Cover of The Dramatist Jan/Feb 2022: The Motivation Issue
Image of writers
S.M. Shephard-Massat, Carson Grace Becker, MJ Kaufman, Guadalís Del Carmen, Ben Krywosz, Amrita Ramanan, and Chisa Hutchinson

Chisa Hutchinson:  Hello! I don’t know some folks here, so I’m excited to be able to sit down and talk with you, even if it’s digitally. You’re all here because you are basically fairy godmothers to playwrights. You light magical fires under our butts, and with tools and space and resources you enable us to do what we do and to focus on the creation of new work. Like, not the production, not the dog and pony show, or backer’s audition—just pure creation. So, we’re here to talk about how you do that.

To kick this off, please each of you introduce yourselves, let us know what organization you work with and what that organization does. 

MJ Kaufman:  My name is MJ, my pronouns are he/they. I’m joining from Lenapehoking, specifically Brooklyn. I am a founder and producing artistic leader of Trans Lab, which is a program that provides support to theatre artists who are transgender, nonbinary, or gender non-conforming. For the two years that we have existed, we have had a cohort—the first time it was seven, the second time it was six—of artists who were in residence for a year with our hosting theatres, which were the Public Theater and Women’s Project Theater. [The artists] got a stipend, and we had regular meetings and master classes, and mentorship to support them in creating a new work. Then, at the end, we shared the work in different ways. 

Sorry, because we don’t have a regular thing, this is gonna get a little bit messy. [Laughter] The first year, we had five playwrights and two directors. Each director worked with a few of the playwrights, then we had readings of their work for the public. The second year, we opted to do two different evenings. First, halfway through the fellowship, we did a show of excerpts and those could be a bit more staged, because they were short. At the end of the program, we did an evening with slightly longer excerpts of everyone’s works. And we found that was a little bit of a better system, because then some of the industry people we wanted to invite could see more work at once, [rather than] deciding between, “Oh, am I going to this reading or this reading? I can only go to one this week” or whatever.

In 2020, right before the pandemic hit, we had decided to take a hiatus, because it was being run by me, Kit Yan, and Ada Karamanyan, all freelance artists (Ada is a freelance casting director) doing this for no money. And we just couldn’t anymore. After two cohorts, we were getting feedback that the program was serving people in a lot of ways, but there were a lot of ways that it could grow, and we could barely even pull it off as it was. [Laughter] So, we were gonna take a rest, an incubation period, and then try to see if one of our host organizations or another organization could help us hire an administrator to take the program to the next level.

Then the pandemic hit, and we’ve been in that kind of incubator time ever since. We’ve still done a few things during the pandemic, mostly distributing micro-grants to TGNC artists in the community, both fellows and non-fellows. I’ll just leave it there because that was a really long introduction.

Chisa Hutchinson:  All good, all good. We don’t mind mess. [Laughter] Guadalís?

Guadalís Del Carmen:  Hello, everyone. My name is Guadalís Del Carmen. I am a playwright and the founder and co-artistic director of The Latinx Playwrights Circle. We officially started meeting in 2018, and right before the pandemic, Primary Stages gave us space to be part of one of their resident theatres, and we still have a wonderful relationship with them. The impetus for our organization was really the lack of Latinx voices on stages and in theatre spaces. For myself, it was also a good way to make sure that Black Latinx voices were also being acknowledged. 

We work on developing and nurturing playwrights. We have two vital programs. One is the Greater Good Festival, which was funded by Darrel Alejandro Holnes, who’s a poet and playwright and is also our Special Programs Director, in partnership with Pregones/PRTT. And our other program is the intensive mentorship that we have in partnership with Primary Stages. We’re still growing, but the root work that we do is developing and nurturing playwrights and allowing for theatres across the country (especially New York City) to have access to the playwrights and to our work.

Chisa Hutchinson:  I saw Amrita nodding a lot while Guadalís was speaking, so will you go next?

Amrita Ramanan:  Thank you, Chisa! Hi, everyone, my name is Amrita Ramanan, my pronouns are she/her/hers, and I am a dramaturg, a cultural and creative consultant, and the Core Apprentice Dramaturg at the Playwrights’ Center. The Core Apprentice Program is a program for three playwrights who have just graduated college and are pursuing their own artistic pathways while also developing their professional goals and desires, and it is a nine-month trajectory that we have for each playwright. 

Our three playwrights this year are Christin Eve Cato, Phanésia Pharel, and Sara Jean-Francois, and Guadalís, I know Christin and Phanésia are part of the Greater Good Festival, so how about that intersection? That makes me so happy.

