Even as theater came to a screeching halt in March 2020 as the pandemic hit, many found ways to keep creating and thriving. As Associate Artistic Director of Milwaukee Rep, I produced and curated new play commissions and classical monologues beginning April 2020 to Feb 2021. Here are some of the fruits of my labor. Each are directed by me and feature some of my very favorite writers and actors. Check out the entire series at www.milwaukeerep.com
Kimberly Belflower’s “Forest Creature”
Featuring Kristin Connolly
Gina Femia’s “How I Spent My Summer Vacation: a virtual report by Anne R., the senior
Featuring Cher Alvarez
Rajiv Joseph’s “Tags”
Featuring Jay. O. Sanders
Lloyd Suh’s “Middleton”
Featuring Lillian Castillo
Dael Orlandersmith’s “Corona Downtown”
William Shakespeare’s “Measure for Measure, Act II, sc iv”
Featuring Netta Walker and Ryan Imhoff
A. Rey Pamatmat’s “Elastic Brain”
Featuring Jon Norman Schneider
I was asked in March of this year to speak at Statera. And I immediately said yes – Statera stood for the same values I shared and also wished to share and practice in my new leadership role at Milwaukee Rep. But as I thought more deeply about Statera – balance, wholeness, wellness, I thought why would anyone think I would be a good choice for this? To quote my best friend, a doctor and researcher, and mother of two, Betsy Verna, “balance is a myth. To me, it’s just a minute-to-minute triage and elimination of nonessential things.. and feeling a fullness in my life that is both exactly what I want and also feels totally unsustainable.” Does this sound familiar to anyone else?
At the time I was directing a show out at South Coast Rep, had flown to NYC for the League of Professional Women’s Awards for one night, and then back to tech. Oh, and I was also six months pregnant. Soon after opening that show, I went into another rehearsal, Much Ado About Nothing at Hudson Valley Shakespeare, while also working remotely for Milwaukee Rep, which was going through a major restructuring and strategic planning process. My life was a series of to-do lists. It centered on anything but the growing life inside me. And though my belly grew, reminding me of the approaching day when this being inside me would spring into life, I somehow believed that it would only be a 48-hour waylay before I could answer my emails again and continue to check off my lists.
On June 14, I had a meeting with my mentor and shero Emily Mann at McCarter. I had a day off before my tech and third preview for Much Ado and I hopped in my rental car and drove down for the meeting. I navigated through the endless traffic through Brooklyn and over the Verrazano bridge. And eagerly sat down to discuss plays, leadership and issues confronting women and the theater with Emily and also promptly went into early labor. What did I do at this point? I had the sense to call my husband and let him know that I didn’t think I should drive myself home. But I laid down in the back of my rented Kia Soul in the McCarter Parking lot and had long detailed conversations with my team for Much Ado, going into its third preview, directing the production from afar. It wasn’t until I felt a pain, unlike anything I have ever experienced before that it finally dawned on me that everything was going to have to wait. Something much bigger, more forceful was going to overtake all my best intentions. My first lesson in parenting.
After a very traumatic ride with my water breaking over the Verrazano bridge (yes, in the rented Kia Soul), with a half-packed hospital bag, a yoga ball, and a jar full of almonds (don’t ask), and a very traumatic moan-filled ride up the FDR, I did make it Lenox Hill Hospital. And 12 hours later, on June 15 at 5:15 am, my daughter Macy Jocelyn was born. And unlike I had initially planned, I did not resume my slow takeover of the American Theater 48 hours later. In fact, four months later, I still do not feel further along in my path.
Though in a sleep-deprived haze, I do remember staring at this little human in her first month of life, in wide-eyed curiosity about what it meant to be a mother, what it meant to be her mother and what it meant to be a mother to a daughter. And looking down at her precious face, I wondered what it really meant for her to be a girl. And I thought of all the hardships, self-doubt, and inner turmoil I had faced as a girl and wondered how I might spare her that same fate. I also wondered what messages she would internalize as a girl? And what might that mean for her as she grew up?
I asked myself what messages I had internalized as a woman and when.
