Long Arc Relationships

Interview with Daniel Beaty and David Dower

Thanks to a wonderful turn of events, I sat down with artist Daniel Beaty and Artistic Director David Dower to discuss their long working relationship and friendship. In this interview, they not only trace their journey as collaborators, but also share the lessons they’ve learned along the way.

Adewunmi: I’m curious to know how you two met. Did you meet at an event, or in the theatre? Or did you meet by working on a project?

David: I first met you in San Francisco. You were still at ACT and you started performing Emergency outside of ACT. Was it called Emergency then?

Daniel: Probably not. I don’t even know if it had a name at that point. When I first did it in New York at LaMama, it was called Colored Exposures. And then before that, it was called I Hear My Soul Singing.

David: I think you did some performance of it in the studio at ACT. That’s where I first saw your work. But I had been hearing: “Hey this guy is doing this show and maybe he can do it here at Z Space.” And then, years went by—a big gap—and I wound up at Arena. When I got to Arena, they already committed to having you come, right?

Daniel: Yes, Kenny Leon directed Emergency at the Public Theater and I knew he was bringing it to Atlanta. They were looking to collaborate with DC as well. They were trying to figure out the right way to bring Emergency there. And that was an interesting moment in my career. In some ways, I thought having this production at the Public meant that my work would be seen differently in the theatre community.

We had a production at the Public that the audiences loved. I won some awards—I won an OBIE award. But then I was having challenges finding a home for Emergency beyond the Public. Kenny directed it and then created a space at True Colors. I’ll tell you a quick story about Arena. Even though I was entering Arena, it was not initially a full production. I think it was a one-night engagement.

David: Yeah, I think it was part of where our working relationship started. When I got to Arena, Emergency was already under way. I was new to the context of a big LORT theatre. Having a one-time event didn’t strike me as the best way to present Daniel’s work. There were all kind of reasons it came together like this. But it was coming together with little to no marketing support and it was one night in February—some of the worst indicators. How deep is the commitment to the artist?

You don’t know this, Daniel, but I tried to cancel your show. I thought if we actually want to support him, we couldn’t do this. Let’s figure out something else to do with his show. But it wasn’t canceled, and there still wasn’t a marketing budget to fill a 500-seat theatre. I said, “I’ll produce it. Don’t give me any marketing money, give me all the interns.” So, they let me produce Emergency with the interns to see what we could do.  I asked the interns if they would take the challenge of selling out the theatre for two performances. Both shows sold out a week beforehand and then, I asked if we could add a third show, which sold out as well.

So, when Daniel came, my question to him was: “What do you want from this production?” Daniel’s responses were about purpose, where he was in his career trajectory, and why it mattered; who should be in the audience, and why he wanted to have more time with the audience outside of the performance. His responses were rooted in the purpose of his work, he knew what communities he was talking to and for, and that’s when our relationship started.

Daniel Beaty on stage
Daniel Beaty in Emergency at the Geffen Playhouse. Photo by Michael Lamont.

Daniel: Another part of what you mentioned is that systems are set up to operate in certain kinds of ways. The American theatre is a system: hopefully, you get four weeks of rehearsal; a four to six-week run; a subscriber base; and donors are the core of how it stays afloat. Sometimes when you’re trying to create something new, there isn’t a space for it. So, you have to create a system that is on the fringe of the existing system in order to make it happen.

A large part of what we did with those interns was have them go out into the community with me. We went to churches, poetry slams, and nightclubs to perform excerpts. It was a real effort to do something new to bring a new audience to what was already there.

David: The opportunities for you and your work in DC went outside of the system because together we put it together outside of that system. It’s important to remember that LORT is a group of theatres that agree to operate exactly the same way in relation to the unions that operate in this business. Once you sign into that system, the templates are a given no matter who you are, or what you’re trying to do. So, it’s not designed for the artist. It’s designed to create a bargaining leverage for the theatre. It’s weird when you’re trying to do work with purpose and it’s not for that audience. It’s hard.

