From October 2022 through March 2023, The Drama League’s International Directors Summit brought together ten of the world’s most exciting stage directors online to explore the changing nature of the theatrical art form in this time. Participants included Maksima Boeva (Bulgaria), Avto Diasamidze (Georgia), Natalie Ester (Romania), Dima Levitskiy (Ukraine), Stefan Prohorov (Bulgaria), Lisa Rothe (United States), Anna Smolar (Poland), and Mei Ann Teo (United States), as well as Drama League artistic leaders Gabriel Stelian-Shanks (Artistic Director), Nilan (Associate Artistic Director), Andrew Coopman (Artistic Coordinator); European coordinators Kalina Wagenstein (Bulgaria) and Giorgi Toradze (Georgia); and Drama League Directors Project alumnus Gwynn MacDonald, who served as Summit Facilitator. The participants gathered to share their experiences creating theater at home and abroad, and investigating how the discipline of stage direction may change given the overlapping global challenges of climate change, economic uncertainty, global pandemics, and reemergent authoritarianism.
The goal of the summit was to better articulate the central issues impacting the work of directors in a variety of cultural experiences, especially given rapid changes to rehearsal, casting, and production. By sharing questions, challenges, and experiences, Summit participants developed best practices to be amplified to the global artistic community. Through discussion, participants connected, advanced global understanding, and brought collective expertise to their pursuit of a more inclusive, accessible, and resilient global theater industry, reimagining and rediscovering the director’s role in cultural citizenship and artistic cross-pollination along the way.
What follows is excerpts from a peer to peer interview between Drama League Associate Artistic Director Nilan and Directors Summit Coordinator Gwynn MacDonald, reflecting on the 2022-2023 International Directors Summit. (Transcripts of other sessions are available at the festival website.)
Nilan: With so much going on within the borders of the U.S., I’m sure some would ask “Why International Exchange? Why look outside our home when there is so much to do here?” To which I say, “When we leave our home, we are called to examine the lessons we carry with us while we pick up new skills from strangers along the way.” It’s how we learn and grow. From my years of training and working abroad and returning home to the U.S., the lesson that is always true is there is another way.
Gwynn MacDonald: You’re saying that helped you pinpoint what the issues were and how they might translate beyond regional borders?
N: Honestly, what it did was stop me from romanticizing everything. My time abroad made me think about more than my intersectionalities—male, Black, homosexual. It required me to look at the totality of self. The totality of my country. It made me a better American. That’s the biggest point of international work: to see through your neighbor’s eyes. It made me want to defend—or change!—their perception. It gave me tools to craft and weave stories that aren’t practiced at home. . . .
The International Exchange began with the sincere hope of introducing U.S. artists to art-makers beyond their borders, connecting humans of like interests. It has since turned into an exchange of practice, craft, and conversation around what artists can do for each other and their audiences. It has supported over 112 stage directors and arts leaders, 12 living playwrights, 26 productions, 168 actors, 19 collaborating organizations, and over 500,000 audience members across Belarus, Bulgaria, China, France, Georgia, Macedonia, Poland, Romania, Slovenia, Ukraine, and the United States. Watching the cultural effects of sharing the art form of the American musical with artists and audiences outside of the US has been one of my personal highlights of the program.
GM: Speaking of the American musical, when I was in Cuba during Trump’s inauguration, directing a one-woman Nina Simone play, I was asked as a visiting artist to teach something. So I taught an introduction to the American musical. And I have to say, it felt so good to be able to share something so positive that represents us. Not just the genre, but the history of how, why, and by whom the American musical came about. Since we had just elected Trump, I felt like the American musical was a gift reflecting the better side of the U.S.
N: Joy is the best resistance. . . .
I want to talk a bit about the inspiration for the International Directors Summit. The idea of it came to Gabriel Stelian-Shanks, our artistic director, and me once we saw the American theater trying to “get back to business.” We witnessed new burdens dropped at the feet of directors and wondered if this was occurring exclusively in the U.S. or on a global scale. We thought, “This is the perfect time not to practice our old habits. This is the perfect time to see what others in the world are doing to be better.”