I was maybe 7 or 8 years old. I was playing with the neighborhood kids and some of their parents at a friendly flag football game. I distinctly remember catching the ball – which was a rare instance, I’m not the most athletic, and running so fast and with such determination toward the endzone. Ah! The exhilaration – no one could catch me, I was just too fast. Too good. I did a happy dance. One of the parents gave me a high five. It wasn’t until a few plays later that I realized that the touchdown I had made was actually in the wrong endzone. I realized this because another boy a few years younger than me did the same mistake. And instead of getting a high five, he was corrected. He was coached. He was taught. He was taught to win.
The boy was taught to win. I was simply allowed to be on the field. Was it that everyone was afraid to hurt my feelings? Or they just didn’t think I could learn? Or that it didn’t matter if I learned or not? Instead of demanding equal treatment, I was horribly embarrassed. I just stepped out of the game.
I think how many times I’ve stepped out of the proverbial game since that moment. How I internalized what others think of my own abilities and how that has hindered me from playing. From taking chances. From winning.
Susan Chira in the NYTimes wrote an article in 2017 titled, “Why Women Aren’t CEOs according to Women who almost were.” What their stories show is that in business, as in politics, women who aspire to power evoke far more resistance, both overt and subtle, than they expected would be the case by now.
The impact of gender is hard to pin down decisively. But after years of biting their tongues, believing their ranks would swell if they simply worked hard, many senior women in business are concluding that the barriers are more deeply rooted and persistent than they wanted to believe.
Women are often seen as dependable, less often as visionary. Women tend to be less comfortable with self-promotion — and more likely to be criticized when they do grab the spotlight. Men remain threatened by assertive women. Most women are not socialized to be unapologetically competitive. Some women get discouraged and drop out along the way. And many are disproportionately penalized for stumbles.
In our own industry, where the majority of ticket buyers are women, here are our statistics. women directors account for 31.9% while men take up 68.1% of those jobs; the gender gap is roughly the same for designers. Women playwrights 28.8% and Men 70% and non-binary .4%. Also, women writers and directors make significantly less than their male counterparts, because they are often relegated to the smaller LORT D venues. In 2018, women only held 27% of leadership positions in American nonprofit theater. Maddeningly, A Harvard Business Review study investigated male vs female leadership and concluded women are more effective leaders. They found that women scored higher than men in building relationships, inspiring and motivating others, practicing self-development. It also debunked the stereotype of men as “take charge” – as women outscored men in taking initiative and driving for results.
But the status quo indicates that women should feel lucky that they are simply allowed at the table, in conversation and allowed in the game. That should be enough.
Well, it isn’t enough. Because now that I have a daughter, it can’t be enough. I think I have to teach her. But instead, just like the story of her birth, Macy teaches me.
In my brief time of motherhood, here is what I’ve learned about being a woman.
- I don’t ask for permission to show up. It used to be that I would try to assume my place, not make too many waves and do what I should. Well, these places were largely created by men. Mainly white men. And for white men. Now I march into my workspace with my daughter. And I never apologize for her presence, as I would have a year ago, apologizing for myself occupying that space.
- I define boundaries and create my own space. Before Macy was born, I would do the job – even if it meant not eating, sleeping or having a social life. But what if I treated myself with the same care and love I gave Macy? It’s very simple and easy for me to choose to prioritize her needs of hunger and sleep and attention. Why don’t I ever allow that for myself? In creating my own boundaries and being much more clear and confident in that directive, I make room for myself. I reaffirm my own self-worth and hence can make space for the things that make me – me. My art. My creativity.
- Self-esteem comes from self-care, not achieving goals. This was a big one. I am the definition of goal-oriented. But have you ever reflected when you accomplish a goal that it still isn’t enough or exactly what you wanted? If I get to direct this play on this stage, etc…. But when I am taking care of my own needs, and filling my life with joyful moments, I am more confident, creative, and more ready to realize my full potential.