Chisa Hutchinson:  Phanésia took my class at Rutgers.

Amrita Ramanan:  That’s amazing. I love all of those connections. They are such incredible writers; it feels like such an honor and a gift to be on this journey with them.

For nine months, we have a combination of virtual check-ins and connections about the work they’re developing and their desires moving forward. Then we also have two on-site interactions at the Playwrights’ Center, one in November that is a work share that we also will have with the Playwrights’ Center playwriting fellows, and then another one at the end of February, early March of next year, which is a workshop for a play of their choosing. In addition to that, each of the Core Apprentices get to choose their own mentor, who supports them through this process, and we will also have some revolutionary artist conversations that are done virtually, some artist salons where we can dialogue about the work across a grouping of many different playwrights that are engaging with the Playwrights’ Center.

And, at the end of the trajectory, we’re planning to have several workshops on wellness and sustainable practice that can support them on their journey forward.

Chisa Hutchinson:  Sounds awesome! Hello, Carson Grace Becker. I had to use your whole name because it’s just so cool. [Laughter] 

Carson Grace Becker:  Hi. I am the Artistic Director at Chicago Dramatists, which has been around since 1979. I’ve been in this position for about two-and-a-half years now. I took over after Russ Tutterow, the founder, died. I’ve been putting it back together, and we have come out of COVID okay. 

We have our core residency, which is our professional track, of about 21 playwrights. We also have our Playwrights Network, which is a membership program serving up to 100 playwrights. We have our Tutterow Fellowship, which is typically six playwrights who work with us for two years—it’s an alternative MFA program. We give these artists a commission, free classes, dramaturgy, and mentorship. This program is designed to serve emerging playwrights and typically marginalized writers.

And we have “a school” of sorts, which offers a broad range of dramatic writing courses. And we host readings, class showcases, arrange private workshops and all that good stuff that new play development houses do.

Chisa Hutchinson:  Nice. Thank you. Hello, Sherry.

S.M. Shephard-Massat:  Hello, Chisa. I’m S.M. Shephard-Massat, and I’m a hermit. I say that because years ago, a reporter from The Atlanta Constitution interviewed me. I had just had my first play performed successfully at Denver Center Theatre Company, I was married, had a house and two kids. And in the article, she called me a hermit. I thought that was crazy at the time. Who’s a hermit with kids?

Well, I don’t have any children at home anymore, I’m an empty nester. This is why I had time to create TERTULIA; a theatre initiative specifically for Black playwrights located in Atlanta, GA. We come together regularly to fellowship and comfortably hone our craft.

TERTULIA is certainly not as administratively advanced as what I’ve heard from everybody else so far. We just started meeting a couple of months ago. There are nine of us Dramatists Guild members who have put the time in and who have proven to be talented, committed to the arts, and who have shown up to every meeting. I say this because I didn’t put the group together just to have people coming around saying, “I’m just here to get a cup of coffee and see what y’all doing in there.” I created it for those of us who have work they want to perfect but who’ve felt uncomfortable in other groups where they were the only persons of color.

I had tried over the years to participate with other local groups. I studied playwriting and I’ve been in the arts all my life. And yet, when I would go to these large meetings, I would be one of maybe two or three Black people there, if that many. Something would be presented in front of us, and I would give my opinion, and all of a sudden, nobody’s sitting next to me. [It] made me feel very uncomfortable, like I really shouldn’t have wasted my time talking. Like I really shouldn’t have been there at all. 

The other members of TERTULIA have often been made to feel the same way, but together we are discussing our craft, fellowshipping, and dramaturging for each other. We listen to each other’s work intently and comment freely without worrying about specific attitudes towards it or the subject matter.

The bottom line is to help each other create and perfect so that by the time we release a new script into the world, it says what the hell we wanted it to say.

Chisa Hutchinson:  Preserving that artistic integrity, and we appreciate it. You have given us an entire world, thank you. And last but certainly not least, Ben?

Ben Krywosz:  Hi, everybody. My name is Ben Krywosz, I use he/his/him pronouns, and I am speaking from St. Paul, Minnesota, the land of the Lakota and Ojibwe. I’m the artistic director of Nautilus Music-Theater. We have been around since 1986. We have programs working with writers, composers, performers, and directors to make new operas and other kinds of music-theater. And by music-theater, we mean opera, musicals, and alternative works. We have pretty wide stylistic parameters for the work that we do.

