resources. There are not a lot of resources for directors. I felt like there was, and still is, a need for a sense of camaraderie. Of, "Hey, I saw this opportunity for directors." Yes, of course there's only going to be one person selected for it, but that doesn't mean that I shouldn't shout it from the rooftops. Because if it's not me, it's somebody else who deserves it just as much as I do. So how can we cheer each other on and offer that?

I found myself almost lustful for an opportunity to talk to other directors about the experience of directing and be really vulnerable about it.

Brey Ann Barrett: That feels like an introduction, not just to Jill Harrison, but an introduction to the organization as a whole, which feels appropriate.

I am Brey Ann Barrett, she/her pronouns, and I'm the director of programming for Directors Gathering. My youthful experience in theatre, which I think of as my first theatrical education, was a storefront in Orange County, California that was built out of community. Everyone who participated was invited to be a company member, helping shape and make decisions about the organization. It was all volunteer. We all had our day jobs, and we would go in on weeknight evenings to rehearse. Then, we would perform on the weekends. It gave me an opportunity, as a sixteen- to twenty-one-year-old theatremaker, to really try everything. It was such an “all hands on deck” experience.

That also meant I had an opportunity to direct. I'm so grateful for that experience in opening my eyes to something that I deeply, deeply love about myself. And because I grew up in this experience, I grew up in a place where I could be vulnerable. I could be open about what I was challenged by and what I was feeling really excited by.

When I went to undergrad, it really shifted into a siloing off. You really had to figure out a path. There was this strange division and a competition mentality that was really set while I was in undergrad. I found myself almost lustful for an opportunity to talk to other directors about the experience of directing and be really vulnerable about it. I was finding those little relationships here and there in just coffee chats with other directors. And I was like, "Can we just talk like people? Let's try just being people together." It's not about "What are you doing next?" I found myself having more conversations with people who had some kind of connection to Directors Gathering, and I'm really grateful for that opportunity.

Sisi Wright: I am Sisi Wright, I use she/her pronouns, and I am the director of membership and engagement. I didn't think about directing—the craft, the profession—very deeply until I sat in on a presentation by Jill Harrison at my graduate school where I listened to her talk about Directors Gathering.

Three people having a conversation in a black box theatre room.

Photo by M. Asli Dukan, featuring directors (l-r in front) Cheyenne Barboza, Gabriela Sanchez, and Walter DeShields at Directors Gathering (DG) Seminar with Ruben Santiago-Hudson in 2019.

It felt like Jill, in creating this organization, was taking a scientific approach to the community of directors. It was an anthropological study that she was doing. That was interesting because I was like, "Well, I never thought about that before."

I haven't directed that much in my career, but the first directing experience I had was in school. In my undergraduate theatre program, there were only two focuses you could have: directing or designing. I wasn’t a designer, so I chose the directing thesis for my final project. And I directed Doubt: A Parable by John Patrick Shanley. Looking back now, that was an experience that allowed me to live in my purpose, which I discovered later in life is to create spaces that make people feel taken care of.

I felt really connected to the people who were part of that process on stage. Even if I had different intentions as to how a scene could be performed, I found the joy in allowing the actors to figure that out. I can't even fully articulate how that felt to be present to witness the creative process in someone else from that perspective. That was my first experience directing, and I didn't choose a career in it, but I do have a deep appreciation for it.

I also remember meeting Jill and Brey in Jill's home to talk about the membership program. Again, I think it was an opportunity where I saw myself getting to live in my purpose. I'm figuring out new ways of doing it specifically for directors all the time—better ways to support directors and a director-centric community.

Jill: Sisi, I love that you bring up this idea of living in your purpose. And I think it reminds me, Brey, how you put importance on both the sense of artistry and humanity at the same time.

How can we, as directors, make space for both ourselves and others? How can we build processes and rooms that allow for breath and time for ourselves to be human and for our collaborators to be human?

In this organization, we're making space for people to find the correlation between their human identity and their craft and vision instead of isolating those two aspects of who they are and asking them to shut down one side.

Brey: How we discuss directors is very vision-oriented. It's how they conceptualize and what their vision is. We have a correlation between human identity and craft when we're talking about playwrights or actors, but we don't really have that with directors.

In playwrights’ bios, I often see their description of their personal identity followed by the work that they've done. For a director, I'll see the descriptor of the kind of work that they typically do and then their work. I see this difference even between my husband, who’s a playwright, and myself: his bio starts with “England-born, Idaho-bred, Hartford-based writer.” Very geographically based. And mine is like “Brey Ann Barrett is a new works director, a new play director with a focus on the intimate familial.”

For directors, I find that there is a need to specify the kind of work that you're drawn to as a descriptor of who you. I don't see that as clearly defined or expected for other artists, such as actors and playwrights.

That's something I've come to appreciate about building community within (DG). It is about fostering your humanity through the experience of meeting other directors. In this organization, we're making space for people to find the correlation between their human identity and their craft and vision instead of isolating those two aspects of who they are and asking them to shut down one side.