GM: I thought it was extraordinary that you all were tackling such big topics, like authoritarianism, climate change, and sustainability, to name a few. . . . When I would tell people about this project, they also were kind of awestruck that we would attempt to build a summit around “impossible problems.” It was like, “What does climate change have to do with the future of directing?” But actually, it turns out that directors have not only an enormous amount to say about these big issues, but also ways to address them in and through our work. The Drama League has, in its very forward-thinking way, acknowledged that directors have skills and a platform that can be exercised in the service of dealing with our current and future challenges. Storytelling has that power.
I was talking to the head of the ACLU a month ago, asking for help identifying a speaker for a post-show discussion series for a play on immigration that Elena Araoz of the Drama League Directors Council directed. And I was saying to him that, even though it wasn’t a huge house, I thought it was a really important show, because right now we’ve got to counteract the misleading stories of immigrants and immigration that are shaping our national attitudes and policy. And he said—and he was not a literature major—that narrative change is key to making progress on pretty much every social issue.
N: How quickly the Summit participants united to practice democracy in its purest form! There were as many disagreements as there were agreements. “Respectful disagreement” was a term that was thrown around a lot. It was a reflection of a healthy society for all.
GM: … I didn’t see one disagreement in terms of goals, but I did see many, as you said, points of view on how to achieve those goals.
You brought up climate change. For me, surprisingly, as a director and person, that was the most important session. . . .
N: That was the first time it felt like we got vulnerable together. Theater artists are so used to fixing things, but in that discussion, I watched a bunch of theater artists feel powerless and then begin to admit, “I don’t know what to do,” and then decide whether they even wanted to participate at all. Fear came into the room so quickly. A fear of uselessness that I believe our audiences share around the subject too.
GM: You know what I think sums up what you’re saying starkly is Dima [Levitskiy], who’s in Ukraine, saying “There’s not time to convince somebody, it’s time to act. We need to treat climate change like a war.” I thought if he’s invoking war while he’s living through one, then to me that’s the final word. You can’t get more real than that.
What was the session that meant the most to you?
N: I’d say the session where we discussed authoritarianism. . . . And I still think there’s so much more we could have covered in it. I was concerned that we all went to the government, rules and regulation, borders, but we didn’t go to the audience.
GM: You mean, in terms of self-censorship [of theatrical content]?
N: I’m saying, who has the control? Whose sensibilities do we actually cater to? Our own or the audiences? Whose money do we need?
GM: You’re saying it’s the audience that dictates what goes up on stage.
N: I’m suggesting that we look at our choices, because the audience will choose comfort every time. We all did, especially during the pandemic.
GM: You have a dim view of the audience.
N: I have an honest view of the audience, because I am the audience when I’m not the creator. I don’t think a story alone will save anyone right now. I think an event will save us. What am I attending? That’s the selling point. That’s the director’s work.
GM: Just to play a little bit of devil’s advocate…I was just going to say, NASCAR has been the number one [U.S.] cultural event for, you know… forever. I guess the thing that I’m snagging on in what you just said is, first of all, I don’t think the audience is monolithic. I don’t know about the idea that we’re shaping audience taste. Do you stand by that statement?
N: That’s what artists do. It’s the philosophy behind that line from Devil Wears Prada, which I’ll paraphrase: “I told you to wear cerulean blue and you wore it and didn’t know I told you.” We told them to care about the Founding Fathers again because of Hamilton, and they did even though they didn’t care about civics in ninth grade. Are we using that tool actively? Because it’s a dangerous tool to use passively. Ask any artist who lived under Soviet rule. They know the tools of the artist have to be welded with precision to be effective.
GM: That’s gotta be thoughtfully done, with directors educated about these problems. …
N: I agree with you there.
GM: And I do actually agree with you about audience taste. One of the first times that The New York Times reviewed a play I directed or produced, the marketing people got a copy of the review and blew it up on a giant poster board and put it up in the lobby. I asked them, “Why are we spending money on this? If they’re reading this review in the lobby, they’ve already bought a ticket!” And someone said to me, “Because they need to be told how to hear this play.”
I’d like to say, because we were audience members before we were directors, that we have to trust the audience, that every show is a collaboration with the audience, and not just every production, but every performance, and that we mutually–both audience and artistic team–arrive at something—a moment, an evening, a thought—that we wouldn’t have had if we hadn’t encountered each other through this play.
N: . . . Everyone’s having an issue with their audience, with trying to get people to come back to the theater. . . . Avto Diasamidze, a Georgian director, talked about how they made it bourgeoisie, they raised the prices, and now the seats are filling up because they’re playing class warfare. It’s brilliant and sad all at once.