Adewunmi: Just hearing you talk reminds me of your article on season planning, David. You note that ArtsEmerson values long arc relationships and I see the long arc relationship you have with Daniel. How did you manage to stay in touch over the years?

David: After Emergency, we did a project together at Arena called Resurrection and it involved three theatre collaborations. It was a mess and a learning process. Daniel, you were writing an ensemble play and there were moments when you thought it was a solo play. And I thought, “No, no, no! Everyone’s going to think you only do solo work!” It was messy, but I learned a lot about producing your work and supporting you as an artist. Although I didn’t feel we hit a home run, it was all training. It was the prelude to more collaboration. Shortly after, you changed the ensemble piece to a successful solo play, which is now Through the Night.

When I came here to ArtsEmerson, Daniel was one of the first phone calls I made. One of the big gaps in downtown culture in Boston is work by and for communities other than traditional theatregoers—upper middle class, well-educated white people. Much of the work is built on patronage, which surrounds us here. If we’re filling in the gaps, we have to go somewhere other than that. I asked Daniel if he would come and help me explore that gap, particularly with the African-American community. We initially did a one-year residency and now we’re doing a three-year residency.

Daniel Beaty on stage
Daniel Beaty in Through the Night at Crossroads Theatre. Photo by Sherry Rubel.

Daniel: I do agree the productions of Resurrection were terrific learning experiences. I also agree that they were messy. In hindsight, I’ve come to really value messy experiences because every creative person evolves. That experience afforded me an opportunity to clarify how my work sits in the ensemble space. It also helped me clarify more specifically what my voice is in general—the intersection of the comedy with drama in my voice and the soul arias, which are poetic moments in the midst of more traditional communication. I clarified the importance of body and movement and the importance of duende, fire and movement. Based on audience responses, this experience moved lots of audiences, I’m actually grateful for it because it was informative in clarifying my voice.

I also felt like we developed a friendship and I think great work is always about relationships. It’s about, “I see you. I understand your work in the world and we share core values.” I feel like we got that from each other early on. It wasn’t a matter of if we’d collaborate again; it was when would we collaborate again?

David: I don’t feel like we ever stopped. I remember us taking a cab when we began talking about the purpose of your work. That was the moment I felt, “Oh, OK. I know how to do this.” I like doing it with you. Even when we weren’t directly working on projects, I knew what you were up to. I’ve seen drafts of your work and knew the other people you were working with. We had many conversations about what to do when and whether to do certain things. I always have a lot of opinions. (Laughs) We’ve been in constant conversation and there really hasn’t been a gap in that.

The other thing about collaboration over time is that time and space become malleable. You can actually go a year without doing anything together, but it doesn’t matter. You’re still in motion. This is a connection around the friendship and the purpose. Then, Daniel’s career will go somewhere for a while, and my career will go somewhere. And here comes an intersection. Sometimes we’re just working a day of load-in and we’ll say, “Hey, let’s put this show back up another time.” And sometimes we’ll start from the first draft through production.

Adewunmi:  How do you best collaborate with one another? What works and what doesn’t work?

Daniel: That’s interesting. I feel like our work together on Breath & Imagination was a successful process and the work we did on Mr. Joy was, too. I find a deep listening that you bring to my work, David. There’s an energy and purpose of the root of the work that’s held as a priority when questions are asked, or when a script is being developed. There’s a sense of safety that allows me to hear and consider, and to go away, and trust that the work is going to be held in a proper way. One of the strengths of our collaboration is clarity of purpose—we keep coming back to this word—and that being deeply understood. And the tone, the cultural come-from allows it to be shared in community.