As an artist development organization, we have a variety of programs, including our Wesley Balk Institute for training performers in integrated singing acting, and our Composer-Librettist Studio [which] I’ll talk more about in a moment. We have a monthly works-in-progress series called Rough Cuts where we had presented almost 200 presentations until the pandemic hit. We’ve done a couple virtual Rough Cuts since then, and we’re now getting ready to ramp up again live.

We also offer fully-staged productions of primarily new work, sometimes recent work, and on very rare occasion, classic work done in innovative ways. And we also do Community Commissions where we work with other organizations to accomplish something that they want to do and that we have the resources to help, using the artists that we work with.

I suspect that I was asked to participate in this forum because one of the programs that we have is a Composer-Librettist Studio. This is a project that I started back in 1984 at New Dramatists. We’ve also offered it in St Paul; Los Angeles; Chicago; San Francisco; Portland, OR; Washington, DC; and other cities. It’s kind of a hothouse situation where we bring together five composers, five writers, and five performers for a very intensive two-plus weeks to explore what it means to make music-theater, what it means to tell stories through music. We’ve done it 66 times now since ‘84, and it has been a very successful program. We didn’t do it last year, of course, because of the pandemic, and this coming year, we’re re-thinking how to best do it at New Dramatists post-pandemic, because it’s so intensive and it requires really focused attention for two-and-a-half weeks. We’re exploring how we might be able to explore collaboration within the context of telling stories through music, which is really the focus of the program.

Chisa Hutchinson:  Everyone I know who’s been through this program says that it is literally life-changing.

Thank you all for giving us that breakdown of what you do. I’ve been listening to you talk about how money is sometimes an issue or parenthood sometimes is an issue or just being uncomfortable in spaces where this kind of work happens or feeling unwelcome, right, or unrepresented can be an issue. 

Would you speak on the most common obstacles that keep writers from writing as far as you have observed, and also, tell us a little bit about what you do to help them pass those obstacles? Can you reveal your tricks? [Laughter] Teach us your ways. How do you help writers overcome? Ben?

Ben Krywosz:  Basically, I have five tools I use that range from the sacred to the profane. In reverse order:

First, in the Composer-Librettist Studio, we pay participants to do it, and that turns out to be a pretty radical notion, to the point where sometimes people have suggested that’s a mistake. “You should make people pay for this, there should be tuition.” But I see this as an investment program; it’s investing in the future of the art form and, as such, people should be paid for their time. It’s two-and-a-half weeks, an extensive commitment. And that serves in terms of motivation on a practical basis; people are able to take time away from their day job if they’ve got one. And in some instances, we’ve been able to offer child care as well as elder care, and in a couple of instances, pet care. So, there’s a very practical issue there, and the artists that have gone through this program have said that was no small consideration. The other thing that it does is that it increases their self-esteem. It makes them realize, like, “Oh, I am somebody that people think I am worth investing in.” So that serves as a motivation right there.

Second, we offer the idea of creative parameters—we don’t give them an absolutely blank sheet of paper; we give some specific assignments. We team up the composers and writers and rather than say, “Here, do a little something,” we say, “Do a little something that involves these performers in this particular parameter,” whatever it might be. It’s very craft-oriented and they now have something to work with. And just having a parameter makes a big difference in getting them motivated to deal with their resistance.

Third, we recognize how vulnerable the participants are, and we model that vulnerability on the part of those of us who are leading the workshop. The music directors and I are very overt about our ignorance and our eagerness to learn, and how lifelong learning is an intrinsic principle in what we do. I think that allows the participants to break down their own resistance and recognize that they’re in a safe and supportive place.

Fourth, we work hard to create that environment of support; from the beginning that has always been a high priority. In 1995, we started using Liz Lerman’s critical response method, and we’ve done variations of that over the years. That makes a big difference for them to realize they are in control of their own critique process and that anything that anybody else has to say is coming from a place of support.

And fifth, we focus on collaboration: telling stories through music, bringing together composers and writers, and having somebody that they are answerable to as a collaborator. That tends to increase not the pressure, but the sense of responsibility that serves as a motivator. Related to that is the larger issue of their interaction with society. When you try to reframe their artistic role into that of an actual worker, somebody who contributes to the larger society, it means that they have a responsibility to the community and the work that they do plays a role in the community’s spiritual life.

Chisa Hutchinson:  Wow, that is really well said. Thank you.

