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Shaping the Future of the Directing Field

As I approach graduation from a directing MFA program, I have been seeking a network of woman directors with whom to confer about our practice.  Women, and particularly women of color, comprise a small portion of theatre directors and often face challenges around issues of artistic leadership. I interviewed Sanaz Ghajar, Rebecca Martínez, and Nicole A. Watson, all of whom have been directing professionally for eight to ten years. I look to these successful early and mid-career women directors of color as inspirations and important trailblazers in the field. With these interviews I hope to contribute to the growing documentation of work created by women of color theatre directors.

Jennifer Onopa: A fair amount of writing about women directors centers around our leadership presence in a space. Do you find that you need to negotiate or self-monitor in a rehearsal space because of your identities?

Rebecca Martínez: Directing is always a negotiation. Directing is also facilitating, and at times teaching. I set the tone in the rehearsal room—I work hard to create a room where people feel the freedom, safety, and confidence to do their best work. I have tremendous trust in the instincts of actors, and I often give actors lots of space to explore on their own before offering my input. Because I come from an ensemble-devising company, I may invite more collaboration and more voices in the room than other directors do. I am picky about who I choose as collaborators, and I prioritize people who are hardworking and talented, but easy to work with in the room.

When I first started directing, I believed that I needed to provide an answer to every question that came up in the room, or I’d lose my credibility as a leader. But one thing I’ve learned from one of my favorite directors, Olga Sanchez, is that I don’t have to have all the answers. I feel quite confident in saying, “I don’t think we know the answer to that question yet. Let’s keep exploring.” And when my fellow collaborators have trust in me to lead even in moments of uncertainty and risk, I know I’ve done my job right.

'Part of my job is to be strong and assertive and make choices, so that is what I'm going to do, in the most graceful and generous way I can. There is a way to both be collaborative and also be the person at the head of the work.'—Sanaz Ghajar

Nicole A. Watson: With some projects, the whole point is to be a woman director for other women, or to be a director of color for young artists of color. So you sort of lead with the idea that we are all women taking over the world and that’s awesome! Whereas with others, like The Great Society, I was nervous initially as the cast was predominantly older and male. You have to find a way to not let your own concerns get in the way of the work you want to do.

I have had people say I'm an easy person to work with, and it used to breed insecurity in me, because I would come home and think, am I not directing hard enough? Have I not asked for enough? Am I being too nice? I don’t feel that insecure anymore. There are some things I have changed about how I work. Of course whenever I go into a new project, I wonder how will I be perceived, but I don’t think I have it in me to change to accommodate someone else’s notion of power.

two performers onstage
Gabriel Lawrence and Brittany Bellizeare in Skeleton Crew at Baltimore Center Stage, directed by Nicole A. Watson. Photo by Bill Geenen.

Sanaz Ghajar: When I was younger I wanted to please everybody. I wanted everyone to like me. I was worried about being called "bitchy" or "overwhelming." Now I honestly just don't care about any of that because the focus should be on doing the work. Part of my job is to be strong and assertive and make choices, so that is what I'm going to do, in the most graceful and generous way I can. There is a way to both be collaborative and also be the person at the head of the work. I decided to walk into a heavily male-saturated profession, and the action of being in this position is an important step in changing how women are perceived.  

Jennifer: Rebecca, much of your work incorporates dialogue or audience participation. What drew you to this approach?

Rebecca: Being part of Sojourn Theatre showed me theatre should be adventurous, and rigorous, and inclusive. By that I mean inclusive and thoughtful of who your audience is, and how you create content for them and involve them as potential partners in the dramaturgy of the performance. Making theatre that has visible impact on audiences is powerful and meaningful, so thinking about the role of audience shapes everything I do. A big part of my job as director is to consider: Who do we want in the audience? What do we want their experience to be? How will they be seated, how are they able to participate in the work? What is the interchange between the performers and the audience? What impact are we hoping to have on audiences with this work? In a time when our country is so polarized, I believe it is critical to create structures and spaces, whether it be in performance, in dialogue, or in more educational settings, that invite people to listen and engage with each other.

'[T]heatre should be … inclusive and thoughtful of who your audience is, and how you create content for them,  and involve them as potential partners in the dramaturgy of the performance.'— Rebecca Martínez

Jennifer: Sanaz, your company Built for Collapse embraces devising and multi-media approaches to storytelling. How would you describe your directing process?

Sanaz: It's pretty traumatic. I can build something really fast, and I'll look at it and I'll kind of just destroy it. In my company, we go through this revolution of making things and then completely annihilating them, and then making them again. I distrust things that work easily and I want things to be complicated. I had heart surgery at a young age, and then about four years ago, I got into a car accident and experienced a traumatic brain injury. And the thing is, what's destroyed in the brain doesn't just come back as the thing that it is, it comes back as something new, and there are connections to what it once was, but I am definitely a different being now than I was before the accident.

I connect those life experiences to the way that I approach a devising process: where I destroy something and then we all recover together and rebuild together. I say in the room all of the time that "nothing's precious" because sometimes if you insist on holding on to a thing because it works, you might be keeping yourself from finding something new that's never been done before, which, for me, is the whole point.

two performers on a balcony
Red Wednesday, created and directed by Sanaz Ghajar for Built for Collapse. Photo by Mark Simakovsky.

Jennifer: Nicole, a fair amount of your work centers on historical events or people. Is this coincidental or intentional?

Nicole: It's a bit of both. When I think it's useful, I will share with collaborators that I used to be a history teacher. Telling people that this is actually my second career has been part of my conversation about being a director. When necessary, I can be my own dramaturg. I have a degree in history, and my graduate thesis was about historical representation and re-imagination on stage. I tend to gravitate toward historically-focused projects and I sometimes pitch myself for projects as a theatre person with a background in history.

Jennifer: What advice would you give to emerging or early-career directors?

Nicole: Every once in a while you have to be able to ask yourself: is this working? And what do I want? It's important to figure out what success is going to mean for you and what you're willing to give up and how long you're willing to give it up for, if you have to make those sacrifices. 

And don't be a jerk! That doesn't mean don't stand up for what you want and don't be firm and don't have some authority, but nobody in this field, with the exception of artistic directors, is making any money. Everybody is working really hard, and everybody probably wants a day off or dinner with a friend or loved one or something, so expressing gratitude is very important. 

Do things that are not related to theatre.

Rebecca: See a lot of work. Form opinions and ideas about the work that you see and the work that you are drawn to and interested in. Make a lot of relationships, but in a way that feels authentic to you. Whatever it is that you do, be rigorous about it. And, the thing that I'm still learning is—don't be afraid. Don't be fearful. Just go for it. And if there are people that you admire, find a way to put yourself in their sphere. Find a way to be around them. Find ways to surround yourself with people who make you better at what you do. I always want to be the least talented person in the room.

Sanaz: Just do it! Do it because you love it, and don't stop. It's not a competition. Do as much as you possibly can that you actually want to do, and remember that it's always a process and you're going to make a lot of mistakes, but the point is to learn and do it better the next time. Also, apply for everything. You're going to get rejected from most of it. But then you try again. The New York Theater Workshop fellowship—I applied for that three times! Don't give up because you got rejected; that's just one thing and that's just one time. Travel. Be into change. Never stay comfortable and shake things up for yourself. Support other women. To enact the kind of change we want to see in the world, it is important that we start to make those changes ourselves.

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