Editor's Note: This is the sixth edition of this monthly column on TheaterJones, in which Aaron Zilbermann and Tiana Kaye Johnson will chronicle their journey in starting a new theater company, Metamorphosis: a new living theatre, which has a mission of theater for social justice. They will write about administrative and artistic issues as they plan for a new work in the fall of 2017.
Dallas — After numerous discussions and copious revisions, we arrived at our mission statement for Morph (Metamorphosis): “to use theater as a tool to battle systemic oppression and effectuate social change by producing and developing innovative and thought-provoking plays for our diverse community, and by offering accessible arts education to local youth.
As the executive artistic director of a new nonprofit theater, I practically meditate daily on our mission statement. It’s what we laid out collectively in the beginning in order to guide us as we grow. It is there to remind us what our organization is about, it’s roots. The mission statement needs to truly influence everything that we do, offering guidance when determining new programming and used as a device to evaluate existing programming. When Tiana and I meet to discuss future plans for Morph (at this point Dallas Playwrights’ Collective and our second production), I know that we need to keep our mission central to the discussion. As we select a play we need to effectively analyze if the language and life of the play we choose truly battles systemic oppression and effectuates social change
After our last production of Dutchman in early June, Tiana and I have set the bar high for ourselves. Dutchman was the perfect play for our inaugural performance and the theme is significantly relevant to important concerns around race in our society. The post-performance talk backs were essential to processing the show (in fact, I truly believe that our audiences needed a talk back in order to process such a quick and shocking performance) and in them, I felt a particular urge among the audience to move forward on the issue.
I’ve been somewhat avoiding the task of collecting titles for our first season for quite some time. Obsessing over it daily, yet still avoiding it. Dutchman turned out so well, I was so pleased with what happened, we can’t let the next season slow down at all. Every performance must top Dutchman. But how can that happen if Dutchman was the perfect play? I know there are other perfect plays. Perhaps Dutchman was perfect for that moment but there are others and I need to find them. I’ve been scavenging the New Play Exchange, a relatively new resource for theaters and writers, providing access to new plays from all over the country. Lately I feel like all I am doing is reading plays. I spend my days looking for excellent new plays that deal with concerns related to social justice.
Beyond our theatrical season, we are going to begin hosting a playwriting workshop for a diverse group of people, from experienced writers to people who never even considered writing a play. The concept we want to get across to participants is that everyone has a story to tell. Jonathan Norton, a Dallas playwright, agreed to facilitate the monthly workshops. Jonathan’s work has been produced or developed by Dallas Theater Center, PlayPenn, Black and Latino Playwrights Conference, Pyramid Theatre Company, TeCo Theatrical Productions, Castillo Theatre, Soul Rep Theater Company, African American Repertory Theater, and the South Dallas Cultural Center. As we met, Jonathan mentioned a pre-existing playwriting group in Dallas, The Aviary. We immediately became concerned with not repeating the same concept that already exists in Dallas. In doing so we arrived at two significant conclusions: Cities like New York and Chicago have multiple, functioning playwright groups. The other, and even more significant, is that we don’t intend to do the same thing as The Aviary. As is true with our play selection process, moving forward with this idea means putting it up against our mission statement to see if it thrives. And since we are here to use theater as a tool to promote and encourage social justice in our communities, it only seems logical to ask: how does a playwriting group foster social justice? Jonathan and I thought about and discussed this question and we agreed on some insights. Our playwriting group can offer a voice to those who are traditionally underrepresented in the arts and in the rest of society.
The Dallas Playwrights’ Collective will not be a group for playwrights. It will be a group for writers and non-writers alike who want to work within the context of a supportive team in order to tell their stories. And like I mention, everyone has a story to tell. Through this monthly workshop we hope to engage people whose communities are underserved by our society and provide the tools, space and support needed to reflect those stories of struggle on the stage. We plan to host staged readings of participants’ work.
Over the past year, Tiana and I have been conducting interviews in South Dallas, gathering information for a play we are writing together about gentrification in the area. Through the process we have filmed and recorded extensive interviews and listened to people’s stories. They all have one. Often more than one. And, for the most part, people want their stories to be heard. So we intend to embrace the South Dallas community as we host this workshop, and since the workshops will be held at the South Dallas Cultural Center, community members won’t need to travel far in order to participate. Our first gathering of the Dallas Playwrights’ Collective will be 10 a.m.-1 p.m. Saturday, Oct. 7 at the South Dallas Cultural Center. If you plan to attend please RSVP at firstname.lastname@example.org or call 972-616-4003.
» Aaron Zilbermann, executive artistic director of Metamorphosis: a new living theatre, has worked with Big Thought and other local teaching institutions. Tiana Kaye Johnson, the theater's director of education, is a Dallas native and Southern Methodist University graduate, and a member of the Dallas Theater Center’s Diane and Hal Brierley Resident Acting Company.
» Living Theatre runs on the second Friday of the month on TheaterJones.com (September was moved back a few weeks)
PREVIOUSLY IN LIVING THEATRE
- Februrary 2017: Introductory column
- March 2017: Going non-profit, boards of directors, and creating original work
- April 2017: Finding space
- May 2017: Zilbermann and Johnson discuss Amiri Baraka's Dutchman, their June production
- June 2017: No column
- July 2017: On starting a theater for social justice
- August 2017: No column