S.M. Shephard-Massat:  Chisa, what keeps writers from writing? Being nervous about writing your truth. Down here, there is a nervousness about committing our time to and putting confidence in more diverse groups that don’t appear to hear us, see us, or honestly respect what we bring to an artistic table. In fact, in order to be warmly received by these more diverse writing groups and southern theatres, the compulsion to water down your content becomes almost a part of your thought process if you’re not careful. No Smith n’ Carlos, Olympics 1960-something fist-pumping, ‘cause you might offend the white folks in the meeting space or production office and, thus, no more productions for you. No one is listening to you. You become the ‘Angry Black Such ‘n Such.’ We’re down here in the Deep South, and the artists who come to TERTULIA feel the same way: that being in an environment that recognizes and welcomes your voice is truly empowering and excites one to create and share, which is what we do.

Chisa Hutchinson:  I mean, you are creating your own space, really, is what I’m hearing.

S.M. Shephard-Massat:  Yes, that’s the plan. We’re creating our own space. 

Chisa Hutchinson:  Heard, and respected.

MJ Kaufman:  Thanks for sharing that, Sherry. That made me think of how in Trans Lab I’ve seen a lot of motivation come from the writers wanting to write for their peers, for the community that we’ve created in the lab. And that makes a lot of sense to me. We’re based in New York and so they’re New York artists. And there are tons of plays going on all the time in New York, but so, so few of them have to do with trans lives, and often when they do, it’s by cis people. Sometimes it is even cis people playing the trans characters. A lot of the plays are too expensive for the artists we’re supporting to attend, or they don’t feel comfortable in the theatre space. It’s a very gender binary space. You see that not only in the bathrooms, but who’s in the lobby and who’s sitting in the seats.

I’ve felt, and I hear from other trans artists that they feel like, “Well, why would I write this play? Why would I finish it? Who’s going to understand it? I’m going to have to explain my life to the mostly cis audience. I’m going to have to talk down to them.” And then, all of a sudden, we’ve created this community where they can write for their peers, for people who already understand, for people who don’t need that kind of education, who are going to laugh at these jokes and feel these feelings. 

And I’ve seen that be a huge motivator for the artists, and I think that paired with us saying, “Here’s some money and a deadline. You’re going to come to this conference room. You’re going to present this in a theatre. You belong here.” I think all of that combines to help with motivation.

Chisa Hutchinson:  That is really interesting, because I usually only think of how can I, as a writer, validate the experience of the audience? I never really think about how the audience is actually validating my experience. That’s going to affect motivation, right? Why am I even writing this when, as far as I can tell, there’s not an audience for it, right?

MJ Kaufman:  Yeah, I mean, it couldn’t be farther from the truth in our experience. When we did our shows, there was a line out the door of our community who wanted to see their stories told. When we had an open call for applications, we got so many applications, there were so many talented writers, and the diversity of what they were writing was inconceivable. There is no one thing that trans writers are writing. 

My mind was blown, and I think it’s such a loss to the theatre that they aren’t investing in our community and aren’t telling those stories. So, we tried to do that with the Lab.

S.M. Shephard-Massat:  That’s very true. We have a theatre on the South Side of town here that’s right in the Black neighborhood, up, down, and to the sides. 

Now, a lot of the people in this neighborhood have never even been to the theatre or seen a play before. It’s like my mother said years ago when I told her I was going into theatre. She said, “Baby, I don’t even like theatre.” I said, “Mom, what’s wrong with it?” She said, “Because it doesn’t speak to me.” My mother went to college, very educated, very well-rounded woman. “It doesn’t speak to me.” I knew immediately what she was talking about. It didn’t speak to her culture, it didn’t speak to her life experience, it didn’t speak to her mother, it didn’t speak to her generations. It didn’t even speak to her walking down the street—nothing.

Now, this theatre that’s right in the ‘hood—nothing but Black folks around—had a competition and the play that won was a Jewish play. And I said, “What kinda bullshittery is this?” Because if you’re trying to get the people in the community to care, they wanna see themselves up there. It’s not that you can’t do a Jewish play, but you’re trying to get these people to come in here and commune and fellowship and become a part of this experience. And it ain’t happening because they don’t feel included. You gotta talk to people where they live so they/we feel that inclusion, so we feel our humanity is understood too. A well-rounded understanding of humanity—that’s what we’re all working towards. Taking care of ourselves and one another.

Amrita Ramanan:  I want to start by saying that I think playwriting is a very sacred act. I think playwrights are the most incredible knowledge seekers and truth tellers in the world. And that sacred act requires so much courage, vulnerability, inner strength, and time to really process. And I feel like the obstructions or disruptions to that, to not being able to truly share your story and your full and authentic voice, that is what prevents that motivation from happening.

