JACQUELINE LAWTON: Why did you decide to get into theatre? Was there someone or a particular show that inspired you?
JESSICA BURGESS: I fell in love with the theatre attending productions in the San Francisco Bay Area, in particular at American Conservatory Theatre and Berkeley Rep. My parents were – and continue to be – subscribers to both companies, and often took my sisters and me to see productions. I remember seeing Mary Zimmerman’s production of Journey to the West when I was a teen and being blown away by the sheer theatricality and joy of that production. In college, I studied abroad at Royal Holloway, the so-called country campus of the University of London, and saw many productions while in the UK. In particular, I attended a slew of physical theatre adaptations: Theatre du Complicite's Street of Crocodiles, Arabian Nights at the Young Vic, Handspring Puppet Company’s Ubu and the Truth Commission, to name a few. All my life, I have adored writers who reinvent language and defy the laws of physics: Dahl, Rushdie, Marquez, Murakami, Flann O'Brien. These physical theatre productions three-dimensionalized the breathtaking otherworlds of the literature that I love. I started directing in order to stage wildly theatrical, language-driven plays. I wanted to ignite the imaginations of artists and audiences by inviting them into impossible three-dimensional worlds; I longed to conduct a symphony of language and re-tune the listeners' ears to the gravity-defying potential of ordinary language. The Inkwell springs from the same impulse: to support the work of playwrights whose imaginations are bigger than what theatre currently is or does.
JL: How long have you served as Artistic Director at your company? What drew you to the position? What keeps you there?
JB: The inspiration for The Inkwell struck when I followed your footsteps, Jackie, into interning with the fabulous Mary Resing in dramaturgy and literary management at Woolly Mammoth. (Quick aside about my dear friend and collaborator Mary, whom I went on to co-found Active Cultures, where she does a brilliant job as the Artistic Director: she is the only person who inspires me to write musicals – but more on that some other time). Sorting through the towering stacks of submissions under Mary’s watchful eye, I had a hunch that my duel passions for literature and gravity-defying theatricality could be of service to the playwriting community here in Washington and nationwide.
In the summer of 2007, I found myself in a bind: the festival I had co-founded, The Hatchery, had just folded – and the DC Commission on the Arts and Humanities generously awarded me the Young Emerging Artist grant of $2,500 to produce a festival of new works. And so, with the unwavering support of the Commission, thoroughly convinced that the idea of a new play development organization had legs, I asked my dear friend and former roommate Eileen Daly Vitelli if I could throw a pizza party in her front yard to start a new theatre company. She agreed, and I showed up with pizza. To my surprise and delight, people came! I’d like to say that The Inkwell sprung fully formed from a pizza box, like Athena from Zeus’ head. In fact, the company’s development has been iterative. I am deeply indebted to The Inkwell’s founding company whose input and creativity in those early meetings shape who were are today.
From that founding company, four of us stepped up to steer the ship: Lee Liebeskind, Lindsay Haynes Lowder, and Anne M. McCaw. With these three amazing, inspiring, and phenomenal people, The Inkwell began its first phase of growth. Today, our leadership team has seven amazing members, including Amber Jackson and Jenn Book Haselswerdt, and a fantastic board of directors, led by Manny Strauss. I am so proud of the work that we do. To date, The Inkwell’s reader corps of trained reviewers have read and evaluated more than 850 plays in progress. We have introduced DC’s playmakers and playgoers to more than 80 inventive plays that push the boundaries of theatre. And we have recruited more than 300 playmakers — including playwrights, actors, directors, dramaturgs, designers, and stage managers — to present plays in progress, discuss the state of new play development in our nation’s capital, and explore various aspects of the play development process through master classes. It’s been an amazing journey.
I don’t know if your readers are aware, but I relocated to the San Francisco Bay Area this past September. Because we have run Inkwell from our living rooms and desks since our beginnings, hosting meetings via Google Hangout and Skype (even inviting playwrights into the rehearsal room via Skype), living in my native golden state does not prevent me from participating in the company. Hooray for modern technology! I am so grateful to my collaborators for supporting my decision to move to California, and I am especially grateful to continue to work with them.
JL: What is the most valuable lesson you learned during your tenure? Also, what skills and traits do you feel a successful artistic director should have to support the health and growth of an organization?