- Don’t lean in (Sorry Sheryl Sandberg) to a system that doesn’t work for you and hasn’t worked for 95% of women in that system. But do lean on a supportive community. Surround yourself with people who regard your ambition as inspiring, not aggressive or even worse, cute. Surround yourself with people who find your directness and forthrightness as marks of confidence, not being difficult. Be around those who recognize your assertiveness and ability to take charge as leadership. Surround yourself by those who challenge you to take your anger and rage and channel it into productivity rather than dismissing it by telling you “to be nice.” “to be calm” or “get used to the system. Surround yourself with a community that fills you.
- Quality at work; Quantity at home. My sister shared this advice to me when I got pregnant and I didn’t understand the depth of its wisdom until now. The Status quo is the reverse. Spending long hours at work is an external sign that you are a hard worker – you put in your due diligence – you have paid your dues. And many measure the 1-2 hours you get to spend with your kids or yourself as enough quality time. But I would argue that the opposite is true. Work to live, not live to work. Let the time at work be efficient and thorough, but spend the bulk of your time on what you live for.
This leads me to talk about the theater – theater is that thorny beautiful beast that for most of us in this room is both a passion worth working and living for. I truly believe we are all together in this room because we believe that theater is a platform for civic greatness. That the form has an opportunity to model a better world through the stories it tells, serving as a forum for lifelong learning, critical examination and emotional connection. It models a better world in how it tells those stories – through deep personal connections and collaboration. And it has the opportunity to model a better world through the institutions that govern how this work is made. But these institutions, beholden to a board of trustees that are most often populated by older, white men and indebted to donors who represent the 1%, are more often aligned with methods and ossified practices that are exclusionary to women, people of color, and people who do not have the financial means to participate. So how do we model our institutions to be the change we want to see? Let’s examine the system in which we operate. The credo of 21st Century American capitalism is that the best employees show unending loyalty to work, staying long hours and being on call. This is a major driver of gender inequality: Working like this also contributes to burnout, stress and poor health — without necessarily helping productivity. It’s one of the reasons that Americans have among the lowest levels of happiness and work-life balance in the developed world. But we work in the theater – Working 10 out of 12 hours and 6 out of 7 days a week is a REQUIREMENT isn’t it? But a few people are changing the system. Susan Booth at The Alliance ends her tech rehearsals at 10pm and everyone on her team is just on their game, focused and putting in quality work. Playwrights Realm, led by Katherine Kovner, produced a play MOTHERS that allowed children to join rehearsals and paid for babysitting during tech and also for opening night. Fiasco Theater Company rehearses 10-4 or 11-5 and had weekends off, adding additional rehearsal weeks. Like I mentioned before – the game you are asking permission to be a part of is a game invented by people who bought into the idea that theater is a corporation. Instead of an industry that is about connection and humanity. So we must make our own space. Play a different game. And invent our own rules. How do we change the game? How do we change the fabric of the institution itself? Are you in a position to make decisions on season planning and the work you produce? How can you empower more women to have leadership roles? Do you or your organization make an assumption about a woman’s ability to do the work, therefore not even asking her? Has anyone in this room heard, “I knew you just had a child so I assumed you wouldn’t be available…” If you are part of an organization that claims that equity, diversity and inclusion is a core value, you need to be the squeaky wheel to make sure that core value is reflected in every aspect and every decision of that theater. That means what is programmed on their stages, who is onstage, backstage and in the audience. And also that the organization’s practices allow for people of all abilities, shapes, sizes, color, gender to participate fully. This activism also extends beyond the walls of the theater into our communities and our government. The United States of America is virtually alone among the community of nations in not having government-mandated paid parental leave; Only Lesotho and Papua New Guinea share our basic unwillingness to recognize the fundamental importance of parents being home with their children during their first months of life. And that lack of paid leave is fundamentally a barrier to women succeeding in the workplace because it both increases the burden on women to leave their jobs after childbirth and makes employers more reluctant to hire women at all. Be visible – don’t apologize for taking up space. Don’t apologize for showing up. As a woman. As a parent. You can take your child to work. Even if you aren’t in a senior position at a theater, you can still be a leader. Work to change the culture of your organization by leading by example. Practice active listening, find ways to create safe psychological spaces so that people can feel safe to be creative and speak freely. Create a culture of mindfulness at work. I had a stage manager who was yoga certified and she led yoga classes before rehearsals. My current boss practices meditation and makes time during his busy day for that and encourages others on his team to do the same. For directors in the room, how do you shape and model your rehearsals rooms to reflect the change you want to see? Last year, Nataki Garret made a call to support the sea change in our industry. Women have been named to 41 percent of the 85 leadership positions filled since 2015, and people of color have been named to 26 percent. Support those women and support those people of color. Support those companies, whose boards believed in their capacity to make change. And lastly but most importantly, give space for Mentorship. Do not miss the opportunity to coach. Do not simply ignore and allow that young girl to make a mistake and think it is charitable or kind to let it go. Teach her. Nurture her. Help her speak up. Rise up. When she rises up, we all rise up. Thank you.