And I think it comes in all the ways that are being talked about and more. I think it comes in the oppressions of systems and in structures that are trying to hold up the white majority. I think it comes in resource sharing and capitalism. I think it comes in not connecting authentically to community. And I feel the way to motivate is to refocus values and desire in a place of true practice. 

What I really appreciate about the Core Apprentice program at the Playwrights’ Center is that the program is fully molded and shaped by the core apprentices’ desires, you know? We start by asking, “What do you want, and what do you need?” And those could be two different things, or they could be the same thing.

And then, from there, it’s rooting the wants and the needs in the entire design for what that program is. And it’s also allowing there to be very unique responses for that. There is a way in which community is built around some synergy of those responses. But also, you know, the three incredible playwrights I’m working with have very unique needs and wants right now, and it is my responsibility to support each of those unique needs and wants in this process.

I absolutely think resource sharing is critical. I think paying playwrights to write should not be a profound statement but, sadly, it is in our field—so, pay playwrights to write. [Laughter] Pay playwrights to process, pay playwrights to be in a workshop, pay playwrights to be able to produce results.

Chisa Hutchinson:  What a radical idea. [Laughter] 

Amrita Ramanan:  Not radical, right? Give playwrights fuckin’ health insurance. Treat [their work] as something that is truly valued, because it needs to have that value. 

And then I think a balance of flexibility with supportive accountability is huge. With any writer I’ve worked with, I feel like my role is, how I can support their true voice and desire at a point of their agency, but also lean into a sense of accountability that is supportive to them? And that can come in so many ways, as MJ mentioned. That can come in knowing that there is a workshop or a production that you have, or knowing that you want to share something with your community, with your cohort, you know? Or just knowing that it’s for you, you know? I feel like that’s very meaningful.

And, especially in this time that we’re in, I’m finding that connection to community is a meaningful, very motivational piece of it. I love that within the Playwrights’ Center, there is community being built across every single playwriting fellowship. That’s an essential part of it. And I think how community and affinity can find themselves together can be a glorious motivator.

So, I really feel like the most important thing is, how do we take away all the de-motivators and continue to uplift the motivators? [Laughter] 

Chisa Hutchinson:  Yes! All of that. [Laughter] Well, so far, I’m hearing money helps, health insurance, childcare. Mutual vulnerability—I love that, Ben. Snacks! [Laughter] Look—snacks help, okay? I make sure that I have my snacks at the ready when I’m trying to get some writing done.

MJ Kaufman:  We always have snacks at Trans Lab.

Amrita Ramanan:  Yep. Same. Don’t do anything without snacks. [Laughter] 

Chisa Hutchinson:  Right? And accountability to community is huge. 

I have so many questions and we don’t have much time left, and we haven’t heard from Guadalís or Carson. And Amrita, you said playwriting is sacred, right? That was a good starting point for me. Why is the work you all do important? Why are you passionate about it? 

Guadalís Del Carmen:  I’m originally from Chicago, and one of the reasons I moved to New York was because I couldn’t find space in Chicago to really express myself as a Black woman of Latin descent. I could never find where I fit in. And I had wonderful support; Aguijón Theater and UrbanTheater Company were huge in my career as a performer, but as a writer, they really gave me space to do those things.

But even in New York City, where there’s a huge concentration of Black Latinx folk, those stories are not reflected on stage. So, creating the Latinx Playwrights Circle and building it with these amazing people, we’ve seen the reason why this work is so important. I mean, we’ve had playwrights who have gone through institutional support come through our doors and say, “I was gonna stop playwriting, because I didn’t feel like my work was relevant or important or even felt safe.” And we’ve also had playwrights say, “I was gonna stop writing this play, because nobody understood it.”

Chisa Hutchinson:  Yes.

Guadalís Del Carmen:  Having this space among fellow folk who understand you culturally or have at least some semblance of understanding—because Latinidad is not a monolith; it has many multitudes and layers to it. But I think that we, for the most part, have a general idea of each other’s cultures. And aside from that, we really don’t give a shit about writing to the white male gaze. Our thing is, what are you passionate about writing and how can we support that? And that really is the thing. That’s the jumping point for us.

And just to see the joy in the writers, that, for me, is the thing that I want to keep doing. We don’t have a lot of financial support, because we’re still a newer organization, and that’s something that we’re working on. But whatever little financial support we have goes directly to our artists. None of the staff are getting paid for the work that we do. We’re really fueled by the passion. Because most of us, as playwrights and as artists, we understand the void, and we feel that the work that we’re doing is really important. We know that our work is valuable and our work is necessary, and that passion bleeds into the playwrights as well. 