JB: We designed The Inkwell to be a learning organization. We’re constantly beta-testing ideas, adapting and refining our programs, and asking ourselves what we want to explore next. We see every showcase, every reading, every encounter with an artist or an audience member as an opportunity to learn and grow. Personally, from my work with Inkwell, I have learned a lifetime’s worth of lessons about the art and practice of leadership, nonprofit management, delegation, collaboration, compromise, my own limitations, and friendship – oh, on top of all of that, I have learned a great deal about new play development!
An artistic director must have vision, a deep love of theatre, a lot of energy, and a natural buoyancy of spirit. But more importantly, a strong artistic director acknowledges where her talents are not, and recruits and relies on strong partners to support her in pursuing the company’s mission.
JL: What excites you most about being an Artistic Director? What is your greatest challenge?
JB: I can’t possibly narrow down what excites me to just one thing. So here are my top three:
For me, the greatest challenge of being an Artistic Director of a small theatre company is finding balance – between life and work, between administration and art, between racing ahead and moving slow and steady.
JL: If your work as an artistic director doesn’t pay the bills, what else do you do? Also, how do you balance your role leading an organization with your work as a director? Are you ever able to direct outside of your company?
JB: I produced the first two Inkubator Festivals from my desk at a law firm where I was a legal secretary. I left my day job in 2009 to freelance as a teaching artist and a director. I am honored to count Imagination Stage and Theatre Lab among the places that I have had the opportunity to teach. I absolutely cannot say enough good things about working with those two organizations as a teacher – teaching provided me some of my most rewarding artistic experiences. I loved working for Deb Gottesman, Buzz Mauro, David Markey, and Nikki Kaplan; I am so grateful to each one of them for more reasons than I can count. While I lived in DC, I freelanced as a director regularly, and am very grateful to have had the opportunity to direct for many small DC companies, from Adventure to Catalyst to Forum to Rorschach to Active Cultures. And now that I live in San Francisco, my work life is shifting again. It’s quite an adventure, and I am looking forward to what lies ahead!
JL: Looking at your body of work as an artistic director and a director, how conscious are you and selecting plays by women or people of color when deciding your season? Also, when it comes to hiring administrators, designers and other directors do you take race and gender into consideration?
JB: To date, half of the playwrights with whom we have collaborated are women, and 20% of our playwrights are artists of color. In hiring actors and directors, we recruit exclusively from our local talent pool. I am proud to say that we have demonstrated a commitment to reflecting the diversity of our city on our stages: for example, in 2011, of the 21 DC-based artists we hired for our programs, 14 (approximately 66%) are women, and 5 (approximately 25%) are artists of color. Mad props to Lee Liebeskind, our Producing Director, who does a fantastic job casting and hiring our talented artists.
JL: DC audiences are ...
JB: The smartest in America.
JL: DC actors and designers are ...
JB: Amazing collaborators. My extended family.
JL: DC playwrights are ..
JB: A rising tide.
JL: DC critics are ...
JB: Open to the conversation. Peter Marks and Nelson Pressley have always been incredibly generous; both have participated on panels at The Inkwell, sharing their thoughts about new play development. I think we’re very lucky to have smart and community-oriented critics reflecting on our work here. Of course, that doesn’t mean that my work as a director has always been well-reviewed. While I always find a less-than-favorable review disappointing, I don’t resent the feedback. Not everything one creates will resonate with every person in the audience – and if that person in the audience happens to be a critic, there’s nothing you can do but be grateful for the opportunity to tell this story to those who venture to see it.
JL: What advice do you have for an up and coming theatre artists who have just moved to D.C.?
JB: You have everything you need to pursue your dreams. Breathe deep. Begin.
JL: What's next for you as a director and your company?
JB: I moved to my homeland of the San Francisco Bay Area in September. I’m a part of the Just Theatre New Play Development Lab in Berkeley, which has been an awesome opportunity for me to get to know my native theatre community better! I’m still involved with The Inkwell and continue to serve as Artistic Director from afar. We have readings and showcases through the end of the year – our next showcase is February 9th. And I’m delighted to announce that we’re opening up our submissions on February 22nd! Check out www.inkwelltheatre.org for more information. I miss DC, but I’m overjoyed to be back with my family here on the beautiful West Coast after twelve amazing, rewarding and fabulous years in our nation’s capital. Onward and upward!
I'm a playwright, dramaturg, and teaching artist. It is here where you'll find my queries and musings on life, theater and the world. My posts advocate for diversity, inclusion, and equity in the American Theatre and updates on my own work. Please enjoy!