AAPEX Interview: Jacqueline Lawton — AAPEX Interview , Jacqueline Lawton , Jewell Robinson — AAPEX

Sunday, March 18, 2012

AAPEX Interview: Jacqueline Lawton

Jaqueline Lawton

Interview with Jacqueline Lawton by Jaz Dorsey

Washington DC based freelance dramaturg Jacqueline Lawton has had the kind of career that might make up many a dramaturg's fantasies and daydreams. Her artistic and administrative adventures in our nation's capital have allowed her to work with such legendary theatre companies as Woolly Mammoth, Arena Stage, African Continuum Theatre, Theater of the First Amendment, and the John F.Kennedy Center, to name but a few. She lists some 30 productions on which she has served as production and new play development dramaturg over the past decade, and from the stunning spectrum of activities on her CV, she is also clearly a serious force in the DC theatre community.

In addition to that, I have discovered that as a playwright Jacqueline has made a major contribution to the materials that we so urgently need to investigate and better understand the history of the African American contribution to the theatre.

Thanks to another fabulous DC lady, Jewell Robinson, who is the Director of Public Programs at The National Portrait Gallery, Jacqueline was commissioned to create a work for the stage based on the life of 19th century Shakespearean actor Ira Aldridge, who rose from the ashes of the African Grove Theatre to an astounding career that made him a sensation in England and Europe and ended with his death in Poland.

AAPEX will have more to say about Aldridge, who we choose as our muse for 2012, but right now I'd like to introduce everyone to Jacqueline Lawton:

What role did theatre and the arts play in your childhood and upbringing?
Theater and the arts have always been a part of my life thanks to my mother’s love of MGM movie musicals. Amazing artists like Judy Garland, Gene Kelly,Debbie Reynolds, Fred Astaire, Ginger Rogers, Bing Crosby, and Danny Kaye taught me the ins and outs of show business. I’d watch these movies over and over again. I learned the songs, dance steps, and dreamed of one day becoming a performer. I read Shakespeare before I learned it was hard to read. I wrote plays to entertain my family, especially my younger sister. Also, my mother had these amazing craft books. My sister and I made decorations, puppets, and costumes based on different holidays, fairy tales, and traditions. We didn’t dress up for Halloween, but a part of our Thanksgiving tradition was to make costumes, sing made-up songs and act out little made-up plays. In elementary school, we took field trips to see plays at the local civic center. The first professional play I remember seeing was Jack and the Beanstalk. I fell in love with the Harp. My family remains incredibly supportive of my theater career.

Tell us about your own evolution as an artist.
In Junior High and High School, I continued to write and found opportunities to perform through UIL Poetry Interpretation and One Act Play Competitions. In college and graduate school at the University of Texas at Austin, I studied theater, playwriting, solo performance, performance studies and screenwriting with Amparo Garcia Crow, Jill Dolan, Fran Dorn, Ruth Margraff, and Suzan Zeder. Each of these women encouraged me to find my voice and tell my stories. I was also a part of The Austin Project, a writing group comprised of women artists, activists,and scholars and led by Sharon Bridgforth and Joni Jones. It was a deeply profound and lasting experience that taught me how theater could be used as a tool for social justice. During grad school, I traveled to Europe (Dublin, Ireland and Venice, Italy) to write and participated in the Kennedy Center’s Playwrights’ Intensive (2002) and World Interplay (2003). At the Kennedy Center, I met the fabulous Gregg Henry and a whole slew of professional directors, designers, actors, and playwrights. From them, I learned firsthand what was possible for me. At World Interplay, I was introduced to performance styles and traditions from around the world. It was amazing and cracked opened my world view! After graduating with an MFA in Playwriting in 2003, I made my way to the east coast seeking adventure and wanting to be a part of an artistic community. In 2005, I did an internship in Literary Management and Dramaturgy at Woolly Mammoth Theater Company and learned how to be a dramaturg from Mary Resing. From there, I worked at the Folger Shakespeare Library and Arena Stage, where I began working as a teaching artist. As far as who I'll be in the future, I see myself growing, traveling and pushing myself beyond who I am right now. I envision myself prolific, writing plays and continuing to work in the theatre, contributing to the magic that happens in every performance.