I know what it’s like to not have, so for me, it’s been this thing of how I can provide a space so that we can have. Even if I don’t see the fruits of that labor within my time, I hope that future generations of writers are able to see that. And I’ll say Christin and Phanésia have been just really incredible playwrights to interact with and work with us. Christin has been with us from the jump, and Phanésia as well, through different periods. Seeing their growth as playwrights and their desire to continue to nurture their work has been really beautiful. It’s a testament of how necessary the work that we do is, on top of the fact that we try to provide space for all facets of Latine folks. We’re very adamant about also including Haitian voices into the work that we do, because for me, and for all of us at the organization, it’s very important to be inclusive in the ways that Latinx community has historically been exclusive.

So, we’re working to fix our own shit, [Laughter] while also trying to address the greater bullshit of exclusivity within theatre. 

Chisa Hutchinson:  Well done. Yeah, just forging those connections between people who ought to be connected, damn it, right? [Laughter] And then of course, purity of expression for people who feel like nobody was listening to what I had to say before I arrived here. And there’s danger in that, I think, there’s a violence in that kind of suppression, right? What joy we lose out on when we don’t give people the space to express themselves in a pure way, and in a way that feels right and organic to them.

S.M. Shephard-Massat:  Right on.

Carson Grace Becker:  I can speak to why this work is so important, especially as we process the past year and a half.

I was in the 1994 Northridge earthquake. It was a 6.7, I think, so powerful that it raised the San Fernando Valley floor up something like two or three feet. It was one of the most destructive earthquakes ever experienced in Southern California.

And one of the most interesting and salient things to me was that local animals and people suddenly couldn’t navigate their way around. For months everyone was getting lost—people who’d lived there for years. Dogs are famous, right, for finding their way home, across thousands of miles—even swimming waterways. But not so post-earthquake. The pound and shelters were overflowing with lost animals. And the same thing happened to people—their natural ability to navigate was suddenly challenged. I witnessed it. It was fascinating. 

I think we run on invisible grids, and the invisible LA grid was partially destroyed in the profound jolt, which is what I think many of us are experiencing right now, with the pandemic and all the sociopolitical challenges and upheavals. 

With the discovery of Kerillian photography, which provided proof of what Walt Whitman called the Body Electric, auras were suddenly being documented in people, plants, animals—all visible representations of an energy and intelligence that extends beyond our animal brains, bodies, and skin.

So I’ve been very focused lately, in whatever way I know how, on re-establishing “the grid.” I’m a deep believer in the invisible world—of both soul and physics—and its massive influence over us. Artists are usually intuitively connected to it—we tend to have porous boundaries—and many of our grids have been recently destroyed. And I hope to help rebuild them.

Natality is a word floating around now. If you look it up, you’ll mostly find info on birth rates. But there are a lot of artists and independent thinkers who are claiming the word to talk about a much larger concept. One that says—it actually makes me cry—Nature knows exactly how to heal itself, how to “grow and birth itself back,” and that by association we also know how to heal ourselves and the world, if we can do the work, the growth, the transformations necessary to both assist and get out of the way.  

We know that the arts and humanities save lives. They saved mine. They may have saved yours. And they’re important to culturally protect. But we’re in an axial moment, right? A moment where everything is changing. And the old foundational humanities saying that “Man is the measure of all things” (which meant white man, really) we know is not sustainable. We might now say “Life is the measure of all things”—and we’re losing so much of it. Artists must speak to this, in ways that speak to them, so I’m trying to figure out what they need, as well as what they don’t need. I’ve been doing a lot of granular, high-touch work, focused on individuals, and then there’s a sort of macro net I’m also trying to cast.

I’m both honored and thrilled to be heading an arts organization right now, to give space for people to talk and make in new ways. There’s a kind of curating—cure and curating—I’ve been trying to enact that can allow the space and incubation for what’s coming next. We know there’s going to be a glut of plays in the pipeline. I also know I have some amazing artists right now, and I can say, “Let’s do a reading. Let’s do five readings. Let’s invite whoever we want and keep all this alive, in this liminal space, figuring out what’s next and what it’s all gonna look like.” 

Chisa Hutchinson:  That’s the healing period. I mean, if you think of society as wounded, right? You are all the antibodies gathering at the site of the wound.

Carson Grace Becker:  I really believe that. 