Jill: Yes, right. Building community with (DG) and being a director-centric organization means we can put the director—and their whole self as artist and person—first. (DG) board member and regional theatre director, Jerrell L. Henderson, offers that (DG) and director-centric organizations throughout the country, serves as a "great equalizer" for directors. You are coming to (DG) and director-centric organizations as a person first, and then you get to genuinely connect with other directors as fellow people. That then grows into genuine conversations around bodies of work, creative processes and intentions, collaborations, and artistry.

Two people hugging.

Photo by Tommy Butler, featuring artists Rachel O'Hanlon Rodriguez and Severin Blake at Directors Gathering (DG) JAM 2019.

Directors don't have to come and be seen in a public, performative way. They come and are actually seen as people. It doesn't matter who they are assisting, where they went to graduate school, what fellowship they received, or who they are having drinks with after the show; what matters is them. They also don't have to hide who they are and how they make their work and their living. You are still a director if you make a living doing something else so you can direct. While ideally all directors could make a living directing exclusively, that is not our reality at this time, which means there needs to be more inclusive spaces for directors of all paths, backgrounds, and circumstances.

What if you take down some of those walls and open up opportunities?

Brey: The thing that's really tricky is that we're not getting an opportunity to really understand the human. We're just seeing these people simulating the experience of being a part of the community instead of actively being a part of the community.

Sisi: Hearing you, Jill, talk about how transactional the industry can feel… it's systemic. And that transactional relationship that’s embedded in the industry, that contributes to not feeling like a human. If I'm a product, and in every space I go into I'm treated as a product, then my humanity feels less and less valued. I could start to project that onto myself.

The spaces that (DG) is creating are giving an opportunity to slow down, and not to be focused on what you can do for me and what I can do for you in exchange.

Jill: I feel like if we work together and are transparent and have each other's back, honestly—and a sense of also checking privileges in many, many ways—we can slowly but surely shift away from transactional intention.

Sisi: Yeah. Acknowledging that racism, sexism, homophobia, and ableism exist; they don't go away just because we all want to make art together. Even if you are creating a space where people feel like they can be vulnerable, those things still exist. The spaces that (DG) is creating are giving an opportunity to slow down, and not to be focused on what you can do for me and what I can do for you in exchange. We are connecting to humans who are in this space and acknowledging we're going to be in this space together in this moment in time.

Brey: How does (DG) practice the ideals of creating community for directors?

Jill: When we started previewing the upcoming convening for manifesting an ecosystem for directors, we asked folks who were there to name for themselves a director that has helped them in the past and a director that they have helped in the past.

Brey: Also, we set up spaces where it's like, “There are no expectations of us doing something for each other except sharing space and making connections with our humanity based on our similar experiences of this field.” And trying to shift that—that's the expectation, that we are honoring each other's humanity. It isn't transactional; it is about being with each other and listening to each other with the fullness of who we are.

Sisi: If we had perfect control, we could say, “We are creating spaces where there's no expectation of the transaction.” But people are living in a society that we don't have control over. That's the external given circumstances of the situation, that we don't have control over that. But we can try to focus on a thing that is not that transactional relationship so hard that the alternative is so unattractive.

Kind of like the “Care Bear Stare”. They get together and they just shoot love, because they're all staring together. Isn't that how that works?

That's the diversity! It’s the Care Bears. Maybe this is what we should do. We should describe the ideal society in terms of what Care Bears are. But yeah, I think that the “Care Bear Stare” is the equivalent of our focus on the abundance of our community.

Brey: We are definitely instituting some Care Bear action in the goals of what we're trying to create.

Jill: Building spaces that have a sense of abundance and a sense of deep care, the Care Bear Stare.

Are there other organizations, people, or experiences that we have been witnessing lately that we could put forth in this conversation?

Brey: Sure. I think those institutions that are making space for building programs for directors, especially as we're losing programs for directors to build up or develop their craft. I know Oregon Shakespeare Festival has a directing program. When the Eugene O'Neill Theater Center, National New Play Network (NNPN), the Kennedy Center American College Theatre Festival (KCACTF), and the Stage Directors and Choreographers Society Foundation (SDCF) all came together to do their director’s fellowship. I am such a proponent of pooling resources. There are so many opportunities for institutions to create better opportunities for directors or even just foster better work-life balances.

Just thinking biologically, that is what an ecosystem is, right?

Jill: I love that. Directors Gathering had an opportunity in October 2019, when Sisi and I met with the leaders of SDC and SDC's Foundation, The Drama League, National Black Theatre, Lincoln Center Theater Directors Lab, Maia Directors, Eugene O'Neill Theatre Center, and a few more director-centric artistic leaders to begin a conversation around a director-centric ecosystem. In February 2020, (the (DG) team then co-hosted a Town Hall exploring the pipeline for directors with Rebecca Hewitt, who is the former head of SDCF; Gabrial Stelian-Shanks, artistic director of the Drama League; and Nilan, associate artistic director of the Drama League. We had breakout session accepted to the 2020 Theatre Communications Group (TCG) Throughout the pandemic we have continued this mutual advocacy, celebration, and resource-sharing among our fellow director-centric organizations and we continue to gather, connect, and converse to keep elevating directors.

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