Doug Ward on Artistic Directing

As I think I have indicated before over the years I have been taping my conversations with Doug concerning various aspects of his function or functions at the NEC. This session was taped in the Spring of 1995 while I was on sabbatical from Arizona State University and living in New York.

Doug Ward:  – On Artistic Directing

GE: You have been the Artistic Director of the NEC for nearly 20 years now. I remember that we talked about this before but I forget because I wasn’t taping anything then, but what did you tell me about how you go about selecting plays for the season?

DTW: Well, first I look at what our budget can support, then I look at the works that I have available to me. And there’s always a lot to choose from because almost from the day we opened our doors plays have been coming in from all over the place hoping to get produced, hoping to get a reading by at least. And I’m not talking about your garden variety say conventional plays but some exciting, adventurous stuff in style and form and content. I read them and try to figure out how programmatically they fit into our season in terms of like I said budget and resource. But let me say this, black theatre has the most vital and varied body of theatre works by that I mean plays of any place. The problem is we can’t do them all. So people get upset and say; “Oh the NEC turned down my play for thus and such reason which always is something they made up or think they perceive. But the truth is just the opposite. I mean sure we get plays that are incomplete or unfocused or not good in any acceptable sense. But I’m not talking about those. I’m talking about the good stuff, the provocative stuff. We just don’t have the means to do them all. We more often than not hardly have the means to do the ones we select.  What people forget is that we generally can only do 4 plays per season, sometimes even less. This is one of the reasons we do things like sit down readings, staged readings and workshop presentations where we the work is staged in a skeletal way. It was in the hope that other theatres would pick up the ball and produce some of these plays.

GE: And have they?

DTW: In most cases no. Occasionally I’ll hear of one getting done in some community theatre out of town or out of the state but hardly ever here in New York.

GE: Why do you think that is?

DTW: I don’t know and couldn’t say exactly. But it just goes to show how underrepresented the black voice is in our so called mainstream theatre, which is the reason why we started the NEC in the first place. Our intention wasn’t to be the only game in town but to start the ball rolling where you would have other black theatres and white theatres too doing collectively an intelligent percentage of the worthwhile black plays that are out there.

GE: I want to go back to the original intent of my question. I think it had to do with the aesthetic of what informs your choices. I was riding in a car with a black theatre academic in California about six months ago and she was trying to articulate what was the black aesthetic in theatre. I wasn’t quite sure what to tell her but I thought you might have some ideas.

DTW: If you’re asking about what informs my choice let me just say that I have no rigidly, academic or intellectual notion as to what I look for in a play when I read it. The first thing I ask myself is; “Does it hold my interest.” Because if it doesn’t then the fucking thing is boring and not worthy of consideration. I don’t care lofty or worthy the ideas it contains are or how it politically it subscribes to whatever it is we are championing right now. Boring is boring and that’s all there is to it. Now a lot of what I look for in a play comes out of my instinct as a writer. But, and I emphasize this, it doesn’t have to be like something I might have written. In fact it almost never is. But my instinct has to tell me that there is something there. Something worth developing, something worth producing for the audience to witness and enjoy… And of course there are the criteria standards of craft and uniqueness that have to be met. What I’m saying Gus is that this is an artistic medium that has its own rules. And one of those is that it has to be able to keep the audience engaged for the duration. So when I look at a play I look for something that says to me “This is a playwright with a unique vision or perspective as well as voice. Hell, everything we see has been stated and stated over and over again down through the centuries. So there is nothing really new or original in terms of subject matter. But in the manner so expressing it, yes.  And sometimes a writer will bring a new insight or a fresh view of it that hasn’t been seen or heard before. And that’s what I look for in a play and a playwright as well. A voice that’s original and unique that coupled with craft can create, at least on paper, something that’s compelling. Then the rest is up to us production wise to see that it carries over on stage.

But your question is narrow in scope because that isn’t all that goes into being an Artistic Director. It isn’t just the selection of plays and seeing them through to production. There are a whole lot of other things involved as well.

GE: Such as?