Chisa Hutchinson:  Yeah! And for the folks out there who would say, “Oh, the arts are such a luxury, we don’t have time for that.” I’m gonna have to raise the bullshit flag on that. Because what did so many of us do? We turned on our TVs, and we binge watched shows that were written by people like us, right? [Laughter] 

Right now, theatre is reopening. And I have seen my friends posting photos of themselves in the theatre as if they’re being reunited with long lost relatives, you know? Like, they’re grasping onto a life raft. That’s what it feels like. Everyone is sort of, like, coming up and gasping and reaching for the life raft that is that play.

S.M. Shephard-Massat:  Yeah, but you know what, Chisa? We gotta have that change, though. We’ve got a theatre with ten slots and they’re gonna let only one play come in there by somebody that ain’t white, and the rest of y’all just take a seat, and we’ll get to you if we get to you. Or we’ll have one Black playwright in that theatre, and they will work Miss Sister to death, because she’s the only Black face they will have in the window, but they don’t have any Black people in the back. Everybody in the back is white, but they got that one Black playwright sitting up in the window trying to put a face on the thing that says, “We give a shit,” when they really don’t.

But to the question, why am I passionate about writing? Because it is my spiritual place. It is what I feel I was put here to do. I feel it is right and correct for me to be an artist in this world.

Chisa Hutchinson:  You gotta let the people know that this is how we are, because when they have wrong ideas about us, they can legislate our lives accordingly. Ben, you had your hand raised.

Ben Krywosz:  I just wanted to spin off what Amrita and Carson said. I think all of us here are artists in our own right, and we’re involved in nurturing other artists. One of the things I have been pursuing for some time now is reframing how artists perceive themselves in relationship to the larger community, thinking specifically about the larger economic structure that is positioned as reality, whether it is or not. 

In a functioning community, you’ve got different kinds of workers. You’ve got manual workers who work with their hands and manufacture things; you’ve got information workers that work with the flow of information; you’ve got social workers that deal with the interaction of people through the legal system; you’ve got specialty workers who focus on specific tasks that need to be done, whether they’re legal or medical or mechanical or whatever.

And then you’ve got soul workers. The soul workers are those of us who deal with the intangibles of human interaction. That might include ministers, priests, and psychologists, but it definitely includes poets, writers, composers, and artists of all types. I think that’s something that is highly valued in our culture, even if it’s not actually acknowledged.

As you pointed out, in the time of troubles, people turn to the arts, and we all got through the pandemic because of all of the art that was available to us online. People might say, “I don’t have time to discuss the value of the arts, because I’ve got to go watch this Netflix series,” and they’re not even making that connection. I think it’s incumbent upon us to make that connection overtly. And for artists such as ourselves to reclaim the sacredness of art and the spiritual aspect and the fact that we’re dealing with the intangibles, we’re dealing with the “invisible grid of humanity,” as Carson says, that “other world” that we know through experience is there, but we haven’t been able to articulate. And this is what artists do, we’re able to reveal a little bit of a glimpse of that world and to reaffirm the sacredness of humanity.

I think the more we can reclaim that as artists, the more likely we are to position ourselves as contributors to a healthy, functioning community. That’s one of the reasons why I do what I do and why I have devoted my life to trying to develop myself as an artist and to help other artists develop themselves to, as Sherry was saying, to increase the craft, to get better at what we do. Because there are some very simple mechanical things that some of us are not very good at, [Laughter] and we can learn and increase our craft as well as expand our perception and our artistic sensibility. That’s what those of us who have chosen to work at or create organizations that contribute to the growth of artists just do. That’s the nurturing, the tilling of the soil. This is what we do, and it’s a very important role.

Chisa Hutchinson:  That is what we do. We are metaphoric people; we live on metaphors. I wanna give Guadalís the last word.

Guadalís Del Carmen:  Oh, no, so much pressure—the last word! [Laughter] 

Chisa Hutchinson:  I mean, no pressure, girl, no pressure.

Guadalís Del Carmen[Laughter] Well, just hearing everyone speaking and a lot of what Sherry is bringing up for me is—those of us who have been neglected space and have been kind of pushed to the margins, we’re the ones forging our own spaces for ourselves and others in our communities.

At Latinx Playwrights’ Circle, we give each other permission to be unapologetic in our work. A lot of times when people think of Latinx work or Latine work, it’s the undocumented story, you know? And that’s an experience of a group of people, but it’s not the full experience, right?