Acceptance Speech for the Josephine Abady Award, March 25th (Begins at 0:24min) https://www.facebook.com/LPTWomen/videos/2244106112276171/ Thank you Emily. It is truly an honor to stand here amongst such powerful and inspiring women. Thank you to the League of Professional Women for recognizing my work as a director and a director who has tried to be the change I want to see – by directing culturally diverse work and committing to telling underrepresented stories. It’s such an honor to stand here to accept this award. Because I’ve been fighting to tell these stories on the American stage for the last twelve years. And fighting to create a new vision of “America” and “American.” Yesterday was the closing of Lloyd Suh’s The Chinese Lady, inspired by the real life Afong Moy, the first Chinese female immigrant in America. Tomorrow I begin tech of Qui Nguyen’s sequel to Vietgone, a new play titled Poor Yella Rednecks, which tells the story of his parents, Viet refugees and their struggle to survive as – well -- poor, yellow, rednecks in El Dorado Arkansas. Both stories feature strong, powerful immigrant women who fight against a system stacked against them. At a time when the word immigrant is synonymous with degrading, humiliating, violent epithets, these stories couldn’t be more urgent. With humor, intelligence and revolutionary spirit, both stories humanize the refugee and immigrant experience. And in the telling of their stories, we weave another perspective into the fabric of American culture and history, righting what has been largely left ignored or vilified. The fight for equity and fairness is something that has been deeply ingrained in me. And I can’t think of its exact origin of the passion to fight for equity and fair representation. Perhaps it originated from my growing up in a tiny town in rural Southwest Virginia and pushing back against the limitations imposed by race, class and gender. Maybe it’s a product of just being a woman – a person who has had to fight for a place at the table and learn the power of my voice. I also like to think it’s from being a 1st generation immigrant, fighting for visibility and equity, and staking a claim in this country in the culture and the history. Maybe in part it’s also from being really short and having to be loud and energetic out of necessity. It’s really all those things. But really I credit the extraordinary women who raised me, my mother Jocelyn Divinagracia, my sisters, JoAnn, Gina and Tricia. They taught me by example how to fight in both big and small ways for justice in the home, our community and the world at large. They nurtured with generosity and love my fighting spirit and they helped cultivate my own voice so that I might use it for a greater purpose and within my art. When I was growing up -- When I held ambitions, I wasn’t told I was aggressive or cute. Whenever I was forthright and direct, I was told I was confident, not difficult. When I was bossy or assertive, I was praised as a leader rather than some of the other unkind words that refer to me now when I exhibit those same behaviors. When I was angry and emotional, I was challenged to turn that into productivity instead of merely to “be nice” “be calm” and “get used to the system.” Now that I’m going to be a mother myself, I think of this little one growing inside me and think of the opportunity I will pave for her or him. How I will nurture this little one to use her voice and nurture a fighter. The little peanut is expected significantly on July 4th. It’s what some may call America’s birthday. So I like that this little fighter may be born on the same day. And usher forth a new kind of America and new kind of revolutionary fight. Thank you again for this honor. Thank you also to Brad, Chad and Seth who are here cheering me on tonight. And thank you all for believing in the impact of the stories I tell.
