We resume the Dramaturg Spotlight interviews today with words of wisdom from LaRonika Thomas. I admire LaRonika and her work, so I am delighted to present her voice in this forum. I enjoy when friends and colleagues share equal enthusiasm for highbrow art and pop culture, as LaRonika does in this interview.
LaRonika is a dramaturg, producer, and writer, and has worked in arts education, literary management, and dramaturgy in both Chicago and in the Baltimore/DC area. She serves as the Vice President for Regional Activity for the Literary Managers & Dramaturgs of the Americas (LMDA). She is also a current doctoral student in the Theatre and Performance Studies Department at the University of Maryland.
Hometown: Chicago, IL and West Lafayette, IN
Current town: Baltimore, MD
How do you explain dramaturgy?
With thanks to the wisdom of several other dramaturgs for my definition: dramaturgs listen and question. We listen to and question the play, the playwright, the director, the artistic director, the actors, the designers, the mission of the theatre, the theatre, and the world – both as we know it and as we would like it to be. Robert Brustein called us the “humanist in the woodpile,” and I have always thought that had a nice ring to it. We research and contextualize the world of the play, work closely with playwrights and directors, serve as an audience before there is an audience. We are concerned with the work, with the place of the work within the larger world of the theatre, and the relationship between the audience and the work. We dream of the theatre as we hope it will be, and we work with other artists to make it so.
How does dramaturgy appear in your daily life? How does dramaturgy inform or relate to what you do?
Dramaturgy is certainly in my life everyday. It is in my life both as my profession and as a viewpoint on the world. It certainly influences my doctoral work, for even though my research interests are not directly related to the practice of dramaturgy, the research questions and the path they have led me on are certainly influenced by my professional work as a dramaturg and the questions I ask in my artistic practice. I think the most significant way that dramaturgy influences me everyday is that it provides me with a certain awareness of the world – a desire for context and poetry – for all the wonderful subtleties of the stories that surround us everyday. Stories make the world – it is important to listen to them, to be a part of them.
How did you come to dramaturgy?
I was in college, at Indiana University, as a double major in Anthropology and Theatre. The plan had been to apply to graduate schools immediately after receiving my BA and to go on to get my PhD in Anthropology. But during my last semester I realized that if I made a list of all of the things I had done in college that I really enjoyed, it was heavily weighted with theatre. By this time, I had heard of this crazy thing called dramaturgy, but I did not yet have any experience with it. I did know, in very basic and general terms, that it combined research with rehearsal responsibilities – and that definitely appealed to my nerdy disposition and seemed very fitting for someone with a background in both anthropology and theatre. And then, as if in the next breath, I was out in the “real world,” and had to figure out what to do next. I moved back to my hometown and started a theatre company, which led to my Masters in theatre and where I finally found my way to dramaturgy, which led to me moving to Chicago, interning at the Goodman and beginning my professional career as a dramaturg.
I would not say there was one particular production or event that led me to dramaturgy. I think it was more of an accumulation of experiences beginning from childhood, when I took dance lessons beginning at the age of 5, and then later when I played the villain (I got to die on stage – it was all very exciting to me) in a middle school classroom production of Billy Budd, through high school play productions where I had a very inspiring English and theatre teacher, and beyond. I do remember traveling to Chicago before I had graduated from IU and seeing a production at Steppenwolf – that was, I think, the first time I realized that theatre could actually be a viable profession. And I saw Too Much Light Makes the Baby Go Blind at the Neo-Futurists and remember thinking that *that* was the kind of theatre I wanted to make (and did make a few years later when I dramaturged several shows with them).
Tell me about a few of your favorite stories, plays, movies, songs, etc. and why they are favorites.
This is probably very cheesy for me to say but my favorite stories and storytellers are the next ones, the storytellers about to be discovered and the stories I have yet to hear. I enjoy a wide variety of theatre but recently I have been thinking a lot about my time with the Neo-Futurists and I am interested in how the audience participates in the performance, their relationship with the work. So I am interested in very immersive events, even things closer to performance or installation art, happenings or Fluxus even, or the advent of digital technology in theatre and how that can change the relationship between audience and performance or audience and performer (theatre as video game and that sort of thing). Or shows like Suzan-Lori Parks’ Venus, when the audience is implicated in the events of the play during the show’s intermission whether they choose to stay in the auditorium or go to the lobby. There are also a few shows I have seen in the past couple of years that have really stuck with me – Mona Mansour’s The Hour of Feeling (it struck an emotional center deep within me) and Anne Washburn’s A Devil at Noon (a fantastically structured story that felt so fresh and new), both at recent Humanafests. Also, I was privileged to work on Greg Hischak’s quietly powerful meditation on America, Volcanic in Origin at Source Festival a couple of years ago. I have also been a fan of the work of Chuck Mee since I worked on Big Love at Purdue during my Masters program. And Clybourne Park is a current favorite – in part because it is the show I am working on now and in part because it addresses issues that I think major implications for all of us.
And I also wouldn’t be me if I didn’t mention that I am a big TV fan – if I didn’t work in theatre I’m sure I’d work in television. My husband and I will generally only see movies in the theatre that benefit from a big screen (like The Avengers or The Hunger Games), but we are constantly in danger of filling up our TiVo – Justified, Breaking Bad, Southland, Community, Mad Men, Revenge, Suburgatory, Sons of Anarchy, The Vampire Diaries, Pretty Little Liars, Girls, Parks and Rec, Supernatural, The Good Wife – I love it all and I’m not ashamed to say so. And if you have the chance to catch two recent shows that should have received second seasons but did not, check out Terriers and Rubicon. Such a shame they did not have a bigger audience. And I am a big fan of Joss Whedon – I can’t wait for his adaptation of Much Ado About Nothing to hit the theatres (I’ll probably make an exception for my blockbuster rule and see it on the big screen)! Finally, my commute gives me a lot of time with my radio – I use that time to listen to several podcasts, RadioLab, Sound Opinions, and Talking TV with Ryan and Ryan are among my favorites.
