Interview with David Dower

Zelda Fichandler once said that the institution was, for her, a context for her questions, a container for her inquiry—that she woke up every morning with things she wanted to learn and went in to work to pursue the answers. This week we kick off a series that shares the essence of the inquiries underway in different institutional contexts around the field. We start with “An Inside Look at ArtsEmerson,” our sister organization co-located at Emerson College, as a way of putting ourselves squarely in the mix. Because this is not without risk. I once wrote a post about my questions around the role of the producer in the new play process and heard from many different leaders that it was dangerous to reveal doubts. I heard from many more people that reading about my questions helped anchor them in some of their own. So, we're going to err on the side of sharing on behalf of the people who also awake in inquiry. You'll be hearing from different people inside ArtsEmerson about the questions in front of them and the ways they are approaching them, and where it is leading them.—David Dower

Three men on stage
The Leadership team of ArtsEmerson. Photo courtesy of Mike Ritter/ArtsEmerson.

Alan Dupont: So, let’s talk a little bit about ArtsEmerson and what you’re trying to do with the infrastructure here. How do you select what shows you bring in? What do you want a season at ArtsEmerson to look like?

David Dower: I came to ArtsEmerson at the end of its second season. I had heard about it from Rob Orchard as he was creating it. I already understood a few things about it, and I was drawn to those things. One was that there’s an abundance of resources here: space, venues, expertise, a budget. Part of what I’m doing here is trying to unlock the abundance, the existing resources on behalf of artists.

Rob was talking of these important resources for artists to achieve their visions, which is the frame I have been working within my whole life in the theatre. So, I came into an environment that was already set up in my voice. Rob was also interested in international work, and this was an area where I could be a learner, where I was practically a beginner, which is a place I’ve always preferred to stand. He also didn’t want to be part of an organization that competed with other existing organizations in the city. He wanted to actually build something that filled in gaps. And again that’s, entirely in my voice, that notion of “adding to” rather than “competing with.” Rob also wanted to focus on being generative; he wanted the artist to have an opportunity to create new work here. And so he launched an organization that was generative in spirit, international in scope, and additive to the cultural landscape. That is automatically a home for me.

I am here trying to unpack those three ideas and how they relate to each other. What do they teach me in terms of what the artistic programming looks like? What is the relationship between the artist and the city? What are the relationships between the artists and the students? What is the relationship between the spaces and the city, and the spaces and the students and what is all of this in relation to HowlRound and the field, or the Commons of nonprofit theatre? It’s this really interesting multi-dimensional puzzle.

And we happen to be sitting at Emerson College where the current president, Lee Pelton, came in at about the same time we did. His strategic plan sounds like something Polly and I would have written ourselves. So there’s great synergy here. Synergy is a word I understand from Buckminster Fuller’s definition—the behavior of whole systems unpredicted by the behavior of their separate parts. So, synergy is a surprise and you want to be awake to the unexpected in the bringing together of these things. It’s the stuff that I didn’t see and managing the stuff that I couldn’t have anticipated—that’s really where the creativity is coming into it—and that plays out in the programming.

Creativity, synergy also is playing out in our role in the city. We’re putting a lot of energy into understanding this new organization as a new civic space that is coming into being just as our city has turned into a place where minorities are now the majority. There is something about our coming into being, and revitalizing these downtown spaces at the same time that the city is coalescing around a common agenda. These spaces give us a place to practice this new majority minority reality that the whole country is entering now. We have very few mechanisms for exploring that in our civic spaces. Particularly the ones that were built on that old narrative of “majority” and “other.” We’re actually built on the present, which feels more like “out of the many, one” to me. So what do we do about that?

Alan: So, with this civic dimension of the work, it seems like it’s important how to read this theatre: how it is being designed and how it needs to be interpreted by the audience. What is the ideal audience member, how are they interpreting the work or engaging with it?

