On Inclusion in Season Planning: A Conversation with TOTL Artistic Curator Isaac Gomez
Season planning is a vital curating process for a theater company that constantly forces them to ask themselves “Who are we” “What stories are we interested in” and “Who is our theater for”. As we make more steps towards Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion (EDI), on stage and in casting – we still see a wider parity gap in EDI in the playwrights/ directors/ designers that are involved in a season. We talk with Isaac Gomez, this year’s TOTL artistic curator, on how he curated this season, and his thoughts on inclusion in season planning.
How do you address that fear that artistic directors often have in pleasing their subscribers while balancing their company's artistic needs while also reflecting our city's landscape of diverse audiences and artists?
Isaac: I think there are many artistic directors out there with huge hearts who want more
than anything to do the right thing without really knowing where to begin. There are various places artistic leadership can start, and no step is a wrong step, but programming is always good place to begin. Take a look at the vision and mission of your company. And ask yourself, again and again, how or in what ways has this yet to be explored? Are you an ensemble-driven company? Then who is on your ensemble and more importantly, who isn't? Are you a company committed to producing new plays? What new plays are you producing and which one's aren't you? Why or why not? It's up to artistic leadership to push the growing edge of the vision and mission of their companies to ensure that any and every exploration of that vision is being challenged and explored. Some audiences will follow, many will not, but trust in the truth that from this, new audiences will come. And if you nurture them in the spirit of transparency and kindness, they will follow you on your journey. Change doesn't come easy and rarely comes without sacrifice but with persistence and resilience the results of large changes often outweigh the losses. You're never going to please everyone. So pick a place to begin and go from there. Trust your gut and use fear to push you, head-strong, into the next new thing.
How did you go about curating this summer's TOTL? Take us through your process.
Isaac: Curating Theater on the Lake very much mirrors how someone would curate a
season at a theater -- because that's exactly what this is. Only difference is that seeing a lot of shows is very much a part of the journey. I think I see around 100 shows a year, if not more, and I try to see shows that have not only been endorsed by critics and institutions, but shows at theaters who have been producing work in the South and West sides of the city by companies who have been around as long as many of Chicago's staples, if not longer. There's so much happening around the city, and so much of it goes unseen, which is the fun part about Theater on the Lake as a concept. It gives companies that second chance, with a huge platform and opportunity to recruit and grow audiences who might not have thought to see anything outside of "Chicago's Top Ten Shows" and so on. So I see a lot. And I keep a running list of shows that catch my eye and attention in various ways.
I start with my gut. How did I feel after watching the show? I have to tell you, even the smallest productions with such minimal production value never ceases to blow me away. What is it about the storytelling that drives it home for me? Who are these people on stage and how do I connect wit them? Why? If a show sticks with me after two or three days of me seeing it, if I find myself telling someone about it or deconstructing it for myself when I'm taking a shower (where I do my best thinking), it's on my list. Is this show doing something different or unique that I haven't seen before and challenges the art form or pushes it in unexpected directions? It's on my list. Is this show doing something that Chicago audiences celebrate: a riveting ensemble, stories reflective of the people of this city, stories that ask hard questions without easy answers, relentless storytelling in its comedy, drama, other-worldliness? It's on my list.
By the time I have to narrow down what the season is gonna look like, I've got like 40 or 50 shows. It's here where the curation process starts to get, well, curatorial. I look at TOTL's production history. Who's had a seat at the table before? Is it time to make room for a company who has never been at TOTL? What about our contemporary context? What's happening in this city and this country that a show is speaking to directly? Interrogating head-on? Asking audiences to think deeper and harder about? And then, as subjective as it might be, what about sheer must see value? What shows do I fervently believe, for one reason or another, have to have another life. Not could have, but must have. That's definitely determined on a show-by-show basis. Then, I take a look at what I've got left. Usually 10 or 15. And I start looking at the makeup of the creative team, of the ensembles, of the company and piece the whole thing together. What combination of shows tells us a story? What combination of shows reflects the people, values, and art-making of this city? What combination of shows says: this is Chicago theater?
Why do you think we keep seeing EDI (equity, diversity, and inclusion) on stage (in casting) more than in the production team (playwright/ director/ designers)?