David: Part of the thing that is strong for me is that everything we talk about, in terms of the why we’re doing this, lives outside of traditional measures of success. I know I’m after civic transformation: race and class equity. That’s how it’s always been and I use theatre to do it—I’m just doing that. So whatever other distractions come around like “Oh, should this be a movie? Is this going to Broadway? Can I fit a budget for this show in my season for this number of weeks?” All that stuff is negotiating with reality when you’re working on something that is big. Lots of different surprises, and challenges, and shifts in our communication come up.

Seeing is really the key. Jacqui Lindsay, an organizational consultant, says, “I see you and I’m here.” And I feel that’s true for the two of us. I totally see you and you totally see me. We run into our shortages and deficits because we’re doing this big work. Each of us does this work individually and we decide to work together. We do a lot more work on the bigger stuff than what we do on shows— with I Dream Boston work and just in the world.

actors on stage
Alvin Keith, Jeffrey V. Thompson, and Turron Kufi Alleyne in Resurrection at Arena Stage. Photo by Scott Suchman.

It’s how we do theatre. We have to figure out what that means. I believe it’s how we tell story, receive story, and market story. When we say it’s for all of us, nobody knows how to do that correctly and nobody owns the rules of theatre. —David Dower

Adewunmi: Earlier, you both mentioned Resurrection and how messy this experience was. There was a conversation of whether this piece should be a solo performance or an ensemble piece. How can a solo performer break the mold of what’s expected?

Daniel: The nature of this business is to label people. People like to put others in boxes because it’s easier to identify. I’ve been put in so many different boxes, but I don’t own any of them. I’ve been put in the box of poet, slam poet, motivational speaker, performance artist, solo performer, playwright, actor, and singer. One of the reasons why our collaboration has been wonderful for me is the understanding that I’m not limited to any of those boxes. My work is about purpose and there are different ways to express this purpose. Oftentimes, my various ways of expression are in one work. One work can contain poetry, comedy, music, the sense of social justice, and language that might be in the realm of the speaking.

So, I’ve never considered myself a solo performer although I’ve done solo performance. I’ve actually written as many plays for ensembles and had more productions of my ensemble plays than my solo plays. It’s easier to have those plays produced in traditional, regional theatre. It becomes comfortable for people to place artists in boxes. I celebrate people who express themselves in this way, but I don’t write autobiographical solo performance pieces. I’m always endeavoring to write plays. Even the work I’ve performed myself has been performed as ensemble plays at other places. My interest lies in how to craft a wonderful story. How do you make the characters dimensional? This has been a big question for me in my career.

One gift from Resurrection was how my writing emerged from my creativity as a performer. There have been times in my earlier work that I used my techniques as a performer to fill in the blanks; I was still learning my craft as a writer. So Resurrection was my second play and I wasn’t performing it. I wasn’t inside the piece as a performer to fill in those blanks. As I learned and matured as a writer, I deepened my craft and my capacity to have characters speak for themselves more fully. I think that’s been part of the learning as well.

David: I’d almost forgotten that you performed Resurrection at True Colors. You discovered the holes you left for yourself as the actors performed it. There were places where you typically used your own skills as a solo performer to cover. It was messy, but I don’t think the project was a failure in any way. We weren’t masters at our collaboration at that point. One of the things that I learned from that process, which I bring to everything that we do since then, is that there is something about Daniel’s writing. His structure starts at the surface; it starts in archetype and stereotypes. Then, it takes you under. You have to go find what’s underneath as a director, or as an actor. If you don’t, you’ve just made something that sits on the surface. So, what I’ve learned in the process of watching him write and perform is where his work lives.

I had seen the production of Breath & Imagination at Hartford; it was a well-produced production, but I actually told Daniel, “There’s rewriting that’s needed,” because the play didn’t feel like it had a bottom. You didn’t actually do a lot of rewriting when we went into rehearsal, and I started going after it. And it was under the surface. I had to turn it a little inside out, but it was there. I felt really good about that process because I had an actor who did two productions of it prior and I had to take him there too. “No, no it’s underneath. You’ve been successful and it’s not hard to succeed.” [In Breath & Imagination], there are really juicy things to do in front of an audience. Getting to sing this great music, getting to act like a child, an adult—he’s getting all of that. But underneath, there is something we have to dig out. I think now I only know that it’s under the surface because I’ve watched you develop all these other pieces.