David: I can talk about that best from my own personal perspective, with ArtsEmerson as my context, and I actually think I was led to all of this by landing at ArtsEmerson. When we talk here about programming in the gaps, it seems to me that one of the gaps that we are dealing with is audience—programming for an audience that doesn’t already exist. Otherwise we are actually competing with other cultural organizations who were here before we got here for their audiences. We may be doing different projects, but we would be asking the same people to show up. So we are intentionally trying to build on an audience that doesn’t yet go to the theatre. And it’s challenging. And we’re not entirely succeeding. Yet! But it’s what we’re doing and we are giving it all we’ve got.

We see our function as an arts institution as distinctly different for the simple fact that we’re made in 2010, not the 1950s. We are trying to become expert at creating a space where the public comes together—this diverse public that comprises a majority minority city—where the whole city visits our spaces, shares an experience of work, and then shares that experience with each other. And in that dialogue they, and we, uncover the identity of our city. Boston’s narrative, for so long, has been one of segregated neighborhoods, culturally and economically. We’re trying to help create a new narrative of the city, together with our artists and our audiences. So we are experimenting with lots of different ways of triggering and facilitating that conversation. Performance artist Daniel Beaty talks about any performance as an inspiration to transformation—as an opening to possibility in his audience. I like that formulation. We are exploring that for our own work. And we want to step into that moment of opening and help our audience discover the possibility of transforming our community.

So, the ideal audience member for me is someone who can look at the stage, and regardless of whether it affirms or challenges their worldview, can share that experience with the person next to them. And ideally, the person they’re sitting next to is someone they don’t know, but who is, in the largest sense, their neighbor. We’re talking about coming into the room for a shared experience and then opening that out into the community. You know, if you go to a Red Sox game, if you go to a game at Fenway, you will see what Boston looks like both on the field and in the stands, right? And it’s everything—there are the luxury boxes up there, there are the bleachers up there, there are kids of every possible ethnicity, the team is international; everything about it looks like who we are. But there aren’t that many other places where any one of us can go and experience our difference as part of the fabric of the whole. I’m looking to make a space and make an audience like that. And here I am, my family came over on the Mayflower, and I’m sitting here next to this person who’s maybe the first person in their family to live in this country, let alone in this city. I’m new to this city, but sitting behind me at the Paramount, or the Cutler Majestic, are people who were born here, and we’re all sitting here, and somehow we’re Boston. We can look on stage and see this South African adaptation of Mies Julie and turn to each other and say “wow, what was that?” I watch the production and I’m stuck on aspects of the race dynamics and you’re stuck on the gender dynamics and behind us they’re confused about the ancestor references and in front of us they are still processing the changes to the original Strindberg… and that’s who we are, in our differences, in that shared experience, that’s what Boston is.

That audience, that experience is how I approach programming at ArtsEmerson. I’m trying to work with my ArtsEmerson colleagues to put those people in the audience, and put the audience in that frame of mind when they sit down.

Alan: So how do you engage beyond the performances on stage to continue that conversation, to continue to reach out to the community?

David: This is a work in progress here, a lot we are borrowing from—a lot of really interesting attempts are already going on around Boston. There are a lot of people who are doing neighborhood development and neighborhood organizing through the practice of art and culture, but they’re not necessarily working from twelve-hundred and six-hundred-seat venues in an old theatre district like we are. I’m trying to borrow from and learn from all of those pieces. Some of our work is focused on the design of the actual audience, built around classic audience development initiatives and community organizing tactics. Some is focused on developing the capacity of the audience to have the conversation that follows the performance. We have a group of people who’ve emerged from our audience to become a sort of advisory council. They are working with us to, as one of them says, “elevate the art of civic discourse at ArtsEmerson to the same level of excellence as the art on stage.”

We want to make sure that the theatre is engaging not just on the level of the performance, but invite and welcome everybody who is interested in entering this other adventure with us.

