After years of trying to make it work, I finally went to the Shakespeare Theater Association conference. It was fantastic. I am so glad I finally went!
Shakespeare Dallas hosted the conference. I hadn’t been to Dallas before—and had only been to Texas one other time. We mostly were inside the conference hotel, but we managed to do some exploring in the area, including going to the Dallas Museum of Art, checking out the stained glass in a nearby church, and stalking a historical school that we hoped had a potential performance venue (always looking!), but turned out to be offices or some nonsense.
STA brings together artists from an incredible range of Shakespeare theaters, from the big ones (Oregon! American Shakespeare Center! The Public!) to the teeny ones. Getting to meet people who are working in such a wide range of contexts was interesting. Everyone’s work had so much in common, but also the differences were interesting to think about. What makes a certain kind of marketing or community event or production concept work at one theater and not at another? I particularly appreciated how honest people were about the things that they struggled with, how down-to-earth nearly everybody was.
It also gave me a chance to get to know the people from specific theaters that I had previously only known by reputation. I noticed that the theaters brought their institutional culture with them. After a few days, I could guess (without looking at someone’s name tag) which company they worked for—and I was right a lot of the time! Their company culture was very clear in each of the people. As I’m in an on-going process of trying to figure out my next moves, noticing that everyone from a particular theater seemed happy or kind or fascinating helped me imagine what it might be like to work there. I’ve reordered my list of top theaters I want to work for, based entirely on this experience.
Every day, I felt like my brain was overflowing from what I was learning or seeing or having affirmed. I can’t possibly put every single thing in here, but here are some highlights.
- Ashley White led a fantastic session on intimacy direction. She inspired me to think about how to apply the principles of intimacy direction to all of my work, which I think I was sort of instinctively moving toward, but she gave me a vocabulary and a structure for it. The first step I’m taking is getting certified in mental health first aid—training this Friday!
- Sarah Enloe, Director of Education at the American Shakespeare Center (and long-time friend) led a workshop on using dramaturgy as a classroom tool. I knew most of the facts that she shared, but I learned a lot from her application of them, if that makes sense. For example, I know the textual history of how we got from foul papers to the editions that you buy at the bookstore, but she turned it into a game/relay race and I could see it being a very fun thing to use in a classroom setting.
- Several people involved with Public Works, sharing about that project, inspired a whole lot of ideas for how to make my upcoming As You Like It, at a diverse school with a historically white theater department, as inclusive as possible.
- As part of a session about the relationship between theater practitioners and researchers, Katie Brokaw shared about her work staging Shakespeare in Yosemite. I keep thinking about the sentence that was the thesis of her production of As You Like It: “Edens save us.”
We saw several performances while we were in Dallas. Here are the highlights:
Devon Glover, “The Sonnet Man,” gave an impromptu performance one evening. He performs Shakespeare’s text in a hiphop style, layered with his own interpretation/reinterpretation of it. I found the whole thing incredibly fun and engaging.
We saw a “drunk Shakespeare” event by Shakespeare Everywhere, which was a minimally rehearsed Tempest at a bar. I’m intrigued by these “drunk Shakespeare” events. Everyone has thoughts about what makes them work or not, what the ethics are of demanding that anyone (actors or audience) drink, whether it undercuts or supports a brand or a theater or a show. I need to see more of them to know what I think of this whole subcategory of theater-going experience. For this particular production, the performances that I enjoyed the most were ones I would also have enjoyed in a regular performance situation. Ferdinand and Ariel, particularly, were clear and specific in their choices in every moment. I enjoyed every moment they were onstage. One thing I observed was that when an actor called for a line, the audience was supposed to drink or cheer or something, and people stopped doing it very early on. I think it’s because we were on the actors’ side. We wanted them to be successful. We didn’t want anybody to feel lost or alone or jeered at. So tying drinking to something that happens in the show is probably fine, but not tying it to that particular thing because people really don’t want to.
Debra Ann Byrd performed Becoming Othello, which is a brilliant one-woman show about her life and her development as a theater artist. It’s clearly still in development, but I loved it. I watched it with my whole body, laughing, crying, cringing. I look forward to seeing it when it’s at a point where she feels like it’s more complete.
Conferencing as an awkward introvert
As many of you know, I’m not great at networking. I’m bad at talking to people (“Actors are the opposite of people”—I’m good at talking to them!). I’m shy and awkward and the only thing I’m good at is rehearsal. The only room I feel comfortable in is the studio. Conferences are about networking, at least in part, so had to face this problem. Hiding in a studio with actors was not an option. I went in with a plan. It helped.
We stayed at the conference hotel. It was a pricey place to stay, but Katherine and I shared a room, so it wasn’t too bad. Staying right where the conference was meant that I had our room to retreat to when I felt like I couldn’t talk with another stranger. It also made hanging out at the hotel bar easy, and gave me chances to just run into people at the lobby Starbucks or in the elevator.
I love my business cards. A while back, was complaining to a friend about being awful at networking and small talk: “I just am bad at talking about everything but the work. My work, your work, somebody else’s work that we’ve seen—that’s what I want to talk about. But I’m not great at the stuff I have to say to get to those conversations.” That got me thinking…what if I could shortcut all the nonsense and go straight to talking about making plays? And not in a vague way, but the specifics of a production I love or the person I’m talking to loves? One of my friends who is a professional photographer has photos she has taken on the backs of her business cards. She told me she got that done at moo.com (this is a referral link, you’ll get a discount if you use it). So I combed through my piles of show photos, checked in with all the companies involved, and got 50 different show images on my cards.
This meant that I could have a tiny smalltalk interaction with somebody, and if I felt like it was going well, I would say, “Hey, can I give you my card? Pick a story.” And then we’d talk about the story. Usually, I’d say something like, “That’s [actor] as [character]. One of my favorite things about our work on that project was [awesome thing]. Can you tell me about a project you loved?” And…it worked. People love to talk about their work, and I could tell a lot about them from what they chose to talk about.
One other cool thing was that a lot of the people who picked a card told me they had some specific connection to that play, even if they drew at random or didn’t recognize the play just from my image. Someone drew a card from JB and told me they were in that play in high school and still thought about it often. Another said she immediately recognized a specific moment from her favorite play (Richard III), “and this image just gives me goosebumps.” It turns out that these were great conversation starters, and I got to have exactly the conversations I wanted to be having.
I attended the preconference. STA has an optional “practicon,” a few days of focus on education before the conference. It’s a much smaller group than the big conference—around 60 people. That’s a manageable group. It also was structured as a series of working sessions, where we were doing practical theater work a lot of the time. This gave me a context to talk with people to solve problems or explore an idea in a structured way. When the conference got going and suddenly a few hundred people were there, I had 60 familiar faces I could spot, which helped me feel much more comfortable.
Every day, I made myself take a step forward, introduce myself to somebody, make some attempt at making a connection. The challenge stretched me, in a good way. And now I know people I can look for at next year’s STA. The room will be less full of strangers.