Thank you everyone for supporting me and watching my speech. It was one of the most meaningful days of my life. Here is the video and text of my speech. First of all, I want to thank the many people who helped me stand here today. Those who lift me up every day -- my family, my husband and my amazing group of friends, Chad, Tina, Bets. I want to thank TCG, the committee, and panelists. And I want to thank Marc Masterson who gave me two of my biggest breaks and nominated me for this award, John Eisner, John Dias, Barry Edelstein and Bill Rauch who wrote letters on my behalf over the years and for this award. I thank in particular, Mark Clements and Chad Bauman at Milwaukee Rep who have given me an artistic home over the years and this past year a place at the table for Artistic and Institutional decisions. Their support of me reinforces their vision to put art at the center of the organization. And this is just one of the many steps this leadership has taken to find innovative ways of mentoring the next generation of leaders. And most of all I want to thank my theater family – the writers, (Qui, Kemp, Idris, Rey, Chisa, Stefanie); designers and actors that feed my inspiration, share my passions, feed my curiosities and deal with my mercurial disposition when I’m the heat of tech or in the agonizing state of “I don’t know.” You all make me a stronger artist. A stronger person. And help me see every day joy and possibility. I attended my first TCG conference when I was 21 and you all were scary as hell. At that point, I could only dream of doing theater for my job. Now my job is to dream. Through the support of mentors and people who believed in me, I emerged from a young woman who spoke quietly but passionately about a society she envisioned, to be one who is pushing that society forward through the theater she makes. I wish I could go back in time and tell the 21-year old me, a 1st generation immigrant, born in rural Virginia, who had seen only seen her first professional theater production a mere four years before that she would standing here accepting an award for directing. But how could I have imagined it? I had never seen another person who looked like me or my family on stage until I saw Jessica Hagedorn’s Dogeaters at The Public Theater. It also dawned on me, looking around the audience that night, I had never seen so many Asians in one room together -- that I wasn’t related to at least. As I was coming of age, I never assisted a woman, nor assisted a person of color. Of the many LORT theaters I have worked, only two were helmed by female artistic directors. Not too long ago, I watched Chloe Kim make history as she won the gold in women’s halfpipe with nearly a perfect score. My 6-year old mixed race nephew upon seeing her receive the gold medal said – but “she isn’t American.” How could a 6 year old, whose Filipino mother, my sister, the first Chief of Division of Surgery at Johns Hopkins, not perceive that someone with Asian skin could be American? Or could not represent the United States of America? What did that make me, and his mother, and his grandfather in his eyes? Not American? Still an other? At age 6? Where did he get that limited view? Representation matters. Telling stories that have not found their way into the main stream matters. Dismantling stereotypes and reframing history to reflect those who have been left out of the telling of that history. This matters. I am a living testament to that. Together with my Vietgone family, we made a romantic comedy about two Asian refugees in Arkansas. In Kemp Powers’s Little Black Shadows, we told a story to honor the "shadows" whose backs this country was built upon but whose history has never been told on stage. In Idris Goodwin’s The Way The Mountain Moved, we tell the story how the west was really won or lost and the escaped slaves, Native Americans, immigrants and those fleeing religious persecution that inhabited it. I take up the mantle, as many of my colleagues have, to shift the narrative of the American theater to a new norm – to embrace wholeheartedly our responsibility to present more than a “single story.” To redefine what it means to be American. To redefine the American family. To rewrite the “American story” To reinterpret history to include those who have been excluded from writing that history. I want to show -- that work directed by me, or women like me, works written by women and or artists of color are not risky. They are essential. They are essentially American. You have given me a great gift today. The Alan Schneider Award is given on the basis of merit and artistry. To be recognized on this level means that the values I espouse -- citizenry, diversity and inclusion and artistic adventurousness -- have made it into the national conversation. Receiving this award has already changed me. It has bolstered my confidence as a director. It has helped me realize the strength of my voice and my potential to change the theatrical landscape. I look forward to more women, more artists of color changing the landscape with me. I look forward to seeing them onstage, backstage, offstage, writing, directing and designing. I look forward to them walking the halls of power upstairs and redirecting financial success to support and empower those very communities. Thank you for believing in me and helping me take another step forward. Together we will march step by step towards a truer representation of the world we live in and the world we want to see. Onwards!