A lot of our energy has focused on developing an understanding of the barriers to people’s participation with theatre in our city. We’ll be sharing those findings here in the coming months in the hopes that they can be useful to other communities as well. And then, like many of our colleagues, we do events, both in our theatres and out in the communities, with experts in the content, and master classes and open rehearsals. I am especially interested in taking our artists and questions to other venues and not always making people come to us. There are lots of organizations in our city that relate to these questions and we want to be present to their efforts, not just ask them to promote ours. We want to do more to connect people with the artists and the ideas in advance of the performance, bring them to the performance, then to produce the moment where all that turns into conversation among the audience. We also have a residency that we are just launching this Spring with an artist whose work is all about transforming pain into power; he’s going to be doing this work here for three years, there will be several thousand people that go through his performances and workshops. Ultimately, we want to see if we are able to shift the identity of the city around race and possibility in a measurable way, and at the same time balance the experience for the person who just wants to go to a play. We want to make sure that the theatre is engaging not just on the level of the performance, but invite and welcome everybody who is interested in entering this other adventure with us.

Alan: I was curious if focusing on civic work creates a season of exclusively political theatre. Is that the gap you are trying to fill or is there still space for, say, Chekhov or something that doesn’t have an agenda in the same way?

David: The answer is that we have failed if the work itself has to have an overtly social agenda to matter, because the experience of it is what we’re after—that shared experience and then the conversation about that experience. For example Kiss and Cry is a sentimental, romantic, and beautiful story about aging and love. Very moving to many people. And out of that space, people are trying to talk about their own experience of love and their own experience of loss and aging. So the civic value of the event emerges through the conversation. We will also do things that are explicitly political plays like We Are Proud to Present or House/Divided, but right behind that comes Chekhov—with Mikhail Baryshnikov and Big Dance Theater—and I think the conversation there is centered around Baryshnikov as much as Chekhov; the man and aging in a production where he doesn’t dance. The conversation about how we relate to the aging of a celebrity in that way is as binding to a community as a conversation about how we relate to race. I think more, it’s about what’s the composition of the audience when you’re having that conversation? Are you in an audience that makes you feel like this is your city? If the audience looks like the T at rush hour or Fenway park, I’m still having the conversation, I don’t care if it’s about love or if it’s about the weather or if it’s about politics. We don’t have enough space to be in dialogue with each other and to understand each other in our differences. We talk a lot about trying to find what we have in common and I’m not sure that serves us. I think we actually have to understand and celebrate the distance between me and you as part of what creates our neighborhood, that’s going to be more productive ultimately.

Alan: There’s so much that is seemingly paradoxical in the way that you are talking about programming, but that also makes perfect sense. I think “narrative” is always such a funny word—it’s really interesting how “we’re in the business of narrative,” but you’ve used the word narrative more to describe community and people’s lives and how they incorporate a story into their own lives.

David: I think I really got stuck on this word in the final months of the reelection campaign for Obama. When I watched the wealthy, older, white men in politics and on TV just continuing to hammer at this old story—based on their total confidence that it was the story because it was their story—and they just could not imagine that it was ultimately going to matter how they talked about poor people or LGBT folks, or the things that they were saying about women and pregnancy and rape and the things that they were saying about minorities. Those guys woke up the next day and finally realized, to their shock, that story is a dead story. You are no longer in charge, you weren’t actually even in charge to begin with.

I did a piece about Ben Franklin with a friend of mine in 1998 and one of the things we were talking about then was how Franklin’s autobiography was actually an attempt to tell the story of the Original American. Coming out of the Revolution, Franklin was trying to create the American narrative, and I think he did that really successfully. And that narrative was centered on a white man, and if he is industrious and prudent and virtuous, he can invent himself and achieve extraordinary success. But if you weren’t those things, and didn’t achieve extraordinary success, you weren’t a real American. That’s not the story anymore—and of course it never really was—but it was a powerful story until it finally isn’t. Now we don’t have one that holds us together, which is why we are at each other’s throats, because there’s nothing that unites us. So for me, the work, our work as artists and as people alive in this time and this nation is to find the new narrative and to find the one that includes us all and unlocks the potential of this experiment. That feels like the good work to me.


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Thoughts from the curator

A series of articles on the history, ethos, and goals of ArtsEmerson.


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A really great interview, David! The concept of unlocking abundance and existing resources to serve artists is very much resonating with me right now in respect to how those ideas lead to the art or programming we create and curate.