GM: You’re reminding me of a number of times when something came up that surprised me, and for me that thing was ethics. The way directors were talking about ethical practice and ethical work surprised me. I think Avto mentioned ethics.
N: Directors are burdened by ethics right now. When Lisa Rothe, a U.S. director, talked about how beautiful it was to cast a diverse show, only to not have enough money for understudies and have the show go down. . . . I get so many emails about helping with casting of The African Mean Girls Play by Jocelyn Bioh. I think, “You already knew you didn’t have any African women in that city, and you already knew you didn’t have enough money to fly all the actresses in, but that outweighed your concern of being called racist for not doing a piece with lots of BIPOC individuals in it.”
GM: . . . Do you feel like U.S. directors are talking about ethics in the same way as in other places?
N: Yes and no. I am Black and gay. Do I only work on things that are Black and gay? No. That makes no sense—as if I don’t understand the plights of my non-Black and non-gay friends too. I’m watching U.S. artists practice segregation to not be called problematic. Natalie Ester, a Romanian director, emphasized the lack of BIPOC individuals in Romania that keeps artists from working on more diverse projects. Both Romania and the U.S. are noticing that diversity is a problem, but their concerns are different.
GM: This cultural moment… I understand it, I don’t rail against it, but I worry about what happens if the pendulum doesn’t go to a smarter, more elevated place soon. You know me, I’m under four feet tall, so are you telling me I can’t direct anything but The Wizard of Oz? And my colleagues of color, why haven’t they been asked to direct Chekhov or Marsha Norman? Once you’re in adulthood and you’ve lived a rich and varied life, I don’t think what I believe are superficial differences should suddenly bring down the whole premise of theater! I think Toni Morrison said “sometimes the difference is all the difference there is.” And Thornton Wilder called theater “the most immediate way in which a human being can share with another the sense of what it is to be a human being.” That is why we do art, especially theater: because it transcends physicality, culture, nationality.
N: It’s everyone’s problem, but directors are carrying the load right now. They are first in the room. They have so much to navigate. How does one make the best choice given all the pressure?
GM: Directors are the ones who are supposed to hold up the mirror to the world. And one of the things that drives me crazy about the U.S. is that we are so politically unsophisticated. We don’t think critically. We throw words around like socialism or critical race theory . . . .
N: And right now, drag and trans rights.
GM: Right. And if you ask any of the people who are the most vociferous at any given moment, they have no idea what they’re actually saying. They don’t know the meaning or history of the terms they bandy about. In so many ways, we’ve lost the importance and appreciation of nuance. Social media has contributed to that. And that’s something theater can retrain us in, because I think we fundamentally recognize truth when we see it. We may not know the word nuance, it may not be on the tip of our tongues, but we know it implicitly. And when you see it on stage, you don’t need an explanation for the text or the subtext. You implicitly understand that there’s more than what’s on the surface. That’s the critical view we need of politicians, political rhetoric.
N: I think when folks read the Summit transcripts, they’ll understand that innate bonding between directors over nuance.
GM: I think we all had to put nuance into practice with what Dima’s experiencing as a director living in Ukraine. It’s life and death for him. He’s on the front lines of war. There’s no nuance there but the group having to navigate the difference between his reality and ours at this moment, that was interesting to me. We wanted to acknowledge what he’s going through and express solidarity without making him feel like he was under a microscope or in the spotlight. I can’t read the headlines these days without thinking of him. . . .
N: I hope telling the world that this program exists encourages people to reach out. I hope directors from other countries want to join us in conversation.
GM: During the Summit, you all kept saying “globalist.” “What does it mean to live and work in a global milieu?” To that point, there wasn’t a single issue that came up that didn’t affect every single participant. I think that’s going to only become more and more the case as time goes on and we see these issues’ impact and influence on our work. Now is the time to really figure out how we can make our work (process and product) relevant for challenging times ahead. I think directors are used to looking at things from different angles. . . .
N: I want to offer a huge thank you to the 2022-2023 International Directors Summit participants, coordinators, and The Trust for Mutual Understanding for helping to make this program happen. Thank you. It takes a lot to speak up in a space like this. Everyone has been so generous with their ideas and time. I hope everyone checks out our website, dramaleague.org, for more information on the Summit and The Drama League’s other programming.
GM: We can’t stay in our silos, nationally or identity-wise.