DTW: Well what I mentioned before, budget. You can’t, me or any other Artistic Director, we can’t select four let’s say 25 character plays just because we have that many on our desks and they’re all excellent. There has to be a balance from an aesthetic perspective and from a budgetary one too. Also the size of the theatre comes into play as well. For instance when I selected The Brownsville Raid for production I knew that we couldn’t do it at the St Marks. We didn’t have the stage space for a military type play of this size with all those men marching around and shit. So I had to see about renting another space and how that rental cost would impact on our budget for the season. So that’s one example.   

Now, as Artistic Director I set out to do text theatre for one reason, because it is transferable. It can be duplicated, it can be transferred, entered into and revived and re-experienced. But saying that doesn’t mean that I’m talking about freezing a play into a rigid, unbreakable mold. Yes, on one level a text play is frozen but it can be re-thawed constantly and repeated with new actors, new interpretations and what have you. And this wasn’t important in terms of just my own choice. This was important for where Black Theatre was at the time. We needed a body of work that could disseminate itself into the environment. And I think you have to agree that has been done to some degree.

GE: Yes, I would.

DTW: But you asked something about selecting the plays I think.

GE: Yes, I did. What is your process? What is it that attracts you to a play and makes you want to do it? Do you know what it is?

DTW: No, I couldn’t put it in concrete terms because it shifts, it changes. Generally speaking something sparks and engages my interest. But it’s hard for me to define because you have to remember that I wound up directing almost a third of the plays we did. And I directed them out of necessity for a variety of reasons mostly having to do with our finances. But it was more than that. You see Gus, when you’re the Artistic Director there are considerations that take you further beyond just the subjective excitement. I mean you read a play and you say to yourself that this is the play that playwright had to write. I can feel that he or she had to write it. There’s an urgency there, and that coupled with talent and craft tell me that this is a play that needs to be done. That needs to be exposed to the public.  You do this for a while and you’re creating a body of work that can be disseminated, produced and taught.    

And it contributes to the health of the art as well. Because once the work is out there published and produced people can’t come along and pretend that these works don’t exist. Much as they sometimes don’t want to, they have to acknowledge that progress have been made, works have been created. So since they (the writers) can’t repeat what’s been said they’re going to have to come up with something different or new. And that’s healthy for the art, that’s healthy for any art.

GE: Last year we talked about the possibility of putting together a collection of “Cutting edge” plays that the NEC had done. Can we talk about that a little bit?

DTW: In what way?

GE: What would you consider to be some of the “cutting edge” plays done during your time as Artistic Director?

DTW: Let me say this Gus, the entire NEC body of work could all be considered to be cutting edge in so many ways. We were innovating in so many different ways just by being autonomous by selection the plays that were concentrating 100% on black life in some form creatively in the theatre. So in that sense the whole body of work could be considered “cutting edge”….But from the beginning I always knew that I wanted a variety of expression of black creativity in theatre through the presentation and interpretation of scripts. And I always knew, as you know, that the black experience in America to me is a national experience. I mean just numerically, black people comprise some 30 million or more of the population of this country.  Thirty million strong, that’s more than damn near two thirds of the nations on the globe. And our particular experience historically and everything else by being both inside the mainstream culture, being deeply embedded in it and at the same time being outside of it. By being marginalized within that culture. All of these peculiarities developed a national culture that is in a sense unique because of, as I said, being inside and outside more or less at the same time.

Gus, what you have here is something similar to the Irish experience. The only difference is that the English colonized them within their own territory. Where with us they brought us out of our original homeland and colonized us, more or less, on new soil. Other than that we were basically two people who in many ways, were usurped by history and the original invaders. Just as Ireland was invaded and occupied to a certain extent and then controlled by the British. So all of that meant to me is that it created a wide range of expression among us in relation to our experience in the world…. So from that standpoint my desire to be various in selection material and training myself to recognize both what was good in theatre of what was submitted to me in scripts, while at the same time recognizing what was good in different things. By that I mean writing, theatre writing from different cultures with the same kind of outsider/insider status and wanting to show the breadth of expression that led to my particular choices. The bottom line of course being that they had to be good theatre. Because as you’ve heard me say so often, a bad play is by its very nature is counter revolutionary.

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