Learning to Shout
In true dramaturgical fashion, I came to my first Literary Managers & Dramaturgs of the Americas (LMDA) conference prepared, poring over the conference schedule weeks in advance, scribbling questions in the margins of my notebook, even reaching out to previous attendees for advice. Out of all the insight I received in the weeks before I flew to Boston, the most valuable advice came from my undergraduate mentor and advisor: “Spend time with the young 'ins like yourself. They will be your peer group and cohort moving forward and it is important to be friendly yet competitive with them.”
I am what is known in the LMDA community as an Early Career Dramaturg, or ECD. Fresh out of college, completing a yearlong, full-time apprenticeship at a regional theater company, weighing the pros and cons of graduate school—I am Early Career in every sense. Luckily for a first-time LMDA attendee, the entire thematic frame for the conference seemed to be an open invitation for ECD input; aptly entitled “Building the Future,” this gathering was open to conversations about “creating a space for both vision and engagement in the kinds of experiences and sharing of resources that will help us create the future.” This was a giant artistic party, and my generation would be a guest of honor.
So when I walked into the main lobby for check-in, I began searching for fellow twenty-somethings—but to my surprise, ECD conversations simply happened. Although many of us had never been to an LMDA conference—some of us had never met more than a few dramaturgs in our entire lives—we were instantly drawn together by artistic and aesthetic commonalities. Our interests diverged from those of our mentors in many areas, and we relished the chance to share our opinions with each other. We talked about our visions for the future, the kind of theater that excites us, our frustrations and anxieties; we talked about our disconnect with regional theaters, interests in new play development and devised work, creating art in nontraditional performance spaces, innovative ways of reaching younger and more diverse audiences—I quickly learned that millennial dramaturgs are going to make enormous changes soon.
However, whenever the larger LMDA community gathered for plenary sessions, my otherwise question asking demographic was virtually silent. We piped in with questions during breakout sessions and smaller networking conversations, but when a panel of seasoned professionals began talking into a microphone, we hardly made a noise. It wasn’t until one brave ECD broke this trend that we even noticed it was there.
It was during the Saturday afternoon plenary session, aptly entitled “Building the Future.” The conversation covered a variety of areas, but it ultimately settled on the shifting nature of regional theater and its failure to attract wider demographics and younger audiences. As the dialogue opened up for questions, buzz words and phrases began cropping up, like “millenials,” “standing on the past,” “finding a new audience,” “tradition,” and “apprenticeship.” Seasoned professionals offered anecdotes and insight, but my generation remained almost completely silent. The only place that we voiced our opinions was Twitter, where everyone in the room, baby boomers and millenials alike, posted commentary with split-second reflexes.
Finally, an ECD raised her hand. Hers was the final question, and she prefaced it by saying, “I feel a little shy speaking out, being one of the younger people in the room…” She continued by making one of the most directly applicable statements of the afternoon, speaking for herself and her peers about what the future of theater meant from a younger perspective. But it was her disclaimer that provided the most illuminating viewpoint into our generation’s status quo.
Luckily, if somewhat ironically, we commented on this lack of ECD vocalization with astounding fervor in Tweet form, one of the most popular responses being: “I would like us to have a talk at this conference where only people under thirty are allowed to speak for one hour.”
There is some brilliance in this idea, and the message elicited volumes of positive response—but my imagination went to an interrogation room, a panel of twenty-year-olds talking on one side, and a room full of professional dramaturgs watching through a two-way mirror. LMDA has offered ECD panels in the past—just last year in fact, an ECD session included the presentation of manifestos, declarations of what we want dramaturgy to be in our future—but offering young professionals the chance to talk only alleviates part of this generational disconnect.
This plenary session hiccup is indicative of a much larger phenomenon, one that encompasses the theater community at large (after all, if any community is going to listen to its young professionals and work towards an even more inclusive environment, it’s LMDA). As someone who lives and works with fifteen other young professionals, I know that brilliant conversations are being had on both sides of the generational line—but the fact remains that there is a very definite line. It’s one that I notice beyond conference sessions. It’s evident on blogs and Facebook pages, but also in professional theater settings where we watch our mentors and supervisors steer conversations away from what our instincts are telling us.
Leaders in the field should be creating open forums and actively listening—but I want to use the rest of this blog post as a challenge for my generation.
When illuminating moments like this LMDA session occur, we cannot sit and wait for our mentors to respond with solutions; it is our obligation as emerging, smart artists to proudly invite ourselves into these conversations. I challenge my peers to learn from last year’s ECD conference attendees and declare our own manifestos for what we want our field to look like, because before we realize it, it will be ours alone. We may not feel qualified to speak about the state of regional theater in America or shifting trends in literary offices, but as the generation that will inherit this field, our perspective is invaluable.
We are in the trenches, building the future about which our mentors are debating. These sweeping, important conversations will happen with or without us, and to that end, it is our responsibility to edge our way into this dialogue, armed with the confidence that our perspective is of unique, significant, and powerful value.
Our leaders have an obligation to listen, but if they fail to do so, my generation needs to learn how to shout.