Two actors on stage
Jubilant Sykes and Kecia Lewis in Breath & Imagination at Hartford Stage. Photo by T. Charles Erickson.

Daniel: It’s interesting; I don’t know if we ever discussed my favorite play, which is George C. Wolfe’s The Colored Museum. Some of the earlier works that I love are Whoopi Goldberg’s solo play and John Leguizamo’s solo play. I think I saw myself in all three of these works. They play at the level of high comedy, and archetype—some would say stereotype depending on how they’re listening. I find there’s an invitation to be set up (laughs) because they play into bias and expectation. They also play into “I know that, I recognize that, and I can laugh at that.” And in this space, there’s a possibility to go very deep. We can look at theatre as a tool to address issues of race and class equity, and theatre as a tool to address issues of bias. I think playing with archetype, stereotype, and really digging deep under the surface is a juicy way to do that. That’s a core part of my work, a part David understands deeply.

David: When I don’t understand, I can ask questions. I also know that you can say “You’re not understanding it right” and that’s when I hear it. I can say, “OK, let me keep going.”

Daniel: And that’s the thing! I’m going to be bold and say there’s an issue with the idea of the American theatre. Who is it for? What is inclusion and diversity in the American theatre about? Are writers of color being invited to tell a story about themselves for white people? Or are writers of color being invited to tell their story however it expresses itself? There is a difference in writing a play with the understanding that an audience may not know your experience. It can be crafted as a way to introduce the audience to it, or to feed the experience of it.

But there’s another way in writing a play, which is not a value judgment, that I’m interested in; it’s speaking from my experience as specifically as I know. I’m not only going to invite you, but also insist in the clarity of my offering, the boldness of it, the offense of it, the “it’s-not-for-me” of it, that you engage. This is something people of color in this country do all the time, right? We’re always finding our experience inside of the experience of another. Often in the American theatre, writers of color aren’t given space to do the latter. When you do, judgments are often made about the work: “it’s not deep enough,” or “it’s too didactic,” or “the characters aren’t developed.” How about asking: is this a character I do not know? Could it be that this character is not the experience that I’ve grown up in? How do I open up my listening to truly experience something new?

David: We’re on this quest of listening and experiencing something new at ArtsEmerson. What I’m really stuck on here, and I don’t really know how to do it, but we’re making our way through with your help, Daniel, and the great staff here. There is something about diversity and inclusion that is not working right now. I can only speak for what we’re trying to do at ArtsEmerson, which is to provide an inclusive space for everyone in their authentic self. This includes how story is told— it’s content and form, and genre. Being inclusive is also about how we sit in the audience and how we come to the event. When you actually have everybody in the room, things happen that are uncomfortable, and surprising; the rules don’t get followed the same way they have been. This system is set up entirely for white people, one class of people. Even as some diversity efforts attract more diverse audiences, the rules are still the same. The narrative rules are the same; the performance starts at this time; and you behave a certain way in the theatre.

I’ll never forget this moment at Arena…we worked so hard to make a multicultural version of Oklahoma, which we were really proud of. Some dear subscribers, who had been there for forty years, were in the theatre in front of a church group who was new to the theatre. Some African-American women were lost in the story and they talked back to the stage. The subscribers we all knew at Arena turned to them and said, “You need to be quiet.” And it’s like, “No, we’re making this experience for everybody and that’s how they’re having that experience. You need to find your own space in this experience, but you don’t own this. You don’t get to say ‘that’s not how we do it.’”