Isaac: I think there are two reasons. I think the first is that casting is often the lower-hanging ruit
of the parts of a production process when it comes to representation. Not to mention the amount of pressure many producers are facing in the wake of problematic casting practices in this city and nation. The next is that I think many producers aren't as familiar of works written by and/or directed by artists of color -- I hear this a lot. Not because they don't want to be, but because there has been a system setup that has largely and historically kept people of color out of the line of site of producers who are looking to invest in more diverse artists. We are the company we keep, right? So if the artists you largely surround yourself with (friends, collaborators, colleagues) are predominately white, those are the folks who immediately (and subconsciously) come to mind when looking for a new playwright or director to invest in. Same goes for designers. So how do we fix this? Well, it's about seeing more shows. It's about investing the time and energy to seek and see works happening with theaters of color, with storefront companies who largely support artists of color, with companies and artists producing works in the South and West sides of the city, and so on. And it's about taking that risk. That leap of faith that says, "I know you've been directing/writing in storefronts for a long time. And I know you've still got a lot to learn. But I see potential, and I'm willing to invest in that potential, and I'm willing to stick my neck out with you and see you through to the finish line because I believe in you."
You read about 5,062 scripts an hour -- what stands out for you either in form or narrative, that leads you to pursue that writer more?
Isaac: I'm always interested and excited by writers who are writing from personal places. Who,
in their writing, are unafraid to delve into the deep darkness of memory, of trauma, of life experiences and have found a way to translate that to the page with nuance, subtly, and truth in their characters and the places their characters live. In my own writing, that's where I come from and in the writing I am always blown away by, this is often the case. And then, of course, I'm drawn to writers who are telling stories I've never heard before. And writers who are telling it in ways I've never seen or read before as well.
Leah Raidt (Jo) Reginald Robinson Jr. (Jason) and Genevieve VenJohnson (Amelia) - photo by Emily Williams
Please tell us a little about Dirty Butterfly, the show that's going on right now at Theater on the Lake...What excited you about this piece and why did you put it in the season?
Isaac: Oh man. dirty butterfly is a wild roller coaster ride of a play. Penned by the prolific
Debbie Tucker Green (Sideshow just did a production of her Truth and Reconciliation earlier this year), dirty butterfly is a play about how sex and violence sparks a neighbor's curiosity, but ultimately examines how that kind of curiosity is a greater reflection of the monsters that live within us instead. It's an all-too familiar world, with quick dialogue that reads like secrets, and a relentless heartbeat of people trying to get to the truth of who they are and why they are. I can't wait for Chicago audiences to experience this new play. The Blind Owl is a fairly new-ish company in Chicago, never before seen at Theater on the Lake, with a stellar cast lead by Azar Kazemi's brilliant direction. I remember seeing this show in the dead of winter, sloshing around in freshly fallen snow, in the performance space of a church, and leaving more alive than I've felt in a long, long time. Come experience that feeling with me.
Isaac Gomez is a writer and dramaturg currently working as the Director of New Play Development at Victory Gardens Theater in Chicago where he curates the Public Programs series, directs the new play development department, and heads the IGNITION Festival of New Plays.
As playwright: La Ruta (Goodman Theatre's Latina/o Theatre Celebration, Oregon Shakespeare Festival Latino Play Project; Austin Critics Table New Play Award 2013; Pivot Arts Incubator Series); The Displaced (Chicago Dramatists - Workshop, American Theater Company - CORE Workshop, ALTA Chicago - Workshop, Definition Theater Company - Workshop); The Way She Spoke (World premiere - Greenhouse Theater Center); PerKup Elkhorn (Chicago Dramatists – Workshop) As dramaturg: Hand to God, The House that Will Not Stand, Cocked, The Who & The What, Samsara, Death and the Maiden, Rest (VGT, Chicago); My Mañana Comes, Between You, Me, and the Lampshade (Teatro Vista, Chicago);The Hairy Ape, good friday (Oracle Productions); Badfic Love (Strange Bedfellows, Chicago); Support Group for Men, florissant & canfielf (Goodman Theatre New Stages).He is the Co-Creative Director at the Alliance of Latinx Theatre Artists in Chicago where he runs and is a participant of El Semillero: ALTA Chicago's Latino Playwrights Circle, a Resident Playwright at Chicago Dramatists, an Artistic Associate of Teatro Vista, a steering committee member of the Latina/o Theatre Commons (LTC) and an artistic community member at The Hypocrites in Chicago.