In this online interview, I was asked to characterize my work. Talk about my journey. It's hard to reflect when you are still on that journey, and every day is a deeper discovery to who you are. But if I am forced to look at the body of my work thus far, I would say that I am a woman who strives for a world that is just and equal. I tell small intimate stories that cry out for justice in hopes that it will have a larger impact on the whole. I am a woman who works to make beautiful the hard thorny stories of people who live outside the margins, who have never been part of a privileged class, who often struggle with their own identity amidst adversity. I am also a woman who finds a lot of joy in the world and tries to bring that sense of play to production as well as in the rehearsal hall. I am a woman who tries to make a connection to those I don't understand so that it might make me a fuller, more empathetic, richer person. I am a woman who believes that small ripples eventually make a wave. And every gesture of kindness manifests into something greater than itself. And that theater, even in its tiny black box spaces, is part of that great movement. ** Features work by Katori Hall, A. Rey Pamatmat, Sarah Schlessinger and Mike Reid, JC Lee and Thomas Bradshaw.
Top: Vietgone reading at VAALA. New play by Qui Nguyen, commissioned by South Coast Rep; MIDDLE: Five Days Til Saturday devised by Qui Nguyen, May Adrales and NYU MFA acting 2015; Bottom: Girl Shakes Loose Her Skin workshop at the Lark Play Development Center, music by Imani Uzuri, book by Zakiyyah Alexander based on the poetry of Sonia Sanchez.
Busy few weeks! Early November i did a workshop of GIRL SHAKES LOOSE HER SKIN, a powerful, soul shaking new musical about an overeducated black girl learning how to overcome who she is supposed to be to be what she is. A journey into a woman's soul as she traverses New York to Atlanta to San Francisco. An amazing piece of theater with music by Imani Uzuri, book by Zakiyyah Alexander based on poetry by Sonia Sanchez. Look out for another iteration at Joe's Pub in February. I then recently opened and closed a new play devised by Qui Nguyen, myself and the NYU MFA acting class of 2015 titled FIVE DAYS TIL SATURDAY. Dragons, Y2K panic, savvy late 90s hip hop and yes that IS a large floating head of Matthew McConaughey circa Dazed and Confused. Most recently, I directed a reading of Vietgone by Qui Nguyen at New Dramatists and also South Coast Rep. Summed up by the playwright, it's a sex comedy about his parents. And no, you can't tell them he wrote it - seriously don't tell his parents. . It's a romantic comedy. Yet it's set in an uncertain scary time just after the fall of Saigon in a refugee camp in Arkansas. and oh yeah, there is a big motorcycle road trip, a fight sequence and a romantic montage set to Marvin Gaye's "Let's Get It On." Now currently taking a break in Dubai. See you in a few weeks!
Featuring Sophia Skiles and Mark Junek Design: Daniel Zimmerman (sets); Keith Parham (lights) Andre Pluess (sound) Mary Folino (costume) Written by A Rey Pamatmat Directed by May Adrales
Set design by Daniel Zimmerman Written by A. Rey Pamatmat
Top right: Zakiyyah Alexander, Jaime Lincoln Smith, Mckenzie Frye, Imani Uzuri, May Adrales & Nikiya Mathis. Next: rough model of In the Next Room at Syracuse Stage by Mikiko Suzuki; Next: Reading of Vietgone at SCR: Rodney To, Raymond Lee, Paco Tolson, Qui Nguyen, May Adrales, Maureen Sebastian & Jackie Chung. Next: rough preliminary model of Five Days Till Saturday by Hui Chen; Next: Rehearsal for Vietgone: Maureen Sebastian, Paco Tolson and Jackie Chung.
Stage manager, Peggy Ryan; choreographer and performer, Chey Chankethya; and dramaturg, Alice Tuan celebrate a fantastic reading of "My Mothers and I" at Ojai Playwrights Conference.