It’s how we do theatre. We have to figure out what that means. I believe it’s how we tell story, receive story, and market story. When we say it’s for all of us, nobody knows how to do that correctly and nobody owns the rules of theatre. All our team can do is ask, “What is Daniel trying to say tonight? Where’s it coming from? Who’s he trying to say it to?” We are responsible for listening to Daniel and putting enough people in the audience who know how to listen to his work. So then, everybody else can say, “Oh, that’s what this is.” When you put the wrong audience in the space, they sit there and say, “That was a tragedy.” You felt this with Mr. Joy. Depending on the audience, there are nights during Mr. Joy where it’s like a funeral. It’s not funny to the audience because they don’t know that it’s actually funny. The only people who are going to know that it’s funny are people who see themselves in that play. You must have people who can see themselves in order for the rest of the audience to understand the humor.

an actor on stage
Tangela Large in Mr. Joy at ArtsEmerson. Photo by Paul Marotta.

Everything’s a story and theatremakers are storytellers. I do believe we have a responsibility for telling stories that call us to expand our humanity, to see each other more deeply, and to create a better world. —Daniel Beaty

Adewunmi: I’m curious if there are any lingering thoughts, or last remarks you want to discuss.

Daniel: Often my work is about giving voice to people who normally don’t have a voice, particularly in American theatre. I’ve had more than one artistic director tell me: “You’re very talented, but this work is not for our theatre.” I’ve also heard, “This is clearly very moving, but our audiences won’t get it.” For every artistic director that has ever said this to me, and other artists, I raise these questions: “Why are you doing theatre? What is your call in this work?” If it’s not to trust that you’re moved by it and it speaks to you—you can be a part of creating the space to find audience, and bring the audience you already have to a space of expansive humanity. That expansive humanity is the core of the survival and relevance of the American theatre in a changing America.

You know, if we do not begin to listen to specific voices and create spaces for specific voices—diversity is often limited to the black playwright in the February season. Diversity in this country means huge things, such as race, age, religion, class, etc. If our leadership and our institutions do not make this a priority, I fear for the relevance of our theatres. It’s not like I’m saying anything deep. I think sometimes we don’t take it seriously; we don’t go deep enough into what diversity means.

David: Daniel, you are asking for something outside of the business of theatre to be why you are here, just like me. Theatre is what I have, it’s what I know, and it’s what I’ve mastered as a tool for civic transformation. I promise you there won’t be a moment when I look at a piece and say: “That is exactly what’s needed, but I can’t do it for my audience.” If that performance is needed, then that is what is needed and the job begins. When you’re in the American theatre system, you can say, “I like it, but it doesn’t work for the system.” Well, I don’t work for the system and I haven’t worked for the system! I work for civic transformation.

It is so clear for me because I am a parent and I have limited time. Starting out, I had to leave the world better for my son than when I found it. And now, I’m a grandparent and my granddaughter is bi-racial. I have to leave the world better for her, too. My God, what world will she inherit if I’m only worried about my audience buying tickets for a show? I’m worried about how this world is going to move forward so that she experiences a better, safer, united, and healthy planet. If I’m not worried, then I’m just taking up space.

Daniel: Story is at the core of everything. Everything is a story, whether it’s advertising a political campaign, the narrative around a people, or the narrative around the possibility of a country. Everything’s a story and theatremakers are storytellers. I do believe we have a responsibility for telling stories that call us to expand our humanity, to see each other more deeply, and to create a better world. I don’t have any say on who gets to tell the story, the way they must tell the story, or whether not my Board gets pissed about the story. I’m not a Pollyanna; I understand there’s a system and the system has rules. There is a possibility in our world; there’s urgency in this existing system that requires more. 

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This is a beautiful conversation to read. Thank you Daniel and David and Adewunmi, What struck me (among many things) was the kind of listening that goes on between Daniel and David, and with them and the work itself. Sometimes "I want to see you, I want to hear you" becomes "I see you, I hear you..." -- and it's that space between that is the deep stuff that moves the work forward. Thanks for letting us listen in here.