Who/what inspires you?
My husband (contemporary photographer, Nate Larson) is an infinite source of inspiration to me, for his incredible work ethic, his dedication to his students, and the creativity evident in his work. My students inspire me – I love when they really dig into a work and show me things I didn’t even realize were there. And, obviously, great storytellers, whether working in theatre, TV, or film. I get excited by people with a point of view, and with an interest in the experience a story can create for both its creators and its audience. I am also inspired by my family, especially my parents and grandparents. I have been lucky enough to get to spend a lot of time with my mother’s parents and my father’s father – their own stories continue to amaze me and fill me with strength and wonder.
What is your dream project?
Oh, boy – this is a tough one. I am not sure I have one, singular dream project. My work has led me down a number of interesting paths and right now I am in a fantastic place, working on my PhD. I love working in theatre – being in the rehearsal room and collaborating on new work. And I love scholarly work, and I love the connections between the two – especially the connections I am making between cultural policy and cultural space, between cities and theatre, how a city is performed in the multiple layers of its everyday cultural work.
If you could choose a team of five collaborators, living or dead, who would you choose?
Wow – another tough question. I’m not sure what kind of work this would produce but off the top of my head I’m going to go with:
Ibsen – I have been intrigued with him ever since I worked on The Last Two Minutes of the Complete Works of Henrik Ibsen. I just love his plays.
George Maciunas – The father of Fluxus and the father of SoHo – he would probably walk out on us within the first five minutes but I would love to get to have a conversation with him, especially about artists and artist spaces.
Picasso – because he destroyed, according to Lefebvre, the space of common sense.
Brecht – a dramaturg, director, and one of my favorite playwrights – a true theatre “maker”
Theaster Gates – a contemporary artist and urban planner working in Chicago and beyond. He makes fantastic work that moves beyond the walls of a gallery space and asks some very big and important questions about the artists role in contemporary society.
And now that I’m on a roll, I can’t stick with just five – let’s make it ten:
Lorraine Hansberry – so insightful in her meditations on home and community, and such a poetic writer.
Wordsworth – I could not resist adding a Romantic to the list – especially the one responsible for most of Lyrical Ballads (including its “Preface” and “Tintern Abbey”).
Suzan-Lori Parks – her attention to language and its effect on the audience continues to teach me so much about the theatre event.
Greg Allen – founder of the Neo-Futurists. I worked on several of Greg’s plays when I lived in Chicago and I only now feel that I really understand his aesthetic. I would love it if our paths crossed again.
Chuck Mee – I love that he posts his plays and is as much a fan of collage as I am.
What are you working on right now?
Right now I am a full-time doctoral student at the University of Maryland, so I am not as active professionally as I would like to be right now. You can mostly find me reading and writing and teaching theatre. And I am part of the dramaturgical team for CenterStage’s The Raisin Cycle – working on Clybourne Park has been very exciting and is a great match for me considering my research interests in urban space, cultural production, and the performance of identity. Finally, you can also follow me on Twitter, just like the rest of world.
What’s up next for you?
Mostly scholarly work – I am presenting at a conference on space and performance in April, discussing a paper I wrote on the Chicago Cultural Plans, and I am chairing a panel on the Dramaturgy of Space at ATHE in August. I hope to update my poor, neglected blog again beginning later this spring, so you’ll be able to find out about future projects there. I have also just accepted a position as one of five dramaturgs working on The Recovery Project for America-in-Play. We will be paired with AIP playwrights, working to recover a lost early American play. Then we will work with the playwrights as they write a new play inspired by the lost work. I also hope to continue to consult on new plays, something I love so much that I don’t think I could ever give it up. And I know have a more of my own plays up my sleeve – I look forward to being able to devote more time to them as well.
What advice would you like to impart to aspiring dramaturgs?
Chicago, DC, and Baltimore are all fantastic place to make theatre – unless you want to work on Broadway or in film and television, go to one of these cities. Smaller large cities like Baltimore are especially fantastic if you want to start a theatre company (for an example, check out the work and history of Single Carrot Theatre), as they have a small network of artists but also have a fairly shallow hierarchy in terms of access to the “movers and shakers” in the city. And so this is the first part of my advice – wear the label of “Dramaturg” proudly, but also consider yourself a maker – a maker of theatre, of culture, of experiences, of life.
Get to know one another. And, as the Vice President for Regional Activity for LMDA, I can help with this. LMDA is a great organization and provides a lot of support for dramaturgs at all stages of their careers – and local concerns are a big part of that! We want to know you!
Make lots of work and make lots of different work to help you find your voice – what you are good at and what you enjoy.
And respect yourself enough to make sure you are adequately compensated. Compensation may not always mean a paycheck at first – it may mean beer or a recommendation, but it should also mean your name in the program and web site and in other materials where you find the designers names, access to people at the companies you work with, substantive work tasks beyond making copies, the understanding that you are a part of the conversation of making the piece – and making the theatre company – what it is and should be, and always ALWAYS a seat at the table with everyone else. And – know when you can’t work without a paycheck any more too.
Find mentors and cheerleaders.
Remember this career is a choice that you made. Stay positive, find the work and the people you love, and don’t forget to have fun – you are one of the lucky few in life who get to dive into their passion.
Thank you so much, LaRonika!