When and how did you discover Ira Aldridge and what has your journey with him been?
Ira Aldridge is a much lauded and highly celebrated 19th century Shakespearean actor. He was born in America in 1807 and began performing at the African Grove Theatre. In 1833, he made his London stage debut, toured all over Europe and Russia, and is the only black stage actor honored with a bronze plaque at the Shakespeare Memorial Theatre at Stratford-upon-Avon. He is an absolute legend. However, very little is known about him, owing to racial prejudice of the time period. I was first introduced to Ira Aldridge in college and learned more when I began teaching at Montgomery College and the University of the District of Columbia. Then, in the spring of 2010, Jewell Robinson, the Director of Public Programs for the National Portrait Gallery (NPG), commissioned me to write a play about Ira Aldridge for NPG’s Culture in Motion Series*. I give great thanks to director and playwright, Jennifer L. Nelson, who recommended me for the gig! With Ira Aldridge: The African Roscius, I chose to the tell Aldridge’s story from the point of view of his daughter, Amanda, who was a professional singer,composer and teacher. Ira Aldridge died before she was born, so all she had of him were diary entries, photographs, theater reviews, his guitar, and letters. My absolutely favorite letter was written to Ira from his son, Ira Daniel, an excerpt of which reads: “My Dear Papa, - Mamma is not very well today. Dr. Popham was here on Monday last to see her. We are very dull without you. Mamma and I send our best love and kisses, and I remain your affectionate son, Ira Daniel Aldridge" The post script, which always touches my heart, reads: "I send kisses for you, Papa. Send us some, don’t forget.” It’s a remarkable story of a great man who began his life as a poor boy from Lower Manhattan and emerged as one of the world’s finest artists. Avery Brooks, a celebrated Shakespearean actor in his own right, played Ira Aldridge and Jewell Robinson played his daughter Amanda Aldridge. The play was presented twice at the National Portrait Gallery in collaboration with the National Museum of African American History and Culture. Recently, it was presented as part of the Savannah Black Heritage Festival at Armstrong Atlantic State University. My hope is that we can continue presenting it at colleges and universities throughout the Unites States.

What are your thoughts on DC as a theatre town?
DC is a diverse, talented, vibrant, and passionate theater town! Yes, we struggle with sustaining funding for our artistic institutions as other cities have in this current economy. We struggle with presenting racial and gender parity on our stages. We struggle as local playwrights to see our plays staged.Yet, for all that, I've been working nonstop since moving here in 2006. I’ve worked as a freelance dramaturg, playwright and teaching artist and even as an actor, director and producer on occasion. As playwrights, we’re surrounded by brilliant and ambitious theater artists and arts administrators who are committed to working on new plays. For instance, in 2008, Active Cultures, a Maryland based company that creates locally-based worked for a multicultural and multigenerational audience, commissioned and produced my play Mad Breed. The next year, under the auspices of the Hegira, I produced a workshop production of Anna K as part of Round House Theatre's Silver Spring Series and co-produced Deep Belly Beautiful as part of the Mead Theater Lab at Flashpoint. Last year, my play, Love Brothers Serenade, received a reading at the Kennedy Center's annual Page-to-Stage new play festival and then received a workshop and reading at Howard University. This year, Theater J, one of the nation's premiere Jewish theater companies, commissioned me to write, The Hampton Years as part of their Locally Grown Festival. What's more, the audiences in DC are diverse, savvy and intellectual; where better to grow and develop your plays! Living here for the past 8 years has been an amazing experience!

*Ira Aldridge:The African Roscius was commissioned by the Cultures in Motion Program of the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery. The Portrait Gallery tells American history through the individuals who have built our national culture, using the visual arts, the performing arts and the new media. Established by an act of Congress in 1962, the Portrait Gallery opened to the public in 1968. The museum’s collection of more than 20,000 works ranges from paintings and sculpture to photographs and drawings. Cultures in Motion is the National Portrait Gallery’s performing arts series. Broad in scope, the series is designed to educate, entertain, and promote mutual understanding of the diverse cultures that make up both the NPG collection and the mosaic of American heritage. The series uses the medium of portrayal to interpret the lives of the sitter via theater, music, and the literary and visual arts. The script for Ira Aldridge: The African Roscius was commissioned by the Marc Pachter Fund for Commissioning and was originally produced in collaboration with the National Museum of African American History and Culture. As Director of Public Programs at the National Portrait Gallery, Jewell Robinson conceives, writes, produces, and occasionally performs in the Cultures in Motion series, where in her twenty year tenure she has produced over 100 original programs about the sitters in the Portrait Gallery collection. A professional actress, Robinson has worked in New York, Japan, and at virtually every professional theater in the Washington region. She has received three Helen Hayes nominations for her work as an actress; in 2001 she received the Helen Hayes Award for her work in the Arena Stage production of Blue and New York’s Audelco Award for the Grammercy Theatre’s (Roundabout) production of the same show. In addition to being a recipient of the Mary Goldwater award for the body of her work as an actress, she is also the proud recipient of an honorary doctor of humane letters degree from her alma mater, Goucher College, for her contributions to the arts and her efforts in furthering diversity in American society, and is the honoree at Goucher’s annual Jewell Robinson Dinner.

Portrait of Ira Aldridge as Othello (c. 1830) by Henry Perronet Briggs, courtesy of the National Portrait Gallery.

To learn more about the National Portrait Gallery, please click the post's title.

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