For us, it’s making sure whatever story you want to bring, however big, however epic, like, don’t think of what you’ve seen on stage as the criteria for you to create your work. Your imagination can create its own criteria for the work, and that’s really been our guiding light. We try to support artists who think big and are unapologetic about their work and don’t explain things. Like, if we write something in Spanish, the context will help you figure it out. We don’t need to translate, because we don’t walk around translating what we just said in Spanish, because you get it or you don’t, you know? And I think that’s a lot—you know, like, even code switching, the way that many of us have to survive in spaces and also being unapologetic about that. 

I just wanted to say that, because I feel like, especially for those of us that exist in bodies that have been historically marginalized—black and brown bodies, to be specific, say the thing, right, Sherry? [Laughter] 

S.M. Shephard-Massat:  Yep.

Guadalís Del Carmen:  When I think of artists like August Wilson, Lorraine Hansberry, and James Baldwin, there was such an unapologetic sense about their work. These are iconic writers that a lot of us will quote, but when it comes down to actually programming a season, we don’t see that unapologetic work reflected on stages. Also, when I’m looking at seasons, I’m wondering how we as people who have created space for others, how we can also create—not a pipeline—but some type of line for a lot of our playwrights to access these spaces and create genuine conversations about access and support.

So, that’s where I am as someone who is leading an organization, that’s where my team, as leaders, are also—that’s where we’re all at with our organization.

Chisa Hutchinson: I look forward to seeing all the work that you catapult into the world, whether the world is ready for it or not, damn it. [Laughter] 

Thank you so much for your time, your perspective, and the work that you do to help keep us going. We really need it, especially in times like this, when there’s just so much happening and who knows where the next opportunity is going to come from. Knowing that you all are out there carving out space for us to express ourselves is really encouraging, so thank you.  

Guadalís Del Carmen
Guadalís Del Carmen

(she/her/ella) is a playwright and screenwriter from Chicago, currently living in NYC. She’s an Ars Nova Resident Artist, Co-Artistic Director of the Latinx Playwrights Circle NYC, and a 2020 Steinberg Playwriting Award recipient. Her plays include Not For Sale, My Father’s Keeper, Bees and Honey, and Daughters of the Rebellion. She was a Co-Producer of Atlantic Theater Company’s African Caribbean MixFest 2021.

Carson Grace Becker
Carson Grace Becker

is an award-winning playwright, screenwriter, and arts educator. She earned her MFA in Playwriting from The University of Iowa, and her BA in English Literature and Women’s Studies from UCLA. Currently, she is the Artistic Director of Chicago Dramatists and adjunct professor at Columbia College Chicago. She has served as Literary Manager & Dramaturg at Honolulu Theatre for Youth and is the founder of the The Root & The Bloom Collective, a Humanities & Arts non-profit, housed at The Historic Clark Chateau in Butte, MT.  

MJ Kaufman
MJ Kaufman

’s work has been seen at the Public Theater, WP Theater, the New Museum, InterAct, Colt Coeur, NAATCO, and around the country as well as in Russia and Australia. They co-founded Trans Lab, a fellowship for TGNC artists. They like to bike, cook, and play with their dog Milkshake.

Ben Krywosz
Ben Krywosz

serves as artistic director of Nautilus Music-Theater in St Paul, MN. Serving as producer-director-dramaturg, his work includes curating their works-in-progress reading series, directing fully staged productions of new operas and musicals, teaching classes in performance skills, and facilitating Composer-Librettist Studios.

Amrita Ramanan
Amrita Ramanan

is a dramaturg and creative consultant who holds the values of anti-racism, anti-colonialism, equity, access, diversity, and inclusion at the core of her practice. She is currently the Core Apprentice Dramaturg at the Playwrights’ Center in Minneapolis, MN, providing mentorship and support to three incredible playwrights.

S.M. Shephard-Massat
S.M. Shephard-Massat

holds an MFA in Dramatic Writing from New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts where she was the Dean’s Fellow from 2007 to 2009, and an MA in Museum Studies from Johns Hopkins University. She has won numerous awards for her playwriting, including a Helen Hayes Award and an American Theater Critic’s Roger L. Stevens Award from the Kennedy Center, been published, produced, and featured in both American Theatre magazine and The New York Times. She is the founder of TERTULIA, a new Black playwright’s initiative located in Atlanta, GA.

Chisa Hutchinson
Chisa Hutchinson

has written a bunch of plays, most recently a radio drama called Redeemed that you can listen to on Apple Podcasts (hint-hint). She’s won a bunch of awards and all that’s cool and good, but mostly she just wants to figure out how to cure racism with words.